George Herbert Mead (1863—1931)

•April 30, 2017 • Leave a Comment

James T. Farrell said of George Herbert Mead, “his style was often marked by accuracy and precision. Some of his papers are a pleasure to read not only because of their originality but also because they are models of compact organization.” Mead studied with both Josiah Royce and William James at Harvard in the late 1880’s when James was finishing his Principles of Psychology.

George Herbert Mead (1863—1931) had many original and influential ideas that he presented in lectures, conversations and in the forty-six papers that he published during his life. But he died before he was able to integrate them into systematic book length presentation.

After his death several of his students dug through the extensive lecture notes, the stenographic records of his social psychology course at the University of Chicago, and from his numerous unpublished papers. They edited these notes and lectures into the four posthumously published volumes we typically associate with Mead.

Mind, Self & Society (1934) is the primary presentation of Mead’s concept of social behaviorism. For Mead the mind is neither a transcendent substance nor merely the result of chemical and physiological interactions. The mind emerges from a social act of communication between organisms. In Pragmatism human activity is the criteria for truth and meaning. Mutual activity, particularly communication, creates the mind and our sense of self. Each individual is a product of the society in which they live. The individual develops a sense of self when they become an object to themselves—looking at themselves through the perspective of others.

The Philosophy of the Act, (1938) shows how the ideas of social behaviorism can point out the psychological origin of scientific understanding and a lead to a pragmatically grounded philosophy of science. Individuals want to have control over their immediate environment. The notion of what a physical object is rises out of these particular needs. This creates a kind of “social interaction” with inanimate objects. Science therefore is a continual reconstruction of our idea of the world in response to different situations. It is not fixed but changes over time and with circumstances.

The Philosophy of the Present, (1932) and Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936) present Mead’s pragmatist view of the philosophy of history. As with science, historical thought arises in response to changing circumstances that are confronted by the social group. History continually reconstructs the past in an attempt to understand the present. The meaning of past events changes as our present circumstances and the problems we confront change. The truth of history is its ability to make the present sensible through reference to the past. Historical thought is the reinterpretation of the past in terms of the present. Like science, the truth of history is not static but changes with our needs and circumstances.

We only have two short selections from Mead in our anthology both dealing with social behaviorism and the self. If you would like to read more I would encourage you to take a look at his short book, The Philosophy of the Present. It is available free on the internet:

Also available is James Farrell’s review”George Herbert Mead’s Philosophy of the Present.” (1947):

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

•April 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was a polymath who did original work in logic, language, communication, and semiotics. He wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects including mathematics, logic, physics, astronomy, psychology, anthropology, history, and economics. While he was one of the most brilliant minds of his or any era there are some issues that confront a reader trying to make sense of Peirce’s vast oeuvre.

The most vexing problem is that Peirce, a rigorous and systematic thinker, never created a comprehensive statement of his ideas. What we get is a systematic philosophy without a systematic presentation.

Another issue is that Peirce’s ideas were constantly changing. As his ideas were always developing and evolving, what we see in his writing is the process but never a definitive statement or overall view. What we get are periodic snapshots of parts of the system in the process of development and change.

Also, Peirce wrote short articles for a variety of different publications. Some were written for a general audience, others for academic professionals in a variety of fields. Therefore, he had to fill in the gaps every time he published—providing synopses or summaries of previous articles and the foundational ideas that he was building upon. As a result, when reading Peirce one gets the impression of too much repetition and frequent inconsistency. This is made even worse through bad editing.

The challenge for us then is to read Peirce as a process not a statement. It helps to be aware of chronology and small changes. Peirce’s philosophical work breaks down into phases, each with a complete philosophical system. Keeping track of which system helps to overcome what seems at first to be contradictions and inconsistency.

The first system of his youth was an attempt to develop a Semiotic idealism that combined Kant’s Transcendental Analytic with Platonic idealism.

The second system includes his Subject-Predicate theory of propositions as well as his “New List” of categories. The second system is represented by selection 1 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New with the essay “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” (1868) from the Journal of Speculative Philosophy: Cognition series (1868-9).

The third system develops his Doubt-Belief theory and influential Pragmatist theory of meaning. In his writing of this period Peirce creates one of the first attempts at outlining a philosophy and methodology of science. Further developments of this philosophy of science would eventually form the basis of Pragmatism and became a basic cornerstone of Peirce’s philosophical system.

The third system is represented by selections 2-3 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New with the essays “The Fixation of Belief” (1877) and “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) from the Popular Science Monthly: Illustrations of the Logic of Science series (1877-1878).

In the fourth system he completes another revision of categories as the basis for his Theory of cognition and reality. Much of his late work further develops and elaborates his theory of Pragmatism. Particularly his 1905 essay “What Pragmatism Is” from his Pragmatism series of articles in The Monist presents one of his best discussions of his view of Pragmatism as philosophy. Also, his description in Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology is informative. (See selection 4 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New).

The fourth system is represented by selection 4 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New which includes edited pieces from the essay “What Pragmatism Is” (1905) from The Monist: Pragmatism series (1905) as well as excerpts from Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology and others miscellaneous writings. If you would like to read the original “What Pragmatism Is” it is available here: What Pragmatism Is (1905)

There are additional very short selections in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New which can be read to give you some idea of his innovative thinking and range of ideas.

  1. “The Backward State of Metaphysics” (1898/1903)
  2. “The Categories” (Harvard Lectures, 1903)
  3. “On the Strengthened Liar “1869 (On logic)
  4. “On Logic Machines” 30 Dec 1886 (An early idea for computer)
  5. “On the Triadic Logic” MS 339 Logic Notebook 23 Feb 1909 (Peirce’s idea for a triadic logic)

When reading Peirce try to see if you can picture his philosophy as a whole. Is it possible to define the essence of a philosophy that holds together all his diverse interests and ideas? What would that look like?

John Cage’s Number Pieces

•March 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment


John Cage’s final series of works, the Number Pieces, were written in the last years of his life. Most of these pieces were composed with his time bracket technique where short fragments, often just one note, a dynamic marking and a time bracket or range for when they player could start and stop playing the note or fragment.

The name of the composition reflects the number of players so pieces like One and Three have fairly sparse textures with frequent gaps and silence. Pieces like Twenty-Six and Twenty-Eight have much more complex textures and can vary considerably from performance to performance.


This disc from OgreOgress provides a great opportunity to compare these different pieces. Three (1989) for three recorders is spare with much silence. If is quiet and meditative and is reminiscent of some of his early Chance works for piano like Winter Music or Music for Changes.

The larger works, Twenty-Eight, Fifty-Four and Fifty-Seven, while having a seemingly “slow tempo” (a bit of a misnomer for describing the Number Pieces) and soft dynamics have a unexpected amount of tension and drama that arises from the occasional dissonance and overtones. The truly benefit from close and repeated listening and achieve an intensity that is surprising.

It is a good selection of these late and rarely heard works by John Cage performed with skill and subtlety. If you find you like them you should also consider their early release which includes excellent recordings of the later Three (for percussion), Six, Twenty-Three and Twenty-Six.


An Introduction to the Young Hegelians

•December 3, 2016 • Leave a Comment


The times were dangerous. Almost all of the writings of the Young Hegelians were considered subversive. Even biblical scholarship was viewed as threatening when orthodox religious beliefs were considered essential to state security. One often hears jokes about how Marx wrote about money but was unable to make any himself. But this was a problem for all the Young Hegelians. Their writings led to persecution by the political, religious and academic authorities. They were dismissed from jobs, prohibited from teaching, jailed and exiled. When they moved from academic jobs to journalism their writings were censored, banned and their papers shut down. It was a precarious existence and this was reflected in the style of their writing.

They were responding to events and to each other. They were trying to remake the world which forever seemed on the verge of another revolution. The next one always promising to get it right, or at least better than the last one. The period was know as the Vormärz, literally “Before March” and refers to the time before the Vienna uprising of March 1848 that started a series of revolts and uprisings throughout Europe. The failure of the 1848 revolutions brought and end to an optimistic era that began with the July Revolution of 1830 in France. As a result of the turbulent times, their writing was done in a hurry. Sometimes they were on the run, but there was also urgency to what they were doing. Karl Löwith, in his From Hegel to Nietzsche, described them as “manifestos, programs, and theses, but never anything whole, important in itself” and that “in spite of their inflammatory tone, they leave an impression of insipidity.” This was a time to act and react; there was no time for careful scholarship.

This style is reflected in the enthusiastic young Feuerbach’s Letter To Hegel, 22 November 1828, the earliest of the Young Hegelian’s writings and can still to be seen two decades later in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, perhaps their final statement published as the revolutions broke out. 

Despite their sometimes-heated philosophical confrontations it was a very congenial group. The went to each others weddings, loaned each other money (when they had some), visited each other in exile, wrote for each others journals and newspapers and collaborated on writing projects. In fact, there was so much collaboration that it is often hard to tell who—and how many—wrote a given text. This was complicated by the fact that may of their writings have to be published anonymously or under pseudonyms.

The Four Phases
The writings of the Hegelians fall into roughly four periods. In the first those known as the “Old Hegelians” or later the “Right Hegelians” collected, published and proselytized about the writings and lectures of Hegel. They were important for codifying and preserving the legacy of Hegel but they did not advance his philosophy so their impact was limited and their writings, beyond the collections of Hegel’s lectures, are rarely read and have not been translated.

The second phase was primarily interested in Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. It began with David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, an 800 page scholarly work on the Gospels and an unlikely book that took the world by storm. The third phase moved beyond religious and theological issues to more practical issues of politics, economics and social life. The fourth and final phase is dominated by Max Stirner’s book The Ego and His Own and the critical reaction and debate that followed.

The Readings are as follows:

1828 Feuerbach-Letter To Hegel, 22 November 1828

I. Old Hegelians (late 1820’s to 1835)

II. Religious Issues (1835 to early 1840’s)
1835 David Friedrich StraussThe Life of Jesus Critically Examined
Preface to the First German Edition (pages 3-5)
1. Inevitable Rise of Different Modes of Explaining Sacred Histories (pages 11-12)
12. Opposition to the Mythical View of the Gospel History (pages 43-47)
140. Debates Concerning the Reality of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus (pages 842-853)
1842 Max Stirner-“Art and Religion”

III. The Pivotal Year of 1841
1841 Feuerbach-The Essence of Christianity, 1841

IV. Political & Social Issues (1843-45)
1843 Moses Hess-The Philosophy of the Act, 1843
1843 Marx/Engels-Letter to Arnold Ruge, Sept 1843
Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
1843 FeuerbachPrinciples of the Philosophy of the Future-Part III: Principles of the New Philosophy
 1845 Marx-Theses on Feuerbach Spring 1845

 V. Stirner & His Critics (1845-1848)
1843 Max Stirner-“The False Principle of our Education”
 1844 Max Stirner-The Ego and His Own 1844
Read three selections: 1) Part First: I. A Human Life, 2) Part Second: I. Ownness, 3) Part Second: III. The Unique One




Blog Writing Heuristic

•October 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

This is stolen entirely from Philip Guo, an Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego. It is so good it is worth sharing without comment:

One heuristic I use when deciding what to write is to ask myself:

Will at least 100 people care about this topic three years from now?

The following don’t qualify, so I rarely write about them:

  • commentary on news events or fads
  • reactions to someone else’s article
  • personal notes that only my friends would care about

Also, if I see many people writing about a topic, then I avoid it unless I have a drastically different perspective.


Günderrode’s Poetic Fragments

•October 11, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“I’ve often had the unfeminine desire to throw myself into the wild chaos of battle and die. Why didn’t I turn out to be a man! I have no feeling for feminine virtues, for a woman’s happiness. Only that which is wild, great, shining appeals to me. There is an unfortunate but unalterable imbalance in my soul; and it will and must remain so, since I am a woman and have desires like a man without a man’s strength. That’s why I’m so vacillating and so out of harmony with myself….”

Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806), Letter to Gunda von Brentano

For those interested in Romanticism or German Idealism there is an important new book coming out in November. Karoline von Günderrode’s philosophically significant Poetic Fragments (1805) are being published by SUNY Press. These “Fragments” provide new insight into Early German Romanticism and Idealism, the reception of Indian, Persian, and Islamic thought in Europe and provide an interesting counterpoint to the ideas of Goethe, Novalis and Schelling.

This is the first volume of Günderrode’s work in English, and will help unearth this rich, complex, and innovative writer for American readers. The text is bilingual German-English and includes Anna C. Ezekiel’s introduction that highlights the philosophical significance of the texts, demonstrating their radical and original consideration of the nature of the universe, death, religion, power, and gender roles.

The Shell Game: Escaping multiple choice democracy

•October 6, 2016 • Leave a Comment

In an article for Lion’s Roar, Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern says you have six options on November 8. In summary, he claims that your first option is voting for Clinton and your other five options are the equivalent of voting for Trump.

I’m a little tired of being told my only choices are a neo-liberal hawk who supports war and the TPP or the end of civilization. Sure, vote for the lesser evil but also be aware that democracy is not a reality show to watch on TV. There is more to democracy than watching TV and voting for president. Real democracy is participatory. Voting for president is depressing, particularly this year.

The problem is well summarized by Thomas Frank in his recent article in The Guardian:

“Today as the Democrats go into battle against Trump, they find that their rallying cry has lost its magic. Hillary is discovering how difficult it is to win an election without hope. It transforms a vote for Hillary from mildly distasteful to almost totally futile.”

I live in a swing state. That means I have little choice but to vote for Clinton. But that is not the end, or even the main focus of my political activity. I hope others will start to think the same.

There is much more that can be, should be done. I don’t want to people to be despaired about their choices and give up. I want them to realize they are being cheated and see what options are available to do something about it.

Here are some of your real options:

  • Protest. When I say “protest” I mean something like the Progressive movement  or Occupy Wall Street.
  • Run for office (there are many local offices where you can have a real impact).
  • Write a letter, a blog, an article or a book.
  • Join an organization.
  • Talk to people.
  • Raise money for a cause.
  • Make noise.

Otherwise you will just get more and more of Ethan Nichtern’s rather lame and restrictive “choices.”