Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Sartre and Camus on Politics


Camus and Sartre

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was born into poverty in Mondovi, Algeria. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was reared in high French society. They met in Paris during the Nazi Occupation and became close friends after the War. As Europe began to rebuild, they became prominent political voices.

The two Existentialists were pursued by reporters and often quoted. Their eventual falling out received a great deal of media attention.

As Sam Dresser notes, "Readers looked to Sartre and Camus to articulate what that new world might look like." 

"We were," Simone de Beauvoir observed, "to provide the postwar era with its ideology."

Both men believed that the workers were oppressed and that new political systems were needed to liberate them from poverty. Camus leaned toward Socialism and Sartre favored Communism. In Paris, Camus wrote editorials for the underground Resistance journal Combat, to which Sartre contributed articles. 

In October 1951, Camus published The Rebel in which he articulated his idea of freedom as a process of constant non-violent re-balancing. He wrote, "Absolute freedom is the right of the strongest to dominate," while "absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom." The conflict between justice and freedom required political moderation, and acceptance of the limitations of our humanity. Camus recognized that institutionalized political bodies must impose authoritarian actions, and all one can do is shout, No!

Concerning his ideology of the French Resistance: “If we have a doctrine to formulate,” Camus wrote in a 1943 letter, “it would be one of a balance of justice and of liberty, certainly difficult to realize, but outside of which nothing can be done.”

The Rebel declared Camus' preference for a peaceful socialism. The news from the USSR appalled him. Under Soviet Communism there was no freedom at all. Sartre reported that Camus "hated Communism."

Sartre disliked Camus' approach considering it "bad faith." He felt that Communism was the best system to address the dehumanizing effects of poverty, and he was prepared to endorse violence. Sartre continued to advocate Communism until 1956, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and brutally crushed the Hungarian freedom movement. Thousands were killed and wounded and nearly a quarter-million Hungarians fled their homeland.

Though Sartre distanced himself from Soviet style Communism, he never abandoned the idea that revolutionary violence might be warranted. His commitment to violent overthrow of unjust systems became acute after the 1968 May-June student riots in France. Well into his advanced years he participated in Leftist marches, some of which turned violent. He is described by Agnès Poirier as having the "sparkle of the perpetually angry man." 

Doubtless, his 1940 captivity in a Fascist prison camp colored Sartre's world. Sartre described his experience in an interview with a family friend John Gerassi. He said, "The Germans were the elite. The fascistoid prisoners were the enforcers of the elite. And the rest of us, the exploited who could only surpass the feeling of exploitation by bonding together." (J. Gerassi, Talking With Sartre: Conversations and Debates, Yale University Press, 2009, p. 105)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Can Computer Debates Advance the Philosophical Project?


Descartes and Heidegger fight it out

Justin Wienberg explores the potential of computers to do philosophy. His article was prompted by an article in Nature about the work of Noam Slonim (IBM), Yonatan Bilu (KI Institute), and Ranit Aharonov (IBM) to develop Project Debater, an autonomous computer system, that can argue with and debate humans as well the progress made with the language and communication skills of artifical intelligence, as demonstrated by GPT-3.

Weinberg writes:

As I tell my students, philosophy isn’t debate (the former is oriented towards understanding, the latter towards winning). But some of the work that goes into debate is similar to the work that goes into philosophy. What’s provocative about Project Debater, GPT-3, and related developments to me is that it suggests the near-term possibility of computing technology and language models semi-autonomously mapping out, in natural language, the assumptions and implications of arguments and their component parts.

One way to understand the body of knowledge philosophy generates is as a map of the unknown, or set of maps. Philosophical questions are points on the maps. So are premises, assumptions, principles, and theories. The “roads” on the maps are the arguments, implications, and inferences between these points, covering the ground of necessity and possiblity.

Individual philosophical works that pose questions, develop arguments, justify premises, and explore the implications of positions make small maps of small bits of the vast terrain of the unknown, and often provide “directions” to others about how to navigate it."


Justin wonders "What should we be doing now in regard to the development of such technology, or in regard to other prospects for the integration of computing into philosophy?"

Read the full article here.

Related reading: “Computational Philosophy” at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Does Philosophy Have Value?; Ontology and the Philosophical Project

Monday, March 15, 2021

Foucault's Order of Things


Alice C. Linsley

In Another Look at Michel Foucault, I explored Foucault's thought in contrast to the thought of Loren Eiseley. In that article, I expressed my preferences for Eiseley's anthropological outlook. My bias is due to my empirical inclination and to the fact that I am an anthropologist. Eiseley's reflections in The Immense Journey (1959) and The Invisible Pyramid (1970) are grounded in physical discovery and in material culture. Foucault's psychological outlook is less grounded in real time and physical discovery. More anthropological data would have strengthened Foucault's work.

In this critique of Foucault's work I begin by pointing to the positive aspects. He is to be applauded for attempting an interdisciplinary approach at a time when the academic disciplines were more rigidly departmentalized.

His development of "discontinuity of thought" is an excellent way to speak of change, and in the Foreword to the English edition of The Order of Things (1966), he acknowleges that changes do not "occur at the same level, proceed at the same pace, or obey the same laws." 

In that Foreword, Foucault alludes to Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), and he explains that he wants to avoid attribution of knowledge to individuals, or to collective efforts, or even to single discoveries. He hopes to explore knowledge as a discourse above time. The effect of this is to erase the accomplishments of individuals who deserve to be remembered.

By limiting his exploration of knowledge to five recent centuries, Foucault ignores antecedants that bring the larger picture into focus. His framing of Western European civilization makes it easier for him to denounce it. To know only Foucault's world is to be stricken by anxiety and rage. Indeed, he is one of the angry nihilists of the 20th century whose thought contributes to cancellation of tradition, public institutions, collective memory, even Mankind.

In his more romantic, almost Nietzschean, passages Foucault is effective in effacing history. He is heir to Leo Strauss's closet nihilism and he elaborates on Nietzsche's nihilism.

Jeffery Jacob Wade contends here that "Strauss and his hidden nihilism is a direct result of his pessimistic view of the masses; whereas Nietzsche's Übermensch nihilism is brought about by his outlook on the prospect for development beyond humanity and Foucault's pure nihilism is drawn out from his notion of power/knowledge."

In his personal life Michel Foucault claimed to be happy, but that does not come across in his writings. He seems an angry man who struggled against established powers, against the traditional family, and against the Church (Madness and Civilization, p. 22). In this same book, Foucault attempted to portray Jesus as a sanctifier of insanity, demon possession, and prostitution.

There is no evidence in his work that Foucault appreciated humanity. He rode the "God is Dead" wave with enthusiasm as it promoted his "death of man" and anti-humanist persuasion. He described humanism as "the heaviest heritage that has come down to us from the nineteenth century" and he added, "it's high time we got rid of it." (Horizon, Autumn 1969, p. 36).

At times we hear echoes of Jacques Derrida in Foucault's work, but without Derrida's playfulness. Foucault did not see humanity as Homo ludens. His writings are full of drama and the tone is that of a man who takes himself very seriously and who wants his readers to do so as well. He comes closest to playfulness when he speaks of discourse as the modern episteme. There is enthusiasm in his efforts at deconstruction, as when one seeks to solve a puzzle or decipher a riddle. By the end of the project, however, we find many pieces of the puzzle are missing.

Foucault's precise attacks on the establishment, the Church, and traditional values limit his scope of exploration. There is no universality, except perhaps in the common experience of anger and disillusionment. His antihumanism produces a distorted view of Humanity. He maintains that Man is a modern invention, "a sort of image correlative with God" and as God has died, so will the humanist image of Mankind.

Foucault's generalizations are not difficult to disprove. In The Order of Things, he claims that all weatlh is coinable (p. 175), yet for thousands of years and to this day, cattle have been the source of wealth in many societies.

He says the "episteme" of sixteenth century Europe was based on "resemblance" such as the doctrine of signatures, and that this was discredited in the seventeenth century. He provides no explanation for how one episteme comes to be replaced by another. Had he looked at the bigger picture, he would have known that resemblances between plants and parts of the body are fundamental to the craft of Amazonian shamans, and their knowledge of plants has contributed to modern pharmacology.

Overall, Michel Foucault's work is interesting, though not timeless. It sets forth an attitude toward the world that some embrace today. It appeals to minds that resist tradition and are weary with history. Time itself will test the durability of his intellectual constructs.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Another Look at Michel Foucault


Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Alice C. Linsley

Recently, I read Michel Foucault's The Order of Things (1966) at the same time I was reading Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey (1959). The contrast of Foucault's pessimism and Eiseley's optimism concerning humanity is striking. Foucault's background was in psychology and Eiseley's was in anthropology. Both disciplines explore what it is to be human, and yet these two thinkers draw very different conclusions. 

I admit a bias toward Eiseley because I also have a background in Anthropology (as well as Philosophy). I also admit to favoring Eiseley's pro-capitalism and environmental activism over Foucault's leftist politics and push for the decriminalization in France of "consensual" sexual relations between adults and minors below the age of fifteen. 

I prefer Eiseley's agnosticism to Foucault's atheism. Eiseley admits that the universe presents us with mysteries. Foucault rode the "God is Dead" wave with enthusiasm as it promoted his "death of man" and anti-humanist persuasion. He described humanism as "the heaviest heritage that has come down to us from the nineteenth century" and he added, "it's high time we got rid of it." (Horizon, Autumn 1969, p. 36).

I prefer Jacques Derrida's deconstruction in which he concluded that something is at the center; what he designated "transcendental signified.” He spoke of this something as "presence" that is sometimes called God. However, Derrida did not regard God is a being, but rather as a necessary function. 

The philosopher Roger Scruton has argued that Foucault was "a sort of passionate heretic" among modern atheists, "trying as it were, to use the numinosity of the irrational to plug the supposed gap left by the absent God." 

In his Madness and Civilization (1965) Foucault articulates madness as a function. He writes, "Madness deals not so much with truth and the world, as with man and whatever truth about himself he is able to perceive." (p. 27)

In Madness and Civilization Foucault develops the distance between reason and nonreason and comes across the romantic mystic. He digs in pre-selected ground as an archaeologist to discover how the exchange between madness and reason was silenced. He illustrates historical discontinuity by his division of European thought into disconnected epistemological dispositions, each called an episteme (from the Greek term for knowledge).  

Foucault's episteme of the sixteenth century is based on the idea of resemblance. He alludes to the Doctrine of Signatures, the belief that plants resemble the body parts they are intended to treat.

His episteme of the seventeenth century is based on the idea of representation. He recognizes that the thing represented is not the thing itself, noting the distinction between the sign and the thing signed (echoes of Derrida).

Foucault's episteme of the eighteenth century expresses itself in science and analysis, and it is here that he places the invention of Man. He writes, "It is a comfort, however, and a profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure less than two centuries old, a simple fold in our knowledge, and that he will disappear as soon as our knowledge finds a new form."

As an intellectual contruct that only resembles itself, Man cannot know his/her true essence. Here again, I find a contrast between Eiseley and Foucault. For Foucault, man is but a dream with no absolute ontological essence, and apparently, no future. Based on sometimes obscure references, Foucault postulates that godlike Man has "vaporized to the exact degree that one tracked him into his depths." He thinks that Man will disappear, "like a face of sand on the edge of the sea."

For Eiseley, man is the creature who dreams about the future. His dreams have taken him to the Moon and back. In the Invisible Pyramid, Eiseley writes, "Man would not be man if his dreams did not exceed his grasp..."  He also wrote, "Man is not totally compounded of the nature we profess to understand. Man is always partly of the future, which he possesses a power to shape." (Horizon, July 1960, p. 32)


Monday, September 28, 2020

Is There Profit in Boredom?


Renoir's La Tasse de Chocolat

Alice C. Linsley

My father often said, "It is a sin to bore people." 

He was an attorney who quickly tired of long-winded stories and explanations. He was a pastor who heard too many boring sermons. He also was an author who set aside boring books and articles.

The reader may have the impression that my father was arrogant, aloof, and overly critical. In fact, he was down-to-earth, enjoyed people, and was mostly critical of himself. 

He loved adventure and traveled widely. I have a photo of him standing beside the diminutive figure of a head-hunting chief in the mountains of Luzon.

At age 16, to the distress of his mother, he hitchhiked from Portland Oregon to Portland Maine.

My father thought life is precious and too full of potential to be squandered in boredom. 

During these months of Covid-19 isolation and restrictions, some are complaining of boredom. A young Isaac Newton did some of his best work while home at Woolsthrope during the Great Plague in London. He continued to work on mathematical problems he had begun at Cambridge; the papers he wrote on this became early calculus. He experimented with prisms. And outside his bedroom window there was an apple tree to ponder.

I wonder how my father would handle life during this pandemic. He died more than 20 years ago, but were he alive today I believe he would find even this tiresome situation exciting. Like Newton, he never lacked for imagination and energy.

The nearby Whittier hills were still relatively free of buildings and he explored them as often as possible. As a teen he made extra money harvesting lemons in a neighbor's citrus grove. 

He rode a bike, hiked, helped around the house, and played fetch with his dog Toby. His family members were avid Scrabble players and he enjoyed the occasional victory against his formidable polyglot mother

My father's family of origin was not wealthy. There were days when the meals consisted of bread, butter, and tea. Fortunately, his father had planted avocado trees in the backyard of their Whittier California home. The avocados provided sustenance as well as some productive labor.

While at times financially needy, boredom did not seem to be a problem in the Linsley family. That suggests that a link between boredom and economic injustice requires a deeper look. My father appreciated what he had. He was thankful for even scarce provisions.

Boredom is more complex than lack of resources. It involves multiple emotional and cognitive factors. 

Philosophers tend to view boredom as an existential condition. Moral theologians have called it a sin (ennui or acedia), but for psychologists who study boredom the pandemic has been a boom. Researchers are conducting experiments to discover the potential benefits of boredom.

Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, a psychologist and boredom scholar (University of Essex) considers it an emotion that is neither good nor bad. He wants to understand how it functions. 

It seems apparent that for some people boredom is something to be overcome, not endured. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Sex, Human Rights, and Natural Law


In the news is the feud between the French philosopher Jean-Paul Enthoven (age 71) and his son Raphaël Enthoven after Raphaël's 500-page autobiographical novel was published.

Jean-Paul reacted angrily to the publication of Le Temps gagné (Time Saved), claiming it has left him “heartbroken” and loved ones “drowning in a sea of ingratitude”.

Jean-Paul dated the model Carla Bruni who later married his son, Raphaël (age 44). Raphaël fathered a child with Bruni in 2001. Both men had been married before.

Raphaël and Bruni separated in 2007. One year later, Bruni later married French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

However, the Enthovens’ clash has nothing to do with Bruni. It is about Raphaël's fictional tell-all in which he portrays family and friends in a bad light.

French philosopher Pierre Manent (Wikimedia Commons)

In a stark contrast to the lives of the Enthoven's, the French philosopher Pierre Manent recently discussed the harms of the human rights ideology and called for a restoration of natural law within Western societies. 

He says, "Alexis de Tocqueville often said that democracy was threatened by a despotism from the majority, and today we see in our regimes that there is a tyranny of minorities, of individuals, who are the most minoritarian minority. We don’t realize that we grant illimited power to a right that cannot be formulated and which has no reason to be, apart from feelings. But a feeling is nothing but an affect which can also be very unstable and changing."

In his recent book Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason (University of Notre Dame Press), Manent shows how modern civilization progressively made human will the ultimate source of law within societies, denying that nations can be governed by universal principles that should be acknowledged and preserved rather than constantly reinvented.

Manent taught political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris for many years and is now visiting professor at the Boston College Department of Political Science. He is the author of a number of books about the history of political thought and the relationship between politics and religion, including Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic and A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State.

In this interview with the Register, Manent warns against the excesses of the modern human-rights doctrine and discusses the importance of natural law for civilization's sustainability.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Leszek Kolakowski's Assessment of Marxism

Leszek Kolakowski (© Anka Ptaszkowska/Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw)

It takes at least a decade for the life's work of a 20th century philosopher to come out of the shadows. That is true for the Polish philosopher and historian, Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009). Kolakowski began is career as a Marxist and later became a vocal supporter of Pope John Paul II.

Kolakowski produced a wide range of work in five languages, communicating well in German, French and English, as well as Polish.

He produced seminal critical analyses on Marxism and religion. He understood the true nature of Marxism in practice, having joined the Communist Polish Workers' party as a teenager. During the Stalin era he become one of Communism's most distinguished teachers.

Twenty-three years later, in the spring of 1968, he began to speak critically of the ossified Marxist ideology. He was forced to leave the Party. This coincided with a rise in anti-Zionist sentiments and Kolakowski's wife was Jewish. The Kolakowskis were glad to leave Poland for Canada where Leszek took a teaching position at McGill University in Montreal.

After a year at McGill (1968-69) he went to the University of California where he often confronted student radicals, some of whom revealed ignorance about orthodox Marxism. Kolakowski told the newspaper columnist Zbigniew Mentzel that all the people he met considered themselves Marxists, although their knowledge of Marx was often scant. Students fancied themselves the most oppressed class on earth and sought liberation “from everything.” They told him there wasn’t “the least difference between the conditions of life in a Californian university town and one of Hitler’s or Stalin’s concentration camps.”

Kolakowski spent only one year at the University of California. In 1970, he became Senior Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, a post he held until his retirement in 1994.

Kolakowski's thought continued to influence thinkers in his homeland. Adam Michnik, a leading intellectual of the Solidarity era described him as a prominent figure of contemporary Polish culture.
His 1959 essay “The Priest and the Jester” explored the roles of dogmatism and skepticism in intellectual history, and brought him national attention in Poland. In 1955, Kolakowski traveled to Rome, seeking conversation with the French neo-Thomists Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. These appear to have been pivotal conversations because Kolakowki emerged as a historian of religion.

In the 1950s and ’60s he published books on the history of Western philosophy and a study of religious consciousness and institutional religion. He continued his interest in political theory, and in 1967 he define a humanistic Marxism in his "Towards a Marxist Humanism".

Kolakowski became a popular author in Poland after 1990, often appearing on television. His Mini-Mini-Lectures on Large Issues (Mini-wyklady o maksi-sprawach, 1997) became a bestseller in Poland. 

His many academic honors include an honorary doctorate from the University of Lódz and one from the Central European University in Budapest. His life achievement was recognized in 2003, when he received the $1m Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress.

Kolakowski’s daughter Agnieszka has collected twenty-seven of her father’s essays in a volume entitled "Is God Happy?" Ten of the essays appear in English for the first time. The book provides a glimpse into Kolakowski’s intellectual versatility.

One of the essays, "The Death of Gods,” appears in Agnieszka’s translation, and in it Kolakowski announced that state socialism called itself "scientific" and he exposed that as a myth. He argued that instead of eradicating inequality, state socialism had created new social classes and its own forms of privilege, as well as a central planning system more injurious to civil society than any democracy.