2022 Pacific Division APA Meeting

The first face-to-face, post-pandemic meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association was held in Vancouver, British Columbia, April 13 – 16. With both excitement and a bit of trepidation, my wife and I masked up, got on an airplane, and flew to Canada.

The meeting was (predictably) quite small this year, with many cancellations among the scheduled participants. One of the things that probably dissuaded many people was the fact that before boarding a return flight back to the US, a negative COVID test was required. If the test came back positive, you would have to quarantine for an extra 10 days in Canada. Even with conference pricing for hotel rooms, I’m sure the high cost of a potential extended stay was enough to scare many away. I had committed to participate before I was aware of this requirement, and I’m not sure if I would have chanced it had I known. As the day for our COVID tests approached I was very anxious. But luckily everything turned out fine.

We had visited Vancouver once before for the 2015 APA meeting, and found it to be a beautiful city. This time around we got to explore even more terrain on foot, discovering new things about Vancouver and visiting places where most tourists probably don’t go.

I took part in two sessions of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor, chairing the first and presenting a paper in the second. The first session included Jon Weidenbaum, whose paper “Humor and the Prospects of a Religious Naturalism” compared the humorous response to incongruity with the mystical reconciliation of the finite and the infinite. Lydia Amir summarized the ideas from her new book The Legacy of Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Laughter. Katrina England offered an Aristotelian account of wit and humor in her paper “On Comic Commiseration.” Conversation was lively and friendly. Overall, it was a nice way to start the conference.

The second session began with Michael Picard’s “Fun and the Furrowed Brow: Play, Games, and Humor in Philosophy,” in which he discussed the aims and the history of Cafe Philosophy, a group that takes the practice of philosophy out of academia and brings it back into bars and cafes. Connor Kianpour’s paper “Isn’t it (Dramatically) Ironic? Exploring the Possibility of Strong Comic Immoralism,” offered an argument for why immoral content may sometimes actually strengthen the aesthetic value of jokes and comedy. I ended the session with my paper “Teaching Philosophy With a Love of Wisdom and a Sense of Humor,” which is included in the collection Teach Philosophy With a Sense of Humor. As with the first session, conversation was friendly and spirited.

Over the course of four days, there were many fascinating talks, including sessions on Nietzsche, one on the interpretive difficulties involved in understanding the ideas of Socrates and Diogenes, and a session exploring the morality of art. While there were a lot of cancelled talks, I didn’t feel as if the overall quality of the conference was compromised. In fact, with fewer papers read, there was more time for conversation and discussion; a situation that may actually have improved the experience. At past conferences, when more presentations were crammed in, I have sometimes felt as if conversation was too abbreviated. For future conferences perhaps the organizers should consider scheduling only three, rather than four, papers per session.

The city of Vancouver has some beautiful scenery and great culture. The conference was held in the Westin Hotel, which overlooks one of the city’s harbors, and sits right next to Stanley Park, an expansive area filled with groomed gardens, totem poles, walking trails, an aquarium and views of the bay and mountains. In addition to walking through the park, we spent an afternoon walking through the old Gas Town area, and then up Main Street to the East Side. We stopped for a relaxing lunch at Local, had drinks at a cool, friendly punk rock bar called Funky Winkerbeans, and we dropped off Sacripolitical records at some of Vancouver’s record stores including: Noize to Go Records, Red Cat Records, and Neptoon Records. If you are ever in Vancouver, I would recommend visiting all of these great, independent businesses.

During the course of walking the city we did get a first-hand view of a problem that is the sad, dark side of of Vancouver’s culture. The city has a high degree of tolerance for drug use; and it appears to be growing, with the government opening injection centers and considering the legalization of all drugs. There are also groups like The Drug User Liberation Front that distribute free heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine on the streets. These efforts purportedly are motivated by humanitarian concern; but when you look at the number of people nodded out on the sidewalks and in the parks, one starts to wonder about the wisdom of such policies. I imagine that as it becomes easier to obtain and use these kinds of drugs, more people will be drawn into addiction and the associated problems that come with it: disease, abuse, and death. In any case, the proof is in the pudding, and when you look at the pudding in parts of Gas Town and on Main Street, it appears to have gone rancid. One of the store owners I talked with ironically referred to such locations as “The Circus.” These are the areas that the tourist guides advise you not to walk through. But maybe they should. Seeing the scale of Vancouver’s drug problem and the sad state of its victims – both young and old – is an eye-opener.

Oh Canada!

Violence and Nihilism

Violence and Nihilism, edited by Luis Aguiar de Sousa and Paolo Stellino is available for pre-order from de Gruyter. The electronic version will be published on June 20, 2022 while the hardcover edition will be published on July 4, 2022.

The collection includes my essay, “‘Supposing Truth is a Woman?’ Nihilism and Violence in Nietzsche’s The Antichrist and Von Trier’s Antichrist“.

At $130.99 this is an expensive volume!

https://www.degruyter.com/document/isbn/9783110699210/html

Virginia is for Vampires

New punk compilation from 8Up Records in support of the upcoming horror movie The Virgina Bitches starring Bill Moseley! Includes a bunch of great hardcore punk bands: Sacripolitical, The Wasted, Grindle, The Dead Pawns, The Unpatriotics, Die Panzerknakker, Tri-Subversion, Destructafux, and many more!

https://8uprecords.bandcamp.com/album/virginia-is-for-vampires

Subculture

Marin County, California sits north across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, just south of the vineyards of Sonoma and Napa Counties. Its culture has long been a hybrid of urban sophistication and outdoorsy ruggedness. A short drive west from the wealthy population centers of Sausalito, Mill Valley, Corte Madera, San Rafael or Novato and you find yourself in the wilderness surrounding Mount Tamalpais, the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes National Park. Reemerge from a hike in the woods and you find yourself back in the land of pricy restaurants, trendy boutiques, and swanky bars. The county has a reputation for being a bastion of liberal politics, new-age philosophies, alternative lifestyles, health, and wealth. It’s the land of hot tubs and peacock feathers, The Grateful Dead, and George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. It is commonly referred to as “Mellow Marin.”

I grew up in Marin, graduating from San Rafael High in 1982. My high school years were some of the worst in my life, teaching me that the myth of Mellow Marin is a lie. The most painful, lasting, and important lessons I learned at San Rafael High School were not academic at all, but rather social and cultural. I learned about status. I learned about hierarchy. I learned about hypocrisy. And I learned about cruelty toward those who are outcast and different. I learned that behind Mellow Marin’s happy-faced exterior lies viciousness, bigotry, and ugliness. Perhaps these were important lessons; preparation for entering the shit-show that is conventional, adult life. Nevertheless, it was this education that ultimately drove me, as a teenager, to embrace punk rock.

Before high school and as a freshman, I was a weird loner who spent most of his time at school sitting in the library reading horror and science fiction novels, movie and gun magazines. Outside of school, I spent most of my time watching movies and TV, and writing stories that I shared with my uncle. I didn’t really have many pals that I socialized with; a fact which apparently alarmed my parents, who encouraged me to get out of the house and make friends. And I eventually did start to hang around and socialize with other outsiders and weirdoes. It was these outcasts who introduced me to punk.

When I was still in my early teens, I recall reading about punk in Violent World – a short-lived pulp magazine from the 1970s that was among my favorites. I also recall seeing punks in Scotland when my family went on one of our regular trips overseas to visit relatives. But my first truly personal encounters with punk culture began when my neighbor loaned me a stack of records: The Dead Kennedys, The Angry Samoans, Blondie, DEVO, and The Flying Lizards. This was the first time that I had listened to albums with no fat. Everything on them was prime. I was especially entranced by The Angry Samoans, whose album Inside My Brain I played over and over, singing along and memorizing the lyrics as I sat alone in my room. This was the music that sounded how I felt: dark, silly, depressed, awkward, snotty, and angry all at once. Shortly after this, in 1979, I went with a friend (who would later become the guitarist in our own punk band) to see The Contractions perform in San Francisco. I remember being absolutely exhilarated when the drummer used an amplified electric drill to keep the beat during one of their songs. This was not just music. It was an artistic and cultural statement; a finger in the eye of mainstream conventions.

In 1980, the girl who would years later end up being my girlfriend, and then my wife, was expelled from San Rafael High School for having a safety pin in her cheek. We didn’t know one another at the time, (I joke with her today that if she had known me, she would probably have beaten me up), but I do remember seeing her walk through the school halls and thinking she was very cool. Around that same time some of my friends also started dressing punk and I began to realize that there was an alternative to the preppy/jock/stoner groups that dominated teenage, high school life. Soon, I was regularly joining my new, small group of friends to go out to the various punk clubs in Marin and San Francisco. We called our little clique “Crib Death” and started a band of the same name that banged away noisily in the garage of one of the members.

Ironically, despite this new-found social life, my parents were not at all pleased with my pals or with my new appearance. At one point I was forbidden to associate with one of my best friends (I ignored that command), and both my mother and my father became alarmed by my new hairstyle (short-cropped and unevenly cut with scissors), which my father said made me look like a concentration camp inmate. But the genie was out of the bottle. The cork had been popped. I had by that time developed a modicum of defiant self-confidence and self-determination. Punk gave me an identity and a perspective through which I could push back and say “no” to the boring, hypocritical conventions of my parents, teachers, and of Marin County. To this day, most of my friends say that punk is what saved their lives. It certainly was a turning point for me.

During my final year at San Rafael High School, the tension between mainstream student factions and the punks built up and then finally boiled over. For the first time in my life, I refused to be bullied and so started fighting back, which led to suspensions and repeated visits to the principal’s office. A group of students started publishing an alternative campus newspaper called the Black and Blue; a name that mocked the official campus paper, which was called the Red and White. Trying to do them one better, I started to distribute my own photocopied zine called The Scandal, which I insisted was the real alternative voice of the campus. Someone started to send surreal and menacing letters to the principal using our band name, Crib Death. Another person tried to enter a float in the school homecoming parade that was adorned with skulls, swastikas, and coffins. The culminating event was an act of vandalism that really shook up Marin’s image as an easy-going, mellow, and laid back community. One night, before the end of the semester, a group of pranksters propped stolen gravestones along the roof of the cafeteria while others spray-painted and trashed the rest of the campus buildings, finally setting fire to the football bleachers and burning them to the ground. The vandalism was attributed to Crib Death; although it had nothing directly to do with our punk band. The event was front page news around the Bay Area. The image of Marin as a happy, mellow, tolerant, liberal enclave had always been a lie, but it was thanks to Crib Death that this lie made headlines.

I did not participate in the vandalism, but since I was part of Crib Death, I came under suspicion. Summoned by the San Rafael Police Department for questioning, I was told (as my mother sat by my side) that an informant had provided a written statement claiming that I was involved in the arson at the school. My anger boiled over while being questioned, and summoning the power of my punk rock defiance I scolded the police detective, telling him that I knew he had nothing on me because, in fact, I had nothing to do with the incident. In a deliberately calculated maneuver, the detective then excused himself from the room, leaving the incriminating written statement visible for me to inspect as it lay open on his desk. That’s when I read the name of the supposed “friend” who had ratted me out to the police. It was someone who was not a punk, but a little gestapo wannabe who later became a cop. Another lesson learned.

After leaving high school my greatest aspiration was to hang around with friends, zip about on my Vespa scooter, and listen to punk rock music. I started working as an underaged bartender at a local Marin nightclub called The Sleeping Lady Cafe (I was 17), and I enrolled as a student at the College of Marin. It was at COM, in a sociology class on social deviance and problems, that I finally met and began dating the cool punk rock girl who, in 1980, had been expelled from San Rafael High for wearing a safety pin in her cheek.

The instructor of the sociology class was Paul Christensen, a man who I still consider to be one of the most important guiding influences in my life. Professor Christensen was the exact opposite of most of the teachers I had met in high school. He put on no pretensions, he was interested in me and what I had to say, and I felt like he was on my side. It was in his class on social deviance and problems where I also learned that the most important part of becoming educated involves understanding and studying yourself. In his class, we spent a great deal of time examining youth subcultures, including punk rock. Finally, here was a class and a teacher who took seriously something that was important to me.

I recently reread one of the books assigned by Professor Christensen in that first class that I took in college. It is the classic work by Dick Hebdige titled Subculture: The Meaning of Style. This brief yet profound book approaches the topic of youth subcultures sympathetically, treating them not so much as social problems, but as symbolic solutions to the problems faced by youths as they attempt to negotiate the difficulties and the contradictions of the social world. Focusing predominately on post-World War II movements in England, Hebdige’s book was an eye-opener for me, articulating many of the truths that I myself had experienced as a punk kid. Finally, in theses pages, I saw myself and my reality being reflected and affirmed rather than distorted, denigrated and dismissed.

The central argument in Hebdige’s book is that subcultural style is a form of symbolic rebellion. It is a non-verbal means of expression by which youths resist and protest mainstream conventions. This symbolic rebellion expresses and makes visible many of the inner contradictions that would otherwise remain covered over and unnoticed in mainstream society, thus revealing that culture does not operate according to one, monolithic and necessary set of rules. In the styles of the teds, mods, skinheads, glam rockers, and punks, conflicting British attitudes toward race, class, sexual identity, and politics were put on public display through the use of “bricolage”: the improvised recombination of familiar stylistic elements in order to generate new symbolic meanings. By consciously creating their own sets of unconventional styles through the manipulation and juxtaposition of otherwise conventional elements of clothing and other consumer goods, members of these subcultures rebelled against the taken-for-granted, unreflective assumptions of their day. In this way, according to Hebdige, these subcultures subverted “the principle of unity and cohesion,” challenging “the myth of consensus” (p. 18).

Punk rock, according to Hebdige, carried out this subversive mission with “more grim determination” than any other subculture (p. 19). It did this through the appropriation, disfigurement, and symbolic transformation of commonly recognized, and often reviled, elements of style, such as swastikas, anarchy symbols, bondage gear, torn clothing, combat boots, undone ties, and dress shirts covered in writing. These stylistic elements were combined into a look that was at once chaotic, yet unified and recognizable in its mockery of mainstream society and its values. This was a sartorial language of rebellion highlighting the world’s inconsistencies and contradictions; a gleeful recognition, and cheeky rejection, of the hypocrisies of bourgeois culture. While punks were privy to the taken-for-granted meanings of polite society, they “dislocated themselves from the parent culture” (p. 120) by turning those meanings against one another in order to carve out a negative space, a “rupture” (p. 122), that they then occupied. This rupture was filled with stylistic symbols of the inequality, the powerlessness, the racism, and the alienation that were a part of their experience. Thus was the hypocrisy of Britain inscribed into the very look of punk through a brilliantly expressive act of negation. Punk rock demonstrated that nihilism could be creative.

In the conclusion of his book, Hebdige writes, “It is highly unlikely…that the members of any of the subcultures described in this book would recognize themselves reflected here” (p. 139). And yet, at 17 that is exactly what I saw. The author had successfully articulated to me in writing what I symbolically had been trying to convey with my own clothing, music, and attitude all along. Marin was one huge, aggravating contradiction that denied its own inconsistencies; and I wanted the people around me to acknowledge those contradictions. My hometown was a bastion of liberality where people bullied and belittled their neighbors while mouthing abstract platitudes about kindness, caring, and spirituality. It was a place where education and free-thought were held up as a noble ideals while teachers, principals, and school administrators silenced, suspended, and expelled students who questioned the status-quo or challenged the rules. It was a place where people were encouraged to “find themselves,” and yet if you came from the working class, spoke with the wrong accent, were of the wrong color, or dressed strangely, then you were treated with mistrust, suspicion, and hostility. By sheering my hair and wearing combat boots and blue jeans marked up with offensive words, slogans, and symbols, I was challenging my fellow Marinites to demonstrate their liberality, tolerance, and care for individual freedom. Most of the time they did just the opposite, and my point was proved. My fellow Marinites were mostly hypocrites.

As Hebdige observes, subcultures solve nothing. The cultural incongruities and contradictions that are woven into the fabric of mainstream society remain intact – and are perhaps even strengthened – by the symbolic assaults of subcultural movements. What is even worse is when a movement like punk is co-opted as part of the mainstream, becoming just one more commodity; a fashionable style that helps to sell cars, clothing, music, and other consumer goods. It is then that the irony by which punk expresses its critique of the mainstream vanishes, and the contradictions of the parent culture are re-inscribed into the subculture itself. When you can buy Dead Kennedys t-shirts at JC Penny and stream Angry Samoans albums on Spotify, it would seem that instead of showing what a joke our mainstream culture is, the joke is now on punk.

But perhaps there is another, more subversive and long-term sort of victory that punk can claim. For people like myself who still carry around wounds from their early, formative experiences in life, integration into mainstream work and life might hold the potential to change things, however slightly, from the inside. In my own case, after bad experiences with school, I pursued a career in higher education and ended up teaching philosophy at the very institution where I first met my punk rock love and where I came under the influence of Paul Christensen. Over the decades that I have now been teaching, as I have become more secure and self-confident in my position, I feel as if my attitude toward the world has become even more self-consciously punk than ever. Ironically, the authority gained by becoming a tenured faculty member at a valued local institution of higher learning has granted me the freedom to question and to criticize authority in a way that is itself valued and taken seriously. And slowly, over time, other misfit kids have continued to pass through my classes, getting exposed to the insubordinate questions and critiques of the world’s greatest and most famous nihilists and rebels. I’ve watched these students get excited about philosophy, and then also go on to graduate school and careers in teaching. I imagine them, in turn, exposing their own students to the subversive, punk rock ideas of Socrates, Diogenes, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Sartre.

All this leaves me hopeful that the mainstream doesn’t always win.

2022 Pacific Division Meeting of the APA

The 2022 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association meets from April 13th to April 16th in Vancouver, British Columbia. I will participate in the group sessions of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor.

Wednesday, April 13

G1EInternational Association for the Philosophy of Humor, Session 1
Topic:Philosophy of Humor Session I
Chair:John Marmysz (College of Marin)
Speakers:Jonathan Weidenbaum (Berkeley College, New York)
“Humor and the Prospects of a Religious Naturalism”
Lydia Amir (Tufts University)
“Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Laughter: The French Legacy and Beyond”
Louis Marinoff (City College of New York)
“Of Coconuts and Beings: Odd Implications of a Diophantine Problem”
Ramón del Castillo (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia)
“The Curious Incident of the Run Over Dog: Wittgenstein and Humor”

Friday, April 15

G7DInternational Association for the Philosophy of Humor, Session 2
Topic:Philosophy of Humor Session II
Chair:Lydia Amir (Tufts University)
Speakers:Michael Picard (Douglas College)
“Fun and the Furrowed Brow: Play, Games and Humor in Philosophy”
Mark Ralkowski (George Washington University)
“Hannah Gadsby and the Consolations of Humor”
Connor Kianpour (University of Colorado Boulder)
“Isn’t It (Dramatically) Ironic? Exploring the Possibility of Strong Comic Immoralism”
John Marmysz (College of Marin)
“Teaching Philosophy with a Love of Wisdom and a Sense of Humor”

Joyful Cruelty

Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, by Clement Rosset.

Oxford University Press. 1993.

Edited and translated by David F. Bell

This short book consists of three thematically related essays, each concerned with the problem of the “real” and how we might encounter it joyfully, without turning away toward illusion and falsehood.

The “real” is the unmediated world of existence itself, and the tradition of western philosophy – especially beginning with Parmenides and Plato – has conceptualized this world as pure and unchanging. What is real, so the tradition holds, is that which is stable and fixed: for instance the Being of Parmenides or the Forms of Plato. The world of change and ephemerality, on the other hand, has traditionally been considered a realm of falsehood and illusion; a veil blinding us to the stable and unchanging reality that lies behind appearances. For this reason, we westerners have traditionally recoiled from the world of concrete experience, finding joy in the contemplation of a stable, permanent, and unseen heaven-like world beyond all that is changing and transitory.

In the first essay, “The Overwhelming Force,” Rosset asks us to consider that Parmenides and Plato were wrong. What if their flight into the eternal and the unchanging was prompted precisely by distaste for the pain and distress arising from their experience of loss and passing away? Perhaps the abstraction of the Forms, for instance, is a way of retreating from the sadness and grief attached to the experience of time, in which one moment passes into the next and nothing at all is permanent. Perhaps in this there is a rejection of “fugitive existence in favor of an eternal being” (p. 12). If this is the case, then what has traditionally been treated as real is actually an abstract illusion; a defensive response to the cruelty of a world in which nothing at all is permanent or stable. Contemplation of pure, unchanging Being in this case would constitute an evasion of the really “real” in favor of a comforting fantasy. It would be a psychological defense mechanism against the pain associated with impermanence and loss.

Rosset endorses the view that what is actually real is not at all what Parmenides or Plato envisioned but rather precisely the world from which they fled. The real is “the painful place among all painful places, the point where all thoughts come, strictly speaking, to ‘rot'” (p. 15). The real is the realm of concrete experience in which nothing lasts, in which change is constant, and in which painful distress is an inescapable truth. This is a cruel world of death, decay, and passing away.

This leads Rosset to formulate a paradox. If we are joyfully to embrace the real, then we must joyfully embrace that which is cruel and awful. If we are to reject the abstract illusions learned from the past, we must unconditionally rejoice in an existence filled with pain, death, and loss. And this joyful celebration, according to Rosset, would have three consequences. First, it would be completely irrational, lacking logic or justification. There would be no “positive” reason standing outside of the world of impermanence that would justify the world’s cruelty. We would have to embrace the cruel nature of the world on its own terms (p. 17). Second, our joy would itself be cruel, exhibiting indifference to the pain and suffering that is part of reality (pp. 17 – 18). Finally, this joy would be a way of living consciously and with full awareness of life (p. 18). It would be an attitude that would rescue us from our neurotic rejection of true reality.

The joy that Rosset advocates would recognize the horrors of reality but refuse to be repulsed by those horrors. This is what makes this shift in attitude so paradoxical. It would require us to embrace and rejoice in everything reality throws at us: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We would have to find joy in that which brings us pain. But he insists this would not imply that we must approve of all “human outrages and cruelties” (p. 20). Rather it would simply require that we embrace the “force to live” (p. 20) and never allow the pains of existence to keep us from engaging in the process of living life. Life will never be free of suffering. It will never achieve the static, unchanging perfection of Plato’s Forms. But with joy we can evade the pathology of neurotic reality denial, embracing the only world we have for its own sake rather than rejecting it in favor of a comforting illusion.

But how is this possible?

The second essay, “Notes on Nietzsche,” examines the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche in search of an answer to the question posed above. Rosset begins by warning us against two common approaches to Nietzsche’s philosophy that we must avoid. On the one hand, there are those interpreters who claim that what Nietzsche wrote was “bad, false, incoherent, immoral, dangerous” (p. 23). On the other hand, there are those who claim that Nietzsche actually did not come out to advocate anything at all – that he taught nothing, and that through this nothingness his real message speaks. Both approaches are a “betrayal” of Nietzsche; ways of “slighting” him so that others can profess their own versions of truth. Rosset rejects these approaches in favor of one that focuses on the theme of “beatitude.”

Beatitude is an unconditional, joyful embrace of reality, and according to Rosset this theme permeates all of the major Nietzschean doctrines, such as the superman, the eternal return, and the will to power (p. 26). The central point that Nietzsche formulates throughout his explorations of this theme is the tragic nature of reality. Reality is shot through with pain, suffering, and impermanence; but these are not reasons to reject the “real.” On the contrary, they are the very things that must be embraced if we are to avoid illusion and falsehood. In tragedy, the awful nature of reality is made beautiful, and in it we experience an aesthetic jubilation that is without regret or remorse. We are drawn toward tragedy precisely because of its darkness and “negativity.” But this “negativity” is not something to be cured or alleviated. It is precisely the source of our fascination and appreciation in the first place. The jubilation we experience with tragedy is akin to the jubilation we experience through music (pp. 32 – 43). Both are “witness to this world” (p. 38), rooted in a celebration of the ephemeral and transitory. Nietzsche’s Gay Science is itself a tragic, musical approach to the investigation of reality that weds euphoria with knowledge. Though the world of the “real” may have no ultimate justification outside of itself, and though it may be absurd and senseless, Nietzsche challenges us to embrace this reality as an aesthetic phenomenon, the way that we embrace tragic drama or music.

The final essay, “The Cruelty Principle,” addresses the nature of philosophy, characterizing it as a way of thinking that is distinguished from other fields – like art, science, and literature – in that it attempts to think the whole of reality, rather than being content to focus only on specific things. “Its aim is to be a theory of reality in general and not a theory of this or that particular reality” (p. 72). Philosophy, in this way, is not concerned with this or that object, but with objects as an entirety. You could say that its object of study is the whole of objective reality. So it is, according to Rosset, that all philosophers are ultimately attempting to focus their attention on the same thing: the “real.”

But the “really” real is different from what many philosophers have claimed to be real. As discussed in the book’s first essay, philosophers like Parmenides and Plato (as well as Hegel who is addressed in this chapter) have attempted to posit a world beyond the painful, ephemeral, and transitory, thus dismissing as unreal the world that we actually experience. Thus, in their quest for the real, these thinkers have turned away from parts of reality, and thus falsified it. True philosophy, according to Rosset, must joyfully embrace the entirety of reality, including its painful, ephemeral, and tragic aspects. But in doing so, it must inevitably recognize its own incapacity to complete the task. If we conceive of knowledge as a final, static summing up of the world once and for all, and if the real is constantly changing, decaying, and morphing, then knowledge of the real is ultimately impossible. The paradox of philosophy is that it strives to understand the whole of reality while reality itself never remains static or fixed. Because the object of philosophy’s attention is so unstable, so must philosophy itself remain uncertain. Thus, philosophy is not about establishing final conclusions. It is about keeping uncertainty alive.

“The fact that a philosopher is less persuaded than anyone else of the truth of what he or she claims may seem highly paradoxical. The fact is nonetheless indubitable and is the result of the very nature of philosophical ‘truth'” (p. 87). The drive for certainty and absolute truth are totalitarian in nature, and Rosset tells us that nothing could be farther from the inner spirit of philosophical thought. Philosophy foments doubt, uncertainty, and skepticism even while it strives toward an understanding of the real. In this way, it is – like Nietzsche’s Gay Science – a tragic discipline that joyfully and gleefully rejoices in its own ignorance while never relinquishing the investigation of reality.

I resonate deeply with the various themes that Rosset explores and the conclusions that he articulates in Joyful Cruelty. In particular, I find his characterization of philosophy one of the most accurate accounts of the discipline I have read, far surpassing in clarity and correctness those accounts given in most textbooks on the subject. Philosophy is, I agree with Rosset, a way of thought that strives toward Truth (or the “real”) while always falling short of its final goal. More concerned with opening up new questions than with offering final answers, philosophy is a mode of thought that undercuts our certainty, encouraging us to remain open to the influx of new information and discoveries. It is, as characterized in my own book The Path of Philosophy, a kind of “wondrous distress” in which the desire for Truth is constantly frustrated, thus keeping us active and involved in an ongoing and endless exploration of the world.

Rosset’s approach to Nietzsche puzzles me, however. After prefacing his own very careful reading of Nietzsche’s works with a warning against importing one’s own truth into the philosopher’s ideas, Rosset goes on to do just that. It is Nietzsche’s Gay Science that offers the key to embracing the “real” joyfully, according to Rosset, and so everything that he had hoped for in the first essay is then discovered by way of examining Nietzsche’s thought in the second essay. And while the themes and ideas presented in the first essay are fascinating, I was left feeling duped; as if the questions and the problems raised were not genuine, but merely a set-up for a Nietzschean solution.

I adore Nietzsche, but as I have grown older I have become much less confident that his ideas offer any sort of answer for how we might come to terms with the horrors and cruelties of the world. I regard him less as an authority and more like a fellow sufferer who eloquently gives voice to the condition that we all face as human beings. As we squirm about trying to make sense of our absurd condition, we sometimes suffer and we sometimes experience joy. Sometimes we hate the world and sometimes we love it. Unlike Rosset, who wants to convince us that we should strive toward the joyful embrace of even the worst aspects of reality, I want to remain free to take joy in some things while rejecting and detesting others.

Reality is ambiguous, and I see no reason why my attitude toward it should not also be ambiguous.