Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
Donald Trump has not received enough votes to remain President of the United States. Joseph R. Biden Jr. received enough votes, in the states that matter, to be insulated from recounts and legal challenges. Blessedly, very few major right-wing figures are urging Trump to challenge the result, and at this point it is not clear how he could; thus, despite Trump’s refusal to admit the legitimacy of the election, it appears there will indeed be a peaceful transfer of power. So, on Wednesday, 20 January 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be president; Joe Biden will. And I expect most people reading this, inside and outside the United States, will breathe a sigh of relief.
The 2020 election campaign was a referendum on Trump, with his opponent something of an afterthought. According to polls, about 67% of Biden supporters considered their vote primarily against Trump rather than for Biden; about 71% of Trump supporters considered their vote primarily for Trump rather than against Biden. As for Biden, he had trailed in the Democratic primary field for a long time, behind the more exciting candidacies of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, after he turned in lacklustre debate performances that left no one enthusiastic about him. He trailed, that is, until two moderate candidates suddenly dropped out and endorsed him, because they prioritized beating Trump and thought a moderate like Biden was better equipped to do it than their other rivals were. Then, campaigning against Trump during the COVID pandemic, Biden kept a light schedule and campaigned from home. The election was never about him – and that worked well for him.Continue reading
Four years ago, I was writing about how Donald Trump’s rise had led to some hand-wringing on whether democracy is a good idea. Now that question is more urgent, because the United States is at some risk of losing it.
In the present election, Joe Biden has held the most consistent lead in the history of modern polling. So far, not once has Trump moved ahead of Biden in the polling average. (Compare 2016.) Yes, a lot can happen in two months, but this election will involve so much early voting that there is now not much time left for Trump to turn it around. So, I feel very confident in predicting that more Americans will vote for Joe Biden than for Donald Trump. That wasn’t enough for his predecessor to actually become president, of course, since, like Al Gore before her, she was caught out by the indefensible atavism that is the Electoral College: one needs to win a specific subset of states, irrespective of the number of votes one receives. Still, Biden’s lead is such, and his support among those who dislike both candidates so much stronger than Hillary Clinton’s, that I think it is quite likely that he will get more votes in the necessary swing states as well.
Even that, however, does not mean that Biden will become president on inauguration day.Continue reading
Hegel has a famous phrase in the preface of the Philosophy of Right: “Only with the falling dusk does the owl of Minerva start its flight.” (Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug.) The idea is that a historical era can only really be comprehended when it is complete: “Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready.” Only then is Minerva or Athena, the Roman and Greek goddess of wisdom personified as an owl, able to fly.
It’s a powerful image, but seems strange put up against Hegel’s own life and practice. Hegel famously finished his most celebrated work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, “in the middle of the night before the Battle of Jena” – just as Napoleon was moving in and conquering the town of Jena where Hegel lived. Hegel gave the manuscript to a courier who rushed across French battle lines to bring it to the publisher. That hardly seems like the dusk of a historical era – more like its noontime, the bright light of day. How could Hegel be doing philosophy then? Continue reading
The term people of colour has been around since at least the 1980s, but in those days it was typically treated as something of a joke, a silly prettified euphemism. In the 2010s, in the US at least, it has now become a widely used term to group together people who are not racially white. This may be in part for the valid reason that the old term “minorities” is no longer appropriate, given that in some places like California and Texas, white people are now themselves a minority. Nevertheless, I do not think that the adoption of “people of colour” is a good thing. Continue reading
As mindfulness meditation practices become ever more popular and widespread, their claim to be a “non-sectarian technique” takes on progressively greater importance, just as it does with yoga. By claiming their practices to be secular techniques, teachers not only can promote the practices to adherents of Abrahamic traditions; they can also aim to avoid the legal restrictions placed on “religion” –though they can then also be taxed, and even treated as a competitive sport.
But that’s not the only problem. Continue reading
20th century, academia, Catharine MacKinnon, Friedrich Nietzsche, gender, generations, Georg Simmel, Hans-Georg Gadamer, identity, Immanuel Kant, interview, John Locke, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Monty Python, music, qualitative individualism, race, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Romanticism, Stefani Ruper, United States, virtue ethics
Stefani Ruper interviewed me for her video podcast a while ago, and the interview is now live. It focuses on the topic of qualitative individualism, elaborating on ideas from my earlier series of posts. It gets into some topics that are a bit more intense than I’ve covered on the blog in recent years, but I’m pleased with it. Thanks to Stefani for this opportunity.
I’ve embedded the video above, so you can watch it here, and I also highly recommend you check out Stefani’s excellent philosophy podcast in general:
Stream & other outlets: http://stefaniruper.com/
20th century, Anthony Woodiwiss, autobiography, Charles Taylor, Existential Comics, generations, Jayant Lele, Jim Wilton, Karl Marx, modernity, qualitative individualism, Students for a Democratic Society, United States
When I first started reading Charles Taylor on qualitative individualism in my 20s, my Marxist father complained that Taylor paid too little attention to material conditions. I didn’t really get the criticism at the time, but I do now, for reasons that go well beyond reading and writing.
Taylor’s discussion of qualitative individualism (or “expressivism” or the “ethics of authenticity”) takes place largely in the realm of ideas, as mine also has so far. I have tried to trace the history of the ideas of qualitative individualism. But such a history is incomplete. Continue reading