Author’s picks for April 2019

What follows is a short list of my favorite posts from this month:

1. What is Philosophy Outside the Text?

This post provides an overview of the nature and scope of a new Medium.com publication that I’ve launched, Philosophy Outside the Text.

2. What makes philosophy difficult?

This post provides some background to the motivation of the Philosophy Outside the Text project. In it, I argue that there are two main difficulties to doing philosophy today: one is the inherent difficulty of the questions it asks; the other is the linguistic and institutional baggage associated with academic approaches to those questions. I argue in favor of a way of doing philosophy that still engages with the former while jettisoning much of the latter.

3. On New Age-ism and western appropriations of eastern religion

This post argues that the popularity of New Age religion is largely a function of the way it functions as a lever in an internal dispute between traditional western religion and post-enlightenment western consumerism. In several important respects New Age appropriations of eastern religion actually conflict with both traditional eastern and traditional western religions where they agree with the newer western paradigm.

4. A glimpse of early Hebrew Metaphysics in the book of Genesis

This post examines a passage from the book of Genesis, on the patriarch Jacob’s meeting Rachel and Leah, and shows how a mistake in the received text itself exemplifies a shift from a linguistic framework where the attribution of attributes to objects is variable and context-dependent to one where the association of an adjective with an object is predetermined in advance. I argue that this linguistic shift itself reflects a shift towards an ‘object-oriented’ ontology where attributes are themselves always thought of as dependent on particular substances.

5. The political philosophy of distributism: a very short introduction

This post provides an introduction to distributism, often regarded as a third way economic philosophy between capitalism and socialism. Particular emphasis is placed on Hilaire Belloc’s concept of the servile state – a form of oligarchic capitalism to which both capitalism and socialism tend.

6. Libertarianism, racism, federalism, subsidiarity, localism

In this post, I show that the identification of libertarianism with federalism constitutes a category mistake. Against this, I show that libertarianism admits of both federalist and anti-federalist forms, the latter of which is arguably the dominant one. Against this, I provide a positive defense of the notions of localism and subsidiarity that does not itself depend on libertarian individualism.

How refutation works, 1

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The principal object of a refutation is a thesis, that is, an asserted proposition. By extension, the term ‘refutation’ is also said of arguments, which conclude to theses, persons, who hold them, or views, which aggregate them around a common theme or topic.

The methods of refutation available for a given type depend on the type of the object whose refutation is sought, and are greater in proportion with the complexity of the object itself. Thus, the refutation of a thesis consists in a proof that it is not the case. The refutation of a view consists in either the refutation of any thesis constitutive of that view or a proof of its inconsistency. The refutation of an argument consists in a proof of that it is not demonstrative. Hence, a refutation of an argument may consist in a proof that it is invalid, that any of its parts is irrelevant to its conclusion, that any of its parts are inconsistent with each other, that knowledge of any of its premises depends on knowledge of its conclusion, or that any of its premises or conclusions fail to be the case. The refutations available for more complex objects thus extend those available for less complex ones.

The types of refutations of theses will be proportionate to the types of thesis, and hence to the types of assertible propositions. Most basically, propositions may be simple, asserting or denying one thing of one thing, or complex, asserting or denying many of many things, one of many, or many of one. What is asserted is called the predicate; what it is asserted of, the subject. A complex proposition may be formed 1) by linking propositions via connecting terms like ‘or’, ‘if’, or ‘and’, 2) by the composition of complex predicates or subjects through analogous means, or 3) by the use of a common term to designate multiple things by a single name.

Best of, April 21-28, 2019

This weeks recap includes just one post:

What is Philosophy Outside the Text?

In this post, I introduce a new project, Philosophy Outside the Text, a publication that I’ve established at Medium.com. Philosophy Outside the Text serves as a venue for rigorous philosophical work free from the jargon and self-referentialism of academic work. A novel idea behind it’s execution is to reverse the citation incentive dominant in academia: rather than requiring citations, to ban them, in order both to discourage obscurity and to require arguments published therein to stand on their own merits. Check it out.

What is Philosophy Outside the Text?

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I recently established a publication, Philosophy Outside the Text, at Medium.com. The following explains what Philosophy Outside the Text is and where it gets its name from.

1 What is Philosophy Outside the Text?

Philosophy Outside the Text is a publication dedicated to rigorous work on perennial philosophical questions, freed of the jargon and self-referentialism that one finds in much academic work on these same questions. To enforce this ideal, Philosophy Outside the Text requires that its articles be completely free of academic references and jargon – that is, terms of art commonly found in philosophy or other humanities professions that would be unfamiliar to those outside that professional environment.

The need for such a publication arises from the failure of currently dominant media for philosophical thought to provide perennially interesting material for a thoughtful non-academic public without talking down to it. At the present time, the dominant form of philosophical practice is that of publishing in academic journals and books, most of which are behind institutional paywalls or priced with university libraries rather than individuals in mind. Besides this, one also finds magazines and blogs devoted to philosophical questions, some of which are simply a locus for pre-professional work or even chatter about philosophy as a profession, others which provide popular introductions to current philosophical work, or others which focus on cultural discussion and critique. Specifically academic work is in practice inaccessible to non-academic readers. Popular introductions that merely distill academic work are pedantic by nature. Work under the banner of culture becomes rapidly dated.

Besides that of attempting to address a wider readership, Philosophy Outside the Text addresses another problem consequent upon the requirements of professional writing in an academic environment. Any academically published work today must engage with that of other academics through citations and the adoption of a language particular to its field. At research-oriented institutions, the professional value of one’s work is then partially determined through citation-based metrics for determining the works impact, which in turn have a real-world impact on one’s job security in performance and tenure reviews. Because of this, citations tend both to be more abundant than strictly necessary in order to ensure the appearance of belonging to the group, and to disproportionately accrue to those at prestigious institutions in order to signal knowledge of the relative position of its members. Within such an environment, citations are less measures of quality than they are of controversy within the limits of conformity. Thus, the most successful papers within the humanities are frequently those that espouse highly controversial views – e.g. that infanticide is morally permissible, that things are possible because they actually exist in some alternate reality in the same way that we do in ours – in a manner performatively consistent with the dominant academic affect. Besides their scope and location, current incentives determining what counts as quality work in educational institutions are not functionally different from those governing popularity on Twitter. In contrast with the above, the no-jargon, no-citations requirement both forestalls the development of confused questions dependent on that jargon and impels authors to proffer arguments that stand on their own feet.

2 On the name Philosophy Outside the Text

The title Philosophy Outside the Text has several different layers of meaning.

At the most basic level, it signifies the task of addressing philosophical questions directly, rather than through textual sources.

At another level, it refers to the process of doing philosophy with non-textual media. Today, journal articles and books remain the main tools through which philosophy is done. But these are fairly limited ways of communicating information. Over time, Philosophy Outside the Text will expand into non-print media.

At another level, the name serves as a metonym for philosophy outside of academia. This doesn’t mean that Philosophy Outside the Text is only open to academically unaffiliated authors, but it does signify a different model for philosophy. Disillusion with the university model of education is widespread across diverse demographics, and large-scale changes to the structure of education are likely to occur over the short to medium term. There are more optimistic, more general, better ways for us to respond to these impending changes than to create YouTube intellectuals and coding boot camps.

2.1 For academic readers

For those readers coming from an academic background, the title contains a veiled polemical reference to Jacques Derrida’s famous summary of his own philosophy: “There is nothing outside the text”, which understood the notion of ‘text’ to signify language as an all-encompassing system of signs behind which there is no further reality. Variations on this sort of view have a kind of perennial appeal, which periodically reappear at times when the world becomes enmeshed in a spirit of hopelessness, ennui, and indifference. Lastly, there is a positive reference to the work of Jean-Luc Marion and, to a lesser extent, Emmanuel Levinas. Both attack Derrida’s understanding of being through a reaffirmation of a core tenet of Platonic idealism – the facticity of a transcendence which goes beyond worldly being. The undertone of the reference is that of a rebuke to the cynicism and nihilism about philosophy that one finds much of in philosophy departments by way of an affirmation of a way of doing philosophy with a spirit of hope outside of that context. Philosophy as a response to a call.

An introduction to the idea of an object in object-oriented programming, part 2

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Object-oriented programming objects aren’t objects

The previous post provides an intuitively clear motivation for object-oriented programming. The difficulty is that very little object-oriented programming actually conforms to the pre-theoretical explanation. To explain this, it will be useful to take a look at a very simple class from an object-oriented language, Java.

class Bicycle {

    int cadence = 0;
    int speed = 0;
    int gear = 1;

    void changeCadence(int newValue) {
         cadence = newValue;
    }

    void changeGear(int newValue) {
         gear = newValue;
    }

    void speedUp(int increment) {
         speed = speed + increment;   
    }

    void applyBrakes(int decrement) {
         speed = speed - decrement;
    }

    void printStates() {
         System.out.println("cadence:" +
             cadence + " speed:" + 
             speed + " gear:" + gear);
    }
}

The above is an example of a bicycle class taken from the Java Tutorials, a series of tutorials for learning the Java language put out by Oracle, who have held the rights to the language since their acquisition of Sun Microsystems, the language’s creator, in 2010. The class’ fields are cadence, speed, and gear. In this case, the fields do seem to fit into a (non-exhaustive) list of properties that a bicycle can have.

The class’ methods, however, don’t reflect the pre-theoretical intuition at all. Rather than representing behaviors of the object itself, these methods represent ways that the fields of an object can themselves be changed or acted on: the changeCadence method, for instance, doesn’t accurately reflect an action performed by the bike itself, but rather one that the bike’s rider could perform to it. Worse, the printStates method, which prints the bicycle’s cadence, speed, and gear to a terminal, doesn’t reflect anything that someone could do with an actual bicycle. Instead, it represents a task that a program or user can perform on an instance of the bicycle class understood precisely as a digital object in digital space.

Stay tuned for more later.

An introduction to the idea of an object in object-oriented programming, part 1

Object-oriented programming is a computing paradigm implemented in widely used languages like Java and C#. It is often described colloquially in terms of the following intuitively plausible ideas: 1) that the most basic beings in the universe are particular objects, 2) that objects belong to kinds, mathematically represented as classes, and 3) that objects have states and behavior, which are represented mathematically by fields and methods.

States and behavior can only belong to things, which themselves belong – in a different sense – to kinds. To enforce this, object-oriented programming requires fields and methods for kinds of objects to be attached to an associated class. This is usually achieved by placing the code for the methods and fields an object of a given class may have within brackets {} that give the code for the class as a whole. When this happens, fields and methods are said to be encapsulated in their class.

Since objects belonging to one class can belong to a second class by virtue of belonging to the first, as e.g. whatever is a chihuahua is thereby a dog, objects in one class are able to inherit the behavior of other classes – if there are any behaviors or characteristics that all dogs have in common, chihuahuas will also have them.

The principles specifying the above general ideas in ways appropriate for programming languages are called encapsulation and inheritance and these are two of the basic principles of every object-oriented programming language.

What makes philosophy difficult

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There are two sources that contribute to the difficulty of philosophy, one accidental, one essential.

The essential difficulty is that inherent in explaining the concepts of things whose difficulty is consequent upon the ubiquity of those things in lived experience. The exposition of philosophical concepts is difficult on this account in a manner opposed to the difficulty of expounding the basic concepts of highly specialized sciences and professions. The latter are often difficult because they concern things not touched upon in day to day life, where philosophical concepts are difficult precisely in proportion to their familiarity. Concepts like those of time, unity, difference, and good and evil are difficult to explain in a way analogous to the way the nose in front of one’s own face is difficult to see.

The accidental difficulty is that brought about by the highly specialized language often used to complete philosophy’s essential task. Words like ‘a priori’ and ‘a posteriori’, ‘utilitarianism’ and ‘deontology’, ‘realism’ and ‘anti-realism’ are employed – sometimes in widely divergent ways across different domains and time periods – to bear on questions concerning the nature of being, of good and evil, of truth, evidence, and proof. In many cases, the inherited vocabulary of a longstanding philosophical tradition can be as obfuscating as it is illuminating, especially if the use of its central concepts has drifted over time.

The failure to differentiate these difficulties in philosophical practice arises from an understandable conflation of the main task of philosophy with a common means for attaining it. The task is that of understanding being; the means, engagement with the luminaries of a tradition, who may be dead authors whose works have been elevated over time, living writers whose work embodies the best in that tradition, or even writers engaged on account of their productivity or institutional status.

The failure to differentiate the above difficulties is possible precisely because of the way a means interposes itself between an agent and a sought end. Every means only accidentally connected to the attainment of its end is able to become the object of an agents’ attention in such a way that it can actually substitute itself between the agent and the end as the agent’s exclusive focus. When this happens, the original end sought after is often conflated one closely associated with it. In the case of philosophy, the end of understanding being ends up conflated with that of understanding what important or influential figures said about it.