Kant’s Three Hundredth Birthday

Michel Chaouli, Sergio Tenenbaum and Keren Gorodeisky at The Point:

Kant’s views here are taken by many philosophers to be an impossible attempt to have it both ways. Kant seems to be arguing that evil is necessarily attributed to each of us, apparently rooted in human nature. And yet at the same time he claims that evil is freely chosen: each of us is fully responsible for this unavoidable human predicament. But how is this possible? How could a condition “entwined with humanity itself” be something that “come[s] about through one’s own fault”?

Nonetheless I always found this passage to contain a powerful insight into the human condition. It is not only Kant who needs to have it both ways; we all do. The high ideals that we set for ourselves are indeed unattainable, and yet we betray our freedom if we do not own up to every particular failure of our agency. Not seeing that these ideals are unattainable, let alone thinking that one has attained them, is a form of moral arrogance or fanaticism that blinds us to the real obstacles for moral progress. Yet not seeing that our failures are imputable to us is a form of self-satisfaction that lets us rationalize our shortcomings as vicissitudes of human nature.

more here.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï

Hannah Bhuiya at Artforum:

Today, Le Samouraï is recognized as a foundational example of neo-noir, and as a spark that lit a fire under Scorsese, Mann, Tarantino, Jarmusch, Woo, Fincher, et al.—see Taxi Driver (1976), Thief (1981), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Ghost Dog (1999), The Killer (1989), and The Killer (2023). Even the Matrix and John Wick franchises are suffused with references to its cult mythology: aloof antiheroes with sharp suits and slick autos pursued on all sides as they stalk through moody cityscapes, inescapably hurtling toward the violent resolution of their own personal destiny? Check. Such respect and veneration from his American and international peers was something the Stetson- and Ray-Ban-sporting Melville, who functioned as something of a godfather to Jean-Luc Godard and the nascent French New Wave, would have been pleased to receive. Unfortunately, his own dramatic personal destiny was to intervene. In 1973, at only fifty-five, the filmmaker suffered a fatal heart attack over lunch while discussing his next picture—a spy thriller set to star Yves Montand and Catherine Deneuve, never to witness the explosive chain reaction in mainstream cinema that his unapologetic, maverick methods had set off.

more here.

On Edward Said’s “Songs of an Eastern Humanist”

Manan Kapoor in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN OUT OF PLACE: A Memoir (1999), Edward Said recalls that after graduating from Princeton in June 1957, he was torn by “differing impulses”: he could pursue a fellowship from Harvard for graduate study or return to Cairo to work at his father’s stationery company. Eventually, Said deferred Harvard for a year and returned to “sample the Cairo life.” Said claimed that he had no interest in his father’s business, and in the memoir, he recalls how he spent his afternoons in his father’s office: “I would either read—I remember I spent a week reading all through Auden, another leafing through the Pléiade edition of Alain […]—or I would write poetry (some of which I published in Beirut), music criticism, or letters to various friends.” Two decades after Said’s death, we finally have access to 19 of these poems, written between 1956 and 1968, which have been compiled and edited by his biographer, Timothy Brennan, as Songs of an Eastern Humanist (2024).

More here.

Insects and Other Animals Have Consciousness, Experts Declare

Dan Falk in Quanta:

In 2022, researchers at the Bee Sensory and Behavioral Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London observed bumblebees doing something remarkable: The diminutive, fuzzy creatures were engaging in activity that could only be described as play. Given small wooden balls, the bees pushed them around and rotated them. The behavior had no obvious connection to mating or survival, nor was it rewarded by the scientists. It was, apparently, just for fun.

The study on playful bees is part of a body of research that a group of prominent scholars of animal minds cited today, buttressing a new declaration that extends scientific support for consciousness to a wider suite of animals than has been formally acknowledged before.

More here.

Is it democratic to disqualify a popular candidate from the ballot?

Benjamin A. Schupmann at the Oxford University Press Blog:

That a popular candidate could be disqualified from running and removed from the ballot might, at first glance, seem at odds with the very idea of democracy. For that reason, despite his evident role in instigating an insurrection, many Republican senators demurred and chose not to impeach former President Donald J. Trump on 13 January 2021. There was no need, they thought. The American voters had already passed judgment. Trump would now fade away.

Three years later, with Trump still fully in control of the Republican Party and poised to regain the Presidency, the US Supreme Court decided per curiam that Courts cannot declare a candidate ineligible for public office under the “insurrection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s scheduled hearing of Trump’s executive immunity claim seems intended to guarantee that the federal January 6 case will occur too late to influence or interfere with the 2024 US Presidential Election.

In these and other cases, we can see that, despite the existence of constitutional mechanisms to disqualify antidemocrats from obtaining power, elected representatives, judges, and other officials are reluctant to use them.

More here.

Philosophy is an art

Peter West in aeon:

‘Philosophical theories are much more like good stories than scientific explanations.’ This provocative remark comes from the paper ‘Linguistic Philosophy and Perception’ (1953) by Margaret Macdonald. Macdonald was a figure at the institutional heart of British philosophy in the mid-20th century whose work, especially her views on the nature of philosophy itself, deserves to be better known.

Early proponents of the ‘analytic’ method in philosophy such as Bertrand Russell saw good philosophy as science-like and were dismissive of philosophy that was overly poetic or unscientific. Russell, for example, took issue with the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who was something of a bête-noire for early analytic philosophers. Bergson’s theorising (Russell thought) did not depend on argument but rather on expressing ‘truths’, so-called, arrived at by introspection. As Russell wrote in ‘The Philosophy of Bergson’ (1912):

His imaginative picture of the world, regarded as a poetic effort, is in the main not capable of either proof or disproof. Shakespeare says life’s but a walking shadow, Shelley says it is like a dome of many-colored glass, Bergson says it is a shell which burst into parts that are again shells. If you like Bergson’s image better, it is just as legitimate.

Russell places Bergson alongside William Shakespeare and Percy Bysshe Shelley and worries that there is no objective measure of whose worldview is more accurate. There’s no way of proving which is a better account of things, it’s simply a matter of which ‘image’ you like best. In other words, there’s no attempt to provide empirical evidence – evidence based on publicly observable data – in support of these views. For Russell, this was enough to show that what Bergson was doing was not really philosophy, at least not good philosophy, any more than Shakespeare’s plays and Shelley’s poetry were.

More here.

Your perception of time is skewed by what you see

Lilly Tozer in Nature:

How the brain processes visual information — and its perception of time — is heavily influenced by what we’re looking at, a study has found. In the experiment, participants perceived the amount of time they had spent looking at an image differently depending on how large, cluttered or memorable the contents of the picture were. They were also more likely to remember images that they thought they had viewed for longer. The findings, published on 22 April in Nature Human Behaviour1, could offer fresh insights into how people experience and keep track of time. “For over 50 years, we’ve known that objectively longer-presented things on a screen are better remembered,” says study co-author Martin Wiener, a cognitive neuroscientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “This is showing for the first time, a subjectively experienced longer interval is also better remembered.”

Sense of time

Research has shown that humans’ perception of time is intrinsically linked to our senses. “Because we do not have a sensory organ dedicated to encoding time, all sensory organs are in fact conveying temporal information” says Virginie van Wassenhove, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Paris–Saclay in Essonne, France. Previous studies found that basic features of an image, such as its colours and contrast, can alter people’s perceptions of time spent viewing the image. In the latest study, researchers set out to investigate whether higher-level semantic features, such as memorability, can have the same effect.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings.

I am taken with the hot animal
of my skin, grateful to swing my limbs

and have them move as I intend, though
my knee, though my shoulder, though something
is torn or tearing. Today, a dozen squid, dead

on the harbor beach: one mostly buried,
one with skin empty as a shell and hollow

feeling, and, though the tentacles look soft,
I do not touch them. I imagine they
were startled to find themselves in the sun.

I imagine the tide simply went out
without them. I imagine they cannot

feel the black flies charting the raised hills
of their eyes. I write my name in the sand:
Donika Kelly. I watch eighteen seagulls

skim the sandbar and lift low in the sky.
I pick up a pebble that looks like a green egg.

To the ditch lily I say I am in love.
To the Jeep parked haphazardly on the narrow
street I am in love. To the roses, white

petals rimmed brown, to the yellow lined
pavement, to the house trimmed in gold I am

in love. I shout with the rough calculus
of walking. Just let me find my way back,
let me move like a tide come in.

by Donika Kelly
Academy of American poets, 11/20/2017

Copyright © 2017  

Why Taylor Swift’s songs are philosophy

Jessica Flanigan in The Conversation:

Taylor Swift isn’t just a billionaire songwriter and performer. She’s also a philosopher.

As a Swiftie and a philosopher, I’ve found that this claim surprises Swifties and philosophers alike. But once her fans learn a bit more about philosophy – and philosophers learn a bit more about Swift’s work – both groups can appreciate her songwriting in new ways.

When one of the greatest philosophers, Socrates, famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he was arguing that people cannot even know whether they are living a meaningful life unless they subject their choices and their values to scrutiny.

Like other great writers, Swift’s songwriting consistently involves just the kind of introspective scrutiny about choices and values that Socrates had in mind. Several songs address the value of self-understanding, even when it’s difficult.

More here.

The Space Of Possible Minds

Michael Levin in Noema:

They are assembled from components that are networked together to process information. Electrical signals propagate throughout, controlling every aspect of their functioning. Being general problem-solvers, many of them have high IQs, but they routinely make mistakes and confabulate. They take on different personas, learning to please their makers, but sometimes they abruptly turn on them, rejecting cherished values and developing new ones spontaneously. They convincingly describe things they don’t really understand. And they’re going to change everything.

I’m talking, of course, about our children.

Long before AI, we were creating high-level intelligent agents: kids. While the challenges that AIs provoke today seem novel, in reality, they echo fundamental and ancient questions about what it means to be human.

More here.

Yuval Noah Harari: From Gaza to Iran, the Netanyahu Government Is Endangering Israel’s Survival

Yuval Noah Harari in Haaretz:

In the coming days Israel will have to make historic policy decisions, ones that could shape its fate and the fate of the entire region for generations to come. Unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu and his political partners have repeatedly proven that they are unfit to make such decisions. The policies they pursued for many years have brought Israel to the brink of destruction. So far, they have shown no regret for their past mistakes, and no inclination to change direction. If they continue to shape policy, they will lead us and the whole Middle East to perdition. Instead of rushing into a new war with Iran, we should first learn the lessons of Israel’s failures over the past six months of war.

More here.

A Reconsideration Of Robert Frost At 150

Ed Simon at The Hedgehog Review:

Facing west from his white clapboard Victorian house, surrounded by acres of skeletally bare oak, maple, and hickory reaching up from the snow-covered New Hampshire woods, Robert Frost might have gazed at the granitoid solidity of Ryan’s Hill while he contemplated the demonic. “It was far in the sameness of the wood; / I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail, / Though I knew what I hunted was no true god,” writes Frost in a poem from his first collection, A Boy’s Will, published in 1913 when the poet was already nearly forty. Written on that farm in Derry, New Hampshire, while Frost was teaching at the nearby Pinkerton Academy, “The Demiurge’s Laugh” is uncharacteristically gothic, a thread of the supernatural running through this little horror story of a lyric. The narrator, disoriented in his errand into wilderness, hears an ever-shifting “sleepy sound, but mocking half,” a sound that was “all I needed to hear: / It has lasted me many and many a year.”

Finally, the eponymous Demiurge, the malevolent deity of the ancient Gnostics guilty of creating our corrupted and fallen world, “arose from his wallow to laugh, / Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went; / And well I knew what the Demon meant.”

more here.

Anni Albers Transformed Weaving, Then Left It Behind

Jackson Arn at The New Yorker:

Imagine you’d been born in 1899. Imagine living through the invention of the Model T, the jet aircraft, the liquid-fuelled rocket, and the computer chip. Now imagine looking back on all this in 1965 and writing, as though with a shrug, “How slow will we appear some day?”

It takes an uncommon turn of mind to survive decades this dizzying and then sum them up with perfect nonchalance—but a lot of the greatness of Anni Albers lay in her ability to stay undizzied and keep doing her thing, year after year. Not that she was afraid of innovation; her thing just happened to be weaving, an art form that, by her own calculation, had not changed in any fundamental way since the Stone Age.

Critics reach for a few key words with Albers: “crisp,” “precise,” “mathematical.” I would like to propose “frightening.” Her work arouses the suspicion that beauty is simple and we’ve all been overthinking it. None of the shapes or colors in “Pasture” (1958), a smallish plot of mainly red and green threads, would be out of place on a roll of Christmas wrapping paper.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

The House Slave

The first horn lifts its arm over the dew-lit grass
and in the slave quarters there is a rustling—
children are bundled into aprons, cornbread

and water gourds grabbed, a salt pork breakfast taken.
I watch them driven into the vague before-dawn
while their mistress sleeps like an ivory toothpick

and Massa dreams of asses, rum and slave-funk.
I cannot fall asleep again. At the second horn,
the whip curls across the backs of the laggards—

sometimes my sister’s voice, unmistaken, among them.
“Oh! pray,” she cries. “Oh! pray!” Those days
I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat,

and as the fields unfold to whiteness,
and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,
I weep. It is not yet daylight.

by Rita Dove
Selected Poems
W.W. Norton, 1993

The bird is fine, the bird is fine, the bird is fine, it’s dead

Jonathan Weiner in MIT Technology Review:

If high intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time, then most of us are geniuses about aging a few times over. We think it will never come for us. We think it might come but it will stop before it reaches us. We think it’s coming and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. It was the great molecular biologist Seymour Benzer who got me interested in the idea that aging might be malleable. Benzer was a night owl. I was writing a book about him, and in the late 1990s he used to talk about aging in his Fly Room at Caltech in a hushed, conspiratorial voice, even though it was just the two of us and a thousand fly bottles at three in the morning. I’ll never forget how startling it was to hear a serious scientist say, We might be able to do something about this.

Nor was he the only one to say it. At the University of California, San Francisco, Cynthia Kenyon was dissecting the aging of the worm C. elegans. In 1993, she had announced the discovery of a mutant that lived about twice as long as the average C. elegans and looked young and sleek almost to the end. At MIT, Lenny Guarente was dissecting the genetics of aging in yeast, and he seemed to be getting somewhere too. In 1998, when Benzer was 77 years old, he announced the discovery of a mutant fruit fly he called Methuselah. It could live for 100 days. The average fly in his bottles died at around 60.

More here.