Archive for May, 2012

Huff Po has a nice blog entry up on how to write an essay. Its worth reading for anyone who has to write anything, ever.

The blogger, Ryan Holiday, has a simple method he calls “The Spartan System.” There is nothing revolutionary here, I try to teach my students to write the same way, he has just presented it in a succinct way. Its like this:

Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of “writing” you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis which begins each paragraph and a conclusionary sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and the serves as the point of return..And so the reader always protected and the troops defend your point.

I think that anything we can do to be more intentional in our academic writing, the better the product. Too often are we forced to read ill-formed arguments, and I am not just talking about student papers.


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An interesting post on 3 Quarks Daily, entitled “Only Philosophers Go To Hell.” It is written by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, authors of Reasonable Atheism (Prometheus, 2011).

It is basically a riff on the Problem of Evil, focusing on how the idea of hell is logically problematic in the Christian universe:

The Problem of Hell is familiar enough to many traditional theists.  Roughly, it is this: How could a loving and just god create a place of endless misery? …Hell, on its face, seems like it is actually part of God’s plan, and moreover, the misery there far exceeds misery here.  At least the misery here is finite; it ends when one dies.  But in Hell, death is just the beginning. Those in Hell suffer for eternity.  Hell, so described, seems less the product of a just and loving entity than a vicious and spiteful one.  That’s a problem.

From this, the authors establish that the only legitimate defense of an eternity of pain and suffering (and no, I am not talking about taking the kids to Disney World) comes from a retributivist or libertarian position.  (more…)

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I have been musing the past two days on Simon Cricthley’s three-part article on PKD, which has thus far been a summary of Dick’s religious experience (here) and his particular take on Gnosticism (and here). Today, rather than just telling us about PKD, Critchley finally said something. The problem is, its just not that interesting – or at least not as interesting as reading PKD.

This final installment revolves around the idea, common to both Gnosticism and modern sci-fi, that the world as we know it is an illusion. In fact, this idea is rather common in many religious traditions, though in varying degrees of paranoia. Gnosticism represents one of the more extreme forms, but Eastern philosophy also trumpets a similar tune.

These connections also abound in sci-fi films, as Critchley points out. Probably the most famous (at least in my generation) is The Matrix, but he also includes in his list James Cameron’s Avatar and a few Lars von Trier films, Antichrist and Melonchalia (neither of which I have seen). We should also put Inception here, as well. (more…)

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Today finds the second part of Simon Critchley’s essay on Sci-Fi writer (and potential philosopher) Philip K. Dick. I should have noted yesterday that the interest in PKD comes from the recent posthumous publication of Dick’s Exegesis, a 976-page collection of his journals following his experience of 2-3-74.

In this second part, Critchley discusses Dick’s connection to the idea of the Logos, and ancient Greek philosophical term and a central idea in the Gospel of John. In Stoicism, the logos was the principle of creation that guided all things, while in the Gospel of John it is said that this logos “became flesh” in the person of Jesus.*

*Though this is not really relevant to PKD, in the fourth Gospel there is as much if not more connection with the Hebrew story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis than there is with Greek philosophy. In Genesis, YHWH creates by speech, i.e. by the use of a word. In fact, both Genesis and John begin with the phrase “In the beginning,” and both give a theological account of creation in which the “word” is central.

But as Critchley writes:

…the core of Dick’s vision is not quite Christian in the traditional sense; it is Gnostical: it is the mystical intellection, at its highest moment a fusion with a transmundane or alien God who is identified with logos and who can communicate with human beings in the form of a ray of light or, in Dick’s case, hallucinatory visions. (more…)

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Philip K. Dick

In preparation for a course this fall on Science Fiction, I have been immersing myself in Philip K. Dick. One of my summer projects is to make it through some of his major novels, beginning with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I also hope to read  Ubik and the VALIS trilogy, among others. For those of you in the dark about who PKD is, his stories were behind the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and Adjustment Bureau. Unfortunately for Dick (but not for his heirs), he did not live to see these movies released and lived most of his life around the poverty line.

PKD is regarded as an extraordinary literary mind, though beyond the realm of fiction his place is a bit less certain. In an effort to address the possible contribution of Dick to philosophy, Simon Critchley, a well-regarded philosopher at the New School in New York, has embarked on a three-part essay in the New York Times philosophy blog The Stone.  He writes:

Dick was a consummate autodidact. He survived for less than one semester at college, at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949, taking and quitting Philosophy 10A in the space of a few weeks. Dick left the class in disgust at the ignorance and intolerance of his instructor when he asked his professor about the plausibility of Plato’s metaphysical theory of the forms — the truth of which was later proven for Dick by the experience of 2-3-74. Dick was evidently not trained as a philosopher or theologian — although I abhor that verb “trained,” which makes academics sound like domestic pets. Dick was an amateur philosopher or, to borrow a phrase from one of the editors of “Exegesis,” Erik Davis, he was that most splendid of things: a garage philosopher.

What Dick lacks in academic and scholarly rigor, he more than makes up for in powers of imagination and rich lateral, cumulative association. If he had known more, it might have led him to produce less interesting chains of ideas. In a later remark in “Exegesis,” Dick writes, “I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist.” He interestingly goes on to add, “The core of my writing is not art but truth.” We seem to be facing an apparent paradox, where the concern with truth, the classical goal of the philosopher, is not judged to be in opposition to fiction, but itself a work a fiction. Dick saw his fiction writing as the creative attempt to describe what he discerned as the true reality. He adds, “I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis.”

It will be interesting to see where this leads in the next two parts. Most of the first part is devoted to biographical issues, particularly related to Dick’s use of drugs (prescription and otherwise) and his ‘religious’ experience in February of 1974.

Christ Pantocrator

Christ Pantocrator with “Ho On” Title in Halo

There is also the issue of Dick’s mental health. In his journals that followed the experiences of 1974, Dick describes a relationship with a clay pot that he named “Ho On.” In Western religion this is the title given to God (and in the Christian tradition, to Christ as seen in the halo to the right), and can be translation as “the One Who Is,” clearly a play on the name of God in Exodus 3:14. So like Moses, Dick seems to have met God in a meager form, and one that involves some connection to plant life.

However, as Critchley notes, those closest to Dick’s work, like  Jonathan Lethem, felt that “Dick wasn’t a legend and he wasn’t mad. He lived among us and was a genius.” As Dick himself wrote, “the schizophrenic is a leap ahead that failed,” suggesting that the line between madness and brilliance (geniusness?) has often been blurred – especially in figures like PKD.

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What year off?

This is not a blog reboot, I have simply found the time to get write again (and more importantly, I have found the need to say some things, even if they are only to myself). Welcome back!


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