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the undergraduate philosophy magazine of Columbia University


Spring 2009

Shorts You’re Precisely My Cup of Tea A Chat with Senior Majors Enlightened Alone How Philosophy Ruined My Love Life The Tangent Kiss Wordsworth and Calculus Features Ode To Graffiti A Marxist Apologia

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Menachem Kaiser

25 Stephen Blair


Julia Alekseyeva

To Delight in Disorder Only Chaos and Order in India and Japan


Carrie Foulkes

A Meditation on Freedom and the Sublime Becoming the Beast


J.X. Daboin

Contracts and Cupcakes Justifying the Right to Life Criticism Zombies Can’t Give

28 Alan Daboin


Amaryllis Torres

Capital Punishment as a Human Rights Issue

20 Maria Kyriacou

The Future of Humanities A Debate

22 Shana Crandell

Rabbis, Lesbians, and Philosophy Plato and Platypus Walk Into a Bar

Bart Piela

32 Joseph Straus

From the Editor



y father has acquired a new habit. When his disciples ask him if they may be excepted from a rule, he says, “As my father always said, rules is rules.” But Grandpa never said that. Grandpa said, “Bookkeeper is the only word in the English language with three doubles in a row.” My dad says, “Take no invalid arguments,” and, “You love me and I love pork chops.” He also says, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Oh wait, that wasn’t my dad. My dad says, “Philosophy kept me unmarriageable until the ripe age of 45—turns out your mother and I both like cupcakes.” He does not believe in egalitarianism; he believes only in cupcakes. He favors the death penalty and could certainly be called a neo-Nazi. He graffitis the swastika between subway stations, but he is not an artist. Clearly, the man is in many respects a beast. You’ll be surprised to find out, then, that he lives the ascetic life in all manner but the occasional graffito and the miniature confection, in which he indulges himself a tray of eight each week. This is the only provision he can manage—for our large family of nine. That he only has means to a small number of weekly pastries does not surprise or sadden him, it rather suits him—after all, his is a life devoted to the Book. He awaits an upswing patiently, knowing its anticipation is greater than the Good Life could ever be. The chaos I have suffered as a result does not (as hard as I may try, carrying my yoga mat with me everywhere) lead me to enjoy rare moments of calm. His only acts of good will, as he construes it, are to protest everyone from the follower of Sappho to the Talmudic stalwart. This issue of The Gadfly could be said to have the theme, “Shana Crandell’s Daddy Issues.” Alas, I am not fond of themes. Shana Crandell

Editor-in-Chief Shana Crandell Managing Editor Bart Piela Shorts Editors Sumedha Chablani Irem Gunay Features Editors Alan Daboin Adam Flomenbaum Victoria Jackson-Hanen Criticism Editors Joseph Straus Julia Alekseyeva Linda Ma Copy Editors Tao Zeng Linda Ma Arts Editors Khadeeja Safdar Julia Alekseyeva Linda Ma Layout Editors Aryeh Hillman Mara Kravitz Technology Director Aryeh Hillman Business Managers Tao Zeng Stephany Garcia Publicity Manager Nataly Sauceda


Thanks to the Columbia and Barnard Philosophy Departments for their support and assistance. The Gadfly is sponsored in part by the Arts Initiative at Columbia University. This funding is made possible through a generous gift from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation.

Julia Alekseyeva Channa Bao Madeline Boucher Beatrix Carroll J.X. Daboin Anuva Kalawar John Krauss Mara Kravitz Zahava Mandelbaum Khadeeja Safdar

You’re Precisely My Cup of Tea A Chat with Senior Majors


with Michael Roberto Menachem Kaiser Philip Hadley Lauren Biggs

Brittany Allison Mark Holden Joanna Smolenski and Sam Rothschild

How did you become interested in philosophy?


Michael: I suppose I always have been, but just recently learned a name for it. Menachem: Everybody was high in my first class. Seemed like a good major. Brittany: CC introduced me to philosophy—I was hooked. Mark: Albert Camus and existentialism led to the greats—especially Plato. Pretty typical story, I’d imagine. Sam: I really became interested in philosophy in CC with Philip Kitcher.

How would you sum up your experience as a Philosophy Major?


Menachem: Good, sometimes boring. Lauren: While I have come to question my own motivations and the moral legitimacy of studying philosophy, I have benefited from Philosophy’s focus on argument and precision. Brittany: Although I did not anticipate it, studying philosophy has been a great asset to my Political Science major.

Which have been your favorite classes in the Philosophy department?


Michael: Metaphysics with Achille Varzi. Ethics with Philip Kitcher. Menachem: Mathematical Logic and Moral Philosophy. Philip: Number one: Symbolic Logic with Sidney Felder. Lauren: Carol Rovane’s Methods and Problems course and Philip Kitcher’s seminar on Evolution, Altruism, and Ethics were both excellent. Brittany: Human Rights and Social Justice with Arthur Kuflik.

Which philosopher, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?


Michael: Nelson Goodman. Menachem: Philip Kitcher Philip: Epictetus. Lauren, Mark: Socrates. Joanna: Nietzsche, circa the writing of Ecce Homo. Sam: Hegel so that I could ask him to explain himself in language I can understand.



Which philosopher, dead or alive, would you least like to meet?


Michael: Hegel. Philip: Nietzsche. Lauren: Why would I not want to meet a philosopher? Brittany: I hear Pierce was not an amiable guy. Mark: Kant. I can’t see myself enjoying spending time with him. Joanna: I’ve heard Descartes was kind of a snooze, but as long as we’re resurrecting corpses I think I’d like to see the results anyway. Sam: Hegel, because I would have no idea what he was talking about.

What is your advice to aspiring philosophy majors?


Michael: Don’t be scared by the size of the course number. Menachem: It’s only cool to be high during philosophy class. Philip: Take any class you can with Felder and Gabbey. Lauren: As in any area of life, always try to see from the viewpoint you disagree with. Brittany: Do not base a decision to study philosophy (or not to study philosophy) on just one class. Every major has its lemons, Philosophy is worth giving a second chance. Mark: In your pursuit of rigor, don’t lose sight of The Big Questions. Beware the empty word games into which sophisticated systematicity can devolve. Joanna: Logic is hard. Sam: Take classes in a variety of fields: logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, phenomenology, etc.

What are your plans after graduation? Michael: Plans? Philip: Law school. Lauren: To serve in the Peace Corps. Brittany: I will be attending law school in the fall. I am leaning towards Columbia Law. Mark: Good question—I’m applying for paralegal jobs and research jobs. Joanna: I’ll be pursuing a Ph.D. sooner rather than later. But the immediate future? Anxietyinducingly devoid of scintillating job offers. Sam: After graduation I will be participating in Teach For America for two years, after which I’ll go to law school.

Spring 2009


Enlightened Alone

How Philosophy Ruined My Love Life

Menachem Kaiser


ot to disparage other fine and worthy disciplines, but philosophy stands alone as the quintessential liberal arts major and intellectual university experience. Gloriously abstract, of immense practical irrelevance, absurdly smart professors with whom you can, in principle,

intellectually skirmish—what else promises so little employability amidst so much meaning and fulfillment? So I—a searching, impractical soul—became a philosophy major. Which, I was never forewarned, meant becoming a lonely philosophy major. And

so, for your enjoyment and sympathy (and perhaps digits?), I present a radically loose and condensed elegiac philosophy of one philosophy major’s love life. The art and science of philosophy rests on the delicate precision of words; the ability to parse and unpack pregnant expressions is paramount. This is, of course, critical to the clarity and logical integrity that define good philosophy, but is incredibly irritating in casual conversation. Yet, philosophical habituation will occasionally beat out common sense: “Do you love me?” She asked. “Hmm” I answered. “That depends— define ‘love’.” Relationship #1 thus tanked. Onwards to the greener pastures of intermajor dating, specifically with M, the radical, existentialist, and endearingly nerdy blonde from Metaphysics. But M and I, a pair of wannabe philosophers, instead of engaging in, say, refined speculation of omniscience versus free will, engaged in ‘de-trivialized’ trivial talk. This dashed all hope for any sort of stable romance. A fierce and almost violent debate on whether Spongebob is morally laudable/ culpable. Silent treatment from insisting that Einstein’s spectacular hairstyle is an essential characteristic. Unimaginable stubbornness, on both sides, after a disagreement regarding whether an iPod can be said to have a ‘soul’. Been there. Not healthy. But even the more ‘classical’ philosophical arguments proved treacherous, especially one involving Newcomb’s Paradox1. One fine (and very promising) young lady was adamant that she would take only Box B. Crazy! Irrational, at the very least!

1. There are two boxes: A and B. You may take either Box B or both boxes. Box A contains $1000. An accurate prophet puts one million dollars in Box B if he predicts you will take only Box B. Which box do you take? A “rational” person does not believe in profits and takes both boxes hoping to get 100,001,000. An “irrational” person chooses Box B, thinking that not fulfilling the prophecy might change the outcome. 4


Illustrated by You Young

Am I to trust such an unstable woman with my heart? Or, for that matter, with my children? Okay, so philosophy can instigate compatibility issues. But, it can be even more pernicious when it toys with the self. (Which is arguably the entire point of an education in philosophy.) It didn’t take much to convince my wide-eyed sophomore self of the vacuity of life, a position utterly incompatible with passion or commitment. (“What’s the point?” is quite likely the most destructive phrase in all of love-land.) Amorousness just isn’t the same when you’re a fatalist. Even worse than induced listlessness are those notions of self-grandeur that seem to periodically afflict the philosophy major. “Aha!” we silently exclaim when we’ve figured out a problem so elusive and abstruse that no one else even knows the problem exists. (The self-congratulatory elation goes unabated until we have to explain it. Damn language for failing to capture the beauty and complexity of our thoughts.) And self-grandeur,

no matter how occasional, makes for a pretty insufferable partner: “What are you thinking?” she asked, nibbling my earlobe. Pause. “How do I even know you’re real?” And all this is just scratching the surface. I haven’t even mentioned the desperate crushes on female philosophers – Simone de Beauvoir! Nancy Cartwright! – or those on professors. (When someone can pull off tweed, it’s devastating.) And then there’s the incoherent, stultifying rambling of the freshman coed, which is basically an aural antiaphrodisiac. All that metaphysical worrying won’t do wonders for your libido, either. College philosophy and love are, apparently, incompatible. There is, however, an ironic upside to a philosopher’s loneliness: It’s way easier to convince yourself that being alone is actually a good thing, that the only proper behavior for an authentic cerebral métier is celibacy, even if it is involuntary.


h nc ra ing

O ut Philosophy-related Courses outside the Department Aesthetics of the Grotesque French - V3190 Erk Grimm Montaigne and Skepticism History - W4358 Mark Lilla The Future as History History - W4914 Matthew J. Connelly Pscyhoanalysis, Identity, and Culture MEALAC - G8206 Joseph A. Massad Illustrated by Zahava Mandelbaum

Global Political Thought: Gandhi, Iqbal, Nehru, Senghor MEALAC - G4062 Sudipta Kaviraj, Akeel Bilgrami, Souleymane B. Diagne Montaigne French - G8212 Antoine M. Compagnon History and Philosophy of Religion: Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard Religion - G9710 Mark C. Taylor

Aesthetics and Politics in Contemporary Latin America Spanish - G6141 Graciela Montaldo Ancient Political Theory Classical Civilization - W4145 James E. Zetzel Epistemology: The French Sociology - G6325 Shamus Khan Marinetti and Futurism Italian - G4120 Paolo Valesio Spring 2009


Ode to Grafitti Julia Alekseyeva

A Marxist Apologia


magine: a poem written in chalk on the sidewalk art, its mode as pure expression, the simple delight of of Montmartre, erased with the wind. In putting pencil to paper and seeing what appears? Edinburgh, a delicate carving on a tree with the This is where graffiti comes in. The reaction initials of two lovers. Stickers placed around SoHo to graffiti is usually negative, and the general with the artist’s name, with drawings of objects and population often disapproves of it without fully cartoonish animals, or understanding its with poignant slogans: basic concepts. “Stay Human.” “I Graffiti isn’t For an artist, graffiti is both the Exist.” This, too, is merely tagging art—pure art—and the means and the ends. Art isn’t a and spray paint, only veritable Marxist means to a paycheck or a loaf of gang affiliations, art form yet available to anarchistic bread; it is as natural as breathing, or the American public. tendencies; it is People often argue its necessity made clear by pangs public mark-making: that the art world is not dissimilar to the desire for sex. putting words or incomprehensible, and images onto a they aren’t far off. The very act of “appreciating” piece of public property. Graffiti can be anything: art nowadays becomes something more to do painting, drawing, stencil, sticker, spray-paint, with academic critical analysis; to put it simply, scratching, pasting, gluing, etc. It can be as simple contemporary art is complicated. It is for this reason as a single word, or as elaborate as a mural, and has that many people cynically call the art world elitist. become an unquestionable art form in most cities Where, then, do we find the very foundation of outside of the United States.

Paris, France 6


Photographs of Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona by Julia Alekseyeva Photograph of Caracas by J. X. Daboin

In America, there is an overwhelmingly pejorative reaction to graffiti as a destruction of private property. Americans place particular importance on private property; we have a space that we have bought and toiled over, as does art, whose space is in museums and galleries, removed from daily life. If it is art at all, graffiti is degenerate art, as opposed to the “haut art” of Chelsea galleries. But by removing art from the sphere of the common citizen and placing it in a museum, the class divide is widened. Art becomes elitist when it is kept from the streets. People begin to believe that the only important art forms are instruments of commerce, to be bought and sold by the upper classes, assigned an almost arbitrary price value based upon prestige. By assigning art a monetary value and keeping it from the common citizenry, art becomes a commodity rather than a cultural necessity. But graffiti is something entirely different from most marketable art forms. More than other forms of art, graffiti fulfills the inherent human need to create and gives everyone a medium to do so regardless of social class, because a graffiti artist’s canvas is public space. One doesn’t need to be a well-established artist to do graffiti, or even particularly talented. One becomes an artist in the act of its making.

Graffiti is ephemeral, and one of the few arts that exists almost solely for the very act of its making. Graffiti is pure expression.


Amsterdam, Netherlands

he idea of graffiti fits perfectly with the theories of Karl Marx, and it is no coincidence that Socialist countries most heavily utilize graffiti, if even primarily for propaganda. Whether it is art that mimics life or life that mimics art, the same principles for class struggle exist in both. Graffiti cannot be bought or sold. It is outside of capitalism, and so outside of capitalist sensibility. It is ephemeral, and one of the few arts that exists almost solely for the very act of its making. It belongs to no one but the general public. Graffiti is pure expression. Moreover, graffiti is the only art that melds the laborer with the tools and product of his labor— something truly Marxist. Although one can claim that all art fuses the laborer with his product, the Spring 2009


work is inevitably surrendered at the end: it is sold and is transferred to a secluded space. Unlike a 19thcentury landscape at Christie’s or an installation at the MoMA, graffiti is typically not a marketable commodity. Pick up your old Marx textbook from CC and consider the following claim: “Political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature

is completely absorbed in his own art; the product is controlled from start to finish by the same person and is not commissioned or sold off to a gallery. This keeps the labor from being estranged. Likewise, for an artist, graffiti is both the means and the ends. Art isn’t a means to a paycheck or a loaf of bread; it is as natural as breathing, its necessity made clear by pangs not dissimilar to the desire for sex. Why else would we find the cave paintings at Lascaux in France during the dawn of Graffiti isn’t merely tagging and civilization? Why else would those imprisoned spray paint, gang affiliations, at Auschwitz still need to draw and write, even or anarchistic tendencies; it is if it meant the sacrifice of the next bowl of soup for a stick of charcoal? public mark-making: putting

words or images onto a piece of public property. of labor by not considering the direct relationship between the worker (labor) and production...The worker...only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself... His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is…not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.” This perfectly describes estrangement of the worker from his labor. In order for work not to be estranged, it must: (1) meld the worker with production, and (2) satisfy a need. A graffiti artist


raffiti gives a release to this natural urge to create art. It is the art of the common people, the “folk,” and could rightly be called “folk art.” The Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris last fall had an exhibit on folk art and kitsch, as well as art of social and political revolutions in the former USSR, France, the UK, and the United States. One of the artworks was a group of photographs taken in the poorest parts of Bristol and London all of which represent public art and meet the criteria of graffiti. It was awe-inspiring: a poem written on the sidewalk, a love letter written on loose-leaf and tacked to a tree, a painting made on the side of a demolished

Caracas, Venezuela 8


Barcelona, Spain building, even the simple writing of a name on a street sign. None of these works were made for the purpose of material gain, but rather became pure expression and pure need. This is not to imply that all art must cease to be bought and sold. What separates graffiti from other forms is that graffiti is made specifically for public consumption. It does not discriminate and is meant to be appreciated by everyone, regardless of class. Often it is meant to create beauty in an urban community, a view shared by Michael Warren, student at the University of Chicago and self-described graffiti artist: “Graffiti is an act of individualistic expression that disrupts the communal landscape. When done right, it beautifies, expresses sociopolitical views to/ about/from the community.” Graffiti is a dialogue between the artist and the community, but it also, as Michael states, beautifies. It is not vandalism. Rather, it is meant to enlighten and produce wonder in the beholder, and indeed quite a bit of graffiti is jawdroppingly beautiful.


aris, for example, is full of public art. It is the job of the Minister of Culture to give a life rich in beauty, knowledge, and culture to the citizens of France. Just imagine if there was a “Secretary of Art” in the United States! It sounds completely absurd. In Paris, art is everywhere, and for the citizens it is completely free. Even the working class can discuss art and culture without a university background or any prior knowledge, because art is so integral a part of daily life. This suggests that art can be a way towards social change if it is spread to all varieties of citizens, and the bridging of this gap is already starting to occur: artists of all classes are beginning to use ephemeral art and graffiti as a social message. To stroll down Wooster Street in SoHo, renowned for art galleries and museums, is to witness the most beautiful and overwhelming conglomeration of graffiti you have ever seen. This scene leaves one with the impression that graffiti is genuine art, a genuine vehicle for social commentary. It should be recognized as such. n Spring 2009


Zombies Can’t Give Amaryllis Torres


his past summer I spied on a series of conversations about a community service project somewhere in Africa. A group of students from elite colleges built a Western school to teach green architectural methods to local communities. They learned to interact with the native people with their broken French, climbed some mountains, tossed a few spears, built an English school, ate some wonky food, and took a slew of those now-cliché photographs that appear on every other Facebook profile page: me and the Third World kid on my lap. “It was such an…experience,” one girl said, quoting the moment her mentee finally warmed up to her. It really helped her learn about other cultures and that people were just people, after all. They were stationed there for three weeks. I asked them why they went on the trip. They gave me two reasons: one, because it made them feel good and two, because they were saving the world (it felt good). This could have been any conversation on any campus about any study abroad service stint. A school might get built, but without a certain preexisting level of understanding, volunteers are just going through the motions. They are not only not changing the world, but perpetuating the current world order. Genuine service has as its prerequisite an understanding of human connection across class and cultures—one based on something more than 10 THE GADFLY

anthropological interest, one based on human-tohuman interaction. The intention of community service needs to be reevaluated—if the majority of people only volunteer to spread righteous charitable values, pad resumes, and fatten egos, the entire point of service is lost—just take a vacation instead. Service becomes just another symptom of the rampant self-absorption found within our campuses and communities—caught in the mirrors of LCD screens, obsessed with updating blogs and posting redundant feelings to Facebook statuses. We are self-involved zombies. And zombies can’t give. We must change the way we interact with our friends, acquaintances, professors and others that make up our immediate worlds—before we can even think about stepping into the realm of service. Community is the basic awareness of human interconnectedness. Recently, people have lost their sense of community to the forces of consumerism and the digital world. We have been flung into an abyss of self-involvement, disconnected from one another. Self-absorption arises from the experience of broken community structures. If basic relationships between people on the street and in classrooms have so many gaps, the attempts to connect with and help that kid on your lap will be in vain. There must be some contradiction if it is culture shock for us to get off the 2 train at Illustrated by Mara Kravitz

116th St. in Little Senegal and yet pay $5000 to go to Big Senegal with the cushion of a study abroad program. If you’re so caught up in yourself that you turn your back on someone who’s speaking to you to finish that super-important conversation, and if you don’t notice that even your professor doesn’t have a seat in that packed seminar room, then you’re not ready to head to Africa or even to Harlem to spread your good will.


ince service has become just another symptom of our generation’s self-interest, organizations have perhaps understandably chosen to profit from service as commodity, pandering to our lofty ideas of saving the world. There is no longer room for service for the sake of connecting with communities. We throw parties to raise money (and awareness, apparently) for certain “causes”—but nothing sustainable gets accomplished while dancing to DJ’s and forgetting the entire point of the evening—but at least we snap some sexy photos. Expensive volunteer abroad programs in foreign locations across Asia, Latin America, and Africa boast beaches, local people, and learning new cultures—while securing your big-shot job and your conscience too. In this moment, New York is our community. If we cannot connect in our immediate surroundings, then we have no right to serve outside of it. The concept of being part of a community immediately implies a certain degree of selfawareness: recognizing an immediate relationship to what’s around you; that all our actions impact

each other. The moment we act in a certain place, we are part of it; if we are connected to other people in our communities, then the place and people become part of us. Service stems from self-awareness; it is the simple act of connecting with others and becoming aware of how actions and thoughts affect our environment. This is not found in textbooks or our rigorous classes; it is found through openly interacting with other people.


ervice, then, must involve a community in which you are truly invested—recognizing your part in it and risking connection. It begins with the smallest interpersonal actions— slow down on that path of promise long enough to notice people in your classroom, supermarket, or subway—and extends into grand global gestures like saving hordes of undernourished infants. In this era of interpersonal displacement alongside idealistic grandiosity, it is important to remember the simple things. We cannot save anyone or any place; we can only change our own actions. This does not mean discarding computer screens and your MBA, but unlearning poisonous self-absorption—stepping outside yourself, observing your community as part of yourself, and acknowledging people and places in our immediate daily relationships. We must change our vocabularies of interaction on a personal level before we have any right to step out into our own communities—let alone across the Atlantic. n Spring 2009


To Delight in Disorder Only Carrie Foulkes



Illustrated by Julia Alekseyeva

Finally out of reachNo bondage, no dependency. How calm the ocean, Towering the void. –Zen poem There was something formless and perfect Before the universe was born. –Tao te Ching


also predictable. Such predictions introduce the possibility of a mathematically objective truth, of intrinsic laws of nature that govern the physical world. However, such a notion of scientific predictability seems incongruent with human behavior and the perception of free will. According to Buddhist tradition, all beings are caught in the chaos of samsara: the cyclical process of death and rebirth, which is characterized by suffering. The soteriological (liberating) goal of Buddhism is to reach nirvana—the cessation of desire, ignorance and hatred. So it would seem that order is then the ultimately “natural” condition of the world, it is just obscured by defilements such as ignorance. Samsara is utter chaos, a churning sea of conditioned, impermanent appearances, the products of an unenlightened, misinformed mind. Order is the natural state of perfect calm, the still ocean that, despite all of the samsaric chaos on its surface, is never disturbed in any profound way. Order is therefore the way of things, although it also clearly provides a basis for all of the agitation on the surface. That life is suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths that are central to Buddhism, as are a number of practices (most notably meditation practices) that aim to eradicate desire in the individual.

y immediate reaction upon arriving in India was, “This is chaos.” There was no predictability to sensory experience. Bodh Gaya is a pilgrimage town much like any other in India—roads congested with bicycle rickshaws, motorcycles, cows and pedestrians, a layer of dust covering everything. Having lived in a Buddhist monastery here in North-east India for three months, I have become increasingly aware of and fascinated by the relationship between chaos and order and the roles they play in our understanding of the world. Each individual attempts to bring order to his or her world in some way: to categorize knowledge and to make sense of experience. We each assume a basic ontology, a means of naming and understanding what exists. This is usually achieved using empirical information— but how do chaos and order help or hinder this process? Often people create stability for themselves through a There were days that left me unsure of whether personal faith. Religion is a lens through I was going insane or reaching enlightenment, which experience can be filtered and as at times even the most hectic elements of comprehended. By viewing my recent Indian life would seem empty of substance. travels in India and Japan through a As a crucial part of their morning Buddhist lens I can now understand what meditation rituals the monks in the monastery the writer G.K. Chesterton meant when he sweep the courtyards and balconies, dirt and wrote that “the poet delights in disorder only.” Before these experiences in Asia I was certain dust building up in neat piles all over the that order should be the more remarkable for monastic complex. I often wondered what drives them to do this every day, when the being the rarer state of affairs. Prior to the scientific discoveries of Sir dust never ceases to resettle, when it cannot Isaac Newton the cosmos was perceived to be controlled. But this is one of the strongest be an essentially unpredictable place in which tools that Buddhism offers for realizing events occurred at random. With Newton’s enlightenment in a cluttered and apparently work it became apparent that some phenomena unpredictable world—chaos is predictable, of the world are not only explainable, but and it can be transcended. Many Buddhist Spring 2009


schools consider the world as we know it to exist only of appearances. The mind-only school of Buddhism posits that nothing exists independently of the mind. There is no duality: no self and no other. Everything exists in unity. Thus the dualistic states of chaos and order do not exist, but are rather

tools that can be utilized in order to more fully realize the truth of interdependent existence. Yet rather than scrap completely terms such as “chaos” and “order”, the Buddhist will enter himself fully into these states in order to unite them and therefore rid his mind of dualistic concepts. My daily practice of Vipassana, insight meditation, trained my mind to be more aware of the manner in which all things 14


appear and disappear. There were days that left me unsure of whether I was going insane or reaching enlightenment, as at times even the most hectic elements of Indian life would seem empty of substance. The Ancient Greek definition of chaos is “gaping void”, a designation that is compatible with Buddhist scripture. A key Buddhist teaching, the Heart Sutra, posits the following: Form is emptiness, emptiness also is form; emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness. Vipassana encourages the ordering of the mind and the regulation of thoughts, the development of ‘”full awareness”. This involves letting go of one’s thoughts and perceptions, thus ceasing to view them as concrete or unchanging. After having lived in India I spent some time on a Zen retreat at a temple in Koya-san in the Kansai region of Japan. This non-duality is also emphasized in the Zen Buddhism of Japan, which teaches that before something happens to disturb the realm of calmness we do not feel the calmness: it is only when something happens that we find the calmness. Zen Buddhists cherish such disturbances, as they allow them to better understand complete calmness. Zen claims that each and every individual is already enlightened—we are born with “Buddha mind” and need only to acknowledge it—as the Zen saying goes: “Clear light will come to recognize its own face.” In Zen the emphasis is placed on bringing Zazen—its form of meditation—into everything one does. Initially I was incredibly frustrated with Zen, as I would ask “What is Zazen?” and my teacher would reply: “Zen is order, Zen is the process of gaining the greatest amount of control over the mind by giving it the greatest possible space in which to roam.” But how does one go about this? I was instructed to

sit with a straight back, my hands held against my abdomen, and to maintain this position for the duration of the meditation. The idea is that by bringing structure to the body one can bring order to everything in and around it, a contrasting tradition to the mind-orientated practice of Vipassana. A greater contrast than with the culture of India could not be found. During my weeks in Japan I observed how a Zen mentality pervades the land, defining and giving structure to the way in which the Japanese lead their lives. For a train to be late in Japan is out of the ordinary and cause for concern; for a train to be on time in India is a miracle (and almost unheard of). It is no overstatement to say that everything runs like clockwork in Japan; the country seems to be unnaturally clean. However, is this only because I have spent so much time in a place that is perhaps unnaturally dirty? Can order exist without chaos to oppose and thus define it? How can Buddhism exist and even flourish in two countries with such different traditions and values? Meditation is of utmost importance to all practicing Buddhists regardless of background and nationality, but methods of meditation vary greatly. Meditation encourages one to “bring everything on to the path”—that is, not to overlook or ignore one’s environment but to use it in order to further one’s spiritual development. Meditation brings order to chaos through insight, mindfulness and discipline. I have certainly found meditation fascinating as well as useful, and have been interested in exploring its many forms. Even if the dualistic concepts of chaos and order do not exist to the enlightened mind, the apparent

chaos that was a consistent theme of my life in India gave me something on which to focus my meditative energies. Likewise, in the order of Japan I was more able to pinpoint the disorder within me, lurking in the recesses of my mind. But rather than fight to dispel such disorder, I have learned to delight in it—it

seems real but it is not. I now see chaos and order as tools that can be used in meditation to bring everything together to form a single whole: one united consciousness that shall one day come to recognize its own enlightenment. If disorder did not occur we would be at a loss, unable to appreciate with such profundity the depths of the calm ocean, troubled only on the surface but ultimately still. n Spring 2009


A Meditation on Freedom J. X. Daboin and the Sublime


ature stands before us in all its sheer ruthlessness. Simply put, it does not care for our happiness. It acts as though it has a will of its own, and our will is limited and crushed before it. The moral law within us has been put forth as a sort of remedy for our feebleness before Nature. Kant tells us that we can rise above the feeling of powerlessness before Nature, using the freedom and autonomy we supposedly acquire in following the moral law. But is there another alternative? What could grant us a sense of freedom before a world that limits us from all sides, a world that cuts short our sense of hope, and mocks our desires? One possible alternative is to act as a “beast”—as a joyous pre-Adamite animal, as a primitive being, as a child. The Beast is in the Garden of Eden, where he does not try to discern what is Good and what is Evil. He does not try to discern it with his Reason, nor does he judge Nature’s behavior as either Good or Evil. But let us make the point that we are not belittling Reason. Reason has given man a sense of freedom and deliberation, a sense that he is not acting under the bondage of Nature’s laws. What would it be like if we allowed ourselves to be guided by passions, rather than stab Nature with the needles of our compasses, with the needles of our Reason?



Illustrated by Madeline Boucher


ur freedom lies in ridding ourselves of conflict with Nature, in surrendering to this Nature that is incomprehensible to us and makes obvious our limitations. There are various ways man has stood in conflict with Nature. The most important one is his determination to define Good and Evil. In doing this, he tries to determine universals in particulars, to categorize and divide the Such attempts to define place in us this notion phenomena he interacts that we must judge Nature as Good or Evil—an with as an ethical agent. apple tree is Good, a mudslide is Evil. The notion When man is trying to make ethical decisions, of a presence of “Evil” in the world leads us though, he is limited by to try to dismantle the mystery of how Nature his desperate attempts works, and renders us impotent in the tragedy of to define. Ridding ourselves of contingent life because it has not satisfied our never-ending categorization and hungers and desires. division and arriving at a pure ethical maxim through Reason could may be accomplished by a highly-sophisticated mind, but is it able to be universally determined? Supposing this Truth were discovered, what role would we relegate to our natural appetites then? Why must freedom lie in denying or shackling our bodies and our feelings? One final thing to note is that such attempts place in us this notion that we must judge Nature as Good or Evil—an apple tree is Good, a mudslide is Evil. The notion of a presence of “Evil” in the world leads us to try to dismantle the mystery of how Nature works, and renders us impotent in the tragedy of life because it has not satisfied our never-ending hungers and desires.


et us see how the Beast has freedom.

Spring 2009



irst, we surrender ourselves to the notion that we cannot know fully or perfectly the complexities of the laws of Nature (if there even are set laws) or of the workings of Nature. We cannot know for certain that there is an end or guiding principle in the universe, and the possibility that there is one but that it is a mystery and will never be unveiled to man puts us in a state of limbo. Nature, in the end, is incomprehensible to us at various levels. We must also surrender to the fact that what She does and what occurs within Her does not in any way reveal certainly or absolutely that all roads lead to man. Any special value in man must be a The Beast, as opposed matter of postulation or faith. We can at to the stern judge of least be certain that Good and Evil, sees no Nature is certainly not definitions, divisions, programmed towards or bifurcations. His fulfilling, nor does it care for, man’s happiness worship of Nature, or his pleasure—man stemming from his alone determines his enchantment and notions of happiness and pleasure. awe, leads to a love The next step is in of Nature as a whole, recognizing mystery. and by extension to Perhaps there is nothing beneath the veil of all the parts that Nature, perhaps there is make up this whole. no meaning—but who are we to define what has meaning and what does not? We are now in a state of awe and fear, but let us not end in paralysis. What are the faculties within us that can liberate us from this paralysis? It can be Reason, as in the case



of the ethical agent, but it can also be Passion.


e are enchanted by this mystery. We are in raptures. We throw ourselves at the feet of the incomprehensible. We praise Nature endlessly, suspended in a pendulum swinging wildly between believing that there is meaning behind the mystery and just marveling at something so powerful and mysterious even if it has no meaning at all. We sense ourselves to be nothing and we accept this. We recognize that our desires and our goal of happiness are no more than mere chimeras. Once rid of expectation that these desires may be fulfilled, there is no means by which to measure Nature as Good or Evil. We accept Nature as it is and throw ourselves at it, submitting to it, and thus we are liberated from our categories of Good and Evil. As Beasts we are free—passionate but tied to no desires. As Beasts we have the natural desire to preserve ourselves, but this is different from a desire to aggrandize or affirm ourselves by attacking and oppressing foreign bodies. And what are we? The Beast, as opposed to the stern judge of Good and Evil, sees no definitions, divisions, or bifurcations. His worship of Nature, stemming from his enchantment and awe, leads to a love of Nature as a whole, and by extension to all the parts that make up this whole. But what is a life led only by the natural passions? Does the Beast spend all day eating himself to excess

and drinking himself to excess as well? Does the Beast let his anger rise to such a pitch that he murders his own lover after she has wronged him—and his own children, like a Medea?


he answer is no, and this is where we can show how the Beast is free. The behavior of the Beast is not characterized by excess at all times. The Beast is more controlled than the typical ethical agent—neither overeating nor over-sleeping—a basic level, he does as Nature makes him do. His sugar levels are natural as are his sleeping cycles. But we can achieve this condition with Reason, someone might object—and this is true. We have not rid ourselves of Reason, we have simply rid Reason of the desire to determine what is Good and what is Evil. What about Medea? Where have we left her? Because the Beast does not have a sense of justice determined by artificial rights, does he have an archaic sense of justice—namely, you are my enemy, so I will kill you?


o. The Beast has no attachments, no desires, no expectations of happiness. He might have natural attachments and preferences—that of a mother to her child, for example. He suffers and he rejoices, but in the end possesses the wisdom of accepting incomprehensibility when tragedy strikes. The Beast, because he does not judge according to measures of

Good and Evil, accepts the tragedy of life. Medea is not wise—she is selfish and does not know how to laugh. Although one could never trivialize her plight, for our purposes, she is the spoiled child who screams “Me! Me! Me!” Not only does the Beast see himself as part of the whole of Nature, he also has the wisdom to laugh at life--not a cynical laugh, but the laugh of the pure child in the midst of some grave danger. He is the child who laughs during the family dispute, during a wild storm. He knows that in the end, human affairs do not matter. He is liberated internally from these affairs. In accepting the incomprehensibility of the Cosmos, the Beast might posit in the end some Higher Being that he might leap irrationally toward embracing, but there is the same (if not more) courage in facing the apparent meaninglessness of life and accepting it, as there is in taking the leap of madness in throwing oneself toward the Infinite. The Beast in the end has an element of transcendence that finally crowns his freedom. n

Spring 2009


Capital Punishment as a Human Rights Issue Maria Kyriacou


apital Punishment may become a central issue for New York’s special election which will determine who will replace U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s in the House of Representatives. Scott Murphy, the Democratic candidate, stated that he is against the death penalty. Jim Tedisco, the Republican candidate, seized the opportunity to state his support for the death penalty in certain cases. Many New Yorkers favor capital punishment. Here I argue with five objections why they should not.


The death penalty is neither necessary or sufficient as punishment.

The proper purpose of punishment is to cure the wrongdoer, to educe his remorse. The only punishment that truly fits a crime is repentance, which results from the wrongdoer’s understanding that his or her act was wrong. A proper system of punishment would thus aim for the offender’s remorse, involving no unjust treatment. The death penalty does not, however, educe remorse. It focuses the wrongdoer’s attention on his own affliction, rather than on the wrong he committed against the victim. The death penalty is not needed to protect society or to punish wrongdoers. This is evident


in more than a hundred countries worldwide which don’t use the death penalty, and American states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, which abolished the death penalty in the 1800s. America has ‘super maximum’ prisons where dangerous murderers can be harshly punished and entirely isolated from other prisoners, from guards and from society at large.


The death penalty is logically absurd as a principle

Killing to demonstrate that killing is wrong is self-contradictory and therefore absurd. Consider this: killing and attempting to kill differ merely in respect to luck. The attempted murderer, who has the requisite intention to kill and who is determined to kill, fails to do so merely because of factors beyond his control. The attempted murderer is imprisoned and the murderer is (in certain cases) executed. The consequence is that the state administers the death penalty differentially depending on luck. Essentially, the death penalty is randomly imposed. This is a further illogical implication of the death penalty as a legal principle.


The death penalty is authoritarian and uncivilized


The death penalty is dangerous in its potential to be imposed on the innocent and tragically unjust in its actual imposition on the innocent

When the citizen lacks the power to affirm his own life, when the state has the authority to put citizens to death, when the state kills, when the executioner becomes an institutionalised mass killer, then the symptoms of an authoritarian rule are manifest. The death penalty has no place in a civilized society. Capital punishment is not only degrading to the accused, but it is also degrading to the country which acts in the same way as murderers.

The death penalty is distorted by political, racial, geographical, and economic factors. Most importantly, it is distorted by the quality of the defense lawyer at trial. In reality, the death penalty is not always imposed on terrible murderers. Instead, some terrible murderers escape punishment, while some innocent people are sentenced to die. Since its inception, DNA testing has revealed wrongful convictions. It has proved that innocent people have in fact been sentenced to death. Many innocent persons have also escaped death thanks to the efforts of investigative journalists, the science of DNA testing, and the confessions of guilt-struck killers. In one instance, the Illinois Supreme Court convicted David Porter for two murders on the basis of what the judges described as overwhelming evidence. Two days before Porter’s sched-

uled execution, a group of journalism students obtained a video-recorded confession from the actual killer. Porter was freed on February 5, 1999. Many other persons have been sentenced to death, only to be freed. In June 2001, the list of people sentenced to die had ninety-six names. Porter was only one of them. Porter’s narrow escape from an unjust execution shocked Illinois governor George Ryan, who had voted for the death penalty. Ryan stated, ‘‘Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.’’ Recent research indicates that approximately 1 percent of death sentences result from a wrongful conviction and legal innocence is established later – sometimes too late.


The death penalty is irreversible

The saying that it is better to be safe than sorry is indubitably true vis-à-vis the death penalty. Killing the innocent cannot be reversed. The death penalty is final: it determines who lives and who dies. The blatant difference between a death sentence and every other kind of sentence is that death is irreversible in the most profound way possible. Arbitrary and capricious punishments (which do not involve death) can be remedied to some extent. But, as Supreme Court Justices have repeatedly stated, “death is different.” Wrongful killings cannot be undone. Death is permanent. New Jersey abolished the death penalty. New York should do so too. n

Spring 2009


The Future of Humanities A Debate

The “Applicator” Kant Can’t Feed You, So Get a Job


he image of the scholar is fading; his is a place in history. We no longer value his treatises; our admiration is for the equations of the scientist, the extrapolations of the economist and the theories of the social scientist. We no longer discourse on Plato or Aristotle; we try ever harder to advance the fields of physics and chemistry, psychology and medicine, economics and sociology. This is the era of empiricism. It is an era in which the scholar of the humanities is confined to the university. It is a prison for his ideas. Literary theory, philosophy, history—all the liberal arts are confined there. They are becoming more and more abstract and pedantic as the rift grows between them 22 THE GADFLY

Bart Piela

and the “real world.” Ask yourself: why is becoming a professor the aspiration of so many liberal arts majors? Is it perhaps because their skills and talents often have no place outside academia? Inevitably, they try to stay within it. But many can’t. Consider a common stereotype for philosophy majors: that many end up in law school. They go from bright-eyed freshmen ready to delve into Kant to nervous seniors cramming for the LSATs and worrying obsessively about their future. After all, the philosophy major teaches skills like analytical thought and incisive argumentation that are very important in law. So why not apply them? Illustrated by Beatrix Carroll

The impulse to move from studying the pure liberal arts to applying the skills during their study is one that makes the purist cringe. It is a perversion of everything scholars hold dear. But the prevalence of this impulse is a blatant call back to stark reality. And when reality hits, people ask themselves: “What the hell am I going to do with a philosophy degree?” The answer is simple. You can do pretty much anything that does not require a high level of technical skill (e.g., engineering). As a liberal arts student, you can make yourself marketable as a person who is able to think rationally, and consequently make good decisions, something that major prepares you for well. But what’s the catch? You need to step outside of purism. The fact is that no one cares about Hegelian dialectic or Cartesian nativism outside of the classroom. While these issues may be incredibly interesting and engaging, chances are that the only time you will spend engaging with them is in Hamilton and Butler. In the real world they dissipate. What your goal needs to be is to take the

The Purist Stand by Your Man


hile the Old White Men who make up approximately 64.5% of our beloved department avoid the moniker, I do declare proudly along with professor of early modern philosophy and feminist philosophy Christia Mercer that I, mammoth homo, do stand by my (old white) man. To defend the life of study, I will stand by Nietzsche and do a quick and crude examination of the pursuit of truth—or, as my man calls it, the will to truth. But first, some context: It is the project of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals to examine the value of our near universally accepted value judgments “good” and “evil”. These value judgments, in (very, very) short locate “evil”

skills you have learned and figure out how to apply them in the worlds of business, law, journalism, or anything else you want to spend your time making a living at. A liberal arts education can prepare you for anything. But you need to be willing to apply it first. The fact is that the university is no longer an end but merely a means. In days of lore, people would aspire to be scholars and achieve the status of learned men. But this is not that time. Today, people don’t go to college because that is some kind of end for them. It is a means for a job, for a life. You need to put food on the table. Period. So while you may want to spend your days discussing Kant and Nietzsche, consider that you cannot do this forever (unless you are one of the lucky ones who gets accepted into a top Ph.D. program and you graduate in the top percentage from that program after 6-7 years. Oh, and then you need to find a job in an incredibly cutthroat environment.) So Kant and Nietzsche are probably not going to feed or clothe you. This is a stark reality, but a reality nonetheless.

Shana Crandell to our natural impulses and “good” to certain ascetic practices. They are, for Nietzsche, the product of the weak covering up weakness with moralizing reinterpretation. The namesake “genealogy” is a sort of disentangling of the interpretations imposed upon practices—e.g. pronouncing Jesus’ generosity the antithesis of sin, and the pillages of Roman nobility its very definition. It would be wrong to say Nietzsche posits a concrete alternative to this system of valuation, but such a replacement can certainly be extrapolated from the text. While the (primarily) Christian system of good and evil is for Nietzsche in some important sense arbitrary, its opposite would be equally so. The factors Nietzsche considers when ranking values and practices, then, are the only values Spring 2009


he considers not to be arbitrary: life-affirming versus life-denying; vital, healthy, and powerincreasing versus sickly and life-undermining. Where does the will to truth fall on this perhaps less arbitrary scale? At first, Nietzsche seems to put it on par with the most destructive of all forces in the Nietzschean picture, the Christian god. He says at the end of the third essay of the work that, “everywhere else that the spirit is strong, mighty, and at work without conterfeit today, it does without ideals of any kind—the popular exression for this abstinence is ‘atheism’—except for its will to truth.” If honesty is the mark of an acceptable ascetic ideal, the will to truth does not, it seems, make the mark. There are two ways in which the will to truth is not honest. First, Nietzsche recognizes in the will to truth underpinnings of the Christian keystone truthfulness. Truthfulness is part of that morality Nietzsche impugns, and so he distrusts the will to truth. The more important dishonesty of the will to truth is its propensity to posit itself as its own ascetic ideal. In claiming objectivity or knowledge of the

scholar…[is] half parson and half satyr…Why did nature give me my foot? To kick!... For kicking to pieces these rotten armchairs!” Now, hopefully, there is some shared understanding of the dangers Nietzsche sees in the will to truth. It may have a tradition based in dubious Christian morality (let us leave that one aside), and it potentially creates its own farcical asceticism. Assuming we seek the truth not as agents of Christian morality, and that we do not fall into “worshiping the question mark itself as God”—what does Nietzsche make of the will to truth? If it can be separated out from the meanings we attach to it after the fact (‘objective’, ‘infinite’, etc.) it is without doubt, for Nietzsche, life-affirming, vital, healthy, power-increasing. Creative and intellectual pursuits devoid of impedimenta are in fact necessary for Nietzschean health. Agents of Christian morality enter into their life-denying system of valuation for a reason: to avoid the despair that is the world, that is their weakness, to avoid willlessness. The will to truth is an alternative, perhaps the only alternative. Have I made a case for myself ? Or have I merely Assuming we seek the truth not as agents demonstrated the putative of Christian morality, and that we do not problem of the life devoted fall into “worshiping the question mark to thought—that it can’t really answer the questions we face itself as God”—what does Nietzsche make out there in reality? But wait! It of the will to truth? It is without doubt, for can! Surprisingly, perhaps, this Nietzsche, life-affirming, vital, healthy, translates into a few final words of real-world defense: The power-increasing. university is in an important sense monastic (but let it not infinite, to put it simply, someone who pursues fall into false asceticism!); it is an escape, a real truth in this way does as badly, in Nietzsche’s escape from the despair in the world. There is system, as someone faithful to an omnipotent a real risk of willlessness in the modern reality, god. Recall the gap between practice (Jesus’ and perhaps the university, the life of study, generosity) and the meaning bestowed upon is its antidote. Do not enter graduate school practice (the antithesis of sin): the pursuit of to get a job: you will probably not get a job, truth is bestowed a certain glorious meaning and if you do, it will probably be in Kansas. and so becomes dishonest. Nietzsche describes Enter graduate school to watch your creative such a truth-seeker (tweed, anyone?) quite and intellectual pursuits flourish, and for the precisely: “This kind of ‘objective’ armchair health that may bring. n 24 THE GADFLY

The Tangent Kiss Wordsworth and Calculus

Stephen Blair

Illustrated by John Krauss

Spring 2009



alculus is the study of disappointment. It’s the branch of mathematics that deals with yearnings, with desires unfulfilled, with the endless groping for a closeness that can never be achieved. Think of a curve that bends its way ever closer to some straight line—the “asymptote,” the untouchable—drawing nearer all the time, but never once allowed to touch it! Doesn’t your heart go out to that poor ardent curve, at every moment redoubling his passion? Aren’t you moved by his persistence? But of course he never succeeds. No effort on the part of the curve can soften that disdainful line’s unyielding heart, no quantity of moonlit serenades can soothe her into favoring him with an approving glance. They It was his expectation of it which was never meet; you can’t pick a number big enough to bring about the longed-for joining; sublime. In the state of excitement closer, ad infinitum, the curve remains which accompanies anticipation, the ever about to clasp the asymptote, his hand forever human mind is boundless. on the point of brushing against her downy cheek. But (and this realization is the great achievement of calculus) the approach to something is often more interesting than its attainment. In The Prelude, Wordsworth tells the story of his journey across the Alps in the summer of 1790. On first seeing Mont Blanc, which he has pictured over and over in his mind’s eye, he is profoundly disappointed; the sight of the mountain is so much less magnificent than the view he had imagined. The mountain’s “soulless” physical presence has displaced his “living thought,” which had been magnified by the limitless power of imagination. That day we first Beheld the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieved To have a soulless image on the eye Which had usurped upon a living thought That never more could be. After this initial disappointment, Wordsworth presses on, beside himself with anticipation for the event which has drawn him there: crossing the Alps. But to his surprise, the path starts to slope downhill. Thinking he’s lost, he asks a passing peasant for directions, and the peasant reveals a startling piece of news: Wordsworth has already crossed the Alps, miles ago, without noticing. He is dumbstruck. And there, confronted with the difference between the banality of the deed itself and the splendor of his imagination of it, he comes to a discovery. As with Mont Blanc, there was never anything glorious in the physical gesture, the actual crossing. It was his expectation of it which was sublime. In the state of excitement which accompanies anticipation, the human mind is boundless. Our destiny, our nature, and our home, Is with infinitude, and only there – With hope it is, hope that can never die,


Effort, and expectation, and desire, And something evermore about to be. The fulfillment of a hope is always just out of reach. But, from disappointment, there arises a kind of consolation: it’s only with the dashing of a hope that you realize the magnificence of the hope you’ve lost. It’s why the actors in the movie adaptations of your favorite books are never as good-looking as you think they ought to be. It’s why a hipster who falls in love with a band’s first album always hates their latest effort, and stubbornly clings to “their old stuff ”. It’s why whatever critics praise is accused of not being worth the hype. The comfort, though, is not to sulk over the limitations of a finite world, but to sit back and marvel at the power of your expectations. Does it matter that the curve will never reach the asymptote, for all its efforts? Of course we can’t help but pity him. But that failed courtship is just what spurs us to look at what the curve approaches, not what it attains. If we could pinpoint the spot where it reached its goal and won that tangent kiss, it would be a soulless fact like the appearance of Mont Blanc, and the coarse reality would spoil the gorgeous expectation. Whatever the result, our noblest feature is boundless expectation and desire, the striving after “something evermore about to be.” n

2895 Broadway, New York, New York 10025 Phone: 212.666.7653 Fax: 212.865.3590 Spring 2009


s Cupca ke

nd Contr ac t

a s

Justifying the Right to Life Alan Daboin


Illustrated by Anuva Kalawar


uildings and theories need strong foundations to stand. But no building is completely unshakeable—every building falls eventually—and the same applies to theories. A theory’s foundation consists of its self-evident premises. For the full development of a theory to take place, it must have some starting ground that is acceptable because it is either obvious or undeniable. Many of these starting grounds are especially problematic when it comes to justifying familiar and accepted notions such as equality and rights, especially in political philosophy. So if theories constructed like buildings fall, then perhaps we should consider a different type of theory: one without foundations. Such a “foundationless theory” may in fact be more useful and universal than any variety of its opposite, the foundational theory. If the relevance of this issue is not clear enough, here’s why: If every theory we have justifies notions like equality and rights on a foundation that will either fall or never become universally acceptable, then the reality of these notions is arguable. Anything arguable is problematic, of course, because it allows for the possibility of legitimately believing the opposite: namely, that the ideas of universal equality and rights are myths. Foundational theories allow for such unacceptable contentions. A famous foundational theory that attempts to justify notions such as equality is natural law theory. The roots of this theory go back to Cicero and his predecessors. Through the centuries, it has undergone changes and has found plenty of opposition. Classical natural law rests on one main idea: nature is teleological, namely, it is an end-driven enterprise. The basis of this belief, now essentially discredited by Darwin, rests

upon the assumption that nature is harmonious, and that from this natural order, the moral order is deducible. In this system nature dictates what is right and wrong, which led St. Augustine to claim that an unjust law is no law at all. However appealing the theory may be in some respects, it should be clear that its foundation, that upon which everything else follows, is flawed. Time and scientific progress became the enemy of classical natural law. This, of course, affected the theory’s conclusions and intermediary assumptions. For example, how can our moral duties be Everyone gives up certain derived from a freedoms in equal measure, mere (wrong) description in exchange for more of a of nature? different sort of freedom, and There certainly the end result only works out appears to be if everyone participates. a gap in the reasoning that one can derive a moral law from nature alone. Many foundational theories make similar assumptions and posit selfevident truths that, at heart, are truly arguable and subject to the passing of time and constant change, or just utter disappearance. How can one avoid falling into the problems of foundational theories when formulating and developing concepts in political philosophy? Namely, how can one develop a foundationless theory? First, we can focus on the idea of a contract. Many philosophers, including Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls have all made the idea of a social contract a keystone of their theories. Think of a contract as an exchange. Two parties, for example, will never enter a contract in which one party is required to work seventeen hours a day in the field in exchange for two weekly cupcakes. As much as the owner of the field would

Spring 2009


love to have someone accept his offer, it If post-contract we all have the would be same rights, one right above all must be If someone denies someone else unrealistic upheld in any situation whatsoever. This life, the contract’s terms are to believe is the right to life. Not having a right violated, and the aggressor is not that he to life is equivalent to having no rights entitled to any benefits that arise will find at all. If I have the right to property someone and the right to healthcare, but I don’t from the contract. w h o have the right to life, then those other would. On the other hand, if he offers rights are just nominal. The moment a five Happy Meals a day for the same government’s democratically acceptable hours, he might find several prospective decision to end my life takes place, I workers. He would certainly find eager lose all my other rights. The right to life laborers if he offered each one a luxury is the one that establishes equality. car, but this is not in the landowner’s It is able to do so because it interest. In short, values are put on a indicates that we are all of the same scale of sorts, and contracts are agreed worth: that is, an infinite sum. This upon or not based on the balancing is similar to Kant’s conception of of the scale. Let us now see what this absolute worth. Think of it like the implies for a social contract. pricelessness of the Mona Lisa. Just Social contracts in general are like nobody can buy it no matter what seen as a sort of coming together price is offered, nobody has the right of independent parties seeking a to deny someone else life. If someone compromise, in this case the creation does, the contract’s terms are violated, of laws and civil society, in order to and the aggressor is not entitled to any evade the less preferable condition of benefits that arise from the contract. anarchy. These laws, for example, may Compare this with Hobbes, who in a guarantee property and develop systems similar sense established equality on the of punishment to protect those harmed basis of human mortality. He claims by the breaking of these laws. As said that because nobody is so superior in before, a contract involves some sort of strength or intellect that he or she can equal return for something else. In this evade death at the hands of others, we case, an individual gives up the freedom are all equal. But we do not even have of lawlessness to gain a different type to make such an empirical claim: We are of freedom that takes place within a equal because we need to be absolutely legal framework, one which is supposed worthy in order to hold the rights we to be preferable or, at the very least, consider it so convenient to have. more convenient. Furthermore, it does However appealing natural law theory not turn out that any may be in some respects, it should be one person gives up clear that its foundation, that upon which any more or any less everything else follows, is flawed. in this convenient contract. Everyone gives up certain By now it is clear that we freedoms in equal measure, in exchange can accept political concepts without for more of a different sort of freedom, resorting to explanations grounded and the end result only works out if in speculations about qualities we everyone participates. might inherently possess and without 30 THE GADFLY

commenting on human nature, the order of the universe, or sentimental ideals. For instance, the claim that we are absolute worthy as a result of our nature alone is arguable in many ways, especially when seen through the almost pessimistic lens of science: we are just a mere species on a small planet crowded with animals that will presumably evolve—thus changing the natural order previously taken for granted. By contrast, the “political�

approach for justifying absolute worth takes nothing to be self-evident. To establish and justify certain concepts without involving the extraneous is the necessary direction for political philosophy. Shaky foundations, after all, will always allow for someone to disbelieve with authority what we should all universally value and uphold. n

Spring 2009


little philosophy books Rabbis, Lesbians and Philosophy A Review of Plato and Platypus Walk into A Bar Joseph Straus


n older Jewish man marries a younger lady, and they are very much in love. However, whatever the husband does sexually, the woman never reaches orgasm. Since a Jewish wife is entitled to sexual pleasure, they Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, Thomas Cathcart, decide to ask a rabbi. Daniel Klein. Published by Abrams Image, 2007. $18.95. The rabbi listens to their story, strokes his beard, and makes the following suggestion: “Hire a strapping young man, while the two of you are making love have the young man wave a towel over you. That will help the wife fantasize and should bring on an orgasm.” They go home and follow the rabbi’s advice. They hire a handsome young man and he waves a towel over them as they make love. It doesn’t help and she is still unsatisfied. Perplexed, they go back to the rabbi. “Okay,” says the rabbi to the husband, lets try it reversed. Have the young man make love to your wife and you wave the towel over them.” Once again they follow the rabbi’s advice. The young man gets into bed with the 32 THE GADFLY

wife, and the husband waves the towel. The young man gets to work with great enthusiasm and the wife soon has an enormous, room-shaking, screaming orgasm. The husband smiles, looks at the young man and says to him triumphantly, “Schmuck, that’s the way you wave a towel!” Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy—Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, brilliantly matches philosophical principles with relevant jokes. Here Cathcart and Klein amusingly explain the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, or the mistaken assumption that because one event follows another, the first caused the second. Cathcart and Klein do an excellent job describing ten major philosophical fields, including Metaphysics, Logic, Epistemology, and Ethics, but they don’t do much more than that. In this way, the subtitle of the book, Understanding Philosophy—Through Jokes, is a bit misleading. This book is not really an educational experience as much as it is an entertaining or amusing one. After each philosophical idea is presented, the authors write a joke that they believe encompasses the previous concept. In their subchapter on Deductive Logic, they tell this joke: Illustrated by Channa Bao

An old cowboy goes into a bar and orders a drink. As he sits there sipping his whiskey, a young lady sits down next to him. She turns to the cowboy and asks him, “Are you a real cowboy?” He replies, “Well, I’ve spent my whole life on the ranch, herding horses, mending fences, and branding cattle, so I guess I am.” She says, “I’m a lesbian. I spend my whole day thinking about women. As soon as I get up in the morning, I think about women. When I shower or watch TV, everything seems to make me think of women.” A little while later, a couple sits down next to the old cowboy and asks him, “Are you a real cowboy?” He replies, I always thought I was, but I just found out I’m a lesbian. Even without an explanation you were probably understood the joke and laughed at the punch line. This is because in actuality it requires not philosophical principles but only the most basic common sense to understand. Although the average person may not be able to explain the comedy of the situation in such deliberate philosophical

terms as the authors of the book, they would undoubtedly be able to recognize the humor. Cathcart and Klein intend to capitalize on the humor of a situation that can arise when a person bases an argument on a false premise. In the situation with the old and confused cowboy, he reasons to the same conclusion that the lesbian does, however, in his case, the premise ‘I am a woman’ is really false. In this way, Cathcart and Klein do not really teach the reader philosophy. What they are really doing is pointing out the philosophy of certain situations their readers may come across. By identifying the philosophical terms necessary to explain an occurrence, they impart the necessary knowledge to classify their experiences and ideas into the different fields of philosophy that they already understand on the most superficial level. This basic understanding is intuitive and cannot really be taught in a book. However, just like the enlightened cowboy turned lesbian, this book can open up a reader’s eyes to the everyday relevance of philosophical principles.

Spring 2009


Gadfly Spring 2009 Issue  

Gadfly Magazine is Columbia University's

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