Whooshup Reorganization

To reflect what this blog has become, the format has changed to emphasize the enormous number of useful links to resources we provide. To go to the whooshup blog and conversations about these resources, just scroll to the bottom of the lists of resources!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Discussion: Ethics and Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith

This item concerns the first 10 lectures of Phil 7 - Existentialism in Literature and Film, where the early Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard is addressed.

The teaching seems to be this: a Knight of Faith gets a defining commitment. This commitment is private - it cannot be publicly explained in the context of his or her dominant social environment. His peers wouldn't get it. In particular, he may (must?) violate in some way the accepted ethical dimension for his time and place. This situation leads to the "Teleological Suspension of the Ethical" when the Knight of Faith acts upon his defining commitment.

The examples given in Fear and Trembling include the following: Abraham committed to Isaac who he will sacrifice but be restored with somehow. The knight committed to his lady love who he will never marry but with whom he will spend eternity. The examples given in class by Hubert Dreyfus include: A homosexual in 1850's Copenhagen who feels he must be a certain way no matter what the public taboos. The young Hitler Youth boy who falls in love with a Jewish girl and must save her despite his indoctrination. Another example from recent history was given as Martin Luther King.

The discussion I would like to start here has to do with further examples of this phenomenon, and an exploration of how the ethical standards of a culture can be set aside in light of a "higher" truth that is personal and non-rational.

I would start by introducing Huck Finn in Mark Twain's book of that name, as a fictional character who meets this definition by defying the ethos of the pre-Civl War era by helping the slave, Jim, escape. The problem here is that the ethos of the entire situation was in flux between the intended time of the book (in the 1840-1850 period of Twain's youth) and both the publishing time (post Civil War) and today. Huck can only be a Knight of Faith hero under the old ethos of returning "stolen" property to its rightful owner, which was the law of the land before Emancipation. How should we treat this ethical transition? Huck's actions appear supremely ethical to us today, and it is paradoxically his own hesitation to act that seems unethical.

Next, I would like to talk about Martin Luther King. Dreyfus introduced MLK as an example of someone with a defining commitment - fighting for Civil Rights informed what he was. Dreyfus later reversed himself on that example when a student pointed out that he was not going "against" the ethos but "along with" the ethos of equality in America. But I disagree. The ethical standards for race relations was in flux during MLK's life, just as they were in Mark Twain's. It was presumably not an accepted ethical action in the South for blacks to mix in everyday settings with whites in the 1940's and 1950's. These "Jim Crow ethics" called for sensible persons of both races to honor an invisible dividing line. MLK therefore did challenge that in a valid Suspension of the Ethical for a greater good. I would respectfully ask that Dreyfus retract the retraction, or at least address it, next class.

Finally, I would like to comment on Abraham and Isaac, and challenge Kierkegaard's framing of their story. The cultural norm in some parts of the ancient Middle East did in fact include the sacrifice of the first child under certain circumstances (viz. Carthaginians). Dreyfus claimed that Abraham would have had no shared vocabulary with his neighbors to discuss the proposed killing of his own child, but that may not have been the case - it is just as reasonable to suppose that his neighbors fully expected him to do so. In this light, his finding a Ram and sparing Isaac a fate that the surrounding society expected would have been the act reflecting Kierkegaard's Suspension of the Ethical.

Everyone is invited to comment on any of these three scenarios, and add their own. Mine all question what happens when ethical norms change in a culture. Is the Knight of Faith merely acting as a harbinger or change agent? Which ethical norms are used to test the Faith required? The earlier ones, or the later ones?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The LA Times Article

Here's a link to the article in the LA Times by Michelle Quinn that "exposed" the outside circle of Professor Hubert Dreyfus webcast listeners:

The iPod Lecture Circuit

If you have not read it, do. Very interesting and well written.

The only thing I'm not sure I can find in it is the answer to the question "Why?" What is it that gets a bunch of ordinary folks excited about philosophy? That's what this blog should help us explore. Please feel free to post your comments, or email me (see profile) if you have questions.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Textual vs. Virtual Discussion Spaces

It seems that there are now multiple formats available for interacting as a group online. I would like to hear any comments from others about how a purely text-based format like this blog compares to the virtual reality model available at sites like Second Life.

The limitations of this blog site will no doubt quickly become apparent. As a programmer, I am sorely tempted to develop some custom discussion website that would adapt better to the task at hand, but I also know that 90% of success is using the KISS principle wisely. At this point, it is critical to keep everything as simple as possible. So this Google-ized blog seems best for starters.

I have experimented with Second Life, and I think it has great promise for promoting interaction in a more natural setting than posting to an electronic bulletin board. On the other hand, I have been more impressed with the busy trendiness and virtualized materialism of the Second Life paradigm than with its uplifting aspects. But I would like to try it when there are more interested students willing and available for that level of experiment.

Open Invitation to Contribute

I do not consider this "my" blog, even though I started it and right now I am the only one writing it.

If you are interested in this subject, its your blog too. I would suggest that you start out by leaving a comment, however brief. If you want to post a regular blog entry I will need to add you to the list of authors, so you will have to (1) get an account here, and (2) transmit your info to me so I can add you.

Wikipedia Dreyfus Links

I thought it would be good to provide a bunch of links on this blog. Then I thought better of it. Most of the critical links already exist on Wikipedia and I will try to add all the ones I know of that are not on that page, and keep it current as best I can. If we use the Wikipedia article as the central hub of our resource linking, it will improve that information and be available to everyone in the world, so let's do it that way until someone has a better plan!

Here is the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubert_Dreyfus


1. Go to the External Links, and find the webcasts of his classes. Then listen to them.

2. Go to the Dreyfus home page at UC Berkeley for more general info on him. Also, there is a link to his papers - pick a short one - usually you can get the .pdf version and read it in 15 minutes. Very good stuff.

The information in the Wikipedia article is good but basic and sometimes incomplete. It focuses on the AI debate. You can track from this page to most of the immediately relavent philosophy articles, but it seems to me this is still an area where Wikipedia is finding its way, and you may stumble on lots of inconsistent articles.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Start Up and Explanation

Hello All.

This is the starting post for a blog called WhooshUp - my particular favorite phrase of Professor Hubert Dreyfus when teaching his now classic "Man, God, and Society in Western Literature" at UC Berkeley. You have to listen to that course to really get this phrase, but if you do, you will frequently find that things just "whoosh up" and take over - at least when you are in tune and ready to get whooshed. How's that for an over-arching explanation of mankind under western civilization, especially his interaction with Pagan, Platonic, Judeo-Christian, and Modern belief systems? Well, at least it might be some small thing to blog about...

I am in an "outer circle" of students of Dr. Dreyfus. His regular students go to UC Berkeley and sit in his classroom. If they get turned on to existentialism, they earn PhD's, I suppose, and go on to teach and practice philosophy in the world of academia. But this outer circle of students listen to him via webcasts. They listen, read, think about, then go back to work or family. I am not an ordinary scholar - I have a Dilbert job, in a cubicle, on a computer. I don't know all the basic prerequisites, or have lots of time to read comprehensively or discuss a class with graduate assistants. I will never get a degree in this stuff. But I love studying it. If you are a member of this outer circle of students, this blog is for you too.

This blog is an attempt to start a discussion centered around what he teaches and how he does it. The first question is so incredibly deep and seemingly unfathomable that I can't even begin to explain it - largely because I have just begun to learn anything about it. Others will hopefully take a stab at describing what he teaches - for now I will just suggest that it concerns the nature of reality, and the past and future of human comprehension of reality, and the way we do, can, and should try to interact with reality on an individual basis day by day - but all that is a very poor answer, I assure you! The subject area often gets piled up under this name: Existentialist Philosophy.

What I can describe, imperfectly, is how he teaches this subject. I can do this because I have listened to three webcasts, and I can just report my impressions. That's all. Anybody else could add to this list of impressions.

1. He has really done this thing called academic work, and it shows in his teaching. The highest praise for academic work comes when a prediction is made and later proves out true, especially when at the time of the prediction, the majority of opinion would fall on the other side of the question. Dreyfus strongly predicted, in 1972, that the standard approach to AI would fail. He based his prediction on the implications of Heidigger's existentialist philosophy which describes how human knowledge works. The prediction was correct, and most researchers in the field admit it now, after nearly thirty years.

2. He teaches his subjects with clarity and continuity. He knows what he wants the student to understand, and in what order the topics need to be absorbed. Often the concepts involved are very difficult to grasp. I am not any kind of expert in philosophy, history, or literature - which are normally all mixed in to his lectures. But I get it. He is able to explain things so a non-specialist can, with a little work, figure out some of the deepest philosophy our civilization has produced.

3. He teaches with such comfortable authority that he is constantly asking for reaction and correction from his students. He does this first by working very, very closely from a selected text - normally an important source book for the topic under study. I mean line by line. He will read or summarize what the source is saying, and explain it, or expound what possibilities can be derived from it. Then he invites the class to go into the same text and come up with examples that do not fit his own explanation. In other words, he empowers the student to disagree with him, only insisting that the challenge be a valid, sustainable, and topical analysis - like those he has demonstrated by making them over and over himself in the lecture.

I hope that if you have never heard a lecture like this, you will get one and try. It's not your ordinary class.