Mental Floss

Julia Kristeva: In Conversation

French-Bulgarian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva occupies an enviable seat in the rarefied arena of female philosophers in the expansive traditions of western thought and philosophy; although, I do get the sense that she does not quite wear the singular ‘descriptor’ of ‘philosopher’ with ease, for her ‘oeuvre’ is anything but conventional and she continues to bring together insights from fields as far flung as religious scholarship, avant-garde literature, psychoanalytic theory, and philosophy. In one of my quests to comprehend religious belief better, I picked up Kristeva’s ‘This Incredible Need to Believe’ (2011) a couple of years ago, and was much the wiser for it. Kristeva is possibly part of a philosophic tradition that takes the notion of ‘Subjectivity’ as a starting point. Read More…

Noam Chomsky: Requiem for the American Dream (2015)

This is accessible, non-exhortative Noam Chomsky and although the focus of this dissertation of his is the systemic dismantling of American idealism, the questions that he raises certainly finds resonance in the countless democratic struggles against concentrated wealth and power in lands spread out across the globe, India included. Economic inequality, more than ever, is at the heart of the agonies of a majority populace embattled on all fronts, and their suffering made more acute by what Chomsky delineates as the ten principles of the concentration of wealth and power, principles articulated by the self interests of Adam Smith‘s minuscule minority, the “masters of mankind” following the vile maxim of “all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else.” These principles are: 1. Reduce Democracy, 2. Shape Ideology, 3. Redesign the Economy, 4. Shift the Burden, 5. Attack Solidarity, 6. Run the Regulators, 7. Engineer Elections, 8. Keep the Rabble in Line, 9. Manufacture Consent, 10. Marginalize the Population. Read More…

Arne Næss, Ecosophy and Deep Ecology

Norwegian professor and philosopher, late Arne Næss, remains a key figure in the awakening of 20th C occidental consciousness to the real threats of the ecological-environmental crisis. I am posting this on ‘Earth Day’ to bring his (often marginalized and neglected) ideas to the fore, and also to remind us (myself included) of our inter-relatedness with, and the common fate that we share with all life forms on our planet. My first brush with Næss, quite a few years ago, was through readings about deep ecology – I thought him too ‘white-male-crisis’ for my taste then, but with distance, and time, I have come to appreciate his ideas more. His personal philosophy, which he called Ecosophy (not to be confused with Félix Guattari‘s usage of the same term,) encompasses the complexity of the relationship of humans to their natural environment, and he calls for a higher spiritual and psychological evolution of humankind, to ‘Self-realization’, a set of ideas which he formulates later as Deep Ecology. The deep ecological attitude is not only a state of ‘Self-realization’, but also a state of questioning – asking the bigger questions of life, being, society and culture, natural diversity, human instrumentality. The deep ecological attitude is also ‘longitudinal’, the ability to envision human activities and the natural world in large sweeps of time – giving rise to the ‘deep long range ecology movement.’ Read More…

John Rawls: Justice and Modern Political Philosophy

John Rawls was the only American philosopher of the last century who made a considerable impact on modern debates on ideas of justice and the nature of the welfare state, constitutional, individual liberties, permissible inequalities and political duty/obligation. My first, and I should say only, encounter with Rawls was through the pages of his magnum opus ‘A Theory of Justice‘ (1971/1999) where he posits his principles by which a just society could be given direction – that there must be basic liberties (of faith, association, speech etc.) and that the perceived and palpable inequalities that inevitably arise from liberty are so organised to bring maximum benefit to the worst off, and that includes vital equality of opportunity. As a political philosopher, Rawls was certainly influenced by the earlier social contract theories of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which citizens willingly give up some of their liberties in return for state protection and order. Rawls states his ‘priority rule’ thus: “a less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of liberty shared by all.” Another ‘priority rule’ is that equal opportunity is more vital than heading towards a certain totality-of-society outcome, or what a (paternalistic) government may believe is for the good of the citizens of a nation. Read More…

Ibn Khaldūn: 14th C foundations of Sociology, Historiography and Economics

My first brush with the north African philosopher-thinker of the ‘Middle Ages’, Ibn Khaldūn, was at the Universidad de Sevilla in España, intrigued as I have always been, with the circumstances and the contexts of the rise and fall of civilizations. With Andalusian and Yemenite Arab roots, Ibn Khaldūn was ‘Tunisian’ by birth, and his extensive and ground breaking work out of north Africa during the ‘Middle Ages’ was discovered by the occident much later. This belated discovery could probably be partially attributed to barriers of language, along with, I suppose, a degree of disdain and intellectual suspicion of that which is non-occidental. Having said that, it is only in retrospect that we can appreciate Ibn Khaldūn’s remarkable contributions to the foundations of a scientific study of society and civilization. Read More…

Erich Fromm: Society, consumption and affluence

One of the ‘lesser’ figures of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, psychoanalyst and social theorist Dr. Erich Fromm was certainly one of the most accessible – I did find his ‘To Have or to Be?’ and ‘Escape from Freedom’ lucid reads, with much less of deciphering to engage with. As a person of orthodox Jewish faith fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s (like many other intellectuals of the Frankfurt school, and like political theorist Hannah Arendt), Fromm began studying and theorizing about the nature of human freedom, equality, mass industrial society, consumption and happiness. His work throughout was broadly enveloped in a Marxian humanistic democratic spirit, and his general distaste for warfare and mass manipulation of a bureaucratized society, finds voice in many a page of his publications. Read More…

William James: The Will to Believe and other Ideas

19th C American psychologist and philosopher William James (brother of novelist and writer Henry James), pioneered pragmatism and set the tone for much of subsequent 20th C philosophy. In laying the foundations of pragmatism, he, arguably, seeded the first American indigenous school of thought. One of quite a few brilliant Harvard intellectuals of his time, James’s background in medical school and psychology prompted him to engage with philosophical problems with an anti-idealist stance of radical empiricism while abandoning the search for absolutes. In his optimism and ‘commonsensical’ rigor he theorized that reality is whatever we make it, and that universal principles are to be ‘militantly’ questioned. In this engaging (and entertaining) lecture at the Peninsula College (Port Angeles, Washington, USA), Prof. Wesley Cecil lays out the formative years of William James along with elucidating some of the key approaches and positions in his pragmatic philosophy. Listen in. Read More…

Søren Kierkegaard: Conscious opposition and crucial contention

Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard certainly remains one of the rebels and emphatic iconoclasts of 19th C Europe. An unorthodox writer and thinker of wit and elegance, imaginative, God-faith oriented and equipped with a melancholic bent while straddling a broad range of authorial positions (as is known, much of his influential work was published using pseudonyms) – his earliest publications ‘Either/Or’ (Feb 1843) and ‘Fear and Trembling’ (Oct 1843) I found a bit tricky to unpick, to say the least, as it became difficult to place Kierkegaard precisely in relation to the likes of ‘Victor Eremita’, ‘Judge Vilhelm’ and ‘Johannes de silentio’. I revisited Kierkegaard through my readings on ethics, especially through Wittgenstein’s interest in Kierkegaard, with Wittgenstein voicing that “Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century….”. Indeed, Kierkegaard, remarkably laid the foundations of ‘Existentialism‘ which emerged as a philosophical movement many decades after him, only in the early to mid 20th C. In his conscious opposition to the prevailing assumptions and conventions of his age (his antipathy and hostility to the Church and the academic establishment, professors inclusive, is well known) and in his crucial contentions about the human condition (of doubt, faith, love, spirit, flesh, paradox, choice), Kierkegaard remains relevant to this day. Read More…

Albert Camus: The Madness of Sincerity

Like most, my introduction to Albert Camus many years back was via the translated ‘L’Étranger‘ (The Stranger/The Outsider.1942). At that time, and probably more so on re-reads, it became less a parable of the absurd and the existential, and more of a beautiful, fully realized, hallucinatory depiction of living in that heat soaked, summer crazed place. ‘Meursault’, the anarchistic anti-hero, had and still has huge appeal, and is afflicted by what Camus called ‘the madness of sincerity’, a character distinguished by never wanting to say more than he feels. Camus remains one of the most influential writers of the last century, yet the man himself was somewhat of an enigma. In trying to put together the Camus puzzle in 1997, Phares & Balises, the BBC & ARTE came together to actualize this bio-film on Camus, by way of attempting to retrace his life, work and travels. The five women in Camus’ life (who were closest to him) take us on a journey through his times and their recollections interweave through the three chapters Camus himself outlined as the signposts of his literary intentions – the Absurd, Revolt and Happiness. Read More…

Hannah Arendt: the Language remains. 1964

Hannah Arendt remains one of the leading German-American intellectuals from the last century. In this televised interview with German journalist Günter Gaus from October the 28th, 1964, Arendt (then 58) responds to a wide range of queries centering around philosophy, politics and gender, regarding herself more of a political theorist than a philosopher as she does hint at a ‘disdain’ of sorts for the circle of philosophers. She also reflects on Auschwitz, Germans, Jews and Judaism, assimilation, anti-Semitism, Zionism and Israel, Germany and German. At a particularly telling moment she says “What remains? The Language remains”. For Arendt, history is a chronicle of the exceeding of expectations. As one of Arendt’s formative influences, German philospher Martin Heidegger, stressed, individuals do matter. In this interview Arendt does come across as the charismatic public intellectual that she was, but at the same time, her states of tension over certain contradictions convey themselves as well. Towards the closure, she pays a loving tribute to her mentor, German philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers, with resonances from her genuinely uplifting work ‘The Human Condition’. Watch.

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