Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

“Contrary to present-day prophets of self-discovery […] there is no authentic core you discover when you probe yourself. Rather, knowing oneself requires a commitment to travel outside of oneself and join with others. Self-knowledge is a destination not an origin. At the beginning, before examination, we are strangers to ourselves.

“But in another respect authenticity is an important part of the Socratic method. ‘Say what you believe’ is the only condition for entering into a debate. A person whose statements express his beliefs endows his words with the significance of his own life. One does not simply assert a hypothesis, but arguments proceed on the basis of the participants’ beliefs. That means that investigations of these hypotheses become an existential self-examination. Any move in the debate will have an effect on one’s set of beliefs and hence on the way one understands oneself.

“In this sense Socrates foreshadows the way modern thinkers emphasize embodied knowledge. Words can be used to imagine or describe, to mount [hypotheses] or to theorize, but Socrates wants speech to have the effect of a performative promise. It essentially amounts to the claim: here I am, here is what I believe in, here is myself. Anything less will be mere gesturing in the air.


“Irony today might at bottom say that ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ As a cultural norm it might even amount to the claim that it is impossible to mean what you say. How different this is from Socratic irony, which urges us to mean exactly what we say and admit that closing the gap between what we are and what we express is impossible.”

–Roy Brand, LoveKnowledge : The Life of Philosophy from Socrates to Derrida (New York : Columbia University, 2013), pgs. 13-14. (Italics above are in the original.)

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How did Joseph Vincent Paterno gain so much power over Pennsylvania State University that the top officials of that university would agree to cover up (and thus enable) child molestation in order to protect Paterno’s chance to set the college football record for most coaching wins?

An essay written by a 2001 Penn State alumnus and published by CNN provides insight. To paraphrase the essay in a sentence: JoePa made us better than other people, and we are still better than other people. (Please do read the essay: It’s a study in baseless, pompous arrogance.)

Paterno got tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people to believe that he was making them better than other people, fostering an illusion that they were virtuous merely by association with his virtue, and he could count on their decisive support in every battle he had within the university.

First he gave them pride. And now he’s given them a fall.

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“To propose to a man that he be someone else, that he become someone else, is to propose that he cease to be himself. Every man defends his own personality, and will agree to a change in his way of thinking or of feeling only in so far as this change can harmonize with and be integrated into the rest of his mode of being, thinking, and feeling, while at the same time it can be linked with his memories. [A man cannot] be asked to make a change that will break the unity and continuity of the person. A man can be greatly changed, almost completely in fact, but only within the stream of his continuity.”

— Miguel de Unamuno (translated by Anthony Kerrigan), The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 1972), pgs. 12-13.

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The following reflection on the unknowable vastness of human knowledge was written 75 years ago:

Human knowledge had become unmanageably vast; every science had begotten a dozen more, each subtler than the rest; the telescope revealed stars and systems beyond the mind of man to number or to name; geology spoke in terms of millions of years, where men before had thought in terms of thousands; physics found a universe in the atom, and biology found a microcosm in the cell; physiology discovered inexhaustible mystery in every organ, and psychology in every dream; anthropology reconstructed the unsuspected antiquity of man, archeology unearthed buried cities and forgotten states, history proved all history false, and painted a canvas which only a Spengler or an Eduard Meyer could vision as a whole; theology crumbled, and political theory cracked; invention complicated life and war, and economic creeds overturned governments and inflamed the world; philosophy itself, which had once summoned all sciences to its aid in making a coherent image of the world and an alluring picture of the good, found its task of coordination too stupendous for its courage, ran away from all these battlefronts of truth, and hid itself in recondite and narrow lanes, timidly secure from the issues and responsibilities of life. Human knowledge had become too great for the human mind.

So wrote Will Durant, looking back at the 1920s.

When we think of the unknowable—the almost unfathomable—depths of what human individuals in the aggregate know; and then think of what is beyond that, the infinity of things to be known that no person knows; when we think of how much there is to know that we do not and cannot know, what choice do we have when we speak but to either be superficial or be silent? We can be more informed or less informed, and more informed is better, but we can rarely be fully informed, and yet we speak.

(I believe that part of what I write above is just warmed-over Wittgenstein; but, appropriately enough for this post, my knowledge of his Tractatus is too superficial for me to say that with confidence.)

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In Book II (369a-372d) of the Republic, Socrates reasons step-by-step through what would be required to create a simple and harmonious city, one in which the citizens “will live in peace and good health, and when they die at a ripe old age, they will bequeath a similar life to their children” (372c-d).

Socrates then continues with his steps, changing his simple city into a luxurious city (372e-374a) and discussing how this change ruins the harmony and leads to “the origins of war” (373e).

George Carlin has a classic routine about “stuff”, which I have taken to heart. “That’s all your house is: It’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” I have never wanted either a house or a lot of stuff because I realized early on that house and stuff are a vicious cycle: You have too much stuff, so you buy a bigger house; your bigger house looks empty until you buy more stuff for it; and so on.

Luxury is having more than you can ever use. What is the point of that?

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In Book I (345e-347a) of the Republic, Socrates distinguishes between one’s ability to succeed at a craft (to be a craftsman) and one’s ability to succeed in being paid (to be a wage-earner); and states that the two abilities should be considered in isolation from one another. One can be a craftsman without receiving a wage; one can receive a wage for doing nothing.

We naturally tie the two together because they are so often paired, but it is worth remembering (and worth hammering home in school) that just because you are skilled at your craft does not mean that you will be paid to perform it.

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