Students talking on Campus

Philosophy for Lunch

Dec 5, 2019 – “Is a Hot-Dog a Sandwich?”

Description: 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).

When?
11:45 a.m.–12:45 p.m. Every Thursday

Where?
Schmitt Hall, Room 104

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

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

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

Past Philosophy for Lunch Sessions

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.