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In a recent interview over at The Philosopher’s Magazine, Nigel Warburton, co-presenter of Philosophy Bites, the wildly successful philosophy podcast, riffs on his experiments in public philosophy, the problems plaguing philosophical research, and his recent decision to leave academia.  The success of his podcast is proof positive that there is a hunger for philosophy in the publicyber space.  Excerpts below.

The surprising success of the podcast:

The initial thought was that mainly philosophy students and lecturers might take an interest, but he’s heard from American listeners with time to kill on long drives, people waiting out wildfires in Australia, and soldiers in Afghanistan concerned about ethics. When I ask for details over email, Warburton sends me a list of 40 countries, all with more than 10,000 downloads each, some with vastly many more, millions more in some cases. Just after the usual English-speaking suspects, China checks in at number five. The United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Taiwan, Iran and Indonesia make the list. Several spin off series, two books (and a third in the pipeline), more than 250 interviews and an alarming 16.7 million downloads later, and Philosophy Bites is an international philosophy phenomenon.

Warburton explains that he is leaving his secure position at Open University largely because of the dominance in academia of what he calls “crossword puzzle philosophy” (essentially, what Daniel Dennett has deemed “chmess“):

“Philosophers today have mostly got their heads down. They’re concerned with writing for a journal which will publish work that takes them two or three years, and only five people will read it. These are people who could be contributing to something that’s incredibly important. Gay marriage is just one example of many. I don’t think philosophers responded particularly well to 9/11. Issues about free expression, all over the world, are not just academic. They’re matters of life and death. There are exceptions, but philosophers are by and large more interested in getting a paper in Mind or Analysis than they are in commenting on the major political events of our time.”

On philosophical “research”:

I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that?…  It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did…  Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

One is hard-pressed to disagree with a straight face.  As someone who has been on the job market for a couple of years, I always inwardly cringe when I am asked to explain my “research” to a search committee or a dean.  In a formal sense, research is something that a scientist does in a lab or in the field:  designing and conducting experiments, collecting and interpreting data, and the like.  In an informal sense, it means doing your homework–gathering relevant information–before a meeting, an interview, etc.  Philosophical writing, for the most part, is not research:  it is reading articles and books, thinking about them and the subjects concerned, and then writing what one thinks about them.  Exceptions could arguably be made for “experimental philosophy” and branches of philosophy in dialogue with the sciences, such as philosophy of mind or biology, but for the most part, I think it’s a category mistake to think of the reading and writing of philosophy as “research.”  We might view today’s philosophical “research,” largely a consequence of the rise of analytic philosophy and “science envy,” as a new form of scholasticism, a defensive, conservative crouch destined to be consumed by the coming Avalanche (more on this, Higher Education’s equivalent of the Singularity, later…) (I hasten to add, however, that analytic thought, at its best, provides a needed check against the scholastic excesses, verbosity, and sheer fictioneering of much Continental thought.).

Despite the coming storm, Warburton is ultimately optimistic about the fate of philosophy:

“Because of changes in online teaching, in the next ten years, the university system will be turned on its head. If Philosophy Bites can make such an impact with two guys with a hard disk recorder and a couple of laptops, think what people who fully understand the new technology, who can write code, who can employ the best philosophical communicators around, think what they could produce. It’s only just starting. We’re going to see dramatic changes to how we learn, teach, do research and share ideas. I think philosophy’s future’s very bright.”

I asked two days ago what, in light of Leon Wieseltier’s view that philosophy these days only “tweaks and tinkers,” an alternative might look like.  Philosophy Bites seems to be a solid step in the right direction.

(image courtesy of Philosophy Bites)

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In his famous Allegory of the Cave, Plato inquires into “our nature as it concerns education.”  These days, education is a hot-button issue, and with good reason:  from concerns over “teaching to the test” in elementary school, to deficits in basic reading and writing skills, to skyrocketing tuition and crushing student loans, to the corporatizing of the university, to the rise of online education–education is in a state of dysfunction, disrepair, and decline. Indeed, the title of the most popular recent documentary on education is apt:  “Waiting for Superman.”

These problems raise questions about precisely what education is for, what it means, and in what it consists.  Why is education such a difficult problem in American life?  In modern life?  In life itself?

Please join us as we delve into these and other thorny questions!

RVSP

A belated thanks to all those who took part in our second Socrates Café a couple weekends ago.  This time we had a smaller group and a somewhat more intimate discussion that centered on the effects technology is having on our everyday lives and innermost minds.  Our conversation ranged over a swath of issues:  the positives and negatives of social media, the incentives for children to approach relationships transactionally, digital reflexes, boredom, distraction, online dating, and more.

We also got a couple suggestions for how to improve the event:

-Distribute a short reading to the group beforehand that touches on the topic at hand, so that everyone has a common base to launch from

-Tilt more toward divisive or at least controversial issues in order to spark more spirited debate and avoid a bland consensus

-Recommend some additional philosophical literature on the subject

I will keep these in mind in planning for the next event, but per the last suggestion, I want to post a few readings for those who’d like to learn more:

1)  Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”.  Heidegger’s classic essay on technology is noteworthy for his (at first) strange thesis that the question concerning technology is not technological.  That is, technology is not really “the stuff”–the computers, iPhones, planes, trains, and automobiles–but rather a way of seeing, knowing, disclosing the world:  it is a way the world is presented to us.  It is not a purely human artifice, but one-dimension of the world that, in the modern age, has been blown out of proportion such that it crowds out and obscures other modes of appearance.  While not intrinsically an evil or a negative force in our lives, the danger with technology is that we will come to see ourselves in terms of it; that, as Emerson put it, “things are in the saddle, and ride us,” such that we forfeit our freedom and humanity in our attempt to gain control over our lives.

2) C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man”.  Following up on the last point, Lewis questions the long-term goal of modern secular humanism and the modern scientific research project–which, he argues, is to gain total control not just over nature, but over human nature.  The danger is that, in such a world, our only polestars for what counts as progress are our desires–our instincts–rather than some transcendent moral order, such as the Tao, Natural Law, God.  As such, Lewis concludes that, in our attempt to use technology as, in Freud’s phrase, a “prosthetic God,” our victories over nature are really nature’s victories over us.

3)  Ray Kurzweil, “The Singularity is Near”.  Kurzweil is the intellectual prophet of Silicon Valley.  A distinguished and brilliant scientist, his radical views on the telos of technology can be roughly distilled into the following equation:  Hegel + evolution + technology + the Matrix = the cosmos.  Put differently, technology is the continuation of evolution by other means, and technology is developing at an accelerating rate.  Soon, with the birth of AI, evolution will reach a new stage, and the changes that will be wrought not just in human life but in the universe are so disruptive and unimaginable that this singularity is like an eschaton, a point of no return, the edge of a black hole–what lies on the other side is inconceivable from our present standpoint.  But Kurzweil insists it is good.

4)  Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget”.  A scion of Silicon Valley , Lanier, plays the puckish trickster to the pantheon of Gates, Jobs, and Zuck.  In this polemical text, he argues that the internet and digital technology is gradually corroding the human spirit and dealing away our dignity, one click at a time.  Like Heidegger, he fears the ways that technology warps our minds and constricts our engagement with others and the world around us, offering up a form of false consciousness in which he imagine we are free and following our heart’s desire, a state he calls “digital Maoism.”

Finally, I encourage everyone to visit TED.com (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), which contains a cornucopia of short talks on tech.

If you have any recommendations, please post them here and/or on MeetUp!

I will be in touch soon about our next MeetUp, which will be in late February.  I plan to lock down a more commodious venue.

 

 

Please join us for our second MeetUp!  RVSP

Our topic:  “What is technology doing to our society?”  Digital technology is rapidly and radically changing just about everything we do.  As Emerson said, “things are in the saddle, and ride us.”  Whether we see this spreading as a wildfire, a disease, or a wave of freedom–or as just really cool–I think we can all agree that its simply a fascinating phenomenon.  How are different technologies–medical, transportation, communication, information–changing our lives, for better or worse?

Please come join us for a Sunday afternoon of collective inquiry!

If you’d like to learn more, check out my website at http://www.davidestorey.com

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~David

*If you plan to attend, please be sure to patronize our generous host, Sit and Wonder Café.

**If you would like to suggest discussion topics, please let me know.

***Space is limited.  I am exploring an alternative venue that can accommodate more members of our growing group.  Stay tuned!

Thanks to all those who attended our first Socrates Café Brooklyn, “What is Success?”  It was a real pleasure meeting all of you, hearing your stories and struggles, and peeling back the veneer of our conventional views on success to try and approach the heart of the matter.  I think we often fail to realize the power and importance of throwing ourselves into dialogue with people from different walks of life and suspending, if only for a few minutes or a couple of hours, our basic assumptions about ourselves, our trajectory in life, and our view of the world.  It is not easy–indeed, in our discussion, we hit a few bumps in the road and the engine stalled a few times; but confusion is the crucible of a higher, deeper, rounder form of consciousness.  And we had some unpleasant exchanges; it became clear pretty quickly that the philosophical is the personal.  But overall, I think we had a good first showing and I look forward to our next meeting in January.

Some highlights from our discussion:

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David E. Storey

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