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Cultural Psychologists claim that people in different cultures have different selves. They have a lot of data showing that Asian selves and American selves are quite different. But what does this even mean? I think we need to make a couple of distinctions before this make sense for those of us coming from the direction of philosophical discussions of the self and personal identity.
To begin with, what is a self?My view is that a self is just a person, a human being with the normal capacities of thought, memory, reason, and the like.``My self” is like “my neighbor”.My neighbor is just an ordinary person, thought of as the person who lives next to me.My father was just an ordinary person, thought of as the person who fathered me.`Self’ means `identical with’.Suppose I say, ``Obama doesn’t like `drama kings or queens’ and expects everyone in his office, his secretary, his national security advisor, and himself, to remain cool and rational.When I say `himself’ I'm just referring to Obama by the relation he has to the person I am talking about --- namely, identity.
Now admittedly this simple theory doesn’t fit with a lot that we say and think about selves.Philosophers often talk of the self as though it were an inner principle of some sort.We say that a person should be true to himself, or that a person is not herself this morning.This doesn’t seem to make much sense if the self is just the person.
I think that’s better thought of as talk about our concepts of ourselves.We each have a very important concept, the one we express with the word `I’.It’s the way we think of ourselves.It’s where we store all the information we get, like what we’re thinking and our reasons for doing things.My concept of myself has a quite special structure, compared to my concept of other people.But it seems likely to me that in many basic ways my self-concept will be similar to the concepts of themselves that other persons have of themselves, whether they are from Japan or China or even Ohio, like Ken.
For example, we all think that we have bodies, that we can control in ways no one else can, just by deciding and willing what to do.We all think we have special ways, our senses, of finding out about what is going on around those bodies.We all think we have special access to our own thoughts and sensations.And so on and so forth.
Even within this agreement, there is room for important differences between people, and patterns of difference between cultures.One important consideration is which things we find most important about ourselves, the ways we can’t even imagine being different.For example, I’m from Nebraska. But I have clearly not seen that fact about me as being tremendously important.When I left Nebraska after college, I didn’t think anything important about me had changed; I was just in different situation, with different opportunities.
That’s a pretty common attitude for Americans.We pick up and move at the drop of a hat.Cultural psychologists will tell you that that's pretty unusual.Far more common, especially in Asia, is that who one is --- one’s self-concept in my vocabulary --- is rooted in one’s home, one’s family, one’s ancestors.Moving across a country, or across the world, is hard to imagine.It may be necessary, but it will be traumatic.
For example, my friend Syun Tutiya commutes three hours every day across the whole of Tokyo to his job at Chiba University.He won’t move closer, even though the housing is less expensive, because it would mean moving away from his father and mother and brother, who all live in a neighborhood where his family has lived for generations.I think this is sort of odd, but he thinks its sort of odd the way I moved away from Nebraska, the home of my family for several generations, with no thought of returning.
One important difference is the western emphasis on ``individualism”.We think what is most important about people are their individual values and ideas, the beliefs they've developed from their own unique perspective.Data shows that Americans, if asked about who they are, will emphasize facts about their biography that differentiate them from other people, while Asians will emphasize where they are from, and what thepeople in that city or region do.We think of our “American individualism” as an expression of the great discoveries of the Enlightenment, which Americans are kindly educating the rest of the world about. But cultural psychologists may think it is a culture-bound way of thinking that’s no more valid than any other way of thinking.
To help us think through all of this, our guest is Hazel Markus from Stanford University, editor of Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies.
This week our topic is Derrida and Deconstruction. Derrida was one of the most widely revered and widely reviled thinkers of the mid-to-late twentieth Century. Many people in a variety of disciplines – especially in the literary humanities -- regard him as an absolutely seminal figure. Mark Taylor recently called him one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century -- right up there with Heidegger and Wittgenstein. On the other hand, many philosophers would strongly disagree with that assessment (including that assessment of Heidegger and, to a lesser extent, Wittgenstein) -- especially philosophers, like John and I, who belong to the Anglo-American tradition. In our circles, Derrida tends to be regarded as something of a fraud and a charlatan. Moreover, folks blame him for what they often see as the especially sorry state of literary studies. But we question everything here on Philosophy Talk. So in complete fairness to Derrida, we should ask ourselves whether it’s just prejudice that keeps us from appreciating Derrida’s profundity and importance.
My first reaction to that question is that it clearly isn’t just prejudice that causes him to be so reviled by so many. I mean for a man who was deeply concerned about the nature of written language and with the interpretation of written language, Derrida was awfully hard to read and interpret. Of course, you could ask whether he’s harder than Kant or harder than Hegel. Neither of those guys is easy to read or interpret, but nobody dismisses them as frauds or charlatans. Perhaps, though, that just shows the difference between German obscurity and French obscurity. German obscurity can seem profound, but French obscurity is just irritating and perplexing.
But all kidding aside – and I was just kidding – I think there’s a deeper reason why Anglo-American philosophers often find Derrida so off-putting. His work purports to undermine what he takes to be the very foundation of everything that we do. I’m talk here about the so-called logocentrism that Derrida perceives to be at the heart of Western Philosophy and his claim to have moved us decisively beyond it. Since analytic philosophy claims to be the continuation of the western philosophical tradition, it carries on the tradition of logocentrism. To speak a little bit of Derrida-ese, it might be said that like the logocentrics of old we anal-retentive, logo-phallo-centric philosophers privilege logos – that is, meaning, reason, spirit -- and we take speech to be prior, in the order of signification, to writing. And by privileging speech over writing, we privilege presence over absence. We hanker after transcendental signifieds -- signifieds that transcend all signifiers, meanings that transcends all signs. Now I’m not sure what all that means, but it sure sounds bad. And Derrida shows us how to get beyond all that. That is, how to get beyond an oppressive metaphysics of presence, that excludes, marginalizes and fails to acknowledge that which is absent, that which is different and other. Think, for example, of all the voices that were historically absent from the Western philosophical canon. The voices of women, blacks, gays, the poor, and on and on. Through the canon’s privileging of presence, it fails to acknowledge what is not there, what is absent.
It sort of astounds me, though, that through the seemingly apolitical and morally innocent act of taking the spoken word to be somehow prior to the written word, we do all that nasty stuff. I know, I know. There’s a long story about how that works. But thanks to Derrida there’s supposedly a way out of the mess that traditional western philosophy has gotten us into. We execute a sort of reversal. We privilege texts, that is, writing, over speech. The benefit of that move is that unlike speech the text is constituted as much by what it excludes as by what it includes, by absence as much as presence. Studying texts, even the texts of the canon with its oppressive metaphysics of presence, allows us to recognize and acknowledge what is absent.
The way we get at absence via the text is by deconstructing the text. Now that doesn’t mean tearing it down and ripping it apart, sort of like tearing down a building -- at least not exactly. Rather, to deconstruct a text is to expose the inevitable and ineliminable contradictions and oppositions upon which it is founded, which it disguises and refuses to acknowledge, to expose it as devoid of fixed and determinate meaning, as irreducibly complex, unstable, and, even, impossible.
That’s a mouthful. And I know I'm not up to making complete sense of it on my own. And I doubt John is either. We are definitely going to need some help with this one. Luckily for us, help is on the way in the form of Joshua Kates, author of Fielding Derrida: Philosophy, Literary Criticism. History, and the Work of Deconstruction.
We need to distinguish two questions in considering abortion:
Why is abortion morally objectionable, if it is? Is it because we violate the rights of the fetus? Or is it some other reason, like that it expresses a cavalier attitude towards human life?
if we interfere with a woman’s choice to have an abortion, have we wronged the woman? Do we, or does government, have the right to interfere with the exercise of that choice?
The answer to the first question only partly determines the answer to the second. If there’s nothing morally objectionable about abortion, there’s no legitimate reason to interfere with a woman's choice. But just because there might be something objectionable, it doesn't follow that we have the right to interfere.
Here’s an analogy. I think its wrong to drink yourself silly in your own home, in a way that undermines your potential as a human being and your ability to have relationships with other people. But I don’t think the government or society has the right to prevent a person from doing these things, at least not in the privacy of his own home when he’s alone.
Still, if abortion is wrong because a fetus has a right to life, and in fact is the murder of a human being, it’s a much more serious wrong than drinking oneself into oblivion. If that’s the answer to the first question, then doesn’t it determine the answer to the second --- that government and society have a right to prevent abortions?
Well, maybe not. There’s a famous article by Judith Thomson. She imagines a situation in which a gifted violinist, for reasons that are left obscure, has taken up residence in your abdomen, and needs to remain there for nine months before he can be safely extracted. Wouldn’t you have the right to insist that he be removed forthwith, even if it meant his death?
This leads to a second distinction. I think there are two basic strategies for defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
The more straightforward strategy I’ll call the ``Tooley” strategy, after one of its clearest exponents, Michael Tooley. It says basically that the right to life pertains to persons, and not every live human being is a person. So, even if we grant --- which I must say seems to me undeniable --- that a human fetus is a live human being, it doesn’t follow that it’s a person, and it doesn’t follow that it has a right to life, and that killing it is a case of murder.
People who advocate this line argue that being a person involves various things that fetuses don't have --- at least in the early stages, perhaps self-consciousness and certain emotions. And of course plenty of people think this strategy is wrongheaded --- perhaps because the issue is really when the fetus gets a soul, not when it acquires some intellectual capacities.
The other strategy is the Thomson strategy. Even if a fetus is a person, even if killing it is homicide, it may be something a woman has right to do. Homicide may be justified in self-defense, or in war, and perhaps it’s justified when a person has taken up residence inside you.
Well, now that we’ve clarified things, it should be a simple matter to figure out where the truth lies, and solve this issue once and for all. [joke]
This week begins both a new year and a new season of Philosophy Talk. Hard to believe, but we're into our 8th season. It's been a great ride so far and we hope to keep building the program.
To launch a new season and a new year, we take up the topic of free markets, in particular the moral costs of free markets. Free markets are, on balance, wonderful things, I think. When they're truly open and free and not monopolized by a few big players, or overly regulated by excessively intrusive governments, markets are amazingly efficient ways of providing people with the things they want and need. They're the chief engines of economic progress, and are singularly conducive to human happiness.
But my enthusiasm for free markets is not unlimited. It’s not that I don’t like free markets or that I am some kind of socialist – though I do think that democratic socialism of the Western European variety has something going for it. In their place, markets are very good things. But I just don’t believe that every product or service is best distributed by the market.
To make a pretty basic point, take something as simple as the air we breathe. I doubt that even someone with boundless enthusiasm for free and open markets, would suggest that there should be a price on air.
Now you could say that that is cheating, since nobody controls the air. So nobody can stop you from breathing just because you won’t pay up. There couldn’t be a market in air. But of course there markets in air -- sort of. At least there are markets in clean air -- where companies get to buy and sell pollution credits. That points to a different problem with markets. You buy your gas-guzzling dream car. The oil company gets rich. The car company gets rich. And me? I get to breathe dirty air.
Here I’m talking what economists call externalities -- costs generated by economic transactions between two parties that are borne by somebody else, somebody not a party to the original transaction. Markets can generate lots of different externalities and many of them are morally problematic.
But that wasn’t my original point about markets in air. My point was that even if there could be a market for air, nobody would accept it. People have a basic and equal right to air. And things to which we have basic and equal rights shouldn’t be subject to the whims of the market – you know… some folks having more, some having less, and some having none at all.
I know that there are, of course, lots of things that the rich have more of and the poor have less of. The poor live in less luxurious houses than the rich; drive less expensive cars; go to less fancy schools, have less access to the political process. Plus they eat less well and probably don’t wear as finely-tailored clothing. And I admit that if we were going to restrict markets wherever they generate inequality, we’d truly have our work cut out for us.
But I didn’t say that wherever markets generate inequality they're bad and ought to be regulated. Still, markets are not divine. They don’t have godlike wisdom into the right and just distribution of every possible good. That’s because they pay attention only to the bottom line, not to considerations of justice and morality. That’s why markets sometimes need to be regulated or even prohibited.
Of course, that raises the question of what principles distinguish morally intolerable markets from morally tolerable ones. Here’s a first quick thought about that. Votes definitely shouldn’t be traded on the free market. And public schools definitely shouldn’t be driven by markets. Public schools should offer an education that’s good enough for rich and poor alike – independent of ability to pay.
But of course, those aren’t really principles, are they? Those are just examples. I gave examples because, frankly, I don’t know what the right principles are. I’m not even sure that all the moral limits of markets have to do with inequalities. Markets in woman’s sexual labor seem wrong to me, for example, but not because of issues about inequality -- not exactly, anyway.
It seems clear that we need to call on somebody who has thought a little harder and deeper about this question than I have. That would be our guest, Stanford philosopher Debra Satz. She's the author of the very fine book, Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets.
Our topic this week is the philosophy of history. There are different ways the word ‘history’ might be defined, so we had better start out by defining our terms. For example, you could define history as the sum total of past events. But that’s not how historians or even philosophers of history would define it. The problem with that definition is that it encompasses every single event that has so far happened in the Universe – from the big bang to the emergence of humankind and everything in between. We do sometimes talk about history in this broad and inclusive sense, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.
We're gearing up to record our third annual Dionysus Awards Show. This will be the third year in a row that we have given out Dionysus Awards for the most philosophically interesting movies of the year. We're seeking nominations from you, our listeners. Submit a nomination to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with information on how to reach you, in case we want to include you and your nomination on our final broadcast. Please submit your nomination by January 9th, so that we have ample time to sort through them all and decides which ones we want to include in our awards show.
This year, the Dionysus Awards show work a little differently than in the past. Instead of a live broadcast from the studios of KALW, we will "pre-produce" the show. That will give us far more freedom to pick and choose movies and to include clips and other sound elements in the episode. We plan, by the way, to market the show to the entire public radio system as a stand-alone, pre-Oscar special. it's going to be great fun and a great episode. And we'd love to have you be part of the action. So step up to the microphone, and nominate the movies that you found most philosophically interesting for 2010. You can also include philosophically interesting blasts from the past if nothing from the current crop strikes your fancy -- but we're more likely to include movies from the past year than older movies.
Don't just tell us what movies you liked, though, be sure to tell us why you liked it and why, in particular, you found it philosophically compelling.
Let me make it clear that a movie can doesn't have to be explicitly philosophical in the way that, say, Inception is in order to count as philosophically compelling. Indeed, some movies that try too hard and too laboriously to be philosophically interesting sometimes just don't work as movies at all. As long as the movie is both good as a movie and fruitfully looked at through the lens of philosophy, it's a plausible candidate for a Dionysus Award.
So join the fun and submit a nomination! You can do so by sending an e-mail to email@example.com. You can also leave a comment here on our blog or over on our Facebook page -- though those are by nature more public, of course. No matter where you submit your nomination, make sure that we can get in touch with about it if you think you might like to talk about it on the air with us.
We'll be recording and editing the program during the last couple of weeks of January, for broadcast sometime early mid February -- beginning February 13th on KALW and our other regular affiliates and hopefully right up until the time of the Oscars on other stations around the country.
While licking a pot, six-year-old Tim asks: "Papa, how can we be sure that everything is not a dream?" His father admits he has no idea.Tim says "Well, I don't think everything is a dream, ‘cause in a dream people wouldn't go around asking if it was a dream."
That’s an example from Gareth Matthews, a philosopher who has gotten interested in the idea that children are natural philosophers; they ask interesting philosophical questions and come up with interesting answers.
This week’s program was recorded at the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children.We talk with the founder and director, Jana Mohr Lone, about the work of the Center.But for most of the program, we talk to fourth-graders about identity, personal identity, the mind and the body and the nature of happiness.
Confronted with issues like the ship of Theseus, what to say about brain transplants, whether the mind is the brain, and whether happiness is a feeling or something more complicated, the children come up with a range of responses that pretty much corresponds to the solutions philosophers have offered.
Our topic his week is the power of thought. Human thought is an amazing thing. It has given us science, literature, morality, and last -- but certainly not least -- philosophy. Thought even has the power to create new realities. And I’m not primarily thinking of literature and the arts or even of technology. I’m thinking of the entire social world. Every size social reality from clubs to nations and every thing in between is a creation of the human mind, of human thought in particular. They all exist because we simply think them into existence.
Of course, the mind is not all sweetness and light. Besides all the things I just mentioned, it has also given us superstition, slavery, and war. But that just makes the nature and power of human thought all the more puzzling. The mind that spent millennium after millennium, mired in archaic social formations, in the grips of irrational superstitions is the very same mind, with the very same powers of thought, as the mind that produced science, philosophy, and art. Our goal is to understand just what human thought is such that it produces both the science and superstition, both democracy and slavery.
So let’s start at the beginning and ask just what thoughts are in the first place. When you ask the person in the street, like our roving philosophical reporter did, she or he is liable tell you that thoughts are that little voice inside your head -- where that means inside the brain, if the person is a materialist and inside the mind, if person is a dualist. But we’re trying to figure out what thoughts are, not where they are. If we’re going to understand the power of thought, we need to first understand the different kinds of thoughts and how each different kind works.
Take a simple thing like the belief that there is beer in the fridge. That’s a thought. But it’s only one kind of thought. And suppose that you want a beer. That’s a thought too. But a different kind of thought – a desire. Beliefs represent, or misrepresent, how things are in the world. They are the kinds of things that can be true or false. Hopefully our beliefs are more true than false. If our beliefs are false, the rational thing to do is change our beliefs to match the world. Desires, on the other hand, don’t represent how the world is. We don’t say that my desire to have a beer is false just because I don’t have one. But we do say that my desire is unsatisfied, when you want a beer, but don’t have one. The way to satisfy a desire is not to change it, but to change the world. That’s where a third kind of thought comes in – intentions. If you believe there’s a beer in the fridge and you really want a beer, then maybe you will form a new kind of thought – an intention. An intention is the kind of thing that can make you get off your duff and walk over to the refrigerator and get a beer. Or not -- if you’re a weak willed, lazy sort.
Now we really want to understand the power of thought and what it actually does in the world we have to to understand how beliefs manage to represent, or misrepresent, the way the world is; how desires manage to set forth ways the world might become; and how intentions move us to act to actually change the world. That may seem like a very tall order, but it’s a little more simple than it might at first seem, because beliefs, desires, and intentions are built out the same basic building blocks -- just put together in different ways. In particular, they are all built out of concepts or ideas. My belief that there is beer in the fridge, my desire to drink a beer, and my intention to go and get a beer all involve the concept or idea of beer, for example. So we can make a start on understanding the power of thought by thinking about the nature of concept or ideas, where they come from, and the different ways they can be put together to create such a wide-variety of thoughts. And once we’ve got a handle on that, we can think more about the different things that different kinds of thoughts do.
Unfortunately, that’s probably more than John and I can handle on our own – especially in a one hour radio show. But luckily for us, we’ll have help in the form of Steven Pinker, the world-renown author of an amazing series of books about the human mind – including his most recent, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window on Human Nature. Should be a fun hour.
Isn’t it a bit odd that philosophers disagree? Consider Ken and I. We’re both a reasonably well-educated, fairly intelligent, pretty perceptive, not overly neurotic philosophers. Why shouldn’t we agree about everything?
We need to distinguish between apparent and real disagreements.Suppose Ken says lima beans taste good, and I say that he’s wrong, lima beans taste bad.It seems there is no real disagreement here, just differing tastes.We only have real disagreement when two people hold opinions that cannot both be true.
Exactly where to draw the line isn’t so clear.Lima beans: differing tastes, or is there a fact of the matter whether they taste good or not?One might say there are subjective facts: they taste good to Ken, but not to me.Tasting good is not a property of lima beans, but a relation between lima beans and a person, a subject; they taste good to some people, but not to others.Our ordinary way of expressing subjective facts often disguises them as objective facts:Lima beans taste good.No they don’t.
How about disagreement on aesthetic issues.Dickens is a deep an interesting author?No he’s not; he’s a nineteenth century hack.Subjective, or objective?Jane Austen is a better author than Dickens?No she’s not!Is there a fact of the matter?
How about the abortion debate.It’s sort of puzzling, because intelligent people and learned people look at the same facts and draw opposite conclusions.But maybe the conclusions aren’t really opposite.Maybe one party is really just saying, “we really really disapprove of abortions and don't like them at all,” and the other party is saying, “we don't mind them all that much.” There's no real disagreement, just different taste.Or maybe they are not really looking at the same facts.Maybe those on one side or the other are ignoring important facts, like souls, or like the slippery and conventional nature of all classifications, even attributes like being a person, or committing murder?
So knowing what is a real and what is only an apparent disagreement is itself a philosophical problem, or a bunch of them, and rich source of disagreement.
But take a case where there is no question but that we are dealing with an objective fact.Suppose Ken and I each have a clear view of a certain tree. Suppose we are both reasonably well educated about trees but not real experts. Ken says it’s a cedar, I say it’s a redwood.Should we each lower the confidence we put in our own conclusion, on the grounds that an equally good judge has come to an opposite one?
That seems reasonable, but suppose I have carefully considered the matter.The bark looks like a redwood.The needles don’t quite look like a redwood, could be a cedar. Ken did the same.Now if I take Ken’s view into account, it seem I am just taking the same evidence into account that I already did, but weakening the conclusion.What’s rational about that?
Perhaps it’s not the very same evidence.I am adding the evidence that Ken came to a different conclusion.Think of it this way.We are both fallible devices for getting at the truth.When I came to the conclusion it was a redwood tree, that was based on the results of the device nearest at hand --- my own mind.But now I can take account of the result of a different device Ken’s mind.If the devices agree, it’s like the old advice, measure twice, cut once.But if they disagree, it’s best not to cut until you’ve considered the matter further.
But, if I measure a length twice, and come up with different results, common sense suggests the true length may be somewhere in between.Measure a third time, or split the difference.But the tree is either a redwood or a cedar.The fact that Ken and I come to different conclusions is really not evidence that it’s some kind of hybrid.Unless I think Ken has consulted evidence I haven’t, or knows more about trees than I do, his conclusion really doesn’t seem to provide me with any new information at all.Well, perhaps it shows that we aren’t really peers, and one of knows more than the other?But which one?
The issues here are more complex than meet the eye.There is in fact a large and growing disagreement about how rational people should treat peer disagreement.I’ve gotten to the limits of what I know about this debate, but following tomorrow’s program, I’ll know a lot more.I think.
Please contact Ken & John by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an angle to add to any of the upcoming topics on Philosophy Talk, or if you have suggestions for future topics. You could be a guest caller on the air!
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