Category Archives: Philosophy

Andrew Potter’s Finest Hour?

Morpheus2When the guy on the battery-powered radio said the army needed volunteers to go house to house and check in on shut-ins and the elderly, two days into the great ice storm of 1998, my buddies and I were out the door in less than ten minutes. When we got to the high school, the gymnasium was already half full. Ten minutes later, it was full. The commanding officer had one of his men go outside and turn everyone else away. Tears streamed down his face as he divvied up the assignments. He was profoundly moved, as were we. Our neighborhood wasn’t, I hasten to add, especially benevolent; volunteers were turned away all over the city. That’s the Quebec I know and love. That’s my home. And that’s how my people behave in a crisis.

My wife and I live in the middle of Montreal, in the most densely populated electoral district in Canada (Plateau-Mont-Royal), and yet parents still parent each other’s kids here, neighbors ask suspicious strangers what the fuck they’re doing, a guy shovels his neighbor’s stairs unasked (simply because he noticed that his neighbor’s leg is in a cast), and people smile discreetly when they see you without expecting a conversation. It’s the best of both worlds: the privacy and pseudo-anonymity of the city without Kitty Genovese. Bowling Alone? I think not.

But I’m writing to you today, not because I disagreed with your article, but because I was deeply impressed by your thoughtful retraction. Is this not precisely what we need more of in the Age of Trump: grownups who know how to calmly admit error and move on with life. And is this not also precisely what we’d expect from a philosopher? Strange as it may sound, I actually cherish those moments when I’m dead wrong about something in class, because it gives me an opportunity to teach my students, by example, how to admit error gracefully.

Denial’s for the true-believer, and casuistry’s for the mendacious. Rationalization’s for the ideologue, and anger’s for the know-it-all. Fear’s for the weak, and shame’s for the fragile. Excuses are for the guilty, and tears are for the lifelong valedictorian, who’s known far too little failure. But the philosopher’s not fazed by criticism. The philosopher just acknowledges the error, and calmly corrects course. Criticism is, after all, for the Socratic, merely information. Nobody fears making a mistake less. As Marcus Aurelius puts it in the Meditations: “If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm.”

—John Faithful Hamer

Why It’s Hard To Be a Facebook Filosopher

1. Everything’s Written Down. All communication in Social Media Land is based on the written word. For philosophy, this is hardly ideal. It’s good to remember that most ancient philosophers wrote little or nothing. They received and transmitted their ideas via the spoken word. Some did this, of necessity, because they were themselves illiterate; but most did so, like Socrates, because they were profoundly suspicious of the written word. The spirit of philosophy was first and foremost, they thought, a function of speeches not scribbles; it couldn’t be captured in chirography, but it could be conjured in conversation, and, to some extent, encapsulated in aphorisms. For instance, Roman soldiers who could barely read often managed, despite their lack of learning, to commit much of Epictetus’s Enchiridion to memory. Likewise, many an Epicurean shopkeeper living in, say, 2nd-century Athens, would, though functionally illiterate, memorize most (if not all) of Epicurus’s sayings and maxims. These aphorisms contained—albeit in a highly concentrated form—more than enough wisdom to last a lifetime.

2. Everything’s Public. All communication in Social Media Land is public. For philosophy, this is hardly ideal. In Plato’s Symposium we learn that many of the ancient Greeks thought philosophy was impossible without privacy and alcohol. So long as people are sober, they won’t tell you how they really feel, what they really think. Hence the phrase: in vino veritas. Likewise, when people are in a public place, they invariably say that which is politically correct, that which is appropriate. They don’t tell you the truth about how they see things. For these reasons, and others, philosophical discussions happened in ancient Athens only among friends, behind closed doors, and after a fair amount of drinking. The veritas that comes out because of the vino isn’t necessarily The Truth, but at least it’s a good starting point from which to begin moving dialectically towards the truth.

3. Trolls Look a Whole Lot like Philosophers. The difference between a troll and a Socrates is roughly equivalent to the difference between a reckless person and a courageous person. From the outside, their actions are often indistinguishable. That’s why you have to try to see inside the person: to their motivations and mental state. For instance, if I take on a bouncer three times my size for no reason in a bar-fight, because I’m shitfaced, you’re probably looking at recklessness. But if my buddy Jed takes on the same wall-of-a-man the following night, when he’s stone-cold sober, because the bouncer roofied his sister, you’re probably looking at courage. Likewise, from the outside, at least initially, it can be hard to tell the difference between a Socrates, who has the courage to tell people things they don’t want to hear, and a troll, who just likes to hurt and humiliate people in public. But if you’re paying attention, you can usually tell them apart sooner or later. Because we’re fairly good at telling the difference between an asshole and a philosopher in the real world. Alas, the same is not true online. Trolls and ideologues abound in Social Media Land, and they often look and sound a whole lot like Socrates; so if you block everyone annoying outright, you’re gonna throw out a whole lot of Socratic babies along with that troll-infested bath water. Hence the need to tolerate trolls. If you value the examined life, blocking everyone who gets on your nerves isn’t a viable option. You need to hear what they’re saying from time to time. But you don’t have to agree with them. Nor do you have to respond to them. In fact, if you’re going to survive the mean streets of Social Media Land, you’re going to have learn how to resist the urge to respond, how to turn the other cheek. You have to let yourself be abused by trolls and ideologues, let them call you names and misrepresent your views, let them squeeze you into their ill-fitting categories and pre-fab narratives, and refuse to fight fire with fire, refuse to stoop to their level. It’s hard. And there must be limits to what you’re willing to put up with. But it works. For the same reason that “extinction” works on bratty kids.

4. Freedom of Facebook is Under Threat. An increasingly long list of people (e.g., police officers, border guards, nurses, government officials, etc.) are being told what they can and cannot say on social media. Policies are being put in place with clearly stipulated sanctions for those who violate them. To some extent this is little more than a codification of commonsense (e.g., obviously you shouldn’t be posting half-naked pictures of yourself if you teach my kid’s kindergarten class). But these policies usually go far beyond the realm of commonsense. Indeed, I fear that we’re moving, with startling rapidity, towards a world that looks a whole lot like the world of ancient Athens, wherein the freedom to speak your mind in public about important political matters was the exclusive privilege of a tiny percentage of the population. It’s important to remember that, in the 19th century, one of the central arguments against the extension of the franchise to workers—an argument which was repeated ad nauseam by reactionary conservatives (the enemies of democracy)—was that “wage slaves” couldn’t be trusted with the vote because their employers had far too much power over them. Only the independently wealthy were free to follow the virtuous voice of conscience. Only those of sufficient means could speak and act like free men in the public sphere. If we acquiesce to these new social media policies, are we not proving these reactionaries right? As Aristotle rightly observed long ago, participating in the political life of your community is central to what it means to live a fully human life. The free man who can’t (or won’t) take part in the on-going public conversation about the common good is, he maintained, no better than a child, an idiot, or a well-to-do slave. Machiavelli would surely add, with a sardonic smile, that the free man who can’t (or won’t) participate in politics won’t be free for long. If the Florentine’s ghost could speak and we were willing to listen, I suspect he’d leave us with this question: “How free are you now if you’re not even free to use Facebook?”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Aphorisms on Power by Earl Shorris

Reflections on power.

By Earl Shorris

Power is the central position; it is not the center.

Although power shifts, it does not change by degree. Power is or is not; it does not dawn, nor does it leave in a twilight.

Power is not an ability.

There is no essential difference between great power and small power; expansion is only a matter of accessories.

In the city, power walks; taxis are for those who meet the schedules of others.

Emptiness is a sign of power.

The powerful speak slowly, as if time were plentiful.

There are no draws in the games of power.

The surface of power is polished stone.

Power always has something of greater importance.

When a powerful man asks for something, he is always brought something superior: an urn for a cup, a couch for a chair.

The powerful know that complexity is the province of underlings.

Power is not in making; it is in having.

There is no power in a small room.

After he gained power, what had been seen as eccentricity appeared as wisdom.

A formula for power: Power equals the weakness of others times their number.

One loses the sense of power over others. To feel power it must be constantly increased.

A vision is powerful, unless it is understood.

The most powerful names in intellectual argument are those that are recognized but not known.

Power is gained by withholding.

Power articulates its desires.

Circuitousness is a better means for the powerful than confrontation, because it is more certain.

The powerful punish by disinterest.

Power shows intimacy as a reward.

Power enables one to break appointments.

Underlings speculate about the powerful; the powerful discuss underlings in full knowledge of the situation.

Power interrupts.

There is no better way to flaunt one’s power than to attempt to appear equal when dealing with the powerless.

To recognize virtue in an underling is an act of power.

The difference between a powerful man and a bully is the latter’s penchant for telephoning underlings at 4:30 on Friday afternoon.

The president of the company makes jokes about cheating on his expense account to an audience of men who fear they will be caught cheating on their expense accounts.

Power sits at another table.

A powerful person may choose to send another in his place. The acceptability of the substitute depends upon the power of the one who sent him.

Power thanks; nothing more clearly separates the powerful from the powerless than that graciousness.

Power does not kill; it permits suicide.

Power is conferred by association: the basking of underlings.

A powerful man said nothing, and all those in attendance knew exactly what he meant. Later, they could not agree on what they had heard.

People do things for the powerful; they do not wait to be asked.

In fiction the recourse of the powerless is murder; in life the recourse of the powerless is petty theft.

Those without power wait.

The powerful are made uneasy by deference, but they accept nothing less.

Power may be amused, but to be amusing is an admission of weakness.

Power is embarrassed by unsubtle flattery.

Hurried speech is a form of deference.

Power’s best decoration is a cultured assistant.

Death has no power; it is dying that we fear.

Envy is a form of obeisance.

The power of a man is determined by his ability to mask the power of those who dominate him.

Men abrogate their lives to their livelihoods.

Power is the first compromise of society.

Evil is ascribed to the powerful because they are unknown; it is the weapon used against them.

Stylishness, being an acquiescence, mitigates power.

Conspicuous power is vulnerable.

There is no power without arrogance, however subtle.

Clarity vitiates power.

To the powerful, art has no meaning, only uses.

The powerful man has no use for those immobilized by truth.

Ultimate power may be safely ignored.

Whenever it is universally known that power is the creation of its victims, the world trembles.

Love is not power; that may be as good a description of the human predicament as we are likely to get.

On Political Philosophies and “What Works”

This is mostly in response to John’s fine piece titled “Why Libertarians Are Like Judgy Know-It-Alls Who Don’t Have Kids”, which can be found here

The problem with arguments against normative theories that appeal to “what works” is that in them is already built a normative theory. As a result, they beg the question.

This took me a long time to realize, though Aaron Haspel clearly knew about this for awhile now. When I first met Aaron at John’s place and this topic came up, Aaron nonchalantly rattled off the above observation as though it were a matter of course. It was humbling and, to be honest, mildly embarrassing.

At any rate, in this fine piece, John writes that “Much in America works. And works very well.” But to libertarians (and Marxists, etc.), violating people’s rights doesn’t count as “working”, even if the overall arrangement is generally desirable or pleasant. This point is brought out especially well by Ursula Le Guin’s award-winning short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In this story, Le Guin writes of a utopian city known as Omelas.

Omelas is shimmering, bright and beautiful. Everyone is happy, has food to eat and there is no social strife. Everything works wonderfully. However, Omelas has a dark secret. It turns out that the city’s splendor depends on the infliction of suffering and misery on a single child who is locked away in a basement.

When they come of age, each Omelian citizen is taken to see the child. The story is about the ones who, after seeing the child, decide in the dead of night when everyone’s asleep to walk away from Omelas.

The point is this: To those who walk away from Omelas, the city doesn’t “work.” For before we can do or judge what “works”, we need to know what counts as working. As normative theories, Marxism, libertarianism and (insert political philosophy here) try to provide the criteria for what counts as working.

Now, this does not take anything away from John’s insight that libertarians are very wrong—and indeed, childish—when they complain that the government does nothing well. The government undoubtedly provides many valuable services, and sometimes does so well and efficiently. To categorically say otherwise is false and, worse, dogmatic.

But on political philosophy more generally, I agree with Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen that our principles of justice (which are delivered by our particular political philosophies) ought to be fact-insensitive. That is, I don’t think facts about a principle’s feasibility (in terms of people’s willingness to comply with it) should count as evidence for or against the principle. More concretely, “But, in the real world, people will always rape!” is not a valid objection to “Rape is wrong.”

As the saying goes, Marxism may not work “in practice” because we are too selfish and greedy to be good Marxists, but most people agree that it’s morally the right way. That is enough to concede that Marxism is true. (Libertarians, of course, disagree.) Indeed, Marxism is just a normative thesis, and normative claims do not entail anything about what descriptively is or will be the case. Their truth stands independently of it.

Appeals to “what works”, then, either don’t count as any evidence against Marxism or libertarianism, or beg the question against them.

—Chris Nguyen

Notes for My Unwritten Book

652_sacred_textsWhile I was losing and finding myself in grad school, I stumbled into a little Buddhist sangha where I met the editor of a small press interested in doing books about the relationship between Eastern and Western philosophies. After listening to me babble informally for a while (about philosophy in general, my dissertation in ancient Greek philosophy, Buddhism, etc.), she asked if I would do a book for them. I said I would, and I have been diligently (but only too slowly) pounding away since.

As inspiration for my project, she gave me a very nice little book about the experience of a Western academic philosopher (from Virginia) who went over to India to teach Tibetan monks a course in ‘our philosophy’ while attempting to learn for his own part more about theirs. What struck me about the book was how classroom-bound we appear to be. The monks were still building a βίος (in the Greek sense) after the fashion of (say) Diogenes of Sinope, but the university professor was not (and found that aspect of their experience and training a bit strange, particularly when it led them to value an end of rational discussion, a disavowal of ‘the life of the mind’ that obsessed him). I wondered where we (‘the West’ in my editor’s formulation) lost the sense of building life as a philosophical endeavor: the professor offered a line about the independence of the individual in Western life which seemed to address this concern a bit, but my own historical research (and experience working in the university) made his idea—that Western philosophy equips us to live as autonomous individuals maximally independent of irrational notions—too naive to take very seriously. So I started (or rather continued) reading as much ancient material on philosophy as I could find—philosophical literature, history, and interpretation (including many exceedingly boring books by interpreters of Aristotle).

Beginning with the Ionians (pre-Socratics), I find the ancient notion of philosophy (in the West) perfectly congruent with Buddhist and earlier Eastern notions of living skillfully (knowing one’s environment and responding intelligently to it, managing internal and external phenomena with intention in the manner of an ancient sage, yogi, or shaman). Of course there are windbags who affect expertise they don’t possess to make money or fame (the pretenders Plato casts as sophists). And many regard the alchemy of the philosophical bios as a questionable use of time (to put it kindly: witness Aristophanes’ satire of Socrates in the Clouds). But the concept of philosophy as something lived remains (and philosophers share a kind of cult, a religion that includes gods, offerings, taboos, and rituals that prepare philosophers for actions trivial and serious on the stage of human drama set by the cities and countryside they frequent). It remains right down to late antiquity (when the schools close under Justinian?).

At this point, things become hazy (for me). As near as I can tell, many philosophers continue to practice recognizable ancient forms of their vocation—without formal organization, or with some adjustment (converting to Christianity or moving to Persian territory in search of more lenient political regimes). When philosophy re-emerges in the West (in the courts of Byzantine emperors, the notes of learned monks, the lectures of medieval cathedral schools), it is pedantic commentary on what has become an alien experience (the old religion that was ancient philosophy). People who live dedicated lives in the manner of the old philosophers are often unlearned friars or hermits (whose primary intellectual stimulus, where it exists, is more likely to come from Christian prayers and liturgy than from ancient relics of paganism). Meanwhile, people who study those relics, right up until the Renaissance, are motivated mostly by ‘idle’ (in the pejorative medieval sense) curiosity, which they attempt to redeem by inventing theology (the first modern science! and quite dismal, though it has some funny consequences, like Ramon Llull trying to convert Muslim philosophers to Christianity with logic: at least he recognized the futility of violence).

Hunting proof that God really exists in a particular and predictable way, Western theologians stumble into the Enlightenment (with absurd hopes of understanding all things, hopes that many ancient Greek philosophers would have joined generations of Indians and Chinese—Ajivikas, Carvakas, Buddhists, Daoists—in deploring). From the Enlightenment, the Western theologian emerges transformed into the professor, a pedant in love with this unique idol of Reason, an image (Greek εἴδωλον) that exists without any obvious grounding in historical experience or culture (since he inherits it reading from old texts whose practical historical circumstances have vanished: he is reading the liturgy for rites he has never seen, let alone participated in). And so today, we find a strange disjunction between philosophy in the West, such as it is (a rational mind cut off from irrational passions), and philosophy in the East (which has never lost the sense that humanities we cultivate must cohere to inform some kind of human life good in its entirety, its rational and irrational parts: the mind is an expression of the passions, a tool of the passions, something we develop not to overwhelm but to guide and enjoy them safely).

That is, more or less, the territory I see my project covering (with a great many detours to discuss ideas and practices that we have forgotten in the West). I freely confess that I am rather crazy, that some of my passion for this vision of Western philosophy comes from a personal perspective that involves me playing a role in my own society not altogether unlike that of the ancient Cynic. I seek a simpler life, closer to nature than history places me—and my best position in society appears to involve more ridicule or indifference than plaudits. I have no great track record in publications, little interest or money for academic conferences, and much of what I think about philosophy and humanities flies directly in the face of the modern American university. Like Diogenes, I deface the currency.

—Joseph Gresham Miller

On Doing

magritteI don’t do very much.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned to forgive myself for this. Sometimes I feel I might even embrace myself as someone who abstains from doing things, but that nascent possibility is dutifully accosted by the effort it demands. Everything I see or hear, anything anyone ever tells me, is always pushing me to do the opposite of what I think I should be doing. There is no way that I will ever be able to do nothing, and yet deep down there is nothing I want more than to do nothing at all.

My obstacle is the world.

Despite any pretensions we might have as a species, life usually succeeds at getting us to admit that we, as individuals, are a part of what we call world. As a part of something which is only insofar as it is doing, or having done, or going to do, we should expect to be doing things. If we really did nothing, then we’d be nothing; and the world, being not-nothing, couldn’t include someone who is nothing.

I admit that doing nothing may sound boring at first blush, but it doesn’t necessarily involve abstaining from doing anything at all. For example, breathing ought to count as something. But breathing isn’t always particularly relevant, and neither are many other activities. I issue ‘relevant’ here not as the parcel of some cog-in-the-machine capitalist paranoia: being relevant is doing anything linking you to any agenda. If I want to be a painter and I take an art class, that’s very relevant of me.

Accepting this premise makes doing nothing seem elusive. I would go further. Doing nothing is nothing short of impossible. Achieving it for a lifetime is something I doubt even Buddhist monks could fathom. It’s challenging to make yourself irrelevant when having a self-image implies the opposite. The truth is that I have an agenda, and I’m nothing without it. But doing nothing seems like the sensible alternative to performing in the world’s newest song and dance. It’s the only show in town, and I’m nothing if not an actor.

For the intrepid, the most straightforward path to becoming approximately nothing lies in eliminating any connections you have to any sort of network of relevance. From a practical standpoint, this is hardly feasible. The first step to becoming precisely nothing would at the very least be to die, but then you wouldn’t be around to profit from it. The joy of irrelevance is in the magnanimity of nothingness. Nothingness has given everything up – it has nothing left in it.

On the other hand, reducing your overall relevance is not so difficult. The problem is that the world would rather you didn’t. Its progress depends on you, just as your standard of living depends on it. The world is progress, a mercurial network of relevance. Its brand doesn’t always make things better, it just makes things happen: it’s the value-blind impetus that keeps the news new. So it should come as no surprise to us that the world will ceaselessly present us with new things to make, do, see, hear, explore, buy, steal, and eat. But we can turn it down. Not every single time, but more often than is our custom. Our agendas don’t need to be as numerous or as grandiose as they might be right now. We probably won’t save the world. And I wonder whether the world really needs saving in the way we think it does. Maybe that’s just its underhanded way of enticing us into doing.

I’m not advocating for becoming apathetic, isolated, and lazy. Really, I’d settle for just lazy. Laziness is maligned, but it’s misunderstood. Authentically lazy people have discerned the importance of nothing. I’d be surprised if they were any happier than the most relevant among us; I’d just expect them to be more comfortable with the unhappiness sown through our common roots.

If you’re warming to the idea but you fear for your social existence, doing nothing can be a community event. Everybody already understands this, and teenagers best of all. This is why chilling is their priority. Stop doing; just chill.

My friends and I used to spend our chill time devising ways to cheat the rules condemning us to nothing. I believed then that gaining more freedom would make me happier. Instead, confusion and bewilderment are increasingly present facts of my freer life. Happiness is ever more oblique, a treacly little paradox. For a while I thought that this might be a sign of depression, but then I sobered from my drunken scientism. The more I do, the more unsatisfied I become – but I still want to do, always and presumably forever.

I guess I just realized that doing things takes from me. It never fills me up the way I expect it to.

I used to dream of travelling the world. I wanted it to saturate my essence. Now that I’m older, all I want is to do nothing in as many places as I can. I have no desire to skydive or to see every Rembrandt. I feel like I should want to do these things because people keep telling me that they are amazing, but I remain nonplussed. I drift to desolate places instead: deserts and large open seas, mountains and forests. The fewer the things there are to do, the better. ­­

I don’t want to be relevant in the Swiss Alps. I want to recline into their enormous irrelevance. I want their still-water lakes to reflect my own irrelevance, because beneath it all I have always suspected that I am irrelevant and I am beginning to accept this suspicion as truth. By irrelevant I don’t mean worthless or useless. I mean it literally. I might get myself caught up in all sorts of networks of relevance, just like everyone else does and has to. But relevant is not what I am deep down. Deep down I am nothing. And so I like to do nothing as much as possible.

—Phil Lagogiannis


Rider_elephantModern society requires two things. First, you must expect lies. Second, you must not presume that all liars have it in for you (or even that they are aware of how they lie: some are aware; some are not; some lie with good intent; some do not).

The wrong solution to these modern problems is to demand truth, since society has only ever functioned by lies. The best society lives by noble lies (as Plato recognizes); the worst by ignoble. There is no such thing as truth as a foundation for collective human endeavor. Truth may emerge accidentally, usually destructively, but it is never the foundation. The real foundation of society is not an idea, let alone a rational platform or tissue of ideas. It is pre-rational, emotional connection with other people. The ancient world recognized this by making human association into religion, which was always more about behavior (specifically behavior in groups) than ideas (which came later, after the behavior, as reflections of and upon it). Historically, we are charitable (and just and loving and the rest of it) to a fault before we invent some particular dogma of charity (e.g. referring it to some rational perspective or mythical-historical personage).

It is a grave mistake to suppose that the modern ‘Social Contract’ (in American terms, the US Constitution) has done away with the irrational religion at the root of human society. We don’t create societies upon simply rational foundations. When we pretend to do this, to legislate rationally about matters fundamentally irrational, we set ourselves up for problems (when powerful emotions fail to yield to weak reasons, whose weakness is endemic and intrinsic: unconquerable even by the most powerful reason we might invent, because emotion is prior to reason). The appropriate role of reason in modern society is to react to emotion, not to prevent or mask it. To use the old metaphor, the rider cannot ever perfectly dominate the elephant–certainly never to the point of guaranteeing that musth cannot occur. Society is built by containing and channeling emotion, not legislating against it. Behavior is prior to language, and while we can use language to shape behavior, the relationship between the two is asymmetric: behavior shapes language more than language shapes behavior.

Praeparatio Mortis

Parents teach you how to live.
And Pragmatists teach you how to live in the world.
Pedants and Prudes teach you how to live
in the world of the past.
And Prophets teach you how to live
in the world of the future.
But Philosophers teach you how to die.

Parents want to fill you with food and values.
And Preachers want to fill you with faith.
Politicians want to fill you with hope.
And Pundits want to fill you with opinions.
But Philosophers want to fill you with doubt.

Parents care about your dreams.
And Partners want you to care about their dreams.
Preachers and Poets want you to dream their dreams.
And Pessimists want you to dream their nightmares.
But Philosophers just want you to wake-the-fuck-up!

Patricians run for The Cure.
And Politicians run for office.
Players run for the ball.
And Prophets run from The Call.
But Philosophers walk. Slowly.

Parents prepare you for the life they didn’t have.
And Preachers prepare you for the life you ought to have.
Pessimists prepare you for the life they’ve had.
And Pragmatists prepare you for the life
you’re likely to have.
But Philosophers prepare you for the death
you’re sure to have.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2016)

Philosophy and People with PhDs in Philosophy

“There are philosophers who never wrote anything; and there are a lot of writers of philosophy who aren’t philosophers.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb

IMG_2541-003I was once castigated by a colleague, in a review of Blue Notes, for referring to Nassim Nicholas Taleb as a “philosopher”; he took issue, as well, with my numerous references to popular culture, and with my failure to write the book in a sufficiently academic fashion. As my friend Kaï Matthews quite rightly observed, these three seemingly disparate criticisms are, in fact, all of a piece. At some point in the mid-20th century, people with PhDs in Philosophy decided that “philosophers” were really just people with PhDs in Philosophy. What’s worse, they seem to have concluded, at more or less the same time, that the only truly legitimate form of philosophical writing is the jargon-laden article—written by and for the specialist, and published in an obscure academic journal. Everything else that a philosopher writes is, at best, a clumsy attempt at outreach or a watered-down version of the real thing.

Thinkers who traffic in serious ideas are probably freer now, in the 21st-century West, than ever before. And yet there’s a playfulness in the genre-defying writings of philosophers like Plato, Nietzsche and Rousseau, a playfulness that’s noticeably missing from the intellectual life of our day and age. We love to make fun of Kant for being so unbelievably uptight; but, stylistically speaking, he was far freer than we. Expressing a serious idea in a poem, a song, a dialogue, or an op-ed in the New York Times wouldn’t seem shockingly unorthodox to him, nor would the notion that straightforward, jargon-free prose can communicate profound philosophical truths to curious citizens who know how to read.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Flowers at My Feet

t-20There are iconic images that remain burned into your memory; this, for me, is one of them: the Buddha is sitting calmly in lotus position, a beatific smile stretches across his angelic face. We see that he’s beset on all sides by menacing enemies: monsters, demons, deformed animals. They’re all—at one and the same time—hurling weapons and abuse at The Enlightened One. Darts dipped in poison sail through the air. Flaming arrows fly towards his heart. A mighty javelin inches its way to his forehead. But he remains thoroughly unscathed! As the deadly weapons near the Buddha, they’re all magically transformed into flowers, beautiful wild flowers, which fall gently to the ground around him as he sings, sings to his enemies: “Let fly your fiery darts, sweet enemy, sweet friend! Say what you will, do your worst; it matters not. So many flowers: flowers at my feet. And my, how they fly, in the afternoon sky! You’re not even done, but I’ve already won. Just turned your poison words, into sweet singing birds.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)