Wine and Nature’s Rift

by Dwight Furrow

Vineyard3Most of the wine purchased in the U.S is an industrial product made by mega-companies that seek to eliminate the uncertainties of nature in pursuit of a reliable, inexpensive, standardized commodity. But most of the wineries in the U.S. are small-to-mid-sized, artisan producers who lack both the technology and the inclination to make a standardized product immune to nature's whims. For these producers and their customers, the call of the wild is at least a murmur.

Although wine is one of the most alluring products of culture, its attraction is in part due to its capacity to reveal nature. When made with proper care, wine in its structure and flavor reflects its origins in grapes grown in a particular geographical location with unique soils, weather, native yeasts, bacteria, etc. Although the grape juice becomes wine via a controlled fermentation process and is the outcome of an idea brought to fruition by means of technology, the basic material came into existence through natures' bounty– roots, trunk and leaves interacting with soil, sun, and rain. Despite the technological transformations that occur downstream, the character of the wine is thoroughly dependent on what takes place inside the clusters of grapes hanging on the vine in a particular, unique location. As any winemaker will tell you, you cannot make good wine from bad grapes and the character of a wine will depend substantially on those natural processes in the vineyard. When you savor a delicious wine you savor the effects of morning fog, midday heat, wind that banishes disease, soil that regulates water and nutrient uptake, bacteria that influence vine health, native yeasts that influence fermentation, the effects of frost in the spring, of rain during harvest—an endless litany of natural processes over which winemakers and viticulturists often have only limited control.

In this respect wine differs from most other beverages some of which are made in a factory by putting ingredients together according to a recipe; others which are directly a product of agriculture but don't display so readily the unique character of their origins. Orange juice from California tastes like orange juice from Florida. Beer can be made anywhere without significant geographical effects on flavor or texture. Not so with grapes. For most wine lovers, it is that taste of geographical difference that fascinates, a difference that is, in part, nature's murmuring.

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Wine and Epiphany

by Dwight Furrow

Vineyard 2Almost everyone connected to the world of wine has a story about their “aha” experience, the precise moment when they discovered there was something extraordinary about wine. For some that moment is a sudden, unexpected wave of emotion that overcomes them as they drink a wine that seems utterly superior to anything they had consumed in the past. For others it's the culmination of many lesser experiences that overtime gather and build to a crescendo when they recognize that these disparate paths all lead to a consummate experience that should be a constant presence in their lives going forward.

For me it was the former. As a casual and occasional consumer of ordinary wine for many years, I had my first taste of quality Pinot Noir in a fine Asian “tapas” restaurant. I was blown away by the finesse with which the spice notes in the food seemed to resonate with similar flavors in the wine. The wine, I now know, was an ordinary mid-priced Pinot Noir from Carneros; Artesa was the producer. But to me in that moment, it was extraordinarily beautiful and I resolved to make that experience a regular part of life.

A simple Google search will turn up any number of these stories. The Wall Street Journal's Lettie Teague interviewed several wine lovers about their “aha” moment. One became intrigued by wine while an art student in Italy, another when he discovered he had a discerning palate, many report childhood experiences of being impressed by the serious conversations about wine among the adults in their lives, others were intrigued by wine's complexity or the sense of adventure and risk involved in the winemaking process. Teague herself reports the wine talk of her study-abroad family in Ireland as the catalyst that launched her career as a wine writer.

These stories have two things in common. In each case the experiences are motivating. Like all experiences of beauty we don't passively have them and move on. The recognition of genuine beauty inspires us to want more.

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Art and Artification: The Case of Gastronomy

by Dwight Furrow

Atelier crenn

In grasping the role of art in contemporary life, one noteworthy theme is the process of artification. “Artification” occurs when something not traditionally regarded as art is transformed into art or at least something art-like. As far as I know, the term was first used in a Finnish publication by Levanto, Naukkarinen, and Vihma in 2005 but has found its way into the wider discussion of aesthetics. It is a useful concept for addressing the boundaries between art and non-art that are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated in contemporary society.

The general issue I want to address is whether artification is a confused and superficial misappropriation of art, a kind of “making pretty” of ordinary objects which we normally associate with kitsch. Or should we welcome artification as an enhancement of both art and life?

Since at least the 18th Century we have had a fine arts tradition that included painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, classical music, and the performing arts of dance and theatre. But over the last century cultural phenomena from architecture, film, jazz, rock music, and hip-hop to graffiti, video games, and even some natural objects have aspired to, and to some degree succeeded in, being included in the extension of the concept of art. The world in which “art” refers to a specific kind of object is long past

Furthermore, many cultural practices including advertising, science, and education are being mixed with art in order to introduce creativity, imagination, and emotional engagement. Among this group of artified objects and practices, many people would include gastronomy, which I want to use in this essay to test assumptions about art and artification. What does this process of artification mean in the context of gastronomy?

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Camus and the Aesthetics of Stone

by Dwight Furrow

I recently finished reading Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms on the same day in which the utter hopelessness of our political situation became obvious, as the “beacon of liberty” accelerates its descent into fascism. The final passages of the book didn't help my mood much. In Hemingway's masterpiece, the drudgery and pointlessness of war becomes a metaphor for the drudgery and pointlessness of life. In the end, neither the heroism of love nor the promise of birth can stanch the tragic flood that threatens every idyll. For Hemingway, stoic resignation seems the only proper attitude as Henry slogs his way home from the hospital where Catherine and their child had perished, huddled against the relentless rain that had darkened the final pages.

The world is not good enough and we can't do much about it. Soldiering on is the best we can do.Sisyphus

When in such a mood I like to consult Camus. No, I'm not masochistic, or at least I don't think so. The Camus that inspires me is not the fist shaking Camus of The Rebel or the dubious, Stoic-tinged Camus of the Myth of Sisyphus. There is another side to Camus that gets far too little attention. In an early essay, Nuptials at Tipasa, he writes:

The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there's nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. It is to conquer this that I need my strength and my resources. Everything here leaves me in tact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask: learning patiently and arduously how to live is enough for me, well worth all their arts of living. (Nuptials, 69)

In the face of a world unresponsive to human values, despair is ruled out, for ensconced within Camus' numbing litany of all-too-human failure are lovely passages in which pure sensuous enjoyment lifts the spirit and provides justification even in life's trying moments. This is the lyrical Camus extolling what he sometimes calls the “Mediterranean life” where the live-in-moment vitality of sensory experience is a repository of meaning infusing life with significance in the absence of transcendental certification, even in the face of inevitable loss.

Intuitively, Camus' idea that meaning is to be found in the everyday rendered alluring by our willingness to see its beauty is appealing. The problem is I have never found an argument in Camus' work that links the Stoic-like absurd hero with the happy hedonist. How could something as seemingly trivial as the sun and sea provide meaning in the face of the absurd?

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Why Americans are Fascinated by Food

by Dwight Furrow

Beautiful foodFor much of the 20th Century, the U.S. was a culinary backwater. Outside some immigrant enclaves where old world traditions were preserved, Americans thought of food as nutrition and fuel. Food was to be cheap, nutritious (according to the standards of the day) and above all convenient; the pleasures of food if attended to at all were a minor domestic treat unworthy of much public discussion.

How times have changed! Today, celebrity chefs strut across the stage like rock stars, a whole TV network is devoted to explaining the intricacies of fermentation or how to butcher a hog, countless blogs recount last night's meal in excruciating detail, and competitions for culinary capo make the evening news. We talk endlessly about the pleasures of food, conversations that are supported by specialty food shops, artisan producers, and aisles of fresh, organic produce in the supermarket. Restaurants, even small neighborhood establishments, feature chefs who cook with creativity and panache.

Why this sudden interest in food? As I argue in American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution, our current interest in food is a search for authenticity, face-to-face contact, local control, and personal creativity amidst a world that is increasingly standardized, bureaucratic, digitized, and impersonal. In contemporary life, the public world of work, with its incessant demands for efficiency and profit, has colonized our private lives. The pressures of a competitive, unstable labor market, the so-called “gig” economy, along with intrusive communications technology make it increasingly difficult to escape a work world governed by the value of efficiency. This relentless acceleration of demands compresses our sense of time so we feel like there is never enough of it. Standardization destroys the uniqueness of localities and our social lives are spread across the globe in superficial networks of “contacts” where we interact with brands instead of whole persons. The idea that something besides production and consumption should occupy our attention, such as a sense of community or self-examination, seems quaint and inefficient—a waste of time. Thus, we lose touch with ourselves while internalizing the self-as-commodity theme and hiving off all aspects of our lives that might harm our “brand”—a homogenized, marketable self. Even our vaunted and precious capacity to choose is endangered, for we no longer choose based on a sensibility shaped by our unique experiences; instead our sensibilities are constructed by corporate choice architects, informed by their surveys and datamining that shepherd our decisions.

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Wine Tasting and Objectivity

by Dwight Furrow

Wine judgingThe vexed question of wine tasting and objectivity popped up last week on the Internet when wine writer Jamie Goode interviewed philosopher Barry Smith on the topic. Smith, co-director of CenSes – Center for the Study of the Senses at University of London's Institute of Philosophy, works on flavor and taste perception and is a wine lover as well. He is a prominent defender of the view that at least some aesthetic judgments about wine can aspire to a kind of objectivity. His arguments are worth considering since, I think, only something like Smith's view can make sense of our wine tasting practices.

The question is whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind”. On the one hand, there are objectively measurable chemical compounds in wine that reliably affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms—pyrazines cause bell pepper aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon, malic acid explains apple aromas in Chardonnay, tannins cause a puckering response, etc. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive wine flavors. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting and how to evaluate wine. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. According to subjectivism, each person's response is utterly unique and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Statements about wine flavor are statements about one's subjective states, not about the wine. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.

The problem with the subjectivist's view is that no one connected to wine really believes it. Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating those distinctions to others. If wine quality were purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality–wine education would be an oxymoron. In fact our lives are full of discourse about aesthetic opinion. The ubiquity of reviews, guides, and like buttons on social media presupposes that judgments concerning aesthetic value are meaningful and have authority even if enjoyment and appreciation are subjective. In such cases we are not just submitting to authority but we view others as a source of evidence about where aesthetic value is to be found. Wine tasting is no different despite attempts by the media to discredit wine expertise. So how do we accommodate the obvious points that there are differences in wine quality, as well as objective features of wines that can be measured, with the vast disagreements we find even among experts?

The first important distinction to make is between perception and preferences. As Smith points out:

I think when critics say it is all subjective they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be a difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don't see why critics couldn't be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can't they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it's not to your taste.

This is important but all too often goes unremarked. Wine experts disagree in their verdicts about a wine and in the scores they assign. But if you read their tasting notes closely you will often find they agree substantially about the features of the wine while disagreeing about whether they like them or not.

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Wine and the Metaphysics of Time

by Dwight Furrow

Old wine storageWine is useless. It bakes no bread, does no work, and solves no problem. The alcohol loosens tongues and serves as social lubricant, but wine is an inefficient delivery system for alcohol—there are faster, cheaper ways of getting drunk. No one needs wine. Wine does nothing but give pleasure.

Love of wine is thus a useless passion, an arena of pure play, but therein lies its peculiar power. It joins the realm of those objects that express rather than perform–objects like old musical instruments, ancient manuscripts, childhood toys, or Grandma's jewelry. Useless but precious because of the experiences they enable.

When we are consumed by a useless passion, we become more attuned to the allusive meanings and hidden dimensions of the object of love. The object acquires an aura of mystery when unmoored from practical function and can serve as a universal talisman to which all sorts of meanings can be attached. Those moments in which we experience a useless passion and grasp the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of things are not only moments of pleasure but moments in which we glimpse a world of the imagination yet one in which matter resists conceptualization, the hard surfaces of reality resist manipulation because they have their own capacities and developmental direction, and meaning expands beyond what can be calculated or measured.

Among objects of love, wine has its own peculiar attractions. Wine, when considered aesthetically, brings traces of the sacred to our lives that are otherwise thoroughly enmeshed in practical tasks. The demand to slow down and savor opens a time and space in which we can be receptive to multiple ways of understanding the interplay between nature and culture because wine partakes of both.

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Wine and the Comforts of Home

by Dwight Furrow

Burgundy regionAccording to some theories of art, for something to be a work of art it must have meaning. It must be about something and represent what it is about. Last month, on this blog, I argued that some culinary preparations are works of art when they perform this representational function, much to the consternation of some of my Facebook friends who are convinced that something as humble as food should never be associated with the pretensions of the art world. Yet, it is the very humbleness of food that, in part, qualifies it as art. Food can be about many things, but one thing it surely is about is the home. Some foods provoke our memories and imaginations as a representation of domestic life. We call such food “comfort food” because its filling, uncomplicated features haunt our consciousness with thoughts of security, calm, nourishment, and being cared for, especially when triggered by memories of the flavors of home. Exemplifications of the taste of home are only one way in which food serves this representational function but are nevertheless central to its significance.

What about wine? Can wine have meaning just as a work of art has meaning? Specifically, does wine evoke feelings of “homeyness”–security, nourishment and being cared for? For most Americans, probably not. Few Americans grow up with wine as a crucial component of their meals. But cultural norms are quite different in, for instance, France, where traditionally wine is served with most meals and children are occasionally encouraged to have a taste. However, most children (thankfully) do not really acquire a taste for it until later in life, so I doubt that it quite has the resonance that familiar foods have. Nevertheless, if we think of “home” more broadly, not as a domicile, but as the bit of geography that constitutes the center of one's world, where one's roots are planted and physical and psychological sustenance is gathered, wine can evoke “homeyness” at least in those parts of the world where generations have struggled to squeeze magic from grapes and where the notion of “terroir” is taken very seriously–France, Italy, and Germany, among many others. The U.S. is a relative newcomer to the vinous arts but even here many wine communities are beginning to develop self-conscious traditions based on the features of their soil and climate and their influence on flavor, the understanding of which is handed down through generations.

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Food as Art: Representation and Meaning

by Dwight Furrow

ScreenHunter_1234 Jun. 22 16.56One of the main hurdles confronting the view that fine cuisine is a fine art is to say what fine cuisine is about. Paintings refer to something beyond the painting and thus a painting can have meaning and can be interpreted. What do dishes refer to? Are they just flavor combinations that refer to nothing beyond the meal or do the flavors have meaning that can be decoded and elucidated, as a reader might grasp the symbols in a poem? Here is a quote from essayist and literary critic William Deresiewic articulating the standard puzzlement often expressed when confronted by this question of the meaning of food:

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art. A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.

This dismissive argument from Deresiewic receives support from many philosophers throughout history writing on the arts. Even Carolyn Korsmeyer, the philosopher most responsible for putting food on the philosophical map, while granting that food is worthy of serious aesthetic attention, has reservations about food being a fine art. “Ought we now to take the next step and conclude that foods also qualify as works of art in the full sense of the term? That they represent in their own medium the same sorts of objects as paintings, sculptures, poems, and symphonies? I do not believe we should.” (Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste, 124)

Korsmeyer argues that food acquires meaning only because of its context, the ceremonies and rituals that surround the serving of food. Food, of course, is richly symbolic. The apple in Eve's hand represents the fall of humanity. The apple in Mom's apple pie represents her loving solicitude. For the Genoan, pesto is the taste of home; for coastal New Englanders it’s a clambake. Chicken soup is a symbol of healing; the Thanksgiving turkey a symbol of gratitude, abundance, and the gathering of family. There is plenty of meaning here to keep the semioticians busy.

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Why Kant Was Wrong about Food

by Dwight Furrow

Atelier crenn

from the San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn

Among philosophers who think about art and aesthetics, the position of food and wine is tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion compared to painting or music, and when they are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that food and wine belong in the category of fine arts.

Food and wine have not always been marginalized in discussions of aesthetics. In the 18h Century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general—until Kant came along to break up the party. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day and continues to influence philosophical writing on the arts.

What were these powerful arguments that succeeded in removing taste from the agenda of aesthetics? Kant thought that both “mouth taste” and genuine aesthetic appreciation are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection involved and no imaginative involvement, just an immediate response. The pleasure comes first and then we judge based on the amount of pleasure experienced whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable”. Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, sensuous preferences. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities engage in “free play”. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation and is thus based on it. We respond not only to whether the object is pleasing but to how the object engages our cognitive capacities of understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is not merely a subjective preference but involves a more universal form of appreciation.

Kant was wrong to argue that “mouth taste” does not provoke contemplation. Connoisseurs of wine, cheese, coffee, and beer, as well as the flavorists who analyze our food preferences for the food industry show that food and wine can be thoughtfully savored, and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. But that fact by itself doesn’t really refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not just the fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind.

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Why the Philosophy of Food is Important

by Dwight Furrow

Philosophers club

Photo by Todd Lapin Creative Commons License

There are lots of hard problems that require our thoughtful attention—poverty, climate change, quantum entanglement, or how to make a living, just for starters. But food? Worthy of thought? Most philosophers have ignored food as a proper topic of philosophical inquiry.

On the surface, it seems there are only three questions about food worth considering: Do you have enough? Is it nutritious? And does it taste good? If you have the wherewithal to read this you probably have enough food. Questions of nutrition can be answered by consulting your doctor or favorite nutritionist. And surely it doesn't take thought to figure out what tastes good.

But when we look more deeply at food we find some important issues lurking beneath the surface about which philosophy has traditionally been concerned. How we farm, what we eat, and how we cook have important social, political, and ethical ramifications—ramifications so important that we cannot think of these issues as purely private matters any longer. Some of the aforementioned “hard problems” have a lot to do with food. Our food distribution networks are anything but fair leaving many people without enough to eat; and our food production and consumption patterns cause substantial environmental harm in part because of their impact on climate change. Our resource- intensive way of life, supported by an economic system that requires constant growth, is unsustainable especially because the rest of the world would like to emulate it. For example, it is estimated that if everyone in the world consumed our meat-heavy diet, we would need two planet earths to supply sufficient land, feed, and water.

We must learn to live differently, and that means, fundamentally, learning to desire differently—and to desire food differently.

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Semantics and Pragmatics

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Album.havinfun

Ernie: “Is it possible you'll be around after lunch for a quick chat?”

Bert: “Yes.”

Ernie: “Ok. I'll see you then.”

Bert: “Wait, wait! I didn't say I'd be around after lunch!”

Ernie: “What the heck?!?!”

This is a case of a conversational misfire, and although errors of this kind are the central ingredients of the humor of people like Woody Allen, Larry David, and Lewis Carroll, such misfires can create a good deal of argumentative and philosophical confusion. Let's start with a quick diagnosis of the misfire above, then we'll identify why this kind of misfire is common. We'll finish by pointing to a few philosophical lessons.

The core of the error above lies in this: Bert assents to the (mere) possibility of being around after lunch for a meeting with Ernie. Assenting to the possibility of a meeting is not assenting to the actuality of a meeting. Consequently, Bert thinks that his assent to the possibility of a meeting does not place him on the hook for attending any actual meeting. And so, from this perspective, Ernie has made a modal error; he has fallaciously inferred actuality from possibility. Among philosophers, that's a rookie's mistake.

Yet it seems that Ernie is well within his rights to respond with incredulity at Bert's final response. Even though Bert is correct about the modal relation between possibility and actuality, Bert is nevertheless being obtuse, and it's perfectly reasonable for Ernie to respond with exasperation. To diagnose the misfire simply as the result of Ernie's modal confusion leaves unexplained why Ernie so readily commits the inference and why it seems that Bert is obtuse not to recognize it. Note that it also fails to capture what is mildly humorous about the exchange.

In order to get a better sense of what's going on, we must look beyond the semantics of Bert's assertions, and attend to the pragmatics of Ernie and Bert's exchange. To explain, semantics is an account of the truth-functional and formal properties of sentences and assertions, while pragmatics is an account of the uses to which sentences and assertions are put within contexts of communication. Given that the case we are interested in is a conversational exchange of sentences, we need to look at both Bert and Ernie's contributions.

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A Belated Reply to Plato

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Plato

Plato is among the most famous critics of democracy. His criticism is relatively simple, but potentially devastating. It runs as follows. Politics aims at achieving justice, and so political policy must reflect the demands of justice. Only those who know what justice is and have the self-control to enact what justice requires are capable of doing politics properly. Alas, the average citizen is dumb and vicious. Hence Plato's conclusion is that democracy is a fundamentally corrupt form of politics; it is the rule of those who neither know nor care about justice. In The Republic, Plato's Socrates argues for a philosophical monarchy, the rule of the wise and virtuous.

Citizens of modern democracies naturally tend to recoil at Plato's argument, and his positive proposal that philosophers should rule is often met with understandable ridicule. And yet Plato's crucial premise that the average citizen is too dumb and undisciplined for democracy is widely embraced, especially among those who find themselves on the losing side of a democratic vote. For one example, consider a common reaction among social and fiscal conservatives to Barack Obama's re-election in 2012; it was routinely claimed that the People had been “duped” and “mislead.” Furthermore, it seems that a second crucial Platonic premise – namely that a proper political order must place those who have knowledge and integrity in charge – is also widely endorsed. Consider here the popular criticisms of President Bush that fix upon his alleged lack of intelligence.

So we must ask: Could Plato be right?

We should begin by noting that many philosophers, including us, hold that democratic citizens ought to take seriously Plato's criticisms. There is nothing anti-democratic about earnestly confronting democracy's critics, and arguably there's something on the order of an imperative to engage with democracy's smartest detractors. As John Stuart Mill once argued, “He who knows only his own side of an argument knows little of that.”

Now, there are several responses to Plato, and we'd like to survey a few popular rejoinders before sketching our own. First, one may respond to Plato by denying that politics has anything at all to do with ideals so lofty as wisdom and justice. Politics, the response continues, is not about discerning truths, but producing stable government. And stability is not a matter of getting things right, but getting things done in ways that prevent revolution, and that's what a democracy accomplishes.

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A Comet Unnoticed

by Alexander Bastidas Fry

Comet ISON, HST/NASAComets have long been portents of change. They challenge the rote repetition of our skies. An astute observer of the sky will perhaps have recently noticed a new object in the sky, a comet, present for the last few weeks (you would have had to look east just before sunrise near the star Spica). This was the comet ISON. But comet ISON, having strayed too close to the Sun, has been mostly annihilated. If there is a comet in the sky and no one sees it, was it ever really there?

William Carlos William's poem, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, captures the essence of comet ISON's elusive journey around the Sun. Brueghel, the Felmish Renaissance painter, carefully recorded the event like a faithful astronomer, but the worker is not keen on the sky and Icarus goes wholly unnoticed. It is just the same to the worker, for had they noticed Icarus or not it would likely make no difference to their toils in the field. And similarly ISON went largely unnoticed.

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

ISON made a brief appearance to the unaided eye for a few days before it grazed the sun and then uncoiled itself. But to the learned astronomer ISON is still interesting. Comets are rare objects in the inner solar system so even a dead comet is a chance to learn something, in fact, further spectroscopic observations of this dead comet's remains will continue to tell us exactly what it was made of. There is a legacy here.

Let us begin at the beginning. Some four or five billion years ago as the Solar System itself was forging its identity trillions of leftover crumbs were scattered into the outer solar system.

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A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists

by David V. Johnson

UnamumoIn “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.

“The main thing,” San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, “is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all.”

When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them,” San Manuel tells him. “It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”

Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.

The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. (“I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …”) What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's “conversion,” then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.

I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.

The question is why.

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Food Fights: Are They about Mouth Taste or Moral Taste?

by Dwight Furrow

Human beings fight about a lot of things—territory, ideology, religion. Food fights play a special role in this fisticuff economy—they fill the time when we are between wars. Beans or meat alone in a proper chili? Fish or fowl in a proper paella? Vegetarians vs. carnivores. Locavores vs. factory farms. These are debates that divide nations, regions, and families. But they are nothing new. Taboos against eating certain foods have always been a way of marking off a zone of conflict. Kosher and halal rules have little justification aside from the symbolic power of defining the Other as disgusting.

PizzaConflict persists even when food is intended as entertainment. The competition for global culinary capo continues to heat up. The French jealously guarded their supremacy for centuries until supplanted by the upstart Spanish with their molecular concoctions, only to be cast out by the Norwegians who have convinced us of the savor of weeds. Meanwhile the Italians wait for the fennel dust to settle, confident that in the end we always return to pizza and pasta.

The dishes we consume or refuse express our style, our values, and the allegiances to which we pledge. And so it has always been. “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are,” wrote the gourmand Brillat-Savarin in 1825. Food not only has flavor; it apparently has a “moral taste” as well that informs our self-image as individuals and as members of communities or nations. This “moral taste” is no fleeting or inconsequential preference. It matters and matters deeply. The vegetarian not only prefers vegetables and sees herself as a vegetarian but is taking a moral stance, takes pride in the stance, sees it as a project, a commitment superior in value to the alternatives. The Italian feels the same about eating Italian. It means slow eating, communal eating, la dolce vita. A Genoan's taste for pesto is not merely a preference for the combination of garlic, olive oil, basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano but a moral taste that carries meaning. Contemporary foodies exhibit a similar zealous commitment. The search for the best barbeque in town is not merely a search for a good meal, but a quest for a peak experience, a realization of a standard, a moral commitment to refuse the taste of the ordinary.

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Why Epistemology Matters

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Western_PhilosophyEpistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. Its main questions are: What do we know?; How do we know it?; and What distinguishes knowledge from lucky guesses, sheer dogmatism, and simple ignorance? The application of this discipline seems pretty obvious in the sense that our answers to these questions will then allow us the means to sort out many of the factual questions before us. A model for knowledge yields a model for inquiry, which, when put in to practice, resolves our disagreements. This is the old school story of the relevance of epistemology. It goes back to Xenophanes, who held in the hymn to progress that even though the gods didn't give us all the truths, we are better off inquiring. This thought runs from the ancient through the modern period to Descartes, who held that his exercises were for the sake of providing a means for philosophy and science to proceed with powerful criteria for progress. And this thought is alive even now with the applications of epistemology by Michael Lynch in his recent In Praise of Reason and Paul Boghossian in his Fear of Knowledge. The Cato Institute's Juan Sanchez's use of the term “epistemic closure” to criticize conservatives for their bad intellectual habits of know-nothingism, too, is in this tradition.

We think the old school story is right, at least in its broad outline. An epistemology is a useful thing to to sort nonsense from the things worth deliberating about; an epistemology is also useful as a guide for deliberation. But there's a problem in the background, and it's one that's regularly been pointed out about a number of high points in the Western tradition. It runs like this: Often, these epistemologies, for all their promise of being deployments of critical thinking, end up being merely dressed-up apologetics for the authors' preferred beliefs. Descartes is regularly the prime target for this criticism – his method was to doubt everything in order to find criteria for truth that could not be doubted; and once he found those criteria, they were used to endorse the core commitments of the Catholic Christianity to which Descartes had ascribed. How convenient, says the critic. And reasonably so.

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The Science Mystique

by Jalees Rehman

ScreenHunter_88 Feb. 04 10.16Many of my German high school teachers were intellectual remnants of the “68er” movement. They had either been part of the 1968 anti-authoritarian and left-wing student protests in Germany or they had been deeply influenced by them. The movement gradually fizzled out and the students took on seemingly bourgeois jobs in the 1970s as civil servants, bank accountants or high school teachers, but their muted revolutionary spirit remained on the whole intact. Some high school teachers used the flexibility of the German high school curriculum to infuse us with the revolutionary ideals of the 68ers. For example, instead of delving into Charles Dickens in our English classes, we read excerpts of the book “The Feminine Mystique” written by the American feminist Betty Friedan.

Our high school level discussion of the book barely scratched the surface of the complex issues related to women’s rights and their portrayal by the media, but it introduced me to the concept of a “mystique”. The book pointed out that seemingly positive labels such as “nurturing” were being used to propagate an image of the ideal woman, who could fulfill her life’s goals by being a subservient and loving housewife and mother. She might have superior managerial skills, but they were best suited to run a household and not a company, and she would need to be protected from the aggressive male-dominated business world. Many women bought into this mystique, precisely because it had elements of praise built into it, without realizing how limiting it was to be placed on a pedestal. Even though the feminine mystique has largely been eroded in Europe and North America, I continue to encounter women who cling on to this mystique, particularly among Muslim women in North America who are prone to emphasize how they feel that gender segregation and restrictive dress codes for women are a form of “elevation” and honor. They claim these social and personal barriers make them feel unique and precious.

Friedan’s book also made me realize that we were surrounded by so many other similarly captivating mystiques. The oriental mystique was dismantled by Edward Said in his book “Orientalism”, and I have to admit that I myself was transiently trapped in this mystique. Being one of the few visibly “oriental” individuals among my peers in Germany, I liked the idea of being viewed as exotic, intuitive and emotional. After I started medical school, I learned about the “doctor mystique”, which was already on its deathbed. Doctors had previously been seen as infallible saviors who devoted all their time to heroically saving lives and whose actions did not need to be questioned. There is a German expression for doctors which is nowadays predominantly used in an ironic sense: “Halbgötter in Weiß” – Demigods in White.

Through persistent education, books, magazine and newspaper articles, TV shows and movies, many of these mystiques have been gradually demolished.

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Sliced, Frozen and Lapsed

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The world about us is a set of ends to be reached or avoided, and the spatiotemporal distance of the ends is organized in perception as the means by which these ends may be so reached or avoided.

– George Mead in The Philosophy of the Act

Eadward Muybridge’s pioneering experiment Sally Gardner at a Gallop revealed more than just the gait of a galloping horse – it oracularly hinted at an entire range of spatiotemporal possibilities of cameras capturing motion. Subjects, objects, and phenomena move in time and space, but then so can cameras. How cameras and what they film are linked within time and space, and how technological variables can shape, refine and elevate this complex consanguinity is a fascinating area which has profoundly influenced science, art, cinema and popular culture in general, not to mention shaped our ideas of perception of the reality that envelops us, and the meta-realities that we thereby unfailingly, and unwittingly conjure up. The image can transform in a multitude of ways – from progressively slowing down to an intractable stasis, to accelerating at blinding speeds with iridescent blurs and light trails, achieving in some sense, cosmic values. The moving image can warp, slyly morph and shape shift as it travels; it can do so very many things that we can only see in our restive dreams. There exists a rich cosmology of how things move, how plants move, how we move, how friends, and lovers move, how indeed absolutely everything moves about within our minds; it is then our attempts to reframe these movements within, these feints and flights of our indefatigable, cunning minds, that is a human endeavour of significant creative proportions. This endeavour, an enriched (or impoverished) translation of what resides within, is tinctured with ‘an existential gloss’, as Iain Sinclair says on the English translations of WG Sebald’s work in the thoughtful, engaging film Patience (After Sebald).

What Muybridge tantalizingly suggested were the possibilities inherent in the use of an array of cameras on a predetermined path. In effect, he presciently suggested timeslice photography, also known as ‘bullet time’ or ‘frozen moment’ photography, made popular by the film Matrix. What if, asks Mark.J.P.Wolf in Space, Time, Frame, Cinema (pdf), a schematic theorization of spatiotemporal possibilities, Muybridge had placed all his 24 cameras on a curve, and instead of tripwires at periodic distances setting them off, they were instead all triggered simultaneously? It’s a simple enough idea – a series of cameras in a straight-line, a curve, or an arc, photographing the same event at exactly the same time. Although Muybridge did set them in a semicircle for certain motion studies, Wolf writes, he did not simultaneously release them, and it would take another century for this filmic effect to be realised. This temp morts (see also this) is but one of the many intriguing possibilities, Wolf indicates, of how cameras can move in space and time.

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The Problems of Philosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

SocratesAn existentialist, a modal realist, and an eliminative materialist walk into a bar; the bartender looks up at them and says, “Is this a joke?”

It should come as no surprise that a discipline that was founded by an ancient Athenian urging us all to “know thyself!” should still be in the business of self-examination. But one may be stunned to find that, perhaps more than ever, the profession of Philosophy is fixed on questions of its existence. Perhaps everyone agrees that philosophy, the everyday activity of trying to think clearly and critically about things that matter, is essential to a properly human life. And maybe it’s not too controversial to say that we all should philosophize. But, as Socrates shows, there could be philosophers without there being Philosophers; there could be clear and critical thinkers without there bring a profession of Philosophy. So, why does Philosophy – capital “P” – exist?

This question comes in two related versions, institutional and internal. The institutional question about Philosophy’s existence is about why there are, and should be, departments of Philosophy. What is the curricular purpose of Philosophy? What is the role of Philosophy within the Humanities (assuming that it belongs among the Humanities at all)? Why do students need Philosophy courses? Presumably students could learn philosophy outside of Philosophy, so why bother with Philosophy? The institutional question is increasingly urgent: in an environment of severe fiscal uncertainty and shrinking academic budgets, Philosophy has been forced to confront its own institutional mortality. These days, Philosophers are called upon to defend both philosophy and Philosophy to Deans, Provosts, and Boards of Trust. The internal question, by contrast, is less about the fortunes of Philosophy within colleges and universities and more a matter of soul-searching among Philosophers: What is the point of being a Philosopher? What are we Philosophers doing? Should we encourage students to become Philosophers? The dominant view seems to be that the answer to the institutional question depends upon the answer to the internal one. Consequently, much of contemporary Philosophy is devoted, at least in part, to examining Philosophy itself.

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