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John Holbo

Friday Comics!

by John Holbo on July 1, 2016

It’s what you have been waiting for! Two more pages of On Beyond Zarathustra! (When oh when will Z stop talking already? Not soon, it seems!)

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Podcasts I just listened to

by John Holbo on June 30, 2016

Anyone have podcasts they like? I listen to a lot. Always up for something new and good. Or even something bad, maybe.

I just listened to an interview with Leslie Reagan, on On The Media. She’s a historian of abortion politics (here’s her book). She talks about how the movement to legalize abortion in the US got a double push, first from fear of rubella-related birth-defects, then from fear of thalydomide-related birth defects. (This is the late-50’s, early 60’s.) In a nutshell, ‘dangerous pregnancy’ had to be made vivid – pictorially vivid – as something that could happen to ‘good’ white women. I’m not sure whether this makes a difference to how we think about the politics of abortion today in the US. (There’s a zika virus hook, for the podcast. Will Catholic countries facing zika outbreaks lift bans on abortion?) But I found it very interesting because if you’d asked me about the US politics of abortion in the 50’s and 60’s I would have drawn a total blank. I would have said ‘something about the sexual revolution?’ and then realized, as the words left my mouth, that this didn’t sound right.

Second, I just listened to a Federalist podcast interview with Randy Barnett. Not my cup of tea, usually, but I have an interest in Barnett’s stuff. The guy really has a bug in his ear about John Roberts. A couple months back he was blaming Roberts for Trump and I was like – fine, fine, you lost your Obamacare case. You are a bit bitter, venting steam. But he’s still banging on about how Roberts is the betrayer-in-chief of the Constitution, hence to blame for Trump. This is polemically unfair, in ways I could spell out, but won’t. (If you really want to ask, that’s what comments are for.) But I’ve got to wonder whether this sort of thing isn’t really pissing off Roberts. It would piss me off, if I were Roberts. Barnett isn’t just some guy. He’s like the brain and soul of the Federalist Society, these days. A bit of on-again, off-again grousing about Roberts’ ‘bad’ decisions is one thing. But Roberts is shaping up to be this consistent, vile Judas in the conservative imaginary. Roberts is going to be Chief for a while, I expect. Dale Carnegie would suggest that the way to work the refs effectively is not this. If Roberts actually turns into some flaming Living Constitutionalist slave-to-the-democratic-mob in 20 years, maybe you can give Barnett half credit.

Kierkegaard: Jokes, Ideals, Revise and Resubmit

by John Holbo on June 27, 2016

Jokes first. This one is not so funny. Kierkegaard’s life basically was a “Hark! A Vagrant” strip. So what’s there to work with? But this one nails it. I think there should be a good one about “The Seducer’s Diary” and pick-up artistry. Negging and Hegelian negative? Can’t put my finger on it.

This one is ok, but, here again, the trouble with turning Kierkegaard into jokes is that, honestly, it was as funny in the original. Example: [click to continue…]

On Beyond Zarathustra – Z Speaks!

by John Holbo on June 23, 2016

In our last episode, I omitted a page, so we’ll start with that before getting to the new stuff …

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Forgetting Oneself

by John Holbo on June 22, 2016

Per this post, I’m preparing to teach Kierkegaard. My main frustration with The Concept of Anxiety is that I really, really have a hard time telling what Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety is. Journal entries like this don’t exactly narrow it down: “All existence [Tilværelsen], from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation, makes me anxious.” So I’ll dodge that for now. Here’s another Notebooks quote. [click to continue…]

Philosophy and Smarts

by John Holbo on June 22, 2016

Interesting interview with Joshua Knobe (via Daily Nous).

At present, you are appointed in both the cognitive science program and philosophy department at Yale. Your office is located in the Yale psychology department and you work with psychology students. How do the values of these different academic cultures differ?

It has been fascinating to experience these two quite different cultures up close. The two disciplines differ in numerous ways; and I think that each of them has a lot to learn from the other. I’ll focus here on just one difference that strikes me as especially important.

Within philosophy, there is an almost absurd value placed on intelligence. Just imagine what might happen if a philosophy department were faced with a choice between (a) a job candidate who has consistently made valuable contributions in research and teaching and (b) a candidate who has not made any valuable contributions in either of these domains but who is universally believed to be extraordinarily smart. In such a case, I fear that many philosophy departments would actually choose the latter candidate.

In psychology, it is exactly the opposite. When people are trying to decide whether to hire a given candidate, the question is never, “How smart is she?” Instead, the question is always, “What has she actually discovered?” If you haven’t contributed anything of value, there is basically no chance at all that you will be hired just for having a high I.Q.

This cultural difference results in a quite radical difference in the atmosphere that one finds in graduate education. Philosophy students experience constant anxiety about whether they are smart enough. Psychology students also experience a lot of anxiety, but it is about a completely different topic. They have this ever-present sense that they absolutely must find some way to make a concrete contribution to the field.

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On Beyond Zarathustra – We’ve Moved!

by John Holbo on June 17, 2016

So I’ve been keeping up with my On Beyond Zarathustra updates. This past week I branched out, stylistically. What if Mary Blair had illustrated Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in a Seussian style? [click to continue…]

Kierkegaard on Ideality and Anxiety

by John Holbo on June 16, 2016

I’m teaching Kierkegaard next semester, so I’m rereading The Concept of Anxiety – which, to be honest, has never really done it for me. As major Kierkegaard texts go. (But I have been known to quote from it, at need.) Anyway, two quotes today for my uncommon book. File under ‘ought implies can: pro and con’: [click to continue…]

Trump and Political Correctness

by John Holbo on June 10, 2016

There’s a chance the wheels come off the Trump Train in a spectacular, generally-acknowledged way between now and the election. But probably not. And if not, negative partisanship means that, by November, almost all Republicans will be solidly pro-Trump. That means: Republicans (and conservatives, to the extent that there is a distinction) will have talked themselves into this thing making a crazy kind of sense, after all. A lot of this will be pure negative: crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary. Or anti-establishment: burn it down! But some of it is going to be negative-spun-as-positive. There’s a good chance Trump will make conservatives not-unhappy with Supreme Court picks. Beyond that, the only Trump-is-actually-good line that makes sense – even as confabulatory spin – is that Trump is going to be proudly politically incorrect. Anti-PC is standard conservative rhetoric and has been for decades. But this bubble is going expand, massively, in the vacuum of Trump’s lack of any agenda. I don’t think anyone really believes in that wall. No one knows where Trump would go, so how can you say you are in favor? Answer: it’s not the destination, it’s being a jerk on the journey! The three-legged stool – social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, strong military – is going to be whittled down to one leg – anti-PC. Before we can make America great again, Job #1 is smashing the tyranny of PC, the hegemony of the SJW’s! Conservatives and Republicans are going to talk themselves into this, because what other leg have they got to stand on? I predict that, by November, we’re going to hearing an awful lot more like this. Republicans are going to tend towards somewhat novel alt-right-lite postures under a broad ‘stop the PC madness!’ banner.

What do you think? Trump won the nomination because a solid plurality of Republican voters liked him best. Now that he has got it, the rest – many of whom recently liked him least – need to think themselves into liking him best, after all. Negative partisanship demands it! What sorts of confabulations do you predict will prove necessary/psychically efficacious, to achieve this realignment, over the next 5 months? What sorts of changes to the Republican Party and the conservative mind will it mean, even if Trump loses? How permanent will they be?

Of course, if Trump flames out, like, next month, all bets are off.

My first On Beyond Zarathustra installment garnered favorable response, so I’m keeping it up! Today, for your discerning appreciation, two more pages. We are now in section 3 of “Zarathustra’s Prologue”. I resolve to crank out daily or semi-daily pages for the next week or so, building up to the thrilling scene with the Rope Dancer! (If I can manage seven pages a week, won’t that be something?) Gosh, I wonder what our hero thinks he’s up to!
Zarathustra's Prologue, Section 3, Page 22
I’m not going to post daily page updates to CT, if indeed I manage this illustration feat. But you can check the Flickr album itself – or just click the pic to go there. You can also check my homepage, which I’m updating with the very latest escapades of everyone’s (and no one’s) favorite hero. [click to continue…]

What Kind of Belt Is That Guy Wearing?

by John Holbo on May 28, 2016

The Library of Congress Flickr photostream is a steady source of curious gems. Today, for example: what kind of belt/waistcoat is that boater hat guy on the left sporting?

Marines in France (LOC)
I downloaded the original file. Here’s a closer look. [click to continue…]

On Beyond Zarathustra

by John Holbo on May 24, 2016

On Beyond Zarathustra

Ever since Plato wrote Socrates Will You Please Go Now! and If I Ran The Polis! great philosophers have mostly started out as authors of (what we would now call) Dr. Seuss-style children’s books. A lot of this old stuff has been lost. Scholars have neglected it. But I’m undertaking a project of restoration and study, starting with Nietzsche.

I’ll be posted updates regularly to the Flickr page – few pages a week as my work proceeds. We’re just getting to the good bits: The Rope Dancer and the Last Man!

Please do feel to share with any friends who may have a scholarly interest in the historiography of philosophy. (I’ll have some more notes about that soon.) Oh, and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble: buy my Plato book! Or at least read it for free. It’s drooped below the million mark in Amazon sales. Again. Depresses me. Wounds my vanity, you might say.

Consistency is the most common currency of political debate. But what is it worth, would you say? And why? Apart from obvious monomaniacs, few people are highly philosophically consistent in their thinking about politics on all levels – from high principle down to partisan practice and all points in between and/or to one side or the other, as politics slops into other areas of thought and life. I don’t just mean: everyone slips. I mean: every attractive view has major tensions. (That’s what we call them when they’re ours. When other people have them: utter contradictions! Repulsive stuff!)

So what is the value of consistency arguments in politics – bold exposures of the other side’s contradictions, bouts of tidying up of one’s own? Would you say?

It’s tempting to say that consistency is an asymptotic or regulative ideal: we approach but know we aren’t really going to get there. But that doesn’t really seem right. It doesn’t seem right that we really value consistency very highly. (See above: most consistent people seem like fanatics.) No one switches partisan sides because the other side seems to have assembled a more internally coherent match of policies and principles. It doesn’t seem as though, as people become more sophisticated, politically, they become more consistent, philosophically. Possibly this has something to do with pluralism about value. (Feel free to make reference to pluralism – or hobgoblins – in your answer.) But if pluralism means it’s ok to be inconsistent, what is the value of consistency?

I also don’t mean to imply that even the most philosophically sophisticated students of politics are as utterly, intellectually self-betraying as your average partisan idiot. Getting shot with 500 bullets is way more bullets than getting shot with 5 bullets. Still, dead is dead. I think John Rawls, for example, is a more consistent political thinker than Donald Trump. But I also think that Rawls’ political philosophy suffers from at least five fatal defects: unresolvable, fairly central contradictions (inconsistencies, tensions, call them what you will.) Does it make sense to favor a view that suffers from five fatal contradictions over a view that suffers from 500 on grounds of consistency, per se?

All the same, I really can’t feature not valuing consistency quite highly. What do you think?

The Communist Manifesto In Pictures

by John Holbo on May 13, 2016

I just added an item to my collection of graphical curiosities: a 1948 pamphlet, published by The International Book Store in San Francisco, “The Communist Manifesto In Pictures”.

You can get the PDF version for free. I’m interested in it mostly as a data point in the history of American graphic design. The International Book Store seems to have had some graphical flair:


I don’t own that one. I don’t imagine the contents – apparently republished from Soviet Russia Today – are as fun as the cover.

The Party Divides?

by John Holbo on May 7, 2016

In the tail end of comments to this post I linked to a New York Magazine excerpt/adaptation from a forthcoming book with the intriguing title Ratf***ed: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by David Daley. The book is about the triumph of gerrymandering that is the Repubican headlock on the House for the foreseeable future – even in the event of a total Trump implosion. (But be aware that Republican advantages in this regard may be somewhat overdetermined.)

All very interesting and terrible. But I’m thinking about this bit from the tail end of the article: [click to continue…]