Romanticism

In this episode, Teague, Adam, and I discuss romanticism in music and its lasting influence on contemporary life. We explore the works of many important composers like Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner. There is also an interesting discussion on the ramifications of romanticism and 20th century music that borrows insights from Danto and Wittgenstein. Did the history of art come to an end? Is there such a thing as romanticism? If you enjoyed this episode and want more content like this, please subscribe!

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The Illusion of Johan Liebert

I believe that Johan is a metaphor for pure evil, nihilism, and nothingness. I think the fact that the show makes it seem like Tenma imagined Johan’s revelation in the hospital alludes to the illusoriness of Johan. The constant reference to Johan as a fiction also hints at this idea. Another clue is that the show doesn’t fully explain Johan’s motives. Sure, terrible stuff happened to him. Yet, Nina experienced similar traumas, and she turned out fine. Johan’s origin story doesn’t fully explain Johan’s malice. Johan doesn’t make sense; he doesn’t fit neatly into the real world.

A person is grounded in a particular socio-cultural background, in a particular time and space. Johan isn’t like that. He is nameless, enigmatic, and seemingly everywhere. He is more like a concept of evil that plagues the lives of everyone– serial killers, families, orphans, and doctors. If you look at the totality of the characters, there is nothing that binds them together other than that they were all human compared to Johan –he even makes serial killers look sane.

Johan’s murders are cold and emotionless as Lunge once described. There is no goal, no motivation. Johan, in this sense, resembles nothingness, which takes us away one by one indiscriminately –arbitrarily. We desperately try to make sense of it, ascribe intentionality or even a governing set of laws. But in the end, I think such efforts are futile, for I agree with Wittgenstein that “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” Perhaps this is why it makes one’s blood run cold to see Johan in action; he does not make sense and the thought of a meaningless end terrifies us.

On the Self

Who am I? What does it mean to be me? There has been a recent surge of interest towards the nature of the Self and consciousness. As a person who is interested in the philosophy of mind, I’d like to briefly examine my take on the Self.

The Self is a puzzle that has perplexed me more than what Chalmers refers to as the hard problem of consciousness. I have never doubted the fact that my “self” persisted through time and space. I knew I loved music, philosophy, and vanilla ice cream. I knew I was the same person as the shy, frail child in Philadelphia twenty years go. So, when I read Derek Parfit’s essay, “Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons,” I was rattled –unsettled by the restlessness of reason as Kant once said. I found his variation of the Ship of Theseus [1] thought experiment unconvincing. I did not think that it was possible for me to be the same person after I was zapped away by a machine, even if it were to replicate my brain and body exactly the way it was before – my body that actually experienced my childhood and puberty would still be gone! was not just a bundle of experiences! It wasn’t until reading Daniel Dennett’s essay, “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity,” that I began to become more sympathetic to the idea of no-self or the bundle theory. Dennett suggests that the Self is a psychological imposition on which we weave a single story from our experiences. A powerful example of Dennett’s is that we often edit and revise our memories according to our biases or others’ corrections. The seeming arbitrariness of the Self presented in Dennett’s essay made Parfit’s view less queasy.

Despite my newfound ease with Parfit’s no-self, the debate was far from over. As I have indicated already, I was quite fond of the body view of the Self: that the body is constitutive of the Self. In order to buttress my sympathy to the body view – my particular defense was that it mattered, rather than that it was the only thing that mattered, I looked online and found Eric Olson. Eric Olson’s provocative challenge to Parfit was that if all that mattered were the psychology, then wouldn’t be a human being, i.e., a human being is an animal with its body, internal structure, etc. For instance, if a dog’s life functions were to cease, then it wouldn’t be a dog anymore. Analogous to the dog, if a human being’s life functions were to cease, they wouldn’t be a human being anymore – it would be a dead body!

Olson’s view is quite powerful, since it passes the Ship of Theseus test. He doesn’t think the body needs to be identical through time and space in order for the same animal to persist through time and space. To Olson, an animal is:

“a self-organizing biological event that maintains the organism’s complex internal structure. The materials that organisms are made up of are intrinsically unstable and must therefore be constantly repaired and renewed, or else the organism dies and its remains decay. An organism must constantly take in new particles, reconfigure and assimilate them into its living fabric, and expel those that are no longer useful to it. An organism’s life enables it to persist and retain its characteristic structure despite constant material turnover. (Olson 2007: 28)

As long as its life-functions persist, the animal persists through time and space. Now, one could argue that time doesn’t pass as Simon Prosser has argued for in the past, but I will skip that discussion for the sake of brevity.

So which view is correct: the bundle view? the psychological narrative view? the animalistic view? I would say that they’re all correct. How can this be possible? Well, we speak of the Self in many different ways. For a Buddhist, the Self doesn’t exist. We also definitely seem to psychologically impose a narrative unto our experiences. Moreover, we do not consider my dog as different just because she lost her memory; she is still the same animal. Ok. I could hear some of you screaming, “No more handwaving! I want you to truly address the issue!” Fine. I will. You want to know which I consider to be the most objective definition of the self, right? Ultimately, I agree with Derek Parfit in that what matters is psychological continuity: it is better to have humans survive as data rather than perishing. I also think Parfit’s bundle view is compatible with Dennett’s narrative view, for the latter is really a description of how we experience the former. Then what about Olson’s animalism? Well, I think there is much use for the animalistic view –particularly, personal identity. We often tacitly assume that the Self is my personal identity. But, am I truly the same person if my life functions ceased and I persisted as electronic data? My self – my psychological narrative – may be identical, but I would not be identical to the animal I was before: a bundle of electronic data is not identical to homo sapiens. This is why I said earlier that they were all correct. The Self is psychological; personal identity is animalistic.

In order to spot the relevance of both views, I needed to take a step back and carefully examine the way we use the Self in ordinary language; merci Wittgenstein. I remembered that when commenting on Johnny Depp’s new movie, Transcendence, folks would say things like, “He’s the same person, but he’s not the same person.” This cued me into how we think of personhood and sameness: we could somehow consider a person, or more specifically Johnny Depp, as psychologically continuous yet different.


[1] Video that explains the Ship of Theseus

“Suppose that you enter a cubicle in which, when you press a button, a scanner records the states of all the cells in your brain and body, destroying both while doing so.  This information is then transmitted at the speed of light to some other planet, where a replicator produces a perfect organic copy of you.  Since the brain of your Replica is exactly like yours, it will seem to remember living your life up to the moment when you pressed the button, its character will be just like yours, and it will be in every other way psychologically continuous with you.”

Above is a quote of Parfit’s variation of the Ship of Theseus. Below is his article where he uses this particular experiment to probe into the Self:
Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons


On Race

Jon Stewart recently called racism as one of “America’s most devastating and urgent issue(s).” This statement resonates with the recent controversies surrounding Rachel Dolezal and police brutality. It is certainly horrific to witness a police officer mutilating a Black child. The moral bankruptcy of this kind of systematic oppression requires no sophistication to understand. What of Rachel Dolezal? Could we put her case in the same box of rotten apples? In this essay, I will argue that her case must be considered as distinct from the systematic oppression of minorities.

If one browses through the liberal media, it’s easy to find articles either criticizing Dolezal or appealing to tolerance. Although I am more sympathetic to the latter, I do not believe that the call for tolerance is truly apt for addressing the demons this case brings up. I say so, for demons do not correspond to the us-them psychology that has plagued mankind with wars and racism. Instead, they coincide with linguistic laxity. i.e.– we do not care to know what ‘race’ is.

In our daily lives, we treat many as Black, White, Latino, or Asian. It is almost essential to constructing social niches and personal identities, yet we do not seem to care whether the demarcation is a valid one or not. For instance, when a man’s features appear as sub-saharan African, we call him Black, even if he is only a quarter African. As long as he can talk the talk and look the part, we do not care whether the name we refer to him by conforms to the bulk of his genes. We enjoy talking about the problems that arise from ‘race,’ but we do not enjoy distinguishing non-race from race. We do not partake in the rigorous linguistic clarification that Wittgenstein once asked of us. We have forgotten a valuable lesson of Longfellow’s :

In the days of art 

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part,

For the Gods are everywhere.

Surely, one cannot demand the level of rigor that Wittgenstein practiced from all of us. Nevertheless, words as significant as ‘race’ must be put to the test. We cannot let laxity keep feeding us obscurity.

Despite the laxity displayed by the ordinary usage of ‘race,’ we have “wrought” some notions “with greatest care.” For example, ‘gender’ is now treated as a matter of social or personal identity, whereas its biological connotations have been carried onto ‘sex’ altogether. Such separation of the biological from the social seems to be the key to solving the confusions caused by our linguistic laxity. As I’ve noted above, our confusion comes from the failure to differentiate the social from the biological: a half-Black person would be considered as Black by many. It is not wrong to consider that person Black, if he truly identifies himself as such. However, we still need to hold onto the biological definition for medical purposes. Thus, comes the biological-social division.

My personal list of greatest philosophers

Classics:

A) David Hume

His take on emotions, reason, beauty, and free will as well as his piercing critiques like the is-ought distinction have stood the test of time.

B) Henry Sidgwick

His careful, analytic, and objective account of morality has stood the test of time.

C) Immanuel Kant

His philosophy may not as coherent, but it’s so full of useful things. His careful logic continues to challenge me and has thus stood the test of time.

D) Epictetus

His stoicism is as useful today as it was before.

E) Spinoza

The very first philosopher I’ve read and his take on passions and metaphysics still continue to astound me.

Contemporary:

A) Ludwig Wittgenstein

I don’t agree with him on many points, but his challenges have made me re-think and re-analyze my assumptions again and again. I’ve heard it is the same for many.

B) Derek Parfit

No one has challenged me the way Parfit has. He even convinced me haha.

C) Michael Sandel

What more can I say, other than the fact that this man has been my greatest teacher?

D) Peter Singer

This man has literally changed my life and pushed me to become more ethical in unprecedented ways.

E) Shelly Kagan

Kagan has enlightened me a year ago and he continues to do so.

F) Patricia Churchland

I use her books as references all the time. What more do I need to say?