On Phenomenology

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss phenomenology, a style of philosophy developed by the German thinker Edmund Husserl in the first decades of the 20th century. Husserl’s initial insights underwent a radical transformation in the work of his student Martin Heidegger, and played a key role in the development of French philosophy at the hands of writers like Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology has been a remarkably adaptable approach to philosophy. It has given its proponents a platform to expose and critique the basic assumptions of past philosophy, and to talk about everything from the foundations of geometry to the difference between fear and anxiety. It has also been instrumental in getting philosophy out of the seminar room and making it relevant to the lives people actually lead.

"Phenomenology" BBC Radio 4 In Our Time - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04ykk4m

On Simulated Homelessness

SimCity players have discussed a variety of creative strategies for their virtual homelessness problem. They’ve suggested waiting for natural disasters like tornadoes to blow the vagrants away, bulldozing parks where they congregate, or creating such a woefully insufficient city infrastructure that the homeless would leave on their own. You can read all of these proposed final solutions in Matteo Bittanti’s How to Get Rid of Homelessness, ‘a 600-page epic split in two volumes documenting the so-called “homeless scandal” that affected 2013’s SimCity...’ For Bittanti, it’s impossible not to see the connections between the homeless problem in the Bay Area and the way it’s portrayed in SimCity. ‘That is, can we fix homelessness in SimCity, or because we haven’t fixed homelessness as a problem in real life, therefore we are bound to lose?’ Bittanti asked. ‘Is SimCity a reflection of what’s happening in reality, and therefore is very realistic, or is it a programming issue?’

"Is 'SimCity' Homelessness a Bug or a Feature?" - http://bit.ly/1872KnE

Hitchcock's Holocaust

In 1945, overseen by Alfred Hitchcock, a crack team of British film-makers went to Germany to document the horror of the concentration camps. Despite being hailed as a masterpiece, the film was never shown. Now, in a documentary called Night Will Fall, the full story of its creation and suppression is being told.

I Am Not Charlie Hebdo

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

David Brooks, "I Am Not Charlie Hebdo" - http://nyti.ms/1yHtC90

On Meritocracy

The Latin deservire means ‘to devote oneself to the service of.’ In Vulgar Latin, that came to mean ‘to merit by service.’ We need to revive that notion of “democratic merit.” Democratic merit would provide access to education to those who serve the goals and contribute to the conditions of a thriving democracy. It does what our current meritocracy fails to do: creates an incentive system that emphasizes not just the possession of individual talent and related personal success but also the ability to collaborate and the commitment to building a better society for more people.

Lani Guinier, "The Tyranny of Meritocracy" - http://chronicle.com/article/The-Tyranny-of-Meritocracy/150983/

Women, Religion and Politics

A new issue of Feminist Theology on Women, Religion and Politics is out, which features articles from the last few years of research on religion and politics at the University of Newcastle. Dr. Kathleen McPhillips introduces the collection which can be downloaded here: http://fth.sagepub.com/content/current

The papers in this special edition were part of an international seminar that was held in Shoal Bay, Australia in December 2012. Participants from Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia gathered together for three days to workshop papers, discuss ideas and enjoy the beautiful coastal environment of northern New South Wales. The seminar was funded from a grant from the University of Newcastle, NSW for the research group Religion in Political Life, and was the first of two international semi- nars organized with Professor Lisa Isherwood at the University of Winchester. The second seminar was held in July 2013 at Winchester University and consisted of papers from European scholars. These essays will also be published in a future edition of Feminist Theology.
— Kathleen McPhillips, "Introduction: Women, Religion and Politics," Feminist Theology, vol 23 no 2, 2015.

On Religion and Media

Recall that the earliest products of the Gutenberg printing press were indulgences and, eventually, the Bible. Knowing what a medium does at its outset doesn’t define its history. Rather, it just indicates the energy with which it began. We may see the Internet as an openness, an availability, a potential divulgence of privacy and overexposure of self. But what if it all is just song and dance relative to its basic proposition, namely that none of us never ever get to know what is really going on? The digital is a new beginning; the digital is a place to hide. In between those two propositions is the work of many humanists, not least of which, perhaps most of all, is the student of religions.

Kathryn Lofton, "The Digital Is a Place to Hide," The Immanent Frame - http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2015/01/07/the-digital-is-a-place-to-hide/

On Academic Tricks

An editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Management Studies (JMS) focused on the growing problem of unethical behaviour in academic publishing, particularly in light of some recent retractions in the field... But what the JMS editorial overlooks is a range of research practices that do not fall under the quasi-juridical category of ‘academic misconduct,’ but which pose just as much of a threat to standards of scholarship. We are talking here, of all those ‘tricks of the trade’ that scholars use to artificially increase their chances of publication in premier journals. These tricks include writing papers with senior academics, even though they may do little more than put their name on the byline. Some academics may prominently cite the work of senior editors in a submission to the journal they edit. Others establish multi-authorship cartels, whereby a group of scholars write one paper each but list the others as co-authors in order to double, treble or quadruple one’s output. Some academics steer the work of doctoral students towards their own research area to cultivate future collaborators who will be willing to share their data and do the lion’s share of the work.

"The Dark Arts of Academica - And Why Journals Must Do More to Tackle the Problem" - http://theconversation.com/the-dark-arts-of-academia-and-why-journals-must-do-more-to-tackle-the-problem-35796

NY Times Year in Pictures

A cradle left behind by Syrian Kurdish refugees along the Turkish-Syrian border near the embattled Syrian town of Kobani.

A cradle left behind by Syrian Kurdish refugees along the Turkish-Syrian border near the embattled Syrian town of Kobani.

A majority of the NY Times' pictures of the year depict war, suffering and a few reference prayer in the aftermath. Many bring human intimacy into focus, and the judges seemed intent on this theme of "closeness." What strikes me about this image is the way its emotion arises from austerity and absence. Photographed on 27 September, at this time of year it seemed a needed contrast to the typical nativity scene. Its hopefulness is not meant to be naive. Herod's Bethlehem massacre, exile and immigration to Egypt, and the ever precarious fragility of childhood all haunt the holy night.


Non-Fiction Visual Cloud

Interesting visual cloud of non-fictionbooks: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/non-fiction-books-everyone-should-read-interactive/. One wonders at the visual representation of such a canon, which was generated from the Pulitzer Prize, Time, National Review, Times Literary Supplement, Good Reads, Library Thing, Guardian and other sources (bit.ly/KIB_BestNonFiction). It is interesting as well that most of what is filtered as philosophy is usually core reading in studies of religion.

On Anthologies of World Religions

At a time when religious faith is coming under intense scrutiny, ‘The Norton Anthology of World Religions’ is presenting a documentary history of six major faiths with sufficient editorial explanation to make their major texts intelligible across the barriers of time and space. This second volume in the series is a textual overview of the three monotheisms — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — from the early scriptures to contemporary writings. It is presented as a journey of exploration, but any reader who hopes to emerge from this literary excursion with a clear-cut understanding of these religions will be disappointed — and that is the great strength of this book.

Karen Armstrong, "Review of The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Volume II Judaism, Christianity, Islam" - http://nyti.ms/1wLbMzD

On Truth

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the philosophy of truth. Pontius Pilate famously asked: what is truth? In the twentieth century, the nature of truth became a subject of particular interest to philosophers, but they preferred to ask a slightly different question: what does it mean to say of any particular statement that it is true? What is the difference between these two questions, and how useful is the second of them?

BBC Radio 4, In Our Time - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04v59gz

On Banking

I venture to claim that no one understands the accounting of the Deutsche Bank. There’s an auditing company that’s familiar with the accounting system. But no single person can understand how those numbers are generated. It’s too complex. That’s why it’s like I’m demanding transparency about something that I can’t demand transparency about. It’s like the question about the existence of the God particle. I don’t know if it exists. Nor do I know how every last branch of this industry works. Nobody does.

- Rainer Voss, in Master of the Universe, a documentary directed by Marc Bauder, 2014

On the Enlightenment

There’s a wonderful democratic republican pamphlet by Camille Desmoulins which was published at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 where he discusses this very point. He says the real issue, if you’re talking about revolution and turning everything upside down, what really counts in the 18th century, is not atheism as such, but the rejection of divine providence and religious authority. That’s what we’re really talking about. If there is no divine providence guiding the course of history, if there is no divine direction in the way things happen, this means that the existing social order – for instance the fact that most of the properties are owned by the aristocracy – can’t be part of the divine plan, or can’t be sanctioned by religious authority. Religious authority doesn’t have that kind of connection with divine providence that it claims to have, and therefore it doesn’t have the legitimacy that many people imagine that it does. This is deeply subversive, and is the connection between being revolutionary in religious matters and being revolutionary in social and political matters. That is one of the most important things to grasp about the Enlightenment...

I think Sorkin is absolutely right to say that we haven’t gone far enough in demonstrating that the religious Enlightenment was not just Protestant but also Catholic and Jewish. Going back to my theme of Five Books that cover all the major dimensions of the Enlightenment, this is really the first one to look at the transformation in religious thought and practice and of thinking about religion’s role in politics, philosophy and society. In that respect it’s a very interesting and important book and a very useful survey. No one else before Sorkin makes this claim, but I think he’s right. He shows that all the religions produce a very strong Enlightened tendency. At the same time he also demonstrates that there was a great deal of resistance to these changes within the churches, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.

"Jonathan Israel on the Enlightenment" - http://fivebooks.com/interviews/jonathan-israel-on-enlightenment 

On Kafka

BBC Radio 4's In Our Time podcast discussed Kafka's The Trial, this past week. Kafka turns out to be essential reading for bureaucratic life in universities these days, although it is interesting to hear discussed the religious themes in Kafka's work as well. The discussion of Aesop was very good the week before, and this week it is a discussion of Zen: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/iot/all.

On Bad Parchment

While the velvety softness of perfect skin can be quite appealing to handle, getting to know imperfect parchment is ultimately more interesting and rewarding. Damage is telling, as this post shows, and it may shed light on such things as the attitude of scribes (who did not necessarily mind holes on the page), the manner in which a book was stored by its owner (with a missing clasp or in a wet environment), and even the state of mind of those looking at it (‘Must cut out golden letters!’). As a book historian it feels good to work with bad skin.

Spiritual Materialism

Interesting London based artist working on the intersection between materiality and spirituality: 

‘“Spiritual Materialism” is a collection of artifacts from the spaces in-between,’ Lauder explains, ‘reflections on the human hunger for profundity and although at the same time influenced by a number of cultures, pointing the finger in the direction of our common human heritage.’ Drawing on both religious and spiritual iconography, Lauder’s illustration work is complemented by his woodworking prowess... Despite heading to Bali to surf and escape the British summer (i.e. slightly warmer rainy season), Lauder found himself in a familiar location: the studio. ‘It was pretty tough finding a balance between enjoying the island life and making work for the exhibition,’ he says. ‘I basically shut myself away for six weeks in the studio and then when the [work] was done tried to cram in as much time in the water as possible.’

The exhibition's crafted and material focus is quite interesting to me. It strikes me that the artist is touching on an old nerve related to the making of religious books, which drew upon a similar sense of the spirituality of things.

On Outsourcing

Recent conversations about online higher education have revolved around how colleges can and should blast their courses out into the wider world. But for institutions that sell an intimate, localized experience, a more-pressing question might be how they can and should integrate courses from elsewhere.

"At Liberal-Arts Colleges, Debate about Online Courses is Really about Outsourcing" The Chronicle http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/?p=55151