“Twenty-Five Things Everyone Used to Understand”

May 3, 2021 • 2:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Philosopher Daniel A. Kaufman edits an online magazine called The Electric Agora which bills itself as a “modern Symposium for the digital age”, and which “publishes essays, videos, reviews, and humorous pieces, lying at the intersection of philosophy, the humanities, science, and popular culture.”

He posted a piece yesterday entitled “Twenty-Five Things Everyone Used to Understand” in which he laments the loss of shared conventions of thought and behavior that allow for a tolerant, civil, and liberal society. He writes,

The 25 propositions below say things that pretty much everyone in the United States understood until five proverbial minutes ago. I collect them here, not just as a reminder of how much things have changed in such a short time, but because together, they represent a wisdom about life that is needed today more than ever before.

Most or all of the 25 would gain my assent, but I’ll comment briefly on just two of them here.

Proposition 23, “Terrible people have produced and continue to produce great works of art and popular culture, the value of which persists, regardless of the character or conduct of their creators“, seems relevant to the biography of Philip Roth that Jerry mentioned, and also captures some of what might be a consensus in the discussion amongst WEIT readers on that post.

Proposition 24, “The point of engaging with arts and entertainment is not to develop a deep, personal investment in the character of artists and entertainers whom you don’t know and never will“, I would extend to athletes as well. Two of my favorite athletes are Patrick Ewing and Derek Jeter, both now retired.

I followed Ewing and the Knicks closely during his heyday with them. At some point, perhaps after he retired, I saw some news item connecting him to some tawdry behavior at a strip club, and how this might affect his wife. My first thought was, “I didn’t know he was married.” And that’s the way I wanted it to be– I admired his play, not his personal life. (I’m not saying there was anything much wrong with his personal life– after all, “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto“– it’s just that I didn’t know, and had no need to know.)

Derek Jeter was long New York City’s most eligible bachelor (women regularly showed up at Yankee Stadium holding “Marry me Derek” signs), and he regularly was photographed with the beautiful and famous women he dated. But he himself essentially never commented on anything outside his life in baseball, and even in that realm he was always circumspect, and focused on “any year we don’t win the World Series is a failure”-style deflection of questions. And I liked this– he spoke on the field, with his play.

Both Ewing and Jeter were outwardly stoic and taciturn. Perhaps I liked this about them, but I’ve no idea if this is what they are “really” like; even more I liked that this kept the focus on their sport, and not their private lives.

There are 23 more propositions, all worthy of comment. Go read the piece, and choose a proposition or two to comment on here for fellow WEIT readers.

h/t Brian Leiter

How do we deal with anti-Semitic philosophers of past centuries?

March 21, 2019 • 11:45 am

Here is a strange but timely article from the New York Times‘s philosophy column, “The Stone.” Laurie Shrage, a professor of philosophy at Florida International University, asks how we should deal with the palpable anti-Semitism of early philosophers. But in the course of her lucubrations, she conflates four distinct questions. Read the piece by clicking on the screenshot:

Here are the four questions conflated in the article which purports to deal with a simple yes or no question: “Should we continue to teach thinkers like Kant, Voltaire, and Hume without mention of the harmful prejudices they helped legitimize?

1.) Do we mention the anti-Semitism of European philosophers as part of their character when we teach their work?

2.) Do we investigate and teach how we think their anti-Semitism permeated their work—if it did?

3.) Do we teach philosophers outside the Western “canon”—people like Maimonides, Philo, or Confucius, rather than adhere to a philosophical “image of the West as racist thinkers have fashioned it?”

And there’s an unspoken question:

4.) Should we marginalize or even not teach the work of Western philosophers who were anti-Semites?

Shrage also spends a bit of time indicting the teaching of philosophy because, in the last hundred years, Jews weren’t hired to teach philosophy because they weren’t really regarded as “Western”. Well, that problem no longer exists, so I’m not sure what this potted history reveals. It certainly sheds no light on the questions above.

My answers are as follows:

1.) We should mention the anti-Semitism of ancient philosophers only insofar as it affected or informed their philosophy. After all, almost everyone in Europe before the 19th century, including (or maybe especially) educated folk, were not only anti-Semitic, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Our change in morality should certainly be studied in history or sociology classes, but something sticks in my craw when people demand that long-dead people who lived in bigoted milieu be constantly indicted for bigotry. I don’t mention Darwin’s own bigotry in my evolution class (he was an abolitionist but also denigrated black people), but I would if I were teaching the parts of his work in which he speculated about racial hierarchies.

2.) As for Kant, Hume, and Voltaire, I’m not sure how much of the philosophy taught as “theirs” is affected by bigotry. That would be up to individual teachers. It’s clear from what Shrage said that these people did publish anti-Semitic stuff, but it’s not clear to me that this is the stuff taught in philosophy classes.

3.) Of course we should teach non-Western philosophers; I’m sure there is a lot of good thought there that deserves airing. Because most academic philosophers are taught the Western canon, and teach it themselves, this may require “non-Western philosophy” courses, but I’m all in favor of that.

As for religious philosophers, I’m a bit more dubious. How much real philosophy is there in religious philosophy, given that lots of it involves assuming gods for which there is no evidence? Do we really want to ask why God would permit the existence of evil if we don’t think there’s a god? This is why, when founding the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson stipulated that it would have no theology department or divinity school.

On the other hand, it may be useful to acquaint people with some of the arguments used by religious philosophers, like the First Cause argument, simply because we live in a religious society and those arguments are not only part of history, but are ongoing now. But if we teach those, and the ancient Greeks, we have to be aware that philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and St. Augustine justified slavery.

4.) No. If we sidelined every academic throughout history who was bigoted, we wouldn’t be teaching anything.

Curiously, Shrage doesn’t “unpack” (to use the argot) these questions, and winds up assuming that their work does reflect their bigotry, with the implicit view that we need to teach that. Here’s her last paragraph, which conflates three questions at once:

With the resurgence of old hatreds in the 21st century, philosophers are challenged to think about the ways we trace the history of our discipline and teach our major figures, and whether our professional habits and pieties have been shaped by religious intolerance and other forms of bigotry. For example, why not emphasize how philosophy emerged from schools of thought around the world? In the fields of history and literature, introductory courses that focus on European studies are being replaced by courses in world history and comparative literature.

There has not been a similar widespread movement to rethink the standard introduction to philosophy in terms of world philosophy. There are philosophers who contend that such projects inappropriately politicize our truth-seeking endeavors, but, as some philosophers of science have shown, objective truth involves the convergence of multiple observations and perspectives. Moreover, the anti-Semitic theories of Hume, Voltaire and Kant show that philosophy has rarely, if ever, been insulated from politics.

But the question is whether the philosophy has been affected by bigotry. 

Maybe students would be better served by teaching them philosophy then by minutely scrutinizing every philosopher in history (and artists and writers and scientists) for ideological impurities.

 

How to read authors of earlier times who expressed views or created characters that we find repugnant today

January 20, 2019 • 2:30 pm

There has been a lot of debate about how—or whether—to read authors whose views (or language) may not comport with today’s mores. Morality evolves, usually for the better, leaving older books bearing attitudes or characters that we find repugnant.

The usual result is to either denigrate or ban these books, and such opprobrium has involved works like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse-Five, and even The Color Purple. I’m not even mentioning the many books that are deemed verboten by various religions, such as The Satanic Verses. Go to the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books webpage for a comprehensive list.

How do we deal with these books? Do we remove them from libraries, as Confederate statues are removed from campuses? Do we cease teaching them in classrooms—something that’s now happening with To Kill a Mockingbird? Or do we just decry them as a way of showing our moral advancement and purity? (Remember, though: in 100 years we ourselves will be seen as morally primitive in many ways!) I’ve always claimed that we should not ignore works of literature, even if we find them offensive, as there may be a nugget of truth in them or, if not, we can at least sharpen our minds by mentally debating the authors.

This article in the January 8 New York Times is a bright spot in the censorship wilderness. Written by Brian Morton, author and director of the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, it is eminently sensible and yet sensitive.

After facing a student who rejected Edith Wharton because of the antisemitism expressed in her novel The House of Mirth(1905), Morton recognizes the commonality of such rejection:

Anyone who’s taught literature in a college or university lately has probably had a conversation like this. The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.

And Morton’s solution, which I could kick myself for not having thought of, is obvious and salubrious:

It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.

I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.

He explains:

. . . If we were to sign up for a trip to the New York of 1905 — Wharton’s New York — we’d understand, even before buying our tickets, that we were visiting a place where people’s attitudes were very different from ours. We’d know that nearly everyone we’d meet, even the best, most generous minds — rich or poor, male or female, white or black — would hold opinions that would be unacceptable today. We’d be informed of this in the contract we’d be required to sign, at the same time as we’d be given our inoculations and fitted for our period clothing — our hoop skirts, our waistcoats, our top hats.

Knowing all this before we went back in time, met Wharton and discovered that some of her opinions were abhorrent, we’d be prepared. We wouldn’t be outraged or shocked.

Instead, we’d probably be curious. We’d probably be interested in exploring the question of how one of the most intelligent and fearless minds of her time was afflicted by moral blind spots that are obvious to us today.

. . . Regarding a writer like Wharton as a creature of her age might bring a further benefit. It might help us see ourselves as creatures of our own.

When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.

Morton notes some of our moral blind spots today, such as our overlooking child labor, which, though disappearing, is still prevalent, as much a moral outrage as is the oppression of any group. This ignorance, too, shall pass.

Morton’s essay is important and timely in an age where views we find offensive tend to be put aside rather than examined or debated. That’s a point that I and others have made repeatedly, but somehow Morton’s idea of a book as a “time machine” makes the point more succinctly.

His conclusion, however, comports with ours:

If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity (those essential tools of the time-traveler), we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back. We’ll be able to appreciate that in their limited ways, sometimes seeing beyond the prejudices of their age, sometimes unable to do so, they — the ones worth reading — were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do.

The Perpetually Offended, east and west: Dresses, saris, diapers and square-root signs

February 22, 2018 • 1:15 pm

When I woke up this morning there was one notice of how the Perpetually Offended were acting, and then it multiplied through today, so now I have four instances and no time to write about them. I’ll just give brief notices about these four episodes, which combine to show that people are looking for any reason to call other people out. It’s sad that forgiveness can’t obtain in innocuous cases like these.

First up, actress Jennifer Lawrence, who wore a revealing dress at a photoshoot in the cold.  Apparently she was publicizing her new movie, “The Red Sparrow” Here it is:

It’s a lovely dress on a lovely woman. So what’s the beef? The beef is that it was cold and she had her picture taken with men who wore coats against the cold. That has to be sexist, either on her part (objectifying herself), theirs (refusal to give her a coat), or the moviemakers (forcing her to show skin in the cold):

Jennifer Lawrence poses with her bundled-up colleagues, from left: director Francis Lawrence and actors Matthias Schoenaerts, Joel Edgerton and Jeremy Irons. (John Phillips/Getty Images)

More reporting:

An article in Jezebel had the headline, Please Give Jennifer Lawrence a Dang Coat, showing the actor’s co-stars, Joel Edgerton and Jeremy Irons among them, wearing large coats and scarves.

Similarly, Metro wrote that the men in the image are “nicely wrapped up bracing themselves against the chill of a bracing London winter, while Jennifer Lawrence is wearing a plunging thigh-split gown”. One tweet that called it “quietly depressing and revealing” received over 12,000 likes.

Other likes were accrued by intersectional tweets, like these from Helen Lewis, deputy editor of The New Statesman:

https://twitter.com/helenlewis/status/965933013635825665

https://twitter.com/helenlewis/status/966235111296569344

And Lawrence’s response:  GET A GRIP, PEOPLE!

https://twitter.com/JLdaily/status/966316607952838656

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On to Canada’s beloved Prime Minister. Well, maybe Justin Trudeau overdid the Indian clothes on a trip to India, during which he and his family not only wore Bollywood style clothes, but made the “namaste hands”

Pictures from the BBC, which also dominates the reaction of people (I haven’t yet seen any claims of “cultural appropriation,” though of course they could easily be made here). Most of the reaction seems to be that these clothes are over the top, and they are. I dress in Indian clothes when I visit the country, but wouldn’t wear stuff like heavy gold-embroidered coats, which are more suited for either a Bollywood movie or an Indian wedding. But leave the poor family alone!

Still, Trudeau is wangling a Canadian-Indian trade deal, and may also be trying to get Indian movies filmed in Canada. He’s just trying a wee bit too hard; so we get stuff like this:

That’s funny, but some of the commentary was more offended than funny. You can find it with a bit of Googling. Let’s move on.

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This isn’t quite as funny. As several venues report (e.g., here, here, here, and here, and yes, one of them is The Daily Fail, but other sources substantiate it), a smiley-faced cat adorning a package of diapers from Pampers (“nappies” to Brits) has enraged Muslims in India because the cat’s nose and whiskers look like they’re spelling out “Allah” in Arabic:

Vector of arabic calligraphy name of Prophet – Salawat supplication phrase translated as God bless Muhammad; Shutterstock Purchase Order: –

You have to be a Pecksniff looking for offense to even see a resemblance!

As News.com.au reports:

The lines of the whiskers, nose, mouth and left eye of the smiley cat, which appears on each nappy and on the brand’s packaging, allegedly bear close resemblance to the Islamic prophet’s name when written in Arabic or Urdu.

Members of the Darsgah Jihad-o-Shahadat group lodged a formal complaint with police in the Indian city of Hyderabad on Tuesday over the alleged “insult” to Islam, as video footage emerged of activists burning packets of Pampers Baby Dry Pants in the streets.

In a formal letter to police, the group claimed that “name of Prophet (PBUH) can be seen printed” on the packet in Arabic “even with the bare eye”, adding that it had “hurt the feelings of the entire Muslim community”.

“Therefore we request your goodself to kindly immediately intervene into the matter forthwith and stop the sale and distribution of Baby Dry Pants of Pampers Company and take action against its manufactures [sic], arrest them and punish them,” the letter said.

One of the complainants, Shahnoor Khan, told Indian newspaper the Deccan Chronicle the group believed the company had “deliberately printed” the word on each nappy to “hurt the Muslim community” and spark community unrest.

Muslims in Hyderabad burned the diapers. Don’t they know that Muhammad loved cats, had a favorite moggie (Muezza); and that cats are especially revered in Islam?

Proctor and Gamble responded:

“We are aware of the issue that some people are seeing the name of the Prophet on Pampers diapers, leading to unsettlement for some members of the Islamic community.

“We would like to clarify that this claim is not true. Our intent was never to hurt any individual or group’s religious sentiments or beliefs and sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused.

“We would like to clarify that the diaper shows an innocent animated representation of a cat. It shows a cat’s mouth and whiskers like it is commonly portrayed in drawings and cartoons across the world, especially by little children.”

*********

Finally, I’ll drop this here and move on. It’s from KATC.com in Louisiana (click screenshot to go there):

The world is going mad, I tell you!

h/t: Brian, John (whose comment was, “Is anybody left who isn’t nuts?”