Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thumbnail Sketch of Jacques Derrida

“For me, writing means to withdraw myself, even if one appears when one writes because publishing means appearing in a certain way. But I didn’t want my appearance to be framed by the contemporary uses of photography where they show the author writing or in a head shot. So I thought it was very important to exclude all forms of photography and all public images of myself.”—Derrida on his reluctance to be photographed and his insistence that no image of himself would appear on his book covers.

(With apology to Derrida)

Alice C. Linsley

Postmodernism is characterized by a proliferation of philosophical developments that seek to destabilize traditional views, interpretations and values. The “new thought” goes against the notion that words and narratives have a fixed meaning. One of the most important philosophers of Postmodernism was the French Algerian Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida sought to uncover and lift up the underbelly of meaning in myths and texts. He enjoyed making fun of traditional interpretations, yet as he developed his "ontotheology" he concluded that there was something fixed at the metaphysical center. He developed this in his lectures at Villanova University.

Deconstruction reveals a “presence” that has been called by different names throughout history: logos, nous, arche, God, the metaphysical center, etc. However, for Derrida the fixed presence is not a being, but rather a necessary function by which we are able to discover meaning. Here Derrida borrows from Wittgenstein’s idea of a word as a function and Heidegger’s development of Dasein.

Derrida’s deconstruction reveals great complexities of meaning in written texts, ideas, myths and human customs. He explored the “metaphysics of presence.” He wants to know what dominates and blocks what seems not to be present. He ascribes to subordinate objects a more substantial existence than the shadow they cast, or their “trace.” Derrida wrote: "Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition, and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes" (Metaphysics).

Derrida explores the hidden presence. In so doing, deeper and/or unfamiliar meanings emerge. His method involves neutralizing the shouting voice in order to hear resonances of underlying voices. He looks for Plato behind Aristotle, for mystery behind logic, and for the metaphysical behind the physical. His reversals are a strategic intervention to free western philosophy from the constraints of empiricism, materialism, and linear logic.

Derrida was a master when it came to identifying binary distinctions, such as dominance and subservience, and reversals. In the case of binary oppositions, each component of the binary set means something, and the relationship of the oppositions means something, and the hierarchy exhibited by the set means something. The reversal of the oppositions also means something. The reversal of the subordinated term of an opposition is a significant aspect of Derrida's strategy. In examining a binary opposition and reversals, deconstruction brings to light traces of meaning that cannot be said to be present, but which must have metaphysical existence.

Derrida borrowed the term “deconstruction” from Martin Heidegger. Heidegger exposed the fundamental problem of existence (ontology) or Being as Being (Dasein). He believed the individual’s moral duty is to face one’s non-existence, what he called “negation.” Life involves a dread of death because it means the negation of self or ego. Heidegger believed that authentic being is possible only when the individual faces death as extinction.

While a student, a priest in his Catholic school gave Heidegger a copy of Franz Brentano’s dissertation, titled, On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle. Heidegger said it was, “the chief help and guide of my first awkward attempts to penetrate into philosophy.” He recognized, as did Brentano, that “the question of being captivated Aristotle as the single most important question.”

The significance of Heidegger’s work was overlooked by many who viewed him as a Nazi sympathizer because he failed to speak against the Nazi regime. In developing his version of atheistic existentialism, Heidegger drew on Nietzsche’s view that man decides his own values.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thumbnail Sketch of J.B. Rawls

"Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all."--J.B. Rawls

John B. Rawls (1921-24 November 2002) is recognized as one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century. He was born in Baltimore in 1921 and went to Princeton as an undergraduate. He considered entering the Episcopal priesthood, but lost his faith after his war experiences in the Pacific in World War II. He taught at Harvard for more than 30 years. Among his students are some accomplished American philosophers, including Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, Onora O'Neill, Christine Korsgaard, and Susan Neiman.

Rawls’s first book was A Theory of Justice published in 1971. Nearly 600 pages long, it has been translated into 27 languages. Rawls claimed to have articulated a theory of justice which is genuinely universal and acceptable from our present, pluralistic, political perspective. His book has greatly influenced political theory. A few regard his experiment as pernicious.

Two of Rawls's brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. In 1928, at age 7, John contracted diphtheria. His younger brother Bobby visited him in his room and was infected and died. The next winter, John contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died." Rawls' biographer Thomas Pogge calls the loss of his two brothers the "most important events in Jack’s childhood." The unfairness of these tragic deaths certainly caused Rawls to ponder the nature of fairness and justice.

Rawls's theory of justice is posed as an alternative to the utilitarian approach that holds that the best consequences indicate the best political choices. In his book A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls wrote “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or the calculus of social interests” (A Theory of Justice, p. 66).

Rawls proposed a social contract approach to justice that revolves around three principles: (1) each individual is to have equal right to the greatest personal liberty that is compatible with like liberty for all; and (2) social and economic inequalities are to be attached to public positions that are open to all under conditions of fairness in opportunity. Rawls also stated that when these principles are in conflict, the first principle must take priority.

Rawls accepts that there will always be some economic differences in society. He is not a Marxian. His concern is that those who are at the bottom should never be allowed to sink below the level of basic material needs. Fairness of opportunity requires consideration of those in society whose abilities may be such that they remain the least fortunate. To prevent extreme poverty, he developed a third principle which he called the “difference principle”.

Using the difference principle, Rawls hoped to minimize wealth differences by insisting that inequalities in basic goods can be allowed only if distribution of primary goods first benefits the poorest. He argued that the welfare of society depends on the welfare of the poorest, and that a just society makes fairness to all a primary consideration when forming public policy.

Rawls’ egalitarian approach to justice is a hypothetical one. It is not so much a philosophy as it is a method for constitution-building. He conducted his thought-experiment with his students at Harvard. Rawls’ method requires that participants forget their economic status, race, gender, level of education, religion, physical and mental abilities, etc. Under this “veil of ignorance”, each is to consider fairness from an “original position”; that is, they must establish a principle of fairness (such as distribution of income) without knowing beforehand where they end up in the pecking order. Rawls believed that nobody would agree to a system that incorporated practices such as slavery or totalitarianism since they themselves might end up a slave or oppressed by government officials. Rawls assumes that participants will always act rationally, and in seeking their best self-interest under the veil of ignorance, they actually will be seeking the best interest of all.

Rawls’ thought experiment operates on the assumptions that democracy is the best system, that people should vote, and that private property in not an inalienable right (against John Locke). His primary concern is justice. Rawls defends a welfare form of democracy on the basis of his belief that a just society requires that individual’s democratic rights must always take priority over the common good. In his view that there is a fixed point of reference by which to decide justice, Rawls follows the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant.

Another view of how humans act in their own self-interest was developed by the Russian novelist Ayn Rand in her famous book The Fountainhead (1943). The title is a reference to Rand's statement that “man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress”. In this book, and in her later volume Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand lays down the ethical principle of rational self-interest that would become the basis for Objectivism. She argues that rational selfishness is a virtue and that this virtue can be developed only by those who autonomously develop their own code of values and conduct.

J.B. Rawls' Quotes:

"Certainly it is wrong to be cruel to animals and the destruction of a whole species can be a great evil. The capacity for feelings of pleasure and pain and for the form of life of which animals are capable clearly impose duties of compassion and humanity in their case."

"My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In order to do this we are not to think of the original contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government. Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. These principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established. This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness. ... ""I shall now state in a provisional form the two principles of justice that I believe would be chosen in the original position. ... The first statement of the two principles reads as follows.

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

There are two ambiguous phrases in the second principle, namely 'everyone's advantage' and 'open to all.'

By way of general comment, these principles primarily apply, as I have said, to the basic structure of society. They are to govern the assignment of rights and duties and to regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages. As their formulation suggests, these principles presuppose that the social structure can be divided into two more or less distinct parts, the first principle applying to the one, the second to the other. They distinguish between those aspects of the social system that define and secure the equal liberties of citizenship and those that specify and establish social and economic inequalities. The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law. These liberties are all required to be equal by the first principle, since citizens of a just society are to have the same basic rights.

The second principle applies, in the first approximation, to the distribution of income and wealth and to the design of organizations that make use of differences in authority and responsibility, or chains of command. While the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone's advantage, and at the same time, positions of authority and offices of command must be accessible to all. One applies the second principle by holding positions open, and then, subject to this constraint, arranges social and economic inequalities so that everyone benefits.

These principles are to be arranged in a serial order with the first principle prior to the second. This ordering means that a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages. The distribution of wealth and income, and the hierarchies of authority, must be consistent with both the liberties of equal citizenship and equality of opportunity.

It is clear that these principles are rather specific in their content, and their acceptance rests on certain assumptions that I must eventually try to explain and justify. A theory of justice depends upon a theory of society in ways that will become evident as we proceed. For the present, it should be observed that the two principles (and this holds for all formulations) are a special case of a more general conception of justice that can be expressed as follows.

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect— are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone's advantage."

Related reading: J.B. Rawls' "Original Position"

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thumbnail Sketch of Ayn Rand

"Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values."-- Ayn Rand

Alice C. Linsley

Ayn Rand watched her family suffer the loss of everything under Stalin and this shaped her political views for the rest of her life. She hated the repression of Russian dissidents, many of whom were clergy, yet she fully embraced atheism. She hung out with Hollywood people and believed that you had to write on the edge, be advant-garde, to get attention. She hated government intrusion in personal affairs, yet she testified against Hollywood communists before the U.S. Senate. She hated logical fallacies, like ad hominem, yet she used it liberally against those she disliked.

Rand (1905-1985) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. At age six she taught herself to read and at the age of nine, she decided to make fiction writing her career. She was opposed to the mysticism and collectivism of Russian culture.

During her high school years, she witnessed the Kerensky Revolution, which she supported, and the Bolshevik Revolution, which she denounced. In order to escape the fighting, her family went to the Crimea. After the Communist victory her father's pharmacy was confiscated and her family faced periods of near-starvation. When introduced to American history in her last year of high school, she took America as her model of what a nation of free citizens could be.

She entered the University of Petrograd to study philosophy and history and graduated in 1924. She experienced the takeover of the university by communist thugs. She entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 to study screenwriting, something that would serve her well after her arrival in the United States. She had booklets on actress Pola Negri (1925) and “Hollywood: American Movie City” (1926) published. Both were reprinted in 1999 in Russian Writings on Hollywood.

In February 1926 Rand left Soviet Russia for a visit to relatives in Chicago. Although she told Soviet authorities that her visit would be short, she was determined never to return to Russia. She spent the next six months in Chicago, obtained an extension to her visa, and then left for Hollywood to pursue a career as a screenwriter.

On Ayn Rand’s second day in Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille saw her standing at the gate of his studio, offered her a ride to the set of his movie The King of Kings, and gave her a job, first as an extra, then as a script reader. During the next week at the studio, she met an actor, Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929; they were married until his death fifty years later.

Her novels include We the Living (1936), The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand's last work of fiction. In her work she dramatized her philosophy in an intellectual mystery that integrated ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, and economics. She also wrote a numbe of shorter pieces including The Husband I Bought (1926); The Night King (1926); Her Second Career (1929) and Red Pawn (1931-32).

Rand wrote and lectured on her philosophy Objectivism, which she characterized as “a philosophy for living on earth." She died in 1982 in her New York City apartment.


About C.S. Lewis, Rand wrote, "This is really an old fool – and nothing more!" Her ad hominem attack was not a reaction to Lewis the man, who she had never met. Rand hated his Christian apologetics.

"A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others."

"Government 'help' to business is just as disastrous as government persecution... the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off."

"Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men."

"Every aspect of Western culture needs a new code of ethics - a rational ethics - as a precondition of rebirth."

"Every man builds his world in his own image. He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice."

"God... a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man's power to conceive."

"Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values."

Related reading: Notes: Ayn Rand and Ethical Egoism; Ethics of the 20th Century; Ayn Rand Really, Really Hated C.S. Lewis