The humanities are increasingly in a beleaguered position in Universities and Colleges across the country. Academic philosophers like to think that their place is still secure because their subject is the most ancient of the so-called humanities; it is a discipline devoted to promoting basic intellectual skills; and it has connections with a diversity of other fields. But the turbulence that is affecting our institutions is not making halt before philosophy departments.
Our epistemologists are used to ask some very general questions: What is knowledge? What is the relation between observation and theory? How do we justify claims to knowledge? Digital technology is changing how information is collected, organized, and disseminated. The proliferation of claims to knowledge in the Internet highlights moreover the issue of error, mis- and disinformation, of “Fake News,” of its distribution and the question how to disarm it. We need an epistemology for the digital age that looks at knowledge not only in the usual timeless fashion but takes into account the changing landscape of human knowledge.
"Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we'd be asking? … We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession. But now we turn to our own country."
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die
Trump must be a puzzle to our political realists. He certainly shares their scorn for seeing politics in moral terms. Unlike George W. Bush, he doesn’t speak of an axis of evil in the world; and unlike Obama and the Democrats, he is little concerned with the issue of human rights. As an amoral capitalist he believes in self-interest and the exercise of power, in the use and pursuit of money in politics.
But he is also not much interested in the actual political realities. He sticks to a simple picture of what the world is like, despises experts, and ignores advice. In his factual claims he is often quite unrealistic.
Donald Trump has already made a number of serious mistakes in his political career. I am not talking here of decisions over which the political parties might disagree. I am talking rather of mistakes due to his incompetent handling of political matters. Politics is also a craft which can be employed in the service of different policies. Trump is proving that he is not a master of this kind of skill.
We are living today in an age of surveillance which is still expanding its reach. For all that we are still not paying enough attention to this development and its implications for human life.
Donald Trump has exposed the extraordinary weakness of the Europeans. In the current game of global politics they are forced to play a very minor role. How did it come to this and what can the Europeans do about it?
Illustration: Max Ernst, Europe after the rain II
Technology has transformed and deformed our long-evolved political order and it is likely to do more of that. A technologically enabled economic and financial system has certainly diminished the regulatory power of the state. Goods, services, and people can now move easily across continents, not always under the control of governments. Pictures, words, ideas, and information are massively channeled within and between political systems, often defying the power of states but also often abetting it. At the same time, the state’s tools of surveillance and repression have become definitely more effective. Its military strength has vastly increased and can be projected over wider distances. We notice, thus, a diminution of state power in some respects, but also an increase in others.
The current American administration appears set on all out conflict with Iran. In this endeavor it has allied itself unconditionally with Saudi Arabia. Is this a clear-sighted policy? In an uncompromising speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Mike Pompeo, the new American Foreign Secretary, today, May 21, 2018, threatened that "Iran will continue to feel the 'sting of sanctions' if its doesn’t change the 'unacceptable and unproductive path it has chosen. These will be the strongest sanctions in history by the time we are complete'.” Bloomberg News adds in its report on the speech: "The former CIA director essentially demanded Iran’s total submission without offering anything in return aside from the hazy prospect of sanctions relief at some future date." There is no doubt that the Iranian authorities will find this offer as unacceptable as it is meant to be. Thus, the stage is set for more confrontation.
Here is an exceptionally insightful critique of this course of policy from May 2017 by an Israeli analyst.
Our politicians do not like to speak about overpopulation out of fear for the pious who believe that human beings ought to multiply. Left-wing ideologues argue that there is no such thing and that every apparent problem can be solved through a more equal distribution of resources. Enlightened progressivists are confident that there will be a technological fix. Economists tell us that we need continuous growth and hence more consumers. And the statisticians are confident that the growth of the human population will eventually slow down. We are, in reality, already bursting at the seams; numerous ecological problems are due to the fact that there are already so many of us. We need to think harder about the problem, something we find hard to do. We need to consider what the size of the human population should ideally be? And if we are already overloaded, we must also ask how we can reduce the size of the population in a humane way. We need to ask what obligations we have to coming generations.
Ever since the attempted coup two years ago, on July 15, 2016, Turkey has been in a state of emergency. But for the eyes of the casual visitor this is in no ways visible. In Istanbul and Ankara life proceeds, so it seems, as usual.
Cappadocia in the southern corner of Turkey is a region of unearthly beauty, far removed, so it seems, from the currents of modern life. But it has a turbulent past and perhaps even a message for our own day. Syria and the Kurdish areas of the Middle East are close by. Cappadocia was once a crossroads for conquerors, Hittites, Persians, and Romans, Seljuks and Turks. Early Christianity took roots here but eventually was forced to hide away in the caves that pockmark the region.
There were two hundred or so of us all united for a moment by our common desire to get to London as quickly and comfortably as possible. But as soon as we landed at Heathrow, we each went our own way, modern individuals propelled by diverging interests and purposes. From where comes this individualism that motivates and propels us? Have we achieved a richer and more unique form of human life than our forebears? Have we got to a higher understanding of what it is to be human? Or are we, with the whole baggage of our modern individualism, only the unwitting products of new circumstances, ready-made and type-cast by a newly individuating reality?
Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the leading philosophical minds of the twentieth century and his thought remains of live interest. Twenty years ago, David Stern and I published the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein which was intended to help readers of Wittgenstein along. We have now brought out a second edition of this work with some great new contributions and a completely updated bibliography.
We can distinguish three styles of political philosophy: abstract normative theorizing, political realism, and diagnostic practice. In this lecture I argue that diagnostic practice should be fundamental to political philosophy since it concerns the epistemological conditions of political thinking.
Here is an easily understood series of graphics on the state of the American economy. Put together by the Wall Street Journal, it shows that the wealth distribution in America has changed dramatically from 2004 to 2016. The top 1% now own 5% more of wealth and the bottom 90% now own 6% less. Look at the rest of the graphics and you get some idea of why this has happened.
Globalization is out and nation states are in, if you believe the agitators. The reality is, however, quite different. The nation state was never a happy construct and technological change has undermined it once and for all. But what comes next? Justified anxieties about where we are going and what globalization will bring us have cast the idea of the nation state in a new, unexpectedly rosy light. It's, however, a false and deceptive light. Rana Dasgupta has written a terrific article in The Guardian explaining the demise of the nation state, why it is unlikely to come back, and what to do about it. Don't miss it.
Conformism is a danger to any society, including democratic ones. The Americans, who pride themselves on their individualism, are, in fact, often quite conformist in their behavior. Look at the American cities or how people dress and what they eat, and you discover a great deal of conformity. Strangely enough, that conformism can go hand-in-hand with the belief that you are free, independent, and your own individual person.
Conformism is also a political problem and a political danger. Read this article, watch the embedded video, and decide for yourself. https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/how-americas-largest-local-tv-owner-turned-its-news-anc-1824233490