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Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Francisco Varela and Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. In today’s post on the final day of our feature, we are happy to post an excerpt from a fascinating interview of Thompson conducted by Joy Stocke at the Wild River Review. In the interview, Stocke and Thompson discuss the importance of his upbringing to his work, the influence of Francisco Varela, and the Dalai Lama, among many other topics, though we’ve chosen to focus on the discussion of Francisco Varela for this excerpt.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

WRR: Your book, ultimately, is a meditation on consciousness. Is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does it transcend the brain

Thompson: That’s the fundamental question of the book. I felt compelled to write about it because it kept coming up for me in different ways, some of which were personal and some intellectual. On a personal level I thought about the question a lot when I was working intensely with my friend and mentor, Chilean neuroscientist, Francisco Varela, just before he died. He was terminally ill and we knew that at some point soon he was going to die.

I write about the last real conversation I had with him, how it centered on consciousness and the question of its transcendence. It was fall of 2000 and Cisco and I were in my dad’s apartment in New York on the Upper West Side, writing a scientific article about consciousness and the brain. We weren’t raising that question at all in the article but we were talking about it a lot when we weren’t working. Cisco was a Buddhist, and knew that he was going to die soon, so transcendence was something he was contemplating. From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, consciousness is the most fundamental luminous nature of awareness, underlying more ordinary cognitive forms of the mind, and it’s not considered to be brain dependent. Cisco took this perspective very seriously, but he was a neuroscientist, so he was also skeptical and doubtful.

The experience of talking to Cisco about this and watching him die and feel the loss intensified the question for me. It was a question that I had always thought about, having studied Asian and Western philosophy, but also having grown up in the New Age and yoga world where it was just taken for granted that people had multiple lives and that consciousness carried on after physical death. (more…)

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Dreaming is one of the key parts of the human experience that Thompson examines in his book (it’s right there in the title, after all), and in today’s post, crossposted from the Huffington Post Blog, Thompson discusses the importance of dreaming to his work as a scholar, and to understanding what the concept of a “self” actually means.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Waking, Dreaming, Being
Evan Thompson

Dreaming and waking up have puzzled and fascinated humanity since prehistoric times. Paleolithic cave paintings, according to some art historians, depict mental images from dreams and the borderland between sleep and wakefulness. The ancient Indian texts called the Upanishads describe three states of the self — waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The early Chinese Daoist philosopher, Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu, 369-298 B.C.E.), wrote that only after one is “greatly awakened” does one realize that it was all a “great dream,” while the fool thinks that he is awake. The word “Buddha” means “Awakened One.”

Lucid dreaming — being aware of dreaming while you’re dreaming — is a vivid way to experience waking up and dreaming at the same time. You wake up within the dream without waking up from the dream. In the 1980s scientists showed that lucid dreaming is a real and unique state of consciousness in sleep. In the past four years, brain-imaging experiments have been done with lucid dreamers. Instead of cave art depicting the dream world, we now have images of the dreaming brain. (more…)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Evan Thompson talks to Tricycle Magazine

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Recently, Thompson spoke to Tricycle Magazine about his book, his view of the mind, and mindfulness as an object of scientific scrutiny. We’ve excerpted parts of this interview below.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Almost two and a half decades ago, in The Embodied Mind, you critiqued a notion of mind that was already prevalent then and that continues to frame much of the current neuroscience research on meditation. What is that view, and what is wrong with it?
We criticized the view that the mind is made up of representations inside the head. The cognitive science version says that the mind is a computer—the representations are the software, and the brain is the hardware. Although cognitive scientists today don’t think the brain works the way a digital computer does, many of them, especially if they’re neuroscientists, still think the mind is something in the head or the brain. And this idea shows up in the neuroscience of meditation. But this idea is confused. It’s like saying that flight is inside the wings of a bird. The mind is relational. It’s a way of being in relation to the world. You need a brain, just as the bird needs wings, but the mind exists at a different level—the level of embodied being in the world.

What’s your alternative view of the mind?
The alternative view we put forward is that cognition is a form of embodied action. “Embodied” means that the rest of the body, not just the brain, is crucial; “action” means that agency—the capacity to act in the world—is central. Cognition is an expression of our bodily agency. We inhabit a meaningful world because we bring forth or enact meaning. We called this view “enaction” or the “enactive approach.”

In the enactive approach, being human is a matter of inhabiting the human world of culture and shared bodily practices. Of course we need our brain to do this, but we also need that world to be in place in order for the human brain to develop properly. The brain is what philosophers call a necessary “enabling condition” for mind and meaning, while enculturation is a necessary enabling condition for the brain. What’s important is not just what is inside the brain but what the brain is inside of—the larger space of the body and culture. That is where we find mind and meaning. (more…)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

The Dalai Lama’s Conjecture

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Thompson’s prologue was recently excerpted at the Mind & Life institute, and we are happy to present the final section of that excerpt here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Staying with the Open Question
Evan Thompson

Shortly before his death, Francisco Varela talked about the Tibetan Buddhist notion of “subtle consciousness” in an interview with Swiss filmmaker Franz Reichle (see Reichle’s film, Montegrande: What Is Life?, and also the Mind & Life Institute). Subtle consciousness isn’t an individual consciousness; it’s not an ordinary “me” or “I” consciousness. It’s sheer luminous and knowing awareness beyond any sensory or mental content. It’s rarely seen by the ordinary mind, except occasionally in special dreams, intense meditation, and at the very moment of death, when one’s ordinary “I” or “me” consciousness falls apart. It’s the foundation for every other type of consciousness, and it’s believed to be independent of the brain. Neuroscience can’t conceive of this possibility, while for Tibetan Buddhists it’s unthinkable to dismiss their accumulated experience testifying to the reality of this primary consciousness.

Varela’s position is to suspend judgment. Don’t neglect the Buddhist observations and don’t dismiss what we know from science. Instead of trying to seek a resolution or an answer, contemplate the question and let it sit there. Have the patience and forbearance to stay with the open question. (more…)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Stephen Batchelor’s Foreword to Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor that we are proud to present below as the first post of the feature.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, November 14th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

To the Point: A New E-book Series from Columbia University Press

To the Point

To the Point, Bruce HoffmanTo the Point, Julia KristevaTo the Point, Peter Piot                 To the Point, Joel SimonTo the Point, Evan Thompson

Columbia University Press is proud to announce the launch of To the Point an exciting new e-book series that extends the scholarship of our authors for a growing global and digital audience. We present standalone chapters from the press’s forthcoming fall season books, with original short-format works to come to the series in the future.

These works serve to introduce our authors’ provocative ideas to new readers in accessible, affordable formats. Featuring works by Bruce Hoffman, Julia Kristeva, Evan Thompson, and others in disciplines ranging from politics and philosophy to food science and social work.

To the Point titles are available for only $1.99 from your favorite e-book vendor.

The first five e-book shorts to be released for sale in the To the Point series are:

* The 7/7 London Underground Bombing: Not So Homegrown, by Bruce Hoffman
A selection from The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death

* Understanding Through Fiction, by Julia Kristeva
A selection from Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila

* AIDS as an International Political Issue, by Peter Piot
A selection from AIDS Between Science and Politics

* Informing the Global Citizen, by Joel Simon
A Selection from The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom

* Dying: What Happens When We Die?, by Evan Thompson
A Selection from Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

Alain Badiou Performs a Scene from Ahmed the Philosopher

Known as one of the most important contemporary philosophers, Alain Badiou is perhaps less well-known for his abilities as an actor. However, in the video below, Badiou can be seen performing a scene from his play Ahmed the Philosopher: Thirty-Four Short Plays for Children and Everyone Else.

The following is a description of the scene from Open Culture:

Badiou as the “demon of the cities” spotlights the brute limitations imposed by violent, unjust police, who summarily execute innocent people in the streets. Taking perverse pleasure in describing such an occurrence, the demon leers, “I like to imagine that I’m hidden behind a curtain. I salivate!” before going on to describe with relish the even uglier scenario of a “bungled” shooting.

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

What Constitutes Compelling Evidence, and for Whom? — B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan WallaceThe following post is by B. Alan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice and Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. For more, you can also read our recent interview with B. Alan Wallace:

“Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence” is presented as the heart of the scientific method, and a model for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere. But it begs the questions, what constitutes an exceptional claim versus an ordinary claim, and who determines this distinction? When it comes to the relation between the body and mind, one might assume that contemporary scientists and philosophers have the authority to determine the difference between exceptional and ordinary claims. But that assumption is problematic for two reasons: (1) scientific and philosophical views vary widely in today’s society, and (2) contemporary Euro-centric views are not the indisputable arbiters of truth for humanity as a whole.

While the reductionist views of atheist, or materialist, scientists and philosophers dominate scientific discourse and the popular media, they by no means represent a consensus view within the two communities, let alone all educated people. According to a poll published in the Scientific American in 1914, 40% of scientists stated that they believed in God. A poll with the same set of questions was again conducted in 1997, also reported in the Scientific American, and it indicated that 40% of scientists still believe in God. So no one view—either materialist or non-materialist—can be said to represent the scientific community as a whole. Likewise, according to a survey done by the philosopher David Chalmers, 11% of contemporary philosophers are non-materialist, so they represent a significant minority. But more important is his finding that there was nothing of importance the “philosophical community” at large agrees upon. So when it comes to the mind-body problem, there is no consensus about what constitutes an exception versus an ordinary claim.

The same is true of hypotheses regarding unresolved issues in quantum mechanics, particularly the so-called “measurement problem.” As I write in Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic, “In his recent book entitled Quantum, science writer Manjit Kumar cites a poll about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken among physicists at a conference in 1999. Of the ninety respondents, only four said they accepted the standard interpretation taught in every undergraduate physics course in the world, thirty favored the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ formulated by the Princeton theoretician Hugh Everett III (1930–82), while fifty replied, ‘none of the above or undecided.’ The real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty.”

(more…)

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Analytic Philosophy’s Fire Alarm, by Santiago Zabala

Santiago Zabala

“I do not believe, as Gary Gutting (a philosopher whom I truly respect) recently pointed out, that the ‘continental-analytic gap will begin to be bridged only when seminal thinkers of the Continent begin to write more clearly,’ but rather that it will happen only when the imperialistic approach of analytic philosophy is left aside to allow other styles to emerge and educate without being attacked, dismissed, and, most of all, marginalized.” — Santiago Zabala, coauthor of Hermeneutic Communism and author of, among other works, The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Philosophy’s Fire Alarm
Santiago Zabala

Anyone who questions or raises doubts over analytic philosophy’s role or significance today indirectly pulls a fire alarm in our framed democracies, our culture, and our universities. The doubter will immediately be attacked theoretically, academically, and probably also personally. This has happened to me (and many other continental philosophers) on several occasions. It does not bother me at all. It’s just a pity things are this way. The books, essays, and articles that set off the alarm are not meant to dismiss analytic philosophy but simply to remind everyone it’s not the only way to philosophize. My concern is educational (given the prevalence of analytic programs in universities), political (given its imperialistic approach), and also professional (for the little space given to continental philosophers in academia). The point is that we are not even allowed to generalize or be ironic, an essential component of philosophy as Gianni Vattimo and Slavoj Zizek show in their practice.

The problem is not that John Searle was honored by George W. Bush in 2004 (with a National Humanities Medal) or that the research of other analytic philosophers is often funded by government grants but rather that these grants are not always distributed among other traditions. After all, philosophers are not supposed to simply analyze concepts in their university offices but also to engage with the political, economic, and cultural environments that surrounds them, as Judith Butler, Peter Sloterdijk, and Simon Critchley have done so well for years. (more…)

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Judith Butler and Rosi Braidotti Meet Pussy Riot

In the following video of an event sponsored by The First Supper Symposium, Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler talk with members of Pussy Riot.

Among other issues, the participant discussed when does public protest’s transgress the limited range of permissible behaviurs in a society? What is the future of feminist performance art under times of censorship?

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Badiou and Roudinesco on Lacan’s Legacy

Jacques Lacan, Past and present

“[T]he contemporary world is haunted by uncertainty, disorientation, and the specter of permanent crisis. And Lacan is a great thinker of disorder.” – Alain Badiou

This week our featured book is Jacques Lacan, Past and Present: A Dialogue, by Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco. Today, on the final day of our giveaway, we have excerpted Badiou and Roudinesco’s concluding remarks on Lacan’s legacy.

Enter our book giveaway by 1 PM TODAY for a chance to win a free copy of the book!

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

More from Badiou and Roudinesco

Jacques Lacan, Past and present

This week our featured book is Jacques Lacan, Past and Present: A Dialogue, by Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco. Today, we are taking a look back at previous works by both Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco. We have excerpts from Badiou’s Plato’s Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters and Roudinesco’s Why Psychoanalysis?.

And don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Jacques Lacan, Past and Present!

“What Is a Philosopher?”
From Plato’s Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters
Alain Badiou

Plato's Republic, by Alain Badiou by Columbia University Press

“The Defeat of the Subject”
FromWhy Psychoanalysis?
Élisabeth Roudinesco

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

“I Am Counting on the Tourbillon”: On the Late Lacan, by Jason E. Smith

Jacques Lacan, Past and present

“If Lacan’s rightly celebrated Seminar VII from 1959-60 elaborates a properly psychoanalytic ethics through the intransigent figure of Antigone and her refusal to give way on her desire, Badiou and Roudinesco emphasize instead a certain ethical and tragic dimension to Lacan’s late style.” – Jason E. Smith

This week our featured book is Jacques Lacan, Past and Present: A Dialogue, by Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco. Today, we have an excerpt from translator Jason E. Smith’s foreword: “‘I Am Counting on the Tourbillon’: On the Late Lacan.”

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of the book!

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

One Master, Two Encounters, by Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco

Jacques Lacan, Past and present

“Lacan always remained for me a thinker of the first order rather than a psychoanalytic master. Always the primacy of the written!” – Alain Badiou

This week our featured book is Jacques Lacan, Past and Present: A Dialogue, by Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco. Today, we have an excerpt from the beginning of their discussion, in which Roudinesco and Badiou both describe their first encounters with Lacan’s work and Lacan himself.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of the book!

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Jacques Lacan, Past and Present, by Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco

Jacques Lacan, Past and present

This week our featured book is Jacques Lacan, Past and Present: A Dialogue, by Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Jacques Lacan, Past and Present. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, May 9nd at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Wendy Brown and Rainer Forst Debate Tolerance

The Power of Tolerance: A Debate was inspired by a conversation between Wendy Brown and Rainer Forst. In the the debate the two discussed different discourses of tolerance, their normative premises, limits, and political implications. The main focus was on social and political conflicts over the recognition of differences in civil societies, national politics, and transnational relations.

Here are some clips from the event with Brown and Forst:

Wendy Brown on the power of tolerance:

Rainer Forst discusses the dialectics of tolerance:

Friday, March 14th, 2014

“Do you believe in fate, Neo?” Law, Freedom, Representation, and Identity in THE MATRIX

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

Happy Friday, everyone! But before we continue on with the University Press Roundup, we’d like to conclude our week-long feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies. In the except below, Kahn illuminates the underlying philosophies of the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix. Drawing from Kant’s delineation of the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, Kahn examines the ways in which the matrix, as an absolute manifestation of representation through law and code, separates itself from identity. This act eradicates any opportunity to “freely give the law to ourselves,” prompting violence, here the sole remaining performance of human freedom.

And of course, don’t miss Morpheus’s explanation of the matrix–troubled with the same issues that disturbed Descartes almost four hundred years ago.

Here’s your last chance to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

LINCOLN: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

As part of our ongoing feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we’re delighted to share a guest post from the author himself on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Lincoln: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Had my writing of Finding Ourselves at the Movies extended over one more year, Steve Spielberg’s Lincoln would no doubt have had a central place in my discussion of the narrative of politics that we find in American films. I would have placed a discussion of the film alongside that of Gran Torino, which places an act of sacrificial love at the foundation of law. Lincoln too is about sacrifice and love at the foundation of the state. To see this, we must look past the film’s immediate focus on low politics. To secure House passage of the bill making way for the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, Lincoln was not above trading patronage positions for votes. We also see that he could be less than honest, as in his representation of southern peace overtures. To be sure the use of political tactics to pursue principled ends raises interesting questions, but the meaning of the film does not lie in this direction.

Lincoln is a great example of the first rule of American film: There is no political movie that is not also a film about family. A disturbance in the political order is a disturbance in the familial order – and vice versa. We cannot say whether Lincoln is a film about family or state. The crossing of the familial and the political is the meaning of the White House – both family residence and office – a theme beautifully illustrated in Lincoln’s late night wanderings.

This theme is powerfully portrayed in the subplot involving the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, who had spent 30 years fighting for racial equality, must compromise his rhetoric to obtain passage of the bill. He restrains himself to the disappointment of his radical followers, but he succeeds politically. In the only truly surprising moment in the film, he returns home, bill in hand, to share the event with his black housekeeper, who is also his lover and companion. The political and the familial are inseparable.

Political and familial success should go hand in hand for Lincoln too. Instead, he is assassinated. We do see, after passage of the bill, a moment of domestic happiness, as President and wife dream of future travels. It never happens. There is no family recovery, but only endless pain at the death of husband, father, President.

Lincoln’s death represents the great unsettled moment in American history. Without family reconciliation, there is no political reconciliation. Reconstruction fails; we continue to live with many of the same divisions of race and region at issue in the War. Lincoln’s assassination is the rend in the fabric of American life.

The greatness of the film, and its deepest lesson, is in the portrayal of Lincoln as a figure of love. He is, in Thadeus Stevens’s words, “the purest man in American politics.” From the opening scene in which Lincoln speaks with black and white soldiers, to his constant companionship with his young son, to his conversations with an ex-slave, to his visit to a hospital, he is a figure of overwhelming compassion. He quite literally touches all those with whom he comes in contact. This man of amazing oratory is also a man of extraordinary love.

Lincoln is, of course, the American figure of Christ. He speaks in parables, loves the least among us, embraces the enemy, and takes on to himself the nation’s pain. Like Christ, he suffers the paradox that for his faith endless numbers will kill and be killed. Love makes sacrifice possible. Lincoln knows this as the unbearable pain of the war that he must bear for the sake of the nation. The Civil War marks American politics as tragedy; Lincoln personifies that tragedy of love and sacrifice.

Love is at the center of Lincoln, and it is here that we can truly learn something about ourselves. The film constantly moves between the familial and the political, between inner life and outer practice. The family is the site of an inner pain no less grievous than the pain of the battlefield. Lincoln and Mary bear the unspeakable pain of the loss of a child, just like every other family touched by this war. The message is unmistakable: there is no line to be drawn between the family and the polity for both are expressions of love. Every soldier who dies for his country is a loss to a family. We must love the state, if we are to bear the sacrifice our loved ones. The success of the film suggests that this is a story that Americans want to hear: Ours is a project that is worthy of sacrifice because it is a project of love. Lincoln is the face of that love.

We will miss this point if we think the 13th Amendment is about a theory of equality or that liberal politics is about keeping the government out of our private lives. Before we can have a government, we must have a state; before we can apply a theory, we must have a community. To have either, we must be bound to each other. Americans believe – or want to believe – that the ties that bind us are elements of our very being. Lincoln speaks to a common faith that these are ties of love, and that for this love we will give everything.

Can we translate love into a political program? Because the American love of nation is a sacrificial love, war has occupied much of our history. The narrative of sacrifice often comes easier than a political program of charity. Yet, the final words of the film – Lincoln’s words – are precisely on point: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s words call us still to heal the nation’s divisions. He left us no instruction book, and the film offers none. Lincoln shows us the stakes, but the burden of politics is our own.

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Philosophy as Narrative, Dialogue, Disruption: An Interview with Paul W. Kahn

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

Next up for our feature on Paul Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we highlight excerpts from the author’s recent interview with Critical Margins. Here, Kahn details some of the themes found in his book, as well as touches on some of the problems faced by philosophy today and how film can help to address them.

First of all, Paul, one of the first statements in your book is the following, “philosophy begins with narrative, not abstraction.” Could you give us some examples from both ancient times and our own day?

While there are fragments preserved from the pre-Socratics, Western philosophy begins its written tradition with Plato. Plato, however, wrote nothing that we would identify as a philosophical text. He wrote something that looked considerably more like drama. They were dialogues that addressed particular questions in a dramatic context.

The tradition of writing dialogues continued for some time in classical thought. Cicero and Seneca, for example, wrote dialogues. In modern philosophy, David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion may be the most famous. The narrative form of reflective inquiry is rooted for Westerners in Christ’s use of parables. Modern philosophers have sometimes used a narrative form – most famously in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In popular culture, I am reminded of the very successful work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

You say, “Increasingly, what we have in common is the movies.” Is that mainly because so many movies now are of the blockbuster type that millions flock to whereas other forms of media that we once shared (e.g., the evening newscast) have declined?

It is true that the movies that we most share are the blockbusters, which link us to audiences around the world. There is nothing else quite like that, except perhaps some television series that endlessly rerun, and maybe the Oscars. Movies with less popular appeal than blockbusters often link the members of smaller groups. We share the viewing habits of those with whom we are likely to find ourselves. I suspect that whatever we see, we want to talk about with our friends, partners, coworkers, and associates.

One of the aims of your book is to discuss the relationship between film and philosophy. On that note, could you please tell us what films you think reflect this statement from your book, “To imagine the possible is to construct a narrative?”

Every movie imagines the possible through the construction of a narrative. An account of natural development does not include the possible. We don’t say that an earthquake was one of several possible events. We say it happened and it had to happen because of shifts in the tectonic plates that preceded it. A narrative does not work that way. A narrative always sets the actual against the possible. We are interested in human stories because of the choices made, but choice requires a belief that other possibilities were present – the choice could have been different.

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