Tag Archives: bullshit

Where to start reading philosophy?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.

Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.


Shame and Necessity

by Bernard Williams

After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?

However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).

So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.

Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.

It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.

The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney


The Philosophy Book

by Will Buckingham

Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.

With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.

The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.

The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.

There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.

The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.

This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know

by Ben Dupré

Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.

Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.

The book’s blurb asks:

Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?

It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.

There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.

This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


On Bullshit

by Harry G Frankfurt

When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.

But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.

So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.

Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.

Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.

The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.

The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University


The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher

by William H F Altman

Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.

Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.

The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).

Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.

The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.

Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.

This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).

But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin


Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Pierre Hadot

This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.

It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.

The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.

Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.

I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:

Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Our ancestors were carnivorous super-predators, so do we really have a choice about eating meat?

The Conversation

Darren Curnoe, UNSW Australia

The internet abounds with ‘expert advice’ on what we should or shouldn’t eat. High carb or low carb diets? Grains or gluten free eating? Meat eating or veganism?

Most of it promotes our food choices as a simple binary decision – eat this don’t eat that; this is good for you, that’s bad.

Yet, the decisions we make about what to eat are a complicated affair. They’re never a simple case of eat what’s best for your health or what naturally suits our physiology.

Cultural mores, religious practices, ethical concerns, gender, stage of life and state of health, geographic location, economics and family and individual preferences all play a role in the selections we make.

One of the most confusing choices people face is whether to eat meat or not, and opinions are very strong on both sides of the debate. But is it natural to do so?

Our ancestors evolved to be super-predators with meat eating and sharing a key survival strategy for our kind for millions of years. So, do we really have a choice to eat meat today?

Things to eat and avoid

Culture is a ubiquitous force when it comes to making choices about food. All human societies, from hunter-gatherer to post-industrial ones like our own, have food preferences and fads, or restrictions and taboos.

We eat things because they taste good, even if they are bad for us. Other things we avoid have proven health benefits, but maybe they’re simply not as tasty or palatable.

Sometimes food taboos exist for good reason – such as to prevent overuse of an important resource or to reduce the risk of food poisoning at an important stage of life.

But just as often we find dietary preferences are culturally patterned behaviours, such as women changing their diet at varying times in their menstrual cycle, despite the practice having negative health consequences.

On top of this, certain nutrients like sugar activate reward pathways in the brain similar to those associated with cocaine use, making them highly sought after, and potentially addictive.

Much of the dietary advice found on the internet might be well meaning, but a substantial amount of it is misleading and frequently smacks of anti-intellectualism.

Bowls full of bullshit

More often than not though the ease with which we can post our opinions online has led to a glut of dietary advice that can only be described as ‘bullshit’.

Bullshit is defined by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt to mean something espoused by someone who pretends to know a lot about it but actually knows very little.

It’s rife on the internet and fuels both anti-intellectualism and a deep mistrust of scientific authority.

The debate about meat, and whether we humans have evolved to eat it, has to be one of the best examples of bullshit seen on the web.

It has largely lost all sense of the complex reality of food choice behaviours, and far too often tries to rewrite our evolutionary history by invoking pseudoscience.

Some pro-vegetarian or vegan promoting websites mistakenly claim that humans shouldn’t eat meat because we evolved to be herbivores.

The substance of their arguments is often traceable back to the influential but pseudoscientific views of vegan physician Milton R. Mills.

Some vegan sites even claim support from anthropology for their anti-meat agenda.

We also find bogus arguments like these promoted in the mainstream media where some columnists push an anti-intellectual agenda by misrepresenting the views of scientists themselves such as fellow anthropologist Richard Leakey.

For the record, here’s what he has actually written about meat eating and human evolution.

But if you love a good steak, don’t take the moral high ground just yet. There’s plenty of bullshit in the pro-meat camp as well.

One need only read internet debates on the subject of meat eating to see barnyards full of it on both sides.

As an interesting aside, social anthropologists have found meat to be the one food that’s subject to food taboos across a large number of cultures.

So, there might be a much deeper (genetic?) origin to our varying opinions towards meat, with some people loving it, and others repulsed by it, across the world.

Humans evolved as super-predators

No matter what the most militant of vegans or vegetarians would like to think, there’s an abundance of scientific evidence that we humans evolved to be predator apes.

Our ancestors were highly skilled hunters and meat was widely eaten and highly prized.

While hunter-gatherers varied considerably in terms of how much meat they consumed, none of them was vegan, and such diets simply wouldn’t have been available or viable options for them anyway.

Our human ecological and life history strategy evolved around acquiring and sharing hard to catch, but large pay-off, foods such as big mammals and fish.

We humans rely on culture for everything we do, whether it be the values and shared ideas we have about the world, social relationships, or the methods and tools we use to aid with the catching and processing food.

The earliest examples of stone tools used for acquiring and processing food have been found in Africa and date to around 3.3 million years old.

Butchered and defleshed bones from around the same time indicate clearly that early humans were butchering large bodied mammals for food.

Fire was probably used in an at least an ad hoc way from around 1.6 million years ago – probably much earlier – but became a regular tool for pre-modern humans from at least 400,000 years ago.

Cooking played a major role in making both meat and starchy foods palatable and digestible, providing our ancestors with a huge survival advantage.

Food cooking, especially of meat, may even have contributed to the evolution of our large brains.

Endurance running, persistence hunting

Humans are the only living primate adapted for running – particularly endurance running, and during the hottest time of the day. This seems also to be a universal pattern among the species belonging to the human genus Homo; all dozen or more of us.

The organs of balance – our vestibular system – are designed to help keep the head stable because of its tendency to pitch forward when running.

Humans possess a nuchal ligament to connect the base of the skull to the spinal column and help keep the head balanced as we run.

We have long lower limbs and a narrow trunk and pelvis. Our rib-cage is barrel shaped rather than shaped like a funnel with a bulging gut, like chimpanzees.

The muscles of our shoulder are decoupled from those of our neck because they aren’t used for climbing, aiding the need to counterbalance the legs and reduce rotation of the head when running.

Many of our lower limb muscles and their tendons – like the gluteus maximus, iliotibial tract and Achilles tendon– are also adapted for running.

We have large ankle bones, arches across two directions of the foot, and the ligaments of the foot absorb energy when we run releasing it during toe-off.

Our big toe has been brought into line with the other toes, losing its branch grasping abilities.

Humans have sparse and short body hair and between 5 and 12 million appocrine sweat glands that can produce up to 12 litres of water a day to help prevent hyperthermia.

The only other African mammals that are active during the heat of the day, running long distances, are dogs and hyenas.

Our species also has uniformly pigmented skin – the exception being people living at high latitude who probably lost their skin colour very recently.

Pigmentation protects the outer layers of the skin against sun damage and ultimately skin cancer, so is vital for a mammal that has sparse body hair and is active in the heat of the day.

All of this points to hunting, and a particular style called the persistence hunt. It would have been widespread prior to the invention of weapons like bows and arrows around 60,000 years ago.

David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals series has some wonderfully engaging footage of San men undertaking a persistence hunt. It’s well worth a look.

A gutsy move

To claim we shouldn’t eat meat because we aren’t anatomically identical to carnivores demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of how evolution has worked.

Humans and carnivores, like dogs and hyenas, are very different kinds of mammals, separated by around 100 million years of evolutionary history.

We are primates, and our basic body plan is constrained genetically by our primate heritage. You can’t turn an ape into a wolf in just 3 million years!

While much has been made of our sacculated colon, this is a feature common to all apes, and is the result of common evolutionary inheritance.

We have all evolved from plant eating apes regardless of what we eat today. A sacculated colon in no way suggests we are herbivores.

Besides, humans do eat a lot more than just meat and clearly require a wide range of foods for a balanced diet. For example, no apes can synthesise vitamin C in their bodies so it must be acquired from plant food sources.

However, the human gut differs substantially from other apes in a couple of key respects: first, we have a small total gut for our body size, and second, our greatest gut volume lies in the small intestine, while in other apes it lies in the colon.

A bigger small intestine indicates we absorb most of our nutrients there, and that we obtain them from high quality, nutrient dense, sources like meat and starchy foods.

While a large colon, as seen in all other apes, fits with their strongly plant based diet (87-99% of foods) and the need to ferment it. Humans simply can’t survive on the type of diet we see chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans or gibbons eating.

Another disturbing piece of evidence worth noting is tapeworms. Each year millions of people around the world are infected with them through eating under-cooked or raw meat.

And here’s the rub: without infecting a human host, at least four species of tapeworm would be unable to reproduce. Humans are a definitive host for them.

The only other mammals to be definitive hosts for tapeworms are carnivores like lions and hyenas.

Molecular clocks suggest human tapeworms evolved about the time our ancestors began to hunt.

Briefly, two other human features need mentioning because they have been widely used to mislead people on the issue of meat eating.

Our teeth are very similar to those of other apes in terms of the size, shape and number we posses – all apes and Old World monkeys have 32.

But there’s one important difference: we humans have small canine teeth.

The canine teeth of apes are not used for catching prey or chewing food. Instead they are for display and are used by males to battle it out for dominance in a social hierarchy or for access to mates.

A small canine tooth evolved in human evolution sometime after 5 million years ago and represents a shift in the social structure and mating behaviour of our ancestors.

It shows us that male-to-male conflict had reduced. Perhaps because males were sharing food with females and each other. Males and females may even have been monogamous at this time.

Lastly, humans have nails instead of claws because we are primates. No primates have claws. So to claim that our lack of claws shows we shouldn’t eat meat again indicates a clear lack of familiarity with our biology.

Besides, early human hunters used tools, their big brains and understanding of their environment and cooperative tendencies to catch food, not their brawn.

Making informed choices

There is a danger in taking our evolutionary history as fate. We are no longer hunter-gatherers and our lifestyle is about as far removed from that of our ancestors as can be imagined.

We need to adapt to our changing circumstances and find a diet that healthily supports it, like we have always done as a species.

Whether we choose to eat meat or not is not just a question of biology. It involves a complex set of cultural, social, ethical, health, personal and economic factors as well. It is not binary.

The best guide for most people on how to eat comes from science itself, for example, as presented in guidelines like those from the Australian Government.

But many millions of people today survive on low or no meat diets, by choice, or otherwise. In this sense, vegetarianism or veganism is like any other culturally situated dietary choice.

It should be both understood and respected as such and can’t be explained away or justified by appealing to a particular narrative of our evolutionary past.

In the end, my gripe is not with vegetarians or vegans or with those people who choose to eat animal food. My beef is with people who set out to promote their beliefs by appealing to anti-intellectualism.

Dishonest people who eschew the evidence and contestability of ideas that lie at the heart of science for personal, political or financial gain.

Those self-appointed experts who set out to deliberately deceive us by using pseudoscience or plain old bullshit to construct their own version of our past.

The ConversationDarren Curnoe, ARC Future Fellow and Director of the Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre (PANGEA), UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Harry Frankfurt on honesty and truth

‘It seems even more clear to me that higher levels of civilisation must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are. The natural and social sciences, as well as the conduct of public affairs, surely cannot prosper except insofar as they carefully maintain this respect and concern…

We live at a time when, strange to say, many quite cultivated individuals consider truth to be unworthy of any particular respect. It is well known, of course, that a cavalier attitude toward truth is more or less endemic within the ranks of publicists and politicians, breeds whose exemplars characteristically luxuriate in the production of bullshit, of lies and of whatever other modes of fakery and fraudulence they are able to devise.’

Reference

Frankfurt, Harry G. (2006) On Truth. Alfred A.Knopf, New York.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Quotations

Harry Frankfurt ‘On Bullshit’

2 Comments

Filed under Videos