Friday, November 15, 2019

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

On Medium: Femininity and Masculinity in American Politics

Here's an article I posted on Medium about how the difference between feminine and masculine traits helps explain the cultural divide in American politics, and how that division came to be in that country. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

On Medium: Do Theists and Atheists have the same Deepest Experience?

Here's an article of mine on Medium that compares the fear of God and the fear of nature, as well as looking at how the theistic fear degenerates into love of God and ultimately into a loss of invigorating relation to the Other, as in the case of Christian idolatry. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

On Medium: Why Theism and Atheism are both Laughable

I've posted on article on Medium, called Why Theism and Atheism are both Laughable, about the presumption that we're entitled to a complete explanation of everything, and the counterintuitiveness of theistic and naturalistic cosmologies.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

On Medium: Is President Trump a Tool of Tribal America?

I've posted this article on Medium, Is President Trump a Tool of Tribal America?, and it's about what we can learn of the country's structural problems from Trump's unconventionality. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

On Medium: Is Philosophy a Con?

Here's an article I posted on Medium, about whether the academic job prospects for philosophy grads are grim because Western philosophy itself is somehow flawed. The link I just provided should get you past the paywall.

Monday, November 4, 2019

On Medium: "Woke" Hollywood and the Dark Web

Here's another article I posted on Medium, called "Woke" Hollywood and the Dark Web. It's about whether we can learn about the nature of art from the battles between the increasingly-progressive pop cultural establishment and the populist backlash.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

On Medium: The Meaningful Life is Storied

In addition to the articles I'll be posting here, I've decided to write articles for a more general audience, on philosophy, pop culture and politics at Medium. I'll include links on this blog to those articles, but you'll be able to read them only on Medium. 

The first of my Medium articles responds to Jared Bauer from Wisecrack, the great YouTube channel, on whether we should think of human life as a story. My article's called The Meaningful Life is Storied. You can follow me on Medium at @benjamincain8.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Nihilism, Cosmicism, and Nishitani’s Buddhism

In “Buddhists, Pessimists, and the End of Suffering,” I question how the Buddhist gets around the problem of nihilism or how she motivates altruistic choices from the enlightened standpoint, from which conventional life is illusory or wrong-headed, arising as it does from egoism or the attachment to the self. One Buddhist response to that question can be gathered from the Kyoto School, which was an early twentieth-century movement in which Japanese philosophers at Kyoto University grappled with Western philosophy, including existentialism. Specifically, Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness includes some instructive responses to my criticism of Buddhism.

Nishitani on Emptiness and Selflessness

Keiji Nishitani
Nishitani follows Nietzsche and Heidegger in pointing out that nihilism is the core problem for modernity. Western modernity is based on technoscientific progress, which threatens religious and moral dogmas, and that culture is also individualistic, which is to say self-centered. The human individual replaces God and regards all else as subordinate and comparatively insubstantial. Descartes provides the paradigmatic formulation of this dualism: given the philosophical foundation of self-consciousness, we have solipsism on the one hand and empty, soulless matter and mechanism on the other. With no divine source of prescriptions, the self-centered individual objectifies everything outside the self, treating them as means to fulfill the self’s goals, but those goals become arbitrary, or “subjective” and “relative,” as late-modern philosophers show. Eventually, the self, too, is objectified as the self-as-worker or as some other functionary becomes a tool of an amoral social system, such as a corporation or government. The Western modern is thus faced with the problem of nihilism. If nothing is intrinsically valuable, why value anything at all? What should the modern Western individual do?

Here Nishitani swoops in with the Eastern way of handling nihilism, and specifically with insights from Zen Buddhism and from a Zen critique of modern Western philosophy. Nishitani argues that Sartre’s atheistic humanism, for example, founders on his mere egoistic construal of the emptiness at the root of everything presented to consciousness. Here’s Nishitani on Sartre:
Nothingness in Buddhism is "non-ego," while the nothingness in Sartre is immanent to the ego. Whatever transcendence this may allow for remains glued to the ego. Sartre considers his nothingness to be the ground of the subject, and yet he presents it like a wall at the bottom of the ego or like a springboard underfoot of the ego. This turns his nothingness into a basic principle that shuts the ego up within itself. By virtue of this partition that nothingness sets up at the ground of the self, the ego becomes like a vast and desolate cave…Nothingness may seem here to be a denial of self-attachment, but in fact that attachment is rather exponentialized and concealed. Nothingness may seem here to be a negation of being, but as long as it makes itself present as an object of consciousness in representative form—in other words, as long as the self is still attached to it—it remains a kind of being, a kind of object. (33)
Nishitani calls that superficial nothingness “nihility,” distinguishing nihility from the nothingness encountered by the Buddhist who negates nihility, taking nihilism to its furthest limit and finding at that point not the arbitrary choice I posed, between despair and altruism, but an inevitable personal transformation into a benevolent being. Nishitani’s sense that nothingness is a wall for Sartre may mistake a methodological constraint for a moral failing, since Sartre is doing phenomenology, a rigorous description of how things appear to consciousness. In any case, for Nishitani, a more thoroughgoing encounter with nothingness than Sartre’s nihility
must rather be something that points to the realization of a "new man," that originates from the absolute negation of the "human." Our individual actions get to be truly "absolute" activities only when they originate from the horizon that opens up when man breaks out of the hermit's cave of the ego and breaks through the nothingness at the base of the ego; only when they become manifest from a point at which the field of consciousness, where actions are said to be "of the self, " is broken through, while all the time remaining actions of the self. (35)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Failure of Democrats to Defeat Trump’s Evil with Heroism

What are the chances that one of a country’s two political parties could be as odious as the Republican one without the other, the Democratic Party being just as execrable, albeit in different ways? Besides their positions on a handful of social issues, for some decades, at least, the main differences between those two parties have been their different flavour of badness. Both parties are rotten, because the American culture and Western liberal democracies in general are rotten, for reasons spelled out by the likes of Nietzsche, Thomas Frank, Matt Taibbi, and Yuval Harari. Consumerism, in particular, infantilizes the majority of citizens; moreover, those with the healthiest cognitive faculties, who are least susceptible to fake news, namely young people, don’t vote, whereas old people who suffer from cognitive decline and are thus the most manipulable are also the most reliable voters. Therefore, the political parties have to cater to their constituents’ delusions or ignore them and delegate decision-making to lobbyists and other elites who inevitably become corrupted by their insider knowledge and power over the lower, often most vulnerable classes. This form of decadence is comparable to that which undermines aristocratic societies, the primary difference being that in feudalism, for example, the hard-working peasants were infantilized by the Church, whereas the working poor of a capitalistic democracy are degraded ultimately by cynical corporations.

The kneejerk reaction to any criticism of the Democrats, given the monstrousness of the Republicans under Trump is that such a criticism would be a case of dangerous whataboutism or a centrist allegation of moral equivalence between the two parties. Indeed, if you define political badness as cartoonish evil, the Republicans but not the Democrats are bad. But there are other forms of the pertinent badness. As I explain elsewhere, there are roughly two kinds of political badness, those that arise from masculine and from feminine vices, respectively. The Republicans are obviously more masculine than the Democrats. Partly this is because there are significantly fewer women in the former party, but there also cultural differences at work. Republican culture is shaped by patriarchal Evangelical Christianity and by a social Darwinian cult of pseudo-capitalism, the latter being one of the American plutocracy’s main rationales.

By contrast, Democrats define themselves more as consumers and as professionals or technical elites. To be sure, there are Republican engineers, lawyers, and doctors, but they won’t likely be rationalists, meaning that they won’t be optimistic about the progressive potential of collective rationality. Instead, conservative professionals will subscribe to some philosophy of what’s been called the “intellectual dark web.” Democratic professionals, though, will be optimistic in that respect, and that confidence lends itself to effete snobbery, which is a feminine, passive-aggressive, bloodless attempt at social domination. (South Park satirizes the latter in their episode, “Smug Alert!”)    

In any case, the charge that the criticism of Democrats means to ascribe a (false) moral equivalence with Trump’s Republicans would presuppose a masculine notion of badness, according to which only psychopathic evil could be appalling. What I’m saying is there’s a feminine (Democratic) form of political badness that is just as outrageous as Trumpism. Moreover, to point that out isn’t to give the Republicans a pass. On the contrary, the implication is that radical change to the entire American political system is needed.

Myth-Making and the Cultural Judgment of Politics

Republican badness is obvious, largely because we’re familiar with evil from the monsters and villains depicted in our many forms of entertainment, including novels, movies, and television shows. Not only that, but we’re more interested in the villains than in the protagonists—just as hell often seems more interesting than heaven. These stories act as warnings about what not to do, because it’s easier to prohibit destructive acts than to know which constructive pursuits to recommend. (Most of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions, the main prescription in Christianity being the Golden Rule; Judaism and Islam have many more detailed prescriptions, and their arbitrariness tests the participant’s loyalty.) Still, for over two millennia, fictions and myths have presented us with stock villains and good guy characters. When we’re faced with real evil, therefore, we expect a hero to rise up and defeat the villain. What happens, then, when there’s no such actual hero who resembles the storybook kind in the way the real-world villain resembles its fictional counterpart? What happens when Republicans find deep inspiration for their evil from myths (from the sordid Evangelical reading of the Bible and from the social Darwinian, libertarian, quasi-anarchic ethos of egoism), whereas the Democrats have no such fervent commitment to lessons from fiction, because their elites take themselves to be hyperrational? What you’ll have in the latter case is the lower-class, non-elite Democrat, who is influenced more by Hollywood values, who longs for a liberal hero and who is perennially crestfallen by the evident absence of any such figure.