Freedom and the good life

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Following from his distinction between freedom and necessity, Martin Hägglund tells us that “The rational aim, then, is to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom.” (223) The rational aim of politics, perhaps. But the Disengaged Buddhists remind us how many of life’s problems politics cannot solve. And these problems go right to Hägglund’s own core concepts of freedom and necessity.

Hägglund misses the point expressed in Ashleigh Brilliant’s wonderful epigram: freedom is not the goal, but you need freedom before you can decide what the goal is. Freedom itself, as the simple ability to do what one finds fulfilling, is empty of content. The most important thing is not merely to have room to pursue our ends, but to actually pursue them, which requires we think about which ends are really ours, which are really worth pursuing – and then actually do so. Free time is not the end, it is a means to the end. Alessandro Ferrara puts the point well in his Reflective Authenticity. Ferrara articulates the distinction that I have referred to as quantitative versus qualitative individualism, referring to each as autonomy and authenticity respectively – and he makes the key point that “authenticity presupposes autonomy.” (6, emphasis his) Without the ability to self-determine, a Hägglundian freedom, we cannot be our true selves. But that freedom is only a necessary condition for true self-expression, not a sufficient one!

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A dream of democratic socialism

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Martin Hägglund develops a neo-Marxist politics that is deeply informed by qualitative individualism – quite appropriately, since qualitative individualist ideas inform Marx himself, especially in the theory of alienation. Hägglund wants to envision what a social world without alienation would look like.

Possibly the core distinction in Hägglund’s thought is between a “realm of freedom” and a “realm of necessity” – and he identifies time as central to both of these.

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This Life: The work of a lover of wisdom 

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Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, published in 2019, has already become a minor academic sensation – being reviewed in the New Yorker and Guardian as well as being the subject of a day-long conference at Harvard. I recently had a chance to read the book. There is much that I disagree with in it, but I see what all the fuss is about. I think the book is worthy of several posts, and will examine it in detail in the coming weeks.

I will begin with what I appreciate about the book. Above all, I appreciate that Hägglund is a philosopher in the true sense: he is a genuine lover of wisdom, and a seeker of it. Hägglund is asking questions that Socrates and Plato and Aristotle asked, about what a good human life is. I am not sure how much wisdom he has actually found, but just seeking it is rare enough in this age of technical specialization. It is a sad but unsurprising irony that this most deeply philosophical author – like the subjects of Examined Life – teaches in a department of literature and not philosophy. This Life is not a work of analytic philosophy, and I do not think it could have been. Hägglund’s arguments are not perfectly rigorous, nor are his definitions exactingly precise; one could find logical holes in them, and many will. But it seems to me that these lacks are necessary for a book like Hägglund’s, which is so wide-ranging in scope. Analytic philosophers typically make careful, exacting refutations of their foes – who tend to be other analytic philosophers. Hägglund, by contrast, is engaging with a wide swath of the Western philosophical tradition, from Augustine to Adorno, and he reads the philosophers of the tradition in careful depth, trying to understand them in their own terms even when he disagrees.

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A very brief survey of African philosophy

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For the most part, the study of non-Western philosophy has tended to focus on the continent of Asia. There are many good reasons for this. More than half of humanity lives in Asia. And Asia has long, rich traditions of philosophical reflection that have survived and left their works to us – unlike the thought of Mesoamerican traditions, where so much was pillaged and destroyed by the barbarian Spanish invaders. Asia is not even one single context; I would argue that South Asian philosophy is in many respects more like Western philosophy than it is like East Asian. In particular I see no problem in maintaining an Asian focus in my own work, since it is the philosophies of Asia – especially Buddhism – that have left by far the biggest influence on me. One can love all wisdom, but one cannot inhabit all of it.

Still, when we do aspire to love all wisdom, it’s worth taking a look beyond both Asia and the West – at least what we usually think of as the West. There is considerably more to the world. The continent of Africa, in particular, may well overtake Asia in population by the end of this century. So perhaps it is particularly worth thinking about African philosophy.

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How the Grinch found eudaimonism

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Last week my wife and I re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the original Chuck Jones cartoon, not the later remakes. As we talked about it, I realized that that Christmas special, and the original book, are a great depiction of eudaimonism – perhaps even in a Confucian form.

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The light is coming

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Tomorrow is the winter solstice: the shortest, darkest day of the year. After that, everything will slowly start getting lighter and brighter. And never in my lifetime has that felt like more of a perfect metaphor.

Christmas is perhaps the festival that most obviously commemorates the light in the darkness at this time of year, but it is not the only festival to acknowledge the darkest days and prepare for the light. Hanukkah is a smaller part of the Jewish ritual year than North Americans typically make it out to be – it is not nearly as important as Passover – but it is a real Jewish festival of light at the darkest time of the year. So too, Westerners mark a new year beginning just as the old year is at its darkest.

All these events happen every year. But this is a year like no other.

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On civic virtue and unwritten constitutions

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One of the more pressing questions in political philosophy is how to prevent the arbitrary use of power. I think Thomas Hobbes and Xunzi were sadly right to diagnose an abiding darkness in human nature: left to our own devices, human beings can easily degenerate into disastrous crimes. Primatology suggests a confirmation: among our closest (or nearly closest) living relatives, the chimpanzees, a jockeying for power and status can lead to vicious rivalries and even murder – even in the idyllic situation where all their material needs are provided for. The evidence of existing human history does nothing to suggest that language or other human capacities have made us better than that.

But Hobbes, as far as I can tell, offers the worst possible solution to this problem: to concentrate power in a single sovereign person. Then that one person becomes able to tyrannize everyone else in a way completely unrestrained, just as he pleases. (It is rarely a she.) The twentieth century gives us too many chilling examples of mass murder and terror from a sovereign given arbitrary power.

A more reasonable approach to the problem asks how we can contain the dark impulses of all people – and of the sovereign leader most of all. It is likely no mystery why I’m asking this question living in 2020 in the United States.

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On “philosophy of religion”

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A while ago I was contacted by an academic publisher asking me to review a new introductory textbook on philosophy of religion. I didn’t do so, even though the publisher offered me a stipend. The main reason was just that I didn’t have the time for it. But the more interesting reason was my objections to the work’s entire project.

The book’s proposed table of contents spoke of a work devoted entirely to God: the concept of God, and arguments for and against his existence. That is not an idiosyncratic approach; there are many existing textbooks in “philosophy of religion” that take the same approach. So there was nothing especially or unusually outrageous about this textbook and its other. And that is exactly the problem.

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How a fundamentalist gave us fallibilism

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Fallibilism is one of the most important modern ideas. By fallibilism I mean the idea that no idea is in principle immune to revision. It is among the most important methodological principles for natural science. As Ann Druyan said, science “is forever whispering in our ears, ‘Remember, you’re very new at this. You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.’” Many of the claims a Newtonian physicist would once have confidently made, have been shown to be false by Einsteinian and quantum physicists.

As it turns out, this crucial idea has important roots in Muslim thinkers who might reasonably be called fundamentalist.

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God’s natural law?

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A few years ago I discussed why the debate between intellectualist and voluntarist conceptions of God (is God an intellect or a will?) was so important in the medieval Western world. (The West here includes medieval Muslims, who not only started the debate, but were often further west than the Christians – in what is now Spain and Morocco rather than France and Italy.) I followed up by speaking of the modern practical implications of this debate: how it shows up in modern conceptions of law, and democracy. I think there are also some interesting things to say about the ethical implications of the debate in its own context.

Above all, if God is taken as a supremely good being, then our conception of him is inextricable from our conceptions of goodness and morality as such – and for that matter, of how we can tell what is good. This was the context for the debates that raged in early Muslim ethics, perhaps best chronicled by George Hourani. Muslims of the time agreed that the good life should be thought of in terms of law (shari’a): the prohibitions and obligations set out by God. But how do we know what God’s law is, exactly? It depends on what God is.

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