Life: Jokes and philosophy edition

“[Heidegger’s students] found him funny, but he did not share the joke because his sense of humour was somewhere between peculiar and non-existent. It didn’t matter: his clothes, his rustic Swabian accent and his seriousness only heightened his mystique.”

—Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe, a delightful book I almost didn’t read and a much more pleasurable, informative read than the philosophers it describes.

Life: Living meaningfully edition

“While perhaps unintuitive, research that examines the differences between meaning and happiness finds that the things that give us a sense of meaning don’t necessarily make us happy. Moreover, people who report having meaningful lives are often more interested in doing things for others, while those who focus mostly on doing things for themselves report being only superficially happy.”

—Dan Ariely, Payoff. Here is a previous post on hearing him speak about Predictably Irrational in Seattle.

Life: There is no authority left edition

All modern thought is falsified by a mystique of transgression, which it falls back into even when it is trying to escape. For Lacan, desire is still a by-product of the law. Even the most daring thinkers nowadays do not dare to recognize that prohibition has a protective function with regard to the conflicts inevitably provoked by desire. They would be afraid that people might see them as ‘reactionary’. In the currents of thought that have dominated us for a century, there is one tendency we must never forget: the fear of being regarded as naive or submissive, the desire to play at being the freest thinker—the most ‘radical’, etc. As long as you pander to this desire, you can make the modern intellectual say almost anything you like. This is the new way in which we are still ‘keeping up with the Jonses’.

— Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

The book itself is a hodgepodge of brilliance and incoherence / irrelevance, but the former outweighs the latter. The notion of defining the difference between “man” and “animal” seems to fascinate older philosophers in a way that I find bizarre or unimportant.

To my mind, the strongest part about American culture American culture’s meta ability to rapidly re-write itself in response to changing conditions and outside influences, including conditions related to Girard’s conception of desire.

Life: Reading Houellebecq edition

“There has been something in my literature, from the first, that goes hand in glove with shame. To be honest, when I published my first books, I expected to bring a certain shame on myself (even though, as I said before, I’ve always hated putting myself forward). What actually happened, and it was a wonderful surprise, was that readers came up to me and said, ‘Not at all, what you describe are human things, some true of human beings in general, others specific to human beings in modern Western societies . . . In fact, we are grateful for you for having the courage to expose them, for having shouldered that part of shame . . .”

—Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies.

It’s never fully possible to anticipate reader response, which Eco wrote about too.

Shame’s meaning and role does seem to shift with time and place, and yet it gets little airtime in contemporary Western culture.

Life: Belief edition

“It is difficult to believe in a thing when one is alone and there is no one to speak to.”

—Dino Buzzati, The Tartar Steppe. Truth has collective properties, and that’s one reason 1984 and similar political-informational dystopias are so scary: they prevent individuals from exploring or testing their beliefs. This same issue is part of the reason the best scholars worry about political correctness on campus, which attempts to stifle heretical ideas, rather than merely arguing that they are wrong.

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