Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Nietzsche’s Inversion Of Natural Law In The Genealogy Of Morals

The radically constructive nature of legal and economic concepts emerges quite clearly in the brilliant second essay of The Genealogy of Morals. Here, Nietzsche sets out his view of how the concept of a contract creates persons, how the ethical subject is not found but made. For Nietzsche, the law, a set of human practices, ‘creates’ its subjects by acting upon humans to make them into beings capable of obeying the law. The inversion Nietzsche forces upon us takes from the notion of a contract as a legally enforceable promise to the notion of a promise as a morally enforceable contract.

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Prophecy And Propaganda As Compensatory Fantasy

In a footnote in his chapter on Herder in Three Critics of The Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000, p. 231), Isaiah Berlin writes:

Like other passionate propagandists, Herder pleaded for that which he himself conspicuously lacked. As sometimes happens, what the prophet saw  before him was a great compensatory fantasy. The vision of the unity of the human personality and its integration into the social organism by ‘natural’ means was the polar opposite of Herder’s own character and conduct….It has frequently been remarked that it is tormented and unbalanced personalities–Rousseau, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence–who celebrate with particular passion physical beauty, strength, generosity, spontaneity, above all unbroken unity, harmony and serenity, qualities for which they had an insatiable craving.

Great artists (writers) are very often ‘passionate propagandists’ and ‘prophets,’ and Berlin is right to note that their creative urges often manifest themselves in their theorizing–by the creation of alternative worlds that are decked out in the colors they find lacking in the ones they currently inhabit.

The prophet in particular, sustains his vision of the world he has seen by underwriting it with his own desires and imaginings; the world he describes is the world he would like realized; it is visible to him because  his longings make it come alive. The more acutely sensed the absence of a particular quality in the present world, the more vividly is its presence articulated in the dreamed of world, the more unambiguous the revelation. Berlin does not mention Freud here, but he might well have by his invocation of a ‘compensatory fantasy.’ The prophet’s visions and revelations are wish fulfillments; they make concrete, in relatively unambiguous form, his hitherto unconscious (or not) fantasies and desires and longings.

The propagandist, similarly, finds his pen and prose animated by these as yet unrequited longings; they bring his polemics to life; they make them stir and summon others to action. The successful propagandist is able to enlist and recruit others to help realize his desired for vision; the success of this task depends on how successfully he is able to transmute the force of his need into the clarity and beauty of his depiction of the desired state. Through his claims he can create a need where none had existed before; he is able to convince his ‘followers’ that his needs are theirs now; the desired for world is one whose absence they sense in their own lives.

Our theoretical frameworks are not just autobiographies, as Nietzsche had suggested, they are also fantasies of the way we would like the world to be. What we find lacking in our lives, we find instead in the theoretical claims we make, in the arguments we adduce in their favor. When we defend our theories and our arguments, we are not engaging in idle academic speculation (or should not be); we are (or should be) engaged in attempting to bring to life a hoped-for world whose presence we can dimly sense in thought and dream and fantasy.

The Defenses Of United Airlines’ Behavior Reveal Some Uncomfortable Truths

There are, roughly, two kinds of defenses offered of United Airlines’ behavior–in DraggingGate–that have been offered thus far. First, the ‘abide by the terms of the contract’ defense. Second, the ‘just shut up and obey orders, and everything will be allright’ defense. On closer inspection, of course, these two turn out to be instantiations of the same abstract concept: bow down to authority, legal or penal, and all will be fine. But for the time being, let us take a closer look at them separately.

The first defense, which bids us to ‘quit complaining because you know what you signed up for’ is especially fascinating. This defense demands that we surrender all notions, all norms, of social good-will to the obtuse, deliberately disguised, terms of a contract. With probability one, it can be surmised that the person offering this defense has never read the fine print of the many, many, contracts that regulate his or her life. The libertarian paradise of a world in which the government only exists to enforce contracts entered ‘freely into’ by various contractors seems a rather bizarre one when we realize that most contracts are unreadable by almost anyone lacking a legal education; moreover, many of those contracts contain terms that are ‘unconscionable,’ buried deep in some sub-clause somewhere. As I’ve noted elsewhere, misery needs company: I’m bound by contracts I find incomprehensible, whose terms are ‘forced’ upon me; so everyone else should be; there is no ‘fellowship’ of citizens or consumers here.

The second defense is exceedingly familiar. It is the one trotted out by defenders of the police whenever there is an instance of police misbehavior. Most offensively, it makes an appearance when the police have just performed an execution of a recalcitrant citizen, one who did not raise his hands in time, or perhaps spoke back insolently. If any injury ensues to a citizen–fatal or otherwise–well, too bad. Once a citizen has refused to comply with orders, all force, including its deadly variants can now be exerted to make the citizen bow down. Disobedience is a sin; one worthy of capital punishment if need be.

The recurring appearance of these sophistical arguments in the American polity is revealing. Why are ‘shut up and obey orders’ and ‘you should know enough legalese so that you can negotiate every single transaction you enter into your life’ held up as exemplars in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’? This regulated life–by contractual terms, by penal authority–seems a particularly grim realization of the American dream. DraggingGate reminds us too that the so-called ‘free market’ in aviation works because all airlines offer equally appalling service in a world where airline travel has become indispensable for business and personal affairs. Soon, we will have to fly; and we will find our restricted choices leading us back to United Airlines. (Why not open up the US market to Asian airlines?) Remarkably, not one passenger on the flight stood up to intervene; they all knew the consequences. They would either be thrown off the flight themselves–thus suffering ‘inconvenience’–or they would be arrested. They too, complied. As all those who defend United Airlines would have us do.

Perhaps we are, as Nietzsche worried, desperate to find other forms of authority–now that the religious  has been partially displaced–to rule over us; perhaps those exerting their wills in resistance to the strictures of contract law and the police remind us that we are living lives of subservience ourselves. We are authority’s minions; we do as we are told; so should everyone else.

Perfect Strangers: Seeing And Hearing Ourselves

Here is a familiar phenomenon: we hear an audio recording of ourselves and are surprised and perplexed to find out we are listening to a stranger; we are used to hearing our voices from the ‘inside’; but when we hear a recording, we do so from the ‘outside.’ The timbre and tone of our voice is unfamiliar; we suddenly realize that the impact we imagine our words to have, the physical presence we think we command with our pronouncements, differs from that which we imagined it to be. Despite understanding the physics of this acoustic phenomena, it retains some of its mystery, continuing to imbue our daily conversations with an air of strangeness. A related phenomenon is finding out that you have an ‘accent’; soon after I arrived in the US some thirty years ago, I was informed of this fact, and it surprised me to no end. Where was it? I couldn’t hear it; I didn’t know what it was, even though I knew Americans spoke English in a manner quite distinct from mine.

But it is not just in the aural dimension that this perplexity arises: sometimes we observe a video recording of ourselves and find that we are strangers at home again. Our body language seems awkward, not as smooth as we hoped it be; our gestures not as practiced; our facial expressions seem to convey too much, too little; the emotions that we thought we were conveying are not the ones that are seemingly being transmitted by our bodies. As a teacher, used to ‘performing’ for ‘audiences’ of students, I am often disconcerted by my awareness of this gap in perceptions; I have never seen a video of myself teaching, though I have one of a conference presentation I made a few years ago; the viewing experience was, to put it mildly, jarring. I have never been able to view that twenty-minute video in its entirety; I switch it off after a few minutes, unable to reconcile myself to the presence of that stranger up on stage, pacing back and forth, his hands sometimes in his pocket, sometimes adjusting his eyeglasses, sometimes pointing at the projection screen.

We are used to being ‘misperceived’ because of language, of course; we write letters and essays and find ourselves unable to convey in untangled form the straight lines of the emotions and thoughts we entertain; we complain, voluminously, of how language renders us inarticulate; we seek refuge in terms like ‘ineffable’; some even invoke Nietzsche and say ‘whatever we have words for is already dead in our hearts; and so on. But we had imagined that there was at least one dimension in which we would be seen and heard clearly; and the audio and video recording tells us that even that comfort is denied us.

There is the ‘outside me,’ the one the world sees and hears, and there is the ‘inside me.’ We imagine ourselves to be physically ‘transparent,’ clearly visible to all, but we seem to always don a mask, one we cannot remove. We realize that our selves are personas, masks we use to navigate our way through this world, but we had imagined that was because we were selective in what we let ‘out’; but even that reminds us of the gap between what we sense from the ‘inside’ and what the world views from the ‘outside.’ Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

Flannery O’Connor On Free Will And Integrity

In the ‘Author’s Note to the Second Edition’ in Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor writes:

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.

Unsurprisingly, here we find a provocative intervention in a philosophical debate by a novelist. We define integrity as “the state of being whole or undivided” or as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” The latter definition related integrity to honesty and morality, and thus presumably to actions taken and choices made; we acted ‘appropriately,’ we chose ‘correctly.’ It is our integrity that makes us capable of doing so. (There is a relationship visible here between the two definitions of integrity in that the person with integrity can be seen as unitary in moral resolve, and not incoherently torn between conflicting moral impulses, unable to choose and act.) So how could integrity consist in not being able to do something? If you are unable to do something, then where is the choice, so crucial to moral action?

O’Connor suggests that this conundrum may be resolved in Nietzschean fashion: we imagine that we have one will, one moral drive of sorts, but this is a mistake. We have many drives, each rudderless, each competing with the other in some shape or fashion; the effect of a drive may be tempered, attenuated, or amplified by others. The net resultant effect, the vector sum of a kind, is the ‘personality,’ or the ‘character’ of the moral agent. We are this resultant sum. Those who think they have ‘free will’ say so not because they experience a unitary drive that directs their choices, but rather, because they experience themselves as a location for an ongoing conflict, an irreducible dissonance, on the occasions of decision-making. This psychic disturbance, this evidence of distant battles between our various drives, waged in various subterranean locations of our subconscious and unconscious is what we call ‘free will’: acting in the presence of conflict, or perceived choices.

Now we can understand what O’Connor means when she says that perhaps our integrity may lie in what we are not able to do. We–some of us perhaps, whose drives add up in particular, distinctive, idiosyncratic ways–do not strike the helpless, the old, the infirm, we do not refuse water to the thirsty, not because we want to do so, but because we cannot; the drive that would make us do so has been combated by another one–or by a combination of others, and it has been bested. The social hosannas heaped on us for our action–or inaction–may suggest to us the pleasing ‘fiction’ that we have ‘chosen correctly’ and that we have ‘acted rightly’; it perpetuates the notion of a unitary free will, which reaches into the various choices available to the agent and picks out one. And leads to further puzzles like those of self-destructive behavior.

O’Connor is not the first to suggest our selves are a dynamic multiplicity, of course, but the indication of morality as a kind of ‘inability’ is certainly noteworthy.

Fascism And The Problems With A ‘Glorious Past’

I grew up in India, a land of considerable antiquity with a long and rich history. All around me, there were monuments to this past; sometimes they were physical, tangible ones, like buildings built many years ago, or books that recounted tales of magnificent civilizations and fantastically accomplished cultures with their philosophy, art, music, sculpture. These tales of glory were disconcerting; I did not understand what my relationship to them was supposed to be. Should I be proud of them, even though I had done nothing to bring them about? Why was I, a spectator, and consumer of history, supposed to be ‘proud’ of this glorious past? Was there a causal relationship between past glory and present states of affairs? If there was, it hadn’t been demonstrated to me. Of course, as the implicit theory behind the recountings of the histories seemed to go, I was supposed to take ‘inspiration’ from these tales, and use them to sustain my imagination going forward; they would be the wind beneath my wings, raising me to further heights in my life, reassuring me I somehow had the right pedigree for any endeavor I chose to participate in. Somehow, mysteriously, that history was supposed to have suffused me with a sense of my self-worth, equipping me with the confidence I needed to venture forth.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t quite work that way. Talk of a ‘glorious past’ seemed to produce instead, too much retrospective vision, and not enough attention to the here and now. It rendered the present ersatz and worthless; all that was good was already gone; the best we could do was look over our shoulders again and again, pining for times gone by. A magician who chanced upon us and sold us tickets on a time-machine would have found many eager buyers for his sales pitch. Away, away, from this cursed present; away to that land, whose contours, even if only partially visible, seemed so much more wondrous and beautiful than those to be found here. We have no time for present cares; our fates lie in the past.

These are symptoms of a disease no less pernicious than the one that Nietzsche diagnosed in religions that speak of deliverance in another world: they induce a nausea for this world, the one we have now. Religion enables priests who claim to offer us the keys to this magical realm; a glorious past enables fascists who promise they will take us back to that time, that place, stepping over all the bodies and principles that get in the way. We should not be surprised; nationalism has a great deal to answer for, and this endless nonsense about the provenance of the nation makes it especially dangerous.

Perhaps we should treat glorious pasts like we treat elapsed time. Gone, never to return, never to be revisited, lacking in any form of substantial reality when compared to the moment at present.