What if eros (ἔρως) were a buck-passing game?
What if love were a game played according to the rules of the curse from the Japanese horror film Ringu? (Whoever watches the cursed video tape dies in seven days unless the tape is copied and “passed” to someone else.) The name ‘Ring’ has the double meaning of a telephone ring (un glas, a death knell) and of a coterie that involves itself in an illicit activity. What if all of love were such a ring? And what if the entirety of the field called culture were the side-effect of an elaborate attempt to conceal the exploitative nature of the ring game?
New ideas make our brains light up, but that phenomenology of enlightenment easily misleads us about their value. We need quality control and therefore we need to work through the arguments for the exciting new ideas we come across; but we don’t because that would be way more work and way less fun. The result is that our minds are abuzz with things we think we know, and which feel important to know, but which probably aren’t either.
Hannah Arendt in a 1964 interview with Joachim Fest.
Philosophy should, to some extent, be a publicly oriented activity: we hope to make sense of first-order questions concerning how we ought to live, what existence is, what we know, and also deeper questions concerning our methodologies and ways of thinking. Yet philosophical writing has long been panned by some for its inaccessibility to the public.
In contrast to the meaning the word ‘sophism’ had in ancient philosophy, ‘sophisma’ in medieval philosophy is a technical term with no pejorative connotation: a sophisma proper is a sentence (proposition) that raises a difficulty for logic or grammar: it is a proposition whose truth value is difficult to determine, because it is ambiguous, puzzling or simply difficult to interpret, or a sentence that can be shown to be both grammatically correct and incorrect. Discussions of sophismata can be found in treatises of the twelfth century. Later they formed an important element of scholarly training in universities, featuring in different kinds of disputations: on a basic level the sophismata served to illustrate a theory, but they were also used to test the limits of a theory. The so-called sophismata-literature flourished during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; evidence of many important developments in logic and natural philosophy can be found in texts of this kind, where masters could feel free to investigate problems and develop their own views, much more than they could in more academic and strictly codified literary genres. In the wake of humanists’ opposition to the educational practices of traditional universities, the genre of sophismata disappeared in the early sixteenth century.
Philosophy is having a strange cultural moment. On the one hand, it is routinely presented as the quintessential example of an utterly useless academic field. Students who decide to major in philosophy in my department at the City College of New York are often asked by their peers, not to mention their parents, “What are you going to do with that?” (Insert appropriately snarky tone and facial expression.) On the other hand, public philosophizing is more popular than ever, with philosophy books becoming international bestsellers, and events like A Night of Philosophy attracting thousands of people willing to stand in long lines to have a chance to hear someone talking about Stoicism at 4 a.m. (it happened, to me).
Or—forgive me for indulging in a personal anecdote—take my own strange academic career. When I switched from biology to philosophy, I did the natural thing: I specialized in philosophy of science and published the kind of papers and books that a few dozens to a few hundred people read and that justify an academic appointment. But when I started writing about philosophy as a way of life—as distinct from an academic pursuit—I suddenly reached orders-of-magnitude larger audiences. More importantly, the people who read my public output told me that what I was writing was helping them make their lives better. What was going on here?
In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant famously mounts an extensive critique of the claims and arguments of traditional metaphysics. In his book, Marcus Willaschek not only offers fresh new insights into the negative project of understanding the exact nature of Kant’s criticisms of traditional metaphysics, but also undertakes the much neglected, but still quite important positive project of understanding what, according to Kant, naturally leads us to the kind of metaphysical speculation that gives rise to these arguments. The result is a terrific book, one that is clear, careful, and rich, but also subtle, original, and important. It is, in my view, one of the best books on Kant in a long time and is sure to have a significant impact on the field.
The novelist Albert Camus is omnipresent in French cultural life, from TV shows to comic books, magazine covers and one-man shows. Camus-mania isn’t just a literary phenomenon: it draws on a deep well of political revisionism and colonial nostalgia.
Mill tries philosophically to resolve the paradox of suffering by arguing that higher goods such as love and literature are ultimately more satisfying than basic forms of pleasure. In some sense, that’s true. But the terms of this satisfaction are no longer utilitarian; they have more to do with adventure, beauty, even holiness.