I just had one of those moments where all the things that I have previously read on a subject came together with clarity in a moment. My epiphany was that I realized that several pieces of secondary literature that had become important to me were situated in a scholarly dispute that waged in the literature about forty years ago and this contextualization helped me see what they were actually fighting over.
When I was finishing my dissertation, I would watch The Wire sometimes as I worked. One day I was slogging through and I was like, omg, I’m a philosophical detective! I’m trying to figure out how to make a case with the facts in front of me. That was my feeling this week working through arguments about prime matter. It was like, I knew the facts of the case, but the way this argument got staked out made sense of things I had been staring out for months. I think every scholarly new project involves pulling a bunch of pieces together and trying to find ways to fit them together. This is why it feels like detective work: what allows all these different pieces to add up to some coherent sense?
When I was coming through graduate school arguments weren’t even really made about prime matter, people just kind of dismissed the possibility that there was prime matter. It was like the case was solved, and everyone knew the answer so they didn’t have to prosecute their case anymore. For a long time, I didn’t need to know how the case was solved against prime matter in order to do my work. But now, it turns out, while I thought this was just a side part of my argument, it turns out the arguments about prime matter extend to and influence Aristotle’s metaphysics as a whole. So to share some of my insight, I thought I’d just list the disputes that emerge from the question of prime matter – really this is for those of you who think that disputes over prime matter are peripheral to Aristotle’s metaphysics, which in some circles it really has become. Read more
On Saturday, the Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference to tell the press that estimates of crowds at the Inauguration were false. When Chuck Todd asked Kellyanne Conway why the Press Secretary used his first press conference to lie to the press, she said he did not lie, he used “alternative facts.”
Trump himself has repeatedly made claims that are verifiably false. He claimed that the Democrats had rigged the debates to go up against an NFL game, though the NFL schedule was established after the debates and that the Koch brothers asked for a meeting with him when they did not. Those are just two examples in a sea of many. A lot of people are rightfully concerned that the Administration will offer its set of “facts” that are in no way connected to what has happened or what has been said. These concerns have opened a question about what it means for us to share a reality. If politics is a matter of sharing a world, this common reality must be established and is not given in advance. This common reality is fragile. This common reality is informed by our desires to see the world in a certain way. It feels like now more than ever we are fighting to establish a common world, but the history of alternative realities constituting American politics is long. Read more
Today was the first day of the Ancient Philosophy Society in Portland, Maine, hosted by Jill Gordon at Colby College. A new day has dawned for the APS when so much discussion of gender in ancient philosophy and explicitly of feminist approaches to ancient philosophy is given center stage. I was planning on posting a blog on the conference as a whole, but today’s program was so rich, and so focused on gender, that it deserves a post of its own. Read more
On March 12, 2016 at the University of Colorado, Denver, at the meeting of PhiloSophia: Society for Continental Feminism, I will be speaking on an Author Meets Critics panel discussing Robin James’ recent book. Below are my comments.
I like this book. I like how Robin James says important things to a popular audience from a background in academic philosophy that remains unbeholden to that world. I like her independent voice. I like how, in Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, James exemplifies what philosophizing out of a singular moment and specific site looks like. Her moment is neoliberalism and her site is pop music. James uses music as more than an example; in her hands, music is a place for developing a conceptual apparatus for neoliberalism. In music, we hear how the demand to turn damage into something productive works to make oppressed persons assimilate into the neoliberal apparatus.
James references a whole slew of sources that signal the breadth of her influences in this project–from Adorno and Marcuse to Deleuze and Guattari, queer theorists Jack Halberstam and José Estabon Muñoz, New Media Studies theorist Steven Shaviro, political theorists like Jodi Dean, Lester Spence and Mark Neocleous, as well as cultural studies scholars like Zandria Robinson. Beyond those we recognize as theorists, James draws insight out of the work of pop musicians Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, Atari Teenage Riot and Rihanna. With this book, James expands the sphere of those figures worth putting to work in philosophy, just as her working out of music multiplies the sites in which thinking occurs outside of the center of well-respected philosophical discourse.
In this comment I move back to those well-respected in philosophical discourse, somewhat abashedly and certainly not because I think James’ argument needs to be put in conversation with those folks in order to gain legitimacy. By no means. James’ work addresses a strain in political philosophy that shows her to be calling into question, even turning on its head, the structural framework within which we have thought about how to expand the sphere of the political to include those at the margins. It’s fitting that this structure is turned on its head through voices unheard in philosophy. Read more
This month I have found myself thinking about the ways that concepts from commercial life have come to pervade our thinking about ethical and political life to our detriment. Debt economics was one way. Efficiency is another.
In Republic II, Plato has Socrates justify having each person in the city do one task with recourse to efficiency. What would be more efficient? Accepting this point and the notion that each person has a nature suited to only one particular task leads to the city where each person is assigned a place. Multiple machinations and myths are required to keep things in that order. I believe that Plato is showcasing to us a political order based on a series of assumptions that he does not defend in order to challenge those assumptions. One of those assumptions is that efficiency is good for human beings. Read more
Aristotle scholars spend a lot of time arguing over whether and in what way a life of action, what is called a ‘practical life’ (from the Greek praxis), which includes a life focused on ethical and political concerns, can possibly achieve happiness, or whether only contemplation — the theoretical life of the philosopher or thinker or scientist — can achieve complete happiness for human beings. Commenters suppose from several chapters in Nicomachean Ethics X.7 that the case is obviously on the side of contemplation. Then they fight over how to limit that claim or re-interpret it.
But today, I’ve been prepping those passages to teach and I just don’t think they add up to the obviously strong argument for contemplation against deliberation that pretty much everyone who reads Aristotle seems to think they do. One argument in particular — that it’s what the gods do — seems just not the case. What the heck then is Aristotle doing? Here’s what Aristotle writes:
But that complete happiness is a certain contemplative activity would appear also from this: we have supposed that the gods especially are blessed and happy–but what sort of actions ought we to assign to them? Just acts? Or will they appear laughable as they make contracts, return deposits, and do anything else of that sort? But what about courageous acts? Do the gods endure frightening things and run risks, because doing so is noble? Or liberal acts? But to whom will they give? And it is strange if they too will have legal currency or something of that sort. And what would their moderate acts be? Or is the praise, “they do not have base desires,” a crude one? All that pertains to actions would appear, to those who go through it, petty and unworthy of gods. (1178b8-17, Bartlett and Collins translation)
Puh-lease, Aristotle. It seems just as likely from all this that the gods don’t do any of these things because the gods don’t really live virtuous lives. Do the gods do just acts? No, Zeus steals women and cheats on Hera on the regular. The whole of Hesiod’s Theogony seems to be about the frightening risk-taking acts of gods. But no, not because it’s noble. They want power, or they’re just bored. Liberal acts? Well, basically, that seems to be all of Homer and most of Hesiod where Zeus gives things to gods, and that part where Zeus and Prometheus divide stuff up and give it out. “And what would be their moderate acts?” Got me there, Aristotle: we don’t know, because no god has yet to be moderate. Read more
As part of the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Collaborative Initiative, I and my collaborators Lewis Trelawny-Cassity and Kevin Miles will be discussing my book Aristotle and the Nature of Community tomorrow, April 17, 2015, at Antioch College, MacGregor 149 at 4 PM. This panel will be convened in conjunction with the philosophy roundtable that meets regularly in Yellow Springs. I’m posting my comments below:
It’s an honor to be given this time and this venue to discuss my research. I’m grateful to Lewis Meeks Trelawny-Cassity and to Kevin Miles for the time and the consideration they have given my book. Kevin Miles was the first person with whom I read the Politics. Since reading Plato and Aristotle with him as a graduate student, I have found a persisting tension between the project of elucidating the question of a text and offering a sympathetic account of it. My own interest in developing a positive account of Aristotle’s Politics might seem to repress rather than illuminate the questions of the text. My drive has been to give the strongest reading in an effort to find an alternative to modern conceptions of political life. I hope that today and not only today, I can try to get clearer about the questions this reading forces upon us. Read more
I have of late found myself turning to Aristotle’s biological works to think more carefully about Aristotle’s conception of nature, because I think it is there that the strongest challenge to my reading of physis as the internal principle by which things move from within themselves to fulfill themselves is found.
In the biology, the male semen seems to impose its form on the female menses, suggesting that at the microcosmic level of natural generation, form is imposed on material, external principles master what needs forming. But as I investigate Aristotle’s biology, I have come to learn that material in Aristotle might not be what we’ve thought it was.
On Saturday, April 11, 2015 at 11 AM at the Ancient Philosophy Society meeting at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, I am presenting a paper (part of my current book project) that focuses on the strange and evasive role of vital heat in Aristotle’s biology. I argue that the complexities of vital heat might tell us something about whether Aristotle has a one-sex or two-sex model of sexual difference and that his model might also recast our understanding of Aristotelian material. Read more
Since Rousseau expressed his concern that government, established to carry out the general will of the people, might become a separate body with its own distinct general will, members of the polity have worried from one end of the political spectrum to the other, that government is imposing its will on the people, rather than executing the people’s will. It’s not even correct to date this concern to Rousseau, since we could argue that such a concern is encapsulated in Thrasymachus’ realpolitik definition of justice — we all know, let’s be honest Socrates, that the laws serve the powerful and not those who are supposed to follow them. In these cases, government is understood to be against us, treading on us with its laws and impositions, limiting our freedom rather than protecting it.
Government and Constitution in Aristotle
Eric Schwitzgebel refers to Aristotle to talk about blameworthiness for implicit biases in his talk at the Pacific APA next week. I’m pleased to join in the appeal to Aristotle to think about contemporary political and ethical problems. My argument is that Aristotle addresses this problem of thinking the government as an imposition by arguing for an account that drives politeuma, or government, closer to an identity with the politeia, constitution or regime. Read more
Cross-posted from Genetic Method.
In my last post on friendship, I responded to my friend Ashley Vaught’s questions about the role of proximity in friendship in Aristotle. I consider some questions there about whether virtue friendship is possible when we are still on the way to becoming completely virtuous. I was left wondering how we can ever become virtuous if we need friends to become virtuous but we can’t be virtue friends before we are completely virtuous. Perhaps it isn’t just that friendship is impossible, but rather that our friends who help us become virtuous must be more virtuous than we are. One possibility is that virtue in Aristotle unlike in Plato can be partial and always underway since virtue is practiced and requires a practice of ethical perception which is then limited based on our individual habits of seeing. Against the view that friends become virtuous and then become capable of having complete and virtuous friendships with us, I think that Aristotelian virtue friends make us have more complete virtue because together we can see better, ethically speaking. It is not lost on me that my exchange with Ashley over friendship in Aristotle illustrates how friends help us see more and better. I appreciate the meta-ness of that more and better being about how friends help us see more and better.