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Philosophers at a distance

Justin Weinberg, the editor over at The Dail Nous (pronounced /nu:s/) has committed a witticism, and it is worth quoting at some length. How do philosophers respond to being told they have to “social distance” and avoid leaving their homes?

Zeno of Elea: “Don’t worry, I can never reach anyone anyway.”

Plato: “Okay everybody, change of plans: stay inside your caves!”

Hume: “Look, just because social distancing worked before doesn’t mean it’s going to work now. And I’m in the middle of a backgammon game!”

Descartes: “I doubt anyone else is around.”

Kant: “It may be bad if we don’t social distance but that’s irrelevant, for if we imagine as a universal law of nature everyone staying six feet apart in order to survive, then we immediately see a contradiction, as humankind would have long gone extinct, and so would be unable to follow such a law.”

Berkeley: “Can we all just not give this virus another thought?!”

From “Philosophers Respond to Social Distancing” by Justin Weinberg.

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Žižek on the pandemic

In his new intervention Slavoj Žižek (“Monitor and Punish? Yes, Please!”) advocates international solidarity in the face of the ongoing epidemic, on the grounds that such solidarity is “the only rationally egotistic thing to do.” He refers to such international coordinated action as communism, and, to be clear from the outset, this would be a very different iteration than the one experienced by Žižek and millions of other Eastern and Central Europeans in their youth:

We, ordinary people, who will have to live with viruses, are bombarded by the endlessly repeated formula “No panic!”… and then we get all the data that cannot but trigger a panic. The situation resembles the one I remember from my youth in a Communist country: when government officials assured the public that there was no reason to panic, we all took these assurances as clear signs that they were themselves in a panic.

But panic is not a proper way to confront a real threat. When we react in a panic, we do not take the threat too seriously; we, on the contrary, trivialize it. Just think of how ridiculous the excessive buying of toilet paper rolls is: as if having enough toilet paper would matter in the midst of a deadly epidemic…

Interestingly, Žižek then goes on to compare the being of a virus to that of the spirit, our soul:

To quote a popular definition …: “viruses are considered as being non-living chemical units or sometimes as living organisms.” This oscillation between life and death is crucial: viruses are neither alive nor dead in the usual sense of these terms. They are the living dead: a virus is alive due to its drive to replicate, but it is a kind of zero-level life, a biological caricature not so much of death-drive as of life at its most stupid level of repetition and multiplication.

Is human spirit also not some kind of virus that parasitizes of the human animal, exploits it for its own self-reproduction, and sometimes threatening to destroy it?

The virus, then, like the spirit is an indivisible remainder of our own being, a remnant we cannot, finally, expel, but with which we, nevertheless, have a parasitic relation:

When nature is attacking us with viruses, it is in a way sending our own message back to us. The message is: what you did to me, I am now doing to you.

In this sense it is as if the pandemic urges us to reconsider the universality of the golden rule. It is, we could argue, in our rational self-interest to do onto our neighbour what we would do onto ourselves when the way we act upon others returns to us, if nothing else, as a virus.

The entire text is available from The Philosophical Salon.

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Roger Scruton, the grateful philosopher, departs

Roger Scruton, a friend of Central Europe, author, teacher, and philosopher, has passed. In what surely must be one of his last living publications Scruton declared in The Spectator that 2019 gave him much to be joyous about, such as

  • learning from Wagner’s Parsifal that “our highest aspirations grow from our darkest griefs, and that the gate to fulfilment stands on the way of loss”;
  • his reinstatement as chair of the British government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and the plentiful letters of support he received, making Scruton think that he was “listening to the speeches at my own funeral, with the unique chance of nodding in agreement”;
  • receiving Poland’s Order of Merit, and also “with an added touch of Polish humour” the Ministry of Culture’s prize for architecture, making Scruton leave with “a heart full of gratitude for another country where I would be welcome as a refugee.”

Read his full 2019 retrospective.

Scruton’s obituary in The Daily Nous.

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On Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse (1959-) is translated from his native Norwegian (he writes in nynorsk), to more than 40 languages. He is widely acclaimed as a pivotal voice in contemporary fiction. Since his debut with the novel Raudt, svart [Red, Black] in 1983, Fosse has published many novels, poetry, essays, children’s stories, and plays. It is perhaps as dramatist he is most widely known internationally.

His plays include Og aldri skal vi skiljast [And we’ll never part] (1993), Nokon kjem til å komme [Someone will arrive] (1996), and more than 30 other texts. Fosse became internationally recognised as dramatist with French director Claude Régy’s staging of Someone Will Arrive in Nanterre in 1999. The following year the Berlin theatre Schaubühne with their director Thomas Ostermeier performed Namnet [The Name] at the Salzburg Theatre Festival, ensuring Fosse’s reputation as one our age’s most important playwrights.

Fosse holds a Master of Arts (cand.philol.) in Comparative Literature from the University of Bergen, Norway, an institution which has since awarded him an Honourary Doctorate. He has won a long series of awards, such as the International Ibsen Award (2010), Pope Benedict XVI’s honourary medal (2009), and the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Award (2007). He is a Commandor in the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav, and was made a Knight in France’s National Order of Merit in 2007. In 2015 he won the prestigious Nordic Council’s Literary Award for the trilogy Andvake [Insomnia], Olavs draumar [Olav’s Dreams], and Kveldsvævd [Evening Web].

In 2011, as Norway’s Poet Laureate, Jon Fosse moved in to the official Honourary Residence for artists, after it’s previous occupier, the cherished and innovative composer Arne Nordheim had passed away. This dwelling is situated on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Oslo, and was first owned by the poet Henrik Wergeland in the early 19th Century. In recognition of this honour Fosse crafted a series of poems that take Wergeland’s lyrical treasure as their starting point; “Two angels” and “It is cramped under the arch of heaven” are from this collection (2016).

Fosse is married, and has five children. Today he lives in Oslo, Bergen, and Hainburg, Austria.

See also:

Translations from Jon Fosse, Poesiar [Lyrics] (2016):

two angels met us in the door

blind austerity
and blind satisfaction

but now they fly back to
heaven
to collect dreams
for our sleep

*

it is cramped under the arch of heaven

so I must stoop under the clouds —
I had to escape
but no further
than to beneath a woman’s hair
since there it was, the wind
that blended it all together

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Mackie, the subject of philosophy

Another graduate from the Lit Hum programme at Oxford, J.L. Mackie turned celebrity philosopher on his claim that there can be no objective foundation to moral values:

Meticulous, courteous, industrious, with a degree of devotion to duty striking in one who held that moral values lack any objective foundation, [J.L. Mackie] was universally admired as an outstandingly capable and committed philosopher’s philosopher. An undoubtedly apocryphal anecdote captures his character: while Alasdair Maclntyre, P. F. Strawson, and Mackie were Fellows together at University College, the authorities circulated a memorandum asking all dons to keep a record for a week of the proportions of their working hours spent on research, teaching, and administration. Maclntyre sent back a blistering missive instructing them not to waste his time. Strawson looked at the form, wrote ‘One third, one third, one third’, and went back to what he was doing. J. L. Mackie went out and bought a stop watch.

From Graham Oppy and N. N. Trakakis (eds), A Companion to Philosophy in Australia & New Zealand.

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Kissinger, 95, on AI: wisdom is overwhelmed

Our new world order is one in which “information threatens to overwhelm wisdom”: Henry Kissinger has certainly made his mark on our contemporary world, having advised Nixon and masterminded the end of the Cold War. Now Kissinger’s concern is Artificial Intelligence. In an article in The Atlantic Kissinger makes some remarks about a potential divergence between hyperactivity in the social media and art:

Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity.

In the end, as a man of Kissinger’s wit and intelligence would, he cannot accept a simple adoption of the term Artificial Intelligence. It could be a misnomer, he says, because while

these machines can solve complex, seemingly abstract problems that had previously yielded only to human cognition[,] what they do uniquely is not thinking as heretofore conceived and experienced. Rather, it is unprecedented memorization and computation. Because of its inherent superiority in these fields, AI is likely to win any game assigned to it. But for our purposes as humans, the games are not only about winning; they are about thinking. By treating a mathematical process as if it were a thought process, and either trying to mimic that process ourselves or merely accepting the results, we are in danger of losing the capacity that has been the essence of human cognition.

A statesman, a scientist, a thinker: Henry Kissinger.

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New poem by Tomas Tranströmer in translation

The creature with cemented eyes who wants to be hurled current-wise into the waterfall throws himself forward, without a shiver, in a furious hunger for simplicity.

Read “Along the river” by Tomas Tranströmer and other poems in translation here: https://torgeirfjeld.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/tomas-transtromer-along-the-river/