Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 90

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Nobody ever wrote a best selling novel about Raphael, and yet…

Don’t believe in God? Try UFOs instead.

Monopoly was actually invented to demonstrate the evils of capitalism.

Take a cold shower, it’s a really good idea (but ignore what the author says about Stoicism, he’s got it wrong, as usual).

What cultural taste for chili peppers tells us about the evolution of social norms.

Umberto Eco and the 14 defining characteristics of fascism. See how many you can spot in the current Republican leader.

Want to be happy? Buy whatever makes you save time.

The problem of meaningless academic language.

Parenthood not recommended.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

85 replies

  1. For the Current Affairs article, Nathan Robinson clarified why he dislikes the word neoliberalism in a comment thread on facebook (hopefully it’s not set to private, let me know if it is)

    This was my comment:

    “I’m very sympathetic to the message in this article.

    I just happened to also use the term neoliberalism because it’s convenient to use a single term rather than saying something like “market deregulation & privatization project since Reagan & Thatcher” every time I want to refer to it. It does have its more obscure uses in social theory and stuff like that but for the most part, I actually think it’s pretty simple and clear in its more popular usage.

    When Chomsky uses the term neoliberalism, I think people knows what he is referring to.”

    This was his response:

    “Actually I probably shouldn’t have included that example in THIS article because my hatred for the word neoliberalism has less to do with the “multiplicity of meanings” problem than a “people rely on the word to communicate too much” problem, where it’s like a “shortcut” term that keeps people from having to explain what they mean. Which sounds good, because it means you don’t have to explain simple things over and over, except that isn’t what occurs in practice. In practice it just becomes a buzzword dropped all the time to describe every bad thing. I have edited a lot of pieces of left writing now and every single one of them has been improved by the neoliberalism ban, because it forces people to think again. This problem occurs too with words like capitalism, racism, fascism, hegemonic. Do they have meanings? Yes. But I find that using them often becomes a substitute for thought. (Of course, there’s also the problem that the moment you use it, you’re restricting yourself to a left audience, just like the moment you use a specialized biology term, you’re assuming your audience are biologists. But that’s another separate problem.)

    I also hate the WORD neoliberalism because it is misleading, since, as Chomsky points out, it’s “neither new nor liberal” and the million meanings of the word “liberalism” are a consistent source of exasperation to me (liberalism IS a term with a multiple meanings problem)”

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  2. Saphsin,

    I hear you. But I believe I know exactly what I mean when I use the words neoliberalism (basically, what you just said) and fascism (basically, what Eco says in the article linked here).

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  3. Also on that comment thread, pertaining to the Umberto Eco article:

    “One of my least favorite debates this past year is whether Trump is technically fascist.

    Can’t we just agree that no one agrees on what fascism is. The definitions provided are either too wide or too narrow and I don’t see the ultimate relevance to the answer.”

    “Yeah, exactly. You could write an “Is Trump A Fascist” piece but the answer you’d have to give would be “If fascism is taken to mean X, then yes. If fascism is taken to mean Y, then no.” And then you have to just leave it there.”

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  4. Massimo

    When you go into technical terminology, you’ll find that there is no clear way to precisely define neoliberalism, some examples were given in the facebook thread of different ways people do. But here’s a recent comment I saw on social media to demonstrate what Nathan was talking about, it was about an article of the firing of a French Chef in the competitive restaurant industry:

    “This Italian hero was fired from a restaurant in France, because he refused to overcook pasta and to prepare spaghetti alla bolognese (a dish that doesn’t exist). Every time you defend your neoliberal approach to food (individual tastes are unquestionable = the customer is always right), an Italian chef risks their job in order not to compromise their values…”

    What the heck is a neoliberal approach to food? It’s sometimes used as a buzzword by those on the Left to mean “I don’t like capitalism, and I think it has something to do with this issue, so I’m going to attach the word to my statement to express how I feel about it”

    And also, it’s not at all clear what Fascism is, there is a division among people about this. Some people think that that a list of characteristics that involve fanaticism & abuse of authority with Far Right politics is enough to demonstrate fascism. Others believe that this definition is too narrow to be utter meaningless, because it doesn’t actually portray what made the politics of Weimar Germany & Fascist Italy unique (a type of state ideology, storm troopers, the state of the country. Basically a robust technical definition is desired rather than a string of characteristics.) And the other side has criticisms of this view based on the fact that not all fascist societies share the same characteristics and its more like a collection of family resemblances. And so on.

    Basically one definition of fascism is accused of being too narrow and the other too wide. I think you prefer the wider definition based on what you agreed with Umberto Eco’s article, but I and many others are uncomfortable with it. In the end, I just think no one agrees what fascism is and it’s just not a useful debate. Trump and his Party are Extreme Right and poses a serious threat to human civilization, that’s it.

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  5. The piece on UFOs reminds me that, for all the “touting” of Europe’s religious enlightenment by Muslima-loving biologists and Muslima-lover-loving astrophysicists, Europe isn’t necessarily that much more atheistic than the US. It is more post-Christian, and certainly, overall, removed far more from fundamentalist or quasi-fundamentalist Christianity.

    But, that much more atheistic? No. Wiccan-type relgions, Druidism, and Norse-derived neopaganism abound. And, in the Baltics, especially Lithuania, the last-Christianized area of Europe, some report that “paleo” paganism never died out. Indeed, one book I read credits it as having a role in the Baltics leaving the USSR as it disintegrated.

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  6. Saphsin,

    “What the heck is a neoliberal approach to food? It’s sometimes used as a buzzword by those on the Left to mean “I don’t like capitalism, and I think it has something to do with this issue, so I’m going to attach the word to my statement to express how I feel about it””

    Indeed. But this is the standard dual problem of: (i) complex concepts have fuzzy boundaries (I’m not invoking Wittgenstein to deflect things, I just think he got a point there); and (ii) people misuse terms all the time.

    Now we have two options: (a) not to use the term and replace it with something else; or (b) keep using it and correct people when they don’t do it justice.

    My experience first with “skepticism” (as in the modern movement) and more recently with “Stoicism” (the philosophy) is that (b) is better than (a), because it turns the occasion into a teaching moment, as they say, and also because people will otherwise soon invent new misunderstandings for whatever word one decides to do without.

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  7. Socratic

    One of my initial skepticism of the New Atheists when exposed to them is that they somehow completely don’t take into account Asian Countries (Korea, Japan, China) that are much less religious but have all sorts of other problems with ideology & superstitition that we do not have in the West. I happen to be aware of what goes on there culturally so as dangerous as Religious Fundamentalism is in the US. (extremely dangerous, and in significant ways that are not pointed out by the New Atheists) the fundamental problems of having a critically minded population are not going to be done away with even if atheists dominate the demographics.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Saphsin

    the fundamental problems of having a critically minded population are not going to be done away with even if atheists dominate the demographics.

    I’m not sure the new atheists would disagree with you there. It’s just that in the West ideology and superstition most often take the form of monotheism, so as Western intellectuals this is what they focus on. But if we were rid of monotheism and plagued with alternative superstitions and ideologies the focus would shift. They wouldn’t say “Job done” and go home.

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  9. On the meaning of neoliberalism, here is a link to definition found on CorpWatch: http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=376
    (This definition was first brought to my attention by auteur and journalist Chris Hedges.)

    It actually lists five main points:
    1. rule of the market
    2. cutting public spending for social services
    3. deregulation
    4. privatization
    5. eliminating the concept of the public good or community

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  10. DM

    I think that’s being too charitable in the way they present religion as the problem of modern society and its main source of irrationality, and how they portray atheism as a force for the opposite. This portrayal is not curbed by simply adding the comment “oh I know there are some smart and kind religious people and there are some stupid and immoral atheists”

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  11. Yes, Trump is a kind of fascist – in the actual meaning of that word, relating to the form of politics and economics developed in Italy under Mussolini.

    However, fortunately, he has no understanding of politics at the governmental level, indeed no understanding of government, and is a complete self-serving opportunist with no vision beyond expanding his fan base and his bank accounts.

    Unfortunately, the Republicans are not going to do anything to confront him in any serious way. Fortunately, the Republicans have allowed various far-right factions to so fragment the Party in Congress itself that they can’t cooperate with each other enough to get anything done.

    Unfortunately Congressional districts are now so gerrymandered that hoping for a Democratic turn around in ’18 is rather a lost cause. And it’s not clear at all that the Democratic leadership recognizes the need for a new agenda to offer voters, or for developing new talented candidates who could offer such an agenda in language voters would find persuasive.

    Unfortunately we will have to suffer through this mess through four years and suffer another electoral circus in 2020. Fortunately I have a heart condition and may not need to suffer through it much longer. But until then, the fight continues….

    “Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking… Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer.” – Borges, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peronism

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  12. UFO’s are more plausible than God.

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  13. One of my least favorite debates this past year is whether Trump is technically fascist.

    Is Trump a democrat? (small d)

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  14. Yes, Trump is a kind of fascist – in the actual meaning of that word, relating to the form of politics and economics developed in Italy under Mussolini.

    Unfortunately, Trump has no interest in ‘making the trains run on time’ or the bridges staying up.

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  15. Saphsin, DM,

    I have met plenty of non-rational atheists. The problem with militant atheistm of the Dawkins-style is that it seems to be equated with critical thinking. Which is manifestly not the case. I know plenty of non-critical atheists, and plenty of critically thinking Christians.

    This also speaks to the “religion is the root of all evil” meme. I prefer Plato (based on Socrates): ignorance — in the specific sense of lack of wisdom, not luck of knowledge — is the root of all evil. And ignorance in that sense (the Greek word is amathia) leads to ideological fundamentalism, not just of the religious variety.

    As for the Trump administration, I recently advised Vice President Pence on ethics: http://tinyurl.com/ychw84vn

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  16. I’ve met Atheists who I agree with philosophically on a wide range of issues but disagree with their politics. I’ve met Christians who I disagree with philosophically on a wide range of issues but agree with their politics. Outside politics, I see the same for both with regards to different cultural & ethical issues. There are both atheists & Christians who are into the postmodernism stuff and those who are not.

    There’s this idea that if you happen to hold rational positions in certain areas (yes, we’re not certain that many of our own positions that we deem as rational actually are rational, but for simplicity’s sake) that means that we tend to be critically minded and rational in other areas. This is not necessarily true; people have strengths and weaknesses in separate areas, among their intellectual abilities & foresight being included.

    And this points to the complete lack of humility among New Atheists who think they are so intellectually superior because of their supposed “skeptical” approach to religion. Oh, so you’re more skeptical of religious texts & happen to accept the consensus on Darwinian Evolution? That’s the easy part, being critical minded in other areas in life is the difficult part. There’s nothing to be so proud about.

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  17. Massimo:

    ‘ I know plenty of non-critical atheists, and plenty of critically thinking Christians.’

    So I am curious. How do these Christians justify their acceptance of God, and presumably the Bible, while thinking critically?

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  18. ejwinner

    Yeah most of the rest of the Republicans are either not that different or worse than Trump in terms of pure politics. So I’m glad they’re not getting anything done and floundering. This electoral circus is much preferable to Paul Ryan effectively passing legislation that helps destroy the society.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Massimo,

    I believe I know exactly what I mean when I use the words neoliberalism … and fascism …

    But a more interesting question is whether your readers know what you mean by such terms. I think that the “academic language” article is spot on, and that a lot of disagreement, such as on this blog, comes from people simply misinterpreting what others are intending.

    For example, Dan Dennett saying that “consciousness is an illusion” is interpreted by you and others as saying that consciousness does not exist, whereas I interpret him as saying that consciousness does exist, but is not as it might superficially appear. You explicitly rejected this interpretation when I suggested it, yet a recent exchange in the TLS has Dennett clarifying that: “it is not that consciousness doesn’t exist but that it isn’t what you probably think it is”.

    There have been lots of similar examples here of people simply misinterpreting what others intend.

    Hi saphsin,

    And this points to the complete lack of humility among New Atheists who think they are so intellectually superior because of their supposed …

    It’s notable how often those who complain about New Atheists feeling intellectually superior display exactly the same symptoms of feeling themselves intellectually superior to New Atheists.

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  20. Coel

    “It’s notable how often those who complain about New Atheists feeling intellectually superior display exactly the same symptoms of feeling themselves intellectually superior to New Atheists.”

    There’s nothing inherent about my accusation that they are a cult who think a certain way suggests that therefore I think I’m intellectually superior. If that really was the case, then your accusation towards me confers the same accusations towards you.

    It’s besides the point anyways, I don’t happen to think I’m better than some of the New Atheists who are very good science educators or experts in different fields. My accusation is that because they are well educated in those specific areas, they act like that they therefore know better than others in areas that they have no clue about. I certainly don’t expect that of myself.

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  21. For example, Dan Dennett saying that “consciousness is an illusion” is interpreted by you and others as saying that consciousness does not exist

    Does ‘illusion’ mean something different to Philospher Dennett [a] than it does to me?

    I can’t see how you can have ‘illusions’ w/o consciousness!

    [a] I read ‘Consciousness Explained’. I found it amusing, but not convincing.

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  22. Massimo, did you tell Pence it was OK to Stoically be around women not his wife?

    ==

    Coel — beat you to the punch. Massimo already saw that TLS piece yesterday courtesy of yours truly.

    And, it’s notable how those who complain about other people who think they’re intellectually superior to New Atheists think this makes them superior to the complainers. (While you’re here, scroll up to where I note Europe isn’t as atheistic as Gnu Atheists claim.)

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  23. When I was a kid we played a variant of Monopoly in which all fines and taxes and other payments where paid not to the bank, but placed in the center of the board. If you landed on ‘free parking’ you got all that had accumulated which could be substantial.

    The net effect was that game rarely converged. Near bankrupts hit the jackpot and play went on. With two players (me and my friend Billy Smith) a single game could go on all summer till cut short by school.

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  24. Bunsen,

    “So I am curious. How do these Christians justify their acceptance of God, and presumably the Bible, while thinking critically?”

    With standard arguments about a god who created the laws of nature. Which in my book are not at all different from atheist speculations about living in a simulation.

    Coel,

    My friend Dan D. occasionally engages in a game of ambiguity. He probably learned that from Krauss, who wrote a book entitled “A Universe out of Nothing,” but then it turned out he really didn’t mean “nothing” by “nothing.” He meant a pre-existing quantum field.

    Similarly, it is fashionable these days to say that consciousness, or free will, or whatever, are “illusions.” Then it turns out people simply mean they are different things from what at first they appear to be. No kidding. So it’s reality itself.

    Also, you do have a tendency to get awfully defended about new atheism. I did not detect any sense of intellectual superiority in Saphsin’s comment. Make sure not to confuse criticism with smugness. That’s what a new atheist would do.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Hi saphsin:

    “Yeah most of the rest of the Republicans are either not that different or worse than Trump in terms of pure politics. So I’m glad they’re not getting anything done and floundering. This electoral circus is much preferable to Paul Ryan effectively passing legislation that helps destroy the society.”

    Agree. In theological lingo, we prefer “sins of omission” over “sins of commission”, as the (far) lesser of two evils. This is why I am glad Ted Cruz didn’t get elected — being trained as a lawyer, he would know how to pull the levers in DC, and might have been successful at passing his “agenda”.

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  26. Massimo

    As a former Christian & Theist myself, I do think there is something irrational about how Christians justify their acceptance of God. I mean this goes for every philosophical position along the block (simulation speculations by atheists as you pointed out, so there’s nothing “uniquely” irrational about Christians) It’s one thing to be critically minded & intelligent and lead to the wrong path in some ways, and another to be convinced by really hashed up arguments that have been shown to have obvious holes again and again.

    I know a theist would then respond to that and say “but there are such problems with philosophical stances across every region of philosophy, including those held by atheists, and probably yourself” and he would technically be right. So it’s mainly a personal judgment thing that the level of bullshit and lack of rigor to be especially high in philosophy of religion. I really do find Platinga & William Lane Craig to be unbearable, in a way that I don’t share in my perception of other philosophers who I largely disagree with.

    As for Krauss, I think David Z Albert was clearly one-sidedly more articulate & respectable one in the exchange, but I’ve talked to others who know something about philosophers who have remarked that despite Krauss’ ignorance & lack of respect, he was at least partially right in that what he considers nothing to actually be “nothing” A distinction I’ve heard is between nothing (physical absence of “something”) and nothing”ness” (non-being, an incoherent concept) and that although it’s counterintuitive, a pre-quantum field that’s at a minimal state of energy IS physically nothing, it’s just not nothing”ness” and that perhaps the old chestnut “Is there something rather than nothing” is just an incoherent & nonsensical philosophical question in the first place.

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  27. As I have pointed out before “consciousness is not what you think it is” is no better than “consciousness does not exist”.

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  28. Hi Arthur,

    Does ‘illusion’ mean something different to Philospher Dennett [a] than it does to me?

    I can’t see how you can have ‘illusions’ w/o consciousness!

    This is exactly the misconception Coel is talking about. Read the article. Dennett doesn’t deny that you have consciousness. He just thinks that you have illusions as to its nature.

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