A Taste of EMPTY IDEAS

by Peter Unger

6a00d8341c562c53ef01a3fd1ee20f970bOn June 16th, an interview of me appeared on this site that, initially, was supposed to be largely concerned with what’s in my brand new book, Empty Ideas, to be published officially, by the Oxford University Press, on July 14th. Well, as actually happened, most of the discussion ended up being about other things, providing little idea as to what’s actually in the book itself, and what it might mean for the importance of – or the unimportance of – a very great deal of mainstream analytic philosophy. In this brief piece, I’d like to do something to help rectify that.

First off, I should tell readers that Amazon.com has done a pretty good job with the first swatches of the book: there, you can see what looks to be more than 40 of the book’s first 56 pages. In just a few moments, the relevance of that will be made quite striking.

A central thesis of the book, perhaps its most central thesis, is this: Contrary to what has been supposed by Anglophone academic philosophers, during the last five decades, there has been offered hardly any new thoughts whose truth, or whose untruth, makes or means any difference as to how anything ever is as concern concrete reality, except for ever so many perfectly parochial thoughts, ideas about nothing much more than which words are used by which people, and how various of these people use these words of theirs — and nothing any deeper than that. (And, if it be required that the newly offered non-parochial thoughts be credible idea – at least more credible than their negations, or their denials, then what’s been relevantly placed on offer, in all these years, goes from hardly anything to nothing at all.) Rather, even while brilliant thinkers have offered thoughts meant to cut lots of concrete mustard, what’s been newly placed on offer, with any credibility, are just so many thoughts empty of import for concrete reality, that is, just so many concretely empty ideas. And, each of these concretely empty ideas owes its emptiness to its being analytic, in a useful sense of that term, so, what’s more, each of the offered thoughts are thoughts that, at least when correct, are just so many analytically empty ideas, each on a par with, in that way, the thought that someone can remember her old college days only if she went to college.

All that is spelled out, at least pretty well, I think, in pages of the book that Amazon offers for your free inspection, especially in the freely available pages comprising almost all of chapter 1.

(And, should those pages leave you a little shy of a firm grasp of what I mean to convey, your grasp should be pretty firm, indeed, if you also read the next pages Amazon provides freely, pages comprising most of chapter 2 of Empty Ideas. For good measure, on Amazon you’ll also get, for free, a good running start on what’s in chapter 3 of the book.) As is my hope, many of those reading these words, will jump over thereright now – and get a good look at that material, doing that before proceeding with any more of this present short piece.

In line with all that material, and at all events, in the rest of this brief piece, I’ll aim to add just a bit more, providing some central material from the next chapter in the book, chapter 4. While this won’t do anything even remotely close to giving an adequate idea of all that goes on in Empty Ideas, a book comprising 9 dense chapters, it may well, I think, convey the flavor of what goes on in about half the book.

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On my interview with Peter Unger, and the value of Philosophy

by Grace Boey

Home_picTwo weeks ago, 3 Quarks Daily ran an interview I did with Peter Unger, professor of philosophy at New York University. The candid conversation touched on several things, including Peter’s newest book Empty Ideas, and the value of philosophy. The piece caused quite a stir within the philosophical community, and generated a significant amount of online commentary — from sources more and less academic alike.

The aim of this follow-up piece is twofold. First, judging from some of the commentary, a brief clarification’s in order regarding the scope and nature of the book and interview (though Peter does much of that himself in his own piece today). Second, the interview has provoked a healthy online debate on the value of philosophical education and philosophy in general; as a young person just starting out in the field, I aim to add a little to this discussion.

About that interview…

One aim of the interview was, of course, for Peter and I to discuss his book. As the conversation turned out, the interview ended up covering a great deal of interesting things — but not representing the many specific and subtle arguments Peter makes in Empty Ideas. A better description of the interview might be that some of it makes for part of a terribly informal prologue (or epilogue) to the book. I encourage interested readers to take a look at Peter’s guest column today on 3 Quarks Daily — A Taste of Some Empty Ideas — to get a better feel of, and engage with, the book.

Next: much of the internet commentary invoked the value of philosophical fields such as moral and social philosophy. While I think this is a great debate, which I'll address shortly, it’s important to note the scope of Peter’s general critique: that is, mainstream Anglophone analytic philosophy. As he expresses in Empty Ideas, normative domains are off the hook:

I do not mean to say much about what’s been going on lately in absolutely every area of terribly respectable philosophical activity. To help you appreciate the range of my argumentation, I say that it’s aimed at what’s recently and currently regarded as analytic philosophy’s core: Certainly metaphysics, and also the most general and metaphysical-seeming parts of, or aspects of, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and epistemology. By contrast, my argumentation won’t concern anything that’s deeply normative, or fully evaluative, or anything of the ilk.

On the value of philosophy

Now that that's been taken care of: one debate that the interview addressed obliquely, or at any rate happened to spark off online, was about the value (or non-value) of philosophical study in general. My own reflections, as someone who's just graduated with an MA in philosophy, will be a take on this issue. As a young person just starting out, should I quit while I still can, or should I stay? Will I have anything to offer if I choose the latter?

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Monday Poem

Future Self

I imagine my inner working
will be more playful then than now,
less attention to survival paid,
finally getting to the sparkling black hole of day,
a moment of arrival: of at-once knowing and
unknowing Tao
.

I was told by a monk who’d kept silence for years
of when his inner dialog disappeared,
when his chattering selves came to accord
and all that buzzing skull talk
finished, fading, trailed off like
the tail of a fifties forty-five
spiral to infinity as if an engineer
were dialing down the gain,
spinning duality to mum mutuality:
the end of fire and rain
.

and what then, I said,
what was it like?

nothing to be said,
he said,

nothing
to be like
.
.

by Jim Culleny
6/28/14

The Road to Bad Science Is Paved with Obedience and Secrecy

by Jalees Rehman

We often laud intellectual diversity of a scientific research group because we hope that the multitude of opinions can help point out flaws and improve the quality of research long before it is finalized and written up as a manuscript. The recent events surrounding the research in one of the world's most famous stem cell research laboratories at Harvard shows us the disastrous effects of suppressing diverse and dissenting opinions.

The infamous “Orlic paper” was a landmark research article published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature in 2001, which showed that stem cells contained in the bone marrow could be converted into functional heart cells. After a heart attack, injections of bone marrow cells reversed much of the heart attack damage by creating new heart cells and restoring heart function. It was called the “Orlic paper” because the first author of the paper was Donald Orlic, but the lead investigator of the study was Piero Anversa, a professor and highly respected scientist at New York Medical College.

Anversa had established himself as one of the world's leading experts on the survival and death of heart muscle cells in the 1980s and 1990s, but with the start of the new millennium, Anversa shifted his laboratory's focus towards the emerging field of stem cell biology and its role in cardiovascular regeneration. The Orlic paper was just one of several highly influential stem cell papers to come out of Anversa's lab at the onset of the new millenium. A 2002 Anversa paper in the New England Journal of Medicine – the world's most highly cited academic journal –investigated the hearts of human organ transplant recipients. This study showed that up to 10% of the cells in the transplanted heart were derived from the recipient's own body. The only conceivable explanation was that after a patient received another person's heart, the recipient's own cells began maintaining the health of the transplanted organ. The Orlic paper had shown the regenerative power of bone marrow cells in mouse hearts, but this new paper now offered the more tantalizing suggestion that even human hearts could be regenerated by circulating stem cells in their blood stream.

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Graffiti is the most important art form of the last half-century…

by Bill Benzon

IMGP7185

…though many don’t think of it as art at all, but as crime. After all graffiti – by which I mean the styles that originated in New York City and Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was born when kids and young adults began spray-canning their names on other people’s walls without permission. They were committing crimes, and some of them did time for it. Still do.

Art? Crime? Art? Crime? The question isn’t a real or least not a very deep one. Why can’t graffiti be both artistic and criminal?

IMGP7188

Enoe

Such mythical, but nonetheless real historical, figures as Taki 183 and Cornbread weren’t trying to make art. It’s safe to say that many of the early writers had never been inside the Guggenheim, the Met, or the Barnes and had never taken Art History 101 in college. They just wanted to get their names up, to be noticed. Not their real names, that is, the names on their birth certificates. But names they assumed for purposes of getting fame; names that had one significance within graffiti culture but that simultaneously were opaque and provocative to the outside world, names that told of another society walking the streets and claiming the walls.

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repairing in gold

by Leanne Ogasawara

KintsugiFor whatever reason, all of our conversations ultimately ended with him explaining why some aspect of Japanese culture was somehow extraordinary. And this time was no different. After thanking me for the pictures I had sent of our son, he said (apropos of nothing whatsoever):

日本文化の根底に、草木国土悉皆成仏があります。人間だけでなくすべてに心があるということ。これが大切やね。(At the root of Japanese culture is the idea that everything is on the path to becoming a Buddha. Not just sentient life but everything is on the path to Buddhahood.~~Rough translation, other possible translations welcome).

This idea (草木国土悉皆成仏) is from the Nirvana Sutra, and argues that even things like trees, rocks and other inanimate objects also have a Buddha-nature — and therefore all things are precious.

It was exactly a year ago that I posted this 3Quarks daily piece about the enchantment of things and China's legendary Nine Bronze Tripods 九鼎.

From Xia to Shang
And from Shang to Zhou….

You know the story: Nine bronze tripods– cast back in the mists of great antiquity– were treasured by ancient Chinese Kings as a symbol of their right to rule.

Passed down from dynasty to dynasty– for nearly 2,000 years (or so the story goes) until the time when the First Emperor, Shihuangdi, finally toppled the last Zhou King– and rather than see their transfer to Shihuangdi’s new dynasty– the last Chu King flung the nine bronzes forever into the River Si

Given their symbolic significance, Shihuangdi actively attempted to dredge up the sacred bronzes from the river, but it was to no avail; and scholars of later dynasties saw this as further evidence of the lack of moral virtue of the First Emperor.

I wondered if things have the power to move us in this way anymore? I mean, there was a time (the time Umberto Eco likes to write about) when people were obsessed by fantastical maps and with great quests for objects that held much power. Like mountains, certain objects had the power to draw people in. Relics, for example, were big business. Think of Sainte-Chappele, built to house the Crown of Thorns or recall the mystery surrounding the quests for the Holy Grail. Eco's Baudolino is almost entirely taken up with the relic trade and the role played by faith (faith in the fragrance of these relics–where it is the perfume that is true– not necessarily the relic itself). This kind of devotion to relics is famously practiced by Catholics and Buddhists, and probably harkens back to an ancient propensity for becoming enchanted by things.

It is also a commitment to remember, right? (Poor, dear Henri Fontal!)

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The World Cup: A Girl’s-eye view

by Brooks Riley

World soccer ballOkay, I’m not a girl anymore.

In many ways, I never was. I’m more interested in dendrites than dentists, bosons than Botox, solar energy than SPF factors, cosmology than cosmetics, physics than fitness, Leibniz than Lagerfeld. On the other hand, I’m enough of a girl that if I do watch a sport, it’s with the same bewilderment that a homeowner greets an intruder: Where did you come from?

Maybe I’m the wrong girl to write about a World Cup.

When I first moved to Europe, I was peripherally aware of the game we call soccer: It was all those short guys running around in their boxer shorts, trying to engender as much dexterity with their feet as they might have with their forbidden metacarpi–a preternatural challenge that could only end in heartbreak, or so it seemed. I even bought into the cliché that the game is boring (but never as boring, even for a reluctant neophyte like me, as American football, a stop-start time-waster where full-metal hulks huddle longer than they play, in a version of rugby for sissies). What did I know?

In the meantime, I’ve learned that the rest of the world grows up training their lower extremities to be as precise as a violinist’s fingers on a fingerboard. And like violinists, they start early enough, so that by the time they reach the teenage years, talking with their feet comes naturally.

Like all games, soccer is a form of dramatic narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The climaxes come at strange times, though, not according to classic Aristotelian or Freytagian itineraries, but in breathtaking combinations of movement that were not even imaginable seconds earlier. Hubris and hamartia are teammates, equally responsible for goals and missed goals. Aesthetics comes into play: How often has the word ‘beautiful’ been used to describe a kick, a save, a pass, the game?

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Marketing Soccer to Americans

by Akim Reinhardt

World Cup USA 1994It has been exactly 20 years since the United States hosted a World Cup, and just as long since the debut of Major League Soccer (MLS), the nation's homegrown professional soccer league. Two decades later, American interest in the World Cup continues to grow. Beyond that, however, soccer remains a marginal product in the marketplace of U.S. spectator sports.

There are many obstacles to soccer becoming substantially more prominent in the U.S. marketplace beyond the World Cup. But I believe most of them can be overcome, and the key is better marketing.

Several factors are often cited as major roadblocks to soccer becoming a major spectator sport in the United States. Some of them are indeed daunting, but some are misunderstood and not as obstructionist as commonly perceived. Regardless, they can all be overcome to one degree or another. The key is understanding that soccer, like all spectator sports, is a cultural product. And cultural products demand relevant marketing.

Let me begin by briefly listing the perceived major obstacles to soccer's popularity as a spectator sport.

  • The U.S. marketplace for spectator sports is already saturated.
  • Soccer is low scoring and Americans hate low scoring sports.
  • Most Americans don't really understand soccer.
  • Americans are turned off by the dives, fake injuries, and histrionics
  • Most Americans won't embrace soccer because they perceive it as “foreign.”

After briefly assessing each of these obstacles, I will make a case that they can be overcome with better marketing to American consumers.

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Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: The Edge of Tomorrow, Barack Obama’s Sinking Poll Numbers, and the Endless Cycle of American Politics

by Matt McKenna

Edge-of-Tomorrow-Ending-SpoilersIn Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character inadvertently acquires the power to relive the day he dies, a day in which he dons a bullet-spewing exoskeleton and is eviscerated by aliens along with the rest of his fellow soldiers. With this plot device as its core narrative instrument, the film plays out like Groundhog Day meets Elysium except with a glowing extraterrestrial hive mind in place of Groundhog Day's Punxsutawney Phil and ham-fisted action sequences in place of Elysium’s ham-fisted allusions to contemporary class warfare. This isn't to say, however, that Edge of Tomorrow is bereft of social commentary. Indeed, the film uses its narrative structure to great effect in its criticism of the endless repetition present in American politics. Whereas Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow must repeatedly suffer the pain associated with being airdropped into a hopeless maelstrom of human carnage, real-life Americans must repeatedly suffer the pain associated with witnessing the hopeless maelstrom that is the presidential election cycle.

Tom Cruise plays Private Cage, a demoted military PR sleaze ball who is press-ganged into active military service for reasons that aren’t particularly clear to me. Against his will, Cage joins the front lines of a counteroffensive designed to repel the ongoing alien invasion that has steadily been conquering Europe. Naturally, Cage's public relations background has left him unprepared for intricacies of alien combat, and he subsequently dies mere moments after his boots make contact with the beach. Fortunately for Cage, a splash of alien blood finds it's way onto his grimacing, five o'clock shadowed face, imbuing him with the handiest sci-fi trope of them all–time travel. With his newfound power at the ready, each time Cage dies, he immediately wakes up the previous morning with the memory of his deathday still intact. And so the plot unfolds predictably: Cage relives the same day over and over until he finally has a perfect memory of the battle and the skill required to destroy the alien horde.

Clearly, the parallels between Edge of Tomorrow’s plot and American politics are strong, even if the film’s ending is a bit optimistic. Most obviously, Cage's attempts to survive the day and break his time loop represents the United States' attempt to break free from the tight grip of its national politics, itself a cycle in which even if the political party in charge changes, the partisan hackery and divisive rhetoric never do. Whereas Cage is shot, crushed, and blown up during each iteration of his hellish day, Americans are bombarded by political ads, hoodwinked into watching trite political bickering on television, and even conned into giving money to the political parties that perpetuate this terrible national distraction. Director Doug Liman deftly utilizes this parallel to make the point that the United States is desperately mired in its current political environment, and the only way for it to extricate itself from this environment would be for the American electorate to have an eidetic memory of previous elections and therefore not to succumb to the tired political tactics that arise during each election cycle.

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Capriccio of Ruins

by Eric Byrd

Louvre-peinture-francaise-p1020324

Perhaps unique among France's many colonies, possessions, dependencies and departments outré-mer, Lisle has no foothold on the French Parnassus. Baudelaire's “dame creole” was Mauritian. Leger was born under the palms of Pointe-à-Pitre. And this mulatto isle never produced a polemicist of Négritude – we're obvious bastards, dark enough for chains but not black enough for pride. Lisle's sole literary monument is the work of the American Charles Wharburton, author of Alphonsine; or, The Siege of Saint-Christophe (1846). Wharburton was a didactic novelist of pastoral dilemma, of scrupulous parsons. Following a tour of the Antilles he published Alphonsine, his only novel set outside New England, assembled from notes, and from the Romantic demonism that lay all about his era. Wharburton's readers were affrighted and doubtless titillated by this tale of a Protestant missionary stranded on the nightmare isle, where he and the titular ward, dusky but redeemable, are caught between the bloodthirsty maroons and the depraved Creoles, between savage idolatry and the complicit Catholic church, with its gleaming black saints. Wharburton's surrogate desires only Alphonsine's salvation, deplores the mixing of races, and denounces plaçage as “a foul practice that supports a languid class of concubines in attitudes compounded of Gallic hauteur and Negroid indolence.”

Such silly, bigoted old books are easy to come by, and help me to travel in time. I can see in Wharburton's half-novelized notes the exhibitory balls and parasoled promenades of quadroon courtesans: they're slow-moving, pouty, spoiled – and bred for pleasure as horses are bred for racing. Lisleans are now said – are proclaimed! – to have evolved beyond the béke and his Black Venus; are supposedly “overjoyed” – emotion for murals! – to abide as sexlessly interchangeable comrades in a puritanical police state ruled by a fatigue-clad guerilla chieftain. El Caudillo is decades removed from comradely struggle, displays a vestigial sidearm amid praetorian Kalashnikovs. For a time I was keeper of his looted pictures. He billeted his fighters in palaces whose fleeing owners had carried away nothing but trifles – a string of pearls, a monogrammed cigarette case destined for the pawnbrokers of pauperish exile. Soon the sensibility of imperiled revenue interrupted the desecration. Merciful Mehmed called off the pillage, and rescued or confiscated the private galleries. He sold abroad the great collections, as well as my father's modest, incipient portfolio of eighteenth century dessins (the heads of young girls and the lute-strumming fingers, disembodied, delighted one by the economy of their manifestation, the few swift strokes of their being). The strictly regional remainder, a rump gallery of touristic sunsets and forgotten worthies, was grandly christened the Musée Lisle. I was its curator before I was a conscript, a deserter, and a fugitive.

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Can’t Win: Prominent Women and the Gendered Double Standard

by Kathleen Goodwin

Merkel_ladypocketsIf you haven't visited ladypockets.com, it's worth it for a laugh. In the words of creator, Katherine Fritz, “instead of writing the great American Novel, I made a fake fashion + lifestyle blog where I tell you where to buy Ruth Bader Ginsberg's earrings.” Gems include a photo of Christine Lagarde gesturing from a podium wearing a flower-patterned scarf with the caption, “Frankly, if we had to deliver some less-than-sunny news about Eurozone inflation rates at the World Economic Forum, we'd opt to spread a little springtime cheer with this rose-print floral scarf too.” As well as the familiar “Who Wore it Best?” trope, which includes adjacent close ups of Joan Didion and Harper Lee, both pictured wearing tortoiseshell glasses. My personal favorite is the feature on Angela Merkel, which incorporates a caption that reads, “She may have a doctorate of chemistry, but sometimes the key player in the European financial crisis lacks the basic science of how to flatter a tricky figure”.

As Fritz explains, “the joke is evident” but while the site is obviously tongue in cheek, it deserves a bit of analysis. Is the gag how bizarre the captions read, where the accomplishments and intelligence of the woman in the spotlight take a backburner to her accessory choices and the cut of her pantsuit? When a woman is a world famous writer, head of a global organization, or an elected official; is it pertinent to comment on her color coordination? The joke is truly multi-layered in its absurdity, because it reveals a reality. Regardless of their career choice, all women in the public eye are subject to discussions of things that have nothing to do with their jobs and responsibilities. In the Author's Note of Hillary Clinton's recently released memoir she writes, “I considered a number of titles…My favorite was 'The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It's Still All about My Hair.'”

Powerful women are held under a microscope for their appearance and behavior in a way that men are not, giving the media and the public endless source material to scrutinize, and deflecting attention away from truly critical matters. Yet when women try to eschew the rigid expectations of femininity and assume typical masculine attitudes and practices, they face an equally strong backlash. The result of this obvious double standard is what I'd characterize as a “can't win” dilemma that all women, regardless of their recognizability, contend with on a daily basis. Women are regularly criticized for being both “too masculine” and “too feminine” and conversely also face criticism for not acting feminine enough or not adopting sufficiently masculine characteristics.

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A Case of Mohammad Hanif

From The Daily Star:

Mohammed-hanifMohammed Hanif is a Pakistani writer and journalist. Trained at the Pakistan Air Force Academy, Hanif has an inborn talent to hit the mark with his genius writing. His debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes won the 2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the 2009 Commonwealth Book Prize in the Best First Book category. The novel uses the event of Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq's plane crash in 1988 as a spring-board to delve into the conspiracy theories behind it. His second novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, the story of a hospital nurse in Karachi, was published in 2011 and shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust Book Prize and the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
In this interview with the SLR editor, Mohammed Hanif talks about the mystery of babies, an occasional need to shout from rooftops and reminds Dhakaites how important it is not to take even a bit of freedom for granted.

SLR: How has your writing sensibilities been shaped by your earliest reading?

MH: There were about two and a half books in the village where I grew up. Colonel Mohammed Khan's Bajang Amad – the memoir of a Punjabi officer in Second World War – was very funny, very exotic. The second one was a collection of miracles performed by Muslim saints; fantastic. We also used to get a free government-published magazine by the Family Planning Ministry. It was quite mysterious because you never learnt how babies are made. And then there was China Pictorial everywhere. I am sure every little bit that I read influenced me.

SLR: You are both a writer and a journalist. We all know the responsibility a journalist has. Do you think you have a responsibility as a writer from Pakistan?

MH: I hope not. I mean I should try not to bore my readers or lecture them because that I can do as a journalist.

More here.