PhD Update 4: Pandemic Edition

Greetings from the Quarantine.

I’ve been meaning to write an update for a little while now, but honestly I found it hard to articulate my thoughts about life in a pandemic.

Day to day operations in the HQ have not changed much, which isn’t to say there haven’t been many changes.

We’re all struggling.

I’m heartened to see the many positive responses to the pandemic – national governments quickly ditching their nonsensical programs of austerity and extending their social welfare nets, communities coming together online to offer mutual support, etc. After the initial shock and panic buying, this is a nice change.

My problems are minor compared to those of many others – my heart goes out to everyone affected in various ways. I already work primarily from home, so as far as my day-to-day life goes, nothing has changed really. My partner’s job wound down significantly (she’s a florist) – they’re no longer allowing customers into their shop, and there is only ever one employee in at a time with the owner, so my partner is only working one or two days a week (until told they are to close completely). Her boss has announced that he intends to fully support his staff to the best of his ability through the pandemic, which means my partner’s job is safe.

As far as my work goes, the lack of disruption in my normal schedule hasn’t translated into smooth sailing. Like everyone else, I’m suffering from cognitive overload and trying to process the situation. Finishing a PhD under ideal circumstances is hard enough – doing so while under duress is shit.

In the past two weeks I thought I’ve managed to do some solid writing, but as it turned out, most of it went nowhere. I took today off to meet with my supervisor and discuss how to take this chapter forward. To paraphrase Bear Grylls, we must adapt, react, overcome.

Like in many other dire times, I’ve found some relief and pleasant distraction in philosophy. The Monash MAP chapter has started up a reading group on classical Chinese philosophy. We’re following the chapters in Bryan van Norden and Philip Ivanhoe’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy as well as van Norden’s Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy – both of which are excellent and accessible introductions to the topic.

Kongzi (Confucius) wrote that hardship affects everyone, both the ‘gentleman’ and the ‘petty man’ – “The difference is that the petty man, encountering hardship, is overwhelmed by it” (15.2). There are many ways of being overwhelmed, of course. I think however, that if we are to be virtuous, we should turn to looking at why we are feeling the way we are, which will allow for us to overcome our present adversity.

I think for me, it isn’t the pandemic in itself – scary though it is. It is the fact that we live in a kind of political system that not only exacerbated the issue, with decades of cuts to welfare and healthcare systems, with its emphasis on individual rights, and with its disdain for community. The pandemic has, if nothing else, exposed just how shallow all of the arguments for austerity are, and why we can no longer allow for our world to be determined by profits.

I have written up some thoughts on all of this, my short essay is currently with an editor to hopefully get published somewhere with a wider audience (if not, I guess it’ll go up on Medium).

I’m on the hook to review Bruno Lloret’s Nancy (Giramondo, 2020) for 3AM:Magazine. I’m going to submit that soonish, but for now I can say the book is very very good.

I’m also on the hook to write an encyclopaedia entry on Madeline de Scudéry – the manuscript for that is due in May, so I should get started on that. It’ll happen right after the review for 3AM.

In the meantime, here are a few things that you might see here over the next few weeks:

  1. Since I’m the main organiser of the reading group I mention above, I intend to put up some notes for anyone interesting in reading along with us (and also because writing these notes up for an audience will help me remember the material). Expect the first part this coming weekend.
  2. I’ve been slowly putting together a reading list of some books that I think are cool – I want to maintain it here as an ongoing recommendation engine and as something to send to students, those few times a year I get asked for reading recommendations.

Current reading for me: Mo Yan’s Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out
Current reading for work: Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and her and John Norris’ Letters Concerning the Love of God

PhD Update 3

The start of the year might have been slow, but I’m now again a member of the #1000mph club. Deadlines are coming up fast.

My current chapter focuses on Mary Astell, and while I’m not quite sure of what the argument will be yet, my aim is to look at how she fits into the picture of developing the Cartesian theory of the passions.

I’m going to approach it by beginning with her and John Norris’ Letters Concerning the Love of God, which will give me a nice segue from the previous chapter (on Malebranche and Norris). Ultimately though, I think it would be a mistake to suggest that Astell learns about the Cartesian passions from Norris – she was clearly well versed in Cartesian philosophy from her own studies. She also seems to be pushing back against aspects of Norris’ understanding as given in his Practical Discourses and Theory and Regulation of Love. If I’m careful enough, I should be able to contrast their views as two competing versions of the Cartesian view.

Astell’s own thought comes across much more clearly in her Serious Proposal to the Ladies – especially the second part. It’s clear that she draws on the same kind of Malebrancheanism given by Norris, but she has a clearer idea of the passions (by which I mean, she writes about more than just love, the way Norris does). I think the most promising (for my purpose) element of this text is the underlying philosophical anthropology, which is thoroughly Cartesian. Like François Poullain de la Barre, Astell accepts the Cartesian view that the mind has no gender – which then means, that it’s not women’s natural ineptitude, but rather custom, that keeps them uneducated.

I’ve looked at a few secondary sources to start my discussion, but the problem I keep running into is that whenever I come up with a good idea for what this chapter could do, I find someone else had done it already. Originality comes from the work though, so I just have to keep working through the material until there is a chapter in front of me.

This is the last chapter left to write before I turn my attention to the introduction and conclusion (which I’ll write at the same time), and before I get to editing.

Currently my funding runs out on July 31, so my plan is to have all of the writing done by the end of May, to get two full months to edit this thing. I intend to apply for an extension (on the grounds that 1. my candidature runs until October 31, and 2. I’ve had a number of delays in my research that necessitate a bit more time). Hopefully it’ll all go to plan. However, I also need to be mindful of the fact that I need to have my PhD in hand by March, because otherwise I’ll be ineligible for a number of postdocs I want to apply for.

In other news, I’ve got a few extracurricular bits of writing on the go – an encyclopaedia entry on Madeline de Scudéry, and a book review – I’ll post links to these when I can.

Currently reading: Astell’s Christian Religion

35 Women from the History of Philosophy

I wrote this last year, but it’s current as ever, especially since today is International Women’s day.

Here’s a list of 35 Women from the History of Philosophy.

Please also spend some time today thinking about the relationship you have with the women in your life and make sure you’re not acting badly.

New Book Arrivals

What is a Sandwich? A Socratic Dialogue

A short satire I wrote because I wanted to stop thinking about it.


Glaucon: Ah friends, we have debated fruitfully. We should send Alcibiades to bring us some food before we head to the theatre. What do you think you want?

Alcibiades: I feel like a sandwich, I know a place.

Glaucon: A sandwich sounds splendid.

Socrates: I agree as well, I definitely felt like having a burrito.

Glaucon: You say you agree, but you want a burrito. Do you jest, Socrates?

Socrates: You said sandwiches, I simply named one I felt like having.Glaucon: A burrito is not a sandwich, my old friend. Your age must be distorting your judgment.

Socrates: Forgive me, maybe I am simply mistaken about what sandwiches are. You are the authority, if you claim with such certainty to know that a burrito is not a sandwich. Can you then answer me a simple question, what is a sandwich?

Alcibiades: Oh no, not again. Please let’s not do this.

Glaucon: It’s alright Alcibiades, this is a simple matter between friends. A sandwich would be two slices of bread with various meats, vegetables, and spreads in between. The bread sandwiches the other ingredients, and thus the term. So, you see my friends, a burrito cannot be a sandwich.

Socrates: That is very interesting, indeed. But a burrito also contains various meats, vegetables, and spreads. Do you agree that those things are therefore not essential to what you call a sandwich?

Glaucon: Indeed, it appears so.

Socrates: So, it is the two slices of bread that are then necessary?

Glaucon: Aye, so I think.

Socrates: And if it must be two slices, then one would be too few, and three too many?

Glaucon: Indeed it is so.

Socrates: What then of the famous club sandwich, you must agree that it is a sandwich?

Glaucon: I do not see why it would not be the case.

Socrates: But the club sandwich has three slices, so you see, your own words testify against you.

Glaucon: In that case let me correct: a sandwich must be two or three slices of bread. Two of which must be the outer layers of the sandwich.

Socrates: Ah, what then of the Norwegian smørrebrød? That is only one slice of bread, but it is nonetheless a sandwich.

Glaucon: That is indeed a sandwich, I admit. But it is a special kind, which we call the “open faced sandwich” – if that is what we meant, then we would have specified. A standard sandwich must have two slices, for the term sandwich refers to the verb. As in, “sandwiched between two slices of bread.”

Socrates: Very well, I will grant you then, that there are sandwiches and there are open-faced sandwiches. But if that is the case, then you must mean that the sandwiching of the ingredients between the two slices of bread is the crucial element of a sandwich?

Glaucon: Yes, this is what I meant all along. Indeed.

Socrates: What then of the Vietnamese bánh mì? Is that not a sandwich?

Glaucon: It is, aye.

Socrates: A báhn mì is made using a bread roll, in other words, one bit of bread, that is sliced into. If a sandwich must have two slices or more, surely then, it is not a sandwich.

Glaucon: You are correct. Perhaps I should clarify then, that the key is that the bread sandwiches, that is, holds together the ingredients.

Socrates: Very well, you are changing what you have said, but I will forgive you because we are friends. And tell me, what is the shape of a burrito?

Glaucon: You must think me foolish if you ask. It is tubular.

Socrates: And what is it made of?

Glaucon: A tortilla and fillings. But pray tell, where are you going with this Socrates? I am hungry, and I am prone to being hangry in this state.

Socrates: I promise dear friend that I will show you, just bear with me one more moment. Now just tell me, what is a tortilla?

Glaucon: A kind of bread, made flat out of corn or wheat.

Socrates: And finally, in a burrito, does this bread cover the fillings on all sides?

Glaucon: Indeed.

Socrates: And in the tubular shape of the burrito, does the tortilla not cover the fillings completely?

Glaucon: I suppose it does.

Socrates: Then, by your own argument, does the bread not sandwich the ingredients from every possible point?

Glaucon: I suppose it does.

Socrates: Then you will finally admit that a burrito is a sandwich?

Glaucon: You have yet again tricked me into admitting something I do not think. Yes, by the way you explain it, the burrito must be a sandwich. And my hunger now prevents me from thinking clearly. Have it your way.

Socrates: Very well then, we shall have burritos.

Alcibiades: This is all very well Socrates, but we tire of your games. You know well what we meant. And besides, a burrito is a wrap, and not a sandwich. It is its own category which shares some features with a sandwich, but it is in itself not a sandwich.

Socrates: My dear boy, I always knew you were not just a pretty face, but an astute mind as well. Correct my error then and explain please wherein lies the difference.

Alcibiades: It is simple. The wrap covers the fillings completely, whereas the sandwich does not.

Socrates: Very well. And tell me then, if you consider a shawarma a wrap?

Alcibiades: I don’t know where you are going with this, but yes, I do.

Socrates: But the shawarma is not wrapped the way a burrito is, the ends are open. It is therefore not a wrap by your own words.

Alcibiades: You twist my words like you did Glaucon’s. But that is true.

Socrates: And the shawarma, like the burrito, consists in a flatbread which sandwiches the fillings on all sides, does it not?

Alcibiades: I suppose.

Socrates: You see then, my friends, a wrap, by your own definitions, is just a sandwich.

Glaucon: I swear to all of the Gods Socrates, you know well what we meant.

Alcibiades: I concur with Glaucon, you are merely playing games for your own amusement at our cost, and now we are running out of time to eat.

Socrates: Forgive me friends, I was merely attempting to clarify what you were saying with such certainty. I’m an old man, and it is hard for me to avoid my habits. Perhaps we should choose a different food to avoid the confusion in our minds and make our hunger simpler?

Glaucon: I suppose, we could have calzone then, the Etruscan by the forum is a master of his craft, and we can carry them with us to the theatre.

Socrates: I thought we said ‘no’ to sandwiches?

New article out on Medium

I wrote a short thing about Descartes and cultivating the passion of generosity for Medium – would love it if you’d checked it out.

You can find it here

Some thoughts on Barthes’ *Mythologies*

I finished Roland Barthes’ Mythologies this week. I don’t recall ever reading this collection of essays before, so I was quite pleased by how current many of them still seemed. Barthes’ had a keen eye for society. What I was stricken by the most were two passages in the lengthy essay on myth that ends the book.

First:

The first bourgeois philosophers pervaded the world with significations, subjected all things to an idea of the rational, and decreed that they were meant for man: bourgeois ideology is of the scientistic or the intuitive kind, it records facts or perceives values, but refuses explanations; the order of the world can be seen as sufficient or ineffable, it is never seen as significant. Finally, the basic idea of a perfectible mobile world, produces the inverted image of an unchanging humanity, characterised by an indefinite repetition of its identity. (142)

I think looking at the history of Western philosophy we can trace this to the Greeks. This being the case, the interesting thing is how resistant to change the discipline has been. We see this now in the increasingly violent reactions to calls for change, such as the backlash Bryan van Norden and Jay Garfield received for their op ed in the New York Times a few years ago.

Philosophy reproduces itself by rejecting any form of radical change, and when it takes up new ideas, it’s only by assimilating them – i.e. by turning them into itself.

The other passage touches on this as well, at least slightly:

The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognised places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. (152)

The Other in Western philosophy is relegated to the margins, or, assimilated. When marginalised, it manifests in the form of a complete rejection of the discourses that matter to the Other. An example of this, to my eye, is dropping any sort of religious connotations from Buddhist thought. This doesn’t happen only to non-Western philosophy though; consider the case of stripping away the theological assumptions in Cartesian philosophy, or taking any sort of ideas without their proper context, really. In assimilation, the Other is included only insofar as its discourses fit within those of the West.

Barthes isn’t talking about philosophy, he’s talking about culture. Nonetheless, philosophy, as practiced in the West at least, is a bourgeois endeavour. It doesn’t surprise then, that the failures of the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois that Barthes can identify in the French society of the 1950s are in some sense reproduced in academia.