Food for thought

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

A long commentary, with a number of excerpts from the original paper, by Jonathan Haidt on the issue of “microaggressions.” I have had my disagreements with Jonathan, but I am also disturbed by the whole idea of microaggressions. Still, I’m not sure I would go as far as the two sociologists mentioned by Haidt and suggest that we are seeing a third major cultural phase in Western civilization. (Indeed, I’m not convinced that one can neatly separate, temporally as well as geographically, the other two alleged phases.)

Short but interesting article by Alison Gopnik about personal identity. She asks whether it is more closely connected to intellect, memory or moral character. Studies comparing people with different types of degenerative disorders — especially those affecting memory (Alzheimer’s) vs those affecting character (the more rare, but devastating, fronto-temporal dementia — clearly seem to suggest that people around the suffering patients are much more likely to say that the people struck by the disease are not themselves any more if their character, rather than their memories, were altered.

Another article by Gopnik, this time a fairly long one, but completely worth your time. It’s a fascinating personal story of how she found help in overcoming a difficult moment in her life by plunging into an archival research concerning the writings of 18th century philosopher David Hume and his possible connection — via an Italian Jesuit priest — to Tibetan Buddhism. A must read.

American politicians love to “defend” the US Constitution, or at the least the often warped version of it that they happen to favor. This long piece in The Atlantic takes a look at the early history of that document, making the case that the United States was designed by its founding fathers as a type of limited monarchy. Oops.

I don’t often agree with Simon Critchley, the editor of the New York Times’ “Stone” blog about philosophy. But this time I think he hit the nail on the head, with a quirky personal piece that begins with an appreciation of his mentor, Frank Cioffi, and ends up with a nuanced argument that there isn’t, and never will be, any “theory of everything.”

5 thoughts on “Food for thought

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Already read the Haidt piece. Pointed out his own bias/blind spots, like refusal to admit that conservatives might be biased against academia rather than vice versa. Pointed out two of your old RS links on this, as well as a blog post of mine.

    Laughed when somebody said he was a liberal, on FB.


    Fascinating, the Hume/Buddhism piece. Relates to why I consider him the first semi-modern psychologist.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. labnut

    Gopnik’s personal story is delightful. I am reminded that Thomas Merton, a Catholic Trappist monk, wrote extensively and sympathetically about Buddhism.

    The article has important lessons for how one may navigate seismic changes in one’s life. The other lesson is the value, indeed necessity, of intellectual adventurism where we explore, borrow from, and allow ourselves to be influenced by other intellectual traditions. It is founded on a fundamental concept: driving, insatiable curiosity that never stops wondering at the beauty of surprising insights.


  3. labnut

    Their research suggests that Edith was an example of a more general and rather surprising principle: Our identity comes more from our moral character than from our memory or intellect.

    Every virtue ethicist will nod sagely at this finding and wonder what took them so long to discover what had been worked out more than 2 millennia ago.

    In her previous article she seems to contradict this when she says:

    Everything that had defined me was gone. I was no longer a scientist or a philosopher or a wife or a mother or a lover.

    This seems to indicate that our identity is a combination of our moral character and the way it is evidenced in our role in life. Gopnik had lost her role but it was her moral character that enabled her to claim a new role and thus complete her identity.


  4. labnut

    There is no Theory of Everything:
    I think he would have come to very similar conclusions about the early 21st-century fad for neuroscience and our insatiable obsession with the brain.

    Perhaps we should call it neuro-fascism.

    His conviction was that our confusions about science and the humanities had wide-ranging and malign societal consequences.

    The prevalence of scientism is good evidence for this.

    What is in play here is the classical distinction made by Max Weber between explanation and clarification, between causal or causal-sounding hypotheses and interpretation. Weber’s idea is that natural phenomena require causal explanation, of the kind given by physics, say, whereas social phenomena require elucidation — richer, more expressive descriptions. In Frank’s view, one major task of philosophy is help us get clear on this distinction and to provide the right response at the right time.

    That is such a clear explanation of the nature of philosophy.

    Philosophy scratches at the various itches we have, not in order that we might find some cure for what ails us, but in order to scratch in the right place and begin to understand why we engage in such apparently irritating activity. Philosophy is not Neosporin. It is not some healing balm. It is an irritant

    I will grant his point that many philosophers are irritants(Critchley comes to mind) but in line with his earlier remark I consider philosophy to be a means of elucidating or clarifying the issues.

    occult forces like God“;
    Douglas Adams established quite some time ago, the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything will always be “42” or some variation of 42. Namely, it will be something really rather disappointing.

    Well of course. Anyone who could make the trite observation that God is an occult force will make equally trite observations about meaning and find them disappointing. Critchley has fulfilled his role of being an irritant.


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