Habermas on Social Integration

I furthermore regard the function of self-understanding as vital, for this was always coupled with a socially integrative function. This was the case as long as religious world views and metaphysical doctrines stabilized the collective identities of religious communities. But even after the end of the ‘Age of World-Views,’ the pluralized and individualized self-understanding of citizens retains an integrative element in modern societies. Since the secularization of state authority, religion can no longer meet the requirement of legitimizing political rule. As a result, the burden of integrating citizens shifts from the level of social to the level of political integration, and this means: from religion to the fundamental norms of the constitutional state, which are rooted in a shared political culture. These constitutional norms, which secure the remainder of collective background consent, draw their persuasive power from the repeatedly renewed philosophical argumentation of the rational law tradition and political theory.

"Critique and Communication: Philosophy's Missions - a Conversation with Jürgen Habermas," Eurozine - http://bit.ly/1OazFb2. An insightful interview that provides a concise summary of Habermas's conception of the philosophical task today. An open set of questions arises from the integrative capacity of his account of hermeneutics. Moreover, part of the difficulty arises from his oversimplified opposition between religious and philosophical systems of thought. 

On Social Imagination

Paul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo are usually regarded as pantomime villains by right-thinking moderns. Any number of historical outrages and injustices have been laid at their door, jointly and severally; patriarchal oppression, collusion in slavery, the Inquisition, the collective Christian neurosis about sexuality – almost everything except the common cold.... But perhaps the central fact to bear in mind is that they both do something that only a few other ancient authors do – Plato being the other most obvious example: they invite their readers to imagine a social order quite different from what is now taken for granted.

"Patriarchal villains? It’s time to re-think St Paul and St Augustine" - http://www.newstatesman.com/node/202018

On Finding Books

What a clever device the book is. It is compact and light, yet contains hundreds of pages that hold an incredible amount of information. Moving forward or backward in the text is as easy as flipping a page, while the book’s square shape and flat bottom facilitates easy shelving. Still, the object is useless if the information it contains cannot be found. And so tools were developed to help the reader do just that, such as page numbers, running titles, and indices. As familiar as these aids may be, they are older than you think... Crucially, to look up information in a book you must have first located the object. And so the shelfmark was invented, the equivalent of our call number. By the end of the medieval period it had become as clever as the book to which it was added: letters, digits, and even colour coding was used to guide the reader to a particular manuscript.”

"Judging a Book by its Cover," - http://medievalbooks.nl/2015/11/11/judging-a-book-by-its-cover/. This is an interesting article on the later medieval development of the codex book. So much of what we think of the book today (its titled covers, page numbers, paragraphs, spaces between words, and various other navigation aids) took hundreds of years to develop and become commonplace in libraries and scriptoriums. My own work looks back to the rise of the early codex itself, which occurred before these useful features. This raises a question concerning why Christians adopted the codex so rigorously, given its relative uselessness as an information technology in the second century. 

On Studying Religion

An old rule of etiquette often taught to children from a young age is to never talk about religion in polite company. This sentiment carries over into public schools, where teaching about the world’s religions often sparks controversy and charges from some parents and activists that classrooms are an inappropriate place for this discussion. Yet educators frequently counter that a public-school curriculum is incomplete without religious literacy, which the American public sorely lacks. According to a 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, in a country of many faiths and beliefs, there is a stunning absence of knowledge of the world’s religions. And where better to discuss a thorny topic like religion, some say, than in a public-school classroom; they note that discomfort is a natural and essential part of the learning process.

"The Misplaced Fear of Religion in Classrooms," - http://theatln.tc/1RXyPPE. Key to this issue is the clear and rigorous employment evidence based methodologies to the study of religion.  

On Critical Thinking

Educators, policy makers, and employers all want colleges to teach students critical-thinking skills, but are colleges succeeding in doing so? To answer that question, the study’s authors analyzed 71 research reports published over the past 48 years. Their conclusion: Yes, despite arguments to the contrary, students’ critical-thinking skills do improve in college. The difference is comparable to a student whose critical-thinking skills start at the 50th percentile and, after four years in college, move up to the 72nd.

"Yes, colleges Do Teach Critical-Thinking Skills, Study Finds" - http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/?p=105930

On Fawlty Towers

From the title of Russell Blackford’s response, I can tell that we agree on at least one thing: Fawlty Towers was a brilliant television series. I suspect we agree on a few other things as well, such as the wisdom of the separation of church and state - but before we get to the agreement, there are some misunderstandings that need to be cleared up.

William Cavanaugh and Russell Blackford, "Putting Religion in its Place: The Secular State and Human Flourishing - A Debate" - http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/06/24/4031567.htm. I just came across this exchange between Russell Blackford, based at Newcastle, and William Cavanaugh based in Chicago. Both are incisive and generous in their responses to each other, and both of their recent books are well worth reading. A few years ago Blackford kindly presented at our university's Religion in Political Life seminar series on the release of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. I find Cavanaugh's The Myth of Religious Violence, quite useful for generating discussion in courses on processes of secularization and religious violence. In any case, it is always good to see civility and a bit of humor between thinkers of different positions. 

On Seinfelde

Still, the notion of reality or existence that the new realism proposes remains tepid. For Gabriel, to exist means to appear in what he, in reference to Wittgenstein’s later notion of language games, calls a ‘field of sense’: a finite domain of meaningful connections. Fields of sense — in German, Seinfelde, a play on words that affords Gabriel, a connoisseur of American popular culture, an opportunity to allude to his favorite sitcom — stand in contrast to metaphysical attempts to understand the world as a finite, graspable totality.

Richard Wolin, "Alternate Realities," The Chronicle of Higher Education http://bit.ly/1Lt7S2l. Interesting review of new realism in Markus Gabriel's Why the World Does not Exist.

On Animal Inner Life

The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent, social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of Beyond Words we need to reevaluate how, and why.

"The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals," The New York Review of Books http://bit.ly/1Pz0k37

On Ghosts in Our Machines

The situation reminded me that the ferreting-out of secrets is merely one purpose of surveillance; it also disciplines, inhibits, robbing interactions of spontaneity and turning them into self-conscious performances... There are so many ghosts in our machines—their locations so hidden, their methods so ingenious, their motives so inscrutable—that not to feel haunted is not to be awake.

Walter Kirn, "If You're Not Paranoid, You're Crazy," - http://theatln.tc/1MvejBD

On Problem Solving

There is an old joke about an engineer, a priest, and a doctor enjoying a round of golf. Ahead of them is a group playing so slowly and inexpertly that in frustration the three ask the greenkeeper for an explanation. ‘That’s a group of blind firefighters,’ they are told. ‘They lost their sight saving our clubhouse last year, so we let them play for free.’ The priest says, ‘I will say a prayer for them tonight.’ The doctor says, ‘Let me ask my ophthalmologist colleagues if anything can be done for them.’ And the engineer says, ‘Why can’t they play at night?’

The greenkeeper explains the behavior of the firefighters. The priest empathizes; the doctor offers care. All three address the social context of the situation: the fact that the firefighters’ disability has inadvertently created conflict on the golf course. Only the engineer tries to solve the problem.

Malcolm Gladwell, "The Engineer's Lament" - http://www.newyorker.com/?p=3039159.

Gladwell goes on to note public misunderstanding of the crassness of engineering solutions to human problems. The joke also reminds me of a Non Sequitur cartoon from some years ago.

On "Big" Universities

It’s tough to know how much philosophical instruction anybody can absorb at age 20, before most of life has happened, but seeds can be planted. Universities could more intentionally provide those enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer. If that happens, the future of the university will be found in its original moral and spiritual mission, but secularized, and in an open and aspiring way.

"The Big University" - http://nyti.ms/1VAyB6U

On a Philosophical Life

Frank (which is how he was always referred to) has recently become the subject of an interesting book by David Ellis, ‘Frank Cioffi: The Philosopher in Shirt Sleeves.’ It gives a very good sense of what it felt like to be in a room with Frank. Truth to tell, Ellis’s title is deceptive, as I never recall Frank in shirtsleeves. He wore a sweater, usually inside out. He never had laces in the work boots he always wore, and strangest of all, because of an acute sensitivity to fabrics, he wore pajamas underneath his clothes at all times. The word ‘disheveled’ doesn’t begin to describe the visual effect that Frank had on the senses. He was a physically large, strong-looking man, about 6-foot-4. The pajamas were clearly visible at the edges of his sweater, his fly was often undone (some years later, his only word of teaching advice to me was ‘always check your fly’) and he sometimes seemed to hold his pants up with a piece of string. In his pockets would be scraps of paper with typewritten quotations from favorite writers like George Eliot, Tolstoy or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whom he revered.

Simon Critchley, "There Is No Theory of Everything," The Stone - http://nyti.ms/1QvStlC. A lovely homage to a philosophical life.

On Privileged Conclusions

The debate persists, too, because both sides are winning on their own turf—the lab tests continue to support authenticity, the textual analysis continues to suggest fraud. What is really at stake here is not the status of this one small fragment. It is, rather, what kind of information, and what kind of conclusions, are privileged: those from the data-driven world of the sciences, or those generated by the collective expertise of the humanities?

"Why Scientists and Scholars Can't Get Their Facts Straight" - http://theatln.tc/1KF3GiZ
"The ongoing dispute over the authenticity of a scrap of papyrus from the ancient world highlights a larger question of how history is established."

On Religion in India

Ambedkar and Gandhi were both deeply religious. Their rivalry was that of utterly opposed types of religious reformers... But he [Ambedkar] does not jettison religion. He understands the need for moral ideals that have a community and a history, even a poetry, attached to them. Here too he joins hands with Kant, though there is no sign that he ever read him: for Kant held that imperfect people need religion, meaning communal ritual practices of some type, to reinforce their dedication to the moral law. Ambedkar would have added too, I think, that people need religion to express human love fully and adequately, overcoming parochialism and self-interest. His take on the need for religion seems less about avoiding evil than about the whole-hearted embrace of good.

On Panglossianism

Those who think that the horrors of the nineteen-thirties and forties were eclipses of the sun, rather than an eternal darkness of the earth, are invariably mocked as Panglossian. But Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire’s fatuously optimistic philosopher, is an unfairly reviled man. The Enlightenment philosophers who insisted that the world could be improved were right. Voltaire was one of them. The mistake was to think that, once improved, it couldn’t get worse again. Voltaire’s point was not that optimism about mankind’s fate is false. It was that, in the face of a Heaven known to be decidedly unbenevolent, it takes unrelenting, thankless, and mostly ill-rewarded work to cultivate happiness here on earth, no matter what color the soil. That was the lesson Dr. Pangloss and his students had yet to learn.

Adam Gopnik, "Blood and Soil: A Historian Returns to the Holocaust" - http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/21/blood-and-soil

On Sandwiches

What kinds of acts are made possible when we believe we know the objective truth? In what ways are our social practices, personal relationships, moral judgments, foreign policies, and political beliefs based on foundations of ‘knowledge’ that, when pressed, we can’t even satisfactorily define or demonstrate? What implications does this have, for how we see the world and our place in it, for how we relate to one another, for how we move through space and time? And why, actually, IS this kind of debate so frustrating? Why is critical thinking experienced as uncomfortable? Why, for example, did the Athenian senate vote to have Socrates LITERALLY KILLED for engaging people in debates like the sandwich debate? What were the charges they actually brought against him? They said he ‘turns the worse argument into the stronger’ and that he ‘teaches these things to the young.’ Socrates’ annoying arguments about definitions were felt to be such a threat to the existing power structure of ancient Athens that even some of his supporters’ attempts to get his sentence changed to lifetime exile were unconvincing, and he was democratically voted into death.

"Is This a Sandwich?" Medium - http://bit.ly/1itdIZQ

On Human Technology

JEFFREY BROWN: Thinking about what robots do or don’t do, or can or cannot do means to think about what it is to be human. Right?
JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that only humans can do?
JOHN MARKOFF: Well, I have been asked that question. What is it to be human? And I think the nature of humanity is found between the interaction that you and I have. And it’s actually something that makes me slightly hopeful, because even though we’re being surrounded with all this automation technology, there is the possibility that that interaction between you and I might actually become more valuable. And, you know, it might work out that way. That would be great.

"Why Humanity is Essential to the Future of Artificial Intelligence," - http://to.pbs.org/1itcPjV. Interesting interview with the author of Machines of Loving Grace

On Vanity

RICHARD DAWKINS: They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.
RD: Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? ‘Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.’
CH: He doesn’t!
RD: He does, honestly. ‘Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.’
CH: That’s Lamentations.
RD: No, it’s Ecclesiastes. ‘Vanity, vanity.’
CH: ‘Vanity, vanity.’ Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

"'Never Be Afraid of Stridency': Richard Dawkins' Interview with Christopher Hitchens," - http://www.newstatesman.com/node/200931

On New Romanticism

Just once I’d like to have a college student come up to me and say, ‘I really wanted to major in accounting, but my parents forced me to major in medieval art.’ That probably won’t happen... But you see a counterreaction setting in. You see, here and there, signs of a new romanticism... I’m not sure we’re about to be overrun with waves of Byronic romantics, but we have been living through an unromantic period and there’s bound to be a correction. People eventually want their souls stirred, especially if the stuff regarded as soft and squishy turns out in a relational economy to be hard and practical.

David Brooks, "The New Romantics in the Computer Age" - http://nyti.ms/1hGhL4e

On Coddling and Critical Thinking

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

"The Coddling of the American Mind," - http://theatln.tc/1IXIRdd