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Sartre and freedom

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Gary Cox, author of Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre, discusses https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/jean-paul-sartre-cox-demands-freedom/ Sartre and the demands of freedom:

Conscripted at the start of the Second World War, Sartre was taken prisoner by the German advance of 1940. He may have been released on medical grounds, he may have escaped, but by spring 1941 he was back in Paris where he founded the resistance movement Socialism and Freedom. All this time, invigorated by the war, he had been writing his major work, Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology, published in 1943.

Often called "the bible of existentialism", this dense 650-page book was the extraordinary distillation of everything his monumental intellect had read, written, considered, experienced and discussed for more than twenty years. Today it is part of the canon of Western philosophy.

"Sartre's question in Being and Nothingness", Cox continues, "is the same as that of his major influences, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger: what is consciousness?"

What is the nature of a being that has and is a relationship to the world, that is an awareness or consciousness of the world and which acts upon the world? Sartre's answer is that the only kind of being that can exist in this way is one that is, in itself, nothing; a being that is a negation, non-being or nothingness.

Following Husserl, Sartre argues that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Consciousness is not a thing in its own right but entirely a relationship to the world it is conscious of. This is the theory of intentionality. Consciousness always intends its object and is never merely a set of brain states.

"Existentialism," he writes, "is best known as a philosophy of freedom:"

Sartre argues that freedom is limitless. This is often misunderstood. He does not mean we are free to jump to the moon, or that we can radically re-invent ourselves from scratch at any moment - but rather that there is no limit to our obligation to choose who we are through what we do or not do. This is what he means when he says we are "Condemned to be free". [...]

Post-war, Sartre developed his existentialism in an increasingly political direction. He placed his existentialist theory of the individual at the heart of the Marxist theory of the historically defined collective.

In Salon, Jay Parini writes that "a key moment" for him was "reading an article in the New York Review of Books that caught my eye. It was 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals,' written by Noam Chomsky:"

Nothing was quite the same for me after reading that piece, which I've reread periodically throughout my life, finding things to challenge me each time. I always finish the essay feeling reawakened, aware that I've not done enough to make the world a better place by using whatever gifts I may have. Chomsky spurs me to more intense reading and thinking, driving me into action, which might take the form of writing an op-ed piece, joining a march or protest, sending money to a special cause, or just committing myself to further study a political issue.

"It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies," as Chomsky asserted. Parini continues:

Fifty years after writing "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," Chomsky remains vigorous and shockingly productive, and -- in the dawning age of President Donald Trump -- one can only hope he has a few more years left. In a recent interview, he said (with an intentional hyperbole that has always been a key weapon in his arsenal of rhetorical moves) that the election of Trump "placed total control of the government -- executive, Congress, the Supreme Court -- in the hands of the Republican Party, which has become the most dangerous organization in world history."

"As I reread Chomsky's essay on the responsibility of intellectuals," Parini concludes, "it strikes me forcefully that not one of us who has been trained to think critically and to write lucidly has the option to remain silent now:"

Too much is at stake, including the survival of some form of American democracy and decency itself, if not an entire ecosystem. With a dangerously ill-informed bully in the White House, a man almost immune to facts and rational thought, we who have training in critical thought and exposition must tirelessly call a spade a spade, a demagogue a demagogue. And the lies that emanate from the Trump administration must be patiently, insistently and thoroughly deconstructed. This is the responsibility of the intellectual, now more than ever.

Robert Zaretsky writes about French intellectuals for LARB:

"As Shlomo Sand suggests in his new book [La fin de l'intellectuel français? (The End of the French Intellectual?)], the French intellectual was never what he was cracked up to be."

"Sand devotes much energy," writes Zaretsky, "to scraping the mythic veneer off the heroic phase of French intellectuals:"

From these less than rarefied summits, the career of the French intellectual careens from one historical pothole to another. Consider Julien Benda's celebrated 1927 book-length essay La Trahison des clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). The veteran Dreyfusard lambasted those fellow "clercs" who, having descended from the heights of truth and justice, had become shills for political parties. True intellectuals, he declared, are immune to "political passions" and dedicated to a "realm not of this world." Finishing his days as a Communist fellow traveller, Benda himself never escaped this world's gravitational pull.

Most thinkers do not, but must we not still try?

PC philosophy?

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Scotty Hendricks wonders at BigThink whether philosophy has gotten PC:

Name a few philosophers. I'll wait. You probably named a few Greeks, maybe a German or two. More frequent readers may have included an Arab or a Persian. But can you name many, or even any, thinkers from Africa? How about South Asia? Can you name a non-white philosopher from the last century at all?

"Many people will say no," he continues, "and a group of students at a University of London college thinks that is a problem:"

The student union of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is requesting that a majority of philosophers studied at the college be of an Asian or African background at the expense of more commonly studied European philosophers.[...] Its desire to reduce the focus given to the mainstays of European philosophy has earned it the ire of many online news sources. However, the union raises a fair point. If students in a globalized world are going to understand the world they live in, should they not be armed with the ideas and philosophies of that world? Even at the cost of the traditional curriculum?

One needn't disparage Plato and Aristotle to recognize the value of Confucius and Lao Tzu, for example--merely recognize that texts written in non-Roman alphabets also have much to teach us.

Aeon's look at existentialism and parenthood by philosophy professors Clancy Martin and John Kaag begins with the statement that "male philosophers are notoriously bad fathers:"

Of course, there are exceptions, but think of Socrates shooing his family away in his final moments so that he can have alone time with his philosophical buddies, or, even worse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writing Emile (1762), a tract about raising kids, while abandoning his own. Instead of being bad parents, many of the titans of European existentialism - Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre - remained childless.

They suggest that we consider Sartre's comment that we are 'condemned to be free' and "pretend that an existentialist, after careful consideration or random accident, becomes a father:"

According to his essay Anti-Semite and Jew (1946), the core of existential freedom is what Sartre terms 'authenticity', the courage to have 'a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate'.

Here is what a 'true and lucid consciousness of the situation' of fatherhood might resemble: you watch wide-eyed as your beloved pushes a stranger out of a bodily orifice that seems altogether too small for the labour; when the gore is cleaned up, the stranger becomes your most intimate companion and life-long dependent; existence, from that day forward, is structured around this dependency; and then, if everything goes well, the child will grow up to no longer need you. At the end of the existential day, your tenure as a father will end in one of two ways: either your child will die or you will. As Kierkegaard writes in Either/Or (1843): 'You will regret both.'

"Most parents," they continue, "will want to gloss over the difficulties of parenting and concentrate on its many joys:"

Existentialists, however, suggest that such optimism is often a form of 'bad faith': it is a way of masking the freedom that underpins parenting and being a child. When a parent emphasises only what 'fits' into his conception of being a father, or being a child, rather than attending to the specific nuances of day-to-day interaction, existentialists, such as Sartre, would sound the alarm. Life with children is chaos at best. Things slip through the cracks. Daughters fall off jungle gyms. Sons run away. It happens, and not always to someone else's children. If a man presumes that fatherhood is going to go perfectly smoothly, he is either going to be upset or self-deceived.

"In the words of Albert Camus," they conclude, "our efforts in life, pitted against the indifference of the world, often resemble the frustrations of Sisyphus, who is fated to push his boulder up an endless mountain."

Mike LaBossiere's Trump and the return of Sophism looks at Trump mouthpiece Scottie Nell Hughes' take on truth from The Diane Rehm Show:

And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts--they're not really facts. Everybody has a way--it's kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

"Since the idea that there are no facts seems so ridiculously absurd," LaBossiere comments, "the principle of charity demands that some alternative explanation be provided for Hughes' claim:"

If Hughes takes the truth to be relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then she is a relativist. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If she holds truth to be dependent on the individual, then she would be a subjectivist. In this case, each person has her own truth, but she might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

This is something that "Trump showed with great effect. He simply accuses those who disagree with him of being liars and many believe him:"

I have no idea whether Trump has a theory of truth or not, but his approach is utterly consistent with sophism and the view expressed by Hughes. It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence--these assume there is a truth that can be found and supported. But if there is no objective truth and only success matters, then there is no reason not to say anything that leads to success.

Derek Parfit

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Vox eulogizes philosopher Derek Parfit:

Derek Parfit, who died at age 74 on Sunday evening, was not the most famous philosopher in the world. But he was among the most brilliant, and his papers and books have had a profound, incalculably vast impact on the study of moral philosophy over the past half century.

"Parfit was not a prolific author," the piece observes:

...he tended to write his books over the course of decades, refining them repeatedly after discussions with colleagues and students. In the end, he wrote only two: 1984's Reasons and Persons, and 2011's On What Matters, a two-volume, 1,440 page tome whose third volume is still yet to be published.

[The first two volumes of Parfit's opus On What Matters are available here, with a third volume due in March.]

As befits its title, Parfit's last and longest book On What Matters sprawled across a great variety of topics. It's broadly interested in what reasons people have to act in certain ways, or hold certain beliefs, or desire certain things. A lot of those questions have to do with morality, but some don't. Perhaps the greatest joy of reading it is spotting the occasional diversions, the odd moments here and there where he makes an aside from the main narrative, often concisely expressing what would take others of us pages and pages to articulate.

What I Believe

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Rhian Sasseen discusses EM Forster's defense of liberalism. Published some 77 years ago as "What I Believe," Fosters opens with the statement that "I do not believe in Belief." Sasseen wonders, "Where to begin, then, for those of us who still think that a fact is still a fact, an article of so-called "fake news" is better branded as a piece of propaganda?"

Outlets like Breitbart, InfoWars, Russia Today, and other luridly-named websites peddle conspiracy theories and half-truths that in another era might be more easily fact checked; today, they pile up too quickly on the evanescence that is the internet, as overwhelming and as momentary as a cloud of smoke. In this particular age of belief, dependent as it is on the digital, it seems as appropriate a time as any to turn to an artist from an earlier age for guidance.

Foster's commentaries, writes Sasseen, "offer a defense of liberalism during a time of shifting extremes and ideologies that feels startlingly relevant to this 21st century American"

And in "What I Believe," there's a clear appreciation and love for humans, despite our foibles and inconsistencies, which rings true even in today's smoke and mirrors world of online trolling.

Forster's essay "What I Believe" was published in Two Cheers for Democracy. It begins thus:

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long. But for the moment they are not enough, their action is no stronger than a flower, battered beneath a military jackboot. [...] My law-givers are Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St Paul. My temple stands not upon Mount Moriah but in that Elysian Field where even the immoral are admitted. My motto is : "Lord, I disbelieve - help thou my unbelief.

"Where do I start?" he wonders:

With personal relationships. Here is something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty. [...] I distrust Great Men. They produce a desert of uniformity around them and often a pool of blood too, and I always feel a little man's pleasure when they come a cropper.

"I believe in aristocracy, though - if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it," he continues:

Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names.

This observation surely cost him some accolades:

I cannot believe that Christianity will ever cope with the present world-wide mess, and I think that such influence as it retains in modern society is due to the money behind it, rather than to its spiritual appeal.

If you're unfamiliar with Foster's essay, it's worth a read.

lil' philosophers

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Quartz reports that teaching philosophy to kids improves their math and English scores:

More than 3,000 kids in 48 schools across England participated in weekly discussions about concepts such as truth, justice, friendship, and knowledge, with time carved out for silent reflection, question making, question airing, and building on one another's thoughts and ideas.

Kids who took the course increased math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching, even though the course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds saw an even bigger leap in performance: reading skills increased by four months, math by three months, and writing by two months. Teachers also reported a beneficial impact on students' confidence and ability to listen to others.

The Education Endowment Foundation's Philosophy for Children program comments that "The project does not aim to teach children philosophy; instead it equips them to 'do' philosophy for themselves:"

SAPERE [Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education]'s program does not focus on reading the texts of Plato and Kant, but rather stories, poems, or film clips that prompt discussions about philosophical issues. The goal is to help children reason, formulate and ask questions, engage in constructive conversation, and develop arguments.

The report "Philosophy for Children: Evaluation report and Executive summary" (PDF) notes that "Philosophy for Children (P4C) is an approach to teaching in which students participate in group dialogues focused on philosophical issues:"

Dialogues are prompted by a stimulus (for example, a story or a video) and are based around a concept such as 'truth', 'fairness' or 'bullying'. The aim of P4C is to help children become more willing and able to ask questions, construct arguments, and engage in reasoned discussion.

Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle teach in the department of philosophy and religion and the University of North Texas. They are co-authors of the forthcoming Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy, claim that philosophy has lost its way ever since "the locating of philosophy within a modern institution (the research university) in the late 19th century:"

This institutionalization of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy.

Take this simple detail: Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere -- serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were "serious" thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.

Philosophy, then, as the French thinker Bruno Latour would have it, was "purified" -- separated from society in the process of modernization.

"This was the act of purification," they write, "that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today:"

As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns.

"Philosophy should never have been purified," they conclude.

Jonathan Rée's look at the dream of enlightenment via Anthony Gottlieb's 2000 book The Dream of Reason, (described as "a brilliant retelling of the story of ancient Greek philosophy") and his recent work The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy ("which picks up the story with Descartes and carries it forward to the beginnings of the French Revolution") is rather pessimistic about the situation:

There was a time when every self-respecting egghead had to keep up with the latest developments in philosophy; not any more. Today's intellectuals, if they do not ignore philosophy entirely, can content themselves with reading one or two books about its past. Hundreds of histories of philosophy are available, and they are all much the same: they tell the same basic story, with the same cast of leading characters.

Open Culture discusses Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (1938), wherein:

... the stricken protagonist Antoine Roquentin cures his existential horror and sickness with jazz--specifically with an old recording of the song "Some of These Days." Which recording? We do not know. "I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date," writes critic Ted Gioia in a newly published essay, "I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst."

Ted Gioia''s fractious fiction piece calls Sartre "the last writer to reach the highest levels of success as both philosophy and literature," and comments that "as a longtime jazz lover, I am secretly pleased at the cure for the existential nausea:"

Sartre called jazz "the music of the future" and made an effort to get to know Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and listen to John Coltrane. His writings on the subject are more atmospheric than analytical, but it is likely that Sartre saw jazz as the musical manifestation of the existential freedom he described in his philosophical texts. Jazz musicians, he once explained, are "speaking to the best part of you, the toughest, the freest."

Gioia wonders about the possibility that "perhaps jazz does cure existential angst:"

Maybe it delivers more value for money than a trip to the psychiatrist's couch or the latest advertised chemical cure for your woes. In our current age, when people are increasingly looking for alternative treatments, here's one that can be had for a song.

Sartre's "I Discovered Jazz in America" calls jazz our "national pastime:"

At Nick's bar, in New York, the national pastime is presented. Which means that one sits in a smoke-filled hall among sailors, longshoremen, chippies, society women. Tables, booths. No one speaks. [...] No one speaks, no one moves, the jazz holds forth. From ten o'clock to three in the morning the jazz holds forth. [...]

They are speaking to the best part of you, to the toughest, to the freest, to the part which wants neither melody nor refrain, but the deafening climax of the moment. [...] You will leave a little worn out, a little drunk, but with a kind of dejected calm, like the aftermath of a great nervous exhaustion.

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