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Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth snuggle into our enforced social distancing to give our thoughts (and some of yours) on our recent string of episodes on social construction (starting with #227), especially regarding gender (see #232 and #235). We also never had a critical debrief after speaking to Judith Butler in #236, so we consider whether her notion of "grievable lives" adds helpfully to our moral lexicon.
This was intended to be a "mailbag" episode, and we read a couple of listener comments. Have we in fact "lost our credibility" by delving this far into identity politics? Would it make any sense for us to give something approaching equal time to conservative philosophers, or dive further into the science (here's that thread by a biologist I referred to about sex not being straightforwardly binary), or should we just go back to doing more uncontroversially canonical works and stay away from politics? Take a listen and tell us what you think.
End song: "The Size of Luv" by Mark Lint from Mark Lint's Dry Folk (2018).
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please no more psychoanalysis, there is so much good stuff evolving in cog-science that is getting put to use in contemporary philo like the enactivists.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Maybe you should finally be a guest with us, Dirk, to cover something like this. 🙂
Frank Levi says
I strongly disagree. I find the psychoanalysis stuff endlessly fascinating. I don’t completely understand it, but it consistently makes me think harder about why I’m doing what I’m doing. Do I resent my boss because I resent my father? Maybe. It’s at least worth stopping for a few minutes to think about. Am I reacting to what people around me are actually doing or am I reacting to my fantasies about what I assume they’re thinking based on things that happened in my childhood that I wasn’t ready to deal with at the time? I’ve enjoyed every episode of PEL (yes, even the David Brin episode) and I’ll never stop being a fan, but I think a lot would be lost if they stopped talking about psychoanalysis. Wes frequently blows my mind with his insights into human motivation, which he derives from his years of study of . . . psychoanalysis. So psychoanalysis has indirectly changed how careful I am about looking at my actual life (even though I know very little about it).
Thanks for listening to the fans and always encouraging us to give our recommendations. Mine is the following: keep doing what you’re doing and most importantly, do what interests you. When you guys get really into what you’re examining, we all benefit.
I’ll make it formal by requesting Scruton.
I’m not a conservative, but I think he’s a great writer.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, do you know what in particular we should read?
Sebastian Orlander says
I think the podcast is more or less on a par with the culture programming of public radio stations (I am an avid listener of BBC’s In Our Time, which covers mostly history, but also philosophy from time to time) so I have no problem with the range of material covered. In fact I am quite happy at the editorial control exercised by the collective (notwithstanding some determining the reading schedule more). Not that I dislike democratic decision-making, but even with setting a schedule for a podcast, it takes some leadership to decide what to spend time on and what to leave to the side, and I don’t think that you can or will satisfy everyone. Even if I get miffed at some of the remarks on Kant (and no, Mr Alwan doesn’t always get this right in my opinion), I am always impelled to think more about the topics covered.
As far as wishes go, I would like to see more political philosophy actually. However, I do think something i the neighborhood of international politics might be better. I also like historical authors and seeing how they’re still relevant today. I recommend Kant’s Perpetual Peace and related essays written at the time by other authors. World Peace is a perennially relevant topic, but is actually quite difficult to grasp, and I find Kant is still very relevant as a springboard to think about this. I would also recommend reading his history essay in conjunction just to get some of his anthropological assumptions straight before reading PP.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, Sebastian. I think Kant (and also Hegel) on politics is a big hole in our coverage, despite the Kant on Enlightenment episode, but PP had not been on our list, so great idea! (What’s the history essay called?)
Richard Smith says
This was an absorbing discussion; thank you. Your first aim is always to enter into the spirit of the works you discuss and elucidate them. I like their generosity of spirit and open-mindedness. But in the case of more recent, should one say ‘fashionable’, thinkers; those who thrive on aporia and post-structuralist scepticism, well, that should invite scepticism. For example, one must always be careful ascribing unconscious (the ‘ph’ kind of fantasy) motives to others as a way of discounting their perspectives, particularly when these ascriptions so transparently mask political positions and derive so distantly and speculatively from Freud. That’s sauce for the gander, if you’ll excuse a gender binary term. The people in Brazil who objected to the dissolution of earlier notions of gender are not merely represented by the burners of effigies. Speak to many prominent (now deplatformed) feminists about this suggestion. Nor can concepts of equality be predicated on a global homogenisation of our sense of attachment. We exist in circles of concern but it’s not the case that we owe nothing to those we don’t love or with whom we don’t have close ties of identity or community. This issue goes back to Burke and Paine and turns on a better discussion of Burke than was found in your episode about him. (Hear, hear, therefore to an episode on the work of Roger Scruton.) I’m not trying to dismiss Butler’s ideas but our understanding of them would have been enriched by some critique – I would have liked to hear her response. I recall, for example, Wes Alwan’s objections to Michael Sandel’s communitarianism. That discussion raised a vital point about the nature of identity in liberal democracies – a subject central to so many of our concerns now. With thinkers whose works derive so much from Marx, one must bring in liberal and conservative perspectives. How often we sit through these things waiting for the other shoe to drop. You fellas could help us raise the debate above the tired sloganeering common to the culture wars.
August B Denys says
I feel like I want to request more PostStructuralism, specifically Deleuze, but my problem with requesting Deleuze is that his is the kind of work that would require a long period of time to cover IF it were his original works–DIfference and Repetition, or Logic of Sense–or IF it were his co-authored works–Anti-Oedipus or A Thousand Plateaus. However, he has done great work on other philosophers, I’m reading through his book Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza currently and it is extremely brilliant. He also has books on Bergson, Nietzsche, another book on Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Foucault, and more. However, with how you guys program your episodes, that is partially reading books and always, from what I’ve seen, focusing on primary work and not secondary he is a hard sell. The only book which might fit this format is A Thousand Plateaus (I haven’t mentioned What Is Philosophy? because I know you covered that but the book changes greatly after the second part). The thing that could be interesting for you guys is that A Thousand Plateaus claims that you can read it in any order so long as you read the first chapter first and the last chapter last. As such, you could read through A Thousand Plateaus and make it an every once in a while read where you read a chapter and do a podcast on it.
Other requests might be GIorgio Agamben’s book Homo Sacer. It pulls from various thinkers and could be a great capstone if you guys ever did a political philosophy thing like you did for social construction. It pulls from Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, Carl Schmitt, Thomas Hobbes, and more.
In this vein, Carl Schmitt’s book Political Theology might be a good book to cover especially if you thing your viewers think you are too liberal. This book is a refutation of Liberalism, but goes in the opposite direction of Marxism, i.e., yes, this author argues for Fascism. As such, Agamben in writing his book Homo Sacer is writing against Schmitt.
If this were a series, then I would also recommend Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay Critique of Violence, Karl Popper’s The Open Society (personally, I’m not a fan, but he aims to critique Marxist Historicism), and perhaps and reexamination of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Of course there is more than this, these are just what I can think of.
Other than these I might recommend Todd May’s Death, Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or On the Improvement of the Understanding, Bergson’s Matter and Memory or Creative Evolution, and Sara Ahmed Queer Phenomenology or Cultural Politics of Emotion or Differences That Matter.
I feel like this is too much. If I were allowed one choice, that is, if I had to choose one to endorse, then it would be A Thousand Plateaus. I didn’t mean for it to get this long, but every book (and article) listed is definitely of interest.
P.S. I forgot to originally include this, I would recommend the works of Charles S. Peirce. Specifically The Principles of Phenomenology and Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs which are included in the collection Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Lot of good stuff. I don’t only read Postmodernism.
Richard Smith says
The conservative tradition: Burke, John Adams, Benthamism and Walter Scott, Canning, Coleridge, Randolph and Calhoun, Macaulay, Cooper, Tocqueville, John Quincey Adams, Brownson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Disraeli, Newman, Comte, Maine, Lecky, James Russell Lowell, Godkin, Henry Adams, Brooks Adams, George Gissing, Arthur Balfour, W.H Mallock, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer Moore, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot.
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Eliot, Regnery Publishing, Washington, 2001
Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World, Princeton University Press, 2014
Disclosure: Like most, I am a bewildered mixture of conservative and classical liberal!
Hi! I really enjoyed this coverage of and the interview with Judith Butler. And, in terms of pursuing these specific threads further, I strongly recommend Donna Haraway’s 1986 “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” (collected in her volume Primate Visions, I believe). It’s a lively and brilliant piece that anticipates Latour’s more recent, less poststructurally oriented notion of “pragmatic realism”, and attempts to satisfyingly braid the loose ends with which science, identity politics and postructuralism are at with each other. It also does an excellent job of setting the historical scene of their collision. Here’s a quotation:
“We wanted a way to go beyond showing bias in science (that proved too easy anyhow), and beyond separating the good scientific sheep from the bad goats of bias and misuse. It seemed promising to do this by the strongest possible constructionist argument that left no cracks for reducing the issues to bias versus objectivity, use versus misuse, science versus pseudo-science. […] “sex” as an object of biological knowledge appears regularly in the guise of biological determinism, threatening the fragile space for social constructionism and critical theory, with their attendant possibilities for active and transformative intervention, which were called into being by feminist concepts of gender as socially, historically, and semiotically positioned difference. And yet, to lose authoritative biological accounts of sex, which set up productive tensions with gender, seems to be to lose too much; it seems to be to lose not just analytic power within a particular Western tradition but also the body itself as anything but a blank page for social inscriptions, including those of biological discourse. The same problem of loss attends the radical “reduction” of the objects of physics or of any other science to the ephemera of discursive production and social construction. But the difficulty and loss are not necessary.”
Looking forward to further adventures down this and similar roads.
Emory Taylor says
Butler was the sharpest thinkers I ran into at Berkeley so I’m glad you got to enjoy her. I ended up enjoying the social construction episodes even though there was a lot of railing against a relativist straw-man that I’ve never seen in the wild. I took a breath of relief when you appreciated Gender Trouble. She’s an incredible close reader so it’s almost a shame you didn’t get her to do a reading with you. I’d personally like a Donna Haraway reading. She’s a really fun read and very much reflects on a lot of current issues. I know she’s “trendy” but I think that just means vital.
I’m looking forward to the end (or at least the abatement) of the gender politics stuff. I haven’t been a regular listener for over a year because of it. Used to be my favorite podcast.
It’s not a political thing or an “equal time” thing, It just gets old hearing the same thing over and over again, especially when there are so many notable philosophical topics you have yet to cover.
George Wolfe says
I enjoy the podcast, but I am glad this social construction series is over. I agree with whoever said there just wasn’t much there, particularly in Butler.
I appreciate that you tried to engage with the works on their own terms, but it was somewhat frustrating to listen to hours and hours of analysis with almost no criticism. When Wes finally did offer some criticisms in this episode, I wanted to cheer. More of that please.
Suggestion for a future episode: the work of mathematician and philosopher Frank Ramsey. He had interesting ideas about belief and truth, influenced Wittgenstein, made major contributions to economic theory, etc. A new biography of Ramsey by philosopher Cheryl Misak was recently published and she would make an excellent guest.
Mychael Trammell says
I second this suggestion to review Frank Ramsey!
He was an endlessly interesting figure. A genius polymath thinker who’s life was unfortunately cut short, but still achieved progress in many fields. He rubbed shoulders with the greatest thinkers in his era and even influenced Wittgenstein’s philosophy, all by the age of 27. How is he so unknown today?! I discovered him recently and have been reading his interesting work on truth and belief. I can find almost no content on Frank Ramseyand would love to hear you discuss his ideas.
a.b. keck says
I enjoy these summary episodes where you all get to reflect more generally on themes and questions from your last few readings and discussions. For what it is worth, I request a Scruton episode. He is an interesting thinker, and a good writer too. The Meaning of Conservatism would be feasible for the podcast, and you could supplement it with Thinkers of the New Left, where he critiques some of the leftists you’ve read (Foucault, Sartre, etc…)
Zizek would be fine, I suppose, but I am not sure what you’ll find in there that you haven’t already got in Hegel, Heidegger and Lacan.
Thanks for all you do.
Charles Crawford says
Wow! A shout-out for me as a house-tamed cranky conservative on this most interesting episode. Thanks for giving the substance of my view as previously expressed.
The whole ‘gender’ sequence of episodes drifted into confusion because you did not press home on the core ‘natural kinds’ issue. If ‘men’ and ‘women’ are natural kinds (and given the deep need for an organism to reproduce is there anything more natural than that?), all the talk of gender being a social construct has a significant incoherence.
Likewise the dishonest metaphor that gender is a ‘spectrum’. It’s an odd spectrum if some 99% of people who have ever lived fall into two clear biological categories. Is it just or reasonable that that 99% have to change their language and norms for the <1%? How to assess that question?
What is all the language about 'social construction' really trying to say? Isn't any expression used in any language a 'social construct'? Are the planets a 'social construct'? What makes a sentence using the soc/con expression even meaningful? Is it a sentence about language or reality or sociology?
If a man can 'self-identify' as a women and demand that the law treat that as a binding new outcome, can a Nigerian self-identify as a Chinese and demand to be treated by law as a Chinese person? Can you self-identify as a lamp-post? What are the philosophical differences between these situations? What are these questions *about*?As Wittgenstein might say, what's the test for whether any of this *makes sense*?
At one point in the discussion Mark said something to the effect that 'no-one now seriously thinks that women should dress or behave in a certain way'. You need to get out more, not least to the 'Muslim World'…
As for Judith Butler, most of her examples were at best predictably lame/tendentious. People on the southern border of the USA trying to enter illegally have no right to enter the USA. Letting in people making false asylum claims or 'opening the borders' to anyone who shows up simply makes fools of the rest of us who dutifully fill in US visa applications and stand for hours in your airport immigration queues. She also lamented the anti-semitism of some attacks on George Soros, while staying studiously silent on the now explicit anti-semitism in parts of the US liberal establishment.
Did I hear Wes generously saying that 'maybe people who oppose open borders are not insane'? It's the opposite: the very idea of 'open borders' is insane:
"It’s obvious what happens when a state starts to crumble. People try to escape. But how then to stop it crumbling? Is there any form of ‘intervention’ that grips the situation and restores stability that does not involve pouring in more weapons or taking sides militarily, or even invading the territory to conquer it? Does not that sort of thing start to look like hated colonialism?
Gripping questions. They do nothing to help us back in real life, as thousands of poor people arrive at a European border and start to try to force their way across it.
The immediate ghastliness of this situation lies, of course, in the human suffering and confusion on display. But the deeper philosophical quandary is no less dramatic. What if our proud and even honourable rules emerging from the existence of national states start to collapse under sheer weight of numbers?"
See also Montesquieu.
I continue to listen to most episodes, having worked my way through your complete oeuvre. Ideas for future contemplation:
More Wittgenstein please, eg On Certainty. Peter Hacker is a brilliant expert if you need someone to join you.
Ray Tallis: doctor turned philosopher on AI and all that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Tallis
I was on Roger Scruton's last full MA course in London before he so sadly died this year. His thoughts on Beauty or his way of looking at Kant could be of wider interest.
The David Deutsch book The Beginning of Infinity is a brilliant bold look at the scientific method and all sorts of other philosophical issues.
Genetic engineering. Is it OK to use technology to choose a son/daughter or to increase the chances of blue eyes? Should deaf parents be allowed to choose to have deaf children, or gay couples to have gay children, or non-gay couples to have non-gay children? What philosophical issues are in play here?
You have a collective limp liberal blind spot on Communism. You studiously ignore the revolting political views of people like Sartre and Zizek, tending to dismiss or play down collectivist hard-Leftist thought as an example of 'tribalism'. Why not take a long hard look at the philosophical basis for communism/Marxism and why in fact it leads to mass murder wherever it's seriously tried? What is the philosophical difference between Communism and Nazism, if there is one? Maybe have a 'conservative' guest who's been brought up under communism and can explain its philosophical roots vividly? Or someone who's left the Left, appalled by what goes on there?
One final suggestion? You do a fine job in taking seriously the different texts you discuss, even if the recent gruelling Benjamin episode might have benefited from a tad more expert jurisprudence(!) to explore the difference between laws, norms, rules and principles. (NB that it's not just that the police interpret the law. We all do. That's the point.)
But why not deliberately every 15 mins or so step back and remind listeners and yourselves "What's really at stake here?". It will help us PEL followers in fact follow what you're talking about by setting the immediate detailed issues in a wider context.
This piece by me linking Wittgenstein to COVID19 might amuse you: https://charlescrawford.biz/2020/04/07/covid19-measuring-measurement/
Thanks so much. Onwards.
Phil Tanny says
I’m new here and thus can’t comment usefully on what you’ve been covering. If/when the subject is gender, here’s what interests me the most.
First, generally speaking, I prefer philosophy which searches for a simple clear bottom line, rather than lots of detailed complexity. For my taste, the most useful philosophy can be shared in everyday language accessible to the average person.
In that spirit, what interests me about gender is that men generate almost all the violence in the world. A simple obvious fact easily verified. Why does this fact matter? An ever accelerating knowledge explosion is handing violent men ever more, ever larger powers to do what they’ve always done, spread suffering and chaos etc. It’s this escalating threat which makes the question of gender ever more important.
Most men are not violent of course, another simple fact. So ideally we would keep the many peaceful men while somehow removing or successfully managing the minority of violent men. The problem here is that, to my knowledge, no society in history has figured out how to do that. Thus we see a world full of peaceful men which is also chronically plagued by violence.
If men and women committed violence on equal terms then the question of gender wouldn’t be relevant to the challenge presented by violence. But that is not the case, so gender is indeed quite relevant.
Imho, it would be a rational philosophical act to set most other topics aside so we can focus on the marriage between an ever accelerating knowledge explosion and violent men. The reasoning for such a choice would be that unless we figure how to interrupt that marriage, it seems inevitable that sooner or later none of the other topics will matter.
Here’s evidence for that claim…
We currently have thousands of hair trigger hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats.
That’s an example of the price tag for ignoring the relationship between violent men and the knowledge explosion.
Christina Hoff Sommers, who was in fact a philosophy professor, and therefore a philosopher by the contemporary definition, would be a great counterpoint to Judith Butler. The only thing is, she’s been AWOL from co-hosting her own podcast, The Femsplainers, for several months now; so I don’t know what that means about her availability. But she’s still tweeting.
If not Sommers, then perhaps Camille Paglia?
Wes Alwan says
I’m familiar with her and that’s seems like a good idea! We’ve tried to get Camille Paglia on but as you can imagine she’s overwhelmed with these sorts of requests and declined.
Here’s Christina Hoff Sommers’ contact info:
Sommers is probably a better fit, being a more measured speaker than Camille Paglia, who is of course well-known for communicating in a more aphoristic style. Since you guys have been around for a while, I don’t know how long ago it is that you tried to get Paglia, but she might have less prominence than she used to, and therefore more availability. Plus, she might be looking for interaction in this crazy time of coronavirus.