Reading Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet!

This post is prompted by a question my friend, Louis, asked on Facebook yesterday:

I’ve written about the Orly Crash and the significance that tragedy has had on the development of Atlanta’s arts communities for Burnaway.

Here’s my response to Louis and I thank him for prompting me to write this down.

Depending on what you are trying to ask we may be able to support a couple of answers with the evidence available to us.

If you’re asking if we can be supported in claiming that Warhol’s painting has exploited a tragedy, then I think we can affirm that reading.

We can also refine your question and in so doing we are opened onto a few other ways of receiving the image.

We could also ask, “In what ways does Warhol’s painting here demonstrate his reception of image-making practices in the modern era?”

With this question we can then muster the resources of the history of painting (especially focusing on the period from the advent of photograph to the period in which Warhol made this).

If we look at the development of “modern painting” as a tendency to demonstrate how a human (specifically a painter) makes a kind of image that cannot be replicated by a machine (specifically a camera), then we can arrive at some, I think, really interesting ideas about art, technology, and representation.

Let me begin by making a claim about the impulse toward modern painting in general. What we see in the development of painting, from the late 19th century to Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet!

From the Renaissance through to the development of photography there developed a body of thinking about the nature of what we call “art” today. Keep in mind that this term has not existed in a vacuum and from the earliest days of “European” thought the concept of art was intimately related to another vexing word, “technology.” For the ancient Greeks the word tekhné would most closely resemble what we mean by “art” today, but they are not the same words and it’s important to give a brief outline of what tekhné (from which we get words like “technique” and “technology”) entailed for those Greeks back when. I’ve written about this topic for the Swiss exhibition at the London Design Biennale this summer

Tekhné referred to a type of knowing, a savoir-faire, that not only meant the person could manifest the vision they had in their heads, but also that the effect they caused, the thing they made, also had the potential to undermine another person. A gifted artisan using their tekhné could create an exquisite duck decoy, say. In order to create a useful decoy, the artist had to know quite a lot about how ducks are in the world. With this knowledge, the artist can trick the duck and thereby the hunter can successfully acquire their prey.

Into the early 20th century we could encounter, in Europe and “the West,” the term beaux arts and this phrase continues to linger with us today when we mark the distinction between arts and crafts and “fine art.” There has been the need to distinguish beaux arts from other arts, like the mechanical arts (see, for example, the wonderful Musée des Arts et Métier in Paris); that is, the technical arts. But of course, artists are also engineers in the sense that artists of course deploy a variety of techniques and technologies to resolve a variety of problems.

In the Renaissance era and through the Enlightenment period artists were often a kind of scientist, creating techniques and technologies to help render the world around them more sensible to observers. The development of linear perspective, tenebrism—frankly, the entire “science” of Anatomy arises from folks we today would call artists who were trying to find ways to represent the observable world with the greatest fidelity. In the Renaissance, again, an artist was one part mason and one part painter when creating frescoes. They were as likely to be hired for their ability to create life-like simulations of their patrons in portraiture as they were to be able to design an architectural space that showed the people of the region how great the artist’s patron was (often by representing the patron hanging out with deities).

Tenebrism, linear perspective, trompe l’oeil, these are the techniques that visual artists (specifically painters) developed to lend the greatest fidelity of representation to the observable world. That is, the techniques for realism are the techniques for illusionism. 

The academic style of painting that the avant-garde artists sought to break from required that the painter disguise as much as possible any traces of mark-making by the artist. The canvas should act as a kind of portal that the spectator could imagine stepping into and being transported into this other world.

Painting became the medium through which History was to be recorded. Here begins the crisis of representation, which is not only a crisis in painting, but also in political theory. Consider Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801):

By Jacques-Louis pic, Public Domain, Link

Napoleon is shown on a fiery steed, but in truth he crossed on a donkey. No matter for the folks of the time, the Spirit of History required that Napoleon be represented in this grand manner because of the magnitude of his actions on the course of human affairs. But it is a lie.

With the advent of the camera History no longer requires humans to be its recording agents. The advantage of the photograph (although this isn’t initially how it was received) is that it records the way that light falls upon subjects, the image we see is, we are told, objectively how the world appeared at that moment. Ask any artist what genre of painting they are most likely to sell and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts they will concede that they are much more likely to sell portraits and landscapes than they are to sell pure abstractions. The camera, then, presents a real dilemma for the portrait-making artist because the camera can more rapidly make that portrait than the painter. Furthermore, thanks to the development of printing technologies, there also exists a machine that will reproduce, with greater speed and fidelity, that same portrait so that the customer can send a copy to everyone in the family tree. The camera and these printing technologies induce a kind of existential crisis for painting. A veritable steam engine vs. John Henry moment.

Is it any surprise, then, that we see the development of impressionism as there is this increase in the use of photography? Impressionism moves away from the academic style of painting that requires that the painter hide their brushwork, and, by flaunting their paint strokes, makes the viewer aware that what they are viewing is artificial. What the impressionist painting, in effect, states is that only a human painter to create images that speak to the fidelity of the human experience of a moment. Sure, a camera can show us how light fell on subjects at a specific moment, but only a Van Gogh can show us a human’s impression of a moment. The camera objectively records the external world with fidelity; but the human being, through artifice, can present the inner workings of a spirit or psyche.

From the late 19th century forward we see painters increasingly occupied with painting as the primary medium for human expression of one’s inner life. What do humans in the early 20th century express? Their sense of being lost in a sea of mass produced objects and printed images. Increasingly humans find themselves alienated from their work (through the assembly line), from their neighbors (with the move to urban areas), and from themselves (with the development of psychiatry).

Berlin Street SceneErnst Ludwig Kirchner (1914) – Scanned by uploader from the catalog: Deborah Wye, Kirchner and the Berlin Street, New York, MoMA, 2008. ISBN 9780870707414., Public Domain, Link

With the development of Cubism we see a significant painterly response to the proliferation of printed objects in the human environment. The collages of Braque and Picasso show us artists metabolizing mass print culture into a beaux arts context. With Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) we are led to accept that it is the surface of the image, no longer representational fidelity and illusionistic perspective, that matters for humans making art. It is in the superficial that we can find the deeper truths of our inner lives.

The newspaper, once the tool through which democratic representation could be secured, by the early 20th century had become the site of constant phantasmagoria. Unlike the novel, which we read from left to right, top to bottom, the newspaper is disjointed and places stories of one’s neighborhood next to stories about Timbuktu, sports scores, and society gossip. To read the newspaper in the same way as a novel is a schizophrenic affair. The fundamental conceit of the newspaper is that the reader must imagine themselves as a small water drop in a torrential historical flood. Everyone, everywhere, communicating with one another and no one has a better sense of the world than anyone else.

By the time Warhol embarks on his Death and Disaster series several generations of humans have been enculturated to accept the near-constant barrage of images from far-away places and too-horrible-to-comprehend situations. 129 Die in Jet! isn’t the first painting to comment on the loss of intelligibility in the modern era, but it is a very explicit and plain statement about the crisis of representation at the heart of Modernity. Warhol’s painting exists not as a comment on the horrific scene, but leads one to question the cruelty of a constant flow and reproduction of death in the daily media consumption of the times.

One could argue that the development of media like the slasher genre, as we’ve seen from Larry Rickels, and perhaps Warhols’ Death and Disaster series have been propagated as a therapeutic response to the horror of contemporary life. Following Rickels’ thinking on the matter, we gladly consume images of cruelty and absurd violence as entertainment in preparation for the absurd cruelty of our own lives. I’ve written about this in my discussion of AMC’s The Walking Dead and why that show had to be set in Atlanta.

Rather than reading 129 Die in Jet! as simple exploitation of a tragedy that impacted all those families, Warhol’s painting also opens us onto the horror of living in a society that simply cannot stop itself from revisiting and reproducing absurd violence. Although 129 Die in Jet! might be read in this manner, we cannot ignore that the reproduction of cruelty in itself is not an antidote to the ongoing horror of being alive. We can look to Gerhard Richter’s paintings of photographs of the Baader-Meinhoff Group, 18 October 1977 (1988) to see the continuation of the problems that Warhol is exploring in his paintings. Please watch Robert Storr’s discussion of Richter’s paintings here.

Man Shot Down 1, Gerhard Richter (1988) via the artist’s website

Modes of Knowledge-Making and Identity Politics

Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, Documentation of the performance,1970, Photographs by Rosemary Mayer, Collection Thomas Erben, New York © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; via whitehot magazine.

What follows are my lecture notes for my class on Contemporary Art at Georgia State University. During this class we were discussing Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Betye Saar, Pat Ward Williams, Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, and Cindy Sherman. I’m relying on the syllabus and slides that Dr. Susan Richmond prepared for her own Contemporary Art classes at GSU and I thank her once more for this opportunity to work with the excellent students at GSU’s Welch School of Art & Design.

Today we’re considering Bridget Cook’s essay “See Me Now” and the overarching theme of our class meeting today is to discuss how contemporary artists have demonstrated their concerns with what we call “identity politics.”

It seems to me that part of the problem facing us when we think with Cook’s essay is that representation is misleading.

Cook points us to Roland Barthes’ thinking about professional wrestling because in Barthes’ observation of professional wrestling he diagnoses something indicative of our contemporary lived situation. We live, as Guy Debord argued, in a society oriented around spectacles. So, what kind of agency can we have when we as individuals are seen as spectacles, forced into having our actions read by audiences with preconceived notions and expectations of what our bodies are supposed to mean when we go about our daily quotidian peformances?

As Cook points out, the appropriation of racist (and let’s extend this to misogynist) imagery, there is the danger that the artist doing this appropriation will inadverently reinforce the negative meaning of the original imagery. When this occurs, and it does occur, this is considered to be a failure on the part of the artist or author of the work.

But we are left with the dilemma: as typified by the reactions of the RISD custodians who went on strike upon viewing Weems’ exhibition, Ain’t Jokin’. Cook asks us to consider the following question, how does the our reception of a work of art transform when we become aware of the race/gender of an artist? In the case of the RISD custodial staff it was obvious that not all participants in the strike were not placated upon finding out that Weems is a Black woman (one member of the strike quit rather than return). Now, it could be that person quit for extenuating reasons, but we can easily imagine that among the returning workers the question of how appropriate this exhibition was lingered in the minds of many.

Cook frequently discusses the relationship with knowledge and these appropriated images. So, I want to suggest that part of what is at play here is the difficulty that arises when two modes of knowledge come into proximity of one another. Since we’ve been discussing judgment and the need for art criticism to provide a reliable method for evaluating art objects, let’s look at how expertise comes to be.

There are at least two ways of understanding what is true. Tom Kasulis presents us with what he refers to as the “correspondence theory of truth” and contrasts it with what he coins the “assimilation theory of truth.” I believe that we can extend the lessons of Cook’s essay by considering and then acting from insights we gain when we understand Kasulis’ thinking on the matter.

The correspondence theory of truth is the dominant model of how we claim to know something. In this model it is assumed that the world out there exists independently of what I think about the world. Through my observations of the world out there I come into a relationship with the world and the name of that relationship is “knowledge.” Kasulis points to Galileo and his “discovery” of Jupiter’s moons to illustrate this relationship. There are three parts to this externalized relationship:

  1. (A) The preexisting reality (those moons were there long before Galileo was thinking about them)
  2. (B) Galileo had a theory that they might exist because he observed something strange when he looked at Jupiter through his low-quality telescope
  3. (R) the verification testing (the mathematics of orbits) that confirmed his idea—thus we say he “discovered” knowledge of the moons.

With this model of knowledge it is assumed that anybody, properly positioned will be able to have the same knowledge about the reality of the world around them. But that’s not really how the entirety of the world works.

Consider the concept of the “painter’s painter,” this figure that often goes unsung for decades or more and then suddenly bursts onto the stage with significant gravitas. How does someone come to be understood as a “painter’s painter”? The answer is that painters have a common practice and it is through this common practice among painters that they come to judge the quality of their peers’ works and deem some of their peers to be truly exceptional, “a painter’s painter.”

Kasulis uses the example of the Olympic diving judge. He asks us to consider how it is possible that judges of sports like diving come to agree on the scores they assign to competitors? As he points out, these scores are spontaneous assessments and often there is significant agreement in the scores (it’s rare that an athlete gets three scores of 7 and then one person gives the athlete a 2). These judges don’t convene and compromise or come to a consensus through discussion, yet they each appear to have arrived at a common understanding.

Kasulis argues that this is the case because these judges (or in our case, painters) don’t use a correspondence theory of truth. Instead, our judges are demonstrating the assimilation theory of truth. In this model, what is knowable is a matter of interrelating between a person and the world. The knowledge one gains is acquired through practice. Kasulis names this “assimilation” because of the term’s meaning in physiology: assimilation in that context refers to the way in which organisms gain nourishment from the food it consumes. Those nutrients from the world out there become actually in-corporated. It becomes part of their body.

So is it with expert judges, especially of performance-activities like dance or painting. Expertise in these domains is a matter of coming to embody the knowledge one has gained by practicing the materials and techniques over and over again until these become a second nature. In this model of knowledge-making, we find ourselves transformed by what we learn and the world itself becomes transformed by our relationship with it. Critically, this knowledge is not contained only within the individual, but is a communal knowledge. This communal knowledge is exercised through specialized language that communicates to the initiated that they have a common body of knowledge, and also serves to delimit the boundaries of the community. If you don’t understand the word we’re using, it’s because you don’t belong among us. This is literally how code switching functions.

Why Do You Think You Want More Art Criticism?

Image above: Andrea Fraser “Museum Highlights” (1989); via Frans Hals Museum

It’s that time of year again when someone in Atlanta writes about arts journalism, this time from my friend, Andrew Alexander. Andrew asks readers of the Saporta Report to imagine an Atlanta without arts journalism. And, as is the custom, there are generalized complaints from folks in the arts community.

Having worked for a few years in arts publishing, writing, making, and teaching here in Atlanta I feel confident in saying that this perennial kvetch about art criticism in Atlanta is misplaced.

Y’all get the art criticism you deserve.

It should be pointed out, that there are pockets of folks who create reading groups and they are greatly appreciated by me. For example, Discrit. But there are a great number of folks (no surprise) who don’t bother to read criticism, don’t bother to write criticism, and don’t in any way feel uncomfortable about sharing their unfounded opinions about the matter.

When folks whine about the quality of art writing in Atlanta, I want to know:

  1. Who are YOU reading on a consistent basis? Tell us who we should be in conversation with, then, and we’ll see if we can’t make Atlanta audiences connect with less parochial concerns.
  2. Are you paying for art writing? I’ve seen the paid subscriber lists; folks just don’t read art criticism like it matters.
  3. When’s the last time you sat down for a week or so and read about an area outside your specialized knowledge, synthesized that literature, then wrote out a methodical treatment of a recent exhibition? Would you even recognize that work that was done by one of us?
  4. What do you think an art critic’s job is? More often than not, when I read one of these threads I walk away from it with the sense that y’all want blood.

But that’s not what an art critic does, ultimately.

My position is that all critique is grounded in providing a reliable method for arriving at decisions about sense-making.

That places the art critic firmly in the remit of aesthetics.

I recognize that in the parlance of our times folks often use the word “aesthetic” to mean “stylish,” but that’s not the way critics and properly trained artists tend to use the word.

The opposite of “aesthetic” is not “out of fashion,” but rather, “anesthetic,” meaning, “without sensation.”

My job as an art critic— that is, when I’m discussing an artist’s aesthetic decisions—is to help you, the reader, and the artist/curator/administrators of art spaces to see how their work makes what kind of sense.

In other words, my role as critic is not to offend or to write propaganda for or against individuals or institutions. That kind of work is merely rhetoric.

My role as art critic requires that I demonstrate the utility and creative necessity of reasoning-out the propositions put forward by the artist.

By following a line of reasoning found in the works being evaluated I am helping the works under consideration appreciate in value. Now, it’s important to recognize that this value increases not because I wrote about the work.

Rather, the value grows only to the degree that I demonstrate to the community that they also can perform the critical evaluations I’ve put forward. That is, when a reader/artist/curator/administrator can also reason-out and critically assess my position.

When others are able to engage in this reasoning-out exercise, there is an expansion of that rare commodity called critical thinking. We as a community benefit from having this common good expanded. We desperately need more of this precious commodity.

“Everything Is Very Precious” from L’Automàtica, Barcelona.

Aesthetics the”Morality Wars”

Wesley Morris wrote an essay worth considering for The New York Times Magazine in which he diagnoses some cultural activities of the recent years. Morris terms our moment as being caught in “Morality Wars,” which he links to the “Culture Wars” of the 1980s and 90s.

The NYTM website has the header text for this article, “Should Art Be a Battleground for Social Justice?” and so this is an essay about our ethics and implicitly we are asked to think about the distance between our ethical training and our aesthetic training. Well, I am thinking about those things.

While reading this I kept thinking about the importance of asserting and interrogating the philosophical development of aesthetics.

I’m in my third semester professoring in an exciting Art School and every week I note how unfamiliar my students are with the cleaving on/between “art” and aesthetics.

That’s of course not a shortcoming of my students nor of my colleagues; that I am there, teaching and think about aesthetics is precisely why I hold the position I have at the School.

Living in the short horizon of the hot take has its pleasures, among these being the joy of the put down well performed. Sometimes it just feels good to scratch the itch of ressentiment. But it’s reactionary and tends toward puritanical violence.

Since I’m in the position I’m in, how do I best promote the cultivation of the appropriate kinds of judgement and assessment?

Some of that is infrastructure: the assessment tools I use to evaluate my students ought to align with my syllabus and the goals of our course.

And also to my students and the community who support them my obligation is to model the ways of doing the work that I think they can trust is a reliable method for themselves and others.

This impulse to mutual enhancement and cultivation I have absorbed from the years of working through the kinds of philosophy I’ve trained with, especially the Confucian tradition.

To the degree that there is a “me” who can become better, it’s largely predicated on there being a “you” who helps me see how I can improve. If I see something in you that I admire, I emulate that. If I see something in you that misses the mark, I check myself and ensure I do not also exhibit that behavior. This is the advice we receive from Analects, for example 4.17:

“The Master said, ‘When you meet persons of exceptional character think to stand shoulder to shoulder with them; meeting persons of little character, look inward and examine yourself.'”

Or consider 7.22:

“The Master said, ‘In strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.'”

I also see this sensibility at work in the Zhuangzi:

“Zhuangzi was in a burial procession and paid a visit to the tomb of Huizi. Turning around to address his followers, he said to them, ‘There was a man of Ying who, when finding that a bit of mortar as thick as a fly’s wing
had gotten stuck on the tip of his nose, sent for Carpenter Rock-solid to swipe it off with his axe blade. Carpenter Rock-solid spun his axe like the wind, and feeling the moment, swiped the bit of mortar cleanly away without injury to the nose while the man from Ying stood there at ease. When Lord Yuan of Sung heard of Carpenter Rock-solid’s ability he
asked him “Could you demonstrate your ability for me?” But Carpenter Rock-solid replied, “There was a time when I could do my part, but now my partner has been dead for some time.”’
‘Since Hui Shi died,’ said Zhuangzi, ‘I too have had no chopping block, no one to really to talk to!'”

Conspiracy, DMing, and Epistemic Anxiety

Occupy Wall Street Sign
Sign from Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in New York, fall 2011

There is an enlightening bit of journalism about the Qanon phenomenon written by Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins over at that has prompted me to write this morning.

I’m not familiar with the specifics of the conspiracy being unfurled by the Qanon media ecosystem, but I do like a good conspiracy. This is in part because of my heavy ingestion of Robert Anton Wilson’s writings on language, epistemology, and magick when I was a younger man. As a philosopher, I tend to think that conspiracies are useful mental exercises because they force me to practice my logical reasoning. Conspiracies help me remember that there is a difference between having a reason and using good reasoning. What certifies one as valid rather than the other is a matter of artistic license, ultimately (as RAW winks and reminds us, Reality Is What You Can Get Away With). I will explain in a little more detail why I claim that what certifies one reasoning as valid and not the other in a moment. First, let us pause and admire the strange reality wherein mainstream baby boomers (for whom, let’s face it, Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary are essentially avatars; their companion faces being Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh) have somehow gotten involved in the smelly butthole of the internet. They have been enfolded into these chans through the virtue of an Italian leftist philo-fiction.

Last week Buzzfeed offered some reportage that suggests evidence that the darlings of the turn of the century antiglobalization theory and fiction crowd, Luther Blissett (aka Wu Ming), may be the of Qanon.

I think this conspiracy-for-cash structure that Zadrozny and Collins present is the best lens for understanding our contemporary situation. Infowars, #MAGA, Qanon: each of these are, essentially, Dungeon Mastering activities. They are producing emotional contexts for folks starving to feel (to feel empowered, to feel meaningfully-connected, to feel smart, to feel righteous, etc.)

We read in the Zadrozny and Collins piece, “Recently, some Qanon followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers.”

Further into their report we learn about an Jerome Corsi, an Infowars editor (and all around heel from Harvard) who apparently sees an opportunity to divert some audience (read: market share) from the Qanon conspiracy by denouncing it. But Corsi doesn’t get the traction he was hoping for, so he applauds his marks/rubes for their “excellent research.” Why? Because he’s working the long con on them.

Here a basic truth needs to be reckoned with: most people, including folks at fancy R1 universities, don’t know what “research” means. Among the cognitariat there are plenty who can discuss research methods, but what research is…

Hannah Arendt, in her essay “Auschwitz on Trial,” parenthetically tells the readership that this trial was “so poorly covered by the press that it took some ‘research’ to determine whether it happened at all.” Note that she places the term in scare quotes, “research,” as if she doesn’t quite trust the use of the term in this manner. In reading the essay we come to learn that this essay is, essentially, a book review. Is that “research”? What do we name this activity in which a person doubts the validity of the presentation (or the absence of reporting) of world events and so then makes their own presentation and interpretation of what one has found? In the social sciences this is, effectively, a description of research.

Small wonder there is a crisis of reproducibility in the fields given that the methods sections of papers are rarely emphasized in favor of tracing the genealogy of the project in the opening lit review and then skipping to the discussion and future studies sections. P-values-based studies abound but rarely do folks, myself included, reflect on the double meaning of confidence values.

The conman preys upon the the trust and confidence that their marks give to him. In the absence of better understanding of the empirical limits of one’s methodology, there is the trust and faith placed in the numbers.It’s not only a crisis of numeracy but also a crisis of meaning itself. The more intoxicated one becomes by the robust predictions possible when inducing relationships from particulars out to generalizations of the global whole, the better one gets at assuming that knowing being is the same thing as knowing the meaning of those beings.

Certifying the right reason

I wrote above that there is a difference between having reasons and valid reasoning. What I am pointing to here is an example of the occasional poverty of the English language (other areas where we have this poverty include terms like being or love). In English we use the term reason to mean several different things. If you’re one of my students you may recall these distinctions from my lectures on reason and on understanding. Reason can connote explanation, justification, and the formation of judgments; it can also refer to the mental power to do those things.

The term comes into English from the French, raison, itself a Gaulicization of the Latin term ratio, which the Romans used to translate the Greek’s logos. This Greek term, logos, is pregnant with possible meanings: cause, word, sentence, account, number, etc. Because reason has this constellation of meanings possible it is necessary to distinguish and partition-off possible renderings of the term. This decision, I am arguing, is an aesthetic one. I say that in part because I am a scholar of philosophy and also as a scholar of art and practitioner. I am particularly interested in the thinking about technologies and the ways in which human relationships are mediated by these technologies. These may appear to be far-removed from conspiracy theories and art, but I see a relationship (isn’t this the heart of conspiracy thinking?) between them.  To get at the matter we need to continue to look at the truth of/worlds created by these words, this is an exercise in etymology (etumos logos, true-causal word).

Today we think of “art” as an object created for the sake of perceptual engagement. Often one’s formal training, if there is any, in analyzing art is fairly stunted and remains at the examination of the content and medium of the art object. This is a shame and something I hope to correct. This problem is in part the result of historical processes. Prior to the twentieth century there was an emphasis placed on the “Fine Arts” which could be distinguished from the Liberal Arts and the Mechanical Arts. We get our English word “art” from the Latin ars but its meaning was sharply inflected by the Greek analog, tekhnê.

For the Ancients fabrication was the only concern of what we today would call art (Greek tekhnê, Latin ars). What we today would refer to as a technique or a technology was included under the broad umbrella of making that tekhnê named. So there is not a distinction between an object made for being pretty and an object made for being useful for addressing a problem. If we look at Plato’s Gorgias we see that art-technology early on was prescribed the role of examining the nature and cause of those things that the person is dealing with and the conditions that arose for this fabrication.

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, characterizes art-technology as a body of know-how that reacts to chance, unlike what we would today call “science” (although he called it epistêmê, from which we get the field of Epistemology). This latter body of knowledge is not reactionary because it is concerned with rooting-out the causes of the phenomena we experience. Thus technical art is a matter of the proper practice of jurisprudence (phronêsis), the artisan relies upon their practical experience (empeiria) to guide them in the execution of their solution. Thomas Aquinas marks the distinction thusly: technical art is recta ratio factibilium (the right reasoning for creating) and phronêsis is recta ratio agibilium (the right reasoning for acting). Goyet explains that the word recta “refers to the idea of a rule, from regula ‘regulation.’” (This rule or regulation is what makes it possible for the practitioner to overcome contingency and enter the domain of something like a science (in the way that medicine is characterized as both a science and an art): the application of the rule is a matter of creating a particular effect in the world. It is through this practice that one discovers and activates the stable principles in a changing world.

This is the meaning of certification: the rule that has been discovered through practice will bring about predicted results. So, this imagined knowledge is no longer only a matter of chance, but imitates the kind of creation that belongs to the Divine logos (John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with Him and He was the word, En arkhêi ên ho lógos, kaì ho lógos ên pròs tòn theón, kaì theòs ên ho lógos). In practicing conspiracy theorizing one is practicing a kind of world-reordering by finding the right account, and the right causes, and the right words. The conspiracies make sense of the seeming chaos of our contemporary moment.

CFP for ISCP at the 2019 APA Eastern

The International Society for Chinese Philosophy (ISCP) plans to host two panel sessions at the 2019 Eastern Division Meeting of American Philosophical Association (APA) on January 7-10 in New York City, NY.

The ISCP will be co-sponsoring a special session with the Karl Jaspers Society of North America (KJSNA) at the APA Eastern this year. This author-meets-critics session will feature Kai Marchal (National Cheng Chi University), Mario Wenming (University of Macau), Carine Defoort (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven), and Eric Nelson (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) discussing Nelson’s Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought (Bloomsbury: 2017).

Because of this, we are inviting only individual paper submissions for our additional panel session.

Your submission should include the following information:

1. Title of Paper
2. Name of Presenter
3. Presenter’s Affiliation
4. Presenter’s e-mail address
5. Approximately 200-word Paper Abstract

Please send the submissions electronically to Paul Boshears, ISCP Liaison to the APA Eastern Division Meeting, at: paul [dot] boshears [at] egs [dot] edu.

The deadline for submission is June 20, 2018.

On Understanding

Our course is now turning its attention to a simple question: how do we know?

In this section of the course we’ll be considering responses to this simple question presented by René Descartes (born in France in 1596, died in Sweden in 1650), John Locke (born in England in 1632, died there in 1704), George Berkeley (born in Ireland in 1685, died in England in 1753), David Hume (born in Scotland in 1711, died there in 1776), and Immanuel Kant (born in what is now called Russia in 1724, died there in 1804).

Each of these men (although I will draw from their contemporary women, such as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, and Catherine Trotter Cockburn) has played a significant role in how the Occident has understood itself and the world around it and they’ve each contributed to laying the philosophical concerns of the modern era. During this two hundred-year period the concept of Christendom gave way to the modern nation-state, the move from the Age of Reason to the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. We will look on this period of transformation from a perspective heavily informed by the terms and language used by Immanuel Kant.

Kant categorized the thinkers who flourished during the period under consideration here as being in two camps: the Rationalists (here we will read Descartes) and the Empiricists (we look to the British wing, typified by Locker, Berkeley, and Hume). It should be recognized that each of the individuals I’ve named here had a multiplicity of concerns and what I am presenting here is for the purpose of better fleshing-out what the title of this course, “Ways of Knowing,” actually means. We’ve previously discussed the branches of Philosophy and you will likely recall that Epistemology is that body of our discipline that is concerned with how we can know anything.

How do we know that we don’t know something?
What kind of sense does that statement make?

Here, then we should reconsider how we understand the words we use to comprehend the world around us.

Understanding, as we typically use it today in the States, adequately describes what we intend by the term, of course. With the word “understanding” we typically intimate a sense of our mind’s grasping the things that our attention attends toward. But, just as we saw with the term “reason,” the term has a history and is a matter of cultural transmission.

Plato distinguished between νόησιϛ (noēsis) and διάνοια (dianoia). Noēsis included a sense of intellectual vision while dianoia pointed to the kind of knowledge that comes through principles like what we expect of reasoning. The distinction between intellectus and ratio in Latin also carries a similar sense to the Greek. In French the term for “understanding” is entendrement, but our English term is more like the German term Verstand (from stehen, “to stand up”).

From Denis Thouard’s “Understanding” in Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin, translations edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood (page 1186):

In English, “understanding” does a better job than French or German of preserving the idea of comprehension; thus in Hobbes, it is the capacity, “in a man, out of the words, contexture, and other circumstances of language, to deliver himself from equivocation, and to find out the true meaning of what is said” (Human Nature, chap. 5, §8). Similarly in Locke, although the more general sense of “power of perception” is dominant (Essay, bk. 2, chap. 21, para. 5), it can be analyzed as
1) perception of ideas in our minds,
2) perception of the meaning of signs, and
3) perception of the agreement or disagreement between our ideas.
The semiotic dimension remains, even in the dichotomy between understanding and will tends to mask it. Furthermore, while Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz consider finite understanding by distinction with, but also with reference to, infinite understanding, for Locke it it rather a matter of direct inspection of the understanding as a specifically human capacity, as the title of the Essay itself reveals. The same is true for Hume (Enquiries concerning Human Understanding, 1758). The understanding, in English, is decidedly human, and it is also as a finite power that it appears in Germany [….] We may note that Kant’s teacher in Königsberg, Martin Knutzen, had Locke’s essay translated into German by the orientalist Georg David Kypke, whose house Kant shared (Anleitung des menschlichen Verstandes, 1755).

Let’s turn our attention now to René Descartes and his the first two of his Meditations.

Earlier we read Zhuangzi and encountered his butterfly dream. The presentation of this dream forces us to ask why we feel so confident we know what mean when we say that our waking lives are real and our dreams are fantasies. On what grounds do we establish what is real? How do we know that this is real? It’s sensible to dismiss the question because obviously this is really happening right now. But how do we know that? What part(s) of us establishes this?

Click here to continue our lesson about Descartes. We’ll define ontology and discuss the distinction between extensional and intensional objects.


Danielle Allen’s “Rhetoric, a Good Thing”

In this chapter from Talking to Strangers, Dr. Allen points out that:

In political controversies, there will always be logical arguments for a counterposition, on the basis of exactly the same facts. In this circumstance, no amount of logical argument will determine which speaker to trust. Audiences will turn to assessments of character, and so our capacity to convey our habitual mindsets turns out to be directed not merely at concerns about interpersonal relations, but also at the distrust arising from factual uncertainty. […] People trust those who have the ability to make astute, pragmatically successful decisions in contexts of uncertainty and who can convey that practical levelheadedness through speech. (page 145)

The task Allen has set for us in this chapter is to practice new modes of our habitual citizenship. Although I’ve not assigned it, chapter nine of this book discusses political friendship, fraternity, and love and you may find it useful for your thinking.

Notice that the crucial dilemma in the above quote I’ve shared with you is that the people listening are presented with counterarguments from the same pool of facts. Said another way, in the above situation, Allen assumes that people are having a difficulty assessing the truth of what is said and want to know the truth only in so far as they want to make a decision based on evidence.

But is this really a widespread concern?

Recall our discussion of Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial” from earlier. Each of those men had their reasons or senses of justification for acting as they did. But, crucially, what Arendt points out is that ultimately these men are not only guilty of their crimes, but also of failing to live up to a standard of reasoning. “[W]hat is left of the humanity of a man who has completely yielded up to [their moods]?” she asks on page 253.

Let’s look at a contemporary model for this question, embodied by John Turano, the man embraced by the Alt-Right and whom they call “Based Spartan.”

In our next section of our class we’ll be looking to Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant to learn about how we’ve come to think we know what we think we know.

Why Does Socrates/Plato Maintain that Learning Is Recollection?

Learning objectives

  1. Analyze Socrates’/Plato’s theory of learning
  2. Discuss role of noumena and phenomena in their argument.

What do we recollect? In order to answer this, we must look at the trail left in the dialogue.

The initial premises are that souls (ψυχη, psyche) exist and that there is a dimension of Perfection and Truth (this is the noumenal dimension) where the gods and souls exist.

Not only do souls exist, but our souls are the part of us that grasps truth (65b), and, unlike our bodies, it is the part of us that thinks and has memories. (66c) The body imprisons the soul and confuses the soul. (79c) At birth our souls forget where it has come from and that it is made up of the same stuff as the Truth and the Perfect. (76c-d) The soul, when not intoxicated and imprisoned by the body, is able to pass into the realm of the True and the Perfect, and when it remains in that state, this is called wisdom. (79d) Through the practice of philosophy we can train our souls to liberate itself from our bodies and remain in that state of wisdom. (83b) What we call learning is the exercise of the soul recalling its true nature.

Here’s where you find evidence for this thinking:

Socrates tells Cebes and Simmias he thinks that “a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death.” (63e-64a) Socrates then tells them that, “true philosophers are nearly dead.” (64b-c)

Socrates asks Simmias, “Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?” to which Simmias states, “Certainly.” Socrates asks if death means that the soul departs from the body, Simmias affirms that this is the case. (64c)

Socrates then asks Simmias whether philosophers overly concern themselves with getting drunk, sex, food or other bodily pleasures and the two arrive at the conclusion that, by avoiding these bodily impulses, philosophers free their souls from association with their bodies. (65a)

Socrates asks (65b) if the body is an obstacle for in the search for knowledge, since the poets are “forever telling us that we do not see or hear anything accurately.” (65b) Simmias says he believes this is the case.

Socrates asks, “When, then, […] does the soul grasp the truth?” since, “whenever it [the soul] attempts to examine anything with the body it is clearly deceived by it.” (65b-c)

Socrates asks Simmias (65c), “Is it not in reasoning if anywhere that any reality becomes clear to the soul?” To which Simmias says, “Yes.”

Socrates further presses Simmias if it is the case that, “the soul reasons best when none of [the body’s] senses troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain, nor pleasure, but when it [the soul] is most by itself, taking leave of the body and as far as possible having no contact or association with it in its [the soul’s] search for reality.” (65c-d)

Socrates presents us with what he believes the “true philosophers believe and say,” (66b) that the body “fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and nonsense,” and as a result, “no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body.” (66c-d) All of this, these “true philosophers” would tell us, “makes us too busy to practice philosophy.” (66d) If that weren’t bad enough, the end result of this confusion and fear is that it, “prevents us from seeing the truth.” (66d-e)

Furthermore, these “true philosophers” would tell us that, “if we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain […] wisdom.” (66e)

We are then presented with a dilemma, “if it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body, then one of two things is true: either [1] we never attain knowledge or [2] we can do so after death.” (66e-67a)

Cebes tells Socrates that other men will find it hard to believe that soul exists after the body dies, and it’s even harder to believe that the soul will possess intelligence after the body dies. (70a-b).

Socrates asks Cebes and Simmias to examine the “ancient theory” that the souls of men exist in the underworld after their bodies die and those souls come back from the underworld to inhabit the bodies of the living. (70c-d)

They establish what “recollection” means (i.e., recalling we knew something already. (73b-c)

They discuss that, in measuring things, we never get the perfect measurement (in our translation this perfect measurement is called “the Equal,” or “the Equal itself”—there is always, no matter how subtle, a discrepancy. (74e) “Our sense perceptions must surely make us realize that all that we perceive through them is striving to reach that which is equal but falls short of it.” (75b)

But, how do we have this sense of perfect measurement? If we’ve never encountered true perfection through our senses (because our senses tell us that there is always some shortcoming of the objects we encounter), then we must have been born with an awareness of perfection. (75a, 75c, 75d)

They agree that “learning” is acquiring knowledge and not losing it, and that forgetting is losing knowledge. (75e) “One of two things follows […]: either we were born with the knowledge of [perfect measurement, the ‘Equal’], and all of us know it throughout life, or those who later […] are learning, are only recollecting, [therefore] learning is recollection.” (76a)

But this leads us to wonder, if souls are the part of us that grasps Truth (the perfect form of truth) or perfect measurement (“the Equal”), “When did our souls acquire the knowledge of them?” (76c)

We don’t acquire that knowledge at our birth because then we’d have to establish at what time in our lives did we forget that we knew the Truth. (76c-d)

At this point Simmias and Cebes and Socrates return to asking about the nature of souls.
The soul makes use of the body to investigate things, but the body’s effect on the soul is like being drunk. (79c) When it is allowed to investigate things without interference from the body, the soul “passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal, and unchanging.” The experience of and staying in this realm “is called wisdom.” (79d)

Because the body makes the soul impure, Socrates reasons with Simmias and Cebes, “those who practice philosophy in the right way keep away from all bodily passions.” (82c) To purify the soul, one must practice philosophy (67d), because the lovers of learning, “know that when philosophy gets hold of their soul, it is imprisoned” by the body. (82e)

All pleasures and pains and corporeal sensations that we revel in are like nails riveting the soul to the body. The soul comes to believe that the Truth is something found in the body, and because of this soiled state of affairs, the soul cannot return to the realm of the Perfect and True. (84d-e)

The practice of philosophy persuades the soul “persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses” and to trust itself to remain in the realm of the Perfect and True. (83b)

The Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks of Existence

Week 11, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define karma.
  2. Explain Buddhism’s Three Marks of Existence.

As we mentioned previously, the Prajñaparamita (“perfect wisdom”) sutras were the first sutras to be translated into Chinese. The Prajñaparamita (“perfect wisdom”) sutras represent the earliest layer of Mahayana sutra literature. The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra belong to a period of Buddhist scholastic development (300–500 CE) in which the basic ideas of the much longer Prajñaparamita canon is condensed into shorter and versified summaries.

The perfect wisdom being articulated in these sutras is the cultivation of the practitioner’s insight into shunyata, the fundamental emptiness of all things and the purely relative existence of all dharmas. From this can then come the realization that all things in the world interrelated and share a nexus of causal conditions. Each thing is particularly-so, that is, they have their individuality, but reification (insisting on their independence from all other things) is an imposition that arises from attachment to our linguistic and conceptual categories. This objectification and reification is a product of our own ignorance (avidya), and obliterating our ignorance is what these sutras aim to accomplish.

In order to obliterate our ignorance it is necessary that we practice compassion (karuna) for all other beings in the cosmos. But, as Mu Seong points out, this raises a paradox in the Buddhist tradition: how can we develop compassion for all other beings in the cosmos if all other beings are insubstantial and fundamentally empty? Where do we direct our compassion then?

“This paradox has been one of the creative impulses in the Buddhist philosophical and practice traditions. For the practitioner, the understanding of wisdom and compassion—and the inherent tension between the two—is not to be resolved on a theoretical level, but to be experienced in one’s own mind and body. In this way one finds emptiness and compassion to be mutually supportive rather than mutually contradictory.” (The Diamond Sutra, 30)

Since wisdom and compassion are not simply theoretical problems that one can overcome through mental efforts alone, there is the need to identify the skillful means (upaya) by which we can liberate ourselves and others from the tangled web of self-deception and self-depredation. Among the practices one can undertake on this path to liberation is the bodhisattva vow.

“The bodhisattva vow provides the context and inspiration to motivate the individual to gain insight into shunyata (emptiness), the essential nature of all phenomena, which leads to an experience of tathata (of suchness), of things as they are in their essential nature, of the mutual identity of phenomenal and transcendent reality. At the same time they cultivate karuna (compassion) for all those still caught in delusions, and help them through upaya (skillful means) so that they too may become free and attain buddhahood.” (The Diamond Sutra, 34)

The Buddha’s Dharma (teaching) was very simple and based on the Four Noble Truths:

  1. All this is duhkha (“troubled” or “suffering”)
  2. There is a pattern to how duhkha arises.
  3. There is a pattern to how duhkha is resolved.
  4. There is an Eightfold Path for turning duhkha toward meaningful resolution.
    (This formulation of the Four Noble Truths is from Peter Hershock’s Chan Buddhism, 13)

Occupy Wall Street Sign
The First Noble Truth illustrated: sign from Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in New York, fall 2011

The first noble truth is not an abstract concept. Rather, we are encouraged to recognize that, as Peter Hershock puts it, “right now, from some present perspective, things are not going well.” (Chan Buddhism, 14) We can open ourselves to the reality that somewhere, someone has stubbed their toe, or someone is going through a divorce, or someone is burying their lifelong companion, or there is an animal being processed into food for us. This is likely not an abstract concept for each of us.

The second noble truth helps us to recognize that the suffering in the world is a result of overlapping mutual concerns. Typically there is not only one singular cause for our sufferings. Even in the example of our stubbed toe: we might say, “that person stubbed their toe because they were careless,” and perhaps that is true but if we pursue why it is that the person was preoccupied and did not take greater care before stubbing their toe why might see a tangled web of anxieties and fears clouding the person’s mind.

An individual’s pain may seem to be contained only in that person’s body (although perhaps the parents reading this might concede that when their small child is hurt, a part of the parent is hurt as well). Fortunately, in the main, the pain we experience in our bodies are temporary. But there are other modes of suffering we experience that are not so well-contained. For example the suffering of poverty, or the suffering one experiences when they feel trapped in their job. Or the suffering we feel as a result of our social relations. Consider this clip from the 1992 film Baraka:

As Peter Hershock states:

“Suffering arises, in other words, through a complex set of conditions that include easily observed ‘facts’ but also broadly shared cultural values, personal histories, and individual beliefs about what things can and cannot mean [….] Dealing with suffering requires understanding exactly what kind of cultural and personal impasse has been reached, what ‘normal’ expectations have been violated, and which parts of the situation are taken to be negotiable and which are not.” (Chan Buddhism, 15)

“At the core of all our troubled and troubling situations are our beliefs about who we are and who we are not. Underlying these are more or less conscious senses of what should and should not happen, our particular wants or desires, and the limits of these project for what we are responsible for and what we are not. In summarizing all this, the Buddha often remarked that the root of all our suffering is the conceit that ‘I am’—the arrogance of thinking that we are essentially independent beings and not intimately connected with and a part of all things.” (Chan Buddhism, 16)

Hershock characterizes our existence as wounded, a wound that results from our assumption that we are independent from all other things. But this is a false belief and one that we can do something to rectify. The third noble truth reminds us that we are always in a position to heal this wounded existence.

The method for achieving this resolution of duhkha is the Noble Eightfold Path, by cultivating and developing, through our sincere commitment to practicing the:

  1. right understanding,
  2. right thinking and feeling,
  3. right speech,
  4. right action,
  5. right livelihood,
  6. right effort,
  7. right mindfulness,
  8. and right concentration.

The Buddha’s dharma is not a description of how the world is, but rather a prescription for overcoming how the world actually is. He taught that our existence is marked by three things

  1. Impermanence,
  2. Absence of self, and
  3. Duhkha.


It is often the case that, when folks first here the Four Noble Truths they are shocked to hear how pessimistic this view appears to them. But it’s important to recognize that the first Noble Truth (that “all of this” is suffering) is not a condemnation: by seeing that we are suffering we are brought to an awareness that there is something that can be done.

And, as we all know, there is nothing that is permanently fixed in its place or its operations. Everything will and does change. This means that there is no problem that is intractable and so we are in a position to ask ourselves in which direction we wish to move with those changes and how energetically we will decide to participate in that movement.

Having No Self

Regard that clip from Baraka above once again. It’s true, there is a flurry of activity and yet we see that there is a pattern to that dizzying activity. Those bodies moving through those channels are doing so precisely because someone built those channels for them to pass through. There was an intention in building those situations, not only on the part of the individuals commuting, but also the city planners, the transit authorities, the mechanical and civil engineers, the policy makers who regulate the conditions of the workers, and so on. Those of you who are inclined toward economic thinking may note that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that establishes equilibrium across markets is the effect of the myriad actors supplying and demanding; those are intentional actions.

There arises from this swarm of discrete actions and dispositions a general tendency in the world. Who we are throughout our lives is often a matter of responding to these general tendencies and atmospheres into which we find ourselves thrown. When Buddhists discuss anatman (literally ‘no self’) what is being pointed to here is not that we don’t physically exist, but rather that who we are is empty of any permanence. Physically “who we are” is a matter of constant transactions with the world around us: our bodies are in a constant cycle of energy exchange, our cells die off and are replaced by new ones, our thoughts are in a constant state of flux and never ceasing. The Buddhist concept of emptiness (sunya) is there to invite us to recognize that the world arises interdependently and in a state of mutual influence.

We are emptied of our illusions about who we are and in that emptiness we are met with the fullness of our unceasing interconnectedness. Peter Hershock clarifies:

“By appreciating the emptiness of all things, we become aware that the world we live in did not arise randomly, according to inherently fixed principles, or according to the purely objective operation of natural laws. Rather, it has taken shape in conformity with our likes and dislikes, according to our values, through our intentions, to meet our needs and desires.” (Chan Buddhism, 19)


Recognizing that suffering of the world is attributable to our habitual misidentification of our interrelatedness means that we are always in a position to realize our mutual presence. To realize our mutual presence is to make real and efficacious our actions for one another. We all make a difference to one another. “Fundamentally, this means becoming aware that, in some way, we all make a difference to one another. We thus begin seeing that we have a responsibility for asking what kind of difference. In this way, seeing all things as troubled or troubling establishes the foundation or roots for cultivating the felt partnership of true compassion.” (Hershock, 18)


Karma is a matter of weighted moral action. Karma is a technique for helping us understand that the way our world presents to us is a matter of correspondence between our values and habitual ways of acting in the world. There are some who might experience some unfortunate event and announce, “dag, I guess that’s my karma,” implying that karma is a matter of exchange: we do good things and good things come to us, we do bad things and bad things come to us. This naive thinking of karma does have the virtue of getting us to recognize that how we act does impact how the world around us happens. As we go more deeply into our understanding of karma we can see that we share a responsibility to act in a way that can change our situation.

Let’s again consider Hershock’s considered thoughts on the matter:

“Seeing the world karmically is to see our world as irreducibly dramatic. It is a world in which all things are not only factually but also meaningfully interdependent. Intentions and values not only matter, they are an irreducible part of how things come about [….] In all Buddhist contexts, the teaching of karma is embedded in a cosmology that denies the simple finality of death. The term for a life of chronic trouble and suffering—’samsara’—literally refers to an unending compulsive cycle of birth and death [….] Seeing all things as having no self is to see that there is literally nothing to be reborn or to receive a new body. Nor is there anything that could carry karma forward from one life to the next.” (Chan Buddhism, 22–23)

“[A]lthough there is continuity in the dramatic pattern of lived experience from life to life, no soul or bodily substance crosses over the barrier of death [….] What connects a prior life to a present or future life are just patterns of meaningful relationship [….] Our life stories are part of a continuum of ‘performances’ in which shared and developing dramatic themes and values are embodied.” (Chan Buddhism, 24)

In this way we can see that the Buddha’s teaching encourages us to practice a critical evaluation not only of our actions and dispositions, but in order for this to be effective we must also recognize that our critical evaluations are also necessarily directed at our cultures as well.