Suggested readings, #111

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

The miracle of the commons. Far from being profoundly destructive, we humans have deep capacities for sharing resources with generosity and foresight. (Aeon)

The Hume paradox: how great philosophy leads to dismal politics. The Enlightenment genius showed how admirable skepticism in the world of ideas can translate into a miserable reactionary stance in the world of practical affairs. (Prospect Magazine)

Stoicism and the Law. The influence of Stoicism on the doctrine of the Roman jurisconsults. (Medium)

Me, myself and others. Loneliness, solitude and the return to people. (IAI News)

How to experience more wow. Awe might seem an unobtainable luxury to many but, with the right approach, you can enjoy it daily – no mountain required. (Psyche)

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

18 thoughts on “Suggested readings, #111”

  1. Had read the “commons” piece before and didn’t know all the background on Hardin.

    Hume piece is too charitable to him, if anything, on the “negros” footnote, as well as on the cultural stereotypes he held in many of his Essays Moral, Political and Literary. (Given that Hume acted as a broker for the sale of at least one Caribbean plantation, one can honestly charge him on this issue with being a hypocritical liar in his dismissal of the economic importance of then-modern vs. ancient slavery, too.) And, I get to the end and see WHY it’s too charitable! It’s by Baggini, whom I have already raked over the coals for his treatment of Hume. I’ll add this piece to the link.


  2. Good stuff Massimo. The article on the tragedy versus the miracle of the commons reminds me a bit of Sowell’s utopian versus tragic visions of world. I imagine that the truth lies in between the two extremes. Failing to understand that people can cooperate surely causes us to miss some win-win outcomes, but failing to understand that resource scarcity usually leads to disputes also causes us to fail to achieve adequate outcomes for the majority and the minority. If the minority has a utopian vision, they will be crushed by the majority which is playing hardball.

    I think this is really what happened in the California water wars (despite the author’s characterization), as the arid, ecologically diminished, and de-populated Owens Valley attests. The rich city dwellers got what they wanted (enough water to make Los Angeles look like a garden city) while the rural poor farmers got…dust). Probably I’ve been reading too much Vandana Shiva ;-)

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  3. Frankly I can’t think of any great philosopher whose ideas haven’t lead to dreadful politics. The philosophy paradox, like the alcohol paradox. And I like great whiskey.
    By the same token, the problem with the commons is our relationship to it. Deeply grounded communities are not intentional; they’re not “communities of choice”. They don’t originate in idealism, and they’re conservative by definition. Individuals are bound by loyalty to the collective. You can see it in any gentrifying neighborhood when the locals as a group are sidelined by a herd of individualists, beginning of course with the young idealists. In Brooklyn my conservative Catholic, discreetly bigoted and anti-Semitic landlady never gave me a lease, and I had one rent increase in 10 years. It was cheap when I moved in and by the end it was a third of market rent. She lived upstairs. I shoveled the snow and walked the neighbors’ dog. Two friends, a Somali and a Jew with a ponytail were each accepted outsiders in an Italian—Gambino family—neighborhood. He had to figure out how to politely turn down no-show jobs. She was half-Irish and her mother was pretty much a peasant. The first thing she did was bake cookies for the little old ladies next door. And of course the entire neighborhood knew everything. You were watched. And the neighborhood was safe. Peasant anarchism. Loyalty is double-edged or it’s meaningless. The humanists (using the older definition I prefer) understood this.


    1. Diego, I think your take on philosophy and politics is more than a bit uncharitable. Hannah Arendt and John Rawls come to mind as most definitely not having dreadful politics.

      Not sure what the non-intentional origin of communities has to do with it, as interesting an observation as it is. That’s why we need politics (in the Aristotelian sense), precisely because communities are not intentional.


  4. Massimo, as I said on my blog, and deliberately riffing on Kant’s phrase, Harris’ biography awoke me from some slumber regarding Hume. I still think, bracketing these issues, he’s a great philosopher, but … more and more bracketing is required. I was inspired to read online through most of Hume’s Essays Moral, Political and Literary after reading Harris. (And, to his credit, it was Harris who mentioned Hume’s brokering of the plantation sale. And, in an exchange of emails with me, Harris agreed that many of these essays are “shallow.”)

    Hume also gets some philosophy of religion things wrong, like some things on monotheism vs polytheism.

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    1. Arendt had a very distanced relation to Philosophy, (vita contemplativa). She was mocked for decades as a “journalist”. Raymond Geuss referred to with absolute contempt. John Tasioulas, denigrates “activism”. “Vita activa” reduces to mere rhetoric etc. He also disparages lawyers as exaggerating their authority. He could have been responding to Joe Jamail “The King of Torts” who said it flat out in a lecture at Stanford: “Lawyers are the rule of law”. I’m with Jamail and I think Arendt would be too, with more caveats than I have.

      Both my patents were in the trenches of civil rights law for 30 years. My mother mocked Rawls. “Rawls isn’t interest in people. He’s interested in ideas” A NY BigLaw partner’s response made me laugh. “Lawyers don’t read that stuff, Lawyers are tradespeople!” I was plastering a hallway in her house. Robert Paul Wolff tells a story about Rawls in the 7th paragraph here.

      I apologize if this sounds rehearsed; I’ve been making the same argument for 30 years, and I’ve written the paragraph above a few times, usually with more links. But I’ve always put the larger argument not in terms of what should change but of what is changing. I’ve watched it happen [even as I’ve been banned from academic websites as a troll] Arendt isn’t mocked anymore. Analytic and Continental philosophy are merging; philosophy as an independent subject, as distinct from history and criticism, is fading. The insecurity and pretension of “postmodernists” who wanted to be both philosophers and writers (orators, craftspeople) is being replaced by people who are more simply “scholars”. Also of course religion is back. That’s annoying, but whatever. “A religion is a form of utopia: when it disappears, alternative utopias appear” Emmanuel Todd
      Philosophy is always utopian. I come from a long line of village atheists. Always the minority.


    2. Diego, with all due respect, I don’t take your mother’s opinion on Rawls too seriously. And Arendt was most definitely a philosopher, regardless of how many lawyers may have mocked her. Oh, and philosophy is fading? Says who?


  5. My parents helped write ACLU policy in Pennsylvania. They knew the national leadership, and they’d worked with Meiklejohn in Berkeley. They weren’t lawyers and my mother was AbD; it was an avocation, a hobby, but if you want me to name-drop I can, in law and politics, on all sides.

    The central claim of philosophy especially over the past 200 years is a strict claim of authority beyond any other mode of inquiry. That’s been reduced recently to Alex Rosenberg’s claim that History is Bunk. Philosophizing is going on as ever, but the age of arch formalism border policing and scholastic quibbling, oblivious to the opinions of outsiders, is over. Philosophy is storytelling: speculative fiction. And when an old friend of Erik Olin Wright and G.A. Cohen recommended Beyoncé Knowles as a running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016 no one batted an eye.

    The issues of rights and responsibilities need to be debated by adults on a case by case basis. They’re not problems to be solved, once, but to be faced and argued, again and again. Utility is one value among others; utilitarianism is an ideology. Freedom and obligation are in conflict. The argument is how we define ourselves in the present.


    1. Diego, again, I don’t know your mother, but I have read Rawls, and Arendt, and others. And I think your mom’s take is not particularly interesting, on this particular issue.

      There is no such thing as “the” central issue of philosophy. Philosophy is a plethora of subfields with a number of issues and concerns.

      Rosenberg is a bright guy, but I think there is a good chance he is wrong on almost everything he writes. Here is my take on him:

      Utilitarianism is not an ideology, it is a framework for ethical discussions.

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  6. Ideology is myopia, a narrowing of the frame. Utilitarianism is a form of proselytizing 19th century British literature. 12 tone musical composition is the product of Vienna in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. I prefer broader frameworks. And the biggest problem with Rosenberg as I told him is his claim that determinism should allow for changes in prison policy, when what it means is that there are “arguments” and no policy “choices” because there is no one to make them. There’s no I, so no “cogito”. He may as well be a babbling club kid or an amoeba. His response was the change the subject.
    Determinism a ubiquitous framework from the 1950s to the present. I think I may be more of a determinist than he is.


    1. Utilitarianism is not a form of proselytizing, even though it did originate in 19th century Britain. It wouldn’t have lasted long if it had been just in the service of the late British Empire.

      Ah, right, there is no cogito. So you are not thinking the words you are writing in this comments section. You might as well be an amoeba.

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  7. If consciousness is epiphenomenal then our chattering is just related to reproduction, like plumage and flower petals. That’s what hard determinism means. It’s either that or free will and transubstantiation. I don’t see how to resolve it and I’m not trying, but I’m certainly not going to argue from determinism for my own sense of authority. There’s a long history of that!

    For whatever reason I see things historically, patterns repeating, morbid symptoms of the interregnum, the 30 Years Wars (both of them), or now: varieties of moralism and mannerism and then the resolution, as a kind of acceptance, not through problems solved but decreased pressure. We live in an anti-humanist age. I’m a product of it. I’d rather we didn’t.


  8. All argument is proselytizing. There’s no separating argument from reason from argument from preference: philosophy from oratory. The only thing distinguishing one from the other is a piece of paper from the state sanctioned institution with two or three letters stamped on it.

    “The university belongs, like the church and the military, to the social institutions that are situated at a considerable distance from democracy and adhere to premodern power structures.”


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