Pacific APA 2015

Welcome to VancouverThe 2015 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association took place April 1 – 4 in Vancouver, British Columbia. It may seem a bit odd that the American Philosophical Association would meet in Canada; but Canada is part of North America, after all.

This marked my first visit to Vancouver. It is a place that I never previously thought much about. The only reason that it was even on my radar is because it is home to the classic punk band D.O.A. Consequently, I really didn’t have any expectations built up in my mind for this visit. I knew that I wanted to eat seafood, and I was looking forward to being outdoors. That’s about it.

Well, it turns out that Vancouver is really quite a nice place. It reminds me a lot of Seattle (where the APA met in 2013), as it is situated on an inlet of water that opens into the Pacific Ocean and it is nestled in amongst stunning mountains and wilderness. During our stay, the sound of seaplanes taking off and landing in Coal Harbor was a constant, background soundtrack, making me feel like we were in a place far from home; some place way north, where salty fishermen still risk their lives on the sea and lumberjacks still work the forests. The old TV show Northern Exposure kept coming to mind. Unlike the small rural Alaskan town in that show, however, Vancouver is a big, modern, metropolis.

Vancouver BuildingsThe city center of Vancouver looks like a simulation. Most of the skyscrapers are very new, and of a uniform style, making it seem like they were built all at once; like someone was in a hurry to complete the skyline. The buildings sit in a cluster, crowded right next to the water and demanding attention a bit too stridently. It is like the city planners really wanted people to recognize Vancouver as a metropolis. It is so polished and planned that it appears as if was intended to evoke  the generic form of “CITY”. Maybe this is why it is often used in films as a stand-in for other locations.

The conference itself was fun. I’ve mentioned in previous postings that over the years, the APA has become increasingly inclusive, hosting more and more sessions devoted to continental thought rather than just being a good ‘ole boy’s club for analytic philosophers. This time around there were multiple presentations on Heidegger and Nietzsche. I participated as a chairman in a session focused on the topic of authenticity. There were a number of presentations devoted to aesthetics; the most enjoyable for me being the inaugural meeting of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor where I had the pleasant opportunity to meet John Moreall and Noël Carroll for the first time. I also enjoyed attending sessions on the aesthetics of disgust, film and philosophy and two meetings devoted to Kantian philosophy. There were so many thrilling things to listen to and discuss that I almost felt like I was at a philosophy carnival(…and yes, there were some clowns in attendance)! Now that the APA has become so open to speakers and topics across the whole range of philosophy, I’m thinking that I may have some success at organizing a panel on nihilism for a future meeting. We’ll see how that flies.

TotemPoleWhen not attending the conference, my wife and I spent our time walking. We wandered through picturesque Stanley Park, enjoying the sight of thousands of tulips and other sorts of flowers, the choppy waters of Vancouver Harbor, and an assortment of totem poles.  We also walked along the waterfront and into Gastown; the oldest part of Vancouver, which is now a hipster heaven crawling with tattooed twenty-somethings, overpriced restaurants and coffee houses. It was there that we enjoyed some good cookies (but awful coffee) at Maple Delights, a shop dedicated to all things maple. Later, at Chill Winston, I had some decent octopus on toast, brussel sprouts and a pint. My wife had a veggie burger. I thought the meal was too expensive. My wife said that’s because I’m part Scottish. Which reminds me: we also browsed the items in a shop devoted to Scottish imports called The House of McLaren. I didn’t buy anything, however, since everything was overpriced.

Pork Bun StoreOn another day, when we walked to Chinatown to eat pork buns, we found ourselves at one point engulfed in a sea of drug dealers, runaways, homeless kids, and other sorts of street people who seemed to appear out of nowhere. The throngs were crowded into an area of probably about 3 or 4 blocks on what I think was Hastings Street. As we passed into this area I initially thought that perhaps there was a street fair going on. Guys and girls with multicolored hair, mohawks and facial piercings lined the sidewalk, sitting on blankets spread with things for sale: books, old records, televisions sets, an engine that looked like it came out of a lawnmower, a kitchen sink. Every few steps that we took, there were people exchanging money for drugs. An unkempt man, smelling strongly of body odor, accidentally bumped into me and politely said, “Oh. Excuse me sir.” I checked my wallet. It was still there. As we continued on, I realized that there were police cars parked on either end of each block with officers monitoring the whole situation, not intervening but apparently just keeping an eye on things to be sure that they didn’t get out of hand.  This, as it turns out, is the part of town that the tourist guides suggest you avoid. I, however, disagree.  It was one of the highlights of our visit!

Capilano BridgeOn our last day in Canada we rented a car and drove to Capilano Reserve Park, a tourist attraction that features a long, alarmingly elevated foot bridge stretching across a deep river ravine. My wife and some of my relatives had warned me about the treacherous nature of this attraction and how it would take a great deal of bravery to walk across its narrow, swaying span. When I finally did mount the bridge, however, I felt let down. There really was nothing too scary about it at all. It was wide enough to accommodate three people shoulder to shoulder, and it was so solid that I wasn’t even aware of it swaying. In pictures it looks precarious. In reality its just another walk in the park.

I enjoyed our visit to Vancouver. It is a city that has a good mix of sophistication, urban grit and outdoor beauty. I think I’d like to go back sometime to go camping and see a punk rock show.

Pacific APA 2013

402238_159649527482086_84650288_nThis year’s Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association was held right here in the Bay Area, at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I chaired a session in which Scott Jenkins, from the University of Kansas, presented his paper “What Does Recurrence Weigh On?” Commenting on Scott’s paper was Babette Babich from Fordam University, a world-renowned Nietzsche scholar who I was particularly excited to meet. The session was quite well attended, and the interaction between Scott and Babette gave everyone who was present a dramatic and spirited taste of the differing ways that analytic and continental thinkers approach the interpretation of  Friedrich Nietzsche’s works.

Professor Jenkin’s paper came from an analytic perspective and focused on trying to clarify the meaning of the “recurrence question,” (RQ) which is posed by Nietzsche in his book The Gay Science. The recurrence question, in a nutshell, asks us to consider whether or not we are able to bear the “heaviest weight” of thinking that the entirety of our lives might be lived again and again into eternity. The text upon which Jenkins focused his analysis comes from section 341:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your most solitary solitude and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

The passage goes on to ask if you would greet this possibility with joy or with horror. Would it be a comfort or a burden to you to think that every single event in your life – both wonderful and terrible – was destined to be repeated infinitely into the future?

To may contemporary Westerners, the idea of experiencing any sort of afterlife is commonly thought of as a comfort, and yet in Eastern philosophy, reincarnation is treated as a kind of punishment. Buddhists, for instance, think of reincarnation as a sign of spiritual failure. Consciousness is recycled for repeated rounds only because of residual karma that has not been worked through in one’s present life. The reward for spiritual success, on the other hand, is final extinction or nirvana. It is interesting that in Nietzsche’s works, the idea of repeating life again and again is characterized, following the Eastern example, as something potentially negative; hence the title of the particular section of Nietzsche’s book that Scott focused on: das grösste Schwergewicht (the heaviest weight). The thought that you may come back again and again, reliving life exactly as it has been lived in the past, is the “heaviest weight” precisely because, according to Nietzsche, it is difficult to bear.

The question is, why? Why is this thought such a heavy and burdensome weight?

One possible answer is suggested by those who think that RQ acts as a guide to decision-making and deliberation. In this view, asking yourself the recurrence question becomes a way to decide if you are capable of willing your very next action into eternity. Cast in this way, the recurrence question resembles something like the various formulations of the Categorical Imperative in the writings of Kant. It is a device for deciding how enthusiastic you are in embracing some proposed course of action. If you are joyful about the possible repetition of an action into eternity, then that is a sign the action is good or valuable. If, on the other hand, you are distressed about such a potential repetition, then that is a sign the action is bad or to be avoided. In this view, the “weight” of RQ is the result of how it guides and constrains our efforts of deliberation.

The problem with this interpretation, Jenkins argued, is that Nietzsche clearly states that we must consider every single one of our past actions – “everything unspeakably small or great” – when entertaining the thought of recurrence, and this would certainly not aid in decision-making, but would more likely undermine our ability to act. Considering every single event in our lives, both the important as well as the insignificant ones, is not only a practical impossibility,  it would also reduce us to indecision and inaction. Therefore, Jenkins claimed, this can’t be the “weight” of RQ.

So what is the weight of RQ? Jenkins’ conclusion was that Nietzsche provides no adequate answer and that it remains unclear what purpose asking this question is supposed to serve.

Babette Babich replied to Jenkin’s analytical exegesis with an impressive response that called into question his entire approach to reading Nietzsche. Drawing on a wide and varied set of references (everything from Nietzsche’s other works to the Torah), Babich stressed the importance of thinking the question of recurrence within context, demanding that we avoid isolating RQ from the very thing that it is supposed to highlight: the issue of human finitude and the struggle with nihilism. “The point is the paradox!” she insisted, suggesting that it is not the answer that matters, but the vigor with which we confront the idea. RQ, in this way of thinking, forces us to face the reality of a life rooted in the here-and-now and which promises nothing more than what we make of it. For Nietzsche, since heaven and God have become untenable crutches in modern life, we modern humans must learn to live in this world as if this is all there is. In considering that all our actions will be repeated into eternity, we free ourselves from the thought that some force outside of ourselves can intervene to save or rescue us from our own decisions. How we react to the thought of eternal recurrence is an indication as to how well or how poorly we have come to terms with this reality. It is not a question that has or needs any particular answer.

Nietzsche bustBoth presenters were fascinating to me in their own ways. I was impressed by Scott Jenkin’s clarity and his analytical rigor in trying to clarify the meaning of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return while I was also impressed by Babette Babich’s wide-ranging scholarly erudition. Ultimately the difference between the two boiled down to the difference between analysis and synthesis. For Scott, the meaning of RQ needed to be sought in the analytical dissection of the idea while for Babette, its meaning was to be found by synthesizing an understanding of its place within Nietzsche’s entire body of work, his overarching philosophy and his worldview.

It was a pleasure to meet these philosophers. It was also a pleasure to see that the APA these days seems much more open to the inclusion of presenters advocating a continental perspective. Doing so makes for a much more lively, rich and intellectually stimulating environment.

Philosophy in Seattle

I feel like I should live in Seattle. Of course I have only had the opportunity to visit the city once (for a total of five days); but still my gut feeling is that Seattle is the place for me. It is a city that seems to offer a mixture of culture, entertainment and recreation perfectly suited to my own way of life. It is a large urban center, but it does not feel hectic. Despite its many skyscrapers and city streets, it sits amidst the wilderness and mountains. Seattle is situated next to the water, and so there is plentiful seafood. There are numerous punk rock bars and clubs, more coffee shops than I could visit in a year, and tons of bookstores that cater to my own particular tastes. After one five day visit, I’m hooked and I’ve become convinced that I am destined to live there.

I have, of course, had this same reaction to a host of other cities that I have visited for short periods. It’s probably true that if I did find myself living in Seattle, I would also find plenty to complain about over the course of time, just as I find plenty to complain about here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Perhaps it is just the novelty of seeing something different that is the source of my Seattle-mania.

In any case, it was on the occasion of the 86th annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association that I was recently in the emerald city. I had volunteered to act as chair for a session on scientific modeling, and so my wife and I planned a short get away around this event. This year’s APA conference was held at the Westin Hotel, which is right in the heart of downtown. We arrived late in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and we were amazed to find so little traffic in the middle of this booming metropolis. There was no stop and go crunch, no impatient honking motorists; just smooth, uncomplicated driving to our destination. One of the negative things I now remember is the price of parking. It was ridiculously expensive. OK, so not everything is perfect in Seattle.

I often find myself getting anxious at conferences, and particularly at the APA conference. In the past, my anxiety and tension have become so pronounced that I have felt like I just wanted to run away to my room and go to sleep. As I mentioned in a previous posting, the APA has a tradition of being skewed toward a particular perspective in philosophy, and as the largest association of philosophers in the US, the atmosphere at its meetings often feels very formalized and stiff. Job interviews are conducted at these conferences as well, and so there are a lot of graduate students and job seekers who are on their “best” behavior, seeking to impress those who hold the keys to the academic kingdom. As I was waiting to get coffee in the Hotel lobby one morning, I overheard a couple of older gentlemen complaining about this very thing. “This is a conference for young people,” one of the men complained. “It’s not for the rest of us who already have jobs.”

During the Seattle meeting, however, I felt more at ease than usual. For one, I’m not out to please or impress anyone anymore. I have a job that I’m happy with and that I will probably keep for the rest of my life. No one really knows or cares who I am, so I can just hang back and enjoy the show, so to speak.

Additionally, it was a pleasant surprise to find that at this particular meeting there were actually quite a few sessions that appealed to me. There were, indeed, so many interesting talks that I was unable to attend all of the ones that I had dog-eared in my conference program. Because of this unusual abundance, I missed a special memorial session devoted to one of my own former teachers, Mary Anne Warren, as well as sessions devoted to Nietzsche, Hiedegger and Hegel. This, in my experience, is out of the ordinary, and it is an indication that the APA is trying to reach out to a greater diversity of philosophers by scheduling sessions on topics outside of the usual, mainstream, analytic fare. In any case, it was a welcome, if somewhat frustrating, situation to have to choose between a number of equally compelling symposia and colloquia.

My dissertation advisor, Carolyn Korsmeyer, was the subject of an especially interesting “author-meets-critics” session that focused on her new book, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics. During this session, Korsmeyer and her critics, Mitchell Green and Alex Neill, argued about the “paradox of disgust,” which involves the puzzle of how it is possible to aesthetically appreciate and enjoy artworks that depict disgusting objects. Korsmeyer’s position holds that aesthetic disgust (such as that enjoyed when watching zombie movies, or when viewing paintings of body parts and decaying organisms) is a legitimate aesthetic experience that is attractive because it reminds us of our own finitude. Disgusting art provokes us to think about our own fate as embodied, mortal organisms that will one day die and whose bodies will decay and rot. This is the existential value of disgusting art: it puts us in touch with the truth of human mortality.

Later, I chaired a session at which Alistair Issac presented a paper titled, “Modeling Without Representation.” David Stump served as the commentator. In his paper Issac argues for a pragmatic perspective on scientific models, claiming that there is no necessary conflict between this approach and the retention of a realist perspective when it comes to scientific theories. The conundrum here centers on the fact that many scientific models that really do work, pragmatically, in order to generate interesting and testable hypotheses are premised on assumptions about the world that are themselves actually false. From a realist perspective, which holds that theories and models are legitimate only if they are based on true assumptions, this is unacceptable. Issac’s view is that we can be pragmatic when it comes to models, but still strive toward refining our theories in line with a realist perspective. The model is merely a tool while the theory is a purported depiction of the actual causal structure of the world. The model should not be confused with the thing being modeled.

The final, and perhaps most fascinating, of all the sessions I attended was titled “Much Ado about Nothing: Conceptions of Nothingness in Asian Philosophy.” In this session, Jay Garfield discussed the Buddhist philosophers Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, arguing that they are best characterized as realists and not as nihilists. Bo Wang discussed the relation between Taoism and nothingness, and JeeLoo Liu ended the session by addressing the role of nothingness in Taoism and Confucianism. The consistent theme running throughout these presentations was the idea that Asian philosophy avoids the puzzle of how something can come out of nothing.  Since in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism (unlike in the Abrahamic traditions) the universe has no beginning in time, there is for them no such thing as creation ex nihilo. The universe has always existed, and so there is no requirement to explain how it came into being. My only disappointment with this session was that Curtis Rigsby, who was scheduled to read his paper titled “The Kyoto School on Nothingness: Japan’s Philosophical Response to the West,” was a no-show. I am fascinated with the Kyoto School and its engagement with the idea of nihilism, and so I’m sorry that Rigsby was not able to be present.

At the beginning of the session on nothingness in Asian philosophy, Jay Garfield made a humorous, and telling, remark about the inclusion of this topic in the APA program. He joked that we were experiencing a monumental occasion; one that was unprecedented in the history of this organization. It was amazing, he laughed, that the APA had finally recognized the contributions of non-Western thinkers to the field of philosophy! While he was certainly joking, and being a bit hyperbolic, his point was one that resonated with me, and I was relieved that someone else was thinking the same thing that I was thinking. It is a welcome shift to see the APA becoming more inclusive with the sorts of topics that are addressed at its conferences. It is only in this way that the organization can remain relevant and attractive to those of us working in philosophy. I can honestly say that I now look forward to future meetings as a result.

Outside of the official proceedings, it was wonderful to touch base with some of my past advisors and current colleagues who were present at the conference. It was also great to see the sights. As I noted above, Seattle is an amazing city with plenty of things to keep you occupied. My wife and I visited the usual tourist destinations (The Public Market, The Space Needle) as well as some great bookstores (Left Bank Books, The Elliot Bay Book Company). The culinary highlights were eating at Cafe Flora, a vegetarian restaurant that serves an incredibly delicious portobello wellington, and having salted caramel ice cream at Molly Moon’s. Our visit was nicely rounded off with a ferry ride to Victoria, Canada , and a day hike in Mt. Rainer National Park.

I’m looking forward to living in Seattle some day so that I can eventually become sick of it all; just like the members of the Feederz, one of my favorite punk bands. Listen to their song “No Shopping” for a more hostile view of Seattle and what it has to offer!

APA Conference

The American Philosophical Association’s 86th Annual Pacific Division Meeting is coming up in April. I’ve volunteered to chair a session on “scientific modeling,” during which Alistair Isaac will present a paper arguing that there is no conflict between a pragmatic theory of scientific modeling and scientific realism. David Stump will be the commentator. It should be an interesting discussion!

The APA was founded in 1900, and is now one of the largest associations of philosophers in the world. It hosts three annual conferences in the US, and according to its website it is “not devoted to a particular school or philosophical approach.” This is a refreshing assertion, since for a long time the APA seemed to be dominated by analytic philosophers; and especially well-known analytic philosophers from major universities. This led many of us, for quite a while, to become disillusioned with the organization and to give up any interest in participating in its meetings. The history of this disillusionment is chronicled in the essay “The Pluaralist Rebellion in the American Philosophical Association,” by Bruce Wilshire, which appears in his book Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy (SUNY Press, 2002).

The very first philosophy conference I ever attended was an APA meeting in San Francisco during the 1980’s when I was studying for my Master’s Degree. I remember that we students were offered free admission to the conference if we agreed to work in the book room, where publishers advertised their latest offerings and gave away examination copies. I can’t remember which publisher I was manning a table for, but I do remember my sense of excitement about being in the presence of so many real, professional philosophers! I imagined that there would all sorts of interesting, strange and unusual characters arguing about the nature of reality and debating the meaning of Truth. My idealism about professional philosophy, however, was soon brought right down to earth.

Is he the security guard, or a budding philosopher without a suit and tie?

My first suspicion that professional philosophers were more conventional that I had imagined was when I first walked through the various conference rooms where talks were being held. Most of the attendees were white men in suits. Now, it’s not that I have anything against white men in suits, mind you. When I put on a suit, that is exactly what I am. It was just that I was expecting more diversity in the crowd. Where was the guy who looked like the scruffy Socrates, or the crazy Diogenes? Where was the fellow with the ample mustache, like Nietzsche? Where was the intense looking bald fellow who looked like Foucault? As a 20-something graduate student with a buzz cut, dressed in a black leather jacket, jeans and combat boots, I stood out like a sore thumb. In fact, at one point a philosopher in a suit approached me and asked in all seriousness, “Are you the security guard?”

My second suspicion came when I perused the list of talks. There was nothing about nihilism or anarchy. There were no presentations about existentialism or Heidegger. In fact, I was unable to even understand what most of the talks were about, since they were couched in such technical and obscure language. As it turned out, I did attend some very interesting sessions having to do with logic, the philosophy of language and epistemology, but I had also hoped to hear presentations on more of the topics that first drew me into the study of philosophy; topics concerning the meaning of life, the nature of God, nihilism, etc. At that time, such things were not on the menu.

I continued to attend the APA meetings and to retain my membership in the organization, but it was really just a formality. After I earned my Ph.D. and started to teach, membership in the APA was part of what what was expected, and it kept me in the loop about who was important and who was active in the field. At various points over the years, I even tried to take part in the association by volunteering to act as a chair or a commentator on papers. I was once approached by a colleague who tried to propose a session on nihilism for one of the division meetings. For a long time, nothing ever came of these things, and I had the feeling that the APA and its officers did not share my own concerns. It was not an organization that represented my interests.

It was only around 2005 that things seemed to start to change. It was then that I started to see more topics listed in the Proceedings of the APA that really sparked my interest and enthusiasm, and there were more indications that the APA was trying to reach out to those philosophers who had come to feel alienated from the organization. I recall a statement from the main office insisting that philosophy should be treated as an international discipline and not just an American analytic discipline. More and more attention seemed to be given to continental philosophy at the division meetings, and I now see that even the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) is encouraging its members to be more active in the APA.

So, all of this is a happy development. The diversity of topics and approaches to philosophy that are represented at the upcoming APA Pacific Division conference look interesting and exciting, and I am once again hopeful that this will be a fun, inspiring and thought provoking event!