Adventures in Meta-Philosophy:

Six Projects for Young Philosophers

Prof. Anthony Weston (Elon University)

Course Details

I am in the midst of a book manuscript addressing these questions. It’s meant for young philosophers – you! My hope for this summer course is to bring the book manuscript to you at just the stage when it is complete enough that you will have a lot of substance to work with, but not so settled that it resists much more change. We will have fun with it together – exploring, stretching, twisting, confronting, inventing and re-inventing – sometimes uncomfortably, too, but always in the fundamentally constructive imaginative space we create and sustain together. My bet is that your voices will end up in the eventual book right along with mine. I am looking to learn from and be provoked and challenged by you, just as I hope you will be looking to learn from me and be provoked and challenged by the possibilities that this course will pose to you.

Themes

Currently the planned book’s six “projects” – each a chapter – are:

1. Becoming Earthlings. It was already urgent yesterday to overcome our insistent self-separation from the planet. What can it mean to recognize and practically take account not just of global climate change but the fact that the very Earth moves under our feet? This planet is the only solid ground we’ve got and yet at the same time is a massive, whirling, elastic body in space. While we’re at it, let’s finally embrace evolution too, in the same spirit – the sheer fact of our animality in the context of an unimaginably ancient, dynamic, living community. How might the philosophical pieces fall into new places then?

2. Way Bolder Ethics. One way is: Instead of super-cautiously trying to slightly extend or retrofit the same old human-centered first principles to maybe a few other animals, we may instead conceive ethics as a style of comportment – a (literally) considerate way of being with others – rather than mainly a set of rules or imperatives; as a mode of transformative action rather than a system for making judgments or solving dilemmas; and above all as rooted in Earth conceived not as some kind of ethical mega-person but as an all-inclusive matrix of connection and inter-being. We don’t “extend” or even “ground” such an ethic – we wake up to “All Our Relations”.

3. Critical Thinking with Imagination. Systematic skepticism is vital, but as a way of life it is deflationary, suspicious, self-protective, and (ironically) tends toward a rather uncritical acceptance of the status quo. Yes, we certainly need to expose and avoid credulity and dogmatism of all sorts. But Critical Thinking could be far more liveable, inviting, and also challenging by making itself way more imaginative. What if it worked primarily by bringing all manner of overlooked alternatives, often sharply challenging, into light? As with this course itself: we criticize and rethink things as they are by systematically silhouetting them against alternatives, as well as by contrast to their own unrealized possibilities.

4. Endless Ends: Does the means/ends distinction seem so necessary to any practical thinking partly because so many things and activities today are progressively and insistently simplified into ever-simpler and more commercially-available “means” to ever more distant and abstract ends? Is this some kind of conceptual necessity, or, on the contrary, an intensifying social disaster characteristic of modernity? Critics from Marx to Dewey to Pope John Paul II have challenged the reduction of work to a means to enjoyment (or just maintenance) of life outside work, so our re-inventive thinking might start there. How could work be radically different? (Where is it radically different already?) What specific kinds of on-the-ground reconstruction would it take? And from there: what are the prospects of regenerating the end-character (intrinsic value) of (almost?) everything?

5. Philosophical Counterterrorism. What might philosophy ask besides how to define “terrorism” and how far to torture suspects? Questions like: What else could offer itself to the self-abnegation of suicide bombers? Can an alternative philosophy of the radical Deed point in other, very different directions? Meanwhile, how might counterterrorism do more than merely hyper-secure the powerful, the status quo? What if we actually tried to take profound grievances seriously before they turn to terror as an (after) last resort? How might such grievances be effectively aired – or, God forbid, actually addressed? With some systematic re-invention, couldn’t we come up with something… even if (and why not?) new in the world? (Are we ready for this?)

6. Getting Ready for Aliens. (Yes – aliens!) With literally billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, and multiple search programs active today across a variety of potential media, why are only a few science fiction writers thinking seriously about alien contact? Besides, who knows how the “alien” might actually show up? We could question the first premise of the infamous “Fermi Paradox” – that the universe is “silent” though supposedly filled with other intelligences. Really? Is the universe “silent”? What if we just don’t know how to listen? We’re listening for tom-toms and they’re sending text messages – or vice versa? So what would it take to listen more widely, inventively, truly openly? Moreover, what about other-than-human minds… of all kinds… always already right here on Earth, or soon (as with AI) to come? How different would the world look if we took it as our deepest task not just to scan the stars for “messages” but to cultivate a wide-angled receptivity to other-than-human minds in general, such as those we are already pretty sure are right next to us right now?

Organization

My intention is to work out the detailed course outline and readings with you on the first day of class, when we all can introduce ourselves to each other, I can outline the various possible topics and approaches and you can lay out your own various interests and backgrounds. (Some of this we can also do in advance – we’ll set up some online means for this.) Already in the first moment then, we will launch into a kind of experiment on ourselves: we all will take part in actually designing the course itself… and we’ll have to ask why – and how – we do that… (and also why it is so seldom done in philosophy- or school-as-usual.)

I will commit to sending you the full manuscript for Six Projects for Young Philosophers by June 1st – in whatever state it is in by then. I will ask and expect you to commit to reading it by the time you show up for the course at Hamilton. This is essential because in our two weeks together you’ll only have time to re-read the chapters we will explore together, plus a couple of short additional readings, possibly, depending on how we decide to set up the course.

As to outline, here is one baseline possibility – just an example – working on the assumption that we might choose to survey all of the book’s topics (which we might not), building some “give” and a few other themes into the schedule, and making time for philosophical reflection on our own process as well.

Monday 6/29  Opening: Toward a shared understanding and embrace of this class; key conceptual and creative tools; working out the class plan together.

Read: Weston, How to Re-Imagine the World

+ possible film (evening?): “Baraka”

Tuesday 6/30  Toward a Philosophy of Earth

reread Weston 6P chapter 1: “Becoming Earthlings”

+ short readings from Bill McKibben, Eaarth and David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Wednesday 7/1  Transforming Ethics

reread Weston 6P chapter 2: “Way Bolder Ethics”

+ short readings from Holmes Rolston, “Ethics on the Home Planet” and Charles

Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story.

Thursday 7/2  Transforming Critical Thinking

reread Weston 6P chapter 3: “Skepticism with Imagination”

+ short readings: selections from Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and

others

Friday 7/3: Catch-up, catch breath, a meta-philosophical check in, and maybe an exploration of America as itself a philosophical project (in honor of our 244th July 4th)

Monday 7/6  Beyond Means and Ends

reread Weston 6P chapter 4: “Endless Ends”

+ short readings: selections from Dewey, Marx, Pope JP2, and Albert Borgmann’s

Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life.

Tuesday 7/7  Rethinking terrorism

reread Weston 6P chapter 5: “Philosophical Counterterrorism”

+ short readings: selections from Rob Brezny’s Pronoia? Salman Rushdie?

Wednesday 7/8  Philosophers in Space

reread Weston 6P chapter 6: “Getting Ready for Aliens”

+ short readings: Arthur C. Clarke, “The Sentinel”; Ursula LeGuin, “Paradises Lost”

(abridged)

+ possible film (evening?): “Contact”

Thursday 7/9  TBD, probably a lot of catch-up, plus preparation for concluding symposium/festival. Meta-questions: the philosophy behind this book as a whole, and the pedagogical philosophy behind this class.

Friday 7/10  Concluding Symposium / Manifestival

Pedagogy

Our work together will take many different shapes, from exploring and elaborating the readings to role-play scenarios, design projects, structured debates or dialogues, and others. Sometimes you will know what is coming, often you won’t. Just be ready. One of our opening activities will be to give more shape to the way we’ll end. I will propose to end the course with a student-staged “Manifestival of Possibilities”, the anticipation of and preparation for which can energize and help structure at least our second week of classes. Along the way we will also periodically step out of the daily themes outlined above and consider and perhaps experiment farther with our modes of interaction themselves – also a philosophical subject in its own right.

The course will also offer you the excitement, hopefully, of working on a major writing project in process – certainly of just seeing it in progress, but a chance to interact with it in both critical and creative ways and possibly to affect/move it as well. Even professional works of philosophy are not somehow “givens”! Here we can thematize not only the book’s contents but also its selection of topics, its voice, the range of ideas it takes seriously as well as those it does not, and its project of shifting fundamentals as opposed to “normal philosophy”.

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