Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Philosophy, Done Another Way

As I mentioned a little while ago on this blog, I gave students in my Existentialism course this semester the option of making a short film for extra credit. The motivation for this was my frustration, in previous iterations of this course, with what I viewed as a deficiency on my part of adequately capturing the importance of the "aesthetic" (literature, art, theater and film) dimension of the Existentialist movement. I spend the better part of the semester in my course covering the major philosophical articulations of Existentialism as seen in the works of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and many of the so-called "religious" Existentialists (like Frankl, Buber, Tillich, et al). Although we do cover thinkers like Dostoevsky, Camus, Beckett and Kafka, time restrictions limit us to only reading selections of their work, which means that the project of considering what might be unique in the literary expressions of Existentialism qua literature gets subordinated to the philosophical interpretation of those literary pieces. I am convinced that the authors, playwrights, artists and filmmakers who are counted as "Existentialist" are also doing existentialism-- whatever that means, but I think it in part means that they are doing philosophy-- though I find it hard to capture exactly what it means to "do philosophy" otherwise, so to speak.

Anyone familiar with the Existentialst movement in philosophy is aware that there is a kind of leitmotif animating all of those texts that seems to suggest that there is something about human existence that escapes our powers of "explanation" and must be, consequently, "shown"... in a real life, in a character, in a situation, in an image, in an anecdote, in something other than an argument. So, in this project, I wanted to give students the opportunity to access that other mode of expression in order to demonstrate their understanding of Existentialism.

The films are starting to come in now, and I am very impressed. If you're interested, you can view them as they arrive over on the Existentialism blog here. Given the restrictions that the students were working under-- a film no longer than 6 minutes-- I think they've done quite good work so far.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Heidegger, We Hardly Knew Ya...

The brainy parts of the internet are all a-buzz recently about philosopher Martin Heidegger and his student Hannah Arendt, largely as a result of the publication of a series of provoctaive reviews of Emmanuel Faye's provocatively titled book Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy. The most provocative of those reviews was an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano entitled "Heil Heidegger!", which seems to have hit the kind of nerve that divides otherwise polite communities into viciously territorial factions.

Full disclosure: I don't really have a dog in this fight. I have my own, strictly philosophical, reasons for not being a huge fan of Heidegger or Arendt, but it would be utterly dishonest of me to say that the influence of both of their work on my own is not profound. And, independent of my own particular judgments of the merits and demerits of their work (or their politics), I am obligated to acknowledge their enormous importance to 20th C. philosophy as it emerged in the European tradition.

So, I'm going to pass the buck here to two of my fellow-bloggers, Dr. Trott and Anotherpanacea, both of whom have entered the would-the-"real"-Heidegger-please-stand-up?-fray with their own careful critiques. Take a look at Dr. Trott's post "Out-Fascioning the Fascists or Critiquing Heidegger and Arendt," which argues that the anti-Heidegger vitriol may in fact be nothing more than pedestrian unthinking (perhaps banal evil?) covered over with the veneer of righteous indignation. And from AnPan, there is "The Dasein/Non-Dasein Problem" (which tries to pinpoint exactly why Herr Doktor may be "overrated") and "Heidegger and Nazism" (which attempts to situate the value of Heidegger's apologists by taking Faye's criticisms seriously). Kudos to both Dr. Trott and AnPan, both great thinkers and careful scholars.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"This Country Was Not Built By Men in Suits." (So Say the Men in Suits)

I've been fascinated recently by the obvious change in tone of many television commercials. We're in an economic downturn, in case you hadn't heard, and so many of the major ad-men seem to have been forced to acquiesce to the hard fact of hard times. There's a lot more emphasis on product "affordability," a lot more recognition of the importance of financial "responsibility," a lot more deference to the reality that consumers' lives may not be all about "consuming." It must be really hard to sell, sell, sell these days without apprearing grossly insensitive to the hardships of Jane and Joe Mainstreet, but no ad-man worth his salt is going to go down with the ship. The challenge is to find a way to make buying "good" again... and there's no better way to do that than to make buying "American" again. What's more quintessentially American than consumerism?

Why, blue jeans, of course.

You've probably all seen this new commercial for Levi's jeans, which features a voiceover by poet Walt Whitman reading from his work, "America (Go Forth)" :


I was really torn about whether or not to like this ad when I first saw it. It's beautifully shot, and the scratchy, wax-cylinder voiceover by Whitman practically sings itself "authentic." After a little research, I discovered it was directed by Cary Fukunaga, who filmed the spot in New Orleans. The opening shot, which features a blinking neon "America" sign half-submerged in black water, is an obvious homage to New Orleans, and provocatively sets the mise en scene squarely in the center of that "other" America. The forgotten, world-worn, disenfranchised, rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet America. And what is the message to this America? Whitman's words: "Go forth." This is the place of "equal daughters, equal sons," all hard-scrabbled, all blood and sweat and love, all irrepressible, all underdogs, all "alike endear'd." Go forth.

Go forth and buy jeans, that is. Maybe I'm too cynical, maybe a bit too attached to an utterly unrealizable notion of "authenticity," but there's a part of me that can't help but cringe at the subtle exploitation of Whitman, of New Orleans, of the blood and sweat and love of that "other" America. Even still, after seeing this commercial over and over again, I was slowly able to let go of that cynicism. So what if it's an ad? It's aesthetic excellence, I told myself. And it says something I believe.

Then, there came this second iteration of the Whitman/Levi's combo, based on Whitman's poem "O Pioneers! O Pioneers!" :


I wish I could say that the reason I don't like this second installment is because it is somehow unfaithful to Whitman himself... but, of course, the Whitman of "America (Go Forth)" is also the Whitman of "Prayer of Columbus" and "Song of the Broad-Axe." Whitman was both an incorrigible self-promoter, singing songs of himself, and an almost-unrivalled seer of communal possiblity, singing songs of tout autre. He was a man who pushed the boundaries of sexual convention while at the same time championing the most conventional of spiritual virtues (faith, hope, love). He was a man of contradictions, each beautiful and maddening and strange, just like the American pioneers that he charges with going forth.

So, I blame Levi's for what I see as the failure of their second ad, which is too Lord of the Flies, too pugilistic, even militaristic, too Occidental, too in thrall with victory, with closing the deal. It's too much "Star Spangled Banner" and too little "America the Beautiful." It's too much an America built by people in blue jeans, but who are themselves puppeteered by men in suits. It's too much an advertisement for a promise on which it likely cannot make good, rather than an advertisement for an open (but not empty) promise of something unanticipatable, unpredictable, something truly hopeful and, thus, truly democratic. Something to come.

I prefer the America that safeguards the promise of going forth, of pioneering, without requiring the pretense of being a pioneer.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Strong Relativism

After posting my bit on lazy relativism yesterday, my good friend and colleague, economist Prof. Art Carden (who also blogs regularly over at Division of Labour), sent me the following email:

I really, really enjoyed your post on "lazy relativism" and have a suggestion for a followup that would help non-experts like myself: what's "non-lazy relativism?"

Excellent question. I think the best place to start might be in identifying the kinds of positions to which relativism, generally speaking, is opposed. There are many variants of philosophical relativism-- moral, cultural, epistemological, aesthetic, methodological-- but what they hold in common as a principle is that some statements of value or truth are conditioned ("relative") in the sense that they are dependent upon other elements, aspects, paradigms or contexts of meaning that consitute the basic struts and girders of our belief/knowledge. This is opposed to absolutism (which holds that value and truth claims are "absolute," i.e. timeless and unchanging), universalism (closely related to absolutism, and which holds that facts can be discovered objectively and thus apply universally), or objectivism (also closely related to absolutism and universalism, and which holds that "reality" exists independent of human consciousness and can be known objectively). Not to overcomplicate things here, but it is possible to be an absolutist, objectivist or universalist about some things (like physical laws or mathematics) and a relativist about other things (like morality). Most philosophers grant a qualitiative distinction between what we call "facts" and what we call "values," and perhaps the biggest disagreement between relativists and their philosophical opponents is that the latter treat "values" as having the same form and force as "facts."

To simplify things, I'm going to talk about ethical relativism, since that is the area in which there is the least disagreement about whether the subject of our inquiries are "facts" or "values." Relativists hold that particular moral values are always, in some way, determined by broader evaulations of what we consider to be "the Good" and, further, that "the Good" is not an absolute "fact" that can be universally or objectively known. This is why we have conflicts about moral values-- because we have different conceptions of what is Good and different understandings about how it is best achieved-- and those evaluations, according to relativists, are deeply embedded in a framework of all kinds of other philosophical commitments (metaphysical, epistemological, aesthetic, social and political). So, for relativists, our moral values are dependent upon a larger paradigm of belief (and what we believe to be "facts") that justifies values and gives them sense. If you take one of those values out of its framework, then you will likely find that it's truth-value changes, which proves (at the very least) that that particular value is relative to the evaluative system in which it belongs.

An example: if I hold the general moral value that human life is sacred or has some essential, intrinsic and undeniable worth, then I may also hold the particular moral value that the death penalty or (depending on when I think human "life" begins) abortion is wrong. If you do not share my more generic evaluation, then it is very possible that you will come to different conclusions about the more particular moral issues of abortion or the death penalty. Assuming that we both believe our positions to be "true" and that our positions are mutually exclusive (and, of course, that something cannot be simultaneously true and untrue), then one of us has some explaining to do. The person who I call the "lazy relativist" will, in this situation, simply ignore the conflict and pretend as if it isn't really a conflict. He or she will say: "well, what's true for you is true for you, and what's true for me is true for me. It's all relative, man." (Whenever I speak in my "lazy relativist" voice, it always sounds like a burnt-out, stoner, surfer-dude. For the full effect, I suggest my readers adopt the same character when reading.) The problem here is that no one can rationally hold that position. If I say 2+2=4 and you say 2+2=5, we can't just shake hands, grant the relative truth of the other's claim, and then pass the pipe. It matters that one of them is true and the other isn't. Otherwise, how can we know if we've been given correct change? (That was for you, Art!)

Non-relativists will always have a stronger case when they come into conflict with lazy relativists because non-relativists can appeal to some absolute, universal, or objective authority to justify their values and explain the process of evaluation that led to those judgments. Maybe that authority is God's revelation (as is the case with Augustine or many Natural Law theorists), maybe the authority is dictated by Reason (as is the case with Kantian deontology) or maybe it's some other reasonable method of caluculating the Good (as is the case with utilitarians), but whatever it is, non-relativists are able to account for the authority they are lending to values they claim to be true. So, the challenge to relativists is two-fold: (1) they must account for why the proposed authority (God, Reason, science, whatever) is not an absolute, universal or objective authority for determining values, and (2) they must account for how, in the absence of a an absolute, universal or objective authority, they are making the value judgments they are making. "Lazy" relativists will sometimes (weakly) meet the first challenge, but will almost always balk at the second.

But if one can't meet the second challenge, then one is resigned to ceding a profound, disturbing and ultimately paralyzing meaninglessness to the world. If you are inclined to be skeptical of absolute claims to truth-- especially moral truths, which admit of so much reasonable conflict-- then you've got more work to do than the non-relativist. You cannot reasonably claim that mutually exclusive propositions are both true. No one can. (Except lazy relativists.) Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty sums this problem up nicely in his essay "Pragmatism, Relativism and Irrationalism" when he writes:

[What people call] "relativism" is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called 'relativists' are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.

That last characterization by Rorty-- that relativists claim "the grounds for choosing between [values] are less algorithmic than [the non-relativist] thought"-- is the the first step towards what I would call a "strong" or philosophically robust relativism. The most important consequence of philosophical relativism, and the one entirely missed by lazy relativists, is that the rejection of absolute, universal or objective authorities does not absolve one of responsibility for justifying beliefs, but rather exponentially increases that responsibility.

If I deny that there are "absolute" moral values, or that we have some revealed or reasonable access to them, then I am now the ONLY one responsible for giving an account of why I believe x instead of y. It means, among other things, that I understand the activity of moral evaluation to be the activity of free beings, that is, beings who (unlike objects) are not primarily governed by necessity... therefore are not obligated by necessity to hold whatever values they hold... therefore must take responsibility for their free choice to take up certain values and not others. I don't think that I "freely choose" to think that 2+2=4 because I believe that mathematical facts are not values; they're qualitatively different than moral judgments inasmuch as they are necessarily governed by what I accept to be absolute, universal and objective laws. Consequently, the conflict that I experience with someone who claims that 2+2=5 is different than the conflict I experience with someone who claims that abortion is right (or wrong). As a relativist about moral truths, I deny the authority and the necessity of my antagonist's moral truths, and I ought to be able to give an account of how I arrived at my values judgments independent of such authority or necessity.

If I can give such an account, then the advantage has shifted. Whereas the lazy relativist leaves him- or herself vulnerable to the charge of being simply irrational (i.e., holding that mutually exclusive propositions are equally true), the strong relativist who can give an account of his or her beliefs and take ultimate responsibility for the judgments that constitute his or her values is now able to make different demands of his or her antagonist. Now, the non-relativist must justify the grounds of an aboslutist moral system to someone who does not accept the authority of those grounds. If your moral truths are grounded in God's revelation, and I don't believe in God (or don't believe God said what you say God said), then the burden of proof is on your shoulders now. Similarly, if you claim that your moral values are authorized by the proper exercise of Reason or utilitarian calculation, and I can reasonably account for my arrival at opposite values, then you either have to account for your understanding of what Reason dictates or you have to demonstrate to me (in terms that I can agree to) how I am not being reasonable. The point is that the strong relativist doesn't leave him- or herself an "escape" route; he or she cannot get out of a tight spot in a conflict of values by displacing responsibility to something or Someone other than what is acceptable to all parties in the conflict.

Obviously, not all conflicts of values when it comes to moral or ethical issues are resolvable. But, at the very least, the strong relativist has a way to account for why there are conflicts in the first place, and the strong relativist is also predisposed, philosophically, to understanding what he or she is capable of doing to amend, assuage or at the very least engage in meaningful conversations about those conflicts. The absolutist can only ever understand his or her antagonists as in error, and has the unfortunate superadded challenge of not being able to correct that error because the basic rules governing the distcintion between truth and error are not shared. The "lazy" relativist, on the other hand, can account for the conflict and can acknowledge the absence of a common ground for adjudicating that conflict, but lacks the courage of his or her convictions that might either motivate the search for a mutually acceptable discursive ground or motivate a "strong" rejection of that commonality and a corresponding account of a replacement paradigm for which one takes ultimate responsibility.

In sum, strong relativists take human freedom seriously... especially the human freedom exercised in the determination of values, those things that are not governed by necessity or given over to us whole and complete by some transcendent or transcendental authority. Those determinations are the only ones for which we can be "responsible" or "accountable" or any other ethically-loaded adjective that we commonly use, after all.

As far as I'm concerned, this is Philosophy 101: It ain't easy being free.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Lazy Relativism

I think if you asked my students to name one single value that I hold, passionately, they would say: "She HATES lazy relativism." I deliver my diatribe against lazy relativism in every class-- usually multiple times-- to the point where I actually feel sorry for students who have taken my classes more than once and can practically recite the speech themselves. "Lazy relativism" is the kind of thinking that never bothers to account for itself, that can't formulate its own principles, that won't try to settle disagreements, barely even engages in disagreements, and which runs and hides behind completely lame acquiescences like "well, what's true for you is true for you, and what's true for me is true for me... so, like, whatever, dude."

Barf.

The thing that bothers me the most about this kind of attitude is that, more often than not, the people who adopt it aren't actually relativists! That is to say, most people who resort to lazy relativism actually DO believe that their beliefs are true (even "True"), and that people who disagree with them are wrong, but they haven't thought through the justifications for their particular positions or values in advance and can't seem to be bothered to do it on the spot. Conveniently for them, we also live in a culture in which bad faith tolerance-for-others is ubiquitous and rewarded, while productive intellectual sparring is shunned, and they regularly confuse "defending one's position" with "imposing one's position." They don't want you to impose your silly falsehoods on them, and so they will ever-so-condescendingly refrain from imposing their Truth on you. Noblesse oblige, I guess. As anyone who watches television knows, political discourse these days only models this ridiculousness. Talking head on one side, talking head on the other, each spouting pre-fab position statements. Nobody talking to one another.

In my more patient moments, I try to get students to see the fundamental contradiction at the heart of lazy relativism. If I think that torture is morally impermissable and you think it's not, neither of us can also believe that we're both right. If I say something like, "well, I think it's wrong, that's the value that I hold, but you can believe the exact opposite and that's fine with me, too"... well then, frankly, I DON'T actually hold the value that I am claiming to hold. Of course, I can operate with a more robust relativist sensibility, in which I am willing to grant that I don't have any special access to Absolute Truths (or that there are no such things), but if I really believe that, then that only increases my burden of responsibility for giving some account of my claims. Or it requires me to stop using the language of values and judgments alltogether.

Values shouldn't be easy things to hold, and if we can't hold onto ours when they come into conflict with others, then we ought to let them go. But we can't maintain any meaningful sense in the phrase "I believe x to be true" if we also allow not-x to be equally true. Not to get all law-of-noncontradiction on you or anything, but rules are rules. I prefer interlocutors with whom I totally and completely disagree, but who will own the passion of their convictions and translate those into discourse and action, over interlocutors who don't want to disturb the peace of parlor conversation. And I am, for the record, a relativist.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

More Experiments in Pedagogy

As readers of this blog know, I implemented a new pedagogical technique in all of my courses a while back that I called "blogging in the classroom" and that I described here and here. (If you scroll down on the column to your right, you can find links to the student blogs for courses I teach.) I think, for the most part, that my courses are structured in fairly traditional ways-- not too many bells and whistles-- and so integrating blogging into my classes has been an exciting venture for me. Since I've done it, I've tried to keep my eyes and ears (and mind) open to other possibilities for innovation... but they're really hard to come by, unfortunately. I don't want to do anything that is silly or merely "new," and I don't want to do anything that I can't justify to myself and my students as significantly contributing to the learning experience.

Recently, though, I've decided to give another "something new" a try. This semester, in my Existentialism course, I'm giving students the option of creating a short film. I'm only offering it as "extra credit" this time around, since I can't be sure what the final products will look like or how valuable the experience will be to students who avail themselves of the option. My college (like most colleges, I suspect) has video and editing equipment that students can check out of the library, so I am confident that the tools are available for whomever wants to use them. The original motivation for this experiment was to try and give more attention and weight to the "aesthetic" dimension of existentialism. I tend to focus almost exclusively on the "philosophical" dimension in my course (starting with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, then moving up through Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, Buber, Frankl, Tillich, etc.), but we do look at selections from several pieces of existentialist literature (from Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka, Marquez, Bekett, Roth, etc.). My suspicion over time has been that the literary and artistic expressions of existentialist themes gets a bit of a short shrift in my class, which is something that I need to correct since it's such a significant part of the tradition. And, as anyone who has ever taught Existentialism surely knows, students often tend to express their understanding of existentialism by recourse to personal anecdotes or movies they've seen or stories they've read or television programs they watch... that is, by reference to lots and lots of meaningful things that don't come in the form of strictly philosophical arguments. That's a phenomenon that shouldn't be ignored, I think. They're experiencing the same thing that many existentialist philosophers experienced, namely, that when we are attempting to describe some of the fundamental elements of human experience, we sometimes find that telling a story about the waiter-in-the-cafe is more elucidating than a propositional account of bad faith.

Here are the basics of the assignment:

1. Students must produce a short film of no more than 6 minutes that explains or exemplifies some major theme of existentialism. I wanted to keep the film short enough that we can show it in class and also so that they can post it to their course blog.

2. Students may work alone or in groups of no more than 3. I'm keeping the groups small because I think that way it is reasonable to expect them to have a single "vision" of their project and what it is meant to convey. Too many cooks spoils the pot... especially when it comes to art.

3. Students must turn in a 1-page "artist's statement" about their film. This is the most important part of the assignment. As I told the students, if they want to film someone sitting on a park bench looking at a banana for 6 minutes, they are more then welcome to do so, but they better be ready to explain how and why that is "existentialist." Obviously, I have to take seriously the possibility that some of them will focus on "the absurd," which is a legitimate path to take, but I don't want anything that's just silly or self-indulgent or pretentious. So, the artist's statement will serve as a kind of anchor for the rest of us, and a way for me to evaluate how well they have understood (and accomplished) the assignment.

When I announced the film option in class, I thought that maybe, at best, a handful of artistically-inclined students would be excited about it and take advantage of it. So I was surprised to learn, when I asked how many people were going to do it, that almost all of them said they were. I'm looking forward-- with both excitement and a little trepidation-- to seeing what comes of this.

Will keep you updated, as always...