O.P. Recommends: The Ideas That Make Us, with Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes is one of my very favorite public intellectuals; from one talk to the next, one documentary series to another, I think, now this is the best ever. Perhaps you can tell from the manner in which I frequently share her work that I have more than a little crush on her: intelligent, wealthy in knowledge, endlessly curious, warm, beautifully spoken, lovely, funny, and always fascinating.

Anyway, as I was doing some filing and other such mindless tasks yesterday afternoon, I began re-listening to The Ideas That Make Us, a BBC 4 series about ‘the history of the most influential ideas in the story of civilisation.’ Hughes, a historian deeply trained in the classics, follows the history of ideas in the Western world, often beginning with the origins of the words we use to refer to them: Virtue, Justice, Peace, Agony, Charisma, and so on, many from the ancient Greek. I particularly love the story of the origin of Idea itself and the appearance of the term in a lyric poem by Pindar (another wonderful discovery); idea derives from the Greek idein, ‘to see.’ Hughes embarks on this story from within an MRI machine, bringing the Idea full circle: to see, in the original sense of the word, on the screen what we have long thought could only be manifested through language.

Follow this and many other fascinating stories of the history of great ideas with Hughes here

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

In Memory of Hypatia of Alexandria

Detail of the death portrait of a wealthy woman, c. 160-170 AD near modern-day Er-Rubayat in the Fayum, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsHypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but original sources that old are hard to come by, especially from a city as turbulent and violence-torn as the Alexandria of her day. The day of her death is better known, sometime in March of 415 AD. Since the latter date is more precise, we’ll break with our birthday remembrance tradition here and celebrate the memory of Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.

She was a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher who wrote commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia was a Neoplatonist, a philosophy with mystical overtones which posits that everything derives its being from the One, an ultimately conscious yet nonmaterial, non-spacial entity which is the pure ideal of everything that is. She was a scholar and teacher in a field and in a male-dominated world, and historians from her day to ours emphasize her extraordinary talents and her femininity with a nearly equal mix of awe and bemusement.

So let us remember and honor Hypatia for her great contributions to human knowledge and to the history of women’s liberation, living proof that women are equals in intellect and courage.

And let us also remember her sad death as a cautionary tale against those who inflame popular sentiment to seize power for themselves. Hypatia met her death at the hands of a Christian mob caught up in the anti-pagan hysteria of the day; Alexandria itself was caught up in a power struggle between civic and religious authority. The mob of extremists who dragged Hypatia from her carriage, torture and kill her with roofing tiles, and defile her body are inspired by their partisanship with theocratic bishop Cyril to kill this pagan philosopher, this mathematician and astronomer (then often equated with sorcerer), this woman who dared teach men, this friend of Cyril’s rival Orestes, civic leader of Alexandria. According to Hypatia scholar Micheal Deakin, “Cyril was no party to this hideous deed, but it was the work of men whose passions he had originally called out. Had there been no [earlier such episodes], there would doubtless have been no murder of Hypatia.”

From a certain millionaire we all know* who rose to power whipping up populist support throughout his presidential race with extremist racial and religious rhetoric, back to Hypatia’s time and beyond, power-hungry opportunists plead innocence from the very violence they inspire. Yet it appears hard to justify that plea when reason and the lessons of history plainly reveal the nearly inevitable results of fomenting sectarian strife. Extremism in the defense of liberty or anything else is a vice** because of the way it drives away reason and sympathy, and after all, nothing is as liberty-destroying as mob violence and death.

* ‘What If Trump Wins?’ by Jeet Heer in New Republic, Nov 24, 2015

** in reference to the quote ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’ from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination acceptance speech 

Read more about the great Hypatia of Alexandria:

Deakin, Michael.’Hypatia of Alexandria‘ from Ockham’s Razor radio program of Radio National of Australia (transcript), Sun August 3rd 1997. (click ‘Show’ across from ‘Transcript’)

O’Connor, J J and E F Robertson. ‘Hypatia of Alexandria‘, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland website.

‘O’Neill, Tim. ‘“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again‘. Armarium Magnum blog, Wed May 20, 2009

Zielinski, Sarah. ‘Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar‘. Smithsonianmag.com, Mar 14, 2010.

…and about Neoplatonism

Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~ A version of this piece was originally published here at Ordinary Philosophy one year ago

Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone, by Philip Reed

by-terimakasih0-public-domain-via-pixabay-croppedIt is mildly subversive and perhaps a little quaint when someone clings to their flip phone and refuses a smartphone. Refusing both kinds of phones is viewed as downright lunacy, especially if the person refusing was born after the mid-1970s. But I’ve never had a cellphone and I’m not going to get one. I have several reasons, and they are good ones.

The first is cost. No cellphone means no monthly bill, no possibility for an upgrade, no taxes, and no roaming charges (whatever those are). In an era of stagnant wages and growing income inequality, it is remarkable that people unthinkingly spend $75 or more per month on something that we hardly knew existed 15 years ago, much less counted as a necessity.

The second is concern for the environment. The manufacture of mobile phones (including raw material acquisition), the power they consume, and the energy used to transmit calls and access the internet all produce significant carbon dioxide emissions. The idea that cellphones are good only for a couple of years is widespread, increasing the number of phones that end up in landfills and leak toxic heavy metals such as copper and lead into the soil and groundwater.

The decisive reason, however, for me to refuse a cellphone is the opposite of everyone else’s reason for having one: I do not want the omnipresent ability to communicate with anyone who is absent. Cellphones put their users constantly on call, constantly available, and as much as that can be liberating or convenient, it can also be an overwhelming burden. The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere. Anyone who has checked their phone during a face-to-face conversation understands the temptation. And anyone who has been talking to someone who has checked their phone understands what is wrong with it.

Communicating with someone who is not physically present is alienating, forcing the mind to separate from the body. We see this, for example, in the well-known and ubiquitous dangers of texting while driving, but also in more mundane experiences: friends or lovers ignoring each other’s presence in favour of their Facebook feeds; people broadcasting their entertainment, their meals, and their passing thoughts to all who will bear witness; parents capturing their daughter’s ballet performance on their phones rather than watching it live; people walking down the street talking animatedly to themselves who turn out to be apparently healthy people using their Bluetooth.

The cellphone intrudes into the public and private realms, preventing holistic engagement with what is around us. Smartphones only perfect their predecessors’ ability to intrude.

The disembodying and intrusive effects of cellphones have significant implications for our relationships to the self and to others. Truly knowing and understanding others requires patience, risk, empathy, and affection, all of which are inhibited by cell phones. Cellphones also inhibit solitude, self-reflection, and rumination (formerly known as ‘waiting’ and ‘boredom’), which I think are essential for living a good life.

Long before cellphones, human beings were good at diverting themselves from disciplined attention. ‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,’ observed the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, ‘is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’ This propensity for diversion was notably confirmed in a recent study where subjects preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than occupy themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.

Pascal believed that the height of human dignity is thought, and that the order of thought begins with oneself, one’s creator, and one’s end. He linked this kind of thought inextricably to genuine rest and happiness. Avoiding a cellphone allows, for me, space for thinking and so enables a richer, more fulfilling way of life. With fewer tasks to perform and preferences to satisfy, life slows to a pace compatible with contemplation and gratitude.

A cellphone-free life not only helps to liberate the mind, but also the body. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras presents a different view of human nature from Pascal: ‘It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.’ We can be pretty sure that Anaxagoras was not anticipating the advent of smartphones. On the contrary, refusing a cellphone enables one to use one’s hands to carry out meaningful activities (playing the piano, gardening, reading a book) in such a way that one is fully absorbed in those activities, so that they reach their height of meaning.

Without a mobile phone, it is easier to concentrate on what is in front of me: my spouse and children, my work, making dinner, going for a walk. I try to choose my activities thoughtfully, so when I do something, I don’t want to be somewhere else. What cellphone users call multitasking does not interest or impress me.

Of course, it’s true that cellphones can be used responsibly. We can shut them off or simply ignore the incoming text. But this takes extraordinary willpower. According to a recent Pew survey, 82 per cent of Americans believe that cellphone use in social situations more often hurts than helps conversation, yet 89 per cent of cell owners still use their phones in those situations. Refusing a cellphone guarantees that I won’t use it when I shouldn’t.

Some people will insist that if I’m going to refuse a cellphone, I should also refuse a regular telephone. It is true that using a landline introduces similar disembodying, mediated experiences as to mobile phones. But there have always been natural and physical limits placed on the use of a regular phone, which is clear from the name ‘landline’. The cellphone’s mobility introduces a radical form of communication by making its alienating effects pervasive. I want to protect what unmediated experiences I have left.

The original meaning of ‘connect’ indicated a physical relationship – a binding or fastening together. We apply this word to our cellphone communications now only as metaphor. The ‘connections’ are ethereal; our words and thoughts reach the upper regions of space next to the cell tower only to remain there, as our devices disconnect us from those with whom we share space. Even though we have two hands, I’m convinced that you can’t hold a cellphone and someone else’s hand at the same time.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Philip Reed is an associate professor of philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York State. His scholarly interests are in ethics and moral psychology. (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Rosa Luxemburg!

Ordinary Philosophy

Rosa Luxemburg, By unknown photographer around 1895-1900 [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsRosa Luxemburg, Mar 5 1871 – Jan 15 1919, is the great Marxist theorist, writer, economist, revolutionist, anti-war and anti-capital-punishment activist, and philosopher who was murdered during the German Revolution of 1918–1919.

Though she’s an anti-war activist, Luxemburg is also critical of the idea that a just society can be brought about by incremental reforms through established political systems. If she were to be involved in the 2016 Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, she would very likely back Bernie, with his more revolutionary style and rhetoric: she’s sharply critical of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to which she belongs (in its left wing) for favoring a Hillary-style reformist approach. However, her internationalism takes Marxist thinking beyond the point where leading Marxists of her day had progressed, with their focus on unique formulations of Marxist political theory tailored to their own particular national identities and histories. She would likely find fault, then, with Bernie’s protectionism.

Luxemburg’s other great contribution to…

View original post 148 more words

Happy Birthday, Karl Marx!

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, image used by permission of the artist

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, http://www.samkaprielov.com/

Born on May 5, 1818, few thinkers have been as influential as Karl Marx. Philosopher, theoretician of history, economist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist, he was a prolific thinker and writer, widely lauded, criticized, and misunderstood, all of these especially by those who claim to act in his name.

In honor of his birthday, here’s a series of works about Karl Marx, a recent painting by an artist whose work my good friend introduced me to, and a song that I love.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) – a brief bio at BBC: History

Karl Marx, 1818-1883 – by Steven Kreis for The History Guide

Karl Marx – by Jonathan Wolff for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Marx – Melvyn Bragg and guests Anthony Grayling, Francis Wheen, and Gareth Stedman Jones discuss Karl Marx for BBC’s In Our Time podcast and radio series

Karl Marx: Capitalism vs. Communism, Marx and Kierkegaard on Religion Part 1 and Part 2and Austrians and Marx – by Stephen West for Philosophize This!

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

How a Hackneyed Romantic Ideal is Used to Stigmatise Polyamory, by Carrie Jenkins

There’s no longer anything unusual about wanting an open relationship. Many who consider themselves progressive about sex, gender, love and relationships know this. It’s just that almost nobody in an open relationship wants to be open about it. What’s surprising is that so many people feel the need for secrecy.

I’ve been out as polyamorous for years. Because of this, non-monogamous people who aren’t out often feel able to talk to me about their own situations. When I go to conferences, I can’t help noticing all the philosophers who are in closeted non-monogamous relationships. This discrepancy between reality and socially acknowledged reality can be disorienting; the ‘official’ number of non-monogamous people in the room is almost always one (me).

So what’s going on? No doubt there are several factors at work, but I want to talk about one that’s both powerful and insidious: non-monogamy isn’t considered ‘romantic’.

Romantic love is widely considered to be the best thing life has to offer: ‘failing’ at romance is often construed as failing at life. Amatonormativity is a name for the attitude that privileges lives based around a focal monogamous romantic relationship. What gets called ‘romantic’ isn’t just about classification; it’s about marking out those relationships and lives we value most.

This monogamous ideal is supposed to appeal to women especially. According to the stereotypes, single women are desperate to ‘lock down’ a man, while men are desperate to avoid commitment. There’s nothing new here: monogamy has historically been gendered. Even in situations where marrying more than one woman has been illegal, it has often been normal for men to have mistresses, but different rules have applied to women. This is unsurprising: in a patriarchal society with property inheritance passing along the male line, paternity is key, and enforced female monogamy is an effective way to control it.

Women’s sexuality can also be policed by developing a feminine model that includes a ‘natural’ desire for monogamy, plus social benefits for conforming to that model (and penalties for non-conformity). This model can then be internalised by women as a ‘romantic’ ideal inculcated via fairytales. In a similar vein, rather than allowing only men to have more than one partner, we can instill a subtler cultural belief that men’s infidelity is ‘natural’ and therefore excusable, while women’s infidelity is not.

Our language undermines gender-related optimism about monogamous romantic ideals: there is no word for a male ‘mistress’; romantic comedies are ‘chick flicks’. ‘Romance’ novels are marketed to and consumed by women. Brides are ‘given away’ by men to other men. We never hear about ‘crazy old cat gentlemen’. And how many married men do you know who’ve taken their wife’s surname? These attitudes persist not just in word but in deed: wives in hetero marriages still do more housework than their husbands, even if they earn more (which they rarely do).

Recent growing acceptance of same-sex love as ‘romantic’ has presented challenges to gendered norms. But this has happened alongside another change: monogamy has become an even more powerful ‘romantic’ ideal by including same-sex relationships. And its impact is intensely gendered.

Women who enter voluntarily into non-monogamous relationships are a direct challenge to the idea that women are ‘naturally’ monogamous. They are socially penalised to maintain the status quo. A non-monogamous woman will be portrayed as debased and disgusting – a ‘slut’. When I have discussed my open relationships online, I have been called a ‘cum-dumpster’, a ‘degenerate herpes-infested whore’, and many other colourful names.

My internet trolls focus on sex, partly because presenting non-monogamous relationships as ‘just sex’ makes it easier to degrade them, and partly because women who violate the monogamy norm – whose sexuality is out of (someone’s) control – are a threat to an ancient feeling of entitlement over women’s sexuality and reproductive potential. In contrast, a non-monogamous man is, at least sometimes, liable to be regarded as a ‘stud’.

Apart from monogamy, the only other relationship structure that controls paternity in a similar way is patriarchal polygamy, which is stigmatised in contemporary North America, for reasons including bona fide feminism as well as racism and cultural imperialism. One effect of this is that monogamy is seen as the only fair and liberal alternative.

Actually, there are many alternatives. But to tolerate them is to tolerate widespread social uncertainty about who is having sex with whom. This would extend to everything sex is entangled with, and everything it represents. Our ideals of ‘romantic’ love regulate not just our expectations about sex but also our conceptions of family and the nature of parenthood.

Ultimately, what we call ‘romantic’ is a philosophical issue that touches on the core of who we (think we) are, and what we value. I believe that the ‘romantic-ness’ of romantic love is largely socially constructed, and as such malleable. We collectively write the ‘script’ that determines the shape of the privileged (‘romantic’) relationship style. This script has changed, and will continue to change. But currently that process goes on largely below the radar: we aren’t supposed to see it happening, or realise that we can control it. Romantic love maintains a wholly ‘natural’ image, evading challenge or critical scrutiny by seeming inevitable, incomprehensible and wonderful.

We must get beyond this. We need to question the limits we have placed on what counts as a ‘romantic’ relationship. Freedom to love – the right to choose one’s own relationships without fear, shame or secrecy – is critical, not just for individuals but for us all collectively. Non-conformity is the mechanism that reshapes the social construct to better represent who we are, and who we want to be. Instead of forcing our relationships to conform to what society thinks love is, we could force the image of love to conform to the realities of our relationships.

But it won’t be easy. If the love of a polyamorous triad is seen as ‘romantic’, and hence as valuable as the love of a monogamous couple, then the triad should have the same social and legal privileges as the couple. How could we deny them the right to be co-parents? How could we defend the legal or financial benefits of monogamous marriage, or the lack of legal recourse for anyone fired for being polyamorous? These are the privileges by which we signal to monogamous couples and nuclear family units that theirs are the most socially valuable social configurations.

Nor could we defend the countless ways in which non-monogamous people are stigmatised and rejected. My boyfriend’s father no longer speaks to him about anything but the weather because he is in a polyamorous relationship with me. An extended family member literally prayed over me when she learned that I was non-monogamous, feeling an urgent need to ask Jesus to ‘save’ me from this ‘culture’. Stigma against non-monogamy is beyond a joke: researchers have uncovered assumptions that the non-monogamous are just bad people: less likely to walk their dogs, or floss their teeth.

It’s far easier to pretend that this is not really happening. Or that it’s not really a big deal. Perhaps you feel that way right now: perhaps you’re thinking you don’t know any non-monogamous people. But I wouldn’t be too sure. Until quite recently, an awful lot of people thought that all their friends and relatives were straight.Aeon counter – do not remove

Carrie Jenkins is a writer and philosopher. She is working towards an MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her latest book is What Love Is and What it Could Be (2017). She lives in Vancouver. (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Listen to Carrie Jenkins discuss romantic love with Joe Gelonesi at The Philosopher’s Zone

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Honesty in Public Discourse

A piece from two years ago on a timely subject…

Ordinary Philosophy

You’re likely aware of the backstory to this piece: well-known news anchorman Brian Williams was caught telling stories. A generous interpretation would portray them as exaggerations; a harsher one a series of self-aggrandizing lies. Williams placed himself in the thick of the action while covering certain news stories, like the shooting down of a military helicopter and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he was actually at a safe distance. Since his stories were recently debunked, in whole or in part, by others there at the time, he has been widely criticized, shamed, and mocked, and the public debate over the nature and reliability of modern news rages ever more fiercely.

He’s not the only public figure in hot water right now for playing fast and loose with the truth. Bill O’Reilly is also being called out for his history of adding, ahem, some ‘color’ (my term, not his) to…

View original post 1,672 more words