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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lesson Four: The Age of Revolution (1750-1900)

So there we were...

The year: 1750

The expectation: That we had finally arrived.

When suddenly, out of nowhere (well, Switzerland) a man walks down a street in France and sees a poster advertising an essay contest, sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. He sets about writing an answer to the question being asked: "Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to refining moral practices?". The Reader's Digest version of his answer to the question is a resounding "Non!" And just like that, the whole Enlightenment project begins to crumble. 

The man is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  He wins the contest, but gains a posse of enemies too. This is, after all, a high moment in the History of Western Philosophy - a time when European thinkers are feeling pretty good about themselves and the state of thinking more generally, having picked up the shards of Classical Greek philosophizing post Dark Ages and, through a heady though not entirely resolved showdown between Continental rationalism and British empiricism, brought it up to speed with a world rendered infinitely more certain by Science. Exactly! It is one of those "phew" kind of moments that nobody in their right mind would want to challenge. But then along comes Rousseau, arguing that all this scientific progress and so-called enlightened thinking is for naught; that, counter to Hobbes, man in his 'natural' state and left to his own devices is a far more compassionate and empathetic and creative creature than the man produced of regulatory laws, of civilizing practices, and of the privatization of property. And there goes the neighbourhood...Faster than you can say "Counter-Enlightenment," the Age of Reason gives way to the Age of Revolution.

Though Rousseau died 11 years before the storming of the Bastille in 1789, his notion of a social contract organized around the General Will of the people and his contention that, though born free, it is the fate of civilized man to end up in chains, provide the philosophical underpinnings of the French Revolution. In fact, Rousseau even coins the motto that the revolutionaries will go on to adopt: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Like all good revolutions, however, the winds of change that sweep across France for a time soon morph into a case of plus ca change...That worryingly exclusionary third term in Rousseau's rallying call - fraternity - providing an insight into just one of the many oversights accompanying this particular man-led revolution. As Adrienne Rich would go on to comment some 200 years later, look carefully at the "R" word and you will see that, in itself, it contains "a key to the dead-endedness of male politics - the revolution of a wheel which returns in the end to the same place."  

And certainly, Rousseau  - for all that he speaks of equality and liberty for everyone - is content to leave women in their chains: deferring to their husbands and selflessly attending to the needs of the family unit. A firm supporter of the "vive la difference" school of thought when it comes to how girls and boys should be educated, Rousseau's radical curriculum for boys - a kind of back-to-nature, learn-at-your-own-pace, love-peace-and-granola affair that heralds in the movement known as Romanticism - is by no means applied to girls. On the contrary, Rousseau insists that the education of 'the fairer sex' should revolve around mastering those skills that equip girls to become good wives and mothers, and towards which they are naturally inclined - a point with which Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) famously takes issue. Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is penned, in part, to challenge Rousseau's different strokes for different folks approach to education: arguing that nature has nothing to do with it and that if only girls were given the same educational opportunities as boys, they would prove every bit as capable of developing their powers of reason and becoming fully fledged intellectual and moral beings. In insisting that "the mind has no gender," what Wollstonecraft brings to the philosophical table is a whole new way of understanding women and, by extension, a whole new slant on the nature versus nurture debate. Not that she is the first woman to voice this idea, nor indeed to even write it down. But she manages, unlike a good number of equally spirited and brainy female thinkers who both pre-date and succeed her, to claw her way into philosophical his-story and become generally acknowledged as the first feminist philosopher.  

So women are finally on the Western Philosophical map. But we're a mere blip on the Age of Revolution radar, and we'll have to wait another seventy-five years before we see ourselves and our concerns represented again - this time, in the form of Pragmatist Parliamentarian John Stuart Mill's (1806-1873) failed attempt to secure for British women the legal right to vote. In the meantime, there are serious metaphysical issues at stake and no more so than in Germany, where another one of those philosophical 'golden ages' that the discipline gets so excited about is underway. With Transcendental Idealist Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) at the helm and a whole crew of bright young men following in his wake - Fichte, Schelling, Hegel...they have grown up in the shadow of the French Revolution, they are giddy with the spirit of the age - yet another attempt is being made to settle, for once and for all, if there is another world out there that can become known to us and heck, while we're at it, just what in fact is Reality? Kant comes up with an answer that seems to knock the pants off of all those paying attention. Even Kant is pretty impressed with himself, judging his division of Reality into two spheres - the phenomenal world, which we can experience and come to know, and the noumenal world, which is so entirely external to us that we will never know it, and might as well give up even trying - to rank right up there with the Copernican Revolution. 

What affirms Kant's rock star status, however (in certain philosophical circles there is even talk of Before-Kant and After-Kant, which would seem to put him on a par with Jesus Christ) is a clever manoeuvre he makes with Time and Space: moving them out of the realm of the world external to us, where previous philosophers have lumped them; turning them instead into knowable phenomena that we ourselves create through a combination of a posteriori lived sensory experience and a priori innate understanding. It is for this reason - this bringing together of something we do as humans (perceive) and something that is already there within us by virtue of us being human (Knowledge with a capital "K") -  that Kant is credited with finding a way to reconcile empiricism with rationalism. It is also why, ultimately, he remains in the rationalist camp - the father of German Idealism, insisting that we come out of the womb not as a tabula rasa (pace Locke) but with a pre-determined grasp of the world that sets us up for being properly human. 

Of Kant's many disciples, it is Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who emerges as a German Idealist superstar in his own right. Though an admirer of Kant's philosophy, Hegel considers his notion of the noumenal - that world external to us that we can never know - to be a bit of an intellectual cop-out. Moreover, Hegel is troubled by the static-ness of Kant's conception of Reality, as exemplified by those a priori categories that he sets up to explain how we humans perceive Reality. Surely, says Hegel, the world is constantly changing. Surely, says Hegel, we too are part of that ongoing evolution. Evolution, here, is the operative word, for Hegel - in proposing that Reality is in fact a historical process - is insistent that this process is a positive one, that we are moving forward, getting better, becoming ever-wiser, progressing steadily towards a point where the world will indeed be a perfect place. 

Being a monist - that is, a philosopher who believes that everything is made of one and the same substance - Hegel is a 'we are the world' kind of guy, meaning that if the world is progressing along nicely, then so are we. He calls the substance that we and everything else out there have in common 'Spirit.' And he calls the steady progression towards that perfect endpoint the Historical Dialectic. The dialectic operates in a checks and balances kind of way, with each new era playing its part in advancing the human condition. It goes like this: A certain understanding of the world as it stands at that particular moment in time is put forward (the thesis); Because we still have far to go in terms of getting things right, this understanding naturally contains some sort of contradiction or oversight within it, which in turn is put forward (the antithesis); When we bring the thesis and the antithesis into dialogue with each other, a synthesis emerges, which can also be understood as a new and improved thesis from which to start the process all over again. And so on and so forth...Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis...Until way down the line in some distant future we reach what Hegel calls the place of 'Absolute Spirit,' and basically know everything. 

There is something rather reassuring about Hegel's dialectic. It's like one huge great project that past, present and future generations all get to be involved in, meaning that even after we are dead our own tiny contribution to the progress of the world continues to live on in Spirit, meaning that there is actually some purpose to our being here, to our everything! There are those, however, who find Hegel's eternal optimism intensely irritating. Among these, German Idealist Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who has no time for Hegel's Spirit - he posits instead an 'everything' that is erratic in its movement and indifferent to our pain and suffering and really, just a big oaf of an energy force without purpose or plan - and even less time for Hegel's dialectical approach to history. Instead, Schopenhauer sees our sad miserable lives as ultimately meaningless - a void only alleviated by immersing ourselves in the arts, especially music, and giving ourselves an escapist break from the harsh reality of, well, Reality. 

On that dreary note, we take leave of the Germans and drop in briefly on a melancholic Dane, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): bemoaning the general lack of interest in the individual amidst all this focus on General Will in France and non-subjective metaphysicality in Germany; foreshadowing Jean-Paul Sartre with his kill-joy (amidst all the Revolutionary hoop-la) observation that, "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom." Meanwhile, in Britain, anyone with a social conscience and a penchant for pleasure is signing on with the Pragmatists: Jeremy Bentham (1724-1804) is the one who gets the ball rolling with his felicific calculus - an actual equation designed to measure the precise amount of happiness that this or that action is likely to produce; John Stuart Mill supports Bentham's belief in the greatest happiness for the greatest number but, unlike Bentham and in spite of his egalitarian political agenda, insists that not all happinesses are created equal. And then there is Karl Marx (1818-1883), shouting "Down with the Bourgeoisie!" and "Workers of the World Unite!" and sparking a chain reaction of mini-Revolutions across Europe with the publication of his and Engels' pot-boiler of a best-seller, The Communist Manifesto (1848). While way over on the other side of the pond, in America - a freshly minted nation following its own Revolution and successful bid for Independence in 1776 - men like William James (1842-1910) and C.S. Pierce (1839-1914) are closing out the 19th Century by evolving their own brand of down-to-earth, action-based Pragmatism. 

Oh, there are others - Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) picking up on Rousseau's Romanticism and urging us all to take to the woods and live "wild and free"; Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804-1872) calling "God" a figment of our imagination and turning theology into a branch of anthropology - but isn't that just the way with revolutionary phases?...One bright idea after another cycling through at breakneck speed?...One brand new plan for remaking society being overthrown by the next faster than you can put up an Eiffel Tower, build a Crystal Place, colonize a Continent, mount an Industrial Revolution? 

All to say that the Age of Revolution is a busy 150 years. And that as the Modern Age dawns, we're busy catching our breath.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lesson Three: The Late Renaissance and The Age of Reason (1500-1750 AD)

In Halifax, I bought a book called Philosophy Bites Back (David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, Oxford University Press, 2012). One of those snappy little survey books designed to demystify philosophy and render it accessible to ordinary folk – the UK has been churning them out at an alarming rate of late, and they aren't half bad either – this one asks a number of contemporary philosophers to name their favourite thinker of all time, and then uses the interview format to unpack, through a lively to and fro, the top 27 of these fave raves. The end result tells much the same story as that to which we have grown accustomed: the history of Western philosophy as a linear trajectory from where it all began with Socrates to where it all begins to unravel with Derrida; and like the others of its ilk, the 25 stops between these two seminal points would lead us to believe that that history consists entirely of dead white males. These reservations apart, the interviews themselves present a compelling way of engaging with philosophy – a kind of three-way tango between a philosophy-savvy interviewer, an enthusiastic philosopher fan, and a famous thinker that they dust off between them and hang out for a much needed airing. Though an exercise in writing, it oozes orality: the thinker in question coming to life on the page as he is excitedly and eruditely resurrected out of odd little personality traits and earth shattering eureka moments, out of unquestioned beliefs long since discredited and far-fetched ideas that continue to resonate.

The fact that I read the book while steaming through the snowbound Maritimes on a train certainly added to its allure. The total white-out conditions through which we were traveling had effectively transformed the 24 hour journey to Montreal into one interminable ghostly night: rendering any sense of where we were a matter of pure speculation; turning the train itself into a safety bubble for some, a capsule hurtling blindly down the track for others. In other words, it was just like philosophy. Moreover, the favourite philosophers to whom I was paying particular attention as I made my way back for the third salon evening in our current series fell as neatly into camps as the people on the train: there were those, like Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who were prepared to embrace uncertainty, treating doubt as the key ingredient – the very spice! – of life; and there were those, like Rene Descartes (1596-1650), for whom doubt was a necessary, if somewhat desolate, passage that you just had to grin and bear and basically get through in order to arrive, triumphantly, in the dazzling light of pure unadulterated reason. 

Okay, so we were out of the Dark Ages. But we still weren't out of the woods. And for all that the dawn of the 16th Century saw us shaking off the shackles of feudalism, found us questioning Christianity's hold on our lives and beliefs, found us contemplating the latest findings of science perhaps the earth wasn't stationary after all! perhaps we humans, like the earth itself, did not occupy centerstage in the cosmos! – it remained that times were tough. And brutal! The Catholics and Protestants were slogging it out in an endless round of religious wars. The Spanish Inquisition and with it, the persecution of Jews, Muslims and anybody else deemed a heretic, was in full bloody flow. Kings and Queens could be riding divine one day, losing their heads the next. And fledgling parliaments taking a stab at democratic governance were taking flight and toppling all in the space of a week.

In short, as we floundered around in the late Renaissance before blazing a trail into the Age of Reason, it became clear that for all the new thinking taking root during this period, Europe remained a precarious place to live for the vast majority of people. It was especially so for women, who – though initially welcomed into some of the early grassroots humanist movements challenging the old authoritarian regimes and fighting for political and social change – soon found themselves relegated to making the coffee and sweeping up the hall after the meeting as the emancipatory ideas underpinning these movements began to spread among men of means. 

Foreshadowing the kind of sidelining women would experience during the American civil rights movement in the mid-20th century, for example, or in labour movements of the 1970s and 1980s, eventually it was only the “exceptional” woman, as she was referred to by that most “supreme” of libertarians John Locke (1632-1704), who was considered capable of partaking in public affairs – that is, the rare woman who owned property and/or possessed the leisure time required to cultivate her powers of reason, which basically meant that you that had to be a rich widow or a reigning monarch to play any meaningful part out there in the big wide world. As Nancy Tuana has argued, it would seem that those advances made by the early male humanists in terms of greater equality between the classes, education for the masses, and the creation of the modern state all took their toll on women’s advancement: sending them back into the private sphere; making marriage and child-rearing their only viable career options. Small wonder that the heckles on many a contemporary feminist’s back bristles when Humanism is touted as a philosophical ‘ism’ that serves us all. This unease is only heightened by the knowledge that the persecution of women as witches during the 16th and 17th Centuries was highest in those European countries which most fully embraced Humanist thinking. Nor is it a coincidence, as Tuana points out, that philosophy’s cementing of Reason as Male and Passion as Female during this same timeframe drew largely on the particular framing of women – as mentally defective, as unable to control their passions – used to justify the witch hunts in the first place.

And so we come to the meat of the evening, the very gristle for our mill. But here’s the twist. Drawing inspiration from philosopher Catherine McKinnon’s refreshingly succinct and wonderfully pointed (amidst all the waffling reverence for those Dead White Males) response to the question, “Who is your favourite philosopher?” – “Oh, the last woman I talked to, whoever she is” – I'm turning that gristle (and the task of doing something with it) over to you. After all, we are dealing here with a philosophical epoch that revolved largely around epistemology – that is, around the building of knowledge and the question of how we go about making it both individually and collectively. And in the spirit of McKinnon, why should those DWMs have all the fun?  Below you’ll find a crib sheet. It contains names, dates, quotes, themes and, most importantly, QUESTIONS – everything we used to build ourselves a salon evening last Thursday, and everything you need to stage a mini-salon session of your own. Don’t be shy! Just jump right in there, bite off more than you can chew, and enjoy! And see you next time, in the Age of Revolution (1750-1900).

Crib Sheet for Lesson Three, March 26th: The Renaissance and the Age of Reason (1500 – 1750 AD)

Getting going: Theseus’s Ship (Hobbes)

Tonight’s Terrain: Natural Philosophy, Political Philosophy and Epistemology

The BIG issues:   
1) Observation, Measurement and Testing as the new grounds for knowledge about the world
2) Reconciling what's going on in our heads (individual consciousness) with the external world

Key “isms”: Idealism, Materialism, Dualism, Monism, Rationalism, Empiricism

Changing Things Up in the Late Renaissance:

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Political Philosophy – “It is much safer for a Prince to be feared than loved”

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Natural Philosophy – “Knowledge is Power”

QUESTION: Machiavelli thought good leaders combined the qualities of a lion (strength) and a fox (cunning); Bacon thought Rationalists were like spiders (spinning magnificent webs from matter secreted within, which were structurally impressive but lacked connection to the outside world) and Empiricists were like ants (mindlessly collecting data, with only limited ideas as to what to do with it). In the way that you go through the world as a philosophical being, what creature are you, and why?


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – The Pessimist (“Life is a war of every man against every man, and all outcomes are decided by force and fraud…Without society, left to our own nature, our life would be solitary, nasty, brutish, and short”)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) – The Optimist (“This is the Best of All Possible Worlds”)

QUESTION: When it comes to how you see the world around you, are you Hobbesian or Leibnizian?

Some Questions to Launch the Age of Reason:
1) How do I know?
2) What can I know?
3) Are 1) and 2) the same question?
4) What does knowing feel like?

DOUBT!!!...(And how to deal with it):

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592): Doubt as a way of life – “To philosophize is to learn how to live”

RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650): Radical Doubt as a passage towards certainty – “Cogito Ergo Sum”

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and his Wager – Hedging your bets (or sitting on the fence-ism) re: Doubt

QUESTION: When it comes to how you live your life, are you Montaignian, Cartesian, or Pascalian?


John Locke (1632-1704) and our memories, our desires and our mental attributes: If the prince and the pauper exchange bodies, which person is now the prince; which person is now the pauper?

George Berkeley (1685-1753) and his puzzle:

There was a young man who said God
Must find it exceedingly odd,
To think that the tree should continue to be,
When there’s no one about in the quad.

Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd.
I’m always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully

David Hume (1711-1776) and Miracles: Should we believe in them or not?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lesson 2: The Medieval Era (250-1500)

When it comes to the History of Western Philosophy, that millennial stretch between the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the shores of the Bahamas is generally considered to be a bit of a backwater. That no single European philosopher earns more than a passing comment between Boethius's encounter with a consoling Lady Philosophy in 525 AD and St Anselm's argument over God's existence with The Fool in 1077 AD only adds to this perception. Throw in a some good old retroactive positioning of this period by 16th Century Renaissance Men and their 19th Century Revolutionary-minded brethren - it only becomes known as 'The Middle Ages' in 1580; the very name 'Medieval' is only coined in 1827 - and what we're left with is a bridge: a lackluster medium aevum between the gush-inducing 'Golden Era' of the Greeks and an Enlightenment-hungry Europe awakening to a New Day.

Of course, post-structuralist philosophy has taught us that it all happens on the bridge; in the interstices between places; in that beginning-less and ending-less always-in-the-middle zone. But it is doubtful that those in the know and with the power to name knew that as they looked back on the philosophy to emerge between St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and St Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) and thought hmmmmm...Middle Ages? Or better still, Dark Ages? It is doubtful that they held out much hope for Philosophy at all in an era in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul were just not up for debate; in which faith and reason were inextricably bound; in which the church ruled the roost and the chickens had better get into line or else - thwack! - coq-au-vin; in which Plato was the only Greek permitted into the Christian Philosophy think tank; in which the great library of Alexandria had been burned to the ground and its brilliant custodian - the philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Hypatia (370-415 AD) - had been dragged through the streets and dismembered limb by limb by an angry mob of monks; in which one third of the population of Europe had been wiped out not once but twice by pestilence - the onset of the Justinian Plague (541 AD) and an end in sight to the Black Death (1353 AD) providing scholars, incidentally, with yet two more points of reference with which to designate the Middle Ages; in which famine and holy crusades and witch hunts and endless other natural and man-made catastrophes conspired to wipe out the other two thirds still standing; in which it was a wretched time indeed, no matter how you chose to bookend it.

And yet. And yet. Women, for example, got a break or two during this period of evident physical hardship and apparent intellectual stagnation. Tough times meant that female members of a household had to participate in the family business. They also had opportunities to strike out on their own and learn a trade. Women took charge of the brewing of beer - a primary staple during the Middle Ages. They were the weavers, the spinners, the cheese-makers. They hunted, farmed and dabbled in the Arts. They also, at last, had at their disposal a bona fide alternative to marriage and reproduction. They could join one of the many convents that sprouted up during this period, and become educated in the process. In these women-only communities, an abbess was in charge. In fact, those women who opted for the monastic life were fairly autonomous: farming their own land, developing a range of self-sustaining cottage industries, evolving their own approach to worship, contemplation, and the doing of good works in the larger community.

Later, as that New Day dawned for Renaissance Man and the Middle Ages gave way to the Age of Enlightenment, the abbesses were forced to hand over the running of their convents to male bishops. Many of the theological ideas espoused by the nuns came under fire, especially their veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Seen by the official church fathers as suspicious, as cult-like, as verging on the mystical, as heretic even, the punishment meted out to those Orders that had organized themselves around this female element of the Church was brutal and barbaric. As for those women who weren't witch-hunted down for their beliefs - the beer-brewers, the cheese-makers, the weavers and the spinners - they too lost out to so-called 'progress'. The birth of guilds that accompanied this heady period of re-naissance might have meant better working conditions for the average man. However, only men could join the guilds, which meant that when those professions previously dominated by women were swept up into the guild system, it was bye-bye job for all those female entrepreneurs and workers. Education, too, become centralized and professionalized as the Middle Ages were winding up. The monastic schools, attended by both men and women, closed as a philosophical movement known as Scholasticism arrived on the scene, aligned itself with traditional Christian theology, and opened the first universities in Europe. As with the guilds, women were banned from these new centers of critical thought and higher learning. As Judy Chicago has observed, it is generally during those epochs where men take the greatest strides forward and gain the most in terms of individual freedoms that women, for their part, slip backwards.

But that is to jump ahead to the next salon. For the moment, we were dog-paddling our way across that philosophical backwater of a Medieval Era: perfecting our skills in the gentle art of deductive and inductive reasoning; pitting the over-riding preoccupation of a scattered band of Christian philosophers - How to prove, through rational argument, the existence of God - against our own conceptions of the key binary opposites underpinning their quest: Good versus Evil, Free Will versus Determinism, and Essence versus Existence.

We devoted some time to the Christian Platonism of that bad boy turned good, St Augustine of Hippo, who successfully wrote his way out of his wicked Manichean ways and his sordid sexual past when he penned his Confessions - earning himself a bishop-hood in the process.  Grappling with the burning issue that St Augustine set out to settle - the seeming irreconcilability of a God who is entirely good and all-powerful with the existence of evil in the world - we got good mileage out of his idea that evil is not a thing in itself but a deficiency or lack of something. We were impressed by our ability to link St Augustine's Evil as Lack argument back in 400 AD to the Woman as Lack argument that continues to preoccupy a number of feminist philosophers some 1700 years later. We were less impressed by St Augustine's take on women themselves - "God created woman to be in sex subjugated to the masculine sex, in the same way as the appetite which leads to action is subjected to the skill, mentally derived, of acting rightly" - though thankful to feminist philosophy historian Nancy Tuana for guiding us through the ins and outs of his, and other Medieval philosophers, Genesis-inspired misogyny.

Next, we turned our attention to the formerly fortunate Roman scholar and statesman Boethius (480-525 AD) - now languishing in prison, accused of a crime he had not committed; fretful about his impending execution, and wondering why Lady Luck had deserted him at THIS of all times. Not surprisingly, the questions going round and round in his head revolved around free will, or perhaps more accurately the seeming lack of it in a world where an all-seeing God already knows what is going to happen to us in the future. It is Lady Philosophy who suddenly appears in the corner of Boethius's prison cell to shed light on this conundrum, and it is with her help that he not only pens The Consolation of Philosophy, but accepts his fate with a knowing smile. God, of course, is shown to be a different kind of knower inhabiting a different kind of time configuration to that in which we humans live and eventually, come to know: an Eternal Present, his, where knowing what we don't yet know about the future in no way prevents us from exercising our free will as regards that future, not to mention enjoying the fruits of our reasoning mind on our way to the gallows.

Skipping forward 500 years, we spent the latter part of the evening with St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) - alternatively taking the role of the good saint and his designated fool as they engage in a somewhat convoluted argument designed to prove that God exists and that existence is superior to non-existence - and with St Thomas of Aquinas - striving, at last, to harmonize speculative philosophical reasoning (as epitomized in the writings of Aristotle, preserved by Persian scholars during the Dark Ages and recently arrived back in Europe via Spain) with the revelation-based certainty of Christian Theology. It was on that final conciliatory Thomist note - God exists!...But Philosophy can too! - though with a good deal of trepidation after encountering the rationally-minded Aquinas's casual disparaging of women - "When God created a helper for man, why on earth did he create a woman rather that a man?"- that we slugged back the rest of the mead, scoffed the last of the Lenten almonds, and headed out into the night. Yes, the Dark Ages were technically behind us. But as we continue our whirlwind tour of Western Philosophy, we were probably unanimous in feeling a little less than optimistic about the New Day dawning when we reconvene next month.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lesson One: The Ancients and their World, 750 BC - AD 250

Jamming 1000 years of Greek philosophizing into a two and a half hour time slot is no mean feat. We did it. We sped-dialed our way through the-world-and-its-make-up-obsessed pre-Socratics, through the BC's Big Three - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - and then, at a gallop, through the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Stoics, and those eminently earthy Epicureans. Sliding over the AD line, we picked up the pieces of the once glorious, now crumbling, Greek 'Golden Era' and observed how the Empire-building Romans drew on those shards of Hellenistic wisdom to counter the early stirrings of Christianity. We wanted to linger longer with some of those bright young things now known as The Ancients, but there was no time. This, after all, was the launch of our 1-800-BIG-IDEA tour of Western Philosophy, and we were on a tight schedule.  
That that schedule also included a survey of the place occupied by women within that first millennium of Western philosophical thinking made the feat that much meaner. Mean, here, as in sparse, as in meager. For though women are still feeling the impact of the societal role and sphere of influence assigned them by those lofty male Greek thinkers, the degree to which they participated in the sealing of their fate was close to nil. Fact is, apart from the odd Aspasia the Hetaera or Hipparchia the Cynic, there were no women out there busily laying down the foundations of Western so-called Civilization. Though even to  speak of 'facts' in relation to this early period is a bit of a stretch, given that very little in the way of written evidence exists of what the Who's Whos of 6th and 5th and 4th Century BC philosophy - the Anaximanders and Anaximenes of Miletus, the Parmenides of Elea and Empedocles of Mount Etna fame - actually believed. A case of drawing what you can from the few - notably, Plato and Aristotle - who did manage to jot down their own ideas and those of their learned predecessors on something more durable than a flowerpot, it's a safe bet that a certain selective process was at work here, not to mention a good dose of poetic licence. It is also safe to assume that women's ideas about themselves and the world around them did not come top of the 'must-preserve-for-posterity-so-get-it-down-on-papyrus' list. All to say that we were relying on a good deal of speculation when it came to charting not only the BIGGEST of the BIG IDEAS to emerge from this epoch, but equally the lives as lived and the contributions as made by that 50 % of the population traditionally written out of history. 
But no matter. We carried on regardless: making the most of what scraps we could garner about the 'true nature' of our Athenian sisters - for indeed, until Socrates came along and Athens became the hub of philosophical activity, not much attention had been paid to human nature of any kind, much less to female nature; granting the pre-Socratics their moment in the Aegean sun to ponder the workings of the material universe and the nature of actual nature before moving on to those philosophers who were interested in their own raisin d'ĂȘtre - and with it, the question of how we ought to live. What became clear from the get-go is that when folks like Plato and Aristotle said "we", what they were referring to was a fairly select little band of privileged white men in togas. Similarly, when they spoke of living, it wasn't the get-up-and-go-to-work-come-home-and-cook-the-dinner kind of life they had in mind, but something much more, well, mindful. Enter the realm of universals - of Truths with a capital T. A realm where pursuing those Truths - What is Justice? What is Courage? What is Beauty? - with the dogged determination of a cave person chasing down a woolly mammoth becomes not only the way we ought to live but equally, the very definition of what it is to live well. 
 In other words, the question of how we ought to live was neither being asked of, nor on behalf of, those men bringing home the bacon or women (confined to the private sphere and, regardless of their status, denied citizenship within the wider polis) and slaves tout court. Rather, it was a question designed for men of means who also, coincidentally, had the time to read a book or two and also, coincidentally, were the only people deemed capable of engaging with a how we ought to live kind of question, and by extension, of living well. Granted, that old gadfly of a questioner, Socrates, who instigated the whole dialectic process and in so doing, got men out there on the streets of Athens poking holes in what they had taken to be knowledge and peeling away the layers upon layers of assumptions upon which that knowledge rested was, as far as we know, a fairly egalitarian type - less concerned with who got to ask the questions than with getting at those Truths. But for women, this new fad of questioning and with it, the flourishing of rational thought based on logical argument, didn't herald in much in the way of emancipation. If anything, it plunged them into a reproductive ghetto: reducing them to their ability to produce and raise kids; seeing them as predominantly body in a decidedly mind over matter epoch.

In Plato's case, it wasn't so much that women weren't biologically capable of rational thought, hence of living well. Rather, it was a case of them being stuck with a damaged soul - that of a former man who had squandered his time on earth, who had failed to live well, and whose soul, when he died and was done with it, had been reincarnated into a lower form of human life, ie. a woman. If that latter part of the equation was, for Plato, just the timeless given - man was the perfect form of a human being, woman was a kind of default of that ideal form - there was at least some give-and-take where the souls were concerned. Just as souls could be shuffled on down the food chain, they could also be upwardly mobile. Which meant that for Plato the Meta-physicist there was nothing physically stopping a woman from taking that botched soul of hers and whipping it into better shape through the begetting of some good old fashioned wisdom. 

Not so for Aristotle the Empiricist, however, whose view that woman was "a misbegotten man" - an aberrant "monstrosity'"- and hence incapable of rational thought was largely rooted in the 'fact' of her physical inferiority (man is "hot"; woman is "cold"). This in turn was supported by observable evidence (man's semen is white, "cooked" to perfection; woman's menstrual fluid is red, not quite "done") which was subsequently solidified into Knowledge through the application of scientific reasoning ("hot" is fully developed, measured, rational; "cold" is flighty, emotional, prone to hysteria) and oh dear...So begins the centuries-old Western project of pathologizing women's bodies and finding them forever lacking. Better too, then, given their weakened constitution and their unreliable nature, that they stick to the home-front, keep their noses out of public affairs, get just enough education to see their boys through their early years and their girls through to producing the next generation - or so, at least, spoke Aristotle, the man credited with inventing not only logic, but a good portion of the arts- and science-based disciplines we study today. 

As for us, we had a little logical conundrum of our own with which to contend. Could a discipline which had, from the outset, so excluded us, undermined us, negated us, offer us anything of value with which to better understand our lives? We had our doubts, and will no doubt continue to ask ourselves that question as we move on through the next 2000 years of (largely male) philosophical thought. In spite of our reservations, however, we did tick off the requisite boxes: Plato's theory of Forms; Aristotle's Golden Mean; the pitting of true values versus false values of the contemptuous Cynics; the relativism of the Sceptics; the stiff-upper-lipism of the Stoics; and the peculiar brand of moderation-in-all-things hedonism of the Epicureans (who did, as it happens, welcome the odd woman and slave into the al fresco school, The Garden, where they studied, forged friendships, and broke bread together). Not a bad note to end on, those somewhat more pleasure-oriented and down-to-earth Epicureans, as we head into the bleak mid-winter of the Middle Ages and wrap our heads around the stark realities of Medieval Philosophy. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The History of Western Philosophy (in Five Easy Lessons)

Greetings to all our members, and wishing each and every one of you the very best for 2015. We have a new salon series kicking off this January, and we hope that you will be joining us. 

Over the holidays it struck us that, as an ever-evolving group of budding philosopher queens, we have hip-hopped our way across a veritable archipelago of philosophical thinkers, epochs and themes. But how, we might well ask, do they all fit together? What kind of grand narrative, if any, unites the island stops we have made over the past 6 years in the vast sea known as Western Philosophy? And, to borrow from a familiar metaphor, might it help us in our ongoing quest to grasp the finer points of trees (particularly those post-structuralist ones!) if we were to spend a season getting to know the forest?

To this latter question, our guts said yes.  Which means that we are cobbling together a history of Western Philosophy that can be accessed in just five easy sessions. Sound like the latest self-help manual to hit the shelves at Chapters? It isn't! But what this latest salon series offering from wwp will hopefully do is give you a better sense of the BIG questions that have preoccupied Western philosophers over the past 2500 years or so, and provide a stimulating and friendly environment in which to engage with them. Though we will work our way through a significant chunk of the philosophical canon each session, our standpoint will remain consistent: probing the positioning of women within each epoch under examination, and considering how the evolution of thought over time has either contributed to the improvement of the female lot, or not.  As with all of our salon series, each session works as a stand-alone so you won't have to feel like you've lost the thread if you have to miss out on an evening or two. Here's the schedule:

January 29, 2015 - The Ancients (700 BCE - 250 CE)
February 26, 2015 - The Medieval Era (250-1500)
March 26, 2015 - The Age of Reason (1500-1750)
April 23, 2015 - The Age of Revolution (1750-1900)
May 21, 2015 - The Modern World (1900-1950)

All sessions take place on Thursday evenings and go from 7:30pm to 10pm.  As always, we welcome new members and invite existing members to bring a friend along if you feel she might be interested in giving wine women and philosophy a try. 

Making Do in Order to Unmake Anew: What, At the End of it All, IS in a Place?

A funny thing happened on the way to the finale. Funny as in strange, not ha-ha. Finale as in last session of our current Philosophy Club series, What's in a Place? - the moment we clap ourselves on the back (whether or not we've come up with the answer) and bring it all to a resounding conclusion. I was trotting through the park, hatching a plan d'action for the upcoming evening and contemplating, as one does, the more salient features of Michel de Certeau's (1984) "Making Do: Uses and Tactics," when I stumbled upon the most magical of scenes. Magical, because it was pure folly. Magical, because it resonated so beautifully with our grand finale theme: how the tactics of 'the weak' can be mobilized to sidestep the urban planning strategies of 'the strong'; how small acts of innovative tinkering, as witnessed in the growing jugaad movement in India, can force a rethink of prevailing place-oriented mindsets and conventions alike. 

The scene itself - a table set for a romantic tete-a-tete complete with silver service, wine goblets, and an ornate chandelier - was tucked within a circle of trees. The trees, for their part, created the illusion of privacy: acting as makeshift walls and a ceiling, the sweep of a large overhanging branch providing the attachment point for the chandelier. What was this? I wondered. An art installation designed to challenge the traditional divide between public and private places? How perfect and fitting! I thought. Or perhaps the work of some dashing Don Juanita planning to pop the question over an impromptu al fresco candlelit dinner in the park? Bingo yet again! In fact, any way I looked at it, it could be made to fit with my own plans for the evening. It was as if that scene had been laid out there especially for me: the anchor for my arguments; a beacon in the storm. Setting off a meteor shower of earth-shattering insights and connections and apropos and revelations...

And so to the evening itself. Being the last session of the series, it was important that we briefly revisit the paths we had already trod: our engagement with iconic public places and the question of what we take away with us of those places when we return home; the nature of that place we choose to call home - my place - as evoked through poetry and theorized through existentialism a la Jean-Paul Sartre. Then we struck out into unfamiliar territory: treating resonance as our navigational tool and embodiment as the river that runs through it. Yes, we had entered the realm of lived experience, and in searching for place through that lens we were casting aside abstract notions of what place should or should not be to us and do to us and opting, instead, to get down and dirty with its earthy company.

Proposing the vibratory workings of resonance as a more direct route to doing this than the kind of 'getting to know a place' strategies employed by its cognitive counterpart, recognition, we struggled to get past the current (and somewhat irritating) overuse of the term by taking it back to its grassroots: to resonare, as in 'sound again' or 'reverberate'; to resonantia, as in 'set off an echo.' Equally helpful in this reclaiming of the term were Michaele Ferguson's observations about how resonance and dissonance play themselves out in the bodily theorizing of phenomenologist philosopher, Iris Marion Young. Ferguson's observation that "when a sound resonates, it generates vibrations, movement and energy" made us excited about the kinds of "sparks" that might come of engaging with place through listening out for those resonances (and dissonances) with our bodies. 

Bringing resonance as a method of inquiry into dialogue with the mechanics of "making do," we spoke of travelling to those storied places of parents and grandparents no longer with us, and asked ourselves what it means when the expected resonances just don't happen. Is place, in this case, empty? Or is it just not up to the task of standing in for those we have lost? - a "making do" that just won't do, that just doesn't cut it? As for that other kind of "making do" - the kind made famous by de Certeau's tactically-minded trickster and found to resonate, for some, with the relatively recent emergence of jugaad innovation and economics - we spent a good deal of time reviewing what we had learned about each of these phenomena courtesy of our assigned readings for the week. Key to both are the use of bricolage - cobbling together what you can out of what is available, regardless of who or what the object in question was originally intended for - and the acceptance of impermanence - an embracing of the notion that what one finds one cannot keep, that what one builds is not meant to last. A far cry, it has to be said, from the place we started out this series: the iconic Taj Mahal.

As for the scene in the park, I told club participants about it and urged them to go and see it for themselves. But the next day it was gone, disappeared into the ether, no sign that it had ever even existed. As the old saying goes, you had to be there. There, in that brief window of time, outside of which there was no There. I had wanted to share it, to  give others who had been involved in this journey into the ins and outs of place the opportunity to experience this particular site in all its ad hoc glory, to see for themselves how it spoke so eloquently to theoretical notions like jugaad and "making do" and even resonance itself. But this was not to be. And perhaps, in retrospect, its very ephemerality spoke more loudly, more eloquently, than its "being-there" ever could. Just as my place cannot be yours, just as we can only be the poets of our own lives and places - spinning those places into being through our poetry, setting those places all a-tremble with the flash of a sudden philosophical insight - so too are we obliged to stumble upon our own resonant places, to root out our own magical synergies.

And so to the next adventure - a hop, skip and jump through the history of Western Philosophy. Stay tuned for the logistics involved in covering 2500 years of thinking in the course of a single five- session salon series. And to all of our members, have a happy holiday season and keep those home fires burning until we meet again in early 2015.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My Place or Yours: A Case of Poetry (and Existentialism) Opening Doors

American historian, author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), who  cared deeply about places and the sense we make of them, once commented that "a place is not a place until it has a poet." This entrancingly provocative remark became the centerpiece of our second Philosophy Club foray into place: prompting us to put pen to paper so as to haiku our way into a better understanding of those places that hold special resonance for ourselves and us alone; daring us to become 'the poets of our own lives and places' in order to stretch Stegner's assertion to its outer reaches.

That those outer reaches included a detour into Existentialism courtesy of Jean Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) "My Place" - a short but dense chapter buried deep inside his pivotal and weighty tome Being and Nothingness (1943), and through which we had all waded in preparation for this session - was not entirely coincidental. Sartre is famous for having sent a frisson through the literary world (and ruffled more than a few literary feathers) when he denied poets entry into the realm of "committed writing" - a realm he reserved for prose writers alone. Prose, Sartre felt, was the only art form capable of producing concrete action and with it, political change. The instrumentality of prose - its very directness and lack of ambiguity - made it the ideal mouthpiece for those committed to not only rewriting the world but spreading their message far and wide so as to spark a veritable reworking of that world on the part of writers and their readers alike. Poets, on the other hand, well, they were in the business of "bearing witness": of distilling earthly anguish into the plop of a raindrop, of making us feel that raindrop (and by extension, that anguish) strongly and vividly but not in a way that would physically spur us out there onto the barricades

In making these claims Sartre's aim wasn't so much to elevate prose over poetry as to highlight the difference between writing that provokes action, and writing that evokes affect - that breathes life into the thing itself. On the subject of affect, and its very elusiveness when it comes to pinning things down and divvying them up into neat little categorizations, a frustrated Sigmund Freud once commented, "Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me." The 'everywhere' to which Freud was referring on this particular occasion was the realm of affect, and his frustration stemmed from his inability to capture its mysterious workings in relation to the human psyche in scientifically credible psychological prose. Concluding that in beating him to the finish line, the poets had also made his task of scientizing affect that much more challenging, Freud gave up: stashing his affect research in a bottom drawer; turning his attention to more 'scientifically credible' matters like female hysteria and penis envy.

Hmmmmm...The actual point being, of course, that though Sartre and Freud did not see eye to eye on much, they did agree that poets had cornered the affect market and that - for better or for worse - they were the reigning literary champions of that domain. As for place and our relationship to it, there are poets aplenty who would venture that place is nothing if not a hotbed of affect. Which adds up to a rather long and circuitous way of saying that, as a group, we were prepared to make unlikely bedfellows of Poetry and Existentialism in order to see what poetry could and could not teach us about what constitutes those places we call our own, as well as to wring from the wrought terrain of those self-same places a testing ground for Wallace Stegner's place-creating poet-cum-geographer.

From the get-go, then, it was a case of subjecting everything on the evening's agenda to a dueling banjo gruel-fest that pitted haiku against the Word. Our first face-off revolved around participant's own observations about place, culled from our previous session together. In some cases, the observations themselves read like poetry...

"If my body becomes un-placed,
and I am physically ill
 - all at sea -
then I too will be un-placed,
no matter how convivial the setting."

                                                                      "Place, like life, just happens to you,
                                                                      And sometimes just having a place,
                                                                       Is enough."

                                           "Even the act of passing through,
                                            Of being a passenger,
                                            Can be grounds for implacement.
                                            I don't have to be stationary,
                                            To be in place."

In other cases, they were battle cries from the barricades of life...

                          "Not everybody needs, or indeed even wants, to get back to the ur-place!"

         "Topophilia! You've got to be kidding! Really?!"

                          "Only a place that is freely available to ALL can rightly be called a PUBLIC place!"

And some were just plain old Proustian...

             "Why settle for a visual crumb, for a photograph, when I have many more senses - smell,
              touch, sound, taste, to name just several - with which to get to know a place."

Spun first into theory through analytic prose, turned subsequently into poetry just dripping with affect, the results of pooling these scattered observations about place into succinct little parcels of either studied insight or atmospheric glimmer were compared and contrasted, played off each other and unpacked. Buoyed by this experimental working of what had come before, though not yet ready to come out on one side or other of the great prose versus poetry debate, we launched into the matter at hand: Sartre's reflections on his place, entitled "My Place."

A preliminary exercise in haiku gave us free reign to express our initial reaction to the piece, as well as to explore how each of us as readers brushed up against this particular authorial voice. For some, Sartre spoke in them, through them, for them, to them. For others, Sartre didn't reach them at all - something Sartre the Activist would have found deeply distressing if Iris Murdoch is right in asserting that "the driving force of all his writing" was "to change the life of his reader." Regardless of whether or not we had felt interpellated by Sartre the Writer, however, we were unanimously intrigued by his opening argument: that our initial lack of choice with regard to the place we are born sets off a chain reaction of contingency that severely restricts our freedom; that no matter how much we believe ourselves to be freely choosing any subsequent place we might opt to call our own, that original unchosen place will forever loom large, impacting how any future place is selected, occupied, and moved on from.

It was clear that we needed instruction on the finer points of freedom, and Sartre was undoubtedly the philosopher to deliver that life lesson to us. For indeed, maximizing your freedom is the only thing in life that is truly worth striving for, according to Sartre, even if managing to get some for yourself is no mean feat. In a sense, the word 'striving' here is key: for the attainment of true freedom resides in the simple acknowledgement that you exist in 'your' place for no other reason than your "being-there"; for it is only in recognizing all those 'facts' about your existence within place over which you have no control and through which your freedom as regards place is curtailed that you can even begin to negotiate a freer relationship to the place in which you find yourself, and the places you might go. In other words, to strive for freedom is to pull off the blinders and reach out towards something or somewhere else, even if that act of reaching ends up finding you happiest in precisely the place you are. It is to project yourself elsewhere, to literally make of your projections a project, and in that space of making plans and making choices and in that space only, to transform the reality of place in your life from what Sartre sees as an "insurmountable obstacle" that we unthinkingly or begrudgingly drag around with us, into "a point of attachment or a point of departure, as we wish."

This marvelously motile idea of place captured our collective imagination. What we liked was the idea that place in general, and our own personal places more specifically, could be less of a passive geographical landmark into which we have been inserted and from which all other places we choose to inhabit snowball, and more of a vibrant spatial relationship into which we actively enter: an ongoing negotiation between an actual "being-there" right here and a projected "being-there" out there that at least affirms for us that we are involved in, and committed to, the choosing of an end. As to whether we affirmed the power of poetry over analytic prose to convey the depth and texture of Sartre's existentialist thinking is another matter altogether, and one that we agreed to carry forth into the third and final session of this Philosophy Club mini-series. When we reconvene, we'll be asking ourselves how much further traditional notions of place can be stretched by putting them through the wringer of Michel de Certeau's concept of "Making Do" and the Indian innovative approach to rule-bending, Jugaad. We'll also be unpacking the notion of resonance in an attempt to get to the bottom of the driving question - what IS in a place? - that lies at the heart of this series.