I’m Not the Only One Talking About Fear These Days

FearOver at the website of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago, Martin Marty writes about Martha Nussbaum’s new book The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis.  I have not read Nussbaum’s book, but I relied on some of her previous work on fear in my own book,  Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste of Marty’s piece:

“Our summer of fear” was a headline that greeted us one day this week. It captioned Christopher Borrelli’s published “conversation with Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum” (Chicago Tribune, July 9). The other three dailies which arrived the same morning offered other headlines above other subjects covered, but one could have appropriately filed many of them under the Nussbaum topic, “fear.” Perhaps autumn events and moods will soon elicit the name of some different emotion, but for now the Nussbaum interview addresses our fears expansively and credibly. The emphasis derives from the title and subject of her new book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2018), which draws notice among philosophers and pundits, and, as in newspapers and online magazines, the public. One cannot not deal with this author, so commanding is her presence, especially once her expressions reach publics.

Perhaps we have hurried past Nussbaum too briskly. Not everyone hears about or deals with every philosopher, including even the most public ones. To slow a bit: since 1995 this one has taught on “the law, philosophy, classics, divinity, South Asian studies and political science” faculties at the University of Chicago. Those interested in researching her can check out her Wikipedia entry or other sources which list bibliographies too long to get more space in this column. “Look her up!” we advise, and use the recent Tribuneinterview for launching. It is common practice to connect events and themes with temporal terms, such as the “Age” or “Era” or “Year” or “Epoch” of “Belief” (Dickens), “Enlightenment,” “Progress,” etc. Now we are down to the moment in the “summer of fear.”

Professor Nussbaum has famously written about the cultural and societal effects of various emotions. Asked what her current choice means, she draws on Aristotle, and paraphrases: “Fear is the sense that there are things that are bad for you and your well being, looming over you, and you are not fully in control of warding them off … We learn early on” that “we will die … and fear never goes away, we are all powerless over it. So fear can be easily hijacked and grow out of control—arguably more so than other emotions.” The interviewee observes that fear can lead “to anger, and anger can make you feel in control of your fear … Other emotions like disgust and envy get revved up when we feel afraid.”

Fear challenges democracies: “democracy means you have to work with people you may not like but you must still believe are your equals.” She considers what fear can do to a child. As for grown-ups? “[F]earful people never trust the other side … right now this country is like an abused child.” The interviewer goes on to ask what philosophers have to contribute in such a situation. Nussbaum has some fairly cheery things to say about the potential of philosophy and what we can learn from the classics, like Socrates, Lucretius, and Cicero, beginning with their stress on the “examined life.” Critics might charge that she would say that; after all, that’s what many tenured philosophers at her university have long taught.

Read the entire piece here.

Has Marco Rubio Changed His Mind About Philosophers?

Some of you may recall that Marco Rubio once had some pretty harsh things to say about philosophy and philosophers.  Has he changed his mind?

Chris Gehrz’s Open Letter to Billionaires and Millionaires Who Want to Give to Christian Colleges


In case you haven’t heard, an investor named Bill Miller just gave $75 million to the Johns Hopkins University philosophy department.  The money will be used to double the size of the department and create nine endowed professorships.  Money will also go to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.  Read all about it here.

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz has written an open letter “to anyone with $75 million to give to Christian colleges.

The letter asks such a donor to consider two things:

  1. Give preference to the arts, humanities, and sciences
  2. Give preference to people, not buildings.

Here is a taste:

So consider endowing scholarships. Make it possible for at least a few students to come to their school of choice and pursue the studies that most closely align with their gifts, passions, and calling. Free them of the lifelong burden of feeling like they need to deny their vocation in order to maximize their salary and minimize their debt.

Or endow faculty chairs. Make it possible for at least a few professors to do their work — as teachers and scholars — without living in perpetual anxiety about how many students are taking their classes or how hard it is to demonstrate the practical value of their research. Make it possible for universities to keep their core disciplines somewhat insulated from the market pressures that tempt us away from our mission.

Miller’s gift to Johns Hopkins’ philosophy department, for example, will endow nine chairs, allow for the near-doubling of the philosophy faculty, and help graduate students and postdoctoral fellows continue their work.

If you’re in a position to do something at all similar to that… I’m not asking for a $75 million gift to the Bethel University Department of History. (Though I wouldn’t turn it away. Our development folks can be found hereOr email me to schedule a time to talk — believe it or not, I can say much more than what I’ve written here!)

Pick five such schools, or fifteen, and make smaller, still-transformative gifts that will allow them to fulfill their mission long into the 21st century. You will change the lives of students, and through them the world.

Thank you for reading. May God bless you with grace and peace, with wisdom and discernment.

Read the entire letter here.

Alvin Plantinga Wins the Templeton Prize

Alvin_PlantingaThe Calvin College and Notre Dame philosopher has won the $1.4 million dollar award.  Here is a taste of Chris Herlinger’s report at Religion News Service:

American scholar Alvin Plantinga, a pioneering advocate for theism, or belief in God, as a serious philosophical position within academic circles, was named the winner of the 2017 Templeton Prize.

Plantinga, 84, a retired professor at the University of Notre Dame, won the award for revolutionizing “the way we think,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, which awards the annual prize.

“Alvin Plantinga recognized that not only did religious belief not conflict with serious philosophical work, but that it could make crucial contributions to addressing perennial problems in philosophy,” Dill said Tuesday (April 25) in an online announcement of this year’s award.

Because of Plantinga’s influence, it is no longer unusual for philosophy professors to bring their religious commitments to bear on their work, whether they be Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim, the Templeton Foundation’s statement said.

Until Plantinga, many philosophers viewed theistic belief as logically incompatible with the reality of evil.

Countering that, Plantinga, whose own religious tradition is Dutch Christian Reformed, argued that, “in a world with free creatures, God cannot determine their behavior, so even an omnipotent God might not be able to create a world where all creatures will always freely choose to do good,” the announcement said.

Plantinga’s landmark 1974 “God, Freedom, and Evil” is now “almost universally recognized as having laid to rest the logical problem of evil against theism,” the foundation noted.

In a statement, Plantinga, who taught at the University of Notre Dame for 18 years until retiring in 2010, struck a modest note, saying that if his work played a role in transforming the field of philosophy, he “would be very pleased.”

Read the rest here.

Christianity Today covers the story here with references to Plantinga’s contribution to the “evangelical mind.”

Other winners of the Templeton Prize have included Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Charles Taylor, John Polkinghorne, Bill Bright, Michael Novak, Charles Colson, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Billy Graham, and Mother Theresa.


Did You Know That Marco Rubio Took a Course on the Philosophy of Welding?

Samir Chopra, who currently teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College, was the professor. Chopra writes about Rubio’s experience in the course at his blog.  

Here is a taste:

Many years ago, I taught the inaugural edition of my Philosophy of Welding seminar. I began the semester by introducing some of the problems that would hold our attention during the semester: What is welding? How is it distinguished from other activities that claim to be welding? Is there a distinctive being-in-the-world characteristic of the welder and his tools? What makes a welded work beautiful?…

My reading list for the class was not excessively ambitious: I stuck to some of the usual suspects–Heidegger and some of the works of the Shipyard Collective, for instance–and concentrated on a few key passages in each, hoping close attention to them would repay dividends in the form of rich class discussion. Early in the semester, I began to notice that one young student did the readings diligently, came to class prepared, and engaged vigorously in all ensuing discussions.

This was no idle interest; no lofty, disengaged, from-on-high tackling of philosophical problems. This young man was in the trenches, on a mission…he offered a passionate, stirring, argument whose fascinating conclusion was that we have a duty to weld, a moral inclination that must be obeyed.

It was on this last point that we passionately disagreed. Even though I recognized the importance of welding, I could not bring myself to accept this argument. Surely, one could assign welding a respectable position to welding in our hierarchy of valued activities without taking the final move to make our engagement something that acquired normative weight. But this young man would not budge…

What happened to this student? Read the entire post here.  😉

HT: Amy Bass

Does America Need More Welders or More Philosophers?

Philosophers around the country will have something to talk about in class today after Florida Senator Marco Rubio unleashed this gem at last night’s GOP debate:

What is it with Florida politicians taking pot shots at the liberal arts and the humanities? Governor Rick Scott did it. So did Jeb Bush.  Now its Rubio’s turn.
Three comments:
First, we need both welders and philosophers.  I made this argument a few years ago.
Second, who is attacking vocational training?

Third, Rubio might be interested in learning that philosophers make more money than welders.

On the Possibility of Historical Empathy

Chris Gehrz has been churning out some great stuff lately at The Pietist Schoolman.  Anyone interested in history, historiography, Christian thinking, and church-related higher education should have the Pietist Schoolman bookmarked for daily reading.

In yesterday’s post, Chris explores the idea of “historical empathy” and wonders whether such a virtue is really possible.  Here is a taste:

But perhaps other fields of study should make us reconsider whether historical (or other kinds of) empathy is even possible. Writing recently for The Stone, the New York Times‘ philosophy blog, Paul Bloom draws on research from psychology and cognitive science to argue that the empathetic ability to imagine the world as others experience it is almost impossible. It certainly doesn’t come naturally:
People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance. Other studies find that people who are instructed to take the perspectives of others tend to do worse, not better, at judging their thoughts and emotions.
Can we make ourselves better at it? With philosopher Laurie Paul, Bloom concludes that
it’s impossible to actually imagine what it would be like to have certain deeply significant experiences, such as becoming a parent, changing your religion or fighting a war. The same lack of access applies to our understanding of others. If I can’t know what it would be like for me to fight in a war, how can I expect to understand what it was like for someone else to have fought in a war? If I can’t understand what it would be like to become poor, how can I know what it’s like for someone else to be poor?
Now, Bloom stops short of calling off the whole project:
Under the right circumstances, we might have some limited success — I’d like to believe that novels and memoirs have given me some appreciation of what it’s like to be an autistic teenager, a geisha or a black boy growing up in the South. And even if they haven’t, most of us are still intensely curious about the lives of other people, and find the act of trying to simulate these lives to be an engaging and transformative endeavor. We’re not going to stop.
But he suggests that the difficulty of achieving any real degree of empathetic engagement with the lives of others should underscore the importance of two other words prominent in the historian’s vocabulary: humility and listening.
These failures should motivate a certain humility when it comes to dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect — people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded — but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us.

Great stuff, Chris (and Paul Bloom).  As I suggested to the Christian readers of Why Study History?, perhaps empathy is only possible when one draws upon supernatural resources to achieve it. Now there’s something to chew on for a while! 🙂

How to Get More People to Read Philosophy

Just put a philosophy book in Bruce Springsteen’s hands.  Take a photo of him reading it (pencil in hand) and promote it via social media.  Springsteen was recently seen reading James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. According to Miller’s publishers, sales have seen a bump since the picture appeared.  Here is a taste of a Wall Street Journal article on the Boss’s new reading habits:

Since the photo’s release, “Examined Lives,” which was published in 2011, has enjoyed a small bump in sales, said its publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “The Boss does have an impact,” said Eric Chinski, editor in chief at FSG. “He had his pencil out in the photo too, so he was obviously reading closely.”
The image came as a surprise to the book’s author, Mr. Miller, a politics and liberal studies professor at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research. “It looked like he was actually reading it, sort of mid-way through. The whole thing floors me,” he said. “It’s not what I would have considered light reading.”
In addition to politics and philosophy, Mr. Miller has written about music since the 1960s and included a chapter on Mr. Springsteen in his book “Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock & Roll, 1947-1977.” He was the original editor of “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll,” and also wrote about Mr. Springsteen as a critic for Newsweek in the 1980s.

Why You May Not Want to Go To Zizek’s Office Hours

Slavoj Zizek is apparently a world famous philosopher who teaches at the New School in New York. I have not read any of his stuff, but I do know that he likes to hold forth shirtless from his bed.  Here are his recent thoughts on teaching and office hours from Critical Theory blog

“I hate giving classes,” Zizek said, citing office hours and grading papers as his two biggest peeves. “I did teach a class here [at the University of Cincinnati] and all of the grading was pure bluff,” he continues. “I even told students at the New School for example… if you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A. If you give me a paper I may read it and not like it and you can get a lower grade.” He received no papers that semester.
But it’s office hours that are the main reason he does not want to teach.
“I can’t imagine a worse experience than some idiot comes there and starts to ask you questions, which is still tolerable. The problem is that here in the United States students tend to be so open that sooner or later, if you’re kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions [about] private problems… What should I tell them?”
“I don’t care,” he continued. “Kill yourself. It’s not my problem.”
 I also like Rebecca Schuman’s take on this at Slate.

The St. Louis Hegelians

Forget about Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. Well before the University of Wisconsin history professor suggested that the key to American identity was the settlement of the frontier, a group of Georg Hegel disciples were arguing that history had a direction, and it was all pointing to St. Louis.

Here is a taste of Kerry Howley’s article at The Daily:

In 1856, a Prussian immigrant named Henry Conrad Brokmeyer retreated deep into the Missouri woods with a gun, a dog and a copy of “Science of Logic,” a philosophical text by Georg Hegel. Alone with Hegel’s thoughts over the next two years, Brokmeyer became convinced that this abstruse work by a German 25 years dead could save the nation from the very divisions about to lead it into civil war. It didn’t, of course, and Missouri, a border state, would not escape a gruesome guerrilla war. But a decade later, Brokmeyer and a friend named William Torrey Harris convinced the elite of St. Louis that Hegel’s work was central to the recovery of their country, their city and their own lives. The Civil War, Brokmeyer said, was part of a dialectical process. In what turned out to be one of the oddest episodes in the history of American thought, a group of men known as the St. Louis Hegelians declared that the direction of history led to eastern Missouri.

Brokmeyer sold a warped Hegelianism just flattering enough to believe: History had a direction. That direction was west, from Europe to the United States. History would unfold in the direction of a world-historical city, culminating in a flowering of freedom under a rational state. While Hegel had assumed Europe to be the place to which all of history pointed — when he said “west,” he meant from Asia to Europe — Brokmeyer said history would keep on rolling across the Atlantic, toward the biggest American city west of the Mississippi: St. Louis.  

Read the rest here.