The modern discipline of philosophy is expressed in one scene of Brothers Karamozov.

There is this scene in the Brothers Karamozov that represents the modern profession of philosophy so well, or at least several very standard archetypes in it.  The characters, or what they represent, are so familiar to me that I was brought up short.  I struggle in that world because I struggle with this standard, the types and personalities, and the way conversation happens.  In fact, it was the contrast in rhythms of conversation that first caught my attention.

The setting is this: two of the brothers Karamozov, along with their father and a prominent townsperson their father’s age, go to visit a monastery to talk with an “elder” or holy man.  Only one of the brothers reverences the elder, while the others are all much too worldly and sophisticated to genuinely respect him, although they all pretend to, more or less.  Dostoyevsky is making a point here that the sophisticated gentry are too sophisticated to be able to see what they are missing from religion, because the elder is shown to be the real deal when he leaves the worldly folk waiting in his room while he talks to some people who have been suffering and come looking for advice and blessing.  In his conversations with them, he shows genuine interest and concern rather than reliance on platitudes, and gives sound advice.  To a grieving mother, he acknowledges that she cannot be consoled, but suggests that in time her grief will be lessened.  Someone asks forgiveness for something they have done, and he gives it, saying that he is a sinner too.  He argues with someone who attributes miraculous healing powers to him, which I found particularly endearing.  His conversations with the assorted supplicants are engaging and show understanding and compassion.

When the elder returns to his rooms there is a striking contrast in the tone of the conversation.  The sophisticated men are discussing an article written by Ivan, the middle brother Karamozov.  I cringed at this.  Even the language is so typical of philosophy.  “[The article] brings forth much that is new… [read: just outrageous enough]… but I think it cuts both ways [read: I don’t know what to think, but want to sound impressive–very typical move, from undergrads up].  It is an article written in answer to a book [read: written by a young scholar, just starting out to make a name for himself, and also note the total passive voice and lack of names or reference to authors as living human beings].”  Entering this conversation, in contrast to comforting the supplicants, it is so striking how the humanity is stripped away.  Would I have passed on grad school if I had had this experience at an earlier time?  Maybe, but more likely I would have thought I could find a way to change the system, or resist.

Then there are the characters in this conversation.  They are wonderful, especially Pyotr Miusov.  Ivan is the center of attention, the academic hotshot.  He comes off as rational, self-assured.  He is an example of what people mean when they talk about getting pulled into someone’s orbit, or an idea or person as sexy.  It’s so important that the view he defends is just the right kind of shocking and outrageous (he is “opposed to the separation of church and state”).

Father Paissy defends Ivan (or his views) unreservedly, using the pronoun “us”.  He is over-eager, showing that he is uncritical in his response to Ivan, perhaps even that he doesn’t think for himself.  This is a rookie play–even grad students know better than to show this sort of wholehearted approval of anyone else’s views.  He is fervent, ending his comments with “so be it! so be it!”

Father Iosif, librarian monk, describes Ivan’s work as “interesting…but… the argument cuts both ways.”  This is another way of not thinking for oneself, since it doesn’t really say anything.

Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan’s father, says uncharacteristically little, while Alyosha, Ivan’s pious (and therefore simpleton) brother is also quiet, but this is typical for him.

Pyotr Miusov is the real gem.  He is a generation older than Ivan, so not inclined to be swept away by the younger man’s style, and also a bit threatened by the hotshot.  He remembers when he was at the cutting edge and is irritated by being treated as irrelevant.  He tries to insert himself in the conversation but is so irritated that he can’t play the game (also he is not an intellectual, and lacks the easy way with words that Ivan has).  Despite this he counters Ivan’s paragraphs of abstract reasoning with a couple of well-placed anecdotes which show that he understands it for what it is, as well as another side of Ivan (as someone who has deep-rooted religious doubts).

The elder, Father Zosima, returns from blessing the poor and the suffering into this conversation.  He engages with the substance of the argument, showing more depth than Father Iosef, while withholding his own view, showing more critical distance than Father Piussy.  Miusov’s story about Ivan, the elder sees into Ivan’s heart, and talks to the heart rather than the head.  He calls Ivan out on his innermost fears, and the hotshot blushes and, strangely, receives a blessing from the priest.  Would that more academic discussions ended this way.


When “fragile” and “fragility” might be a teeny bit overused.

This buzzfeed post is very funny.

The use of “fragile masculinity” seemed a bit off, though.  Fragility, when applied to dominant groups, like white people or males, refers I think) to the idea that when you point out someone’s privilege to them, they get defensive, angry or upset, because you are challenging their view of the world.  So we all “need” to work together (sarcasm here) to avoid breaking that point of view.  The point of view is what’s fragile (because there is so much evidence to the contrary).

The buzzfeed post doesn’t show people getting challenged on their worldview, except insofar as we can see them as ridiculous.  But I doubt that message is getting back to those who have this narrow view of masculinity.

It isn’t “fragile” to believe that someone’s masculinity would be doubted if they carried an umbrella, or touched their face.  Exhausting to be such a male, but not “fragile.”  It’s just that the performance takes so much effort, and those of us who see this are amazed that anyone would bother.

The brand images of masculinized products, like Qtips and candles, are different, and are about fragility.  That’s an example of a brand going to extra lengths to reassure men that yes it is all right to purchase this item.

But the other examples are of limits that men put on themselves.  That’s just sad.

ETA: If you are interested in the source of the term “white fragility,” here is the paper that apparently launched the idea.  Robin DiAngelo, 2011.  Nice to see an academic paper catching on so directly with mainstream.  Ideas are relevant, y’all!

Abstract: White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. This paper explicates the dynamics of White Fragility.


Vulnerability and Autonomy

I am reading through an article called “Vulnerability and Resilience: a Critical Nexus” by Mianna Lotz.  (Theoretical Medical Bioethics 2016, 37: 45-59, for those of you who keep track of these things).  I will post on the main point later, but for now I want to focus on a side point that I found interesting.

Lotz writes that vulnerability should not be contrasted with autonomy, because people are not independent or self-sufficient.

I’m going to start with defining autonomy, since it’s not a word you typically hear.  “Autonomy” is a kind of fancy philosophical word for freedom or liberty.  The parts of the word, broken down from the Latin, are auto + nomos, so its literal meaning is to “give oneself the law.”  Philosophers love to discuss (debate, argue over) what it really means and implies.  Most agree that it is something related to being able to reason and think through ideas calmly, such as to make choices for yourself.  It can also be understood more “deeply” to mean a kind of self-fittingness, such that the parts of oneself are aligned.  But this is all a matter of controversy.

Lotz develops the idea that autonomy is not in conflict with vulnerability writing that autonomy is “intersubjective” and involves certain social conditions.  People are not self-sufficient because we are beings with bodies who live in the physical world in relation with other beings.  Just as embodiment and relationship are part of what it means to be human, vulnerability is necessarily part of what it means to be human too.  Since we are not self-sufficient beings, perfect self-sufficiency can’t be what “autonomy” refers to–this would be unrealistic.  The concept of autonomy should take our nature into account.  So autonomy must be understood in a way that includes these aspects of humanity.

I am bothered by this adjustment to the concept of autonomy.  I am totally, fully on board with the relational view of what it means to be a person, but I have found the role of autonomy in this vision of humanity to be fruitfully conflicted.  We both need each other, and we need to be separate.  We both are intimately bound up in each other, and yet are distinct from one another at the same time.  Autonomy is a concept that works to refer to the ways we are distinct from others.  Our ability to reason is necessarily a product of our upbringing, such as the values and messages we receive from our parents, and our social frameworks, such as the values and messages we receive from our neighborhoods and society, like what sort of person is suited to what sort of job.  While this is a huge part of our thought processes and reasoning, it is also not everything.  People do not simply copy their parents or reflect their society as they go through life.  Some people even reject their parents’ beliefs or ways of living or social organization.  We are created, and we create.  Both.  (What’s more, certain ways of parenting and forms of society promote self-exploration, while others stifle it.)

The relational view of personhood does not imply that autonomy itself has to be relational.  If autonomy itself is relational, then the fruitful tension becomes obscured.  What does it even mean for autonomy to be relational, or intersubjective?  I suppose it may be a way of capturing the idea that our ability to reason is shaped by our relationships.  What does it mean to be more autonomous or less autonomous, if this is the definition?  Does more autonomy refer to a greater quantity of relationships, or relationships of a certain structure?  Individuality matters, as well as relationship/community, and I guess I am confused, and possibly even concerned, that intersubjective autonomy fails to properly value individuality.

This may have no bearing on Lotz’s main point, like I said earlier.  Even if autonomy is not relational, human beings certainly are.  Vulnerability is only in conflict with autonomy if we think of vulnerability as weakness, which it isn’t.  So this probably has no impact on her main argument.  I just thought it was interesting.

Someone who regrets grad school.

Though these young [people] unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices, and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have set before them as their goal–such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the strength of many of them.

(Brothers Karamozov)

Individual and Collective Action: Recycling and Compost

wall-e junk shot

This morning’s breakfast brings up thoughts about what I can do individually, versus what we can do, collectively.

When our family moved a couple years ago, we moved from a town that had trash and some basic recycling curbside services (and I mean basic) to a town that has extensive recycling service and even (be still my heart) curbside composting.  If you have never had curbside composting, it is amazing, a new world.  You can compost fruit and vegetable scraps, but also meat and dairy (not usually ok in backyard compost heaps) as well as used paper towels, pizza boxes, even used kleenex.  For a 4-person household, we have gone from having approximately 2 large sacks of trash a week to less than 2 grocery bags of trash.  We have so little trash that it no longer makes sense to buy trash bags.

Since I’m now sorting differently, I have become more aware of what I am tossing out.  In particular, I am aware of how many things now headed to landfills could go into a different bin if they were tweaked just slightly.  If meat trays, those styrofoam things under typical chicken or beef selections, were made of a different plastic, they could be recycled.  If cups from fast food joints were lined with wax rather than plastic, they could be composted (the lids and straws usually can be, unless the quality is especially cheap).

But these changes are simply out of my individual hands.  I can shake my head (or call my representative) but otherwise, there’s nothing I can do about the plastic lining in many kinds of cardboard and other containers.  I can still make changes to my own life.  For parties, if we use simple paper plates and waxed paper cups instead of plastic, we can compost the lot.  I feel pretty good about my individual reduction in our landfill contribution, but I also see how with very slight changes we could collectively do so much more.

This morning, I opened a new tub of yogurt for breakfast.  It had a plastic lid with a foil lining underneath.  Under the foil (for some reason) is another lining, laid directly on the yogurt (maybe to keep air off?).  At first I thought it was plastic, but on a closer look it is waxed paper.  So I can recycle the foil and compost the inner lining.  After I eat the yogurt, I can recycle the tub and lid.  Nothing sent to the landfill at all.  So, good for this company, that they chose a packaging option that allows for zero trash.  Such a small thing.


Back-Up Cameras

I love the back-up camera on our car.  Aside from turning the car on with a button, nothing makes me feel more like our car came out of the space age than having a camera that shows what’s behind me as I put it in reverse.

It’s not perfect.  If I turn on the radio after putting the car in reverse, the camera blinks out, replaced with the radio controls.  It only shows what’s behind the car, so I have to be alert for oncoming obstacles from the side, like a car coming down the alley.  But if there were a kid behind the car, too short to be seen out the back window, the camera would show me.  Um yes, that’s worth it.

Something I’ve noticed: back-up cameras change parking a lot.

Parallel parking is much more awesome than it used to be.  Still occasionally annoying, but overall way better.  You can get super close to the car behind you without tapping it at all.  Freaks people out sometimes, especially if they are in the car behind you (and especially as you seem to be looking ahead of you and paying no attention to where the car is going, even though you are–we need bumper stickers for this).

Perpendicular parking, or rather, pulling out of a perpendicular spot in a parking lot, is less awesome with the camera.  It has the don’t-run-over-kids benefit, but the camera is distracting when most of what you need to watch for is coming from the side, like pedestrians pushing carts or cars trying to get out.

The awesomest thing about the back-up camera (aside from not running over kids) is angled parking, specifically pulling out of an angled parking spot.  The back of the car is pointed toward the roadway you are about to pull out into, and this part of the roadway is what the camera shows you.  This is exactly the area that you can hardly see through the windows (especially if there is a car parked next to you obscuring your vision).

Assuming my experience is typical, back-up cameras make angled parking much better and safer, but make perpendicular parking the same or slightly less safe.  I predict that as the cameras become more common, we will have more angled parking and less perpendicular (parallel parking is here forever).  An example of an unintended consequence of a new technology.

Imperfection and Acceptance

Thinking about relationships, a basic problem in understanding them has puzzled me for a long time.  I am no nearer solving the puzzle–all this time has been spent struggling to articulate exactly what the puzzle is.  It’s that kind of problem.  This is what has been bugging me for years, and which is finally dragging me back to writing in the blog, after leaving it for over a year.  (Hi!)

Where the problem arises for me is wondering about harm in relationships.  We hurt each other, inevitably, and the closer or more intimate the relationship, the greater the likelihood of harm, including the greater depth of harm.  How can we hold this knowledge in front of us, the certainty of harming and being harmed, and yet still open ourselves to intimacy?

It seems profoundly important that we accept our own limitations, and even more important, that we accept the limitations of our beloveds.  This has seemed important because these limitations are a part of our humanity, of what it means to be human.  I believe this is true, but where I struggle is with the meaning of humanity, how to express that humanity in terms of these limitations without at the same time condemning them.  If we condemn these limitations, we don’t really accept them, and we implicitly reject some aspect of the humanity of our beloveds.  Don’t we?

This problem is even knottier when it comes to harm in relationships.  We want to be everything our beloveds need, and receive from our beloveds everything we need.  But we know from the start that this will not happen.  (Well, I guess babies don’t know this from the start about their parents.  A painful lesson.)  So we know that in any relationship, and especially those most intimate, we will be  harmed and give harm in return.  But we do it anyway.  This requires not only accepting the limitations of the beloved, but specifically that we will be harmed by our beloveds (and vice versa).  How can we possibly make sense of such irrational behavior?

Privilege Check

Yesterday I started a new topic in my “Relationships and Contemporary Issues” course, on multiculturalism: specifically, Charles Taylor’s politics of equal recognition of differences.  Taylor does his amazing Taylor thing of putting contemporary political debate within a grand historical narrative.  He defends the value and importance of recognizing differences (i.e. of presuming them as having equal worth with one’s own way), on a basis of equal dignity for all.  It’s a great argument, and his style nicely connects policy issues with personal attitudes and practices, something I especially appreciate (and which I think is appropriate for the course).

So I was troubled to see that the discussion contributions within my class were exclusively from the white male students (4 of them, one of whom is likely gay, for what it’s worth).  These students frankly and confidently shared their own mistakes/learning experiences, as well as skepticism and worries about the argument.  But there was total silence from the other students, despite their outnumbering the white men.  (The others included 1 white man, 2 white women, 4 latina women, 1 latino man, 1 asian woman, 1 african-american woman.  This categorization may be problematic, but it is relevant to the context.  I don’t always/only think of my students this way!)

Ever since I have been recalling, with chagrin, my mistakes during yesterday’s class, and wondering if they contributed to the narrow range of views represented.  What part did I, as a product of the dominant culture, play in reinforcing the silence of those who did not speak up?  (And to what extent were they quiet for other reasons, such as they did not understand or do the reading?)  So here is a list of things I did that now I worry may have contributed to this problem.

  1. Early on when I asked students to give examples of policies/movements/demands that were made in our society, there was no policy example among those the students gave that referred to targeting immigrants or mexicans, so I made sure to include one.  I added to the list the English Only/First movement, including making English proficiency a requirement for naturalized citizens or for a driver’s license.  I tried to present it neutrally, as an example for consideration/debate, but this may have had a chilling effect coming at the start of the class.
  2. One of the (white, male) students gave an example of how his high school Spanish Club had t-shirts with an image of a man lying down with a sombrero over his face.  He gave it as an example of how he and his peers had been insensitive to how others might feel in response to the image.  My reaction was to be supportive–it was brave of him to share a story on himself.  So I praised him for sharing and emphasized how he had learned something from the mistake.  Thus far I think my reaction was ok, though if I had not been white I may have been a little less concerned to validate his sharing.  What bothers me now is that I said something to the effect that none of us starts out with a sense of how people different from ourselves see the world, and it is a learning process for everyone.  Thinking this over later, I realize that this is not as universal as I made it seem.  If you are not part of the dominant culture you very likely grew up with a visceral understanding of that culture’s perspective, including perhaps even a sense of your own outsiderness, absorbing that perspective alongside that of your own group.  People who are outsiders generally do not need to be “taught” this.  It is members of the dominant group who need teaching.  (Minority groups may still need to be educated on the perspective of other minority groups, however.)
  3. A (white, male) student recounted a South Park episode (or was it a whole season?) where political correctness was satirized.  I played off of this, thanking him for the example and the representation of an argument against political correctness.  I then asked students for other objections to political correctness, rather than defenses of it.  Why did I do that?
  4. The (white, male) student who is enamored of libertarianism felt comfortable expounding on and criticizing campus PC culture that has emerged in places throughout the US, and which has drawn a lot of criticism.  I responded to his set of ideas uncritically–rather than suggesting reasons this campus culture may be justified (such as by drawing on Taylor), I suggested that this may be a misinterpretation of Taylor’s argument and an example of equal recognition gone wrong.
  5. When it was mentioned that the gender-neutral pronoun “they” is used (such as on South Park), and another student said, oh, is that gender-neutral?  I responded with, well yes some people say so, but it isn’t settled yet.  (A purely grammatical gripe I have, but it could come off as my being unsympathetic to the idea of gender-neutral pronouns.)
  6. Within this conversation, a particular example came up of how some campuses offer counseling to students for their reactions to seeing a Trump 2016 poster.  I did not argue for why this might make sense, but merely asked whether there was also counseling being offered to students who objected to other campaigns.  (I suspect Trump is different because of his wildly racist remarks, which put him outside the normal protections of political disagreement, imho.)
  7. When the libertarian student went off about “all the problems Europe is having with refugees and immigrants,” no-go zones, honor killings etc.  How I responded was to argue that those are not applicable to our discussion because the dialogue is different in this country.  I claimed that problems in the US, such as honor killings, tend to be interpreted as individual problems, not as a collective problem.  What does that even mean?  Why would that matter?  Why did I say that?  What should I have said?  I don’t know.

In all, I seemed to have contributed to a discussion climate where white male students felt comfortable enough to share their thoughts and take risks, but the majority of my students did not.  How much influence did these mistakes have on the climate?  I don’t know, and have no way of knowing.  How can I do this differently tomorrow?