Posted tagged ‘Philosophy’

For a Good Time In Cambridge: Philosophy, Judaism, Ferociously Smart People Edition

April 22, 2013

Dear all,

I’ve been a bit slow in posting this one — I was distracted just a bit last week for some reason…but tomorrow evening I’ll be moderating a really fascinating panel (if this sort of thing fascinates you).  The event is titled Hilary Putnam’s Jewish Journey, with a cut line that adds “an exploration of the Jewish strands in the thinking of Hilary Putnam, Harvard Professor emeritus and Rolf Schock Prize laureate.”

A little less formally:  Hilary is on anyone’s shortlist for most significant contemporary philosophers, with an intellectual career that has spanned just about the entire range of questions the last (n) millenia of thinkers have confronted.


I’ve got a spurious connection to him:  he taught at MIT in the early 1960s, before moving to Harvard in 1965, where he has remained through a career that continues at almost ridiculous spate despite his emeritus status (since 2000).

My real connection is that of one of those very lucky folks who can count Hilary as a friend.  He is simply the most generous and warm great thinker I’ve ever had the good fortune to know.  Every conversation (with just about everyone he encounters) is one in which he speaks to a colleague, a companion, someone with whom he can think.  Just be warned:  bring your A game.  His a formidable intellect.  Trained as a mathematician and mathematically competent philosopher, he was a member of the group that resolved Hilbert’s tenth problem (showing that the problem has no solution).  He’s written more than 20 books on a huge range of philosophical topics, and his “brain in a vatthought experiment is credited as one of the major sources for The Matrix (who says contemporary philosophy has no practical application?!)

He is also someone who has developed a profound commitment and intellectual insight into Jewish thought, life and practice over many decades.  In 2008, he captured some part of that thinking in a book, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life:  Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein — which I can affirm is both well and deeply written.  In celebration of all that and more, several groups have got together to put on a panel to respond to Hilary’s writing, and then hear from Hilary himself as he responds to the responses (a kind of Talmudic approach to such things, actually).  The speakers will be Harvard’s Diana Eck, Boston University’s Abigail Gillman, and Michael Morgan, from Indiana University.  Hilary will listen to what they have to say and then reply.  I’ll be the traffic cop.

Let me say again:  Hilary is at once a brilliant scholar and thinker and one of the genuinely good guys.  You won’t regret time spent in the company of both his ideas and his person.  To drive that point home, I’ll quote from one of my all-time favorite students who just wrote to me, gnashing her teeth that she can’t be there, and that, “I once bailed out on a Violent Femmes concert to hear Hilary Putnam talk at Smith.”  That’s an accolade if ever there was one….;)

The time:  7 p.m.
The place:  Beren Hall, Harvard Hillel (the Moshe Safdie building at 52 Mt. Auburn St. at the corner of Plympton St. in Cambridge.)

We’ll go until about 8:30.  Should be a good time.

Image:  Raphael, School of Athens, 1505.  Cliche, I know, but hey…given the subject it’s hard to avoid.

Don’t Know Much…

August 13, 2012

There is the one bit of conventional wisdom coagulating around Romney’s Veep selection that is absolutely true. We face a stark — really an existential — choice this November.

There are any number of ways to characterize the two branches that split from that decision, but for me it boils down to a commitment to the idea of society — that we exist as both individuals and as members of groups, with all the enhancement and constraint of experience that comes with such associations.  One side honors that concept; the other derides it.

All this is to say go read Benjamin Hale’s very thoughtful piece up at The New York Times‘ The Stone blog.

Hale offers a much more measured argument than anything I find myself capable of composing right now, channeling his inner John Rawls to provide a framework for understanding just how literally anti-social Ryan and Romney are.  His restraint makes his conclusion all the more potent:

The question of fairness has widespread application throughout our political discourse. It affects taxation, health care, education, social safety nets and so on. The veil of opulence would have us screen for fairness by asking what the most fortunate among us are willing to bear. The veil of ignorance would have us screen for fairness by asking what any of us would be willing to bear, if it were the case that we, or the ones we love, might be born into difficult circumstances or, despite our hard work, blindsided by misfortune. Society is in place to correct for the injustices of the universe, to ensure that our lives can run smoothly despite the stuff that is far out of our control: not to hand us what we need, but to give us the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The veil of ignorance helps us see that. The veil of opulence keeps us in the dark.

Do go read the whole thing.

The modern Republican Party can’t be reformed, I think; it can only be unmade, till not one brick stands on the next.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image:  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Potsdamer Platz,1914.

Quote for the Day: Hilary Putnam, John Dewey, Real Optimism edition

October 15, 2008

One of the great good fortunes I count in my life over the last decade or so is the friendship of  Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam.  The Putnams in their public personae are well known philosophers.  Ruth Anna is best known for her work on the American pragmatist movement, and Hilary is seen as having been one of the dominant figures in American philosophy since the 1960s.  (Check out the link above if you want to feel like maybe you ought to get something done before dinner — and note that among his many, many accomplishments, he has received credit (blame?) as one of the sources of inspiration for, inter alia, the Matrix trilogy through his brain-in-a-vat thought experiment.)

The reason I’m telling you all this is that I was reading one of Hilary’s works this week — Ethics Without Ontology — and in its introduction I came upon a quote from a philosopher that Hilary thanked Ruth Anna for compelling him to engage.  That quote, as Hilary deployed it captures for me the essentially optimistic — and brutally realistic — essence of the progressive world view.

So, as we wait for a third Presidential debate between a pragmatic progressive and a failed ends-trump-means conservative, and over the slightly longer haul, for the next twenty days or so of what is likely to be an increasingly desperate and demonizing appeal to our worst instincts on the part of that failed candidacy, I thought I’d share what that great American John Dewey had to say as Hilary Putnam deployed it.  Its mapping onto our current predicament is extraordinary:

The good can never be demonstrated to the senses, nor be proved by calculations of personal profit.  It involves a radical venture of the will in the interest of what is unseen and prudentially incalculable. But such optimism of will, such determination of the man that, so far as his choice is concerned, only the good shall be recognized as real, is very different from a sentimental refusal to look at the realities of the situation just as they are.  In fact a certain intellectual pessimism, in the sense of a steadfast willingness to uncover sore points, to acknowledge and search for abuses, to note how presumed good often serves as a cloak for actual bad, is a necessary part of the moral optimism which actively devotes itself to making the right prevail.  Any other view reduces the aspiration and hope, which are the essence of moral courage, to a cheerful animal buoyancy; and in its failure to see the evil done to others in its thoughtless pursuit of what it calls good, is next door to brutality, to a brutality bathed in the atmosphere of sentimentality and flourishing the catchwords of idealism. (Ethics, 1908 edition, p. 351.)

As Putnam then glosses this quote:  “Dewey was not someone with a blind faith in progress; he was, rather, a strategic optimist; and strategic optimism is something we badly need at the present time.  (Italics in the original).

To which I say:  Amen and amen.

Image:  US Postage Stamp, issued 21 October 1968.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.