Gary Gutting (G.G.), a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, has been publishing a series of interviews on religion in the New York Times “blog” The Stone, which features the writing of “contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.” Recently he interviewed Jay L. Garfield (J.G.) on the subject of Buddhism (Garfield is a philosopher, currently at Yale-NUS College in Singapore). What follows is the concluding question and answer in this fairly long and quite interesting interview.
G.G.: Won’t the fundamental denial of a self be hard to maintain in the face of the modern emphasis on individuality?
J.G.: I don’t think so. For one thing, note that the view that there is no substantial self has a history in the West as well, in the thought of Hume, and of Nietzsche. For another, note that many contemporary cognitive scientists and philosophers have either rejected the view that there is such a self, or have defended some variety of a minimalist conception of the self. So the doctrine isn’t as secure in the non-Buddhist world as one might think. Read more
I was just reading the introduction to the 2006 (fortieth-anniversary) edition of Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic. 2006 – as it happens — was the year that Rieff died (at age 83). The introduction was written by social/cultural/intellectual historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and contained some passages I thought worth quoting.
Capitalism and the self
Rieff’s book is about the cultural transformation of the twentieth-century — from widely held religious/communal values to the prominence of psychology as supreme arbiter of interests and values. According to Lasch-Quinn, Rieff sees a connection between this transformation and the “advances and excesses of capitalism, with its radically destructive gospel of greed.”
[H]e makes a clear link between modern wealth accumulation and the “symbolic impoverishment” of the therapeutic age. The wealthy attempt to compensate for the shortfall with money and its accoutrements, making both art and science into forms of self-analysis and self-worship.
Self-interest becomes “the only principle of action or judgment.”
The book’s implicit connection between consumerism and the cult of impulse release, the nihilism of which Rieff captures so persuasively, represents a searing indictment of the status quo, a clear condemnation of a society “technologically loaded with bribes.”
Nice phrase, nice insight that last bit, and so much more characteristic of society 47 years later. And “gospel of greed” turns out to be even more descriptive of the 1980s (“greed is good”) than the 1960s. In a preface to the 20th anniversary edition of his book (1987), Rieff remarks: “This book stands as it first appeared. To change the text of a ‘prophetic’ character would be to write another book.” Read more
Shortly after Yahoo confirmed its plans to purchase Tumblr for $1.1 billion, Charlie Rose interviewed 26-year-old Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp. Karp was wearing his signature gray hoodie. Rose sported a purple tie. I was struck by what Karp had to say about advertising.
Here’s the set-up:
Rose: What excites you the most? The building of the business or creating the product?
Karp: So, we have this … ah … look. The product is why I got into this. I have to tell you that the business end of this has become such an interesting, exciting, fun challenge for us, because we’ve got this thesis that we can build a business that not only does not compromise everything that is special about Tumblr – makes it such an incredible home for these incredibly talented people – but actually makes Tumblr a better place. In the same way that, you know, if you ripped all the ads out of Vogue, one, it would be half the magazine, but two, it would actually lose a lot of the great content. The way we’ve approached advertising doesn’t look anything like advertising across the rest of the Internet today. So much of …. There’s a lot of nuance here, but, you know, so much of …
Rose: But explain it to me,
Karp: Sure, sure, sure.
Rose: … because it’s the essence of what you’re trying to do.
But here’s where it gets really interesting (my emphasis added) – where Karp expands on what will make Tumblr a “better place.” Read more
I decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.
What follows was originally published in 1981. (You can tell from the sentence “Would it be worth getting an answering machine?” Yes, folks, not only was there a time when not everyone had a cell phone. People actually used to talk to each other on the phone rather than send a text message.) See the posts Something I wrote a long time ago and More thoughts from the past.
For the most part, the events of everyday life appear intelligible. We’re able to deal with almost any situation, no matter how inconvenient or confusing it may seem at first, in a manner that’s sufficient to satisfy our immediate interests. But since socially constructed worlds are inherently unstable, and our knowledge of everyday reality is essentially inadequate, anxiety is inevitable. We don’t experience anxiety as a problem of knowledge, however, but as a problem of who we are. We’re concerned about “me.” What will happen to me? What does this mean to me? What am I doing here? What will I do next?
“Who we are” is not only a matter of the externally obvious job, marriage, address, appearance, and acts of charity, but of the unseen life of the mind. What we think and feel depends on where the mind spends its time, as in “his mind is either in the clouds or the gutter” or “I can’t get it out of my mind.” We are what we think, that is, we are what occupies, invades, crosses, and rests on our minds in the course of a day. Read more
As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.
I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.
The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.
Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this. Read more