Philosophy Weekend: The Anguish Of Sisyphus

So I’ve pledged to begin a new weekend feature on “philosophy, ethics and practical debate” here on Litkicks, a series intending to offer something more substantial, unusual and potentially important every Saturday or Sunday than a weekly bitch session about literary criticism.

As I ponder several possible beginnings for this series, I am overwhelmed by the realization that I have chosen a Sisyphian task, and also a thankless one. My hope is to write lyric essays, polls and questions, book reviews and explorations in various formats that will engage difficult or controversial topics often in the context of various philosophical disciplines — existentialism, epistemology, analytic philosophy, Platonism, etc.

I plan to touch on a wide assortment of topics, but I also hope to present a consistent and rigid methodology between the different pieces for stuctured logical argument. So, in other words, I have a very focused and pointed series of discussions in mind, and I plan to conduct the group exercises with a strong guiding hand. This is something I’ve done before, but I’ve never found (and not for lack of trying) it to be a very popular party game.

Many people hate argument. They just don’t enjoy the process, which is their right. But often these people disdain the form too broadly, and refuse to consider that a structured or philosophical argument between sympathetic friends can be much more rewarding than a typical noisy television talk show or barroom fight.

Other people enjoy argument but consider it useless, pointless. Nobody, they’ll say, really cares about logic or ideals when the rubber hits the road. I believe these people are too pessimistic about human nature, but I’ve talked to enough people to know I’m in the minority here.

Others, I think, simply aren’t interested in this kind of writing, and may wonder why philosophy and politics belong on a literary blog. I understand M. A. Orthofer’s point, in his kind notice of my recent announcement, that “more than enough people already offer pieces on ‘philosophy, ethics and practical debate'”.

Yes, this is true, though I think most of them are doing a pretty lousy job of it. My goal is to adopt a completely different approach here, and the interaction I hope to get with everyone out there is a big part of my success plan for this project. So I do hope you’ll all show up, even if philosophy and politics are not your thing.

I sometimes wonder if we’re actually embarrassed to admit how philosophical we all are. All of us — from the living room armchair drunk to the jaded college professor, everybody in the world. We all cling tightly to our own deepest held beliefs, and these beliefs are the philosophies we live by. Just as we are all poets, we really are all philosophers.

But to admit that we philosophize takes courage, and makes us feel vulnerable. We like instead to put on airs of cynicism about big ideas, to pretend that big questions don’t matter.

Conducting an intelligent collective debate about politics and philosophy on a literary blog is going to be a Sisyphian task, but the reason I believe we can do it is that I believe there are many smart and brave readers out there, and we’re going to do it together.

Anyway, I’d be lying if I told you I knew how I was going to get this puppy started. So, instead of lying, I’m going to give myself another week to come up with a kickass kickoff post. Till then, we’ll return to regular literary programming tomorrow.

11 Responses

  1. Just thought I’d share a
    Just thought I’d share a short anecdote from my college years. This was a thought experiment in philosophy 101, meant, I’d imagine, to pique the interest of those taking the class merely to fulfill a prerequisite.

    A man takes five students in class hostage and gives you a gun and an ultimatum. Kill one student and the other four go free, or kill no one and he’ll kill them all. It’s impossible to kill yourself or the terrorist.

    Most people would choose to kill one so the others go free.

    In the next situation you are a doctor in a remote village. You have four terminally ill patients in need of organ transplants. One needs a heart, another a liver, two others kidneys. Now a tourist comes to the village and heads to the hospital for a health check. You discover he is healthy, and his organs are compatible with your four patients. If you kill the tourist and harvest the organs, no one will suspect you.

    Most people would choose not to kill the tourist.

    In both examples the logic is the same, killing an innocent person to save four others. So why one and not the other?

    I’ve had a love affair with philosophy ever since. Can’t wait for your discussion, Levi!

  2. Hey hepcat. I’ve always
    Hey hepcat. I’ve always hated those sort of scenario questions. I’ve thought they are useless, pointless, not realistic, meaningless and stupid.

    At least in this one:

    “A man takes five students in class hostage and gives you a gun and an ultimatum. Kill one student and the other four go free, or kill no one and he’ll kill them all. It’s impossible to kill yourself or the terrorist.”

    There is a clear answer. The bad guy gave you a gun. You use it to kill him.

    As far as answers to these stupid questions where killing the bad guy is not an option, you either kill yourself to save the others or you make him murder everybody.

    You don’t let evil and evil doers manipulate you and you don’t play their games.

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote an early story like this about human chess. I felt the same way. Such scenarios are certainly never ever real. If they were, you choose none of the above.

    Watch out for that big rock rolling down the hill.

    Who do we let it hit? A grandmother, your dog, a baby, Hitler?

    I know — let it hit Robert Smith, Albert Camus and a citizen of Algeria.

  3. I think literature in it’s
    I think literature in it’s various forms (blogs, novels, nonfiction, web fiction etc.) is at a weak place as far as tackling big issues goes. We’re selling our art short because it can tackle these issues.

    So you go on ahead Levi, talk about anything you bloody want; politics, abortion, the color of boogers; the art form can handle it, the participants can handle it.

    Looking forward to it.

  4. Cool man! I’m waiting for
    Cool man! I’m waiting for this to start. I love arguing and will do my best to make some time for at least some of the arguments or discussions or whatever you decide to call them.

    Bring it on!

  5. Fair enough TKG. Let’s take
    Fair enough TKG. Let’s take that logic and apply it to the real world. In 1945, A-bombs were dropped on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. For argument’s sake, let’s stick with the prevailing arguments, that the bomb was dropped to save American lives. Of course this raises the question, is a Japanese life worth more than an American’s? To avoid that pitfall, I guess we have to say that the A-bomb would save Japanese lives too (though in all honesty I have a hard time believing any country makes war plans with an eye on saving as many as the enemy as possible).

    I take this to be the most accepted argument for the dropping of the bomb. Again, let’s not talk about whether it was done for retribution or as a show of might, however more plausible those ideas may seem.

    Now it’s 1969 and you’re Tricky Dick. You’re figuring out how the hell you’re gonna get out of the war. With the logic we learned from 1945, that we can save both American and enemy soldiers by dropping an A-bomb, why not do it again?

    Why then and not now? I’d imagine that arguments not too different from these were bandied around the White House back then. I have no doubt that if some had their way, Vietnam would still be a wasteland of radioactive rubble.

  6. With these comments, I think
    With these comments, I think we’re off to a good start!

  7. i’ve always felt that a
    i’ve always felt that a little robust debate among friends and peers is delightful…. looking forward to the pilot post!

  8. Hey hepcat, the logic in
    Hey hepcat, the logic in those thought experiments is not the same.

    In the first case you have free will in play and the mad gunman’s choice to either kill or not kill the four being dependent on your actions; your inclinations are affected by your opportunity to affect another person’s actions.

    Whilst in the second case with the organs, the death is a natural one and so the action you choose to take is dependent solely on your own inclinations to act or not act on the inevitable.

    I’m pretty sure these are key differences in the scenarios that affect the logical structure of one’s decision making (acting on possibility vs deferring the inevitable), rather than mere intuitive differences.

    And TKG: These scenarios are thought experiments, and the frustration of them (the limitations) are what make them interesting! Rather than the logical point hepcat pointed to, the more interesting question – that you kind of hinted at – is whether we are more or whether we are less morally responsible for the deaths in the gunman scenario, dependent on how we act.

    Do we take a utilitarian approach of greatest good for the greatest number by killing one, and therefore embrace what is meant to be acknowledged as one of two awful options (the A-bomb analogy is redundant as real-life is NOT a thought experiment and there were plenty of other options rather than a mere two, as the vietnam point demonstrated);

    or do we let the gunman (having free will after all) make the decision himself, which means he might only *possibly* kill all four? And even if he does, does that make YOU morally responsible?

    p.s. I love your site levi, but leave pynchon alone! or rather, embrace the man – he’s a true genius!!! You’ve got to at least like the ‘whole sick crew’ bits of V since you like the Beats?

  9. I agree with kurtzisdead on
    I agree with kurtzisdead on every point — except about Pynchon.

  10. well i guess that answers my
    well i guess that answers my question about your series…

    Yeah in the first scenario you are being coerced and hence partially absolved of the murder. In the second it’s all on you.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!