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The Art of Non-Violence

This week we're asking about the Art of Non-violence. And it is an art -- the trick is knowing when and where it will actually work. After all, it looks like it’s worked just about everywhere it’s been seriously tried: non-violence brought down apartheid in South Africa, Jim Crow in America, and British Colonialism in India. But of course it took violence to defeat the Nazis, to end slavery and to free the colonies from British tyranny. Does that mean non-violence has its limits? Not if you believe that violence just begets more violence. Only non-violence can break the cycle.So what do we...

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The Puzzle of Possibility

Happy New Year!  Now that we’ve launched into 2018, many of us are wondering what the year ahead has in store.  What might happen, to you, your loved ones, the nation or the world as a whole?  There seem to be a lot of possibilities, some to be hoped for and others to be feared. Philosophers are as much concerned about the possibilities that lie ahead as anyone else is. But philosophers are also interested in possibilities for a different reason—or rather, in a different way. When we consider possibilities, most of us are curious about what is possible, but a lot of...

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How to Keep Your 2018 Resolutions

Hint: It's not about willpower. In this article from The NY Times, psychologist David DeSteno explains that social emotions are critical tools for self-control. Tied with moral decency and self-esteem, emotions like gratitude, compassion, and pride incline us to be patient and persevere through difficult tasks. For example, we are more likely to persevere when we feel grateful for the skills that we have and want to exercise them or work hard when we aim to be proud of the results of our efforts. Nurturing these emotions will help us to accomplish our New Year's resolutions more...

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Thoughts on Retirement

Retirement, as we think of it, goes like this. A person has a right, or maybe a duty, but at least a choice, to retire at a certain age, and between the government, his or her employers, and their own diligence, should have a pension to live on for the rest of their days without having to continue earning money. Retirement isn’t the sort of topic you can find much about in Plato, Aristotle, Descartes or Hume. It’s basically a nineteenth century German invention. But there are philosophical questions. Given the scarcity of jobs in academia, and the aging professoriate, does one have a duty to...

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In Praise of Affirmative Consent

The recent Twitter popularity of the #MeToo movement (originally started by activist Tarana Burke) has shone a public spotlight on ongoing conversations about rape and sexual assault. There is no single, magical solution to the problem of sexual assault, but an important piece of the puzzle is changing the way we understand sex and consent. Prevailing social rules excuse—or actively encourage—powerful people who exploit the less powerful, and they make even consensual sex a needlessly unpleasant experience. Fortunately, more people and institutions are coming to embrace a better standard:...

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Lethal Speech

“Can Speech Kill?” was the title question to last week’s fascinating show with Lynne Tirrell. The obvious answer, it seems, should be: yes, but not directly. Unless magic exists, uttering a few words won’t by itself cause someone to drop dead. But there are two kinds of case where talking can obviously cause death and even be counted as murderous. First—as one caller pointed out—is that of giving an order. If someone orders a subordinate to murder and the subordinate does, then the superior has committed murder as well. Second—which wasn’t discussed on the show—one can help...

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An Argument for Regulating Automation

As automation displaces human labor, a universal basic income (UBI) plan may seem like the perfect solution. Introduce UBI, so that displaced workers have a basic income to fall back on. The idea seems simple enough.  But why wait for UBI to mitigate the impacts of automation? The proposal is attractive (a UBI could eliminate poverty, for example, and that's no feat to underappreciate), yet some advocates of the plan may accept the current trend of technological advancement in the workplace too fatalistically. They accept that artifical intelligence could eventually obviate the need for human...

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Can Words Kill?

Can words kill? You might think that the obvious answer is that words don’t kill—people do! And, people don’t even kill with words, they kill with bombs and guns. But is there some sense in words can be just as deadly as a gun or a bomb? I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. We all can admit that words can hurt or offend. But I’m asking if they can literally kill? Consider how the words that the Nazis used to torment their Jewish victims, or the words the Hutu used on the Tutsi. They did more than merely incite violence against those targeted. Their words were instruments of violence. In...

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Buddhism, Science, and the West

Why do many of us assume that Buddhism and science are polar opposites—that Buddhist teachings are so paradoxical and mysterious they are not even meant to be understood? Is it possible instead that the teachings of Buddhism actually far predate certain scientific conclusions the West is just now discovering? What can be said about the scientific verifiability of Buddhism? This article by Robert Wright on The New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone, takes a stab at vindicating Buddhism in this way: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/06/opinion/buddhism-western-philosophy.html

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Of Philosophy and Basketball

I’m reaching the end of a semester-long sabbatical, and will soon have to start thinking about preparing for the courses that I will be teaching in the spring semester. Sabbatical leave is something that we professors cherish. For one semester every seven years (or two semesters if you’re lucky) we are freed from the demands of teaching and the tedium of committee work to catch up on research and writing.   I love teaching. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than cultivating young minds, and I regard making a living by teaching undergraduate philosophy is an immense privilege. So, when I...

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The Midlife Crisis

What exactly is a midlife crisis? One way to think about it is that it’s the creeping feeling that what we’re doing with our lives isn’t worthwhile. The midlife crisis is Clarissa Dalloway wondering whether the life she has chosen is the life she should have chosen, and terrified that the answer may be “no.” Or worse: the midlife crisis can be the feeling that no choice of life could ever have been worthwhile. That nothing we could have done would have made that much of a difference in the world. That all choices of vocation are pointless, groundless, and arbitrary. The...

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The Odyssey in Plain English

The first woman to translate The Odyssey, Emily Wilson, tells the famous story of Odysseus, Homer's cunning Trojan war hero, in a radically different way. She tells it in plain English.   Starting the epic with "Tell me about a complicated man," Wilson departs from stilted translations of the original Greek. She replaces Robert Fagles's translation ("whores") for "dmoai," the female slaves whom Odysseus slaughters at his homecoming, with the more accurate translation "girls."   Wilson's translation is direct, and her effort raises important questions around the translation of...

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Scrap Thanksgiving?

Happy belated Thanksgiving! Or bah humbug? I always find myself deeply ambivalent around the holiday season. On the one hand, Thanksgiving can be a joyous celebration of family and community. Family connections are inherently valuable, and since social isolation is dangerous, this gives us all the more reason to celebrate and strengthen them. On the other hand, Thanksgiving festivities can serve to cover up, and encourage, ongoing injustice. American children are told a sanitized story about the first Thanksgiving, in which Native Americans share a peaceful harvest meal with the English...

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Do Scientists Need Philosophers?

What is the value of philosophy of science? Psshaw, what do philosophers even know about science? Shouldn't we just trust scientists when it comes to questions of science? The following article by philosopher Subrena Smith in Aeon Magazine explores an answer to these questions. Essentially, there are presuppositions in science worth analyzing from a philosophical perspective. Take a look: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-philosophy-is-so-important-in-science-education

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#FrancisOnFilm: Thor Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is funny, exciting, and visually nifty. The third in a series (the first two were Thor in 2011 and Thor: the Dark World in 2013), it's a great two-plus hours of entertainment. But it's not just entertainment; there's more in Thor philosophically than you might think of when you are caught up in the action. Some of what's philosophically interesting about Thor comes from Norse mythology. Ragnarok is the Doom of the Gods. It may be cyclical rather than apocalyptic. And it may be spiritual rather than physical. Norse mythology, at least...

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Feminism and Philosophy's Future

Male philosophers may think feminist philosophy has nothing to offer them. Yet feminist philosophy has already enriched analytic philosophy and promises to deepen philosophers' "serious engagement" with continental thinkers, argues Gary Gutting in this article from The Stone. Feminist philosophy, he writes, is much more than a political movement in this regard. To give an earlier example in history, Gutting reminds readers that anayltic philosophy dominated in the philosophical establishment in the 1970s and 80s. "The pluralists" of philosophy though, comprised of pragmatists, metaphysicians...

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Two Models of Hypocrisy

What’s goes on in the mind of a hypocrite? Tim Murphy, recently resigned from PA District 18, got elected to Congress in 2003—to a great extent by claiming to be pro-life. Yet it emerged last month that he encouraged his mistress to have an abortion during a pregnancy scare. She texted him on October 3: “And you have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week when we thought that was one of the options.” Scott DesJarlais is another “pro-life” Congressman. Yet he supported his ex-wife’s two abortions and,...

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Favorites in Continental Philosophy

Philosopher Simon Critchley offers his take on continental philosophy and some of its biggest hits. He discusses how the continental approach to philosophy is more practically relevant to lived experience and, interestingly, more aware of its history. Surprisingly, Plato is characterized as a continental philosopher. Check out the Five Books article: https://fivebooks.com/interview/continental-philosophy-simon-critchley/

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The World’s Greatest Country?

American politicians love to say that America is the greatest country in the world. Of course, it’s never clear exactly how they are measuring greatness. They often seem to be talking about our founding principles.  Now those do sound great on paper, even if we have seldom fully lived up to them.  But I don't think actual greatness -- as opposed to potential greatness -- can be a matter of aspirational principles, especialy if those principles are seldom lived up to.  So they must have something else in mind if they mean actual greatness, rather than just potential greatness. Sometimes people...

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The Curious Lives of Octopuses

Octopuses live in a world of paradox. Though colorblind, they change their pigment to match their surrounding area. Though brilliant, they average a lifespan of only 2 to 4 years. Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness, by philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith, attempts to resolve these paradoxes in the complex lives of octopuses. In a review of the book by Alva Noë, Noë remarks at Godfrey-Smith's findings from his descent into the deep. Read the review here: http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/01/13/509456836/philosophy-in-the-...  

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When Democracy Runs Wild

Do we have too much democratic politics in this country? This isn't one of those debates about whether the will of the masses needs to be constrained by elite or technocratic pressures. Rather, what are the consequences of living in a society in which your every action has a political connotation? A new article by philosopher Robert Talisse in Aeon Magazine argues that, in the above sense, there is such a thing as too much democracy. In fact, Talisse comes up with a clever case for the position that democracy is a value that shouldn't be pursued too directly or aggressively. Take a...

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Basketball: Myths and Puzzles

Coaches, managers, players, and fans all have good reasons to care about statistics.  Gathering the right kind of information about when and how often something happens—a team winning, a player achieving a record, or a group players adopting a new technique—promises insight about why it happens, and what its downstream effects might be. For a fan, this kind of understanding is valuable in itself; for someone with skin in the game, it can provide the control necessary for building a winning team. But moving from correlation to causation is famously fraught. In a type of statistical puzzle...

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Achieving a Measure of Insanity

Before moving to philosophy, I was a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who worked in the Freudian tradition, broadly construed. I know from my immersion in that field that (despite getting a lot of bad press these days) psychoanalysis is both clinically powerful and philosophically rich. I’ve written quite a bit about the philosophy of psychoanalysis over the years, so I thought I’d offer some blog postings on the philosophical significance of psychoanalysis for Philosophy Talk. I’ll begin with an arresting remark by the British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Woods Winnicott. ...

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Philosophy of Trash

How much of today’s treasure is destined to be tomorrow’s trash? Are growing piles of trash the price we pay for progress? Or do our trashy habits amount to ecological terrorism?   Here’s an astounding fact: the average American produces about four and a half pounds of trash a day. That’s an astounding eight tons of trash a year! Why so much? Is this simply the price we pay for progress? What was of use or value yesterday becomes trash tomorrow. We replace the old and useless with the new and shiny. Isn’t this just civilization works? Perhaps it not so much how civilization works, but it is...

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Compromise and Slavery

I happen to be in the middle of teaching W.E.B. Dubois' amazing work The Souls of Black Folk to Stanford freshmen. It talks a lot about the failures of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow from an on-the-ground perspective. In addition, we’ve just done an episode entitled Race Matters, which got me reading Chris Lebron’s fine book, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea. If you haven’t read either book, it is worth reading both, but definitely don't miss Dubois since it is essential reading for every American or anyone who wants to understand America...

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