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Stoicism 5.0: The unlikely 21st century reboot of an ancient philosophy

The Conversation

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Keep calm and get your stoic on many people today are heeding the advice.

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

From Cynicism to Stoicism

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, to paraphrase Monty Python.
We live in strange times. But few people could have expected today’s rise of a global movement of self-describing Stoic online communities numbering over 100,000 participants.

Stoicism was the ancient Greek and then Roman philosophy founded in the last decades of the fourth century BCE by a merchant, Zeno of Citium (modern Cyprus). The latter’s vessel had sunk on route to Athens, taking Zeno’s cargo down with it.

Zeno, it is said, made his way up to the Athenian agora. There, with his few remaining coins, he bought and read a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. “Where can I find a man like this?”, he is supposed to have asked the bookseller.

Zeno was pointed towards one Crates, a philosopher from the Cynical school. The Cynics were a kind of radical break-away group from the circles surrounding the Platonic Academy and Aristotelian Lyceum. The Cynics claimed to live “according to nature”. They completely shunned social conventions and living as simply as dogs (kynes), whence the name.

Some years later, Zeno founded his own school. He would deliver lectures to the public on the steps of Athens’ painted Stoa (whence “Stoicism”, aka “the porch”), whose foundations today lie half-concealed beneath surrounding restaurants.

The painted Stoa today where Stoicism began in the 5th century BCE.

What all this has to do with men and women in the internet age, outside of classics departments, is another thing.

When this author has from time to time spoken on issues around the Stoic conception that philosophy is a “way of life” at academic conferences, the results vary. In some contexts, people respond with barely concealed condescension. Philosophy is about concepts, the pursuit of truth, and these days, the increasingly-uncertain pursuit of competitive advantage in a shrinking marketplace.

“How would you know you were living philosophically?”, someone asked at one such event. “Surely, even if we agree that a form of self-cultivation was what philosophy once was, this is no longer possible today,” others have rejoined.

The Stoic philosophy, some note, involved a highly systematic physics, many of whose propositions do not gel with our presently-best understandings of nature (notably, the idea of a providentially ordered cosmos that is in some sense a single living organism).

I had a strange Cynical impression of my own, when I recently discovered the phenomenal extent of the growth of “Modern Stoicism”, “How to Be a Stoic”, “Daily Stoic”, “Traditional Stoicism”, and associated blogs, email lists and Youtube channels since 2013.

The thousands of people who write, read and practice the Stoicism prescribed by these sites, take courses and attend annual events like Stoicon, I thought, are responding to the academic queries like Diogenes, the most famous Cynic, is said to have responded to a metaphysical argument that purported to show that movement was impossible.

Initiating the long and invaluable tradition of philosophical satire, the old dog got up from his armchair and walked around.

Why Stoicism?

But why Stoicism, and why now? I recently asked these and other questions to several of the leading figures associated with the new Stoic movement, and spent time investigating their sites and stories.

The core of the answer has to be the enduring pertinence of Stoic ethics, especially as it has come down to us through the Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius.

The pertinence hinges upon a few very simple, powerfully intuitive observations and principles.

These begin with Epictetus‘ simple call to people to always distinguish between what is, and is not in our control. There is, at some basic level, no rational point in being unhappy about the things we can’t change. Learning to let go of these things, in order to focus on what we can affect—our own present impulses, thoughts, and actions—just has to be both philosophically astute, as well as a psychological boon.

Imagine that all of the mental energy people spend worrying about what others think, tweet, like or say (or don’t) about them, what may happen in the future (but may not), and what cannot be changed in the past, could be freed up to attend solely to the things we each can presently alter.

This thought will bring you close to what the Stoics promise, via their (Socratic) stress that peoples’ inner character (or “virtue”) is the most important good anyone can prize or pursue.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius, the second centUry CE Stoic philosopher-Emperor in the Metropolitan Museum.

All of the other, external things—from reputation to fame to power to money to … anything subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—all these are for the Stoics “indifferent”.

That is, they are neither good nor bad in themselves, nor can their possession or loss (as we sometimes say) “make us” happy or unhappy. It is our judgements of things which confers on them this power over us. But those judgements can be challenged by argument, and reframed through practice and resolve.

Stoicism has recently been described, in today’s terms, as one of the best “mind hacks” ever devised.

The resulting, advertised ability of Stoic “sages” to be able to bear up “philosophically”, despite the loss of their cities, properties, friends or even loved ones has given the school the perennial reputation for being a joyless, “grin and bear it” affair.

The Stoics however don’t want or require people to lose everything in order to find inner peace. (This is more the Cynics’ prescription). Stoicism instead asks people to cultivate the inner resources to be able to bear up to prosperity and adversity alike with equanimity.

Hamlet’s friend Horatio, whose Stoic virtue makes him not a pipe for fortune’s finger to sound what stop she pleases.

From the Serenity Prayer to Shakespeare to Roosevelt to modern authors like Walt Whitman or Tom Wolfe, Stoicism has remained one of the abiding threads out of which Western culture has been woven.

And while most of us will find many aspects of the Stoic physics and theology foreign, there seems little in this ethics which has or could ever age. This realisation led the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to adapt Stoic principles and prescriptions into 20th century psychotherapy, before today’s 21st century revival under Stoicism’s own name.

It is just a good deal harder to be a Stoic in practice, than to Stoicise in theory. And this is where communities of debate and practice come into it.

Why now and how?

One old criticism of the Stoics, from the German philosopher Hegel, is that Stoicism is a philosophy for times of de-democratisation.

It emerged after classical Greece’s autonomous, democratic city-states had undergone terminal decline. The philosophy re-empowers people individually, in a world where everything else is at the disposal of powers, like the Hellenistic Kings and Roman Emperors, who can at any moment rob us of all our worldly possessions.

There are real historical problems with this idea. But perhaps it captures something about the attractions of Stoicism today. We are entering into a period in which the postwar liberal-democratic consensus is straining. Meanwhile, the security and surveillance apparati of modern corporations and nation-states increasingly call into question what privacy could mean in the internet age.

The internet itself is the more material cause underlying today’s proliferation of Stoic practical philosophy, outside of the walls of academe.

Zeno the founding Stoic’s statue in modern Larnaka (ancient Citium/Kition) in Southern Cyprus.

What we might call this “fifth Stoa” or “Stoicism 5.0″—counting the early, middle and late ancient periods scholars divide, plus the early modern “neoStoicism” of figures like Justus Lipsius—had humble beginnings.

Nobody’s ship was sunk. But the people associated with these beginnings had no idea how quickly their progeny would grow.

According to Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy:

Patrick Ussher, a PhD student at Essex University used it with a group of students who were trying to live for a week following the advice of Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ physician. His professor in the classics department at Essex, Chris Gill, organized for a group of people who had written about these things, including myself, Tim LeBon, and Jules Evans to meet with them and Stoic Week was born. There’s a video of that workshop at Exeter in 2012. That’s exactly how our Modern Stoicism project was born.

This project now includes several Facebook groups (the largest of which has, as of this week, over 25, 000 members), the Stoicism Subreddit (over 54,000 subscribers), email lists within which fierce debates rage on points of theoretical detail: numerous Stoic blogs, some Stoic consultants, and hundreds of Youtube videos.

There is the site “Traditional Stoicism” which has broken away from the other “modern” groups on grounds of an insistence that living according to Stoic ethics requires a commitment to the ancient Stoic physics and theology.

There are the “Modern Stoicism” and “How to be a Stoic” email feeds, on which articles on Stoic figures, texts and subjects—and, in the latter case, a popular Stoic Advice column—are posted every other day.

Some groups recommend Eastern meditative practices of “mindfulness” alongside, or as the corollary, of Stoic practices. Others demur.

Then there is a site like “Daily Stoic” which sends daily Stoic meditation themes to subscribers’ email addresses: whether quotes from the great Hellenistic and Roman Stoics, or from works of literature and philosophy on Stoic themes.

All of these online communities are united by the conviction that Stoicism was and remains, at its core, a way of life. Their founding father, in this regard, is the great French classicist and historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot.

In a series of works written after 1970, based upon an exacting apprenticeship in theology and philology, Hadot became convinced that the only way to make sense of what the ancient Stoics (and Epicureans and Pyrrhonians) wrote was if we suppose that they conceived philosophy as what the Stoics called “an art of living”.

Pierre Hadot, author of The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and other influential works.

Many of the texts, notably including the Roman Stoics’ at the heart of today’s Stoic revival, feature prescriptions for what Hadot called “spiritual exercises”. These include meditative exercises, wherein a student is for instance encouraged to re-envisage her situation from above, in order to re-contextualise (and bring a larger perspective to) the difficulties they face.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations involve a series of fragments wherein the emperor enjoins this and other exercises on himself: like the practice of remembering, with gratitude, all the people who have benefited him, and what he owes to each of them; or premeditating, every morning, how in the day ahead we will confront people who irritate or misconstrue us, and situations that do not “go our way”; or remembering that “the best revenge is not to become like the person who has wronged you”, whose thoughts and actions in any case are primarily their own concern.

Seneca tells us that each night, before sleep, he would make time to examine all of the previous days’ actions in the Stoic light of his philosophical principles.

The answer to how a person would know they are living like a Stoic is then pretty clear, to all but some professionals. Zeno is again on the move.

The Stoic student would be undertaking these and other exercises, every day, at allocated times, in ways recommended for instance in the “Live like a Stoic” week that has been running since 2012. As Robertson explained his own Stoic practice to the author recently:

I study Stoic literature pretty much every day …. [and] I try to live like a Stoic. I take a cold shower every morning; I fast every Sunday; I exercise based on Stoic principles in the mornings. I prepare for setbacks in the morning and review my day before going to sleep … I also use the View from Above if I’m ever feeling stressed. But Stoicism is my ethic, so in a sense I’m trying to apply it throughout the day to every situation.

Of course, not everyone who belongs to the 21st century, Stoic online communities will live out so completely the kind of philosophical regimen Robertson describes here.

The ConversationBut the fact that so many people now belong to these 21st century Stoic communities suggests that, whatever may happen to philosophy in its later modern academic iterations in coming decades, its ancient calling will remain vibrantly alive.

Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

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

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Words, Tweets and Stones in the “Political Correctness” Wars

The Conversation

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Last year, I came upon an interview with former Hawke Minister Peter Baldwin which, amongst other things, related the unusual story of Tim Hunt, a Nobel-Prize winning chemist.

At a conference in Korea, Hunt ventured regrettably outside of his expertise. He complained that having young women in the lab was a distraction. Older men like himself tended to fall in love with them. Moreover, Hunt claimed that girls could not take criticism without crying.

For a great chemist, we see, Hunt makes an awful social commentator. What is striking about the story is what happened next.

The story, as they say, went “viral” on social media. Someone tweeted the remarks, or uploaded the video online. The next thing he knew, Hunt was being stood down from his role at UCL, Nobel-Prize-notwithstanding.

I found myself reminded as I heard this of another unlikely story: the first novel of the Czech author Milan Kundera, The Joke. In this story, the main character vents his discontents with a Stalinist indoctrination camp in a mocking postcard to his girlfriend:

Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.

The Party censors intercepted the postcard, and did not find it amusing. Instead, Ludvik gets expelled from university and forced into military service in the mines.

To be sure, the comparison of the two stories is not perfect. Hunt was not sent to a labor camp, and the position he lost was honorary. So, unlike Ludvik, his material wellbeing and that of his family was not directly affected—only his good name. Hunt also appears not to have been joking, as far as anyone could tell.

Tim Hunt, the chemist stood down by UCL for his comments about women and laboratories.

Nevertheless, Hunt’s story is far from singular in the age of social media.

All around the world, stories of academics, media figures or employees being stood down by their employers after having been subjected to a kind of instantaneous prosecution by social media seem to be one of the signs of the Neuzeit.

For critics on the Right, Hunt’s and comparable stories show the dark, illiberal heart of what they call “political correctness”: a censorious culture preventing people speaking their minds on anything to do with matters of race, religion or gender. Many of these same critics (and, on the other side, Bernie Sanders) have also pointed to Mr Trump’s ostentatious disregard for such “political correctness” as one explanation for his 2016 catapult to power.

So what’s going on behind the increasing frequency of cases like Hunt’s: of people losing their jobs for what they have said alone—even, as in Hunt’s case, when the words in question neither reflect his professional expertise, nor target any particular individual? Are we entering a new period of social censorship, with dark historical precedents and echoes?

And what is rumbling away beneath the deep sense of grievance that underlies conservative commentators’ strident charges of “political correctness” against their opponents?

One role philosophy can play in such divisive debates is to try to clearly show each warring side “the reasons of the adversary”, and the paradoxes and problems within their own. Such, at least, is what Albert Camus proposed in the midst of the Algerian war in 1956. Camus’ attempt “to restore a climate that could lead to healthy debate” might today be tweeted with the hashtag: #tell-him-he’s-dreaming.

But not all dreams are bad for being illusory.

All’s fair …

For people labelled by conservative commentators as “politically correct”, their position looks quite different than the polemical tag implies.

What the Right calls political correctness describes the championing of a series of positions associated with the New Left. These positions hinge on the observation that the modern ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are imperfectly enshrined in countries like Australia, the UK or the US.

Behind the advertised equality of all to trade, real material inequalities are produced and perpetuated, leading to deep divisions of class.

Behind appeals to equality of opportunity, gender inequality hasn’t gone away. Its deep bases are revealed, amongst other places (continuing pay differentials also leap to mind) by the gendered nouns in public documents that for a long time simply excluded women from the franchise— as in “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal …”

Beneath the same language of equality, all-too-real inequalities exist between different ethnic and religious groups within pluralist societies like Australia. Lesbian and gay men and women for a long time faced laws that actively prohibited their forms of sexuality.

The New Left argument is that the cultural, economic and social discrimination against women, LGBT and non-anglosaxon members of our communities targeted them specifically on grounds of their belonging to those groups.

As such, it makes sense that a society which would redress these wrongs needs to legislate forms of “positive discrimination”, likewise targeting these groups specifically.

We should also educate for and enshrine new norms, attentive to the linguistic and other forms of discrimination that for far too long went without saying.

Given this reasoning, people of the New Left are likely to respond with outrage to the imputation that what they are promoting is a new form of waspish, quasi-Stalinist groupthink.

Their question is more likely to be: who could reasonably oppose these reforms, except people who still harbour older forms of prejudice, or feel threatened by the new forms of inclusivity the New Left has championed?

Camus held that philosophers could explain the reasons of adversaries in heated disputes, reopening possibilities of dialogue.

In love and war

There can be little doubt that many people who oppose progressive social reforms like marriage equality do so out of unavowed or avowed hostility to different minority groups.

Some of this group almost certainly are sympathetic to deeply illiberal political positions on the farther Right, and opposed to many of the social and immigration reforms that Australia has undertaken since the 1960s.

But not all people who contest these issues can fairly be so categorised. Many are deeply offended by any imputation that they are unreasonable, sexist, homophobic, racist or Islamophobic for defending conservative causes. Many base their positions on religious traditions with which they deeply identify.

And so we come to the first register of the “political correctness” charge. The argument goes something like this.

The impulses underlying forms of positive discrimination towards disadvantaged groups may be generous. Their flipside is a paradoxical intolerance towards everyone who disagrees with proposed policies or reforms.

This intolerance, critics allege, is manifest in a tendency to pathologise opponents: arguing as if they were all, equally and deeply flawed or bad people: racists, sexists, fascists, etc.

Rather than arguing the case against opponents of their positions, the “politically correct” silence them, critics claim. Or, in the age of social media, they spark campaigns that publicly shame them, even when their offences are not grave.

Enter Tim Hunt and company, if not Milan Kundera.

Certainly, there is a touch of the pot calling the kettle black about these complaints. For to call your opponents en bloc “politically correct” is hardly to celebrate their supple rationality and intrepid independence of spirit.

It remains true that any political sides’ demonising its opponents is a poor substitute for defeating them in open debate, predicated on a minimum of shared respect for the rules of the democratic game.

And so, the critics of “political correctness” point to cases on American campuses where activists have not let speakers from the Right speak at all, as opposed to engaging them in debate. For these critics, these shut-outs bespeak a “campus craziness” that threatens to close the universities to conservative viewpoints altogether.

Student rally against Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopolos’ scheduled talk at Berkeley earlier this year.

The same critics point to the idea which has currency on some American campuses of “trigger warnings” surrounding potentially upsetting content for different potential audiences. Such warnings, and the attempt to create “safe spaces” in which no one could be “triggered” by upsetting contents, do not promote the free and open exchange of ideas on divisive issues, the critics charge. Debate is not won (or lost) this way. It is shut down before it can begin.

And this, the critics continue, is to give way too much power to words—which are not sticks and stones, even in the culture wars. It is also to under-rate the capacity of people to confront and debate difficult content, instead encouraging a culture of victimisation and ultra-sensitivity to verbal and vicarious harm.

Supporters of trigger warnings reply that it is very easy for privileged white males to decide what should and should not be open to free and open debate. They’ve been doing this for centuries.

It is surely for the people whose identities are at stake in potentially disturbing material—for people of colour, for example, in a text on racial violences—to decide what is and is not disturbing to them.

Lefts and rifts, old and new

This last response points to the deeper philosophical fault-lines underlying the “political correctness” wars. The positions of the New Left can, and do, take two different kinds of justifications with very different philosophical credentials and histories.

For one, the defence of equal dignity for all persons, no matter from which ethnic, racial, class or gender they hail, is justified precisely by appeal to what is shared between them, regardless of their differences.

Martin Luther King’s famous line expressing the hope that one day, in America, his children will be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, is a powerful expression of this kind of justification of civil rights reform.

A second kind of justification for New Left positions is very different. This justification is not based in an appeal to common or putatively universal values.

It argues that the modern West’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity have, in their history, been used to justify such horrible intolerance and violences against Others that these ideals themselves can no longer be reasonably defended.

Indeed, it is to the extent that particular groups, different from the mainstream, have been unjustly excluded from the communities propounding these ideals that they should be celebrated, and their claims supported.

The preceding opposition, roughly, charts the difference between liberal or socialist, modernist forms of Leftist politics, and post-liberal, post-socialist forms of Leftist politics (roughly, “post-modernism”).

The modernist’s appeal to what different groups share is vulnerable to the charge of what Stanley Fish memorably called “boutique multiculturalism”. The boutique multiculturalist tolerates and defends the rights of minorities only insofar as their ways of living do not harm and discriminate against any others’.

The moment that this other culture asserts discriminatory claims or practices illiberal rites (like female circumcision, for instance), this kind of multiculturalist’s tolerance runs out, and turns into its opposite. Why any of this implies that proponents of this position are in a boutique, Fish does not argue.

The second, postmodernist form of multiculturalism, which defends difference for difference’s sake, also has its own endemic paradoxes. If we support all different or Other groups on grounds of their difference, without further conditions, we soon find ourselves committed to supporting groups who are different from us, truly—but who express their difference by deep hostility to the kinds of toleration we are extending to them.

Stanley Fish, who coined the contentious term ‘boutique multiculturalism’

At this point, we either recoil back into a modernist position, inconsistently; or consistently bite the bullet and end up by supporting deeply illiberal, difference-hostile cultures.

Needless to say, the conservative commentariat have made hay over the last several decades by pointing up examples of this latter paradox, and its potentially disturbing corollaries. They have pushed it at times into extremely contentious claims about the New Left’s supposed support for forms of Islamic fundamentalism, and the like.

This is also where sweeping neoconservative claims about the New Left enshrining an “adversary culture” opposed to the entire “Western civilization” have made their way into magazines and opinion pages around the globe.

Inter alia

Let me finish by squaring the circle, and by highlighting that all opponents of “political correctness” do not identify as on the Right, although almost everyone on the socially conservative Right today probably identities themselves as being opposed to “political correctness”.

In fact, leading Leftist philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have both presented scathing criticisms of the postmodern valorisation of difference and Otherness as a dead end for the Left.

What differentiates Žižek’s criticisms of “political correctness” from those on the Right (I am going to be generous to him here) is that he thinks that, in several senses, political correctness doesn’t go far enough.

Political correctness, Žižek charges, puts the cart before the horse, when it promotes codes of speaking and a series of polite, symbolic gestures respecting the Other which are not matched by real social changes.

Before we attend so closely to what people say, Žižek contends, we should first redress the real living conditions of disadvantaged people. Only then will what critics call “politically correct” ways of speaking no longer seem artificial and constrictive (as he thinks they do seem), and become the natural reflection of an expanded social contract.

Liberal American critic Mark Lilla, in a recent piece, has differently called for a “post-identity liberalism”. To win majorities in democracies, Lilla argues, the Left has to appeal to shared values. To build a platform around celebrating differences ends by dividing without conquering. This is what Hilary Clinton’s Democrats learned the hard way last year.

If the Democrats are to win back power, after four or eight years of Donald Trump, the “politically correct” attention to differences sans phrase will need to give way to a new language of shared struggles and ideals.

Stanley Fish might see such an opposition to postmodernist identity politics as a reversion to “boutique” liberalism. For Lilla, it is a matter of mathematics and hard-minded realpolitik.

The ConversationMatthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

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

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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.

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Indulge me this: how not to read Daniel Dennett’s comments on philosophy and self-indulgence

The Conversation

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Callicles, Ray Hadley, and—Daniel Dennett?

“A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place in the world,” leading philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently suggested in an interview at his year’s Association of the Scientific Study of Consciousness conference in Buenos Aires.

“Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.”

People in many other quarters of the world roll their eyes, or blink.

For this kind of accusation against philosophy is hardly new.
The character Callicles in one of Plato’s stories suggests that philosophy is, more or less, child’s play: fit to entertain youths, but hardly a decent pursuit for serious adults.

Radio 2GB stalwart Ray Hadley has more recently taken up something like Callicles’ strains, in what has become a periodic refrain in the tabloids lamenting continuing government funding for humanities research, including in philosophy.

What is new about Dennett’s claims, which is making people within the discipline take notice, is that he is neither a Callicles, nor a Ray Hadley. Daniel Dennett is a decorated Professor of Philosophy of some decades’ experience, and near-universal respect amongst professional scholars.

Dennett also hails from the angloamerican or “analytic” stream of philosophy. This stream has been, until recently, the side of the “analytic-continental divide” a lot less open to weighing philosophy’s history, place and role in society, let alone delivering such strident self-criticisms.

Nevertheless, the Callicles’ of this world should draw breath and read again before too quickly taking Dennett’s criticism as a wholesale dismissal of philosophy, or the reflective humanities.

We can even take Dennett’s provocative remarks as the spur they seem intended by him to have been: a spur to undertake some philosophical reflection about philosophy’s relations to the wider world, as against its insulation from it.

He who doesn’t philosophise…

The first thing to note is that Dennett is not saying that all forms of philosophy are “idle—just games” or a “luxury”. Dennett praises forms of philosophy, like his own contributions to debates on religion and reason (and this Cogito column, gentle reader) that “engage with the world.”

He notes that it takes years for younger generations to “develop the combination of scholarly mastery and technical acumen to work on big, important issues with a long history of philosophical attention.”

But such issues, as he sees things, clearly do exist. And developing the wherewithal to deal philosophically with them is something Dennett evidently values.

When Dennett takes aim at “self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum”, he has more particular quarry in his sights.

It is just as well. The Greeks had a saying that “he who does not philosophise, philosophises”, and philosophy—as the cradle of all the academic disciplines—has a long history of engaging with and changing the Western world, since about 600 BCE.

Socrates—responding to that other charge the Hadleys’ and Callicles’ of the world will always make (that, far from a harmless indulgence, philosophy harmfully corrupts the youth)—insisted that its role was to assist people in taking care of their souls, and helping them live better lives.

Socrates, who brought philosophy into social affairs

Surely this sounds quaint for our wiser times. The connection between rationally questioning the norms and ideas we entertain and cultivating better lives can also seen opaque, even to Socrates’ bigger fans.

But Socrates’ fundamental idea is simple. Nearly all of the characteristics we admire in people and institutions require forms of knowledge.

The man who would show his courage, but doesn’t know for what cause, is not courageous but foolhardy. He’s unlikely to last long.

The government that would be just, without knowing who and what people and initiatives are worth supporting or censoring, will be unjust.

The person who would live happily but does not know what people truly need to be happy will end up disaffected; and so it goes.

Philosophy, on this original model, is the rational, questioning pursuit of the kinds of knowledge necessary to recognise and promote different forms of human flourishing and excellence. Far from indulgent, it has this much in common with the practical concerns of governors and managers, CEOs and parents: “leaders” of all kinds, as we might say today.

Philosophy, again, involves the attempt to think rationally about the goals of human endeavours, on the basis of the most clear and comprehensive understandings of what kinds of creatures we are, and how we fit into the larger ecology and economies of the world. Far from being indulgent, this kind of thinking seems more necessary than ever today.

For individuals and governments who do not understand the significance of their actions for this wider “whole” (“the truth is the whole”, a famous philosopher said) are bound to pursue short-sighted policies, which produce longer-term problems and “externalities”.

Philosophy, again, has long concerned itself with those difficult, ultimate questions that all people have been posed, whether we ask them or not: is there a God? Is there a soul, life after death, or transcendent meaning to life? How should we live? What is worth pursuing?

To call every person who ever asked these questions, at some point in their lives, indulgent would be to paint nearly everyone who has ever lived with the same, tarring brush.

Philosophy, finally, has since Aristotle been understood by some of its most eminent votaries as the “knowledge of knowledges”.

Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great

Philosophy did not simply give birth to the other disciplines, as you might say. It was “interdisciplinary” from the start. Or at least, it has always been concerned to think through the relations between the different forms of intellectual inquiry and their place in the world. The concern is exactly to prevent particular “cottage industries” (Dennett’s term) proliferating into a cacophony of competing knowledges, without any symphonic wisdom.

Far from being indulgent, universities and governments today still face this form of philosophical issue, as they deliberate about how to manage the academies without which our societies’ historical memory and ability to reflect critically and democratically upon themselves will be sadly diminished:

For as water, whether it be the dew of heaven or the springs of the earth, doth scatter and leese itself in the ground, except it be collected into some receptacle where it may by union comfort and sustain itself […]; so this excellent liquor of knowledge, whether it descend from divine inspiration, or spring from human sense, would soon perish and vanish to oblivion, if it were not preserved in books, traditions, conferences, and places appointed […]

He who does philosophise …

Now, I don’t know whether Daniel Dennett would support everything I’ve tried to say in his defence here. Recalling the different forms of apology for philosophy (another ancient genre), I hope, can help to halt the kind of misreading of his comments as a wholesale “anti-philosophical” tirade that will inevitably sound about.

What is clear is that Dennett is not a critic of philosophy per se, let alone of philosophy in the several (amongst many other) larger senses I’ve picked out here.

What Dennett is critical of is the way academic philosophy is being undertaken, in situations in which a good many of its traditional functions—including reflecting critically about its “utility” and relation to other pursuits and disciplines—are being decided externally to the discipline itself.

For if the different justifications of philosophy we’ve recalled are clear enough, the ways in which philosophy has been funded and institutionalised throughout history have been ceaselessly up for negotiation.

Dennett, very much in the Platonic vein, is especially worried about the next generations of philosophers. He sees the ever-more pressing imperatives they face in order to advance within the institutional settings in which academic studies are today undertaken.

As everyone in the tertiary sector knows, so in this one discipline, “young philosophers are under great pressure to publish”. Nearly all of the material preconditions for ever being able to teach philosophy as a career depend upon meeting this pressure.

Little matter if the budding philosopher has only had the time to develop a limited, if highly cultivated area of specialisation. No matter if that specialisation’s relations to other parts of philosophy, knowledge and society remain unquestioned by him (or, as is less likely, her). “[S]o they find toy topics that they can knock off a clever comment/rebuttal/revival of.”

“These then build off each other and invade the journals, and philosophical discourse,” Olivia Goldhill glosses Dennett, in the article that sparked the present discussions.

Now, this is a very different object of criticism than philosophy per se. It is a form of criticism which it can be imagined has relevance beyond philosophy.

Plato in the first academy.

To criticise a certain form of some activity is not to undermine that activity, after all. It may be a call for needed reforms. Cicero defended rhetoric by saying it got its bad name from a few bad men who misused it. Francis Bacon at the dawn of the modern period echoed this kind of defence.

The prejudices of political men against the life of scholarship per se, he argued, applied only to “deficient” forms of university learning, not liberal education itself, which must be renewed.

But let me end with Plato, since I think Dennett must have had him in the back of his mind as he made his comments, and especially the sixth book of the Republic.

For this founding text of our discipline is all about Plato’s concern with how to recognise and educate good philosophers. The problem is that nearly everything speaks against the young attaining to something like that kind of “scholarly mastery and technical acumen” Dennett recognises amongst the larger goals of a humanistic education.

There are sophists, who promote name over wisdom. There is the appeal of popularity, which lures many of the best students away from their studies into political pursuits. Yet again, there is money-making, that lures many more again away from scholarly pursuits into more lucrative trades.

And, saddest of all for Plato as seemingly for Dennett too, some amongst the young who have been taught clever forms of dialectical argumentation too early fall prey to cynicism or “misologia”: a scorn for the whole business of true philosophy like that of Callicles, who had a sophistic training himself.

The ConversationMatthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

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

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