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Writing Worth Reading

The Great Philosophers: Theodor Adorno

Adorno was preoccupied with the question of how we spend our leisure. He saw leisure as our prime opportunity to improve our lives by absorbing high culture and philosophy. He railed against radio and television as a threat to human flourishing. He believed that capitalism corrupted human nature by creating artificial wants which obscured our real wants. Luckily, he did not live to see the Internet (1,480 words)

If A Cat Could Talk

Dogs confirm us, cats confound us. Our relationship with cats is an “eruption of the wild into the domestic”. Cats blend in; their lethal instincts align with our interests; but they do not assimilate; they belong to the night. Cats are “vehicles for our projections, misrecognition, and primitive recollection”. They are part of our symbolic universe as much as our physical universe. Michel Foucault called his own cat ‘Insanity’ (2,400 words)

How To Be Good Pick of the day

Another superb profile from the New Yorker’s archive, de-paywalled for the summer. Derek Parfit is perhaps the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. He believes there are true answers to moral questions, as there are to mathematical ones; and that “there is nothing more urgent for him to do in his brief time on earth than discover what these truths are and persuade others of their reality” (10,670 words)

Why Did Nobody Resurrect The Caliphate Before Isis?

Asked and answered, succinctly. Because earlier Islamist groups — Hamas, Hezbollah, FIS, Taliban — were products of national struggles, with national objectives; they were focused on defeating the infidels, not the Shia; and not many people want to live back in the middle ages, where the caliphate belongs. “The extremism and brutality of da’ash is really off-putting to your average guy on the street” (300 words)

No Church in The State Of Nature

Jay-Z and Kanye West, in No Church In The Wild, relate Hobbes’s state of nature to Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. “They seem to think that without a belief in a God that creates rules there would be no morality. So for them the state of nature is like a world in which there is no God to create or enforce moral rules. This leads us to the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God loves it? Or, does God love it because it’s good?” (950 words)

The Great Philosophers: Hegel

Admirably candid bluffer’s guide. “Hegel put his finger on a crucial feature of modern life: we long for progress and improvement yet we are continually confronted by conflict and evidence of setbacks. His insight is that growth requires the clash of divergent ideas and therefore will be painful and slow”. New readers beware: “He writes horribly. He is confusing and complicated when he should be clear and direct” (1,530 words)

Melissa Lane Discusses Plato

Interview with Princeton philosophy professor, discussing outstanding books about Plato. “What we find in Plato, explicitly, is tremendous anxiety about the nature of writing. Of course the great paradox is that he’s writing, he’s reflecting on the limits of writing, the challenges of writing, of this new technology, very much the way we now reflect on the Internet and social media, how is this going to change our culture?” (3,890 words)

The Great Philosophers: Epicurus

Epicurus, born in 341BC, was famed for his “skilful and relentless focus” on one subject: happiness. “Previously, philosophers had wanted to know how to be good; Epicurus insisted he wanted to focus on how to be happy”. His advice: Don’t worry about pursuing love, status and luxury. Better to have a community of good friends, work for yourself, and spend part of each day thinking (1,200 words)

The Continuing Mysteries Of The Aleppo Codex

More on the fantastic story of the Aleppo Codex, the oldest known copy of the complete Bible, compiled at Tiberias in Galilee in 930CE, taken to Jerusalem, stolen by Crusaders in 1099, ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, stored for six centuries in Aleppo, lost in a riot in 1947 — and found ten years later “in mysterious circumstances in the new state of Israel”; but with 200 pages — The Torah — missing. Now read on (4,900 words)

“Of Sexual Irregularities”, By Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham, philosopher of utilitarianism, wrote “voluminous manuscripts” about sexual freedom. He reasoned that nothing could be more conducive to human happiness than “all-comprehensive liberty for all modes of sexual gratification”. But for two hundred years his trustees and editors suppressed these papers. A first selection is at last appearing as a volume in Bentham’s collected works (1,630 words)

Eulogy For Sidney Morgenbesser

Ten years after Morgenbesser’s death, the eulogy from his funeral. His gift for humour overshadowed his brilliance as a philosopher; he published little; history remembers him best for a one-liner delivered from the back of a lecture theatre. And yet: “He shaped the field in ways that can’t be measured by publications, in ways related more to conversation and sheer presence and force of personality. His impact staggers the mind” (3,100 words)

The Philosopher In The World

Interview with John Searle. Interesting throughout. Topics include human rights, animal rights, philosophers in government, Bernard Williams, philosophy of language. “There is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights” (2,328 words)

Francis: A Pitch-Perfect Pope

Pope Francis, “the world’s most popular leader”, is deeply marked by the “three towering influences” of his Argentine youth: the Catholic church, Juan Domingo Perón, and football. “Francis is usually explained through his Jesuit background. But he can also be understood as a typically Argentine Peronist politician. He is a brilliant populist communicator like Perón. Football is central to his communication” (860 words)

Judging Spinoza

Should Amsterdam’s Jewish community reverse the 17C excommunication of Spinoza? Probably not; nor, probably, would Spinoza want the ban lifted. He rejected Jewish doctrines and Jewish law. “To want to reintegrate Spinoza into Jewish life by lifting the ban would be to misunderstand what Spinoza stood for, given his strongly negative views on organised religion, and on Judaism in particular” (Metered) (1,780 words)

The Empire Of Alain de Botton

Largely sympathetic portrait of de Botton, philosopher-king of highbrow self-help, whose moralising essays on everyday subjects — art, sex, travel, status — have sold 6m copies, but also made him an easy target for critics. “He comes up with snappy ideas. He is unbelievably productive (he rarely sleeps past 6am). He gives YouTube lectures. But all this still doesn’t quite explain how intensely he gets under people’s skin” (2,560 words)

Haitian Vodou

Online Q&A with anthropologist studying Vodou in Haiti and New Orleans. “There is no sin that keeps you from the afterlife or which leads to eternal punishment. There is no hell. In death you can repair relationships you damaged in life, through working as an ancestor. At death you go to the other side of the waters and still act within your familial unit as an ancestral spirit but eventually you are reincarnated” (19,000 words)

What Does Buddhism Require?

Interview with Jay Garfield, philosopher. Interesting throughout. Buddhism is an “atheistic religion” preoccupied with the nature of reality and the impermanence of the self. “The modern emphasis on individuality might not be such a good thing. We might all be better off if we each took ourselves less seriously as selves. That may be one of the most important Buddhist critiques of modernity” (Metered) (2,464 words)

Who Wrote The Serenity Prayer?

You know — the one that begins, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”. It was Reinhold Niebuhr. So says the researcher who first disputed Niebuhr’s authorship by turning up instances of the prayer pre-dating the standard attribution to Niebuhr in 1943. Turns out the earlier instances can be traced to Niebuhr also, as quotations from the unpublished work. So, as you were: it was Niebuhr (1,820 words)

The Pope’s Phone Call

Pope Francis has made his mark on the pastoral side of Catholic life, rather than the doctrinal — leaving the church’s formal teachings unchanged, while accepting that people may have difficulty following them exactly. But the more loosely he interprets Catholic dogma, the more scope for doubt as to whether even the pope himself actually believes in it. A theological crisis may be unavoidable (Metered) (925 words)

Neanderthals Are People, Too

We could probably clone a Neanderthal, more or less, and rediscover a species lost for 30,000 years. But should we? No, says the scientist who has led the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome: “Neanderthals were sentient human beings, after all. In a civilised society, we would never create a human being in order to satisfy scientific curiosity. From an ethical perspective it must be condemned” (Metered) (830 words)

The Pope In The Attic: Benedict In The Time Of Francis Pick of the day

Vivid, charming portrait of two Popes in one Vatican City. “It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church” (5,300 words)

Hook Of Mormon

Mormon church lifts ban social media, discovers that internet chat rooms are great places to recruit. People like the anonymity. It’s easier than having “a couple of gangly teenagers” in your living room. “Whereas traditional Mormon missionaries convert, on average, six people during their 18-to-24-month service, the online apostles in Provo have averaged around 30 converts per missionary per year” (4,100 words)

The Mathematical World

On the philosophy of mathematics. Two essential characteristics distinguish mathematics from other sciences: Complete abstraction, and the claim to discover absolute truths. But is mathematics anything more than a set of internally consistent rules — and therefore, at some level, a tautology? Or are those rules determined by external realities? Short answer: the latter. Symmetries and ratios exist in nature, for example (2,400 words)

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