Newsletter: July 2023

[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]

Hello everyone.

Welcome to July, and happy Canada Day to those of you who celebrate it. I’m enjoying the sunny summer weather and looking forward to a family vacation next week.

It’s been a mostly quiet month in the world of online philosophy. I’ve enjoyed throwing myself into a lot of reading and writing. I’ll hopefully have more writing to share as the summer progresses, but for the moment there’s a blog post on the aesthetic appreciation of people’s behaviour, inspired by a reading of Yoshida Kenkō’s wonderful Essays in Idleness.

In late June, we had a special session of our monthly summer philosophy happy hour. We discussed a short piece on artificial intelligence and animals by Columbia University professor Dhananjay Jagannathan—and Dhananjay joined the online gathering to discuss it with us. If you didn’t receive an invitation to the happy hour but would like to join future events, just let me know by replying to this email.

Snow is receding from the mountains around Vancouver and I look forward to much more hiking in the coming months. The highlight for June was a return visit to my former home of Galiano Island, where I discovered a path I hadn’t walked before, which took me all the way to the summit of Mount Sutil.

If you spend much time reading in the history of philosophy, you come across a depressing amount of misogyny. But even against this dismal background, Nietzsche stands out. For instance, he thought married life incompatible with a calling in philosophy—with the unspoken assumption that all great philosophers are men. “A married philosopher belongs in comedy,” he writes, describing marriage as “a hindrance and calamity on his path to the optimum.” He lists off great philosophers who never married—Heraclitus, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer—and offers Socrates as the exception the proves the rule. “Socrates . . . it would seem, married ironically.”

There’s a way of reading Nietzsche’s list against the misogynistic grain. “He never married” was once a euphemism in British obituary columns to hint that the deceased was homosexual. One reason a man may never marry a woman is that he’s not attracted to women. Until recently, that meant he simply didn’t marry.

I don’t want to suggest that we conclude from his unmarried status that Descartes or Kant or whoever was gay. It’s unhelpful and nosy to make conjectures about the intimate lives of people who lived centuries ago. I feel the same way about retrospective “diagnoses” of various mental conditions of long-dead philosophers.

Instead I want to make a different proposal. Relating to the world differently from most of the people around you is an asset in a philosopher. Good philosophy tends to be a bit queer, and so do good philosophers—whether in terms of their sexuality or otherwise.

I once attended a talk by the magical stage director Declan Donnellan, who drew the following distinction between good and bad art. Bad art panders to its audience, saying, “You know the way you think the world is? Well you’re right, it’s exactly like that.” Good art, by contrast, says to its audience, “You know the way you think the world is? Well actually it’s very different from that.” Good art prompts us to see things differently.

Philosophers, too, tend to be rebels against what passes for common sense in their time. When you fit comfortably into the world as it is, you’re less prone to question it. When you feel yourself to be at an angle to everyone else, you’re more likely to wonder why things have to be this way, and to start imagining alternatives.

Leaving aside speculation about the intimate lives of philosophers, consider a few examples. Aristotle wasn’t an Athenian citizen but an outsider from remote northern Greece. Saint Augustine was a North African of modest birth who struggled with feelings of inadequacy and thwarted ambition when he moved to the heart of the Roman Empire. A disproportionate number of the great scholars of the golden age of Islam—Avicenna, Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Al-Khwarizmi (from whose name we get the word “algorithm”)—weren’t from the Arab heartland but came from Central Asia. Spinoza was a freethinking Jew who was expelled from his own Jewish community and whose works were condemned by the Catholic church. Misogynistic Nietzsche was half blind and disabled by chronic health problems that forced him to retire from his university post in his mid-thirties. Twentieth-century Anglophone moral philosophy broke out of increasingly irrelevant epicycles of stale ideas thanks to the effort of four women—Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch—who saw these problems with a clarity and urgency that their male counterparts didn’t.

I don’t mean to reduce philosophy to biography. On the contrary, I often caution students against doing this. But inhabiting the world differently is a helpful prompt to seeing it differently.

Late in my high school years, one of my friends came out as gay. He’d known for a long time that he was attracted to men but had resisted the implications of this preference. He’d grown up with a certain idea of what his life would be like—a life that would involve a wife and children and all the other features of a “normal” middle-class life—and accepting that he was gay meant that an entire picture of his life crumbled. If not that life, what kind of life would he have? And what models or resources were available to him to imagine that life?

This friend didn’t become a professional philosopher but the questions he found himself confronting were unquestionably philosophical questions. Late twentieth century Canada had certain well-worn tracks that a life might follow and his own life had veered off those tracks. In these circumstances you’re more likely to find yourself examining the tracks and wondering what makes those tracks the ones that got laid out.

In Canada and many other countries, June is celebrated as Pride Month. The concept of Pride Month originates in the Stonewall riots, which began in late June of 1969, when members of the gay and lesbian community in New York City rose up in protest against police raids and other forms of shaming and discrimination. (The movement was named after the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, where the protests began.) The following year, gay liberation activists organized “pride marches” in several American cities. The idea was to openly embrace and express a sexual identity that had been considered shameful. Since then, the movement has grown and spread, embracing other sexual and gender minorities, and warmly welcoming straight allies. Massive pride marches and surrounding festivities are now one of the main public events of the early summer in cities worldwide.

There are many reasons to celebrate the destigmatization of homosexuality and non-binary gender expression. The most obvious is that no one should be made to suffer for being who they are, nor have their life possibilities stymied. But even those of us who fit within the prevailing norms of sexual and gender expression have reason to celebrate. Intolerance for people who live differently generally aligns with intolerance for people who think differently. Philosophy only flourishes because certain brave, queer souls have looked on the world as it is and wondered why it might not have been some other way.

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