Imagination

I can imagine how a house empty of noises would generate ghosts.

I can imagine how a community absent love would generate fear.

See the shadow of a flag blowing restlessly

In the brisk Thanksgiving breeze.

It is a phantom.

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Thanksgiving

I could imagine ending up in a small New England town where stone
Walls crisscross the forest and dissect the
Fields. Like ants they wander searchingly tuned
To some personal frequency hearing some otherwise unheralded calls.

Of a day I would follow till it petered
Out in a trickling stream and wetted my shoe in the
Cold November air.

Boggy leaves would soak at the bottom of the hill and bright
Sun stream sideways from above. And in a chilly instant I would
Raise my face to the sky and think

Here’s to the ancient feet that treaded and tilled
This earth till not all elsewheres were equal upon it.

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Forewords

How much of your story must you know already to write its opening lines? 

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.”

A line like this contains so much that it is as if the whole thing has been written already. Did Dostoevsky know that? Did he know about the scene where the narrator surreptitiously bumps into his adversary on the street and then holds a grudge about it for days? Did he understand the way the phenomenon of laceration would prevail throughout? Did he know the ending would go on forever? Or consider:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

An opening line like that is a gut punch. It is hard to recover from a line like that. I refused to read the rest of that essay for many years because I found its opening line so difficult. But did Camus know how the essay would go on from there when he wrote it? Did he see the man on the phone behind the glass performing his dumb show? Did he understand the central role of the phenomenon of absurdity? Did he see the ending with Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill?

It is not a mere game to ask these questions. They are serious, perhaps the most serious. For a good opening line already contains its ending within it. When one has finished the story one must be drawn inevitably back to the opening line and it must reinvent itself before your very eyes as the beginning that already foreshadowed its inevitable conclusion. But how does one write a line like that? Some opening lines, I am sure, are written very close to the end of the project. Others are the inspiration that generate their completion. What is the process that elicits an opening line?

In short, How does one start if to start is already to have finished?

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A Genealogy of Redemption

I was honored to be interviewed recently by Charlie Taben of the American Philosophical Association about my forthcoming book with Harvard University Press, The Proper Dignity of Human Being. My contribution to the interview ended up being a kind of extended essay, which the APA published in two parts. Part I went up last week and Part II went up just this afternoon. They gave the whole thing a cool title: “A Genealogy of Redemption in the Western Tradition.” I’d love to know what you think! Please leave comments either here or at the APA site itself; or even both!

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Lex Fridman Interview

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down to be interviewed by Lex Fridman, a former MIT roboticist and current podcaster. The interview went on for almost three hours without a break, and it is a testament to Lex’s skills as an interviewer that I never once wanted to stop. The conversation was primarily about Existentialism, Nihilism, and the Search for Meaning, although we did talk a little bit about AI at the end. If you haven’t seen it already, you can find the interview on Youtube here.

I found the interview/discussion format to be both fun and rewarding, and I am considering looking for other ways to have more public events of that sort. I am spending a lot of time writing nowadays, and I’m really looking forward to sharing some of that. But there’s something about the way that philosophy thrives in conversation. Anyhow, if you have ideas about whether that’s a good idea, and if so what way to pursue it, let me know!

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The Comfort College?

I’m not a fan of certain narrow interpretations of the claim that human beings are the rational animal. In at least one form that I find objectionable, the claim builds too closely upon a scholastic account of God’s perfection that takes it to lie primarily in his activity. Insofar as our own rationality is intended to be a reflection (albeit finite and imperfect) of this aspect of God’s infinite goodness, it seems to me to highlight too much the idea that our activity makes us who we are. This is at best an incomplete account. Furthermore, if taken in its intended sense, it leads too easily to the idea that our proper aim is actively to manage and control the world. Both Heidegger and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School like Horkheimer and Adorno, for all their differences, agree that this is a dangerous aspect of our Enlightenment heritage.

That said, it is one thing to criticize the rational animal account of human beings, and another thing entirely to criticize the practice of rational discourse itself. Continue reading

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Being One’s Own: Heidegger and the Enlightenment

The notion of authenticity, of being one’s own, is central to Heidegger’s early work. Division II of Being and Time, for instance, is devoted primarily to spelling out what it would be for Dasein to be authentic. Whatever the details of this notion in Heidegger, it seems to have roots in, or at least to bear some similarity with, Judeo-Christian notions of the self. The verbal similarities, at any rate, are clear. Continue reading

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Politics and Philosophy

I want to talk about another aspect of the project I’m working on, one that makes it particularly difficult. Martin Heidegger was a schmuck. I use this term in a non-technical sense, but I hope it gives the appropriate impression. I am referring, of course, perhaps among other defects, to Heidegger’s commitment to Nazism. It is a natural question – one that has been pressed upon me a number of times recently by a number of people I respect – whether someone of such evidently poor judgment, or worse, can be relied upon to say anything worthwhile about the proper dignity of human being. Why write a book on that topic in particular, one might wonder, through the lens of Martin Heidegger’s work? Continue reading

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Ontological gratitude (and disjunctivism too)

There continues to be an incredibly interesting conversation happening in the comment section of my last post. I want to highlight one aspect of it here. Commenter dmf has identified a tricky and complicated issue about the circumstances under which it is appropriate to feel grateful for having been given a decision. Dmf has also pointed out that this issue is tied to a similar concern that was raised before about ATS. The issues here are subtle and important. Let me see if I can say something about what’s going on. Continue reading

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How do you make a decision?

There’s a discussion that Terence Blake and I are having in the comments section for this post that I find fascinating. Terence is an Australian philosopher, living in France, who knows tons about contemporary European philosophy. I’m always grateful to him for putting my project, and Bert’s project, in the context of the work that high profile French philosophers are now pursuing. But one downside of this conversation between two philosophers is that it may seem to some non-philosophers as though it is happening in code. I fully believe that the things we are talking about are rooted in everyday phenomena that anyone should be able to recognize if they think about their own experiences carefully enough. It’s one of my firmest beliefs about philosophy that at its core it ought not only to be accessible to everyone, but it ought to enrich and enliven your understanding of yourself and your own existence. So let me try to talk about the phenomena Terence and I are discussing in a different, more colloquial context. One way to approach these issues is to ask a basic question: How do you make a decision? Continue reading

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