Thursday, December 02, 2010

Vernon, Mark. "William James: a Religious Man for Our Times: Part 1." GUARDIAN October 18, 2010.

James the man was ambivalent about the existence of God, and he has been called a humanist. But I think his fascination with what he came to call "the more" – coupled to the fact that in his crises and work alike he was obsessed by spiritual questions – demands that we think of him as a religious person. He described writing the Varieties as "my religious act". He was existentially troubled, intellectually brilliant, linguistically talented, openminded and humane. In short, he is an excellent, even necessary, person to read today if you are interested in matters to do with truth, pluralism, experience and God. This year is the centenary of his death. It's a good moment to explore his thought, as we will do in these blog posts. . . .

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Hibbs, Thomas S. "Stanley Cavell's Philosophical Improvisations." CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION October 10, 2010.

Cavell, Stanley.  Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.

In God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, the latest in a number of recent books critical of the modern research university, the influential Irish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that "neither the university nor philosophy is any longer seen as engaging the questions" of "plain persons." These questions include: "What is our place in the order of things? Of what powers in the natural and social world do we need to take account? How should we respond to the facts of suffering and death? What is our relationship to the dead? What is it to live a human life well? What is it to live it badly?" Now in his 80s, MacIntyre is among a small group of philosophers who have sought to address such questions. Other members, about the same age, include the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and, perhaps especially, the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose life both in and out of philosophy is on display in his just-published autobiography, Little Did I Know (Stanford University Press).

In his book, MacIntyre indicts the university for its lack of integration, the disconnections among the disciplines, and the intellectual disregard of one discipline for another. He writes: "In contemporary American universities, each academic discipline is treated as autonomous and self-defining, so that its practitioners, or at least the most prestigious and influential among them, prescribe to those entering the discipline what its scope and limits are. And in order to excel in any one particular discipline, one need in general know little or nothing about any of the others." Returning philosophy to the concern of ordinary human persons and showing how it might speak across disciplinary lines of inquiry are not easy tasks. But the life and career of Cavell testify not just to the possibility of such achievements but also to just how rich the results can be. . . .

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"Hegel and Hegel's God." THE PHILOSOPHER'S ZONE November 27, 2010.

This week, in another trek through the luxuriant and fascinating jungle that is the thought of one of the greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, we turn to Hegel's god and look at Hegel as a rational mystic. Our guest again is Robert M. Wallace, a philosopher best known for his book Hegel's Philosophy of Reality, Freedom and God, and a man with a keen interest in philosophical mysticism. Liberal theologians during the last century and a half have wanted to articulate a conception of God that could satisfy people's spiritual longings without conflicting with Darwinian evolution and other well-established scientific discoveries. Robert Wallace believes that Hegel had already done this. . . .

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Kamtekar, Rachana. "Marcus Aurelius." STANFORD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY November 29, 2010.

The second century CE Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was also a Stoic philosopher, and his private Meditations, written in Greek, gives readers a unique opportunity to see how an ancient person (indeed an emperor) might try to live a Stoic life, according to which only virtue is good, only vice is bad, and the things which we busy ourselves with are all indifferent. The difficulties Marcus faces putting Stoicism into practice are philosophical as well as practical, and understanding his efforts increases our philosophical appreciation of Stoicism. . . .

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Gopnik, Alison. "How Weird is Consciousness?" SLATE November 29, 2010.

Consciousness used to be the crazy aunt in psychology's attic. Behaviorists and cognitive scientists alike practiced denial, but the squeaking floorboards troubled our dreams of a truly scientific discipline. Now, the old lady has been given pride of place in the parlor, with all the respectable scientific furnishing of societies and journals. But let's face it—she's still weird.

In some ways, the scientific study of consciousness has been a great success. We know more than ever about the relationship between specific types of conscious experiences and specific mind and brain states. Discouragingly, though, we are still no closer to solving the Problem of Big-C Consciousness. How is consciousness possible at all? How could the few pounds of gray goo in my skull give rise to my experience of the particular blue tint of the sky? Scientists and philosophers have suggested everything from quantum effects to information integration to brain-wave patterns. Some deny that consciousness exists at all; others argue that consciousness couldn't possibly be the result of just the brain. The scientific organizers of one of the principal consciousness conferences, in fact, deliberately let in woo-woo stuff about altered states and past lives on the principle that we have no idea where the answer might come from.

This may be less dispiriting when you realize we've been here before. The philosopher Patricia Churchland has pointed out that the problem of "Life" in the 19th century was much like the problem of "Consciousness" in the 21st. How could a few molecules ever give rise to breathing, moving, living creatures? The answer turned out to be that it was the wrong question. We now understand a great deal about the many different ways in which complex organisms with a multitude of different properties arise from much simpler chemistry. The Problem of Big-L Life has simply faded away. . . .

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