Philosophy for Lunch

March 28, 2024 – Philosophy for Lunch

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April 18, 2024 – Philosophy for Lunch: “Is Philosophy a Bunch of Nonsense?” (P4L #211)

Description: Philosophical questions are frustrating. On the one hand, they come to us naturally when we reflect on human life. On the other hand, there is almost no agreement on their answers—sometimes there isn’t even agreement on the questions. This raises a meta-question: Why exactly are philosophical questions so hard? Here’s a possible answer: Philosophy is nonsense. It is hard to answer philosophical questions because, for quite general reasons, their answers are unintelligible. This is a striking hypothesis, and in this P4L, we’ll see why A.J. Ayer thought it was true. (Image: Man Ray)

• Where?
Schmitt Hall, Room 104

• When?
11:30AM –12:30PM EST—every Thursday (come early).

This is an in-person event, but you can also attend the event virtually, live, via Zoom, using this link:

• What is P4L?
Students, professors, and other philosophy enthusiasts 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.

• Read The Montclarian’s feature about Philosophy for Lunch, here.

Past Philosophy for Lunch Sessions

April 1, 2024 – “Heidegger on the Dangers of Technology” (P4L #210)
Description: For philosopher Martin Heidegger, technology is not merely an instrument, but a way of seeing the world. That is, technology reveals the world: it makes the concealed unconcealed, or reveals raw material to us as available for manipulation. The open field, for example, reveals itself to us as available crop space because of our familiarity with farming technology. However, Heidegger worries that if we see the world solely through this type of technological thinking, we may lose sight of reality’s “primal truth.” In this P4L, we will discuss Heidegger’s worry and the extent to which technology both reveals and obscures reality. (Special guest: Madison Gamba)
April 4, 2024 – “Does Time Have a Direction?” (P4L #209)
Description: We all have an immediate sense that time flows, and only flows one way.  For example, we remember events in our past, but not our futures.  Rocks thrown into ponds result in ripples spreading outwards, but we never see ripples converge inwards to eject a rock.  But the laws of nature seem to have difficulty accounting for this, as they (almost) all seem to describe time without any particular directionality.  How can we reconcile these awkward facts?  In this P4L, we’ll survey some of the ways reality seems to have picked out a directionality of time – so-called “arrows” of time – and whether those arrows can be reconciled with the apparent lack of directionality of the laws of nature.
March 28, 2024 – “A Philosophical Story of Physical Pain” (P4L #208)
Description: Everybody experiences physical pain at some point in their lives, but why is it so difficult for us to express physical pain? Just what kind of experience is being in pain? And how does being in pain shape our experience of the world more generally? In this week’s P4L we will comb through passages from Elaine Scarry’s profound and original reflection on these questions and more in her book, The Body in Pain.
March 21, 2024 – “Is Consciousness Everywhere?” (P4L #207)
Description: Conscious mental life is complex. It includes pains and itches, visual and tactile experiences, the heights of elation and the lows of disappointment, etc. Somehow, all this complexity arises from the electrochemical workings of your brain. But many find this puzzling. How could something like the feeling of elation come from mere electrical and chemical activity? Some philosophers and scientists think that it couldn’t. Instead, they argue, consciousness is a fundamental building block of nature, present in atoms, electrons, quarks, and so on. This view is known as panpsychism. In this P4L, we’ll see why some philosophers think panpsychism must be true.
March 7, 2024 – “Competition and Cooperation in Games and Sports” (P4L #206)
Description: Competitive games, by their nature, typically require players to work hard to beat their opponents. But, it is only in virtue of their opponents’ adherence to rules that this competition is sustained. Cheating is one way that a failure to cooperate subverts this key competitive aspect of games and sports, but not the only way. In addition, we usually regard sports through a moral lens, as developing or revealing excellence through competition – and not only for the winner. In this week’s P4L, we will look at philosopher of sport C. Thi Nguyen’s argument that well-crafted games can be seen as a “social technology”, with one of its key products being the conversion of aggression into both social and moral goods.
February 29, 2024 – “Technological Mediation” (P4L #205)
Description: Philosophers of technology do not view technologies as passive, neutral tools. Consider basic technologies like a thimble, prescription eye glasses, or more complex technologies like a social media app, Alexa, and your smartphone generally. Technologies shape human experiences, shape the relations between individuals and the world, and shape the relations between individuals and other individuals. The cornerstone of the philosophical movement called The Post-Phenomenology of Technology is the claim that technologies mediate our relationship to the world and to others. This mediation involves magnifying (accentuating) certain aspects of experience while reducing (downplaying) other aspects. The philosopher Asle H. Kiran argues that this magnifying/reducing structure is relevant to ethics, epistemology, ontology, and practical action. At this P4L, we will read and discuss great passages of post-phenomenology that will help us to make sense of these ideas.
February 22, 2024 – “Weather and Well-Being in Epicurean Philosophy” (P4L #204)
Description: The weather is important for our lives and ways of living. It determines how we dress, when (or if) we leave the house, what route we take to get wherever we are going, and so on. As a preferred topic of small-talk, the weather allows us to connect with strangers by acknowledging the shared conditions of our lives. Despite this, the weather is rarely the subject of philosophical inquiry today. Things were different in antiquity. The Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus considered the study of ‘lofty phenomena’—including meteorological phenomena—essential to living well, the goal of philosophical inquiry in general. In this week’s P4L we will explore passages in which Epicurean philosophers, and Epicurus himself, investigate meteorological phenomena and reflect on the relationship between philosophy, well-being and the weather.
February 15, 2024 – “Mental Health: Is it All in Your Head?” (P4L #203)
Description: Some drugs (e.g. fluoxetine) can help improve one’s mental health by altering brain chemistry. This invites a reasonable hypothesis: mental health is neurophysiological in nature. It is, literally speaking, in your head. In this P4L, we’ll look at evidence that mental health disabilities—like depression, reactive attachment disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder—are not merely neurophysiological. Instead, to understand what makes certain conditions mental health disabilities, we must place these conditions in broader social and historical contexts.
February 8, 2024 – “The Phenomenology of Falling Asleep” (P4L #202)
Description: How can we better understand falling asleep? According to one philosophical method, phenomenology, we begin by describing the lived experience of falling asleep in detail. We embark upon this descriptive exercise by first setting aside all of our assumptions about what is happening when we fall asleep. (Phenomenology takes this approach to any target of investigation.) How would you describe the experience of falling asleep? To help us with this challenge, we will read and discuss passages from the phenomenologist Jan Linschoten’s “On Falling Asleep.” One of Linschoten’s observations is that falling asleep involves “a change in the … relation between person and world.” We fall asleep as worldly events and concerns make less and less of an appeal to us.
February 1, 2024 – “Should Science Be Less Skeptical?” (P4L #201)
Description: Science is said to be a powerful way of knowing in part because scientific methodology embodies an essentially skeptical attitude: science does not assert what it cannot demonstrate (often, repeatedly, through careful and rigorous experimentation.) Famous (as in, famous even outside of philosophy!) ideas such as the philosopher Karl Popper’s falsificationism are claimed to be the distinction between proper scientific reasoning, and pseudoscience. But it also seems true that there are at least some instances where being too skeptical prevents progress in science. For this P4L session, we’ll explore one ‘step’ of the scientific method where ‘being credulous’ might be appropriately and necessarily scientific.
Dec. 7, 2023 – The *200th* Philosophy for Lunch: “The Greatest Hits of Philosophy” (P4L #200)
Description: This is the 200th session of Philosophy for Lunch, which began in 2015. At all philosophy for Lunch sessions, we read and discuss great passages of philosophy from a handout that is created especially for the session. At this P4L, we will read and discuss a select mix of the greatest passages from our 200 sessions. Join us to celebrate philosophy! Everyone is invited.
Nov. 30, 2023 – “Reasoning about Morals” (P4L #199)
Description: Beliefs about right and wrong differ across cultures. This leads to some different norms, standards, and laws. Cultural relativists believe that one culture’s values are no more justifiable than another’s; there are no universal moral truths. In some cases this may not seem problematic, but what are we to think about a culture that does not accept a value that we take to be central, such as equality? Charles Taylor has suggested a fascinating way to adjudicate between moral frameworks. Taylor’s approach does not require accepting some kind of universal moral truths, nor grounding morality on religion. Instead, he suggests that we can reason about the transitions from one moral framework to another comparatively. His approach is promising but incomplete; we will explore it at this P4L by reading and discussing passages from his “Explanation and Practical Reason” and from his book, Sources of the Self.
Nov. 9, 2023 – “Is Objectivity Best Defined as a ‘View from Nowhere’?” (P4L #198)
Description: While we recognize that everyone might have different ways to learn and think about the world, the dominant idea of how we ought to go about generating objective knowledge of the world is to pursue an ideal of a “view from nowhere” — a detached, ‘perspectiveless’ vantage point that eliminates biases or partiality. Is that actually true? If it isn’t, can any alternative achieve objectivity without removing biases or perspectives?
Nov. 2, 2023 – “Depersonalization and Feelings of Unreality” (P4L #197)
Description: When you see a coffee cup, you experience the cup as being, in some sense, real. But not all experiences are like this. In particular, the phenomenon of depersonalization often involves (among other things) experiencing one’s surroundings as unreal. In this P4L, we’ll discuss first-person descriptions of depersonalization and how they might help bring to light a feature of experience that we ordinarily take for granted—what we might call a sense of reality.
Oct. 26, 2023 – “Achieving Stoic Freedom” (P4L #196)
Description: Stoic philosophers believed that anyone can live a free and happy life even if everything around them is going terribly. According to the ancient Stoics, freedom is not a divine gift or a human right, but a practical achievement that each human being must realize on their own. According to the Stoic Epictetus, achieving freedom and happiness requires managing what is under one’s control and letting go of what is not. In this week’s P4L we will examine Epictetus’ teachings in order to learn more about his ideas of freedom and how one should go about trying to achieve it. We will also consider the benefits and limitations of the Stoic approach to life in our own age.
Oct. 19, 2023 – “Mood” (P4L #195)
Description: What are moods? Are moods subjective feelings that we sometimes project onto public situations? For example, if you are in a gloomy mood as you eneter a party, does your mood lend a gloomy hue to the party? If your friend is in a joyful mood at the same party, is the party ‘colored’ differently for her? At this P4L, we will consider observations about moods made by phenomenologists, which may make you think differently about the nature of moods. Phenomenology is a particular way of doing philosophy, a method devised to reconnect philosophy to our lived experiences. (And by the way, Montclair’s philosophy department is offering a course devoted to phenomenology in the spring semester — PHIL 295.)
Oct. 12, 2023 – “Does Reality Have Room for Purpose?” (P4L #194)
Description: We all recognize goal-oriented behaviors and purposeful action as key features of our world and our natures as human beings, but modern science’s focus on mechanistic explanations appears to be in great tension with this. Biology — evolutionary biology specifically — has had a long history of discomfort with telos (an end or a goal), as evolution by natural selection is not a goal-directed process, yet it seems to result in very purposeful things (us, and other intentional and future-aware organisms.) Must we banish all “telic language” from science (potentially limiting its ability to account for a great deal of natural phenomena!), or admit vitalist and teleological elements back into our scientific worldview? This P4L will explore evolutionary biologist and philosopher Ernst Mayr’s attempts to resolve this tension in a third way.
Oct. 5, 2023 – “What is Depression?” (P4L #193)
Description: Those with depression often report a profound change in their experience of the world. However, it is notoriously difficult to say exactly what this experiential change is. This presents a question important in both philosophical and clinical settings: What exactly is it to feel depressed? In this P4L, we’ll consider the recent hypothesis that depression is a global state of consciousness. If correct, entering a state of depression is similar to entering a dream state or psychedelic state.
Sept 28, 2023 – “Seeing Shadows and Ourselves in Plato’s Cave Allegory” (P4L #192)
Description: In the Republic, Plato presents a story to explain how a philosophical education works. He tells of prisoners who have spent their entire lives chained up in a cave and forced to stare at shadows projected on a wall in front of them. At some point, one prisoner is released. He comes to see the shadows for what they really are: reflections of artificial things. Plato explains that this is not pure fantasy, but an image of us — a strange image, to be sure. In this week’s P4L we will read passages from the Republic to learn more about these prisoners, the shadows that they see and how they come to see the world differently. We will also think about how we might see ourselves in Plato’s famous Cave Allegory.
Sept 21, 2023 – “Self-Interpretation” (P4L #191)
Description: What makes me who I am? What are the different aspects of my self-identity? In addition to age, occupation, race, class, background and so on, the philosopher Charles Taylor argues that one of the things that makes me the person I am is the understanding I have of myself — my self-interpretation. At this P4L, we will explore what this means. We will also discuss a thought-provoking case of a change in self-interpretation, drawn from feminist philosophy, by reading a passage from the philosopher Ruth Abbey.
Sept 14, 2023 – “Do Holes Exist?” (P4L #190)
Description:  Philosophers sometimes seem to ask silly questions (like the one above) — Do they only get silly answers? For this fall’s first P4L, we’ll be looking at different ways to think about a specific kind of nothing: holes. Thinking seriously about holes quickly becomes difficult; it’s a good exercise in logical and abstract thinking. But it’s also an example of how complex our understanding of the world is, and how difficult it is to articulate that understanding explicitly. How could we (for example) program a robot to recognize holes, or fill them, if we can’t articulate what a hole is? How do Generative A.I.s (apparently) approach our ability to deal with holes, without having that understanding explicitly articulated to them?
April 27, 2023 – “Where Does Knowledge Come From?” (P4L #189)
Description: What is the source of knowledge? Traditionally, philosophers have given an either/or answer: knowledge is acquired with the body or the mind. In this week’s P4L, we will examine one of the most influential arguments that knowledge is acquired by the mind alone: the one put forward by René Descartes. In the Meditations, 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 embodied being, but as a ‘thinking thing’. Reading key passages from the Meditations, we will reflect upon those features of human experience that Cartesian knowledge includes, and those that it leaves behind.
April 20, 2023 – “Why Did Darwin Prefer Evolution over Creation?” (P4L #188)
Description: Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection – ‘Darwinism’ – was a proposal made in the face of a settled consensus about human origins. Though he had completed his famous Galapagos tour to collect evidence in support of his theory, he was very much aware that his theoretical claims outstripped the empirical evidence he currently had. So, how did he argue for evolution over the widely-accepted theory of special creation? In this session, we’ll look at selections from the last chapter of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and current philosophy of abductive reasoning to see whether Darwin not just a pioneer in biology, but also scientific method.
April 13, 2023 – “Are We Looking for Consciousness in the Wrong Place?” (P4L #187)
Description: It’s reasonable to think that if you want to learn more about human consciousness, you should learn more about the human brain. After all, the brain is the seat of consciousness. But Fred Dretske thinks things aren’t so simple. He’s no dualist; he doesn’t think that people have immaterial souls; and he has a deep respect for modern science. However, in his view, trying to better understand consciousness by looking more closely at the brain is something like trying to better understand the story of Alice in Wonderland by taking a microscope to the ink in which the story is written. Each involves looking in the wrong place. In this P4L, we’ll try to make sense of what Dretske is getting at and why he thinks the brain is the wrong place to look for consciousness (or, at least, certain aspects of consciousness).
April 6, 2023 – “Do You Want to Want What You Want?” (P4L #186)
Description: Wanting something is to have a desire for that thing. You may desire pizza, to take a walk, to spend the next several hours playing video games, to spend more time with your romantic partner. These are “first-order” desires. In addition to having these first-order desires, you are also able to evaluate them. You may not want to want to eat pizza or to spend the next several hours playing video games. The reflective evaluation of one of your own desires is a “second-order” desire. The philosophers Harry Frankfurt and Charles Taylor believe that having second-order desires is an essential feature of being human (many kinds of animals have first-order desires but only humans have the capacity for second-order desires). At this P4L we will read passages by these philosophers which will help us to make sense of these two levels of desire.
March 30, 2023 – “How Does Science Progress?” (P4L #185)
Description: Most people place a great amount of trust in science—more accurately, in the technology that science makes possible. But how does science manage this, and is it really worthy of that trust? Thomas Kuhn had his doubts about the objectivity and rationality of science that “went viral” in the 1970s and haven’t left public consciousness since. Join us as we read some of the arguments that made “paradigms” a word we all still recognize today.
March 23, 2023 – “Social Life in the Digital Age” (P4L #184)
Description: Technology shapes our experience of others. This is more true today than ever before as we become increasingly dependent on technology for social interaction. Applications like TikTok, Instagram and Zoom are our new virtual public social forums. What is lost in the shift from a physical to a digital-virtual social world? What is gained? One thinker who might have some clues is Walter Benjamin. In The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproducibility, Benjamin reflects on what is lost and, alternatively, what is gained when traditional works of art become mechanically reproducible thanks to photography and film. In this week’s Philosophy for Lunch, we will discuss passages in Benjamin’s essay in order to help us think about issues that confront us today with the digitalization of social interaction through social media and virtual reality.
March 16, 2023 – “Could A.I. Be Conscious?” (P4L #183)
Description: Recent developments in large language models (like the ones underlying ChatGPT) have sparked public interest in questions about consciousness and artificial intelligence. Could a machine or program be conscious? Could it think, feel, and perceive the way humans do? Or does consciousness require the right sort of electrochemical activity that can only be found in biological brains? Philosophers have thought about these questions since at least the 1950s — in fact, they are central in the philosophy of mind. In this P4L, we’ll explore philosophical theories of consciousness that would allow for machine consciousness. Among other things, we’ll examine whether these theories make seemingly absurd predictions, e.g. that the nation of China, under the right circumstances, is a conscious entity in its own right.
March 2, 2023 – “What Does It Mean To Do Good?” (P4L #182)
Description: In philosophy, there are different views — different theories — of what makes an action ethical. But at the core of these different theories, we find many of the same ethical terms such as good, duty, justice, and virtue. Alasdair MacIntyre identifies clear cases in which the very meanings of these terms differ at different points in history. If MacIntyre is correct, this makes the philosopher’s work of evaluating, comparing, and contrasting ethical theories more complex — and more fascinating! At this P4L, we will read eye-opening passages from MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics and After Virtue.
February 23, 2023 – “Is Time Travel Possible? (Would it be interesting if it were?”) (P4L #181)
Description:  Pop culture has entertained the idea of time travel for a very long time, but scientists are profoundly unsure about whether it is physically possible. In this P4L, we’ll explore David Lewis’ thoughts about the logical possibility of time travel, and what bizarre but sensible restraints there might be on time travel, and how we ought to think about it.
February 16, 2023 – “Aristotle meets Dall.E” (P4L #180)
Description:  Artificial Intelligence systems, such as Dall.E, are called ‘art generators’. But can art be generated artificially, for example, by a human made program, or is it a distinctly human practice? Indeed, what makes art, art? This is an old question, but recent technological innovations in artificial intelligence provoke us to ask old questions in a new way. Reading passages from Aristotle’s Poetics, Physics and more, in this week’s P4L we will try to tackle some of these questions by—as counterintuitive as it might seem—going back to one of the first philosophical reflections on art and artmaking.
February 9, 2023 – “Are Virtual Lives Worth Living?” (P4L #179)
Description: One day, you might be able to forgo your fleshy existence, plug into a computer, and live a completely virtual life in a completely virtual world. Suppose you do this. Would the fact that you are somehow “out of touch with reality” make your life worse? Would you be missing out on something valuable by leading a life in a purely virtual world? In this P4L, we’ll look at a famous thought experiment—the experience machine—to help us think through questions about lives in virtual worlds.
February 2, 2023 – “Art, Chess, and College Seminars” (P4L #178)
Here is an odd classification of activities: making art, playing chess, participating in a college seminar. In what ways are these activities valuable or good? The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that playing chess and making art both offer “goods” that are internal to these activities as well as goods that are external to them. At this P4L, we will read passages from MacIntyre’s After Virtue to make sense of this distinction. Why does this matter? We can argue that identifying the internal goods of an activity helps us to understand why an activity is meaningful.
January 26, 2023 – “Is Time Real?” (P4L #177)
Description: We all have a very immediate and compelling experience of the passage of time, yet understanding the nature of time has proven very elusive—so much so that some philosophers claim that it is itself illusive. The philosopher John M.E. McTaggart wrote a compelling argument supporting the view that time is an illusion that has defined the discussion for over a century. Join us for the first P4L of the New Year by exploring his view that there are no such things as Years, Hours, Minutes or Days at all.
December 1, 2022 – “Living with Skepticism” (P4L #176)
Description: Philosophical worries about skepticism are (quite literally) ancient. The worries, broadly construed, are that we know far less than we claim to know. This P4L isn’t about whether skepticism is true, but what we should do if it is true. In particular, if skepticism is true, should we give up our ordinary beliefs or simply go on living our lives? And if we go on living our lives, can we retain our commonsense beliefs and still be rational? Or does skepticism simply doom us to a life of irrationality?
November 17, 2022 – “Is Scientific Progress Irrational?”
Description: Thomas Kuhn famously argued that scientists think in paradigms: not just theories, but what counts as “doing science” at all (experimentation? Statistics, or certainties only? Pure deduction or allowing inductions?) and what aims it has (‘truth’? Predictive accuracy? Technological control of the world?) As a consequence, shifting from one paradigm to another means changing everything, including what “doing science” really means. His powerful argument seemed to make sense: the quantum world, and the science we do to investigate it, seems fundamentally different to the classical Newtonian world. Behavioural psychology is profoundly different from cognitive psychology, such that often their proponents can scarcely talk to each other about what they study. We’ll take a look at Kuhn’s views, and the response of Larry Laudan who argues that while Kuhn does get some things right about theory change, we don’t need to be so pessimistic about scientists’ abilities to choose a successor worldview using sound reasons.
November 10, 2022 – “Martial Arts as a Journey Toward Virtue”
Description: In order to become virtuous, one must habitually do virtuous things—like punching, kicking, and strangling? What is it about repetitive motion in martial arts lifestyle that helps one cultivate moral character? Being that martial arts are rooted in ethical principles, such action can be understood as an embodied philosophical practice. In this P4L, we will discuss ethical tenets of martial arts, and how, in comparison to short-term athletic journeys such as sports, the martial arts lifestyle is a way of being that does not cease should one’s skill for violence be unneeded, similar to the cultivation of virtue as leading one toward happiness, or that which is good in itself.
November 3, 2022 – “Reasoning about Art”
Description: All of us reason about art. You see a film you love. You tell a friend that it’s great. Your friend asks, “What’s so great about it?” Your next step involves offering reasons to support your initial judgment. We often engage in this process when we talk about music, visual art, theatre, literature, architecture, dance, performance art, conceptual art, and so on. How does this reasoning work? Philosophers of art have been writing about this process, called aesthetic judgment, for two thousand years. At this P4L, we will read and discuss passages that sketch core principles of aesthetic reasoning. We will also consider whether there are differences between aesthetic reasoning and other kinds of reasoning.
October 27, 2022 – “Does Doing Philosophy Destroy Knowledge?”
Description:  [Warning: This P4L may be hazardous to your epistemic health.] Ordinary knowledge is easy to come by. You know that MSU is in NJ, that there is a war in Ukraine, that you are currently reading a P4L blurb—the list could go on. Philosophers often seek to learn what this knowledge consists in. In short, they want to understand what it is to know. You might reasonably expect that this will help us expand our knowledge. After all, if we know what knowledge is, we’ll have an easier time getting it. However, David Lewis worried that the opposite is true. He thought that studying knowledge might actually destroy it. In this P4L, we’ll try to figure out how Lewis reached this paradoxical conclusion. If he’s right, then you might leave this P4L knowing a good deal less than when you arrived.
October 20, 2022 – “What Is Philosophy?”
Description: You might be surprised to learn that it is difficult to say precisely what philosophy is. Part of the problem is that philosophy itself has evolved. Another difficulty is that there are different ways of doing philosophy, different movements and traditions. Our first P4L session on this topic was in 2020. In this second session, we will consider the fascinating definition offered by John Passmore, who claims that philosophy is critical discussion of critical discussion. We will also consider an elaboration of Passmore’s definition by Graham Priest.
October 13, 2022 – “Critical Thinking as Intellectual Virtue”
Description: “Critical Thinking” is a well-worn buzzword—everyone claims to want it, use it, teach it. But, what exactly *is* it? How is it different from “problem solving”, or “being intelligent”, or wisdom? Is it something that is teachable, and are our educational institutions doing so? This week, we’ll discuss one definition or vision of this type of thinking, and ask how well we’re currently doing at fostering this (allegedly) enormously valuable type of thinking.
October 6, 2022 – “Is Life Absurd?”
Description: Life is occasionally absurd. A dictator declares his victory while in handcuffs; a pair of unfaithful lovers discover their online affairs were with one another; the “dumpy-looking oaf in the window” turns out to be you in a mirror. We are all familiar with this kind of absurdity. But is life itself absurd? Is it absurd in general? And what would it mean for it to be absurd in general? In this P4L, we’ll look at the work of Thomas Nagel and think about whether we should regard ourselves and our lives as fundamentally absurd.
September 29, 2022 – “Can a College Class Be Meaningful?”
Description: Can philosophical theories of meaning in life help us to assess the potential meaningfulness of classroom experiences themselves? In order to seek some clarity we will read and discuss passages of philosophy that will help us to carve this question into three distinct parts: (1) the subject matter of a class; (2) the extent to which you, as a student, are gripped by the subject matter; and (3) your engagement with the class. We will give special attention to the relations between #2 (your being gripped) and #3 (the way you engage). Here are some interesting questions to ponder: Is there a way of engaging that closes-off the possibility of having a meaningful experience? Is meaningfulness connected to learning? If it is, can we understand meaningfulness and learning as distinct benefits of a class? Is having a pleasurable experience in a class different from having a meaningful experience in a class?
September 22, 2022 – “Thought Experiments in Science”
Description: Scientists, of course, use experiments as one of their primary epistemic foundations. But both scientists and philosophers have been using a different kind of experiment for a very long time—longer than ‘real’ experimentation. Thought experiments happen entirely conceptually; often, they are actually impossible to perform. And yet, proponents argue they are pivotal in both science and philosophy. (Detractors say they are at best irrelevant.) In this term’s first P4L, we’ll read excerpts from Robert Brown, a philosopher who has extensively studied a variety of thought experiments, who thinks that they may be even more valuable than the ‘real’ ones we’re more familiar with.
April 28, 2022 – “The illogic of racism”
Description: Are there certain thought-patterns underlying racist beliefs? At this P4L, we will focus on errors in reasoning that commonly underlie racist judgments. Our focus will be on a particular form of racism defined by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in his article, “Racisms.” Appiah argues that racist judgments are often based on the (false) notion of a racial essence and the related (mistaken) belief that all people of certain races have moral and intellectual characteristics that justify treating them differently. Appiah’s work contains thought-provoking suggestions about how we might reason with racists, as well as possible explanations for why some racists resist rational arguments. We will read and discuss passages from “Racisms” and passages by other philosophers who can help us to understand Appiah’s influential work in The Philosophy of Race.
April 21, 2022 – “What Vision Science Can’t See”
Description: Vision science has taught us a lot. For example, over the past 100 years or so, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the physical processes and mechanisms that underlie color perception. But can vision science teach us everything there is to know about color perception? Some philosophers argue that it cannot. In this P4L, we’ll learn why there might be facts about visual perception that are inaccessible from the perspective of vision science and, for that matter, physical science more generally.
April 14, 2022 – “I Think, Therefore, I Am”
“I think therefore I am” is not only the title of a catchy pop song by Billie Eilish; it is also a foundational claim of Modern Philosophy! In this week’s P4L, we will follow the philosopher who made the statement famous, René Descartes, as he moves from deep skepticism about himself—his identity and the world—to establish the grounds for certainty in his Meditations on First Philosophy. At the end of the session, after getting a strong hold of the philosophical claims, we will reflect on connections between Eilish’s song and Descartes’ argument.
April 7, 2022 – “What Makes You Think You’re Conscious?”
Description: I’m willing to bet that, right now, you’re having some sort of conscious experience. You might currently be visually aware of this text, but you’re free to experience other stuff if you want to direct your attention elsewhere. However, theoretical, human-like creatures known as philosophical zombies don’t have experiences of anything. These zombies appear to speak and behave like regular human beings, but they lack the consciousness that we enjoy. I know, and you know, that you’re not a zombie, but it’s unclear how you know you’re not a zombie. In this P4L, we’ll try to figure out if there’s anything that we’re consciously aware of that tells us that we’re, in fact, conscious. • Special Guest: Veronika Hammond
March 31, 2022 – “Where Does Knowledge Come From?”
Description:  Plato’s answer to this question is, “from your memories.” In this P4L, we’ll explore the simple argument Plato presents about what you already know (but might not know you know). And we’ll not-learn some math (that you already know) along the way. No, really, it’ll be fun! We’ll close-read a dialogue of Plato’s where the Socratic method is deployed to allegedly astounding effect—and ask if there might not be something even more interesting going on.
March 24, 2022 – “Should We Trust Common Sense?”
Description: People exist. So do chairs and tables. There are sunsets and birthday parties. Some people dislike the taste of cucumbers. These things are so obvious that it’s hardly worth stating them––they are part of common sense. To what extent can we rely on common sense in philosophical disputes? If a theory conflicts with common sense, does that refute the theory? Or is the relationship between philosophy and common sense less straightforward? Should we distrust common sense entirely? We’ll tackle these and other questions about common sense in this P4L.
March 17, 2022 – “Gender and Identity”
Description: Gender seems bound up with identity, but what kind of identity is gender? On the one hand, it is deeply personal and uniquely mine. On the the other hand, gender is also a social category: the terms “woman,” “man,” “non-binary” or “bigender” refer not only to an individual person, but a social group. Even more difficult is the issue that gender cannot be isolated from other social categories, such as race, class or sexuality. In this week’s P4L, reading selections from feminist philosophers such as Simone De Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray and more, we will reflect on the complex relationship between gender and identity.
March 3, 2022 – “Why Is Science So Successful?”
Description: Science is undeniably successful, both in its products (technologies) and its ability to help us understand much of the complexity of the world around us. What is the secret of that success? Is it just a mysterious, miraculous, magic formula of inquiry, or can philosophers help point to concrete reasons or features that explain this success? In this week’s P4L, two philosophical views—realism and anti-realism—attempt to account for science’s achievements.
February 24, 2022 – “What is Color?”
Description: On the one hand, you know perfectly well what color is. You look at, say, a fire truck and––presto!––you see the color red. On the other hand, if you try to explain what color is, your knowledge seems to disappear. What exactly is red? How could you explain what red is to someone who’s never seen it for themselves? In this P4L, we’ll look at how philosophers approach this and other puzzles about color.
February 17, 2022 – “History in Philosophical Method”
Description: One thing philosophers do is clarify concepts. Some philosophers work abstractly, analyzing concepts like ‘justice’, ‘inequality’, ‘morality’, and ‘artwork’ ahistorically. Other philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, occasionally employ a method called genealogy, which involves a specific use of history. In genealogy, a philosopher examines the historical development of a concept. To take an example, Nietzsche believed that the concept of punishment is essentially historical, consisting of elements that are layered and interwoven through time. He believed that these elements are hidden from an abstract, ahistorical analysis. Is this an example of a methodological disagreement between analytic and continental philosophers? Stop by this P4L to find out! We will read and discuss passages from Nietzsche and other genealogists.
February 10, 2022 – “Can Political Peace Last?”
Description: Finding eternal peace has been a dream of philosophical aspiration for thousands of years. But what kind of everlasting peace could be possible for us, and how might we try to achieve it? In his 1795 essay, “Towards Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant rejects the sardonic claim that eternal peace can only be found in the graveyard, and explains how it might be realized by the living, namely, through politics and morality. In this week’s P4L, we will read and discuss passages from Kant’s essay, seeking to understand what he means by peace, and how he thinks we can try to establish it in perpetuity.
February 3, 2022 – “Is There a Scientific Method?”
Description: Science is undeniably a massive generator of knowledge and technology in the contemporary world, and academic disciplines fight to be recognized as “real sciences” to gain access to the respect and resources afforded them. (And the humanities and fine arts struggle to attain respect as knowledge-generating inquiries without this valuable label!) But as science has further developed and refined its tools and procedures, and become more remote from the ken of ordinary folk, we seem to be approaching an age of skepticism or even rejection of the authority of science. This week, we’ll read from the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, a strong but subtle polemic against the idea that the sciences share a unique and objectively grounded “scientific method.”
January 27, 2022 – “What Is the Value of Community Service?”
Description: An obvious way to answer this question is to make the case that acts of community service are morally good. The purpose of this session is not to dispute this moral approach but to offer another way of thinking about the value of such volunteering. We will read and discuss passages by the philosopher Susan Wolf, who argues that volunteering can generate meaning in one’s own life. Wolf argues that a good life has three dimensions: happiness, morality, and meaning. We will consider Wolf’s theory of meaningfulness, and the claim that volunteering may contribute—not only to the moral dimension of a good life—but also to the dimension of meaning.
December 9, 2021 – “Do Animals Know Something We Don’t?”
Description: Speciesism is often understood as an irrational bias in favor of one’s own species, or a prejudice against other species. And while this may be a familiar notion within the context of ethics, it might also be useful to discuss how our potential species-biases (conscious or unconscious) play a role in our conception of knowledge, reason, truth, and our broader perception of reality. That is, do we think what we think, know what we know, and value what we value, only because we are members of this particular mammalian species? (Special Guest: Joshua Kaye)
December 2, 2021 – “Do You See What I See?”
Description: The sky looks blue to me. Does it look blue to you? Even if you were to say “yes,” how would we know that we are referring to the same color with our word “blue?” Mightn’t it be possible that you experience what I call “red” every time you look at things I call “green”? Would we even be able to tell? This idea, the possibility of undetectable color inversion, is often put forward as indicating the irreducibility of consciousness to functional (or causal) properties. In this P4L, we will explore whether color inversion is possible (in humans), whether it would be undetectable, and the implications these possibilities have for our understanding of consciousness. (Special Guest: Ryan McElhaney)
November 18, 2021 – “Hannah Arendt – The Life Process”
Description: In her diagnosis of the many ills that plague modernity, Hannah Arendt identifies a peculiar, new phenomenon: the rise of “the life process itself.” What Arendt means by this is that bodily needs and personal interests have become increasingly important in modern life, eclipsing collective concerns. Arendt warns that the continued growth of the life process—what she describes as the “unnatural growth of the natural”—threatens to deprive our lives of what is distinctly human about them. In this week’s P4L, we will explore Arendt’s idea of “the life process” and her account of its rise—from its origins in early modernity to its flourishing in the age of imperialism until the twentieth century—and consider its usefulness for making senses of issues that confront us today.
November 11, 2021 – “The Ineffable”
Description: Some things are hard to talk about––we struggle to put them into words. After a fight with a loved one, you might not know how to describe your emotional state. Equally, some things are hard to think about. Trying to really grasp the idea that free will might be compatible with determinism is, to say the least, not easy. Though challenging, neither task is impossible. We talk about our emotions and think about free will (with practice). However, are some things literally impossible to talk or think about? Are some things truly ineffable? In this P4L, we’ll try to get clear on the basics of this issue, namely, what it would even mean for something to be ineffable.
November 4, 2021 – “Gamesmanship, Cheating, and Sports”
Description: Richard Petty, a legend of NASCAR racing, once remarked: “If you ain’t trying to cheat a little, you ain’t likely to win much.” Yet, games are defined by their rules: if you play baseball with a flamethrower… you’re not playing baseball. (Calvinball, maybe.) This combination moral-metaphysical conundrum will be the subject of discussion: how much cheating is actually “part of the game”, and when does it become game-breaking? Or, is it just “gamesmanship”, a proper part of the game?
October 28, 2021 – “What Makes an Experience Satisfying?”
Description: The philosopher John Dewey believed that a certain type of experience is more satisfying than other types. This type of experience is not satisfying due to its subject matter; it is satisfying due to its developmental structure. We can have a satisfying experience while building a cabinet, having dinner with a friend, listening to a song, hiking, or solving a philosophical perplexity. Too often, however, potentially satisfying experiences get cut-off before they can develop due to the distractions of modern life or a kind of inner sluggishness. At this P4L, we will read and discuss passages that set out the elements and structure of a satisfying experience, which Dewey calls “an experience.”
October 21, 2021 – “How Does This Make You Feel?”
Description: Perhaps after watching The Matrix Resurrections trailer, you found yourself feeling more skeptical of the external world than normal. But soon, you found comfort in one thing: you could be sure of the various conscious mental states that you undergo. Your thoughts, emotions, and various perceptual experiences all surely exist, and you know them more intimately than you know the world beyond the senses. Unfortunately, matters aren’t so simple. In this P4L, we’ll look at a variety of skepticism about our conscious mental lives.
October 14, 2021 – “What Is the Social Contract?”
Description: Although it can be traced back to Greek antiquity, the idea that the foundation of our political community is a special kind of agreement—a pact or contract—between ruler and ruled gained traction in the 17th and 18th centuries. This agreement is what has come to be known as “the social contract.” In locating the right to rule in this kind of agreement, social contract theorists justify political rule on the basis of reason, rather than strength or force. In this week’s P4L we will read some of the most famous arguments in favor of the social contract, as well as some critiques against it.
October 7, 2021 – “What Is Existentialism?”
Description: Existentialism is difficult to define because the well-known philosophers recognized as shaping this movement in philosophy have some divergent views. That said, we can describe a handful of themes that accurately characterize what existentialism is. At this P4L, we will tackle this project in order to give attendees a mini-introduction to existentialism. But we will do this in P4L fashion, by reading and discussing some key passages written by great existentialist philosophers. We will also explore some perplexities that led existentialist philosophers to create a distinct kind of philosophy.
September 30, 2021 – “Can We Achieve Objectivity?”
Description: We sometimes criticise one another for a lack of objectivity. If you think Jack’s idea is better than Tori’s solely because Jack is your friend, Tori might rightly say that you are not being objective in your reasoning. What if all reasoning is like your reasoning here? That is, what if there is no such thing as objectivity in reasoning? In this week’s P4L, we’ll see why Thomas Nagel thinks that such objectivity is possible. In fact, he thinks it is virtually inescapable.
September 23, 2021 – “Should We Tolerate Intolerant Views?”
Description: Recent politics has been divisive, full of bad-faith arguments, people talking past each other, and Godwin-ing their opponents (“Godwin-ing” means comparing something to Hitler or Nazism). But controversies and disagreements can also be very productive, and essential to real progress regarding challenging issues. Philosophers of science have been tackling this same issue for a while, in the context of science (and science education) — what do they think about the value of being ‘open-minded’ as a serious consideration of any idea any person proposes? Is there such a thing as being too tolerant of unpopular or minority views? Where (and how) can we draw the line?
September 16, 2021 – “Because I said so” (John Locke on the power of parents)
Description: For ages, and across cultures, parents have tended to think they have a right to rule their children. . . but do they? If they do, where does this right come from? What, moreover, is the purpose of parental power? And, finally, does it have any limits? In this week’s P4L we will read and discuss 17th century philosopher John Locke’s revolutionary answers to these questions, and critically examine their usefulness for parents and children today.
September 9, 2021 – “Meaning in Life”
Description:  What makes life meaningful? This question is among the most important but also among the most elusive. At this P4L, we will read key passages and discuss Susan Wolf’s “Fitting Fulfillment” theory of meaning in life. Her theory stands out for its clarity, and it is one of the most widely accepted among (analytic) philosophers working on this topic. Here is a rough sketch of the theory. Let’s say that you are wondering whether some activity is meaningful. To be truly meaningful, the activity must meet two conditions. First, you must find it to be fulfilling (subjectively). Second, the activity must be objectively worthwhile. This sounds simple, but everything depends on whether we can effectively unpack these conditions, which we will attempt at this session. In a pleasant twist, according to Wolf’s theory, this P4L itself will turn out to be meaningful for some of us.
May 13, 2021 – “Lesbian Lives in Simone de Beauvoir”
Description: In The Second Sex, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir notes that the fate of women has been mainly determined by their anatomy; young girls are reared to find husbands and have children with them. However, she also identifies a few alternatives: homosexuality is one option. Beauvoir argues that, for a woman, homosexuality, “is one attempt among others to reconcile her autonomy with the passivity of her flesh.” In this week’s P4L, we will explore Beauvoir’s figure of the lesbian, and reflect on the benefits as well as the limits of her account. *Special Guest: Sarah Kondash
May 6, 2021 – “Language and Reality”
Description:  Are some ways of describing reality better than others? For instance, ordinary English recognizes a distinction between dogs and cats––we have different words for each sort of thing. But consider an imaginary language: Schmenglish. Schmenglish lacks the words ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ and, instead, has a single term ‘dog-cat’ that refers to anything that is either a dog or a cat. And given how the term is used in this language, Schmenglish speakers can say something true when they point to a golden retriever and exclaim, “He’s a good dog-cat.” Are Schmenglish speakers missing out on some feature of reality? Is English a better means of describing the world than Schmenglish? And how could we decide? In this P4L, we’ll focus on this last question and explore whether the notion of ontological structure might help us answer it.
April 29, 2021 – “The Performative Theory of Gender”
Description:  Whether you believe that gender is binary or a spectrum, it seems inescapable. Gender is a part of our personal identity and how we understand our relation to others and the world. However, what gender is, and where it comes from, is still debated. In this week’s P4L, we will examine the philosopher Judith Butler’s controversial ideas regarding gender as a performance, and we will consider its potential implications on society and feminist debate. *Special Guest: Trevor McKenzie
April 22, 2021 – “Philosophy and Science: Is Science Objective and Impartial?”
Description: In this P4L, we’ll be reading selections from a few philosophers including Helen Longino and Sharon Crasnow about the outside-the-ivory-tower influences on scientific research, and whether science has sufficient tools to resist them. Scientists are humans, after all, and have our own biases, perspectives and interests: do those show up in the science we produce? Can science compensate for those, to give us objective, value-neutral truth? (Does it, in fact?) *Special Guest: Dani Sosa
April 15, 2021 – “In Defense of Liberty & Human Dignity: Opposition to Reactionary & Revolutionary Totalitarianism”
Description: At a time when democracies across the world are increasingly assailed, one should rightly fear for the future of humanity’s inherent liberties. Economic instability, deep-rooted prejudices, & lack of faith in the status quo are amongst the most prominent drivers of political extremism in any society. This extremism, no matter its ideological coating, has already plunged the globe into bloody wars and established regimes where the human spirit is crushed beneath an oppressive and murderous jackboot. Hannah Arendt, a survivor of the same extremism which dominated much of the world throughout the 20th century, details how human beings can ultimately be the constructors of the very systems which enslave as well as dehumanize not only others, but themselves as well. In this P4L, we shall learn from Arendt’s writings, not only about the dangers that forecast the rise of extremism, yet just as well what it implies for the future of democracy in our increasingly divisive yet interconnected societies. *Special Guest: Matthew Murcia
April 8, 2021 – “Seeing Through the Veil of Perception”
Description: Indirect realists, as the name suggests, claim that we do not perceive the physical world directly. Instead, we perceive it only by means of perceiving mental proxies or mental representations. This view has a distinguished history, and it still exists in various corners of philosophy and the sciences. Though many disagree with it, virtually all regard it as coherent––it does not contain any internal contradiction. A.D. Smith disagrees. He argues that indirect realists cannot coherently claim that there is a physical world beyond the senses. In this P4L, we’re going to explore Smith’s argument and try to figure out whether indirect realism is actually incoherent.
April 1, 2021 – “Happiness in a Divided Self”
Description: Plato’s Republic (380 B.C.E.) includes claims about happiness that rest on a divided view of the self. According to Plato, the self has three parts. Rather than characterize happiness as some kind of unification of the self’s parts, Plato’s account of happiness (and justice!) is hierarchical, one part rules over the others. This view is so deep in our culture that it will probably resonate with some of your intuitions about how you should live—and these intuitions may or may not lead to happiness. Discovering what may lie behind some of your intuitions is one benefit of learning about Plato’s view. Another benefit is that this process may give us hints about what an alternative view of happiness would look like.
March 25, 2021 – “Painting Perception: Merleau-Ponty on Cézanne”
Description: French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty credits the painter Paul Cézanne with having discovered the truth of human perception—about how the world appears to us. According to Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne accomplishes this through his original use of color. In this week’s P4L, we will read passages from the essay, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” and attempt to see just what Merleau-Ponty saw illuminated in the French Impressionist’s paintings.
March 18, 2021 – “Waking Up the Sheeple: Conspiracy Thinking”
Description: Conspiracy theories are—unfortunately!—nothing new. But, they do seem to be newly energized by the changing landscape of social media communication, entering the mainstream dialogue of democracy in unique ways. For philosophers, one significant aspect of conspiracy theorizing is that “both sides” accuse the other of fairly important lapses or errors in acquiring belief: the Conspiracists are paranoid cherry-pickers; the Sheeple are too trusting of authorities with unknown motives. It would be very handy to have some way to determine not just who is correct in these disputes, but who is thinking most responsibly and carefully about it. Are there typical, characteristic failures in thinking that we can diagnose in conspiracy theorizing? Do established and accepted instances of conspiracies show us that, instead, the mainstream needs to change its ways of thinking? Join us as we “do our own research”!
March 11, 2021 – “Rethinking Ignorance”
Description: Traditionally, ignorance is understood as a form of “not knowing” that is the product of neglect and could thus be resolved with learning and education. However, over the past decade, there has been increased interest among philosophers to reconsider how we understand ignorance. Instead of viewing ignorance as a matter of neglect, some contemporary philosophers now frame ignorance as something substantive in its own right. This new framework considers ignorance as a definitively social phenomenon and aims to account for the role of social identities and modes of belief-formation that are common to experiences of ignorance. Recent studies in this field have been especially useful for thinking through contemporary political and cultural issues in the United States. In this P4L, we will consider the basic foundation for contemporary work in this field by working through some of its fundamental concepts and examples from Linda Alcoff, Lorraine Code, Charles Mills, and Sandra Harding • Special Guest, Phillip Opsasnick (Stony Brook University)
March 4, 2021 – “What Kind of Thing Is a Musical Instrument?”
Description: The philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann claims that musical instruments are “focal things.” He states this in-passing and without developing the idea. But more generally, Borgmann does explain what a focal thing is: focal things (a) have no functional equivalents; (b) they unify a context; (c) they make demands on us; (c) they are inconspicuous; and (e) they have the capacity to center and illuminate our lives. What are some other examples of focal things? Get ready for an unusual list: a festive meal, the wilderness, a fireplace, a trout, and the path of a run. Does characterizing a guitar or a violin as a focal thing help us to better understand how these instruments function in the lives of musicians and music enthusiasts? Join us for the next P4L to read and discuss key passages from Borgmann’s book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. This session will explore a surprising intersection where the philosophy of music and the philosophy of technology meet.
February 25, 2021 – “The World Beyond the Senses”
Description: Despite appearances, philosophers and scientists have often argued that the external world is colorless. Though objects may look red, green, blue, and so on, in reality, they are not. But few have thought this of shape. Most think that squareness, rectangularity, roundness and other geometric qualities are really out there in the world. Why the difference in treatment? 18th Century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid thinks he has an explanation. If he’s right, the tendency to ‘kick color out of the world’ may be based on nothing more than an abuse of language.
December 3, 2020 – “What’s the Point of Being Rational?”
Description: Being rational is valuable, at least in part, because it is a reliable means of getting true beliefs. But there is a puzzle about our use of the terms ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’. Sometimes we are inclined to call beliefs ‘rational’ even when they are not formed by a reliable (truth-conducive) process. Conversely, we are also inclined to call some beliefs ‘irrational’ even when they are formed by a reliable process. This is strange. Why don’t we call all beliefs formed by unreliable processes ‘irrational’? And why don’t we call all beliefs formed by reliable processes ‘rational’? For the final P4L of the semester, we’ll unpack this puzzle and consider a potential solution: epistemic communism.
November 19, 2020 – “Injustice and Power”
Description: What is the mindset of a very powerful person who flouts society’s political and moral norms? Perhaps this kind of person is thinking that if you have enough power, injustice pays. In the first book of Plato’s Republic, he gives us the character Thrasymachus, who argues that justice is for suckers: “A just man always gets less than an unjust one…. Injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice” (343–344). Importantly, Plato devotes the rest of the Republic to refuting this cynical view. In light of today’s politics, it may be instructive to look back at Plato’s insightful analysis of Thrasymachus. At this P4L, we will read and discuss passages from Book One, in an attempt to understand Thrasymachus’s assumptions and reasoning.

November 12, 2020 –  “What Is Enlightenment?”

Description: In December of 1784, the philosopher Immanuel Kant published an article in a journal with the opening line: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” The article went on to become one of the most influential accounts of the values of the Enlightenment. Therein, Kant urges us to have the ‘courage to use our own reason’ and he suggests that what prevents us from thinking for ourselves is laziness and a lack of courage. In this week’s Philosophy for Lunch, we will read passages from Kant’s famous text in order to understand more about enlightenment and what we need to do to achieve it, as individuals and as a community.

November 5, 2020 –  “Do We Believe?”
Description: The role belief plays in our everyday understanding of each other is hard to understate; belief attributions help us explain each other, make predictions about each other and hold each other to standards of rationality. Yet, as we make progress in understanding how humans think, some philosophers argue that concepts like belief are in the process of being made obsolete, to be replaced by concepts that enjoy (greater) scientific support. At this P4L, we will discuss philosopher Stephen Stich’s arguments that the concept of belief should not play a (significant) role in scientific accounts of cognition and behavior, as well as Daniel Dennett’s analysis of different standards under which beliefs may be judged as (un)real. *Special Guest: Ryan McElhaney
October 29, 2020 –  “Are There Zombies Among Us?”
Description: A philosophical zombie is a creature that is just like an ordinary human in every respect but one: it lacks conscious mental states. There is nothing it is like to be a zombie—everything is dark on the inside. Intuitively, you are not a zombie. But some philosophers have argued that, in truth, there are no such things as mental states (no such things as beliefs, perceptions, desires, etc.). And if so, then there is a sense in which we are all zombies. In this ultra-spooky Halloween P4L, we’ll consider whether there are any such things as mental states and, in turn, whether there are zombies among us.
October 22, 2020 – “This Is Not Propaganda”
Description: Philosophical discussions about propaganda are not new. In The Republic, Plato argued that democracies are short-lived, destabilized by less rational interests of its citizens. In his Politics, Aristotle asserted that the “intemperance of demagogues” brings about revolution by stirring up the people with manipulative rhetoric. Our contemporary thoughts on propaganda are greatly influenced by its use in WWII, as best captured in George Orwell’s depiction of the activities of the “Ministry of Truth” in his dystopian 1984. To get a better sense of what propaganda is, and how it works, we’ll begin by looking at Bertrand Russel’s Free Thought and Official Propaganda, written in 1922. A more recent publication, Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works, can further this discussion, as Stanley explores how propaganda can reveal a deeper conflict in ideologies. *Special Guest: Daniel Richmond
October 15, 2020 –  “Trust”
Description: Trust seems to be a basic feature of relationships as well as our ability to move through the world. Without trust, we would not only become very lonely, we likely would not be confident driving a car, using a computer, taking medication, or believing our professors. As the world becomes increasingly complex and technical, we have to rely more and more on the word and the decisions of scientists and other authoritiesto have confidence in their reliability, virtue, and honesty concerning aspects of the everyday world that are too technical or remote for us to judge and understand. But should we trust them? How does expertise and authority come to be presented to us? And how can we be equipped to weigh its trustworthiness? *Special Guest: Ethan Hallerman.

9/24, 10/1, 10/8  –  “Deciding What to Believe” (A Special P4L Series)

Description:  Our beliefs shape our character and determine our actions; yet, without much thought, we adopt some of our beliefs rashly and some we inherit from others. Living with faulty beliefs can prevent us from achieving our individual goals and can even endanger us as individuals and as a society. Philosophers do not aim to tell anyone what they should believe, but philosophers do explore and develop methods for subjecting beliefs to rational scrutiny. This special series of three Philosophy for Lunch sessions will focus on strategies we can all employ to help us form beliefs in a way that is reasonable and responsible.

September 17, 2020 – “Conspiracy Theories vs. Free Speech”
Description: Encouraging free speech is supposed to help us arrive at the truth. The philosopher John Stuart Mill was a prominent defender of free speech who believed that we must support the airing of even false opinions. His reasoning is that an open consideration of false opinions gives us “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error” (On Liberty, chpt 2). But what about conspiracy theories? Are conspiracy theories simply false opinions that we should welcome into our public discourse? Maybe not. In his 2018 book, How Fascism Works, the philosopher Jason Stanley argues that conspiracy theories can “undermine the basic background set of presuppositions about the world” (chpt 4). His concern is that conspiracy theories can break-down the shared conception of reality which is required for open dialogue to yield positive results. Join us at this P4L to read and discuss passages by Mill and Stanley.
September 10, 2020 – “The Sick Body Politic: Disease as a Metaphor in Political Philosophy”
Description: The idea of a ‘body politic’ is as old as Aesop’s Fables. Conceived as a living body, a political community can be described as healthy or as sick. Political philosophers—from Plato, to Seneca, to Marie de France and Christine de Pizan, to Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—have invoked the idea of a body politic. In “Disease as Political Metaphor,” Susan Sontag reflects on the uses and misuses of ideas of health and illness for describing political life. We are living under different conditions from those Sontag describes—for us, illness is not just a metaphor, but a reality. Does this affect the philosophical value of the metaphor? Does COVID-19 show the body politic metaphor as deficient in new ways? Or does the metaphor appear more philosophically relevant for thinking about the vulnerabilities and strengths of our current situation, so that we might treat not only sick individuals, but also the other maladies that threaten us as a collective? Join us for this week’s P4L as we read passages from Sontag’s piece and discuss its usefulness for philosophically elaborating our unprecedented political situation today.
September 3, 2020 – “Does Implicit Bias Threaten Our Ability to Learn?”
Description:  Implicit racial bias is ethically problematic. Put simply: it’s wrong. However, the wrongness of implicit bias is multidimensional. It is also epistemically problematic. Scientific studies have shown that implicit biases make both oppressed and privileged groups worse at thinking. The philosophical upshot: In societies where implicit racial biases are prevalent, it tends to be harder for all members of that society to think critically and, in turn, makes it harder for members of that society to gain knowledge. Join us at this P4L to discuss these timely issues.
August 27, 2020 – “When Is It Wrong to Believe Something?”
Description:  We sometimes think we live in a uniquely “post-truth” era, but philosophy has been occupied with the problem of justified belief for quite a long time. What are we required to do in order to justifiably gain and maintain a belief? One particularly forceful view was articulated by W.K. Clifford in 1877. Consider a person’s honest belief in the effectiveness of some medical treatment, a belief that is grounded in anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking. Is such a belief just mistaken or in fact immoral in some important sense? From “conspiracy theories” to self-deception, Clifford is worried about the beliefs that sincere, honest people acquire. Is his view prescient and useful in today’s environment, or dated and archaic? Join us at this P4L to see if his solutions might apply to today.
August 20, 2020 – “The Scope of Happiness”
Description:  There are several different philosophical theories of happiness (or better, well-being). Two popular theories of well-being are Hedonism and the Desire-Fulfillment theory. Hedonism claims that experiencing more pleasure than pain is the key to well-being. Desire-fulfillment theory claims that satisfying one’s desires is the key to well-being. At this P4L, we will read about and discuss two principal theories of well-being, paying special attention to the role of scope in different formulations of these theories.
July 9, 2020 – “Racism and the Social Contract”
Description: In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, some members of the public and media, such as Trevor Noah, argued that the social contract, which binds together our society, is sometimes not honored when it comes to Black people. The philosopher Charles Mills offers an even more devastating critique of our society. Mills claims that white supremacy is systemic. There is another contract that underpins the social contract, which Mills calls The Racial Contract. According to Mills, the racial contract “restricts the terms of the social contract to whites” (65). Mills writes, “[T]he ‘consent’ expected of the white citizens is in part conceptualized as a consent, whether explicit or tacit, to the racial order, to white supremacy” (14). At this P4L we will read and discuss key passages from Mills’s important book, The Racial Contract.
April 30, 2020 – “What Is All This Bulls#!^ ?”
Description:  At this P4L 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.
April 23, 2020 – “What Is Philosophy?”
Description:   If you ask two philosophers to define “philosophy,” one might explain what philosophy is not, and the other might just laugh at the question. Sure, there are some general things one can say, but it is notoriously difficult to precisely define “philosophy.” Part of the problem is that, as time passes, academic disciplines shift, boundaries blur. Even more problematic is that perhaps what we want to define should not be limited to the academic, university-conception of philosophy. Another part of the problem is that there are many different ways of doing philosophy, different traditions and movements. In spite of these difficulties, great philosophers have occasionally paused their specific projects, taken a step back, and have attempted to point us in the right direction; they have made an attempt to help us to understand at least one central aspect of what philosophy is. At this P4L, we will read and discuss a few notable passages where such attempts are made, from Socrates’s intellectual modesty to Mary Midgley’s very fruitful comparison of philosophy to plumbing!
April 16, 2020 – “Virtual versus Face-to-Face Interaction”
Description:  Technology shapes our experience: the way we see the world has always been framed by the way our current technologies frame our seeing. Today this is more true than ever: because of the dangers of human contact due to COVID-19, we are dependent on technology for most of our social interaction. Using applications like Zoom, we are able to bring the faces and voices of others into our own homes and hands. What is lost in the shift into a handheld social world? How is virtual social interaction different from face-to-face interaction? One person who might have some clues is Walter Benjamin. In his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproducibility,” Benjamin examines what is lost and what is gained when traditional works of art become mechanically reproducible through photography and film. Virtual interaction is originally made possible by these technologies. In this week’s Philosophy for Lunch, we will discuss passages in Benjamin’s essay in order to think about the differences between virtual and face-to-face social interaction.
April 9, 2020 – “The Experience Machine” (on Zoom)
Description:  In his influential thought experiment, the philosopher Robert Nozick asks us to imagine a futuristic machine that would give us any experiences we choose. After describing the details, he asks us whether we would want to plug in, and he offers reasons not to. In this first virtual Philosophy for Lunch, we will read and discuss passages from Nozick’s experiment that raise deep questions about pleasure, desire, happiness, and well-being generally.
March 5, 2020 – “De-Severing the Digital World“ (the final physical session of Spring 2020)
Description: In our technology-ridden lifestyle, our attention is constantly taken to different places: we often get lost in the use of our smartphones, where videos, texts, articles, and social media pull us into what feels like another world. For Heidegger, a constitutive part of our existence is our tendency to reduce, or “de-sever” the remoteness of that which is far: we bring entities close to us, not in terms of physical distance, but in practical awareness or activity. What would Heidegger say about our earnest use of smartphones? We feel that they are close, in that they are always readily available for something like a quick Google search— but is there a danger in how often we pull the digital world in? When we pull it in, what are we pushing away? *Special Guest: Madison Gamba
February 27, 2020 – “Clock-Time vs. Duration“
Description:  Time is an important dimension of human experience that remains an enigmatic area of philosophical inquiry. While we often feel a familiar experience of time, attempts to define what time is can be surprisingly challenging. As Augustine once wrote: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” At this P4L, we will look at an accessible, introductory model of understanding time developed by the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941). We will focus specifically on the way in which Bergson develops a concept of time in its own, non-spatial terms that is distinct from clock time. *Special Guest: Phillip Opsasnick
February 20, 2020 – “What Can Pigeons Teach Us About Color?”
Description: A normal apple might look a particular shade of red to you, or me, or any other typical human subject. But it will look a much different color to a pigeon. Who sees the true color of the apple: humans or pigeons? Some have thought that both see the true color. But how could this be? In this P4L, we’ll learn a bit about what this sort of perceptual variation can teach us about the nature of color itself.
February 13, 2020 – “What Can Bats Teach Us about Consciousness?”
Description:  We all have what seems to be a very immediate and reliable sense of what it is to be conscious, to have experiences, and to know subjectively what this is like. But this very immediacy could be a problem: how can we collectively discuss what we can only privately contemplate? Thomas Nagel explores this issue by trying to imagine what it would be like to be a bat. If we cannot imagine what this would be like, what might this failure mean in our quest to better understand our own consciousness?
February 6, 2020 – “The Impact of our Smart Environments”
Description:  Information and communication technologies are becoming a more prominent part of our environments, increasingly forming the background of our lives. We sometimes engage with an AI home assistant as a kind of tool, but increasingly, these technologies work actively and “intelligently” in the background, shaping our environment—shaping our world. How should we conceptualize the role that these environmental technologies have in our lives so that we can assess them, and so that we can have a hand in defining their role?
January 30, 2020 – “Coming to See the Light in Plato’s Cave Allegory”
Description: One of the earliest and the most famous images in Western philosophy is known as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. With this allegory, Plato presents philosophy as a way of coming to see the world in a new, true light. Life in the cave is dark and shadowy and so experience is deceptive. Truth is only discovered outside the cave in the bright realm of the mind. This week, in our first P4L of the semester, we will read passages from the Cave Allegory and critically discuss the notion of truth depicted therein.
Dec 5, 2019 – “Is a Hot-Dog a Sandwich?”
This question, innocuous and inoffensive as it sounds, appears to be the source of much controversy (at least online), but why is that? Perhaps it’s not due to the subject matter, inherently, but rather, a sign that as humans we are both keenly interested in, and yet sharply divided when it comes to categorizations and definitions. This interest and division, regarding the practical use of definitions as a means of categorization, will be the central topic of conversation at this week’s P4L. We’ll read and discuss passages from Wittgenstein and Plato. *Special Guest: Josh Kaye (New School for Social Research).
Nov. 21, 2019 – “What Does Hallucination Teach Us About Perception?”
What do you see right now? The answer (obviously): a screen, some words, and various other physical objects. But couldn’t you just be hallucinating? And if so, how can you be sure that you really see these things? In this P4L, we’ll look at whether hallucination threatens the commonsense idea that we perceive physical objects in the external world.
Nov. 14, 2019 – “The Un-Free Will”
The sense of our own agency is unshakable; we are convinced that our choices are our own, and that we have them in most if not all scenarios. It seems unnatural and even disturbing to relinquish our freedom—yet, there are undoubtedly limitations to this freedom. There are situations that we did not choose that limit our choices, and even personal roadblocks that restrict how we conduct ourselves. In this P4L, we will explore Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about free will, or rather, the un-free will, and the implications for some of our most important choices, such as our desires and decisions about who we are, and who we want to be. *Special Guest: Stephanie Spivak. 
Nov. 7, 2019 – “Five Faces of Oppression”
Theories of oppression are most commonly articulated in terms of personal domination and restraint. Iris Marion Young counters this convention by arguing for an understanding of oppression as a structural and ontological concept, which is dependent on the creation of social group identities. In her landmark essay from 1990, Young connects five different discourses of oppressed peoples to offer a synthesized concept of oppression as a dimension of social ontology that is built into our everyday practices and forms of meaning. In this P4L, we will explore the ways in which oppression is enacted and sustained at an ontological level and we will consider ways in which Young’s theory could be updated for contemporary use and analysis. *Special Guest, Phillip Opsasnick, Stony Brook University.
October 31, 2019 – “Death”
At this frightening, Halloween P4L, we will read and discuss some terrifying existentialist passages about death. Try focusing on the fact that some day your life will come to an end—your life. This is a grim realization. Reflecting upon your death in this direct way highlights that your death is an end to your particular narrative, your story. In a surprise optimistic turn, some existentialists believe that this train of thought highlights your uniqueness, and also reveals the extent of your freedom to give shape to your narrative, your life, while still alive.
October 24, 2019 – “Is Consciousness a Brain Process?”
Modern science has taught us that there is a strong correlation between conscious states and brain processes. What does this correlation tell us? Could conscious states be nothing over and above brain processes? In this P4L, we’ll consider these questions by reading selections from J. J. C. Smart’s classic article “Sensations and Brain Processes.”
October 17, 2019 – “Power in Plurality”
Power is a neutral concept: it signifies the ability to do or produce something—to act. When we describe someone as powerful, however, we usually mean that he or she has influence or control over others. Hannah Arendt sees power differently. For her, it is not something that can belong to one individual alone but rather something that springs up between them. Power, she says, appears whenever human beings speak and act together. This is because each human being is singular and unique and so whenever human beings get together, they can actualize power out of their plurality. To find out more about what Arendt thinks about power—where it comes from and what it can do—come to this week’s Philosophy for Lunch.
October 10, 2019 – “Aesthetic Distance”
The term “aesthetic” is often used to refer to our experiences of visual art, music, literature, dance, film, theatre, and so on. Do we also occasionally experience ordinary things and events aesthetically? The larger question: What is aesthetic experience? At this P4L we will consider whether there is a general difference between ordinary experience and aesthetic experience. We will read and discuss passages from an influential article by the aesthetician Edward Bullough. Bullough proposes that employing what he calls “psychical distance” is what makes an experience aesthetic.
October 3, 2019 – “Super-Humean Skepticism”
Is it reasonable to use the past to predict the future? You might be somewhat familiar with Hume’s infamous “Problem of Induction,” the idea that our expectations about the future can’t be straightforwardly grounded on past experiences (unless we also assume that, say, nature is and will remain uniform.) Hume thought that we rely on psychological expectations that the future will resemble the past, and cannot provide a rational justification for prediction at all. Nelson Goodman thinks that Hume was not quite pessimistic enough, and has a new riddle that might be even worse than Hume’s original Problem.
September 26, 2019 – “How is Free Will Possible?”
On the one hand, many of your actions seem to be free. It is up to you whether you raise your hand, buy the more expensive cereal, or study for the exam. On the other hand, many of your actions also seem to be influenced by your upbringing, biological endowment, social position, and luck. These influences are largely beyond your control. If so, how could your actions really be free? In this P4L, we’ll explore this and other puzzling questions about free will.
September 19, 2019 – “Families and States”
A tension between family and state lies at the foundation of Western philosophy. In fact, the first ideal philosophical city— Plato’s Republic—is built upon the dissolution of the family. Aristotle responds by criticizing his teacher and defending the power of familial bonds and the importance of the family within the state. In this week’s Philosophy for Lunch, we will examine the Plato-Aristotle debate about the role of the family in the state and consider the potential dangers, as well as the benefits, of familial ties for political life.
September 12, 2019 – “Self-Alienation”
You know what it means to become alienated from another person, or from some group. What does it mean to become alienated from your self? For some existentialist philosophers, understanding self-alienation is one key to understanding how to live a meaningful (not-alienated) life. At this P4L, in order to clarify self-alienation, we will examine a certain character created by Leo Tolstoy, and then we will turn to the philosopher Richard Schmitt’s interpretation of that character as a paradigm of self-alienation.
April 25, 2019 – “Bodily Knowing”
Why is it that some of the best athletes are bad coaches? Why is it that some of the best coaches were never very good athletes? One answer might be that two different kinds of knowledge are involved. It may be that athletes possess a kind of bodily knowledge of the game, while coaches possess theoretical knowledge of the game. Bodily knowledge seems to turn on activity; theoretical knowledge seems to turn on reflection and scrutiny. In this P4L, we will draw from the phenomenology of Hubert Dreyfus, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in order to explore the differences between bodily knowledge and theoretical knowledge. We may ask ourselves this question: Depending on the context, which type of knowledge is more important? —Special Guest: Madison Gamba
April 18, 2019 – “Self-Deception”
Self-deception is easy to recognize. Think of the amateur actor who cannot get a role but dismisses this as others’ failure to appreciate his genius. Or imagine the parent who continually neglects her child and yet says there is nothing more important than family. Both are guilty of self-deception. But what exactly makes these instances of self-deception? That is, how should we understand the general phenomenon present in these particular cases? These are hard questions. Despite being easy to recognize, an account of self-deception is somewhat elusive. In this P4L, we’ll turn to the work of Mike W. Martin for answers.
April 11, 2019 – “Explaining Explanations”
Explanations seem to have a fundamental role in producing understanding, but explanations are controversial and complex. What is the relationship between understanding and knowledge? What role does description play in explanation? Are there different levels of explanation? At this P4L we’ll explore challenges with explaining explanations, and maybe even understanding understanding.
April 4, 2019 – “Love and the Social Contract”
When two people willingly establish a monogamous relationship they give up much of their individual freedom for the sake of something greater: partnership. Both consent to being considered by others as belonging to this new entity—the partnership itself—which, in turn, affects how others consider them as individuals. At this week’s P4L, we will invoke some key aspects of Hobbes’ social contract theory to explore the implications of romantic exclusivity. — Special Guest: Madison Gamba
March 28, 2019 – “Do Interpretations of Art Matter?”
Supposedly, the creators of King Kong (1933) had not intended to make a movie about the slave trade; they only wanted to make a monster movie. Yet, Quentin Tarantino’s subtextual interpretation of King Kong seems to perfectly reveal a hidden meaning in the work. At this P4L, we will draw from the philosophy of art to explore the conflict between an artist’s intention in making an artwork and the ways in which the resulting artwork is interpreted. — Special Guest: Sam Rose
March 21, 2019 – “Becoming Gendered”
“One is not born, but becomes, woman,” Simone de Beauvoir boldly stated in her monograph, The Second Sex. This ‘becoming’, she argues, begins in childhood with the organization of human beings into two distinct categories — ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ — each of which is invested with its own norms, values and directives. And one does not become a girl or boy on one’s own: “Only the mediation of another can constitute an individual as Other. Inasmuch as he exists for himself, the child would not grasp himself as sexually differentiated.” The idea that gender is a social construct, rather than a natural-biological fact, remains controversial today. In this week’s P4L, we will try to get a better sense of de Beauvoir’s contribution to this debate by reading and discussing passages from The Second Sex.
March 7, 2019 – “Hegel Time!”
G.W.F. Hegel. He is known for many things—his historicism, his influence on Karl Marx, his absolute idealism, his dialectic, and above all his incomprehensibility—but what was Hegel’s philosophy of time itself? The question: “What is time?” touches the deepest hopes and fears in all of us, amply explaining why this question continues to motivate so much professional and popular treatments in philosophy, physics, religion and politics. The answers provided by analytic philosophy and popular science seem to miss the existential point of the question, and the answers provided by phenomenology and critical theory seem to want to duck the question what time really is, concentrating instead on how it is experienced. In this P4L we will examine Hegel’s understanding of time in nature, in experience and in history, in the process coming to see how the greatest systematic philosopher since Aristotle understood the significance of the operation of time in our world, our lives, and our social progress. —Special Guest: Greg Bartels (The New School for Social Research)
February 28, 2019 – “The Philosophy of Quantum Theory (and Cats)”
At this P4L we’ll learn about the now-classic paradox of Schrodinger’s cat, from the paper where it was introduced (translated from German, of course). What, exactly, is the reason this is considered such a significant thought experiment? What does a physics paper, written by a physics legend, have to do with philosophy? Come join us to find out.
February 21, 2019 – “The Hard Problem of Consciousness”
Pinch your arm (gently). When you do this, various signals are sent to your brain, causing it to enter into a certain electrochemical state. The result: an experience of pain. But why exactly? Why does a brain in this electrochemical state give rise to an experience of pain—an experience that feels like this? Why doesn’t it give rise to an experience of pleasure or some other experience? And, moreover, why does it give rise to some experience as opposed to no experience at all? This is the hard problem of consciousness. In this P4L, we’ll try to get clear on what this problem is and what it means for consciousness in a physical world.
February 14, 2019 – “The Birth of Philosophy in Love: Diotima’s Speech in Plato’s Symposium”
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates recounts his exchange with Diotima, a wise woman who instructs him in the art of love. She describes that love of knowledge—the philosopher’s love—allows us to realize our creative instinct by giving birth to immortal children. For our February 14th Philosophy for Lunch session, we will feast on love by digesting passages from Diotima’s speech and seeking to understand the way in which philosophy’s children, as she understands it, are born and nurtured.
February 7, 2019 – “Multitasking and Technology”
In this age of multi-tasking, many technologies seem to require us to attend to multiple things simultaneously (such as driving while using GPS or driving while using a cellphone). According to some traditional theories of perceptual attention, what we are really doing in these situations is rapidly shifting our singular attention from one thing to another, rather than attending to multiple things simultaneously. Is this correct? At this P4L, we will consider the recent work of some philosophers of technology who have claimed that we do have the capacity for multi-attention. What could multi-attention be? To begin phenomenologically, if you can attend to multiple things simultaneously, how would you describe that experience?
January 31, 2019 –  “Do You Know Yourself Better Than Anyone Else?”
Perhaps, right now, you are feeling a bit of pain in your back. More optimistically, you are feeling comfortable and pain-free. I don’t know which of these things you feel—not unless I observe your behavior or ask you. But you know. Moreover, you seem to be the authority on such things. If you believe you are in pain, and I believe otherwise, your belief is to be trusted over mine. In this P4L, we’ll take a closer look at this issue: the issue of whether one has a special sort of access to her own mental life.
November 29, 2018 – “What did I just sign up for? The Sexual Contract Behind the Social Contract”
In her classic work of feminist political philosophy, Carol Pateman theorizes about the patriarchal foundations of modern social contract theory. Rather than allow men and women to enter into agreements as equals, according to Pateman, contracts legitimate women’s subjection by men: “far from being opposed to patriarchy,” she suggests,”contract is the means through which modern patriarchy is constituted.” In this week’s philosophy for lunch we will read key passages from Pateman’s book in order to uncover the sexual contract hidden behind the social contract.
November 15, 2018 – “Euthanasia & Physician-assisted Death”
Do human beings have a right to die? Should a person of sound mind be permitted to waive their right not to be killed when they perceive death as a benefit rather than a harm? How do we resolve conflicts between the right to life and the right to self-determination at the end of life? At this P4L we will discuss the ethics of euthanasia and physician-assisted death. Under what circumstances, if any, are they ethically acceptable? We will learn how the U.S. Supreme Court and other judicial institutions worldwide have viewed this issue. We also explore the practical challenges of legalizing these practices–assuming a consensus exists that they are ethically warranted in some circumstances. — Special Guest, Kim Baxter.
November 8, 2018 – “Why Study Beauty?”
In this philosophical discussion, we will weigh anew reasons delivered and discovered for the study of beauty, of that which makes life worth living and love worth having. Our pursuits will consciously take after John Ruskin, the thinker of the beautiful, who states most importantly: “It is far more difficult to be simple than to be complicated; far more difficult to sacrifice skill and cease exertion in the proper place, than to expend both indiscriminately.” On the heels of the powers of simplicity, whose excellence I will not hesitate to follow out in as many ways as time permits, we will seek to understand how beauty makes mankind, if such there be, gentle, kind, and honorable—or to state this in a more contemporary tone, how beauty makes us (more) capable of mercy, sincerity, and compassion. — Special Guest, Patrick Bova (New School for Social Research)
November 1, 2018 – What Should We Do When We Disagree?
Suppose that you and a friend disagree on something. She says global climate change is a hoax. You say it isn’t. Both of you are familiar with the same evidence. Both of you are generally reliable reasoners. But you still disagree. What should you do? Should you reduce your confidence in global climate change? Or should you remain steadfast in your belief? At this P4L, we’ll look at how we should (or should not) revise our beliefs when we disagree with one another.
October 25, 2018 – Time and Change
Time the all-destroyer, the all-devourer. Nothing we have, nothing we build, nothing we do and no one we love will endure, but will rather change, decay and ultimately perish at the hand of time. We are in a constant battle with time. We want to buy time, use time, make time. But what is time? St. Augustine famously said of time, “I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.” At this P4L we will examine two arguments on time and change. The first, from the British philosopher John McTaggart, agues that time and change are so closely aligned that time cannot be made sense of, and must be considered an illusion. The second, from 20th century philosopher Sydney Shoemaker, uses a science fiction thought experiment to argue that time is a scientific inference like any other, and can be decoupled from change. We will attempt to explore the commitments, paradoxes and human significance of these arguments before our time—is up. —Special Guest: Greg Bartels (New School for Social Research)
October 18, 2018 – Technology and Meaning
At this P4L, we will sample Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology. Borgmann is concerned about the degree to which the availability of advanced technology has led us to prioritize convenience and efficiency in achieving our objectives. Three examples: (1) In the 1970s, it was common to get a cardiovascular workout by running outdoors; now, many people opt for elliptical machines or treadmills. (2) Several decades ago, if we wanted music in the home, we played music on musical instruments with friends; now, millions of recordings are at our finger tips on smartphones. (3) Decades ago, eating dinner required an involved process of preparing a meal and then typically eating it with family and friends; now, many choose to grab a prepackaged dinner on the run. Borgmann believes that giving up such traditional ways of doing things increasingly disconnects us from other people and from the world; it slowly drains meaning from our lives. We will explore Borgmann’s distinction between technological devices and what he calls focal things and practices. Examples of focal practices are running outdoors, playing music with others, and preparing and eating a traditional meal. Borgmann is not a Luddite, but he is certainly in favor of preserving certain focal practices.
October 11, 2018 – Meaning for Sisyphus
What is the meaning of life? With the seeming meaninglessness of Sisyphus as his foil, Richard Taylor has addressed one of the most recurrent questions in philosophy; he has attempted to elucidate a clearer understanding of meaningfulness so as to approach the question anew. Interestingly, as a trope, the meaningless repetitive slog of Sisyphus can be rife with meaning. In the least it can hold relevance for those of us who’ve ever wondered, “Is that all there is?” To this end, we will take look at passages from Taylor’s “The Meaning of Human Existence” while pursuing our own responses to this question. —Special guest, Daniel Richmond (New School for Social Research).
October 4, 2018 – The Representational Theory of Consciousness
Consciousness is one of the most baffling aspects of the natural world. In this P4L, we’ll look at a relatively recent addition to theories of consciousness: representationalism. Specifically, we will try to get clear on what representationalism is and why one might think it is true.
September 27, 2018 – Smartphone Phenomenology
Rather than conceiving of a smartphone as “yet another object in the world to be perceived or acted upon,” some philosophers of technology conceive of smartphones as items that transform a user’s overall experience of the world, and which mediate our interactions with others. In other words, a smartphone or cell phone is a “transformational conduit of perception and action.” These are the words of Robert Rosenberger, who has written about cell phones, and works with the philosophical method of post-phenomenology. At this P4L we will read, discuss, and attempt to elaborate upon his interesting work.
September 20, 2018 – Paradigms: How Science Gets Done, and Undone
Many of us are familiar with the idea that scientists work within specific world-views—”paradigms”—that occasionally change, as our understanding of the world undergoes revolutionary change. (E.g., the “Copernican revolution” where science left a geocentric for a heliocentric solar system; the dual quantum and relativistic revolutions that upset the classical Newtonian worldview.) But those events are very few, and far between: what happens the rest of the time, and why do paradigm shifts happen when they do?
September 13, 2018 – Post-Truth
The Oxford English Dictionary chose “post-truth” as the Word of the Year in 2016. Has the social environment become even more post-truthful since 2016? Politics surely has. According to the OED, “Post-truth” refers to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” At this P4L, we will read and discuss passages from recent philosophical texts grappling with the post-truth phenomenon.
April 19, 2018 – More Free Speech
In this final Philosophy for Lunch of the semester, we will consider more reasons that contemporary philosophers have given in favor of restricting certain categories of speech. We will consider some reasons for believing that certain kinds of offensive speech should be restricted, and we will consider other basic values that ought to be weighed alongside the freedom of speech.
April 12, 2018 – Limits to Free Speech
At this P4L we will begin by briefly considering some of the traditional reasons to believe that free speech is important to society. Next, we will consider reasons that some contemporary philosophers have given in favor of restricting certain categories of speech. We will consider, for example, some reasons for believing that certain kinds of offensive speech should be restricted.
April 5, 2018 – Can You Know Things You Think You Don’t Know?
A famous dialogue of Plato’s purports to show how real knowledge is not learned through experience, but remembered (from forgotten exposure to “the Forms”, or abstract truths about the world.) We’ll read his argument for this in the form of a demonstration that an illiterate Greek knows Pythagoras’ theorem, even though he hasn’t been taught any math or geometry at all.
March 29, 2018 – What Is Expertise?
What is the difference between expert carpenters, drivers, teachers, or managers, on the one hand, and novices on the other? An interesting answer is provided by the famous Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition. The Dreyfus model identifies five stages of skill acquisition: novice, advanced beginner, competence, proficiency, and expertise. We will explore each of these stages. One of the Dreyfus brothers who developed this model, Hubert Dreyfus, was the most influential American interpreter of the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. We will be fruitfully distracted by the influence of these philosophers on the Dreyfus model at this P4L.
March 22, 2018 – The Gun Debate: Philosophical Leverage
At this P4L we will continue to consider philosophical perspectives on the gun debate. We will read and discuss the work of the philosopher David DeGrazia, exploring the kind of case that can be made for gun-control measures by focusing on an analysis of rights.
March 15, 2018 – Gun Control and Gun Rights
One way to find leverage to argue for gun control in our current climate may be to examine the nature of the right to own a gun. We know that there is a constitutional right at the center of the debate, but what justifies that right? Is the constitutional right to own a gun justified by appealing to a more fundamental *moral* right to own a gun? If so, what are the limits of that moral right to own a gun? At this P4L, we will explore this way of framing the gun debate.
March 1, 2018 – Why the Laws of Physics Lie
Most of us (who are fans of science) like to think that natural laws are discovered, reveal the truth about the world, and help us predict and explain why things happen the way they do. At this P4L we’ll read and discuss passages by the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, who argues that two of these aims, surprisingly, conflict.
February 22, 2018 – Friendship
Some friendships are based on pleasure, others on usefulness, others on goodness. This, at least, is Aristotle’s position. The third kind of friendship is obviously best—but what does it mean for a friendship to be based on goodness? In order to find out, at this P4L we’ll read and discuss passages from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
February 15, 2018 – The Comedy and Tragedy of Love
In Plato’s main work on love, the Symposium, the central speech is made by the comic poet, Aristophanes. Aristophanes tells a myth of love’s origins: a very long time ago we, humans, used to be complete, and many of us were androgynous, having both sexes and genders at once. But Zeus punished us for being too powerful and threatening to the gods. He split us in half, weakening us. Love is our quest to find our missing halves. We will read passages from the speech of Aristophanes, and consider the implications of love being defined in this way. —Special guest, Arina Pismenny (CUNY)
February 8, 2018 – The Image of the Woman in Film
Recently, several Hollywood actors spoke out against sexual abuse within the film industry. This raises many important and difficult questions. As we continue to struggle with these questions, one broad philosophical question we might ask is: How does film construct sexuality and sexual difference? In her highly influential “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey offers an account of how narrative film sustains the “socially established interpretation of sexual difference” by presenting images of the woman as the passive object of an active male gaze. In this P4L, we will read passages from Mulvey’s piece in order to get a more precise understanding of just how cinema accomplishes this, in her view.
February 1, 2018 – Desire Theory
There is a theory in philosophy known as The Desire Theory of Well-Being. Basically, the theory says that being happy rests on getting what you want, getting what you desire. What could be more reasonable than this? This seems to be a very intuitive way of understanding what constitutes happiness or well-being. It turns out, however, that there are some powerful criticisms of this theory. At this P4L we will consider what makes a life good by reading and discussing passages by contemporary desire theorists and their critics.
December 7, 2017 – Authenticity in Existentialism
What does it mean to be authentic? What does it mean to be inauthentic? Our common-sense understanding of authenticity differs from the existentialist view. In this P4L we’ll explore what certain existentialist philosophers meant when they disparaged inauthentic ways of being.
November 30, 2017 – What Is Utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism is a theory about what makes an act or policy ethical. It is influential in philosophy, politics, and economics. In this session, we will consider the basics of utilitarianism, and we will read and discuss some thought experiments that enable us to better understand the theory and criticisms of it.
November 16, 2017 – Art as a practice of freedom in Hegel’s Aesthetics
Does art have a purpose? What is its purpose, if so? What are we doing when we make art? In his Lectures on Aesthetics, G.W.F. Hegel suggests that art-making is one of the primary ways through which we make senses of ourselves and our world. Art, according to Hegel, is a special way of sense-making in that it requires and entails the transformation of natural material—what we call a medium. And by way of taking up some bit of natural medium and transforming it in this way, Hegel suggests, not only are we teaching ourselves that we are free from nature’s claims, but also, we actually become, free. Join us for this week’s Philosophy for Lunch as we look at select passages from Hegel’s Aesthetics in order to get a clearer understanding of his account of art-making as a practice of freedom.
November 9, 2017 – Self-Technology-World
Many philosophers examine the relationship between the self and the world. Technology is often inserted between ourselves and the world, especially in modern society. The philosopher Don Ihde considered three ways to clarify this relation of self—technology—world. We’ll read and discuss passages that may make you rethink the ways in which you relate to the world (and to other people) through technology.
November 2, 2017 – Cézanne and the Philosophy of Perception
Cézanne’s paintings of the late 1800s took a strange turn. They contain what seem to be geometrical distortions. On the face of it, Cézanne simply seems to do a poor job of depicting depth and other spatial features of cups, tables walls, and other objects. One of his contemporaries referred to this as “Cézanne’s suicide.” In the 1940s, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty offered a different view. Merleau-Ponty argued that Cézanne was attempting to paint what we actually see. We’ll read and discuss the passages in which Merleau-Ponty is grappling with the connections between his own philosophy of perception and Cézanne’s work.
October 26, 2017 – 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.
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 as 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.
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.
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 downplaying 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 Alienated?
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 difficult 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 influential 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.