Wednesday, September 21, 2016

DoD Accused of Mission Creep

The DoD has as its mission to know more things and recently encountered worries that it is trying to know ALL the things.  Don't you think, our critics charged, that if you try to know all the things, you’ll end up knowing some things that really aren’t properly deviant?  And, what about standards?  Shouldn’t there be standards regarding what’s worth knowing within the reasonable boundaries of a discipline like deviance? 

These are hard charges.  To the basic question of whether we are tempted to try to know ALL the things, we must fess up and say, yeah, we’d really like that.  Even the idea of it is more than a little intoxicating.  We feel a tad drunk just thinking about it.  But however much we love the idea, we also recognize it is but a dream.  For we here in the DoD are mortal and expect no life, however curiously lived, will let you know more than a few things.  Still, we have tried to solve this problem – not the problem of our mortality since we think that largely a good thing – but the problem of how to know things when time is short.  We call our solution Other People.  Other people are mortal too, but maybe if we get together enough of them that know enough different things then we at least get to peek in on all the things we can’t know under our own finite powers. 

With respect to whether this wanton listening to other people will fundamentally corrupt our purposes and dilute the discipline of deviance, we confess to having other priorities.  Rather than corruption and dilution, we're a lot more worried about missing out on things.  Because it seems to us that the arc of human inquiry can also be seen as the arc of missing out on things.  Historically, it often seems as if people listened most to the people who knew the same things they did or looked the most like them or sounded the most like them or...  Consequently, we don’t trust ourselves to decide before listening whether we should listen.  We also think that self-distrust is one of our finer qualities, right up there with thinking expertise and experience mean something.  The world is full of people expert in things we can never hope to know well, so rather than go with what our ratty conjectures or half-formed impressions might be, we look for those people.  Then when they say stuff we’ve not heard before, we listen.  

Ultimately, we figure, any need to sort out when and whether some thing or other belongs in deviance will only come much, much later.  Honestly, it’s a problem we’re happy to leave to our great-grandchildren, or even their great-grandchildren.  We expect that any robust airing of all the things long ignored is going to take time and lots of people tarrying together in the heady newness and happy confusion of it all.  Maybe someday someone will need to sort it all out, but hey, erring on the side not listening can give way for a while to listening.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Department of Lost Things: Moral Motivation

As announced previously, we now have a Department of Lost Things.  While our post heading might suggest we’ve lost our moral motivation, today is one of our better days on that score.  Yesterday, not so much.  Still, there are things we wish we knew, ways we wish talk of moral motivation had swerved back in the day.

Lost:  Why be Moral?  Poor Folks Edition

We wish knew what might have happened to the why-be-moral question had it been asked without the jewelry.  From what we see, this question swerved at the Ring of Gyges and so a whole trajectory of thought confesses its origins right there:  Why be moral if you can get away with whatever you want?  That question strikes us as rich.  Not “rich” in the sense of full of depth, but “rich” in the sense of being a rich folks’ query. 

By the time anyone has the language or cognitive resources to ask, “why be moral?” they also already have a social existence that grounds the question.  For a rich person, it seems compelling to wonder why I should be moral if I could get away with anything I want.  The wealthy and the comfortable are free to see this in a variety of ways:  morality as a barrier to full exertion of power and morality as a possible path to even better living, to name just two.

But, we wonder, how different would inquiry into the question be if it had originated with the poor? The social situation of the question seems to be a difference that makes a difference.  A poor person would be asking the question embedded in a social existence in which “morality” is already suspect.  And not because morality is the thing standing between me and some excellent jewelry-induced adventures, but because morality might well seem like a bogus construct that hasn’t done me any favors.  Or because I’m just too hungry and tired to see the point of much beyond securing survival a little bit longer.  Such is to say that the question seems transformed if given an inflection of hopelessness and righteously cynical despair.  Maybe asking the question from poverty would expose how very much the question already is and always was social?  And make far less plausible and compelling all the answers dwelling on the individual’s motivations for morality?  We don’t know.  That’s why we wish a poor folks’ swerve in why-be-moral question had happened.

Monday, September 19, 2016

DoD Founds Department of Lost Things

Given our mission of trying to know more things, we here in the DoD perennially rue things lost along the way through the vagaries of history.  Philosophy, it seems to us, has contingent swerves, not unlike Lucretian atomic movement.  A seemingly simple swerve in how a question is framed or in what question gets taken up or by whom, and the philosophical trajectory takes one shape rather than another.  What sometimes fills our idle moments in the DoD is wondering how things might have shaped up if a swerve had gone some different way.  And we get a touch of the wistful melancholy realizing we’ll likely never know.  Some things are just lost.

Because of this, we decided some way to manage the chaos of unfulfilled curiosity was in order, so we have created a Department of Lost Things.  So, here’s what we’re missing today.

Lost:  What pregnant Roman women thought about Seneca’s rather martial counsel on death anxiety, with his many military and warrior-like exemplars.  Did they laugh at this quaint, brave boy boldly scorning death?  After all, their chances of dying in childbirth exceeded any Roman soldier’s chance of meeting death on the battlefield.  And if they survived pregnancy, chances are they ended up burying some of their children anyway.  Those women must have been tough as nails.  Pregnant Roman women swerving philosophical death dialogue would have been something to behold, we’re sure.  We wish we knew what they thought.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Deviant Identity Crisis (Redux)

As happens in most faculty meetings, our meeting last Friday generated a distressing identity crisis.  Doubts about ourselves are never far from the surface, so it doesn’t take much to set us off.  On Friday, our rousing discussion of class scheduling was interrupted when a junior colleague noticed that we have a habit of sometimes using Deviant as if it is an honorific and asked, “Why exactly is that?”

Upon hearing this question, one of our more cranky senior faculty glanced at the junior colleague, saying, “Bless your heart.”  Happily, another faculty member quickly rebuked her, pointing out that there was no call for vulgar oaths and hostility.  With that bit of bad manners out of the way, we could proceed with de-railing the agenda in our more usual collegial way. 

Upon consideration and as often also happens, we realized that our junior colleague was right.  We do sometimes use “Deviant” as an honorific. 

Sometimes this rather predictably follows from delighted awe at our Deviant ancestors, as when Dogen inspires us to entirely reconsider the phenomenology of cooking supper.  Or when Mengzi reminds us not to climb trees when we want fish.  Times like that make us want to bestow veritable crowns of Deviance upon some ancestral heads. 

But sometimes we use Deviant in praise of the living.  And however fun it is to pass out imaginary crowns, we’re less sanguine about resting them on living heads.  More to the point, we are suspicious of what heads we may leave bare.  Deviant can be just a descriptive used in reference to us poor benighted souls laboring long to know more things, including those who are paid to do it and those who are training in it.  But therein lies the rub when usage slips into the honorific, for we notice this can lead to some dubious verbal shenanigans.

We have, for example, heard speakers implicitly distinguish between those they deem Deviants and (mere) “professors of Deviance” or (measly) “teachers of Deviance.”  This sort of thing is far worse when people are denying that someone is a Deviant.  Typically this will occur with some softening gesture that attempts to equivocate between Deviant as an honorific and Deviant as descriptive.  The Deviant will be ascribed characteristics that are generally desirable (the honorific) but Deviant status (pseudo-descriptive) is denied as if it is merely remarking reasonable divisions of labor:  “Deviants are fearless…. He works in religion, not Deviance.” We call shenanigans on that.  For it can’t be a good thing if using Deviant to refer to people works as an honorific that can be withheld based on petty methodological differences or status signaling.  Start treating Deviant as a verbal reward for the well-placed, well-behaved, or like-minded or start withholding Deviant to scorn those who lack professional advantage, act up, or disagree and pretty soon we’re going to need a Confucian to come in here to rectify some names.  Maybe even to bless hearts all over the place. 

So, finally, we decided to save the verbal crowns for the dead.  Where the living are concerned, we concluded, we have no trouble with descriptive usage.  At least we think we don’t, but wait around a bit since we’re sure to become queasy about that too.  Still, henceforth we’ll try to use Deviant descriptively when talking to and about each other. Of course even there, our usage will need to be loose and flexible, as we’re never entirely sure what properly belongs in the category Deviant and what does not.  Aw, hell, we thought, we haven’t even finished this paragraph and already we can feel trouble brewing with even that basic conclusion… Aware that we stood at the precipice of a renewed and more vigorous identity crisis, we were saved by the abrupt recognition that we have to call ourselves something.  Otherwise, how will the administration know where to send our funds?  And what will they put on our students’ degrees?  So, Deviant it is.  As Nagasena would say, it is but a way of counting and convenience.  That Nagasena, he was such a Deviant!

As for the class scheduling issue, since time was short, we decided to cut to the chase and voted unanimously that next fall we’ll teach some stuff.

Friday, September 16, 2016

DoD Named “Wise and Good!”

We here in the DoD are delighted to announce that we have been officially named “wise and good!”  Since such encomia don’t come around every day, we here in the DoD shall vigorously enjoy the compliment while and how we can.  The full announcement is here, but since we do love a good “contentious dialogue,” we thought we’d make parts of the announcement – especially the parts involving Confucius, that old Deviant – more dialogic and agonistic just to celebrate:

“Not All Things Wise and Good are Philosophy”

Philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic. It is a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue. It takes place among ordinary human beings in cities, not sages and disciples on mountaintops, [Someone’s been reading too many old New Yorker cartoons with orientalist imagery! You do realize that this hackneyed imagery of sages on mountaintops is like seeing The Thinker sculpture and concluding that western philosophers sit around naked clutching their heads, right?] and it requires the fearless use of reason even in the face of established traditions or religious commitments [Fearless?  Socrates was pretty brave.  Still, the folks wandering around most philosophy departments don’t get to ride on those superhero cape-tails literally forever.  Go to the APA and then tell me here resides “fearless use of reason.” Oh, by the by, Confucius also faced Mortal Danger in his mountain-top wise guy disciple-wrangling.  It was just that his Plato-types – the folks memorializing him - didn’t make much fuss about it, which, if you think about it, is a intriguing writerly choice.]. Plato’s book is the first text of philosophy and a reference point for texts as diverse as Aristotle’s Politics, Augustine’s City of God, al-Fārābī’s The Political Regime, and the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s book Plato’s Republic (2013). [Uh, if general wow-power over many and millenia is the issue, it might be useful to recall that there have been people, lots of them, in East Asia over the two millennia since Confucius.  And a quite large number of them, it turns out, spilled much ink over Confucius.] The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that the history of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. [Yeah, and he also said that it is more important that an idea be interesting than that it be true.  So maybe he was being “interesting” when he said that bit about Plato and footnotes.] Even philosophers who do not mention Plato directly still use his words – including ‘ideas’ – and his general orientation that prioritises truth over piety. [Yeah, we once said “justice” so call us Philosophers!  And we like truth.  In fact, truth is what motivated us to read a whole lot of stuff before trying tell other people what’s up with Confucius.] Philosophy is the love of wisdom rather than the love of blood or country. [E.g., Socrates didn’t give a damn about his Athenian identity.  That’s why he strode off into exile to make wise elsewhere… oh, wait…]  It is in principle [if not in actual fact] open to everybody, and people all around the world heed Plato’s call to live an examined life. [Plato would like to teach the world to sing. In perfect harmony… This global kumbaya moment has drawn a tear of joy from us.  Just one more reason to say, “Thanks, Plato!”]

I am wary of the argument, however, that all serious reflection upon fundamental questions ought to be called philosophy.  [Which is why we started the Department of Deviance.  We dislike wariness and thought we could be more seriously serious and fundamentally fundamental if we didn’t have to worry about provoking wariness in others, especially the “fearlessly” wary.]  Philosophy, at its best, aims to be a dialogue between people of different viewpoints [But never too different and never with any different ideas about philosophy.  Wait.  We just used ideas in a sentence.  Maybe that makes us Plato’s children after all?], but, again, it is a love of wisdom, rather than the possession of wisdom. [Fun aside:  This is why Confucius is always depicted with large sleeves.  He owned wisdom, and kept it tucked up his generous sleeve, just like our grandma does with her tatty tissues.]   This restless character has often made it the enemy of religion and tradition. [Often?  How often?  Thinking you’re a force of opposition when you’re reflexively echoing ideas  born out of a contingent tradition may make you “restless” but we’re less convinced it makes you the enemy of all that is holy.  More like the occasionally nippy lapdog of all that is holy?]

Likewise, Confucius (551-479 BC) might be worth reading, [We sure do like to think so!] but it stretches terms too far to call him a philosopher. [As we learn in the Analects, Confucius was really into the rectification of names and hotly opposed name-stretching.] In The Analects, ‘The Master said, “When someone’s father is still alive, observe his intentions; after his father has passed away, observe his conduct. If for three years he does not alter the ways of his father, he may be called a filial son.”’ Confucius presents a comprehensive doctrine of a good life that includes filial piety and respect for elders. By contrast [with this one context-free sentence], in the opening pages of the Republic, Socrates ridicules the old man Cephalus for his poor understanding of the meaning of justice. [Sorry, Socrates seems like an amateur here. Unlike Confucius, who once hit an elderly guy with a stick while simultaneously pointing out that some old people lack even the grace to die.  If you’re going to get rough with the elderly, best to go all in!] Plato’s message is that philosophy has no patience for elderly people who like things the way they are and don’t want to wrestle on the terrain of ideas. [Confucius adored the way things were.  It was a love that dare not speak its name, or indeed dare show up in really any form in anything he actually said.] For the Confucian, Plato’s defence of critical thinking might seem like a recipe for family strife and social disharmony. [Yeah, because when we’re thinking critically, family can take a flying leap.  Seriously:  Fuck them if they can’t take a thought!  The priorities here are obvious to anyone who dwells on them.]

I doubt that philosophy departments are the natural home for scholars of Islamic jurisprudence or Confucian ethics. [Speaking as scholars of Confucian ethics, we gotta say, we are sooooo with you on this! Preach!] Should philosophers converse with scholars of different religious and moral traditions?  Of course. [Wait, why “of course”?  How does this seat with all that’s been said so far?  We’re just not seeing what’s in it for the philosophers and besides, wouldn’t that reduce the time they have for naked head clutching critiques of their families?]

To understand why the limits of philosophy matter, we need to situate the debate within ongoing debates about the funding of higher education. Last year, the Republican senator Marco Rubio said: ‘We need more welders than philosophers,’ a blunt articulation of a widely shared view among taxpayers and policymakers looking for reasons to eliminate, cut or defund philosophy departments.  In that New York Times op-ed, philosophy departments are accused [by philosophers themselves] of being ‘temples to the achievement of males of European descent’. The implication [according to these actual philosophers working in philosophy departments] is that academic philosophy is racist, sexist and worthy of an imminent demise. This will be welcome news for policymakers who want to prohibit federal funds from subsidising the study of philosophy, say, at community colleges or state universities.  [Because policy makers were all just waiting for the signal from philosophers to conclude that philosophers are useless.  Still, as Plato wrote, “The unexamined curriculum is not worth teaching.  Unless an unexamined curriculum can secure future institutional funding and the good will of Marco Rubio.  Also, poo on welding!” (Republic 643b)].

Let philosophy departments evolve organically as scholars convince their peers that a new author, idea or tradition is worth engaging. [And when those scholars inevitably fail at making the incurious interested, they can self-deport and leave philosophy to those with actual ideas™.]