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Are We Stories? Do We Want to Be? November 26, 2014

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Philosophy of Literature.
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Every student of mine will know that sooner or later I will be introducing them to some story which illustrates some philosophical idea to perfection. And I am indeed a firm believer in the ability of good stories–film as well as literature–to provide the “meat” for the “bones” of a dry or complicated philosophical theory, especially in moral philosophy. Just think of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a critical expose of utilitarianism. The film Extreme Measures, same thing. Ethical relativism, look no further than Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. And my latest addition to the moral universe of fiction: The television series Longmire, with Sheriff Walt Longmire being the most Kantian of heroes since Will Kane in High Noon. But rarely do we get into the core of narratology, the notion of personhood being inexorably linked with the ability of a person to tell his or her own story; it is really only in my Phil 111, Philosophy in Literature class that we have the luxury of getting into that corner of philosophy and storytelling. But this is where the field first saw the light of day, in the 1980s and 1990s, with philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricoeur, Martha Nussbaum, Daniel Dennett, and a number of literature people such as Wayne Booth and David Carr. The idea that we become who we are because of our capacity to “connect the dots” in our lives into a narrative whole has caught on so that narratology today has two distinct areas, an epistemological/ontological side where the personal narrative becomes our human mode of being, and the ethical one where gathering one’s events into a story becomes a moral requirement in order to be a human being with care and direction.

But now there are voices, questioning the truth of “humans being storytelling animals,” at least as far as our own stories go. Because when we tell the story of our life, we are (like Ricoeur said) always in the middle, we don’t remember our beginning, and we won’t be able to tell the story of our end. In New Philosopher 11/25/2014 Patrick Stokes writes,

Biographers can describe a human life in narrative terms quite successfully, but they can only do so successfully from a certain distance, leaving out lots of trivial everyday detail. Zoom in close enough, and the ‘story’ of a human life starts to look like a pretty ineptly-scripted one, full of abandoned subplots and details that signify nothing and go nowhere.

Our lives don’t always resolve across a neat five-act structure either. 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that the final act is always bloody, but very often that final act comes out of nowhere, a jarring interruption to the narrative coherence of our lives rather than a neat conclusion. And even if our lives are stories, we won’t be around to find out how they end.

That’s a problem for narrativists, because how stories end is central to their meaning. An alternative version of Romeo and Juliet where the protagonists survive isn’t the same story with a different ending – it’s a completely different story. The narrative meaning of everything leading up to the end turns out to be very different.

Stories have narrative shape, and only things with boundaries can have a shape. How a story begins and ends is an integral part of its narrative meaning and trajectory. But we have no idea how our lives will end, and quite possibly won’t know about it when they do. If that happens, we won’t ever have access to the final narrative meaning of our lives, we will never have known whether it was a tragic story of star-crossed loves or a tale of triumph. It’s like we’re watching a movie where we actually have some direct control of the plot, but realise we might never find out how it ends.

For one thing, Ricoeur solved that one, in his book Oneself as Another: He says to imagine one’s ending, and relate to the imaginary unity of one’s life that way. We can’t control our fate, but we can influence its direction through the story we tell. But there is another problem with seeing our lives as stories, and that is something that has made me a little more reluctant to embrace the theory of us being our stories. Because a good story, in order to have a point, invariably has to involve problems, problems that will then get resolved at the end. Maybe even horrific problems, tragedies, horror stories, tales of loss and grief, the depths of human misery. Because nobody wants their life to be a comedy, right? So if our story is supposed to be serious, we must embrace the drama, the tragedy. But perhaps most of us would rather just have a boring, safe life with predictable events, just some fun, some love, some sweetness, and then whatever problems that arise, get rid of them/get over them as fast as we can? But those lives don’t make great stories. In order to leave behind a worthy tale of our lives, we need to include the drama, the tragic, and then overcome it through a character arc.
Aside from the fact that most people’s lives will include tragedy whether we want it or not, it hardly seems like something to strive for, just so we can say that we improved on our character. Maybe most of us would prefer to read/watch fictional stories and biographies about other people’s tragedies and hope those things don’t happen to us…

Tasteless Philosophy November 21, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Despite being preoccupied with analyzing sensory experience, philosophers have ignored taste, smell, and touch, focusing instead on vision (and to a degree sound) as the most important sense.

Hans Jonas’s “The Nobility of Sight” is a representative example. Only vision, he argued, points us in the direction of the eternal, universal truths, which have been philosophy’s concern throughout most of its history. Vision puts us in mind of the eternal because time is not essential to its functioning. When we view a landscape we see the visual field displayed all at once, in no time; and an object can be visually identified immediately without a sequence of appearances over time, in contrast to sound, touch, or taste that need time to reveal the character of their objects. And visual objects have stability. We can view an object, look away, and then return to the very same object as if nothing has changed unlike the fleeting, ever-changing objects of taste, smell, and sound.

Furthermore, Jonas argues, with vision we can see things better if we maintain a distance from them. Touch, smell, and taste require that we be intimate with the object thus increasing the chances of personal bias might influence our understanding of it.

Despite their illustrious pedigree, these are very bad arguments. We learn nothing of the eternal through vision, or any other sensory mechanism, and vision without the opportunity for subsequent confirmation, in time, would be the source of constant error. Furthermore, our sense of the stability of objects is as dependent on the sense of touch as on vision. The stability of our visual field is dependant on the body’s orientation is space, which is maintained, in part, by our tactile contact with solid objects.

As to the alleged objectifying distance of vision, science shows that vision involves intimate contact with physical objects–swarms of photons. And we seem just as capable of misinterpreting those photons as we are the signals from taste buds. Recent psychological research is demonstrating the unreliability of eye-witness testimony. If anything introduces subjective bias into perceptual judgments it is the fact that objects are often seen at a distance or under conditions otherwise unsuitable for reliable identification. Apparently seeing is misbelieving.

At best, vision’s distance and the illusion of simultaneity allow us to spin metaphors about the eternal and universal. But misleading metaphors are bad metaphors.

There is an important contrast between vision and the other senses however. Through vision we do gain a sense of an horizon, an area beyond our present space. This is surely important for the development of our imagination.

By contrast, sound, touch, taste, and smell root us in the here and now. Objects must be spatially and temporally present for them to effect these sensory modalities. But why should experience rooted in the here and now be uninteresting to philosophy?

If taste is philosophically uninteresting, perhaps it is because philosophers lack taste.

Philosophy at the Table October 4, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Food and Drink, Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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Food and wine are among the consummate pleasures of everyday life. But philosophy throughout its history has largely ignored these pervasive satisfactions. Preoccupied with the life of the mind, the activities of the body were presumed to be quite separate from and inferior to thought. After all, we are biologically predisposed to enjoy salt, sugar, and fat and it takes only a little effort and no cognitive skill to reap their rewards. Since, food and drink are tied to our primitive, animal instinct to survive and socialize, philosophy’s conceit has been to remain chastely untouched by passions that stir likewise in pigs at a trough.

Furthermore, our tastes seem to be so irredeemably idiosyncratic, subjective, and immune to standards that philosophers have typically decided food and wine could not be systematically studied.

I think all of this is quite misguided. The study of food and wine is cognitively interesting and enhances our enjoyment. Although subjective up to a point, the appreciation of food and wine is no more subjective than the appreciation of painting or music, all of which are profitably understood as subject to standards of evaluation.

And so I have decided to plunge back into the blogosphere, after an extended hiatus, with Edible Arts, a blog and newsletter devoted to unpacking these dimensions of food and wine that please the palette, the intellect, and the heart. I will cross-post here when the post is related to philosophy and aesthetics, or visit me there for regular posts on the world of food and wine.

And we should not be so disparaging to pigs. There is no part of a pig I dislike—although I must confess never to have tried a pressed sow’s ear. There may be a line to draw here some place.


Cross-posted at Edible Arts.

Martha Nussbaum’s Calcutta Interview December 17, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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Philosophybites tweets that American philosopher Martha Nussbaum was just interviewed in the Calcutta newspaper The Telegraph. The interview conducted by Somak Ghoshal focuses on her interest in Rabindranath Tagore, but she also expresses her views on philosophy as a discipline, and her interest in the value of emotions–an interest that she has expressed long before the current trend, ever since her book Love’s Knowledge (1990).

…The arts and the humanities are being cut back, education now is about producing useful bodies that can increase the national profit.” Tagore, too, had outlined such a conflict between the moral man and the man of limited purpose in The Religion of Man.

I ask her if philosophy, which is usually looked down upon as a “useless subject”, especially in countries such as India, has been the worst hit. Nussbaum agrees. “In the US, at least, the study of philosophy forms some part of a liberal education. Students take general courses in it before majoring in something else,” she says. “But in the British system, which is similar to the Indian system, students have to focus on only one subject. In that case, what does philosophy do for you?” In a recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum makes a powerful connection between democracy, imagination and empathy. “Every single university student should study philosophy,” she says with a disarming earnestness, “You need to lead the examined life and question your beliefs. If you don’t learn critical thinking, then political debate degenerates into a contest of slogans.” She believes this process has set in in the US, where debate is used to attack others, not as a tool to understand the structure of an argument. “Socrates was right when he said that democracies are prone to sloppy, hasty reasoning,” she says, “People need to slow down and analyse what they are saying. Tagore understood this too well, and so the style of instruction in his school was Socratic.”

Does she feel that Tagore is trying to forge a new philosophical language to talk about education in The Religion of Man? Is that why he seems to waver between an emotional and an empirical register? “Mill, too, had argued that a full human life requires a balance between the analytical faculties and a deep, spiritual appreciation of beauty,” Nussbaum clarifies, “You must be able to appreciate the depth of another human being.” “But,” she continues, “Tagore is better than Mill because he thinks about love.” In fact, Nussbaum’s current project is “a long book on political emotions” where she shows that society can’t be held together merely “by cold feelings of respect” — there must be room for love.

Philippa Foot in Memoriam December 6, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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An amazing woman philosopher has passed away. It only just now came to my attention that the British moral philosopher Philippa Foot died Oct.3, on her 90th birthday. It is primarily thanks to Foot that we today enjoy a revival and revision of Virtue Ethics. I hope to write more about Foot at a later date, but for now I will share these words from her obituary in The Guardian with you:

 The moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who has died aged 90, started a new trend in ethics. She challenged, in two seminal papers given in the late 1950s, the prevailing Oxbridge orthodoxy of AJ Ayer and Richard Hare; and, for the next few decades, passionate debate over her naturalism, as against Hare’s prescriptivism, occupied most moral philosophers in Britain and America. She was also one of the pioneers of virtue ethics, a key development in philosophy from the 1970s onwards.

From her essay Moral Beliefs (1958) to the collection Moral Dilemmas (2002), and throughout her academic life at Oxford and universities in North America, she was always passionate that “the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately in facts about human life” and in what it is rational for humans to want.

In the 1950s she had begun, along with Anscombe, to shift the focus away from what makes an isolated action good or bad, to the Aristotelian concentration on what makes a person good or bad in the long-term. Morality, she argued, is about how to live – not so much a series of logically consistent, well-calculated decisions as a lifetime endeavour to become the sort of person who habitually and happily does virtuous things. And “virtuous”, for Foot, meant well-rounded and human. She condemned as moral faults “the kind of timidity, conventionality and wilful self-abnegation that may spoil no one’s life but one’s own”, advocating “hope and a readiness to accept good things”.

Foot continued, and modified, her onslaught on subjectivism in ethics throughout her life. She also attacked utilitarian theories, which see goodness as a matter of actions’ consequences, and tend to equate the badness of failing to prevent an evil outcome with perpetrating it. In a paper on abortion (The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect, 1967), she used what became a much-cited example to pinpoint fine distinctions in moral permissibility where an action has both good and bad results – the dilemma facing the driver of a suddenly brakeless trolley-bus that would hit five people unless he steered it on to another track into only one person.

Unlike many philosophers, Foot never strained our basic intuitions in the interests of pursuing some wild theory to its (il)logical conclusion. She said that, in doing philosophy, she felt like a geologist tapping away with a tiny hammer on a huge cliff. But her resolute tapping hit many fault-lines and reduced several inflated edifices. “Very tender and adorable, yet morally tough and subtle, and with lots of will and self-control,” was how Murdoch described her.

Is Climate Change an Ethical Issue? October 28, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy.

Last week I linked to an article by David Roberts at Grist who argued that although the majority of Americans think climate change is happening and is a threat, most people are not angry about it or motivated to do much about. So the intensity is on the side of those who deny climate change.

Very few of those who correctly believe that climate change is happening are pissed about it. More like “concerned,” the way people are concerned about homelessness or poverty in Africa, like, y’know, somebody (else) should really do something about that. Few write letters to legislators or hassle them about it in town halls. Almost no one will change their vote over it. No legislator stands to be primaried or driven from office over it.

In other words, all the intensity, and thus all the political risk, is on one side. For the political landscape to change in coming years, what’s needed is not a massive education campaign — though it certainly couldn’t hurt! — but a shift in the balance of intensity. The question is how to reduce the intensity of denialists and increase the intensity of climate hawks.

But, in the end, Roberts was optimistic because he thinks generational change will replace the denialists with armies of young, committed environmentalists that will gradually shift the debate in favor of mitigating climate change.

I am not as optimistic as Roberts because I think climate change, from the standpoint of ordinary moral agents (i.e. non-philosophers) is not easily conceptualized as a moral issue.

By “ethics” or “morality”, I am referring to the actions I ought to take as an individual.

With regard to the causes of the predicted harms of climate change, the contributions of individuals are tiny, the actions that lead to climate change are otherwise innocent—they don’t involve any sort of obvious wrongdoing—and the effects of each individual’s actions are displaced over vast amounts of space and time. It is not obvious then how an individual is responsible for the harm, so it isn’t obvious why individuals have a responsibility to do anything about it.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, even if we felt an obligation as individuals to do something about climate change, there is very little we can do about it. Because our contribution as individuals is so inconsequential, any reduction we initiate with regard to our personal discharge of CO2 will also be inconsequential as well.

So, in other words, we have a very big collective action problem on our hands. I can do nothing to solve climate change on my own. And in the absence of global consensus among governments to take action in consort to solve the problem, which in the current political environment seems implausible, I as an individual can do very little.

As a result, people don’t see climate change as an ethical problem. It may be an engineering problem or a technological challenge, or a political problem for governments to solve, but not an urgent ethical problem that demands individuals take action.

The question is can philosophy help to conceptualize climate change more clearly. Do any of our moral theories explain why climate change ought to be a moral issue?

I think the answer is no if we consider only traditional moral theories. I will have more to say about this next week.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

More on the Crisis in the Humanities October 28, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy.
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The threatened closing of foreign language departments at SUNY Albany (following threats to philosophy programs in the U.K and the U.S)  has received a good deal of discussion in the blogosphere. (Including here)  Highly regarded French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy contributed these particularly pithy remarks:

So the choice is between getting rid of French and getting rid of philosophy? What a great alternative!

A choice between removing the liver or the lungs. Stomach or heart. Eyes or ears. How about that?

Someone needs to invent a kind of instruction that is, first, strictly monolingual — because everything can be translated into English, can’t it? — and also one from which all questioning (for example, of what “translation” means, both in general and in terms of this or that specific language) has been completely eliminated. A single language alone, cleansed of the bugs of reflection, would make the perfect university subject: smooth, harmonious, easily submitted to pedagogical control.

It’s time to propose getting rid of both French and philosophy, and, for that matter, all related subjects, like Latin, psychoanalysis, Italian, Spanish, literary theory, Russian, or history. Perhaps it would be wise to put in their place, as mandatory course offerings, some programming languages (e.g. Java), and also commercial Chinese and technical Hindi — at least until these languages have been completely transcribed into English. (Unless it is the opposite that comes to pass.)

Anyway, let us teach what is displayed on billboards and stock market monitors. Nothing else!

Courage, comrades: a new world is being born!

[tr. J. K. Cohen/H. Saussy]

The corporatization of the university and the commercialization of every aspect of life continues apace enabled by greed-as-a-virtue conservatives and a timorous, ineffectual liberalism powerless to arrest it’s advance.

A new world is being born indeed. But is it one that humans will inhabit?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Also Sprach Tea Partiers October 14, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, politics.
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Berkeley economist Brad Delong laments
Somehow I Am Now Wishing I Had Read More Nietszche When I Was Younger…

I’m not sure if Delong wishes he had read Nietzsche’s discussion of “ressentiment” in the Genealogy of Morals (where Nietzche claims roughly that the weak and frustrated create a moral code that absolves them of responsibility for their frustration) or the end of the Gay Science where the madman warns of impending catastrophe and he is treated as a fool. But this conversation between Delong and standard issue right-wing crazies is hilarious.

If you are looking for evidence that no real debate can be had with these people, here it is.

Last week I spent some time with a group of people I don’t usually spend much time talking to. They were not rich–by which I don’t mean that they had overstretched themselves by buying a seven-figure principal residence but rather that they weren’t rich: their household income was in the five or, for some of them, perhaps the very low six figures. And (which is unusual for Berkeley) they were not lefties, neither cultural nor sociological. They were deeply concerned with the future of our country. And they were desperate to figure out how to engage in effective political action–but had few illusions that the politicians they would vote for in November were their kind of people with their interests at heart.

I suppose that in a previous era, back when there were private-sector unions, they might have been union stewards. But now we have no private-sector unions.

And so they are activists from the California Tea Party.

So I went through my standard spiel. Housing bubble. 5 million excess houses built in the desert between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, and on all of them the least $100K of mortgage debt will not be repaid. A $500B loss in an $80T world economy. Shouldn’t have been a problem—securitization exists to spread risks. But the banks pretended that the AAA MBS issued by other banks were high-quality Basel capital even though they knew full well the dreck that they were issuing. A financial multiplier of 40. A flight to safety. A big shift away from spending on currently-produced goods and services and on currently-employed labor as people tried to build up their stocks of safe assets. A multiplier as people who lost their jobs stopped spending, and the situation snowballed.

It could have been worse, I said. Without all of the rescue policies we would probably now have an unemployment rate of 16 percent rather than 10 percent.

But they question is what to do now with the economy. The idea is not to go to socialism—not to nationalize large chunks of the economy and have everybody work for the government—but to conduct strategic interventions in financial markets. Relieve the excess demand for safe high-quality assets and you remove the pressure on people to spend less than they earn as they try to build up their stocks of safe assets, and you get a virtuous circle of strong recovery.

So, I said, the right thing to do is the Bagehot rule: lend freely at a penalty rate. The government should throw huge amounts of money at the financial markets and in the process take a large chunk of the upside in equities and options.

SOCIALISM, they said. We don’t want SOCIALISM.

But it’s not socialism, I said. It’s an attempt to avoid socialism—it’s an attempt to conduct a strategic intervention into the market economy so that it can rebalance itself.

SOCIALISM, they said.

Well, I said, how about lending freely to the financial sector but forget Bagehot’s “penalty rate” stuff?


Well, I said, how about pushing off taxes into the future, bringing forward infrastructure spending we know that we will want to do, and financing it by issuing more government debt? The spending should put some people to work, and the extra government bonds we print up will increase the supply of safe assets, decrease the excess demand, and so remove some of the downward pressure that is inducing people to spend less than they earn/


But, I said, the U.S. government now can borrow at unbelievable terms. If you could borrow at such terms, you would bust out the top of your house and add a second story immediately.


OK, I said. How about having the federal government aid the states. We want to keep our police and our fire and our road maintenance and our schools running at their efficient levels, don’t we? It’s stupid to cut back on the long-term foundations of our economy and its growth because of recession, isn’t it. How about a large program of federal aid to the states so that teachers, sewer workers, police officers, and firefighters can keep their jobs, keep protecting us—and keep spending and so provide employment for the rest of us?






So what do you think we should do?


But you have just rejected every idea I have for boosting employment—short of nationalizing the means of production and employing everybody by the government, that is. What are your ideas?


To call this incoherent doesn’t quite capture the utter diabolical ignorance.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Crisis in the Humanities October 13, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy.
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As the recession cuts into budget outlays for higher education, not only in the U.S. but across Europe as well, it appears that the humanities are taking the biggest hit.

Philosophy programs and language departments have been shut down in a variety of states as well as in the U.K, and Humanities departments are being forced to prove they contribute to the bottom line in order to justify their existence.

In light of these developments, the article by Stanley Fish in the NY Times earlier this week was troubling.

And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities — which do not earn their keep…

And it won’t do, in the age of entrepreneurial academics, zero-based budgeting and “every tub on its own bottom,” to ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained.

Stanley Fish is a literary critic, Professor of Humanities and Law, and a former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Illinois. One would think he would be sympathetic to the plight of the Humanities.

But with friends like this who needs enemies?

Christopher Newfield’s ongoing research on university funding comes to radically different conclusions:

Further budget research needs to be done, and far more budgetary data need to be disclosed and discussed. In the meantime, I propose these conclusions from my case study. The humanities and social sciences are major donors to science and engineering budgets. Major dogmas about university research turn out to be wrong: science and engineering research costs money, and humanities and social sciences teaching subsidizes it. Furthermore, humanities and social sciences students receive a cheap education—that is, they get back less than they put in.

Making matters worse, university officials have historically perpetuated the myth that the science and engineering fields are the generous subsidizers of the “soft” humanitiesand social science fields.

This concealment of the humanities’ contributionto the progress of science fed the vicious cycle of the culture wars: underfunded humanities fields cannot buy respectability through the media,think tanks, or prominent science agencies, a limitation that gives free reinto assertions that the humanities produce only pseudo-knowledge. This belief has lowered the humanities’ status, which in turn has justified flator declining funding, which further lowers the humanities’ status, whichencourages further cuts.

More generally, the overall financial stability of higher education—especially public higher education—has been undermined by an increasingly dysfunctional postwar research-funding model that depends on subsidies from teaching revenues that are being cut from state budgets and added to student costs. Finally, the hidden subsidy—in which high-enrollment, high-teaching-load fields in the humanities andsocial sciences help pay for advanced scientific research—is the primary reason why the humanities are perpetually poor.

In offering this analysis of budgetary myths and inequities, I am notseeking to foment a class war between the arts and sciences. I admire and study the sciences and their sociocultural impacts and think they, as well as the arts, need even more funding than they have. Given the funding crisis for all higher education, now would be the worst possible time to set upa zero-sum competition between different sides of campus, and I instead advocate cooperation and collaboration across all our disciplines.My analysis is intended to encourage truth in budgeting.

I’m no expert on college financing but many people, such as Andrew Hacker, have argued that in our system of higher education, undergraduate teaching subsidizes research. We overcharge students for tuition and fees and underpay faculty by hiring mostly adjuncts, and that money goes to pay for endowments, new technology, intercollegiate sports, expensive student centers, and graduate student education, especially in engineering and the sciences, which ends up benefiting big business.

Of course, given that it is big business that ends up benefiting from this, it is not a surprise that this scam is not well publicized.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Philosophy of Happiness October 10, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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Remember the ’60s and ’70s? Some of us do, and one of the things we remember is the philosophical/existential  focus on the phenomena of dread/angst and dying. And yet, despite the Vietnam War, assassinations, unrest and fear of the future, the ’60s and ’70s were a pretty upbeat time—people had money, spent money, traveled, bought homes, got into getting an education, and weren’t all that much worried about dread in their everyday lives. But now? A focal shift from the philosophy of death and dying, and the sadness of ubiquitous dread, to an intense studying of the phenomenon of happiness—while our economy is tanking, unemployment is high, homes are being foreclosed, and we are really worried about the future. We’re not upbeat alt all these days, and yet (and so?) we want to know about happiness. There’s an interesting paradoxical correlation going on—like the the famous analysis of hemlines going up in bull market times, and down in a bear market.

We’ve touched on the issue of happiness on several occasions here on this blog, of course, and so I want to share an Op-Ed piece with you from the New York Times by philosopher David Sosa, asking the question of the nature of happiness: is it a state of mind? A byproduct of an experience? A chemical reaction? Robert Nozick started the ball rolling in 1974 when most Western philosopher were worried about unhappiness:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?. (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 3)

Nozick’s thought experiment — or the movie [The Matrix], for that matter — points to an interesting hypothesis: Happiness is not a state of mind.

I think that for very many of us the answer is no. It’s Morpheus and Neo and their merry band of rebels who are the heroes of “The Matrix.” Cypher, who cuts the deal with the Agents, is a villain. And just as considering what we would grab in case of emergency can help us learn about what we value, considering whether to plug into the experience machine can help us learn about the sort of happiness we aspire to.

In refusing to plug in to Nozick’s machine, we express our deep-seated belief that the sort of thing we can get from a machine isn’t the most valuable thing we can get; it isn’t what we most deeply want, whatever we might think if we were plugged in. Life on the machine wouldn’t constitute achieving what we we’re after when we’re pursuing a happy life. There’s an important difference between having a friend and havingthe experience of having a friend. There’s an important difference between writing a great novel and having the experience of writing a great novel. On the machine, we would not parent children, share our love with a partner, laugh with friends (or even smile at a stranger), dance, dunk, run a marathon, quit smoking, or lose 10 pounds in time for summer. Plugged in, we would have the sorts of experience that people who actually achieve or accomplish those things have, but they would all be, in a way, false — an intellectual mirage.

Happiness, says Sosa, is not the experience of a feeling, but the feeling as a response to reality. If you could be under the illusion of being successful, or of being in love, and being loved, in a simulated reality, would that be preferable to the actual situation of tough accomplishments, or loving a flesh-and-blood person? No work, no heartaches, no break-ups, no pregnancy worries—in other words, only pleasure, and none of the pesky real stuff. But it wouldn’t be happiness—not the Aristotelian kind, of eudaimonic flourishing.

Happiness is harder to get. It’s enjoyed after you’ve worked for something, or in the presence of people you love, or upon experiencing a magnificent work of art or performance — the kind of state that requires us to engage in real activities of certain sorts, to confront real objects and respond to them. And then, too, we shouldn’t ignore the modest happiness that can accompany pride in a clear-eyed engagement with even very painful circumstances.

I agree with Sosa—he isn’t the first person to point these things out (I’ve written about them myself in The Human Condition) but it’s enjoyable to see such a well-written analysis of an interesting question. What concerns me, though, are some of the comments to his piece. Apparently the idea that happiness is “just” a state of mind, and reality isn’t really there, anyway, has become the default view among (what I assume to be) young thinkers. Now that worries me…