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Too Much Philosophy?

Since retiring in 2002 I have put in nearly two decades returning to philosophy, the intellectual passion of my youth. I left philosophy when I left the university and headed out into the world to make a life, start and raise a family and, ultimately, build a bit of a career. I never forgot my interest in things philosophical, of course, but I let them go as I put my energies into other things. Eventually I picked up another favored pastime of my youth when I wrote an historical novel in my later years on the job (during a hiatus when our upper management was in transition) and later published it myself (no luck finding representation or an interested publisher -- it was a Norse saga pastiche, written in an archaic voice, so I wasn't surprised). But after that book, and a couple of others, I kind of got bogged down. Why? I found my old interest in philosophy again and for a decade I lost myself in philosophical discussions and readings on the Internet (sometimes contentious -- philosopher wannabes can be pretty arrogant -- and always detailed and wide ranging) until I finally felt that I had something of my own to say. There followed two books. The first, Choice and Action, turned out to be a compilation of many essays expanded by me from my online jeremiads on those philosophy discussion groups, as well as some written especially for the new book.

Because the focus of those essays leaned toward Ethics and Meta-Ethics and because while back in college majoring in philosophy I had always thought that, if I wrote a book of philosophy, it would bear that name, that's the title I settled on. But Choice and Action was too disjointed and even while I believed the latter part of the book made a cohesive case for the ethical answer I was trying to give, I came to think it had failed. . . . And so I came to write another book on the subject, one that I hoped would provide a more satisfactory answer to the questions I'd tried to deal with in the first.

Value and Representation: Three Essays Exploring the Implications of a Pragmatic Epistemology for Moral Thought was to be my definitive answer to the moral questions which philosophy took up: What is moral or ethical goodness? How do we know it and what justifies it? What are the rules we apply to determine what, if anything, we should do in our lives? More unified and cohesive than its predecessor, Value and Representation would be my definitive attempt to answer the great ethical questions that matter in philosophy . . . .

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Heidegger's Place?

In light of Martin Heidegger's enrollment in Nazism during the early days of Hitler's rise to power in Germany, and his failure to recant or explain himself (though he did resign his position under the Nazis and go into semi-retirement after a year), and in light of evidence of his complicity with Nazi anti-Semitism in those first days when he was a spokesman for National Socialism in the German academy) . . . and, given the opacity of his thinking itself . . . why does he continue to be an object of philosophical interest for so many in philosophy today? Hasn't his engagement with Nazism fatally undermined his credibility, even if one can make sense of his thinking?

Heidegger took philosophy away from the subject-object distinction that has engaged it in the West since Descartes, arguing that there is no real separation between us and the things of our world because the world is neither constituted by subjects in a world of objects (dualism which conceives subjects and objects as distinctly separate modes of being or substances) nor is it just subjects holding ideas of objects in their minds (idealism), nor merely physical stuff which has the power in some configurations to masquerade as the mental (materialism). Instead he rejects these categories in favor of refocusing our attention on what it means to stand and operate in a world as aspects of it characterized by awareness.

For Heidegger the world is a kind of continuum and human beings, as subjects, are inextricably in it . . .

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Waiting for Wednesday - Values and Facts: The "Truth" Connection

. . . All valuation begins with truth discernment because that is the first order of valuation, the first sorting we must do as living creatures. But human beings, because we have a cultural dimension to our lives, made possible by the cognitive capabilities that enable us to conceive our disparate sensory inputs as a world, move beyond this level, beyond the recognition of the true and the false, to the valuation of things in terms of their effects on us. The idea that value questions are not amenable to truth determinations is simply wrong. Truth is just another form of valuation and, as the most basic form there is, the underlying ground for all the other claims of value we can make.

The idea that moral questions are cut off from claims of truth is misleading because, insofar as moral valuation is valuation at all, it comes from the very same place our truth claims come from. . . .

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More On Chomsky and Language: Its Nature and Acquisition 

I've been critical of Chomsky's theory of language here based on having viewed several of his talks and interviews on Youtube from over the course of the last 40 or 50 years. Seeing little change in his explanations, examples and claims over that period, I've concluded that he hasn't made all that much progress since his earliest theories about the innateness of language. But perhaps I haven't been totally fair to him because in at least some of the later talks he offers a more concrete thesis about what he means when he refers to the sudden occurrence of language in humans (which he places as occurring somewhere in the past 70,000 years or so). He argues that since language requires a computational capacity and there is no evidence for language-capable thinking in human artifacts prior to that time (but indirect evidence of it, in the presence of symbols, art and decorative imagery in the archaeological record, from at least around that period), this capability must have appeared in one human (because it involved a mutation) at some point back then. And it must have occurred full blown. . . .

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Chomsky on Language: Its Use, Acquisition and Value

Frege and Russell made language central to philosophy in the twentieth century and Ludwig Wittgenstein made ordinary language the core of our interest, how it shapes our thoughts and deeds, how it structures our picture of the world. In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky came on the scene with a radical new take on language though, a new take that partook of old ideas. Picking up from the 17th and 18th century thinkers, particularly the rationalist tradition but also the early empiricists, Chomsky argued that language was so complex that it could not possibly be merely learned by us as children. Rather, he posited, there must be a deep, inherent set of rules encoded in our brains which enable language to grow in us the same way the human embryo grows arms and legs, the infant matures, the child passes through puberty, etc. Language, that is, on his view had to be inherent in creatures like us or it could not occur at all.

The old empiricist tradition which had challenged rationalists like Descartes and rationalist reformers like Kant and others writing in his wake, must have gotten it wrong, Chomsky argued. Kant and his supporters had it right: There must be a structure to experience which arises in the brain itself and which is built in, not learned by trial and error of the organism. The old empiricist idea of the tabula rasa had to be mistaken. . . .

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Truth and Trump

Updated on May 4, 2018 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

So why does truth matter? Why not lies when lying serves our interests better and we can get away with it? What's the big deal with telling the truth, respecting the facts? Doesn't everyone have his or own "truth," i.e., his or her own way of understanding their world? Can we deny the right of each to believe as he or she wishes? And if what we believe conflicts with what someone else claims is true, why should we trim the sails of our own beliefs to their wind? Who do they think they are anyway? Is their "truth" better than ours? . . .

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Faith, Metaphysics and Belief (Second Draft)

This is a second draft of an essay I am hoping to include as a supplement to Value and Representation (an early draft of which is offered below), possibly to publish the two together.

My earlier work, Choice and Action, left some matters insufficiently elaborated to my way of thinking, at least it appears to me to be so in retrospect, and it now seems important to plug those gaps. Value and Representation, when completed, will address the question of how valuing works as a necessary feature of our kind of cognitive capacities (which produce a life of using and relying on reasons), an explanation to which I alluded all too briefly in that earlier book.

This essay addresses the other gap I left: the question of how religion qua the spiritual project in human culture provides a basis for arriving at and defending our moral judgments. Most in the modern world think it important to divest moral or ethical questions of specifically religious concerns and this has led to much sturm und drang in philosophy since, bereft of some metaphysical justification, moral judgments seem to hang loosely in a kind of cognitive limbo. We cannot find consensus on whether they are rationally derivable from the rules of reason itself (Kant) or are merely the feelings we have or learn in our lives, converted by some linguistic legerdemain into fake propositions (emotive expressions masquerading as cognitively significant thoughts). Since arguing that moral claims are intuitively established fails (we obviously don't all share the same intuitions even if many of us share some) because of the need for them to be arguable if they are to work as advertised, and since religious claims are inherently contentious with no obvious linkage to moral matters other than the fact that many moral beliefs in human history appear to rest on religious belief, we are left with a lack of support for our moral judgments as moral judgments.

But if there is nothing underlying them, moral judgments must seem to be no more than a kind of fakery, and then anything pretty much goes. But clearly THAT is not how we live our lives. This essay, therefore, aims to revisit the possibility of lodging moral claims in the spiritual dimension of human experience.

Without arguing for any particular religious point of view, I want to make the case that there is a commonality in the many expressions within human cultures of the religious enterprise and that that commonality is precisely where the moral question comes to rest. I want to make the point, further, that religion is not just some has-been project of the human experience but that, whatever the successes or failures of its particular expressions in the history of our species, it remains a continuing and vital aspect of human life.

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