Monthly Archives: February 2013

“This destructive and monstrous opinion that no one, or few, should philosophize, has much invaded the minds of almost everybody. As if it were absolutely nothing to have the causes of things, the ways of nature, the reason of the universe, the counsels of God, the mysteries of heaven and earth very certain before our eyes and hands, unless someone could derive some benefit from it or acquire profit for himself.”
– Pico della Mirandola, “On the Dignity of Man”

“This destructi…

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What’s Wrong With This Picture? Phenomenological Foibles at the Symphony

Last night, I went to the symphony with my good friend Jess. We had to rush out of the late afternoon talk we had heard Drucilla Cornell give at Emory because Jess had looked at the tickets and found that they said 7 pm, rather than 8 pm as she’d originally thought. We scurried off and weaved through Atlanta rush-hour and cursed the slow-moving suburban in front of us, skidding into a parking spot, darting up to the elevator (with Jess nearly getting taken down by a tiny car also rushing into the parking garage– leading a nearby man to scoff, “Almost hit by a SmartCar, how embarrassing!), and entering the music hall just a minute late.

The woman who handed us programs whispered, “You’re too late to sit on the stage, but you can have any seat you like.” Nice joke, I thought. The music hall was almost empty, so we decided to take her advice and sit front and center rather than take our seats in row L. I felt bad for the orchestra, having such a tiny audience. As we took our new seats, I thought, “they sure are dressed down tonight– that’s strange,” as a man seated onstage in a gray suit jacket and pink bow tie caught my eye. No white tie and tails for the orchestra tonight! And then, I noticed that the woman singing in the middle of the stage was…facing away from the audience. Jess and I wondered, are they still rehearsing? We looked at our tickets, and it said 7:00.

It took us nearly a full aria to analyze our tickets and realize that the 7:00 performance was a preview and the real show started at 8:00. The people onstage were other civilians, like us, who were invited to sit in the musicians’ seats while they took in a preview of an upcoming performance at the symphony: a soprano and a string quartet doing Beethoven.

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At which point Jess and I ducked out quietly and headed to the lobby for a drink.

What struck me about this experience was how long it took us to figure out what was going on. Or, put differently, how long it took us to figure out that there even was something amiss. Rather than walking in, perceiving instantly that the opera singer was turned around and that (aside from the string quartet surrounding the singer) everyone onstage was a symphony-goer and not a member of the orchestra, it took me minutes to gradually figure out each piece that finally led to me recognizing what was up. It took an overwhelming amount of evidence pressing upon my perceptions to counterbalance my assumption that I was going to see a 7:00 performance by the symphony.

An oft-mentioned psychological phenomenon is that of “change blindness.” The basic idea is that, when focused on a particular part or set of parts of our field of vision, we can be entirely blind to changes in other aspects of that field of vision even when they change drastically.

This related video changed my life when I saw it in Psych 101:

In the case of the symphony, I didn’t experience change blindness, but I did experience the related phenomenon of approaching a situation with certain beliefs about what it was going to be like, beliefs that were so unconsciously strong that they actually prevented me from perceiving my surroundings as they were. I only realized after Jess and I figured out that this was a 7:00 preview of a different performance before our 8:00 show that it dawned on me that the people onstage not only were not playing instruments, they did not even have instruments! I was shocked that I didn’t notice this right away. Sure, there are certainly times when much of the orchestra is not playing their instruments– when a flute is soloing, or the oboes are doing their bit– but no one even had instruments! Or music! I was completely blind to this omission. And I interpreted the “orchestra’s” casual wear as a befuddling aesthetic choice, rather than instantly recognizing that because the men weren’t wearing white ties and tails and the women didn’t have on tasteful black numbers, this might not actually be an orchestra’s performance.

We often tend to think of our perceptions as taking in the world around it as it is. But it’s experiences like these that force one to recognize that there is in fact a complex interrelation between our habits, assumptions, and ideas and the way that we actually perceive the world around us. When I perceive, I am not passively taking in things around me. I take part in constituting the perception of the world around me (leading many philosophers to leave out the middleman and argue that, in fact, I take part in constituting the world around me), and this constitution occurs at an unconscious level every second of my life.

One philosopher to really emphasize this constitutive nature of perception is Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. He says of perception:

“Every perception of a physical thing has, in this manner, a halo of background-intuitions…and that is also a “lived experience of consciousness.” [1]

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Sites of Reflection: Mineral King Valley, California

Sites of Reflection: Mineral King Valley, California

Mineral King is one of my favorite places on earth, abounding in hiking trails, stunning views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, tall sequoias, tiny wildflowers, shooting stars, icy lakes, and sometimes even pink snow. My family has been going there for at least three generations, and I have undertaken much fruitful reflection there over the years.

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Why is Philosophy Important? Part I

In 1947, German philosopher Max Horkheimer wrote,

“Today there is almost general agreement that society has lost nothing by the decline of philosophical thinking, for a much more powerful instrument of knowledge has taken its place, namely, modern scientific thought.” [1]

This general agreement appears equally prevalent in 2013, if not even more deeply entrenched. I was recently scoffed at, not for the first time, by a scientist claiming that philosophy is useless. Sure, philosophy might have been useful back before we had the scientific method: indeed, for centuries, what we would now call science was under the heading of “natural philosophy,” and philosophers such as Democritus, Aristotle, and Descartes developed a  number of scientific theories under the heading of philosophy. But–these contemporary scientists seem all to often to think–now that we have science, we don’t need philosophy anymore. We have better modes of accessing truth than philosophy does: namely, we have the experimental method of empirical science.

The worst aspect of this view is not the fact that it overlooks the fact that there are a myriad of sources of meaning in life, which cannot be encapsulated by the scientific attitute (artistic meaning instantly springs to mind for me). In fact, our scientifically-minded society often retains a kind of veneration for the worth of art, although this veneration is nearly always coupled with an implicit marginalization and subordination of artistic meaning to scientific truth. This is certainly an issue. But it’s not the primary one for me.

The primary problem is the way that this veneration of science as the best–and, for some, only–mode of attaining truth fails to recognize that this veneration itself is a philosophical attitude. I am often shocked by the continued need to remind people that science is not neutral. That the very people undertaking scientific inquiry are, after all, people. That the hypotheses that scientists establish do not come out of the ether, but rather are always already inscribed within cultural and ideological matrices.

And that the rejection of philosophy as a “useless” discipline is in fact based in a philosophical standpoint, and a bad one at that: the standpoint that “use,” efficiency, productivity, are the highest goals. In other words, the standpoint of modern capitalism.

Philosophy is the discipline that encourages reflection on the very assumptions and foundations of values, attitudes, and discourses. As John Dewey aptly put it, philosophy is “criticism of criticisms.” [2] In this sense, philosophy is the most abstract discipline, because it requires a movement of reflection and abstraction from concrete conditions. In order to perceive that the scientific model of use, efficiency, and productivity that our society valorizes and perpetuates is inextricably bound to capitalist ideology and to a notion of what Horkheimer calls “instrumental reason,” we need to take a step back in a sense, moving from concrete facts to an analysis of those facts and the structures that are underlying them. This is what philosophy does.

But philosophy is also the discipline that can then critique this very movement of abstraction, this ‘stepping back,’ and recognize that no abstraction is pure or removed from concrete conditions. Philosophy thus always entails a double and doubling movement, oscillating or circulating between the abstract and concrete, and finally troubling the very distinction between them. And this is, perhaps, a neverending project.

Horkheimer states that the problem with the view that scientific truth is the only kind of truth lies in its “lack of self-reflection, its incapacity to understand its own philosophical implications.” [3] Based on society’s valorization of scientific truth above all else blindly persists, philosophy (as well as all the other disciplines that do not answer to the model of use, efficiency, and productivity) certainly appears “useless.” But is “usefulness” the highest value? It is my belief that philosophy is the discipline that allows us to pose, and to problematize, this question. And to critique a society that forces disciplines to answer for themselves in hard facts and results.

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Happy Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine's Day

courtesy of benkling.com

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As for what “begins” then “beyond” absolute knowledge, unheard-of thoughts are required, thoughts that are sought across the memory of old signs.

– Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon

As for what “be…

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I need to upload all of me

Just in case you weren’t sure you heard the message of this commercial right, I’ve written it out below:

“The miraculous is everywhere. In our homes, in our minds.
We can share every second in data dressed as pixels.
A billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience, and it is spectacular.
So why would you cap that?
My iPhone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama.
The entire gallery of humanity.
I need to upload all of me.
I need– no, I have the right– to be unlimited.”

This is absolutely terrifying. A summation of the ideology of contemporary American society. The replacement of experience with simulacra of experiences. The absurdity of free-market democracy in which “being unlimited” is a RIGHT. In which having unlimited access to taking pictures of my experiences is a RIGHT. Wow.

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First World Problems Read by Third World People

This video appeared as an ad for the clean water charity “Water is Life” a few months ago and currently has over 2 million views on Youtube. I have tried to put my finger on why this video makes me so uncomfortable. Sure, there is the good kind of discomfort of being forced to take a look at how insignificant many of the first-world problems that irk me are (my phone charger not reaching my bed is a failure I deal with daily, and the farcical quality of this video helps those of us in the first world to laugh at ourselves– which, I think, is the whole reason for the popularity of #firstworldproblems). But there is also a kind of discomfort at wondering about the production process involved in shooting this ad– did the individuals know what they were saying, know the farcical quality of the filming?– and a vague sense of exploitation that I feel but am not sure is merited or not.

Furthermore, I’m concerned by the video’s overall message. Toward the end of the video, words appear onscreen reading “#FirstWorldProblems Are Not Problems.” This is succeeded by the message, “Donate to help bring clean water to those in need.” Although a valuable attempt to face “first-worlders” with the insignificance of our problems in a discomfiting and potentially transformative manner, I can’t help but wonder: is the ultimate message of the Water is Life not precisely the message that if you visit the website, enter your credit card number, and donate some money, all in the comfort of your first-world home, that you’ll be atoning for some of the guilt you feel at being a first-worlder?

Is not the guilt that we have for being members of the first world– a #firstworldproblem?

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