Newsletter: February 2022
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Welcome to February, where you get 28 days for the price of 31. And happy new year to those of you on the lunar calendar!
Things are humming along here in the world of online philosophy. My two winter courses, “‘Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy” and “An Introduction to Philosophy in Ten Dangerous Ideas,” are now well underway.
In “Know Thyself” this week, we’ll discuss Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates articulates and defends his vision of the philosophical life. We’ll contrast Socrates’ philosophical vision with the tragic vision of Sophocles, whose great play Oedipus the King occupied us for the previous two weeks.
In “Ten Dangerous Ideas,” we’ve looked at some Plato as well—an excerpt from his dialogue, the Gorgias—as well as the Chinese Daoist sage, Zhuangzi. This week, we turn to the Milindapañha, an early text of Buddhist philosophy. It consists of a dialogue between the Buddhist monk Nāgasena and the Greco-Bactrian king Menander I. We’ll read the sequence in which Nāgasena persuades the king that persons or selves are not ultimately real entities.
I was also part of some extra-curricular philosophy in late December that went up online at the beginning of January. Douglas Oh and Santosh Kumar graciously invited me to join them in conversation on their YouTube channel Breaking the Spell. We discussed a wide range of topics: the material in the two courses I’m teaching, the nature of philosophy and art, anxiety, authenticity, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and much else besides. You can view the whole interview here.
January in Vancouver is more a month for skiing than for hiking. But since I’m a hiker at heart, I took to the mountains in snowshoes. The outing took me and my snowshoeing companion above the clouds, providing a dramatic view from Eagle Bluffs over Howe Sound and to the mountains of Vancouver Island poking up above a sea of cloud.
In my conversation with Douglas and Santosh, we touched on Heidegger’s views concerning technology. As I delve into my fourth set of online philosophy classes, I thought it a topic worth expanding upon.
Nothing with Heidegger is simple. Actually, that’s not quite right: even nothing isn’t simple with Heidegger. He’s the philosopher who notoriously wrote that “the nothing itself nothings.” Making sense of Heidegger’s obscure pronouncements has kept a small army of philosophers employed ever since (I’ve offered some brief reflections on this nothing business myself). Heidegger is critical of technology. But his stance is a lot subtler than “put away your smartphones, kids.”
In many of his late writings, most notably his essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger explores the essence of technology. At its root, technology isn’t about power stations or space rockets. It’s better understood as a fundamental way of relating to things. We live in an era that’s impatient and grasping, says Heidegger. Our technological prowess is only the most outward evidence of this more general way of being in the world.
Heidegger invites us to compare two ways of encountering a river. First, consider how Heidegger’s favourite poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, encounters the Rhine in his hymn of that name. For Hölderlin, the river is sacred and awe-inspiring. To write about it as he does requires openness and a quiet mind. It’s not Hölderlin’s place to pronounce on the nature of the river. If he approaches its mystery with patience and reverence, perhaps—perhaps—the river will disclose itself to him.
By contrast, consider how the Rhine appears to an engineer tasked with building a hydroelectric dam. To the engineer, the flowing waters of the Rhine are an untapped source of power. They’re something to be controlled, diverted, and converted into useful energy.
High tech is the most visible manifestation of a more general way of relating to the world that is distinctively modern and, to Heidegger, distinctively problematic. We seem driven to make the world over in our image. Unlike the poet encountering a sacred mystery, we insist that the world present itself to us on our terms. The world interests us only so far as it’s useful.
This tendency to relate to the world in instrumental terms is widespread. Consider how almost everything nowadays can be described as a “resource.” We have natural resources, for instance, by which the natural world is seen as raw materials waiting to be put to use. But we also apply this same mindset to ourselves. Corporations have departments of “human resources.” In hard times we draw on our “emotional resources.” An imaginative person is praised for their “resourcefulness.” The people around us and our own inner lives become resources for exploitation.
The digital revolution promises us the world at our fingertips but, for Heidegger, this is precisely the problem. When Google Earth can take us anywhere on the planet in a flash, we expect the world to come to us. When a whole world is clicks away, why sit patiently by a riverbank?
What’s Heidegger’s solution to this problem? Well, to begin with, the mindset that everywhere sees problems in need of solutions is itself part of the problem. Still, Heidegger sees a “saving power” in technology itself. Technology is a lens through which we see the world. Just as yellow-tinted glasses make the world show up in a yellow hue, our technological worldview makes the world show up as resources to be processed.
Noticing the glasses on our nose rather than the world we look at through them requires a special kind of attentiveness. But noticing how we frame the world in technological terms enables us to reflect on it more critically. It also helps us see how we’re responsible for the world we encounter and the terms on which that encounter takes place.
Online philosophy, then, offers both a peril and a promise. I’ve been making an array of—yes—resources available for ready consumption. In my courses, we crisscross the globe and travel across the centuries selecting nuggets for easy digestion. I put together video lectures that make the material accessible and host discussion classes on a Zoom platform that isn’t exactly amenable to intimate encounters. Am I turning philosophy into one more resource to be exploited? Maybe, yes. But my hope is that philosophy can also release that saving power Heidegger speaks of, which, at its best, makes us more aware, more responsive, and more responsible.