The Danger of Thinking: Nihilism

In volume one (“Thinking”) of her unfinished three volume work, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt thoughtfully describes thinking. In the following excerpt, she focuses on nihilism and the danger of thinking:

What we commonly call “nihilism”—and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to think “dangerous thoughts”—is actually a danger inherent in the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product. Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the current so-called positive values, to which it remains bounds. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and “values” by searching out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.

But that danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living, but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary. Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, but itself, does not bring forth any new creed. Its most dangerous aspect from the viewpoint of common sense is that what was meaningful while you were thinking dissolves the moment you want to apply it to everyday living. When common opinion gets hold of the “concepts,” that is, the manifestations of thinking in everyday speech, and begins to handle them as though they were the results of cognition, the end can only be a clear demonstration that no man is wise. Practically, thinking means that each time you are confronted with some difficulty in life you have to make up your mind anew.

However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. [….]

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (San Diego: Harcourt, 1978), 176-7.


Year in Preview

My first book came out in September 2014, and my seventh book was released last week. Seven books in a little less than three and a half years. I wrote three and edited four. That’s one—or more like seven—of the reasons that I haven’t posted much to this blog in the last few years. With these books behind me, I’m starting to focus more on smaller pieces. Continue reading

Provocation and Interruption

Provocation and interruption are, respectively, the origin and goal of philosophy. This sense of philosophy finds expression in the following quotations from Peter Sloterdijk, the first of which suggests that philosophy is a trace of an unavoidable provocation, while the second articulates the function of the philosopher as an interrupter.

It is a characteristic of humanitas that human beings are confronted with problems that are too difficult for them and that nevertheless cannot be left unaddressed on account of their difficulty. This provocation of the human being by something that can be neither avoided nor mastered left an unforgettable trace behind already at the beginning of European philosophy—indeed, perhaps philosophy itself is this trace in the broadest sense.
(Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Park,” Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger [Polity Press, 2017], p. 211)

We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot be changed so long as we are social beings. The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free, each of us can divine them. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by my letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society, if I may express myself in such pathetic terms. His missions is to show that a subject can be an interrupted, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it. The classics express this with the term ‘pondering.’ With this concept, ethics and energetics enter into contact: as a bearer of a philosophical function, I have neither the right nor the desire to be either a conductor in a stress-semantic chain or the automaton of an ethical imperative.
(Sloterdijk, Neither Sun nor Death [Semiotext(e), 2011], p. 84-5)


Varieties of Climate Denial

Extreme weather events have been happening since there has been weather. The current frequency and intensity of those events clearly corresponds to the symptoms of anthropogenic climate change. For skepticism, we can never really know with a hundred percent certainty precisely what causal factors are at work. That applies to all things, not just complicated things. For example, for a skeptic, we can never really know if the sun is going to come up tomorrow. That lack of knowledge does not necessarily imply a lack of ethical considerations. Epistemic skepticism isn’t necessarily a moral skepticism, and moral skepticism does not necessarily imply personal inaction. After all, the sun may come up again tomorrow. Even though we can’t know it with a hundred percent certainty beforehand, it might be worth acting as if tomorrow will be another day.

The appropriation of skeptical thought by climate denialists (so-called “climate skeptics”) wrongly equivocates a whole series of things: lack of epistemic certainty becomes a lack of moral knowledge, and a lack of moral knowledge is a lack of justified moral belief, and most paradoxically, a lack of justified moral belief is justification for the moral belief that inaction is the appropriate response. This abject failure of epistemic and moral reasoning is not due to a lack of knowledge but to an excess. Climate skeptics know that anthropogenic climate change is really happening, and it terrifies them, because they know that it “changes everything,” as Naomi Klein aptly puts it. They know it’s happening, but they can’t admit it, so they simply disavow it or negate it, repress it or repudiate it. It’s denial. Continue reading

Bacteria and Natural Agency

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association has an article about agency and cognition in bacteria, “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition,” by Fermín C. Fulda. It’s part of a steady stream of research across the humanities and sciences indicating that nonhuman life forms are smarter than most modern philosophers had thought. It’s often billed as a surprise. Even bacteria have cognition! HERE is another piece with an overview of some bacterial cognition research. Fulda’s article is very critical of the looseness with which words like cognition, intelligence, and agency get lumped together, so he adds some philosophical clarity and distinction to those terms, specifically as they apply to research regarding the patterned behavior of bacteria.

Proposing an “ecological conception of agency,” Fulda argues for a move from a Cartesian to neo-Aristotelian perspective. Focusing on different kinds of agency (Aristotle) and not primarily on cognition (Descartes) allows for a broad, fluid boundary between human and nonhuman life instead of the rigid binary of Cartesian mind and matter. Of course, many philosophers make similar arguments for a spectrum of agency. Hans Jonas, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are good twentieth-century examples, but those aren’t exactly the thinkers who dominate discussions in the American Philosophical Association. It’s significant that Fulda is making this argument in an APA context. Is mainstream philosophy becoming less anthropocentric? Maybe. Continue reading

The Side View – A Call for Contributors

The Side View is a media platform being developed by my good friend and colleague, Adam Robbert. Lots of opportunities for collaboration, cooperative asceticisms, existential acrobatics…

Knowledge Ecology

The Side View Logo Final V1“Attention is an art form. We explore how people shape their minds to become expert perceivers and doers.”

I’ve been working on a new project as of late. I’m calling it the Side View. It’s a media organization (podcasts, essays, interviews, books, events, that sort of thing). The basic premise—to study the skills of perception in action—is one that grows out of the work I’ve been posting about here for the past several months, but it’s much more than that. It’s a whole media environment.

The official launch is several weeks off yet. I’m aiming for Fall 2017. However, the major components of the website are already in place and I’ve been working with a graphic designer on logo and branding elements. I also have a sound engineer helping me set up and use the recording equipment for podcasts, and I already have several contributors ready to go. Things are…

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Beginnings of Philosophy

The origin or beginning of something plays a significant role in its ongoing explication: extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. As Aristotle observes (Ethics 1098b), “arche [origin] seems to be more than half of the whole.” There’s a story that philosophers tell themselves about the beginning of philosophy, a very common story, a story that seems to have past its expiration date. Continue reading