Talking Philosophy With Kids At The Brooklyn Public Library

This Sunday afternoon at 4PM, I will be participating in a Philosophy for Kids event at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (in the Info Commons Lab); the event is sponsored by the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy. I’ll be functioning as a kind of Philosophical Advice Columnist taking on, and considering, the following question with an audience made up of six to twelve-year old youngsters):

A friend of mine has a three-year old daughter. Every piece of clothing he buys her is pink and floral. Every toy is a doll or makeup kit. He’s already started joking about how she won’t be allowed to have a boyfriend until she’s 30. This all makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t know whether I’d be crossing a line if I said something. Can I let him know how I feel?

After I posted this announcement on my Facebook page, a friend asked the following question–in what seems a rather irate tone of voice:

The bigger question is why someone should think that they have a right to even think about how someone else is raising their children in the first place, let alone believe that have a right to interfere.

This is a very good question. The straightforward response to it is that because we live in a community, a society, our actions always carry the possibility of bearing on the welfare of others, no matter how self-directed or ‘personal’ they might seem; it is a libertarian and liberal fantasy to imagine that we are isolated islands in the social sea; we are caught up, inextricably, in the lives of others, and they in ours. A family bringing up their child in a sexist or racist environment is raising someone who might very well inculcate those pernicious doctrines and then act on them–to the detriment of someone else’s child. We form political communities directed toward the common good, even as we strive to maximize our individual welfare; the challenge of figuring out how individual freedoms and self-determination can be safeguarded and enhanced while ensuring the rights of others are not infringed on is a central challenge to political and moral philosophy.

To make this discussion a little more personal: I’m the father of a four-year old daughter, and I try my best to bring her up as well as I can to prepare her for the challenges that will undoubtedly confront her in a patriarchal society. My task would be made incomparably easier if the parents of male offspring brought up their children to be sensitive to such considerations as well; it undoubtedly takes a village to raise a child.

This afternoon, I will not pretend the question raised above has a straightforward answer, and will not attempt to provide one to my ‘discussion group’; instead, I will try to draw out some of the central issues involved, perhaps by engaging in some level of abstraction so that the general form of this particular query can be exposed, and the difficulties of answering it can be confronted directly. I’m looking forward to it.

The Shock Of The New (Entry On A Class Reading List)

Teaching a new entrant on a class reading list is always a fraught business. It is especially so when the entrant is a well-established member of analogous canons and you have come late to the game. You are dimly aware you’ve ‘neglected a classic,’ and thus rendered your education–in several dimensions–incomplete; you are well aware banana skins might lie ahead. The classic might turn out to be unexpectedly abstruse and not-classroom-discussion friendly.

This semester, I have taught Machiavelli for the first time, ever; I have taught Political Philosophy twice before and have managed to compose syllabi that did not feature a reading from that source. In my first incarnation of the class, I concentrated on readings stemming from a trifecta of revolutions–the French, American, and Haitian–and in the second, I concentrated on nineteenth and twentieth century sources. This semester’s emphasis on political realism and Shakespeare means that Machiavelli and Hobbes set the stage for our reading of Shakespeare’s Henriad; time permitting, we’ll read a little Nietzsche–from Beyond Good and Evil–to close out the semester.

The reports are in: assigning and discussing Machiavelli was a success. The psychological foundations of politics, the separation of politics and morality, the concentration on the manipulations and distributions and managements of power, taken to be the fundamental political quality and quantity–these all made for engaging class discussions, especially when it became apparent that Machiavelli’s examples and analysis applied to modern political realities as well. Machiavelli’s writing style–which dispenses with elaborate constructions of arguments and consists instead of a series of free-wheeling psychological and political claims riding on a selective historical narrative–turns out to be a teacher’s delight; students respond to his ambitious generalizations and dry skepticism about human nature with anything but indifference.

I’m considerably less sanguine about teaching the Kierkegaard portion of my ‘Existentialism’ syllabus–which kicks off today. (I have never taught Existentialism before and neither have I had the opportunity to assign Kierkegaard on any other class’ reading list yet.) Kierkegaard has never been an easy read, and it was with some trepidation that I placed sections from Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, Against Christendom’ on the list of reading assignments. I have made matters worse by picking long passages (but is it really possible to restrain yourself in this regard when it comes to a writer who was always incapable, in his writing, of being restrained similarly?) There is a lack of directness in Kierkegaard which might be off-putting for my students; I have prepared myself by highlighting passages of text I will direct the class to in order to focus the class discussions. As you can tell, writing this blog post also serves to ‘gee myself up’ for my class, which begins in less than four hours. Perhaps a joke or two about ‘dread’ might be in order.

Note: Sometimes, a ‘classic’ remains unassigned because you anticipate too many difficulties teaching it; such was the case with Heidegger, who got bumped off my Twentieth Century Philosophy reading list last year, and suffered the same fate this semester. On that problem, more anon.

A Literary Semester To Look Forward To

This fall semester, I will teach three classes; all feature literary components. They are: ‘Political Philosophy,’ ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature,’ and ‘Existentialism.’ The following are their course descriptions:

Political Philosophy: Shakespeare and Political Theory

In this class, we will read Shakespeare’s famous ‘history plays’—Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I & II, Henry V–as political theory texts. We will set up our reading of these texts with ‘realist’ classics from political theory—Machiavelli and Hobbes to begin with, and then after reading Shakespeare, Nietzsche–and investigate their resonances with Shakespeare’s writings. We will be primarily concerned with that prime political entity, power: its seizing, sharing, retaining, usurpation, and deployment.


Rare is the philosophical doctrine that straddles literature and philosophy as effortlessly as existentialism. Sometimes thought to be a purely French twentieth-century phenomenon, existentialism is both a philosophical position with a long pedigree and a literary movement with global presence and presence. In this class, we will examine literary and philosophical works in an effort to unpack existentialism’s central theses, understand their significance, and evaluate the works from a moral, political and metaphysical perspective. Among other things, we will explore why existentialism is held to be an atheist philosophy, why it resonates with Buddhism, and how it avoids charges of nihilism.

Philosophical Issues in Literature: The Legal Novel

In this class we will read several ‘legal novels’ closely to examine their particular literary take on issues of philosophical significance: What is the nature of law? Why do we obey the law? What obligations does it impose on us? Must we always obey the law? How we should interpret a legal text? What is the relationship between law and morality? What is the moral and political significance of the gap between the theory and the practice of the law? Are the pretensions of the law a sham? Is the law just an instrument of the strong to keep the weak in check? Can the law ever find the ‘truth’ in its courts? And so on.

Reading List:

I have taught both ‘Political Philosophy‘ and ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature‘ before but this semester’s syllabi are new. ‘Existentialism’ is a new venture for me. Which means that I have three new classes to teach this semester, a task intimidating and exciting in equal measure. Moreover, I have never taught Shakespeare before, so I face a particularly interesting challenge in taking that task on. (I have recommended that my students watch Sam Mendes‘ The Hollow Crown to supplement their readings of the history plays; these cinematic versions are absolutely superb and bring Shakespeare’s words and characters to life most vividly.)

Much could go wrong in the weeks ahead; but if things come off the way I’ve hoped and planned, this could be one of my best semesters of teaching here at Brooklyn College. Well then, once more into the breach, my dear friends.

Does Donald Trump’s ‘Pragmatism’ Mean Pragmatism Is Incoherent?

A devastating accusation is making the rounds in America: Donald Trump is a pragmatist; therefore pragmatism is an incoherent ethical and political philosophy. This breathtakingly simple argument establishes its solitary premise by making note of Trump’s assertions that he will do what it takes to fix America’s problems. His supposed inconstancy–his curious admixture of populism, authoritarianism, the occasional progressive standpoint–furnishes the best possible proof: Trump is no ideologue, committed to a rigid manifesto; there are no sacred cows; all is at play when it comes to devising solutions for whatever ails America. (This claim underwrites assessments by Joe Dan Gorman, Mychal Massie, P. M. Carpenter, John Porter, and achieves its condemnatory form in a Washington Post article by Christopher Scalia.)

The picture of pragmatism that is implicit here is that of a toolkit of solutions geared to solving problems. So far, so good. Things get terrible, as Scalia seems to assert, when those means and ends are divorced from values:

Ultimately what sets pragmatists apart from traditional conservatives or liberals is not their faith in the effectiveness of their ideas, it’s their originality — the whatever, not the works….there’s nothing in the Pragmatist’s Playbook that forbids mocking a rival’s face, height, footwear, eating habits, energy level or spouse, or even encouraging supporters to physically assault protesters. And although it’s certainly reprehensible to promote absurd conspiracy theories — like Trump’s suggestion that my father, Justice Antonin Scalia, was assassinated — it’s not necessarily unpragmatic.

The condemnation of pragmatism now immediately follows: because there are no abiding values to guide the pragmatist–all is up for contestation and revision–the pragmatist is as likely to flirt with fascist principles as he is with socialist democratic ones. The pragmatist is at heart unprincipled, committed to a brutally reductive and desiccated means-ends cost-benefit, outcomes-oriented analysis.

You say that like it’s such a bad thing.

This critique of pragmatism glibly commits two fallacies. First, it assumes that such an outcome oriented analysis is devoid of values; but au contraire, the choice of ends–which guides the choice of solutions–is very much informed by values. For instance: Which ends should we concentrate on first? Which ones are most ‘important’ for us? Which ones can we ‘afford’ to ignore for now? Ends are not so easily divorced from values.

Second, the critic of pragmatism assumes that he or she has at hand a set of values which will ‘correctly’ guide the supposedly amoral, purely instrumentalist pragmatist in problem-solving; moreover, these values will be the ‘right ones’ to set the offending pragmatist back on the path of moral rectitude. Add some values–the ones I have in mind–and all will be well. The problem is that disagreement about values is the most interesting part of being evaluative and normative; what if the value-guided non-pragmatist happens to be inspired by ‘wrong’ values like racism or sexism?

Pragmatism did not aim to banish values from ethical and moral discourse; it only bid us examine ours more closely to see why we hold them, and under what circumstances we would be willing to relinquish them. Our values reflect our ends, and our ends reflect our values; this is the inseparability that lies at the heart of pragmatism, and which the facile claims and critiques above all too easily elide.

Donald Trump might be a pragmatist, but that does not mean he escapes normative political critique; that option remains as open for the pragmatist as it does for anyone else.

Lessons From A Skeptic About Hobbes

During my first semester of teaching philosophy, in my class on Hobbes and social contract theory, I introduced my students to the usual excerpts from Leviathan: the passages in which Hobbes describes the severely attenuated and impoverished life that awaits those who live in a state of nature, how this creates the need for a sovereign maintainer of power, and so on. As I did so, I was brought up short by a line of questioning directed at me by a student.

First, the student asked me if I knew where Hobbes was ‘raised’–where was he born, where did he grow up. I lamely answered ‘England’ even as I knew few to no details beyond that: I did not know the extent of his travels or journeys to lands elsewhere. ‘Hobbes’ was the name I attached to a particular theory; it was the author’s name. That recognized and acknowledged, I moved on to the theory associated with it, figuring out where and how the theoretical particulars I read about were associated with other theories. Those were the objects of my concern, not the author. I decontextualized the theory, not caring where it came from, who presented it, where and when it might have been written; the premises and conclusions of the various theoretical moves I encountered were evaluated and considered but that was about it.

Second, the student asked me how Hobbes had arrived at the view of human nature he had presented in Leviathan: had he observed such behavior in action, had he traveled to lands that were pre-political in the way Hobbes imagined it? Perhaps Hobbes’ view of human nature was a narrow one, based only on the experiences he had observed, and could not be extrapolated to all mankind, and thus could not serve as the basis for a supposedly universal theory of political philosophy? In response, I said that Hobbes’ was not relying on empirical knowledge of a known state of nature as much as he was providing a kind of rational reconstruction of how the existent political state with its contingent features came to be, based on a generalization of various aspects of human nature assumed or presumed to be universal because of their seeming ubiquity in human behavior. But, my student persisted, Hobbes’ theory was supposed to apply to all humans; it was made without reference to time or place; how could it claim such universality? When I made reference again to the extrapolation based on incomplete knowledge, on a certain kind of psychological generalization, my student pressed me on whether such an induction was justified or not. I found myself a little flummoxed by this line of questioning and do not remember if I had an adequate response at the time for my student.

I was aware of the context in which this discussion was taking place. My student was a young black man; he was reading a text which described an achievement of ‘Western philosophy’ and which made reference to a primitive form of man, one whose shortcomings were overcome by a particular philosophical maneuver associated with the ‘West.’ Perhaps the student had himself been assimilated to this ‘primitive man;’ perhaps the student had encountered schools of thought which regarded ‘primitive man’ as morally deficient in the ways in which Hobbes’ theory at first glance understood him. Perhaps my student was resisting Hobbes’ view of man because he regarded the view as not being benign in the way that other students might have.

My education then was incomplete; I was a graduate student still working on my dissertation. I had not thought much about the provenance of the theories I read and discussed; I had not thought of their varying implications for their diverse audiences. My student was not the only learner in that discussion in the classroom.

The Contingency Of Academic, ‘Disciplinary’ Classification

The textbook I use for my Social Philosophy class, Social Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Present (ed. Alan Sica, Pearson, 2005) is a standard anthology featuring selections from a wide range of historical periods and schools of thought (and the theorists identified with them). This collection may not only serve as ‘a textbook of social philosophy’ in a philosophy department. The following alternative uses for it–in various domains of pedagogy and academic learning–are also possible.

  1. As a textbook in a sociology department for an introductory class in social theory. This might have been Social Thought’s original intended use. The table of contents makes explicit reference to ‘social theory’ and refers to periods and movements using descriptors of interest to social theorists: ‘modern social theory,’ ‘revolution and romanticism,’ the classical period of modern social thought,’ ‘social theory between the great wars,’ and ‘post-modernism, globalization, and the new century.’
  2. As a textbook in a history department for a class in the history of ideas. The schools of thought represented in this collection are impressively diverse: pragmatism, feminism, anarchism, psychoanalysis, linguistics, conservatism, neo-pragmatism, liberalism, positivism etc. Such a class could showcase their historical location and their relationship to other theoretical formations of the same time period.
  3. As a sourcebook for a composition or writing class showing examples of writing styles as deployed in social theory, critique, and analysis (or as samples of styles deployed in particular historical periods.) These samples could be analyzed for their idiosyncratic or standard deployment of particular literary tropes, their use of classical and non-standard figures of speech, their use of rhetoric etc.
  4. As a sourcebook for studying the quality of translations (many of the original sources were originally written in French, German, Spanish, Latin, Italian etc.) By comparing these with different translations of the same material students could evaluate the resultant differences in tone, meaning, and literary style.
  5. As a portion of a syllabus in history of a particular period–for instance, ‘European History Between The Great Wars’–which addresses the evolution in social thought during the period in question.
  6. As a sourcebook for studying social thought as indexed by region of origin – ‘English social thought’, ‘American social thought’, ‘French social thought’ etc.

And so on.

My use of this anthology in a class titled ‘Social Philosophy’ is, at least on one reckoning, a slightly non-standard one. The syllabus for this particular offering of the department has been, historically, what would have been called ‘Classical Social and Political Philosophy.’ That is, I would have covered figures and themes considered to lie in the so-called ‘classical canon’: Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Machiavelli, and so on. (The ‘contemporary’ version of this class would have concentrated on ‘twentieth-century social and political philosophy.) Instead, by taking the ‘social’ in the title seriously–and not just as a shortening of ‘social and political’–I chose to cover material that would have been within the purvey of a traditional ‘social theory’ class in a sociology department. This decision–if the discussions with my students has provided any indication–was a good one; the resultant focus on the relationship between society and individual was one distinct from the kind usually achieved in a more standard treatment (in large part due to the fact that members of the ‘social theory’ canon often do not find inclusion in philosophy reading lists.)

The point, of course, is that the disciplinary or departmental classification of a textbook–the material it contains–is not a definitive matter. That material can be pressed into the service of many different kinds of intellectual or pedagogical objectives. As such, the question of whether the reading is ‘philosophy’ or ‘sociology’ or ‘history’ becomes a question of its location in a particular interpretive framework of study.


The Incompatibiity Of Democracy And The Modern Nation-State

A few days ago, I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

Sometimes, over the course of a semester’s worth of reading and discussing material with one’s students, you can feel a sort of collective convergence on some substantive theses. This semester, my Political Philosophy class and I were in agreement on this one: democracy is incompatible with the modern nation-state.

I was asked for clarification. Here it is–very briefly.

The modern nation-state requires, for its adequate functioning and for the enforcement and policing of its sovereignty, structures that work to undermine democratic principles. Most prominently, the nation-state employs hierarchical bureaucracies–civil services, administrative agencies, ministries of ‘external affairs’ etc–to implement its legislative policies; it sustains standing armies and paramilitary forces like the police, which maintain territorial integrity and can be used to quell internal disturbance if needed; it colludes with corporations in a political economy to create and sustain the value required for its economic viability. The first factor results in a machinery that very quickly acquires a life of its own; elected leaders are plugged into this beast as replaceable components. The second and third factors combine to generate variants of the military-industrial complex.

The version of democracy most often found in the modern nation-state is electoral democracy: ‘representatives of the people’ are elected by popular franchise. This species of democracy notoriously generates political parties whose platforms artificially impose homogeneity of political viewpoint on a heterogeneous membership and the career politician dedicated primarily to re-election. The people turn out every few years to dutifully vote, and then retreat to their overworked schedules to take care of their daily imperatives.

The nation-state is a vast political beast that requires management. Elites and ‘specialists’ step in; oligarchies and plutocracies are formed. Once in power, the vast machinery of the state, the force of its police and armies, the economic might of the military-industrial complex, and various corporate structures act to conserve their power. Wealth and power accumulates at the political summit; political and economic inequality increase. This situation is further entrenched by ideological dominance enforced by either state or corporate media (and educational systems dedicated to producing workers for the industrial complex.)

There is centralized power; there are vast distances–of all kinds–separating the rulers from the ruled; there are enemies–real and imaginary–beyond national boundaries; there is competition–between nations–for valuable natural resources that must be guarded jealously; monies must be raised to keep the machinery of the nation-state running. One democratic imperative after another is sacrificed in order to accommodate the nation-state’s needs. Democracy–rule by citizens–all too easily drops out of this picture.

None of this critique is new. It is not particularly sophisticated either. The functioning of the nation-state is fairly transparent and does not require excessively close attention for its further details to be revealed. The environments most favorable to participatory and deliberative democracy are not to be found here. Perhaps elsewhere, in smaller, less hierarchical, more decentralized, less economically unequal spaces. But not here.