On Karl Marx’s The German Ideology, Part I, an early, unpublished work from 1846. What is human nature? What drives history? How can we improve our situation? Marx thought that fundamentally, you are what you do: you are your job, your means of subsistence. All the rest, this culture, this religion, this philosophy, is just a thin layer over our basic situation. Ideas are not primarily what changes the world; it’s economics.
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Excerpts of discussions about Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, an article on emergence called “More Is Different” by Nobel Prize Winning physicist P.W. Anderson, John Searle’s Mind: A Brief Introduction, and Italo Calvino’s trippy science fantasy novel Cosmicomics.
On Plato’s Dialogue, “Gorgias” (380 BCE or so). Why philosophize? Isn’t it better to know how to persuade people in practical matters, like a successful lawyer or business leader? Plato (via Socrates) thinks that the “art” of rhetoric isn’t an art at all, in the sense of requiring an understanding of one’s subject matter, but merely a talent for saying what people want to hear.
Three podcasters and two listeners join to read Plato’s fabulous dialogue.
On David Chalmers’s book Constructing the World (2012). How are all the various truths about the world related to each other? David Chalmers, famous for advocating a scientifically respectable form of brain-consciousness dualism, advocates a framework of scrutability: if one knew some set of base truths, then the rest would be knowable from them.
Excerpts of discussions about David Chalmers’s The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass.
On Rudolph Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World (1928). What can we know? Carnap thinks that all the various spheres of knowledge are logically interrelated, that you can translate sentences about any of these into sentences about sets of basic, momentary experiences. This book, aka the Aufbau, is his attempt to sketch out how this system of linguistic reduction can work (it doesn’t). With guest Matt Teichman.
On W.V.O. Quine’s “On What There Is” (1948) and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951). What kind of metaphysics is compatible with science? Quine sees science and philosophy as one and the same enterprise, and he objects to ontologies that include types of entities that science can’t, even in principle, study. Also, troubles with the concept of synonymy, i.e. “same meaning.” With guest Matt Teichman.
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On Alexander Hamilton/James Madison’s Federalist Papers (1, 10-12, 14-17, 39, 47-51), published as newspaper editorials 1787-8, plus Letters III and IV from Brutus, an Anti-Federalist. What constitutes good government? These founding fathers argued that the proposed Constitution, with its newly centralized (yet also separated-by-branch) powers would be a significant improvement on the Articles of Confederation, which had left states as the ultimate sovereigns.
On Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity by Tom Payne (2010). What’s the deal with our f’ed up relationship with celebrities? Payne says that celebrities serve a social need that’s equal parts religion and and aggression. TV’s Lucy Lawless (Xena, Spartacus, Battlestar Galactica) joins us to discuss the accuracy of this thesis.
On philosophical issues in McCarthy’s 2005 novel about guys running around with drug money and shooting each other, and about fiction as a form for exploring philosophical ideas. What can morality mean for people who have witnessed the “death of God,” i.e. a loss in faith in light of the horrors of war? Who knows what McCarthy himself thinks? With guest Eric Petrie.
On Candide: or, Optimism, the novel by Voltaire (1759). Is life good? Popular Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz argued that it’s good by definition. God is perfectly good and all-powerful, so whatever he created must have been as good as it can be; we live in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire loads this satirical adventure story up with horrific violence to demonstrate that Leibniz’s position is just silly. Life is filled with suffering, and human nature is such that even in peace and prosperity, we’re basically miserable. Yet we still love life despite this. Tend your garden!
On Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873). What is truth? This essay, written early in Nietzsche’s career, is taken by many to make the extreme claim that there is no truth, that all of the “truths” we tell each other are just agreements by social convention. WIth guest Jessica Berry, who argues that that Nietzsche is a skeptic: our “truths” don’t correspond with the world beyond our human conceptions; all knowledge is laden with human interests.
On Aristotle’s Politics (350 BCE), books 1 (ch 1-2), 3, 4 (ch 1-3), 5 (ch 1-2), 6 (ch 1-6), and 7 (ch. 1-3, 13-15). Aristotle provides both a taxonomy of the types of government, based on observations of numerous constitutions of the states of his time, and prescriptions on how to best order a state.
On Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), mostly ch. 3-7 and 14-17. What justifies ethical claims? MacIntyre claims that no modern attempt to ground ethics has worked, and that’s because we’ve abandoned Aristotle. We see facts and values as fundamentally different: the things science discovers vs. these weird things that have nothing to do with science. In Aristotle’s teleological view, everything comes with built-in goals, so just as a plant will aim grow green and healthy, people have a definite kind of virtue towards which we do and should naturally strive.
On G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, ch. 1 (1903); Charles Leslie Stevenson’s “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms” (1937), and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, ch. 1-2. Is there such a thing as moral intuition? Is “good” a simple property that we all recognize but can’t explain like yellow? Or are moral terms just tools we use to convince other people to like things that we like?
On Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900). What is humor? Bergson says that, fundamentally, we laugh as a form of social corrective when others are slow to adapt to society’s demands. Other types of humor are derivative from this. With guest Jennifer Dziura.
Continuing discussion of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Part I, sections 1-33 and 191-360. With guest Philosophy Bro. On “family resemlances” in concepts, dismissing philosophical puzzles as grammatical mistakes, and the private language argument.
On Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Part I, sections 1-33 and 191-360 (written around 1946). What is linguistic meaning? Wittgenstein argues that it’s not some mysterious entity in the mind, but that it is a public matter: you understand a word if you can use it appropriately, and you know the context in which it’s appropriate to use it and how to react when you hear it in that context. W. calls such a context a “language game,” and sees language as big heap of these games, spanning a wide range of human activity. With guest Philosophy Bro.