Saturday, October 14, 2017

From Valuing to Monetized (From Poets to the Sonnetized)

"... man designated himself as the being who measures values, who values and measures, as the ‘calculating animal as such’."
-- Nietzsche from Genealogy of Morals

If humans can be called the value creating animal, then we limit our humanity when we limit the ways by which we define and assign value. Limiting value to quantification limits our humanity to numbers. When those numbers become more and more often attached to money, we more and more become monetary animals. (Humanity is monetizing.)

It could be said of Heidegger's later philosophy that he sees man as the poetic animal. What happens when values become monetized is like what would happen if we said to a follower of Heidegger's later thought that poetry is limited to sonnet writing. Humans become the sonnet writing animal. (Humanity is sonnetizing.) It is an absurd limit.

Yet, we so often go along with the quantification and monetization of everything around us, and of ourselves, without taking more than a passing notice of it, and rarely ever do we deeply consider what it means or does to us. The less we think over this monetization of everything, the more we shift from being a monetary animal to a monetized animal.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Only Way Forward May Be A Few Steps Back

Before the gun control debate goes any deeper into a Republican vs. Democrat hate-fest, let's not forget that the Democrats had control of the House, Senate and White House for the first two years of Obama's presidency. During that time they couldn't pass (and I don't think they even voted on) what many would call 'common sense' gun control like closing the gun show loophole and reinstating the assault weapon ban.

I say this not to defend Republicans or to attack Democrats but to point out the possibility that we can't even agree on what common sense means. Things keep on being called common sense (which is really just a way of saying that they are obvious or agreeable to most people), yet they can't be agreed upon or put into action. We have no common ground to start from, and therefore no common sense. There is no common sense that is common to the different sides. Most often, what we call 'common sense' is merely what the people who agree with us can agree on.

Yes, the NRA plays a role in things not getting passed, but at least part of the reason they have such power is that we don't go beyond our own groups 'common sense' which gives more power to sound bites, memes and emotional appeals. When facts are used, there is no common agreement on what makes up a valid fact, so it is easy to tear apart facts as nothing but propaganda or misinformation.

Instead of trying to find common ground, and through that a common sense that is shared, we argue with facts that are seen as valid by only one side; memes and sound bites that are based on assumptions and emotions that are not held in common; and blatant emotional appeals that lose their force as soon as the latest tragedy falls into the background. All of these things only work to divide. This division makes finding a common solution harder and leaves us more vulnerable to getting manipulated into being upset while we sit and get nothing substantial done.

Mass shootings are a real problem just like racism, police shootings, health care and other big issues that America is struggling with. Day after day, it seems less likely to me that these can be dealt directly because there is no common ground and therefore no common sense, on which to rely. In the absence of common ground and real common sense, we resort to methods that divide and push any solution further and further away.

It is way past time to step back from the superficiality of the current discourse (and the 'common sense' that is only shared by those that already agree with us) and dig into deep conversations that won't lead to action or even agreement on the issues, but could lead to understanding on where common ground can be found and how a real common sense can be roughly defined.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

No Mere Facts

“The greatness and superiority of natural science during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rests in the fact that all the scientists were philosophers. They understood that there are no mere facts, but that a fact is only what it is in the light of the fundamental conception, and always depends upon how far that conception reaches. The characteristic of positivism—which is where we have been for decades, today more than ever—by way of contrast is that it thinks is can manage sufficiently with facts, or other and new facts, while concepts are merely expedients that one somehow needs but should not get too involved with, since that would be philosophy. Furthermore, the comedy—or rather tragedy—of the present situation of science is that one thinks to overcome positivism though positivism.”

-- Martin Heidegger from Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics 

And the positivistic-scientific mentality has colonized the idea of rationality and logic in general. We look to facts and more simply numbers to solve all problems and end all debates. This has lead us to throw facts and numbers at each other incessantly (when we are not going so low as to make our arguments out of purely emotional appeals or fill them with logical fallacies). We use and abuse facts and numbers with little knowledge or even care of the context, history or origin of them. We don’t bother to know what they mean beyond what they can do to prove us right.

That is precisely why we don't need more STEM and we need more humanities. We especially need philosophy and history that are taught as more than a survey of events and dates portrayed as self-evident facts. We need to stop trying to overcome the shortcomings of data and facts with more data and facts. We need to think about context and meaning. This is done by the humanities, and we can’t do so without proper exposure to important ideas from the history of philosophy and understanding of philosophic methods. I am not saying that the answers will be found in the philosophers of the past, though they may be. What I am saying is that without the ability to think philosophically and an understanding of the history of ideas and terms that come from philosophy, we will not be able to address the problems of awareness of context and definition of concepts that are necessary for us to understand how facts come to be and what they mean.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Why I Dislike the Oxford Comma

The reason I dislike the Oxford comma is that it is unnecessary. Yes, it is often argued that the Oxford comma helps clear up possibly confusing or ambiguous phrases. That is fine, but is it necessary to use the comma to do that? Or are there other ways? I contend that there are other ways that are more clear and decisive.

One example is that an Oxford comma will clear up whether a phrase is a non-restrictive clause with two parts connected by a conjunction or it is the last two items in a list of three. For example if you were to write: I went to the store with my brother, a friend and fellow classmate.

It is unclear whether you are going to the store with your brother or with your brother and two other people. Is your brother a friend and classmate? In this case what comes after the comma is not the continuation of a list but a non-restrictive clause further describing your brother. Or, did you go to the store with your brother and two other people, a friend and classmate?

In the first case, you can easily add a couple of words to the sentence to clear up the possible confusion: I went to the store with my brother, who is a friend and fellow classmate. Or you can always use a colon to introduce the additional information about your brother. That would look like the next sentence. I went to the store with my brother: a friend and fellow classmate. These are very easy ways to clean up the meaning without having to add a comma.

In the second case, you shouldn't have to add anything. If we stick to the rule that there should not be a comma before the conjunction, it is clear what the meaning is. The conjunction connects the last two items in the list and a second connector, a comma, is not necessary. If you really want to make it clear, you can rephrase like this:  I went to the store with my brother as well as a friend and a fellow classmate. We can also rearrange the items in the list to make it clear:  I went to the store with a friend, a fellow classmate and my brother. In fact, if an Oxford comma was added to the last version of the sentence it would open the possibility of another misunderstanding. The following could mean that you are simply explaining that the friend is also a classmate: I went to the store with a friend, a fellow classmate, and my brother. Putting two commas around something is one way to signal that it is a non-restrictive clause. In these cases, using the Oxford comma can create just as much confusion as it is supposed to avoid.

There is another reason I resist adding a comma to connect items in a list when there is already a conjunction there. I do it because the comma followed by a conjunction is a convenient way to signal that you are connecting more than just items in a list. The comma with conjunction combination is used to connect two independent clauses; it signals the shift from one set of subjects and predicates to another. You should know when you see a comma and conjunction that you are moving from one independent clause to the next. This is a very useful thing to signal when writing with longer and complex sentences that try to express more complex ideas and the relationships between them. 

A second common reason given for the necessity of the Oxford comma is to help clarify complex lists or lists with items that contain a conjunction. I understand that lists can get complex and confusing sometimes, but we already have a punctuation mark that is supposed to be used in those cases: the semicolon. While the comma has many different uses (at least 5 different categories of use), the semicolon has three, maybe four. One of them is specifically to reduce confusion in complex lists.

The following may be confusing: I packed my lunch box with an apple, some yogurt and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or it may be phrased like this: I packed an apple, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some yogurt for lunch. In my opinion the best way this can be clarified is by using a semicolon: I packed an apple; a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; and some yogurt for lunch. I know people will say that that looks intimidating, but it is only so because we have never done a good job teaching people what semicolons are for. I think this is exactly the kind of thing they are for, and they should be used in this situation instead of dragging the comma in to play yet another role.

To me, the Oxford comma is like using a screwdriver to pry things open or cut things when we have a wedge, crowbar, chisel and small saw in the tool box already. It may work well enough, but that is not what the comma was really made for and there are other things made just to do those things already. We should teach and encourage people to recognize and use the right tools, not expand the use of one that is already overused.

There are options to clearing up possible confusion and ambiguity without the use of the Oxford comma. We can add words to the sentence to clarify the meaning. We can use a colon or semicolon to clarify the meaning. We can re-arrange the sentence to make it clear. I see no reason why we need to add another use to the comma, which is already used in so many different ways.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Common Sense and Truth (The Incompatible)

"Common sense has its own necessity; it asserts its rights with the weapon peculiarly suitable to it, namely, appeal to the 'obviousness' of its claims and considerations. However, philosophy can never refute common sense, for the latter is deaf to the language of philosophy. Nor may it even wish to do so, since common sense is blind to what philosophy sets before its essential vision."
--Martin Heidegger from On the Essence of Truth

Common sense is concerned with what is obvious and what is today. Both of these get in the way of any sort of philosophical discussion and of finding what is true. The truth is by nature below the surface and the result of many conflicting influences and forces. Truth takes time and a stepping back in order to be discovered. When looking for what is common and obvious, you avoid what is below the surface, what is complex and things that take time or perspective to understand.

Something that is presented as obviously true should be taken with suspicion. That it presents itself as obvious means that it is likely only superficial and/or simple, and the true is never superficial and seldom simple. The correct maybe superficial, but the true should not be. The correct may point towards the true, but going from the correct to the true means leaving behind the obvious and the simple.

An 'obvious truth' is the product of common sense; it may be correct, but there is a world of difference between the correct and the true.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Respect for the Anthem and Respect for Each Other

Trump says that the NFL anthem row is not about race. For him it isn't. For him, it seems, no matter your race, as long as you are an American, you should stand with other Americans in respect when the anthem is played. For him the anthem and respect for it is not about race and shouldn't be made about race. Other people made it about race and he refuses to assent to that.

I tend to agree with that and wish more people would. We should not make the anthem something political or controversial. We should all stand and respect it. After that we can use that as common ground for holding a respectful discussion about our differences. At that point hopefully we can all recognize and respect that we are all Americans that respect our country despite our differences and complaints. Because we have that in common, we should be able to give each other respect as we discuss our differences. For me it isn't about the military, the history or anything like that. It is about finding common ground to start from. I wish more people would see it that way, but they don't.

I think what Colin Kaepernick did was disrespectful. It was disrespectful to the promise and hope of what America tries to be even if it fails to achieve it. It was disrespectful to the thing that holds America together as a country: that promise and idealism expressed in our founding documents. These are more important in the US than many other countries because we don't have a common ethnic or national background. The nation--the common ethnic, cultural or national background that the people share--is the foundation of many modern countries. The modern idea of a country is based largely on the idea of the nation/state. America doesn't have a nation in that sense; we have the political ideals expressed in our documents and traditions (even if we have yet to fully live up to them) and we have common economic interests. Those are really the things that have held us together as a country. The anthem and the flag are symbols of those things, or that is how I have always understood them.

If Colin Kaepernick felt he had to do sit or kneel during the anthem to get attention so people would listen to his opinion on race, that is too bad. There should be a better way. Maybe there isn't; that is water under the bridge now. The fact is, he did it. Instead of taking the respectful route after that, both sides just started flinging insults and accusations. What would have been the respectful route? Asking him to sit down and talk about his concerns so he felt he was being heard, so he didn't feel like he had to do it again. That also means that he would have to be respectful and patience in expecting action and change before he would go on upsetting people again. Instead of taking a respectful path at any point between then and now, we have pretty consistently done the opposite, or just held our tongues. The bigger problem is that too many people these days just revel in getting offended and offending others. It is a pastime now and a very vicious one at that.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Gems from Benjamin and Camus

Over the past year there was much talk of Orwell's 1984 and the importance of reading it again to be aware of Big Brother, totalitarianism, newspeak, doublespeak, etc. There was also a lot of talk about being on the right side of history. While these are interesting, I think they are pretty superficial ways to approach what is going on these days: reactionary, over reactions and polemics. 
I have been going back to Camus's The Plague and Benjamin's Theses On History. Neither are easy texts to understand: neither the texts themselves nor the ideas they bring up. But I think that is why they are more relevant these days than 1984 or appeals to 'the right side of history.

Here are a couple gems I have pulled from each of them that I keep running over in my head.

“There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”

“The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”
-- Walter Benjamin from Theses on History

“But though a war may well be 'too stupid,' that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.”

“None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers…. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years… and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
-- Albert Camus from The Plague