Philosophy for Lunch

October 26, 2017 —Thursday
Schmitt Hall, Room 104 
Topic: Are We All Hedonists?

Hedonists believe that we increase our well-being by seeking and maximizing pleasure. Critics of hedonism maintain that the hedonist conception of the good life gives short shrift to our humanity. If you tend to be critical of hedonism, you may be surprised by the way in which hedonists integrate goods such as knowledge and friendship into their view of a good life. We'll read and discuss passages by some contemporary and ancient hedonist philosophers and some critics. (Roholt)

What is P4L?
Students and professors close-read and discuss a few great passages of philosophy.

Who's invited?
No preparation or previous knowledge of philosophy is needed. Everyone is welcome!

Should I bring anything?
Bring a beverage, and if you're hungry, bring your actual lunch.

Past Philosophy for Lunch Sessions

October 19, 2017 - Political Animals: Neither Beasts nor Gods
Aristotle argues that human beings are the most aggregative kind of animal: we are political animals—zoon politikon. We have a natural impulse, as well as a natural aptitude, to live together as city-state or polis. Aristotle even goes as far to say that a life lived outside a polis is not fully human, and that anyone who does not need a polis is “either a beast or a god.” This week, we will read passages from Aristotle’s Politics in order to understand the reasoning that Aristotle employs to support these conclusions, and go on to think critically about the consequences of naturalizing politics in this way. (Robison)

October 12, 2017 - Thought Experiments Under the Microscope
Are experiments that aren't done — or are impossible to do — legitimate tools of science?  Can we really learn facts about the natural world, without measurements or observations actually being performed?  We'll read some analysis from Robert Brown to see if we can understand what thought experiments are, and how they might work. (McDermid)

October 5, 2017 - Self-Knowledge
Can you know your self? What do you find when you focus your attention inward toward your self or toward your own mind? We will read and discuss key passages by David Hume, who believed that we do not experience a self: “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself...”

September 28, 2017 - What Are Plato's Forms?
What do philosophers come to know in their search for knowledge? Answer: the Forms (according to Plato). There is a Form of Justice, a Form of Beauty, and even a Form of Chair-ness. What is a Form? Here are a few hints: Plato maintained that the Forms are perfect, mind-independent, knowable only through thought, and non-physical.

September 21, 2017 - Truth and Know-How in Plato's Republic
Continuing our discussion of technology, we will examine the relationship between truth and techne (the ancient Greek word for skill or craft from which the English term "technology" is derived). Reading and discussing passages from one of the most influential texts in the history of Western philosophy, Plato's Republic, we will see the way Plato develops his new theory of truth by thinking about the knowledge involved in skillful making. 

September 14, 2017 - Do Guns Kill People?
Why is gun violence so common in the United States as compared with other advanced countries? One way to begin to think about this is to attempt to improve our understanding of the relationship between individuals and guns. By reading and discussing passages from Bruno Latour's Pandora's Hope, we will scrutinize two popular slogans. First: “Guns kill people” (the anti-gun activist slogan). Second, the NRA reply: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Latour believes that both slogans are misleading. He argues that items of technology are not neutral, and persons do not have fixed intentions. This conversation will also give us a preview of Latour's view of technological mediation.

April 20, 2017 - John Dewey on Art
John Dewey explores the unusual position that “the work of art” is not an object but an experience. It is through aesthetic experiences that artists create art products, and it is by engaging with these products that spectators and listeners reconstruct similar aesthetic experiences. Dewey also holds an unusual view of aesthetic experience that emphasizes connections to everyday, practical experiences. At this final Philosophy for Lunch of the semester, we will read key passages and discuss Dewey’s bold aesthetic theory.

April 13, 2017 - Foucault’s Panopticon
Jeremy Bentham had grand ambitions for his design for a new kind of prison that he called a panopticon: "Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated . . . all by a simple idea in Architecture!” In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault casts a critical eye on Bentham's 'all seeing' panopticon, observing that, therein, “visibility is a trap.” For this week’s Philosophy for Lunch, we will read and discuss Foucault’s reflections on Bentham’s panopticon in order to grasp his concept of disciplinary power and the ways that it functions in modern society—both inside and outside the prison walls.

April 6, 2017 - Darwin on Scientific Evidence
Join us for a discussion in the Philosophy of Science. Darwin was very aware of how controversial and how fundamental his theory of speciation was – he had delayed publication of his work for twenty years! He not only took special care to lay out the evidence for his theory (that's the scientific element of his work) but to also argue for how we should see it working as evidence in ways we might not immediately appreciate. We'll read selections from The Origin of Species, to explore how Darwin thought we ought to understand the vast variety of observations he marshalled to support evolution.

March 30, 2017 - Responsibility and Free Will
You tend to believe that you are free to act in one way or another (free to decide, e.g., whether or not to return a lost wallet that you find in a classroom). But are you free? There are some compelling reasons to think that you are not free. And if you are not free, how can you be held responsible for your actions? At this P4L we will read and discuss Galen Strawson’s engaging way of explaining this problem of free will and moral responsibility.

March 23, 2017 - Philosophy of Technology
At this P4L we will read and discuss passages from the founding essay of philosophy's young subfield, the Philosophy of Technology. The essay—"The Question Concerning Technology"—was written by the controversial philosopher, Martin Heidegger. This essay is an attempt to uncover the essence of technology. The outcome is Heidegger's claim that, in our technological age, we view everything as a resource.

March 16, 2017 - Disembodied Knowledge
As a follow-up to our last session on embodied knowing in Merleau-Ponty, for this week’s P4L we will examine one of the most influential arguments for disembodied knowledge — namely, the one put forward by René Descartes in his Meditations. There, Descartes famously argues that the only way to provide a secure foundation for knowledge is to ground it upon the certainty of one's own existence, not as a sensing and feeling living being, but as a 'thinking thing’ or cogito. Reading key passages from the Meditations, we will reflect upon the features of human experience that Cartesian knowledge includes, and those that it leaves behind.

March 2, 2017 - Knowledge in the Body
The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that our primary way of perceiving and acquiring knowledge of the world rests on our basic bodily engagement with things. Your understanding of the location of the keys on your keyboard, the shape of your water bottle, and the way to work a particular door handle is not cognitive, it’s not a matter of mental representations, rather, it is in your body. Merleau-Ponty calls this “motor-intentionality.” We’ll read and discuss passages from his book, The Phenomenology of Perception.

Feb 23, 2017 - The Meaning of Life
In a chapter with that title, in his book What Does It All Mean, Thomas Nagel explains just why we occasionally feel that our lives have no meaning. He also makes some interesting suggestions about how we might adjust our perspective in order to find meaning in our lives. We'll read and discuss passages from this book, as well as Nagel's The View from Nowhere.

Feb 16, 2017 - The Death of an Aura
In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin suggests that photography and film destroy what he calls the 'aura' of an artwork. For Benjamin, aura is not the mystical luminescence purportedly perceivable by clairvoyants. Rather, aura signifies the unique value that we attribute to something—a value which, he says, is fully bound up with its being embedded in a tradition. Join us this Thursday as we read passages from Benjamin's essay in order to catch sight of the aura just as it disappears, and to learn more about the technological advancements in image reproduction that, in his view, contributed to its disappearance.

February 2, 2017 - What Is All This Bulls#!^ ?
Join us for the first Spring P4L, where we will close-read excerpts from philosopher Harry Frankfurt's notorious bestseller, On Bullshit. We'll discuss Frankfurt's arguments that bullshitting is importantly different from lying or other non-truthful assertions, and how the distinction might help us deal productively with the occasional instance of horsepucky we encounter today.

December 8, 2016 - What Is a Person?
Can artificial things be persons? Seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes sees no reason why not! Indeed, Hobbes even goes so far as to suggest that almost anything can be considered a person—including inanimate and imaginary objects. In this week’s Philosophy for Lunch, we’ll look at passages from Hobbes’ account of personhood in order to get an understanding of the basis for this seemingly audacious claim, and go on to reflect on the way in which it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about personal agency and responsibility.

December 1, 2016 - What Is Ideology?
In our challenging post-election environment, being able to effectively communicate our ideas and concerns to those with whom we disagree is crucial. Political beliefs are not always grounded upon straightforward, easy-to-discuss reasons; they are sometimes grounded upon deeper ideological commitments. How can we clarify and assess ideological commitments? What is ideology? At this Philosophy for Lunch we will take the modest first step of thinking about what ideology is. We'll read and discuss passages by contemporary political philosophers.

November 17, 2016 - Acting Freely Together: Considering Hannah Arendt on Action
Rejecting the idea of an ‘inner self’, Arendt argues that it is only by engaging in a specific form of human interpersonal activity — what she calls ‘action’— that we express and, hence, realize our own unique personal identities. Indeed, in acting and speaking together, not only do we actively reveal who we are, but we also do something new together and, thereby, actualize our freedom: “Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same,” she says. In this week’s P4L, we will read passages from The Human Condition and discuss the related categories of action and freedom specifically as they relate selfhood to the interpersonal sphere of human relationships.

November 10, 2016 - The Mind-Body Problem
"If a scientist took off the top of your skull and looked into your brain while you were eating chocolate, . . . he would detect complicated physical processes of many different kinds. But would he find the taste of chocolate?"* What is the relationship between your mind and your body? What is the relationship between your mind and your brain? We'll read passages by Thomas Nagel and others to explore this enduring philosophical conundrum. [*Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean?, Oxford University Press, 1987, 29.] 

November 3, 2016 - Nietzsche's Positive Conception of the Self
In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), after criticizing the traditional conception of the soul, Nietzsche writes, "Between you and me, there is absolutely no need to give up 'the soul' itself, and relinquish one of the oldest and most venerable hypotheses." He then goes on to make some suggestions: "The path lies open for new versions and sophistications of the soul hypothesis...concepts like...the 'soul as subject-multiplicity' and the 'soul as a society constructed out of drives and affects'" (§12). Drop by on Thursday, as we read and discuss this and related passages, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what Nietzsche has in mind.

October 27, 2016 - Is the Self a Fabrication?
Some philosophers believe that this is Nietzsche's position. He does seem to say as much in certain texts: "There is no 'being' behind doing...'the doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything." We'll read and discuss passages from Nietzsche's texts to attempt to clarify his claim and uncover his reasoning.

October 20, 2016 - Incurvatus in se: Inventing the Inner Self
Nowadays, we often say that in order to learn who you are, you must turn inward to look at yourself. Augustine is often recognized as having invented the idea of ‘inwardness’ or an ‘inner self’. Looking at passages from the Confessions, we will follow Augustine as he turns inward and develops a new conception of self—one which has profoundly influenced our notion of personal identity.

October 13, 2016 - The Ways We Use the Word "I"
Ludwig Wittgenstein launches effective criticisms of the traditional notion of the self. We will read and discuss key passages from his early and late work to see what notion of the self remains.

October 6, 2016 - The Mind and the Body
What is the self? René Descartes claims that the self is a "thinking thing," the mind. If so, what is the relationship between the mind and the body? We'll read and discuss passages from Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.

September 29, 2016 - The Self Is a Thinking Thing
What are you, essentially? What is the relation between your mind and your body? What is the relation between your mind and the world? We'll read passages from René Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy to explore his influential conception of the human subject, which he defines as a thinking thing.

April 27, 2016 - Molyneux's Problem
Consider a person born blind who has learned to identify a round object and a cube by touch. Now imagine she can see for the first time. Will she be able to distinguish between these two objects through vision alone? We'll discuss this thought-experiment, which is one of the most fruitful in the history of philosophy.

April 20, 2016 - Why Defend Freedom of Speech?
Consider an issue about which prevailing opinion in our society is true. Why would it be of value for someone to express a (false) dissenting view? We'll look to John Stuart Mill for a defense of even this sort of free expression.

April 13, 2016 - Causation vs. Correlation
We believe that smoking is not merely correlated with cancer but that it causes cancer. How do we determine that two events are not merely correlated but that one causes the other? We'll take an introductory look at these important concepts by reading the philosopher Ned Hall.

April 6, 2016 - What Is Existence in Existentialism?
Jean-Paul Sartre argues that human existence is a unique kind of existence. We'll get to the bottom of what he means when he says that, for humans, "existence precedes essence."

March 30, 2016 - The Cave Allegory
Plato’s cave allegory is one of the most well-known passages in the history of philosophy. We will read the passage and discuss what Plato is trying to say about knowledge and education.

March 23, 2016 - Immoral Art
Does it even make sense to call a song, a novel, or a painting moral or immoral? If so, can an immoral work of art be considered a good work of art? What, after all, is the relationship between art and ethics? We will read and discuss passages by contemporary philosophers of art such as Noël Carroll.

March 16, 2016 - What Is the Mind?
We will consider the basics of functionalism, the most widely accepted theory of the mind. Is a mental state (a pain or a thought about lunch, e.g.) just a functional state?

March 2, 2016 - What Is Justice?
Philosophers have been attempting to clarify the notion of justice for more than 2000 years. We’ll read passages from the most influential contemporary theory, John Rawls’s, focusing on his argumentative device, the "original position."

February 24, 2016 - Heidegger on Hammers
We’ll consider two different modes of being, "presence-at-hand" and "readiness-to-hand." In the latter, Heidegger thinks he has uncovered—for the first time in the history of philosophy—the way we actually make sense of (understand) the things we practically use, such as hammers, guitars, and iPhones.

February 17, 2016 - What Is Consciousness?
One way to get some leverage in thinking about consciousness is to consider the philosopher Ned Block's influential distinction between what he calls "access consciousness" and "phenomenal consciousness." We'll read the key passages and discuss.

February 10, 2016 - The Aesthetic Attitude
The philosopher Jerome Stolnitz believed that we can perceptually approach objects and events in different ways. We'll read and discuss his distinction between the "practical attitude" and the "aesthetic attitude." This will require discussing the thought-provoking concept of aesthetic disinterest.

February 3, 2016 - Maximizing Happiness
Utilitarianism, the moral theory that emphasizes maximizing well-being, or happiness, is extremely influential at the interpersonal level as well as at the political level. We will read passages that help us to explore this range of influence, and we will consider criticisms of the theory.

January 27, 2016 - Nasty, Brutish, and Short?
What would life be like without a government? Thomas Hobbes believed that it would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." We'll read passages from Hobbes's Leviathan, and discuss the assumptions and implications of this claim. Importantly, Hobbes believed he had hit upon a justification for a very authoritarian government.

December 2, 2015 - Is There a Difference between Happiness and Fulfillment?
The ancient Greek word "eudaimonia" is typically translated as "happiness," but that is misleading. The ancient Greek conception of what makes a life good is different from our culture's conception. We'll read and discuss selections from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in order to explore his particular conception of eudaimonia.

November 25, 2015 - Can Computers Think?
John Searle argued that computers cannot think; they cannot understand. His argument cuts against a certain conception of artificial intelligence. We'll read his vivid "Chinese Room" thought experiment. We'll also consider an objection to his argument.

November 18, 2015 - Is That Moral?
We'll read passages from Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals to grapple with his famous "categorical imperative." Can his test help us to determine which actions are moral and which are not? 

November 11, 2015 - The Art of the Self 
Friedrich Nietzsche repeatedly explored the idea that we can bring the tools of art to bear on reimagining our selves. We can “give style to our character” by emphasizing certain aspects of our selves and reinterpreting or down-playing others. We'll read passages from a few great texts.

November 4, 2015 - Can We Learn from Experience?
Reading excerpts from Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, we’ll consider Hume's argument against the possibility of learning about causes and their effects — a key foundation of our understanding of the world.

October 28, 2015 - Where Does Inequality Come from?
We will read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s speculations on the social and psychological origins of inequality, from his “Discourse On the Origin of Inequality.”

October 21, 2015 - Does Capitalism Leave You Feeling Alientated?
We’ll explore Karl Marx’s claims that workers (under capitalism) become estranged from themselves, others, and their humanity—reading his Economic and Philosophic MSS

October 14, 2015 - What Is It Like To Be a Bat?
We will consider why consciousness is so dif?cult to explain in objective terms. We’ll read passages from Thomas Nagel’s classic paper with the above title.

October 7, 2015 - Art Is Dangerous?
We will follow Plato’s in?uential and troubling reasoning about the ways in which art can be socially and politically harmful. We’ll read passages from his Republic.

September 30, 2015 - Is a Pleasure-Filled Life a Good One?
We will read Robert Nozick's thought experiment known as "the experience machine," which leads him to conclude that we want more in life than mere pleasure.

September 23, 2015 - What Is Freedom?
We will read John Stuart Mill's articulation of his "harm principle," which can be used to carve out a space for individual liberty in society.

September 16, 2015 - I Think, Therefore I Am
We will follow René Descartes' famous train of thought that leads to the claim that knowledge of one's own existence is foundational knowledge.

September 9, 2015 - Are You Awake or Dreaming?
We will read René Descartes' rumination on what doubting our beliefs has to do with building a foundation for knowledge.

The Montclair Philosophy Colloquium Series

Fall 2017 Colloquia TBA

Past Montclair Philosophy Colloquia

4/27/17  Hanne Appelqvist (University of Turku, Finland)
Title: "Knowledge and Beauty: Kant on the Cognitive Relevance of Aesthetics" 
Description: According to Kant, cognitive judgments always bring together concepts of understanding and intuitions provided by sensibility. However, the subsumption of the latter under the former, necessary for cognition, is anything but peaceful. Instead, Kant claims, the faculties involved are like quarreling friends who are always trying to harm one another. In his attempt to bridge the gap between general concepts and particular intuitions, Kant turns to pure judgments of taste, arguing that in a judgment of beauty we find something which is "requisite for possible cognitions in general." Appelqvist's presentation will discuss and evaluate this surprising claim.

3/16/17  Anna Katsman (New School for Social Research)
Title: “Hegel: between Rationalism and Historicism”
Description: Hegel critiques Kant’s moral philosophy for (1) not giving enough content to freedom and detailing those practices necessary for its realization, (2) turning sensibility into a pathology, and (3) not justifying why we should take a rational standpoint on ourselves. Hegel’s criticism depends on his distinctive vision of the relationship between the philosophical claims for freedom and the history of the development of consciousness. In this paper, I will offer an account of why turning to history is necessary for Hegel’s critique of Kant and introduce the problems this historical turn raises in Hegel’s philosophy.