Saturday, December 20, 2014

In praise of gardens (LA Review of Books)

My Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies has been reviewed by David E. Cooper in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Cooper is the author of the excellent A Philosophy of Gardens.

In 'In praise of gardens', Cooper takes issue with my selection of authors (among other things), but engages carefully and fairly with many of the ideas. A sample:
The claim that the garden is a fusion of the human and the natural is not the dull one that a garden is the result of natural processes, such as photosynthesis, and of human effort. The point, rather, as Young indicates, is that gardens make explicit the interdependence of culture and nature: they exemplify it and render it salient. This interdependence exists even in the case of playing the cello or solving crossword puzzles – but not in the salient way it does in the case of gardening, which therefore serves as symbol and reminder of the inextricable entwinement of human practice and natural process. What the garden shows is that we could not be what we are except through the grace of nature: but nor could nature be experienced as it is except through the cultural and creative practices in which we engage. 
This is a truth that some, at least, of Young’s great writers appreciate. Orwell’s gardening was “a realist’s enterprise” not least because of “the practical candour”of recognizing the dependence of the enterprise on “soil, sunlight, humidity, acidity.” At the same time, he knew how the practice of gardening – its delights as well as its toil – could correct the false perceptions of the world that abstraction, convention, and an impoverished language have helped to create. Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Woolf were certainly men who were acutely sensitive to – and either celebrated or bemoaned – the severe constraints that nature placed on human endeavours, but were aware too how these endeavours shaped perceptions of nature. Rousseau’s “noble savage,” Nietzsche’s “natural aristocrat,” Woolf’s Ceylonese farmer in his novel The Village in the Jungle, experience the natural world in a manner quite unlike that of urban sophisticates belonging to a very different kind of culture. 
Candide’s custodianship of his garden, writes Young, “nurtured the community as well as the soil,” while Voltaire’s own garden, or estate, demonstrated the mutual dependence of the human good and the good of the earth. A community cannot flourish that does not respect the soil, while the soil becomes barren without the care of a community. It is another aspect of the fusion between culture and nature that Emily Dickinson exposes when she writes of her poems as “blossoms in the brain.” The poems are not autonomous creations, but grow out of the poet’s experience of nature, while this experience, in turn, is informed by a distinctive poetic sensibility. Here we have an example of the way in which, as Young describes it, writers “have made the garden their intellectual and artistic collaborator.” 
Time was when the garden was a subject of significant interest to French philosophes, English Romantic thinkers, and even German metaphysicians. (Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer all discussed gardens.) After two centuries of neglect, there has been, over the last 20 years, a welcome revival of philosophical attention to the garden. Professors of Aesthetics, for example, who once confined themselves to art works or “wild” nature, now write about “human” or “hybrid” landscapes, gardens included. But there is revived attention as well to questions about the modes of meaning that gardens express, their contribution to well-being, and the virtues (and perhaps vices) of gardening as a practice. These are questions that – through the prism of the great writers he portrays – Damon Young has, with style and lightness of touch, invited his readers to consider. The book could have benefited from a more rigorous criterion of selection of its subjects, and perhaps from a more discursive concluding chapter that brought together, and brought out, themes implicit in the essays. Despite this, Voltaire’s Vine is an enjoyable and erudite addition to a burgeoning literature. It is also a testament to the fascination of places whose “mystery,” as the author concludes, is “rarely far away.”
(Photo: Guilfoyle's Volcano, Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens, courtesy RMBG)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy sixth birthday Sophia

The joyous science (note copy of philosophy/religion journal "Sophia")
Today, Sophia celebrates her sixth year of training: in global takeover and drama.

She is on. And big: ideas, voice, hair.

A typical day might include:

- dressing up as Wonder Woman, taking me down with a sweep, and punching me in the nose;
- kindly resolving disputes over cake (in her favour);
- singing, singing, singing, all while shaking her bum and waving her finger like 'nuh uh';
- collecting butterfly and dragonfly wings, leaves and flowers; and
- writing and illustrating her own book, crying, throwing it in the bin, and starting again.

Happy birthday, my little Übermädchen.

Philosophy Salon: Nietzsche

Moustaches and shiraz for everyone
On Friday I hosted the very first Philosophy Salon at The School of Life, Melbourne. The topic was Friedrich Nietzsche.

I gave three lectures on key Nietzschean ideas -- the will to power, Übermensch and the eternal return -- and we had discussion after each. Some great conversation about the contemporary relevance of Nietzsche, and what exactly a Superman looks like. For example, if the Overman is more a process than a single ideal, might an Übermensch be a 'liberal' Republican? Also some good discussion about Nietzsche's relationship to community, and the difference between power and might.

This salon was sold out, but I believe there are still tickets for my next one: on Hume, on 22nd January.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Promises, promises

I had a piece in the Canberra Times yesterday; 'Promises, promises'.

Partly in response to Tony Abbott's broken 'no ABC cuts' pledge, I'm discussing the lack of trust in politics. A sample:
When we knowingly endorse the moral failings of our representatives, we are making a commitment to these failings – they become an integral part of the society we render. In this case, Australian representative democracy is fundamentally cynical and false. 
This tendency is inherent to politics, because it deals with power and partiality: different agendas seeking to rule. There is no magical land away from falsehood. But liberal democracy prides itself on a more honest, high-minded way of operating, in which voters are told what they are voting for, and politicians are held to account for telling falsely. 
Polling booths and counts keep some of the mechanisms, but without trust it ceases to be government by and for the people  – it becomes delegated management. Benign enough for the majority, but dangerously close to a convenient form of oligarchy, in which a select class of careerists govern while most citizens keep to themselves. 
Not coincidentally, this situation is also avoided by a free press, which holds untrustworthy politicians to account – they can try to lie or break promises, but the media pull them up. I wonder which broadcaster is Australia's most trusted?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

'surprising, smart, and thoroughly enjoyable inquiry'

My How to Think About Exercise is coming out in the United States in January, and some advance praise is in.

In the American Library Association's Booklist, Donna Seaman writes:
Australian philosopher Young seeks to expand our often dim view of exercise in this surprising, smart, and thoroughly enjoyable inquiry. He looks first to the ancient Greeks, for whom exercise was “a way to savor their full humanity.” This leads to Young’s keen, anecdotal, vigorously referenced analysis of the “psychological rewards, and ethical virtues” of exercise, namely reverie, pride, sacrifice, beauty, humility, pain, and consistency, as well as the sublime and “oneness.” [...] With readings of David Hume and John Dewey, practical advice, and tales of his own fitness pursuits offered as both illustrative examples and comic relief, Young profoundly deepens our perception of the benefits of “intelligent exercise”...
(Illustration: Everkinetic)

Celebrity culture

I had a piece in yesterday's Canberra Times, 'Celebrity culture brings out the worst in us'

Riffing on Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, I'm discussing the rudeness that fame attracts and encourages. A sample:
Autograph collectors, wannabe writers, stalkers - a well-known name collects these. And to negotiate the constant letters, outstretched hands, phone calls and tweets of ressentiment, rudeness is sometimes necessary. From silence to surreal rejection (George Harrison to autograph buzzards: "It's Thursday"), sanity asks for a little discourtesy. 
And this, James argues, takes us back to uncivilised times, when humans were obliged to fear foreigners. "Being rude to strangers," he writes, "was the only way to stay safe." Whether James' observation is correct is best left to anthropologists and historians, though we humans can be surprisingly diplomatic when cornered. Sometimes unknown players demand caution and courtesy, not bad manners. But James' chief message is characteristically clear: fame makes it difficult to be polite.  Even in my own D-grade case, some letters and emails can be hilariously intrusive - or would be funny, if they weren't so aggressive or petulant. And then there is Twitter: among other (wonderful) things, a carousel for cranks on hobby horses. 
This is not to say that manic or fractious correspondents don't deserve sympathy - they often do, and perhaps more than I. The point is that the constant revolving ride of insults and requests is exhausting and harrying, and sanity mandates a lapse in etiquette now and then. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Afgeleid: Distraction in the Netherlands

The low countries edition of Distraction, Afgeleid, is now out in the Netherlands and Belgium. Dutch readers can read an exclusive extract in the magazine Filosofie.

Monday, November 17, 2014

First advance copy: My Pop is a Pirate

My second children's book, My Pop is a Pirate, will be out in Australia, 25th February 2015.

More coming. And stay tuned for news on My Nanna is a Ninja...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A little more on progress

Following on from my New Philosophy essay, a small opinion piece on progress.

Prompted by a recent fracas surrounding Barack Obama, I'm discussing what's taken for granted by adversaries: that things will get better their way.
"Ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs," said Barack Obama recently, and "order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign." Obama's words were greeted with knowing contempt by many conservative and libertarian Americans - at last, the puppet of the "New World Order" had revealed the global conspiracy. 
If only facts followed fantasy. In his Brussels address, Obama was actually lauding ideals of democracy, equality and liberty. Portraying Europe as the origin of modern liberalism, the president spoke of a continuing conflict between tolerant, free suffrage and bigoted tyranny. "We must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world," he told audiences, "because the contest of ideas continues for your generation." 
Obviously, this did not silence Obama's critics, for whom universal healthcare, for example, is at odds with freedom. Commenters on Glenn Beck's conservative website  responded to a fact-check story on Obama's speech with scorn. "He may not have said it, BUT HE BELIEVES IT," said one. "We were doing fine until he came into office with world vision," said another, "meaning either communism and/or   Islam since we know he is a Muslim of the worst order!" And so on. 
Interestingly, and for all their righteous fury, none of Obama's critics questioned the basic idea of progress. Conservatives often lambaste progressives, but this is usually shorthand for social democrats, liberals, left-wingers - "nothing more than patient communists," as Beck told the David Horowitz Freedom Centre. They take issue with movements towards tolerance and state welfare, but not with  the US, and perhaps the world, moving towards some ideal state. "Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose," said George W. Bush, "set by the hand of a just and faithful God."
(Photo: The White House)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Progress and conservatives

I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine, out now: 'The right side of history is wrong'. The issue is on progress, and I reveal why the idea of necessary progress--whether Christian, Marxist or liberal humanist--is dodgy.
For many, the idea of progress is not simply psychological recompense – it is also a political lure or cudgel. Take the common phrase, "the right side of history". The idea of progress becomes a rhetorical means to its own end: the world changes because we are told the world must change. And those with conflicting values ought to change too. 
Think of the ideal of democratic liberalism, in which freedom is supposedly cherished by all humans, in all times. Yet given the chance, many ordinary citizens will, with a little prodding--and sometimes gladly--give up their liberties for security, and torture or maim others for pleasure, profit or righteous tribalism. 
The point is not that freedom is evil, or all humans likewise. The point is that the ideal state of universal emancipation is utopian: it removes much that is selfish, petty and cruel in homo sapiens, and turns this ideal into tomorrow’s promise. “To think of humans as freedom-loving,” writes John Gray in The Silence of Animals, “you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.” Thinking this way has, as Gray notes, encouraged laws and customs that do promote liberty – for a handful of citizens. But the fantasy of innate freedom-seeking is often a failed means to its own end. 
This is by no means solely a liberal democratic or capitalist principle. Vladimir Lenin argued for a orthodox Marxist theory of history, in which the contradictions of economy and society ended in communism. But this did not happen without help: the intellectual vanguard had to lead Russia’s oppressed. The conscious revolutionaries would direct the “spontaneity” of the masses, and stop them from being perverted by the bourgeoisie.  “Through self-renunciation and ascetic self-discipline,” writes philosopher Arran Gare in Nihilism Inc., “Lenin’s followers could experience themselves as transfigured into instruments of Providence through which the millennia would be achieved.” 
The capitalists were, in other words, on the wrong side of history – a history the Bolsheviks had to righteously guide. Historians recorded how this glorious willing ended.

Michael Oakeshott
I also had a piece in the Canberra Times, on conservative thought. 

Instead of using 'conservative' as shorthand for greedy villainy, I wanted to recognise its recent intellectual history, with a couple of notable examples: Oakeshott and MacIntyre. 

My point was not that conservatism is therefore my 'go to' philosophy, or that the current Australian (or UK) government exemplifies this thoughtfulness. I simply wanted to note that 'conservative' need not be a slur. A sample:
In Rationalism in Politics, the English philosopher argued against the reduction of political and ethical life to technical expertise. His point was not that such specialised knowledge was bunkum, but that it simply did not apply everywhere. Technique can be written down and taught; can be turned into rules and maxims. However, much of civilisation is actually what Oakeshott called 'practical knowledge', which can only be learned by doing. 
This does not make it mysterious or esoteric. It is the kind of knowledge familiar to doctors, carpenters and artists alike. It is cultivated in habits, customs, traditions. But it cannot be turned into some universal law or official statement without losing much of its nuance and agility. 
One reply to this conservatism is that all kinds of cruelties and illusions are hidden away in 'the old ways', which are then sanctified. For example, we accept that women cannot vote, or that indigenous land ownership is void, simply because of The Way Things Are. This is a genuine danger, and conservatism can easily turn into ideology. But so, as Oakeshott points out, can liberalism when it is 'living by the book'. Knowing the difference between just wisdom and malicious prejudice, and then knowing how to keep the first or reject the second, requires practical wisdom. Put another way: progressive politics, if successful, will involve some conservative know-how.