Sunday, September 30, 2018

Theorizing the "Non-Ideal" (Part 2)



As promised in my previous post (Part 1), I will now write a somewhat substantive post about Marx and non-ideal theory. I am writing this post overlooking the beautiful Manoa valley at night from the 9th floor of my residence building. I won't write as much as I initially planned, but I want to get some ideas down as to why I think Marx is a very different theorist than Plato in terms of the skills they exercise (e.g. detailing ideal aspirations vs diagnosing societal problems and detailing how we might effectively confront those problems).

In my last post I argued that Plato was the paradigmatic example of an "ideal" theorist. Plato's Republic is primarily concerned with detailing the epistemic ideal society, where philosopher kings and queens rule over the ignorant masses. And this hierarchy of reason over courage and the appetites also matches Plato's account of justice at the level of the individual. Non-ideal considerations (e.g. how to ensure the philosophers actually rule in the interests of the common good and do not suffer the epistemic vices the rest of us suffer) play only a secondary role in Plato's theory and are not very compelling. Detailing the ideal is Plato's primary concern, how to realistically achieve that ideal is almost an afterthought.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, is the non-ideal theorist who theorizes the non-ideal. Marx observed the exploitation and alienation that most people living in 19th century Europe experienced and he sought to (1) diagnosis why this was the case and then (2) detail how to emancipate the workers from this fate. Unlike Plato, Marx does not jump immediately to detailing what he thinks the ideal society entails.

Marx develops an ambitious theory of human history, "historical materialism", that posits the following theses about humans and our social and productive lives (these are taken from my article on historical materialism):

T1—Thesis of basic materialism: Humans have basic needs, the fulfillment of which is a precondition for any other form of life (e.g., social, political or intellectual life).

T2—Thesis of human collectivity: Humans have a distinctive history of acting to produce the means for meeting their material needs and they do
so in classes.

T3—Scarcity thesis: The historical condition of humans is one of scarcity of goods.

T4—Superstructure stabilizing thesis: The superstructure stabilizes the economic structure.

T5—Thesis of human rationality: Humans are rational beings who know how to satisfy the compelling wants they have and will be disposed to
seize and employ the means of satisfaction of those wants.

T6—Ideology thesis: The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.

T7—Development thesis: Productive forces tend to develop.

T8—Selection and transformation thesis: Productive forces select structures according to their capacity to promote development and persist as long as it is optimal for further development of productive power.

T9—Intelligence thesis: People possess intelligence of a kind and degree that enables them to improve their situation.


Like Plato, Marx identified hierarchies that exist in human societies. But he didn't take these hierarchies to be "natural" with some destined to rule over others. Instead Marx conjectured that these class hierarchies played a key instrumental role in permitting certain productive forces to develop (e.g. agricultural technologies, then industrial technologies). And these "relations of production" no longer served to facilitate the development of the productive forces they were cast asunder and replaced with new relations of production that could do this, which brought in new class dynamics.

As is clearly evident, Marx's diagnosis of the problems with the "status quo" are much more profound and sophisticated than Plato's complaint that democracy has poor epistemic merits. Marx details a conception of human nature, how societies have transformed from slave, feudal and capitalist systems to an eventual post-capitalist future. Marx has at least 3 conceptions of exploitation- a theory of exploitation in the labour process of capitalism, a transhistorical conception and a general account of exploitation. One could write books about Marx's account of why things are the way they are (his theorizing of the "non-ideal"), before coming to his predictions about what will occur in the post-capitalist society. And the details here, compared to his extensive diagnostic lens, are pretty sparse. We know the motto of the communist society will be "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". We know he thinks it will be a situation where the means of production fall into the hands of the masses, so they can partake in productive activity that is fulfilling and meaningful. Marx also describes the transition from the "lower phase" of communism to a "higher phase".

While I am not a Marxist, I can admire the depth and sophistication of Marx's social theory. I do not think (With the exception of Aristotle, the greatest theorist of all time in my books!) any theorist comes close to the impact and depth of insight of Marx. Period. My admiration of Marx stems from his unfailing commitment to "theorize the non-ideal". To understand how we got into the predicament we are in. And only then, with a clear picture of that historical story, can we integrate a story of how to move forward in a way that could realize the aspirations we think are defensible and realisable.

The skill-set required of the Marxist theorist is very different from that of the Plantonist. And I think theorists today could profit immensely from aspiring to emulate the non-ideal theorizing of Marx vs the ideal theorizing of Plato. I am not saying we must be Marxists (far from it), only that we ought to take the "bird's eye view" of the problems we address, like Marx does, rather than be overly preoccupied with precisely defining some distributive ideal or concept in the abstract.

Cheers,
Colin




Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Getting into the Literature on Play (Part 4)



I made my way through Play= Learning, which concentrates on education and children. From the Introduction:

In sum, treating children like empty vessels whose heads can be filled with knowledge because we select what they will learn and teach it directly leads to problems in two domains. First, studies show that children in these programs often learn less academically than their peers who are not being taught concepts directly but in a more playful manner. Second, these programs have the unintended social consequences of creating students who are less likely to experience empathy with their peers, more likely to show evidence of stress-induced hyperactivity, and more likely to engage in delinquent acts. (10).

I am now making my way through two older books on play- Huizinga's Homo Ludens (which means "Man the Player"). H. focuses on understanding play not as a biological phenomenon, but rather as a cultural phenomenon. His definition of play emphasizes its voluntary nature, that it is not "ordinary" or "real life", its secludedness (contains its own course and meaning) and tension (uncertainty, chanciness). All play has rules, argues H. His formal definition of play is:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not serious", but at the same time absorbing the player intensively and utterly. It is activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (13)

H. then dedicates chapters to play and law, war, philosophy, art, etc. The central idea I want to appropriate from H. is the notion of making Homo Ludens (and contrasting that with homo economicus) central to my political theory. I want to detail a realistic utopia for the playful species that we are.

In Man, Play and Games, Caillois argues that H's definition is at the same time too broad and too narrow (4). Games of chance played for money, for example, don't fit H's definition. C. defines play as follows:
1. Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;

2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;

3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player's initiative.

4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game.

5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts;

6. Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or a free unreality, as against real life. (10)

C. then divides play into four main rubrics depending on which elements of play is most dominant- competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo. He calls these agón, alea, mimicry, and ilinex, respectively (12).

Some examples of the groups would be: agón (football, chess); alea (roulette, lotteries); mimicry (pirate, or Hamlet); and ilinex (falling movement, state of dizziness and disorder).

C. places all games on a continuum between two opposite poles of what he calls "paidia" and "ludus". The former refers to a state where free improvisation and carefree gaiety is dominant, and with the latter our impulsive exuberance is absorbed or disciplined by imperative, tedious conventions.

A few more excellent descriptions of the categories of play:

agón "A whole group of games would seem to be competition, that is to say, like a combat in which equality of chances is artificially created, in order that the adversaries should confront each other under ideal conditions, susceptible of giving precise and incontestable value to the winner's triumph. It is therefore always a question of a rivalry which hinges on a single quality (speed, endurance, strength, memory, skill, ingenuity, etc.), exercised within defined limits and without outside assistance, in such a way that the winner appears to be better than the loser in a certain category of exploits" (14).

"The point of the game is for each player to have his superiority in a given area recognized. That is why the practice of agón presupposes sustained attention, appropriate training, assiduous application, and the desire to win. It implies discipline and perseverance." (15)

alea [latin for game of dice]

""destiny is the sole artisan of victory, and where there is rivalry, what is meant is that the winner has been more favored by fortune than the loser.... player is entirely passive. ... "In contrast to agón, aleanegates work, patience, experience, and qualifications. Professionalization, application, and training are eliminated." (17)

"agón is a vindication of personal responsibility; alea is a negation of will, a surrender to destiny." (18)

And this is one of my favorite quotes, with profound insight from Caillois:

agón and alea imply opposite and somewhat complementary attitudes; but they both obey the same law- the creation for the players of conditions of pure equality denied them in real life. For nothing in life is clear, since everything is confused from the very beginning, luck and merit too. Play, whether agón or alea, is thus an attempt to substitute perfect situations for the normal confusion of contemporary life. In games, the role of merit or chance is clear and indisputable. It is also implied that all must play with exactly the same possibility of proving their superiority or, on another scale, exactly the same chances of winning. In one way or another, one escapes the real world and creates another. One can also escape himself and become another. This is mimicry." (19)

With respect to play that is a form of mimicry, C. describes it as play where one "forgets, disguises, or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another" (19). Mimicry possesses all the characteristics of play (liberty, convention, suspension of reality, and delimitation of space and time) except that the submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed. C. claims that the rule of the game in mimicry is unique: "it consists in the actor's fascinating the spectator, while avoiding an error that might lead the spectator to break the spell" (231).

The fourth type of play Ilinx temporarily destroy our perception of reality. C. gives the example of voladores as an example of this type of play. Watching the linked video of this activity I will admit this would not an enjoyable type of play for me!!

Cheers,
Colin

Gene Patents Commentary (forthcoming)



My 2000 word commentary entitled "Gene Patents and the Social Justice Lens" has been accepted for publication in the American Journal of Bioethics. This piece is a response to a target article that addresses my argument that there is there is a conditional moral presumption in favour of gene patents that satisfy a stringent utility requirement in Biologically Modified Justice.

I look forward to seeing the different commentaries on the target article as this is a timely issue which warrants serious attention and input from different perspectives.

Cheers,
Colin

Sunday, September 23, 2018

JAMA Viewpoint Piece on Geroscience

One of my favorite longevity experts has a compelling new viewpoint article out in the JAMA calling for a shift from lifespan to healthspan research. A sample:

When public health emerged in the late 19th century, including developments such as sanitation and clean water, early mortality swiftly declined. A rapid shift in the distribution of death from younger to older people occurred during the first half of the 20th century, and since then declining death rates at middle and older ages have led to survival into increasingly older ages. As a result, about 96% of infants born in developed nations today will live to age 50 years or older, more than 84% will survive to age 65 years or older, and 75% to 77% of all deaths will predictably occur between age 65 and 95 years.2

....There is a dilemma. Modern medicine continues its relentless pursuit of life extension without considering either the consequences of success or the best way to pursue it. The current focus of most of modern medicine is on chronic fatal age-related diseases, in much the same way infectious diseases were confronted more than a century ago (ie, one at a time as if independent of each other). Even though there have been some successes, further life extension in an aging world will expose the saved population to an elevated risk for all other aging-related diseases.

Olshansky's life table (attached here) of deaths for women in the US over the past century vividly illustrates the challenges moving forward. Be sure to check out the full article (linked above), a must read for those interested in global aging.

Cheers,
Colin

Friday, September 21, 2018

Getting into the Literature on Play (Part 3)



Unlike the lengthy and dense academic book of The Genesis of Animal Play, Elkind's (E.) The Power of Play is shorter book written for a general audience. I was able to get through it in a day and thought I would highlight a few points that can be helpful to me in writing something on this topic.

I really like the Preface where E. warns of the dangers of hurrying children to grow and become consumers, this risks their physical and mental health, creativity, etc. E. posits a developmental theory of play. I could hear Burghardt's voice in the back on my mind as a I read this saying there is there is no one thing play evolved to develop, but E. develops an integrated theory that links love, work and play so perhaps the two theorists are not that far apart (?).

E.'s theory is based on Freud's motivational orientation and Jean Piaget, who has a great quote: "Play is the answer to the question, How does anything new ever come about?". E. emphasizes the intellectual, social and emotional development play helps facilitate. He claims we have 3 inborn drives- for love, for work and for play. These develop over 4 major periods of the human lifespan. This summarizes E.'s argument:

Stage 1: infancy and early children: play is most central, how we learn during infancy.

Stage 2: Elementary years (starts around age 6/7): the disposition to work (meaning adapt to the external world) becomes a child's primary dynamic. They are learning to adapt to the demands of the social world.

Stage 3: Adolescence: love becomes the dominant predisposition, teens have less interest in work or play. By ages 16-19 they reach an equilibrium on love, play and work.

Stage 4: Adulthood: the 3 things are fully separated- work, play, and love. Play is seen as more recreational, and it can lose some of the creative function it performed for us as kids. But he notes it can still be creative with things like cooking, pottery, etc.


On p. 12 there is a very helpful discussion of "flow", which I note to ensure I come back to it and use that in my book.

As a parent I read with interest the chapters on how toys have changed (now almost all plastic), and the prevalence of screen play (which E. says has dramatically contributed to changing the world of children's play). I was very touched by the chapter on "Light-hearted Parenting", which I would like to think captures the parental ideals I try to live up to. Such a parent makes an ongoing effort to integrate play, love and work into their child-rearing practices (171). We should use humour to socialize and discipline our children, share our passions with them, and establish patterns of family play and game and experience sharing. The light-hearted parent avoids what E. calls the EGOCENTRIC TRAP, which involves looking at situations entirely from our own perspective and failing to take the child's point of view. The best defence against the EGOCENTRIC TRAP is having the ability to laugh at ourselves and at life's wry twists.

This book contains looks of good insights and the themes for me to keep in mind are the dangers of raising children as consumers vs as children, how play is integrated with love and work, and the lifespan perspective- that how and why we play changes over the course of the human lifespan.

Next on my reading list, which follows nicely from E's book, is Play=Learning. This is the academic book I suspect will provide me with the most empirical insights to build some plausible developmental story about the importance of play for individual and collective wellbeing.

But after spending this week working through 3 different books on play already, I intend to spend this weekend enjoying the unique play opportunities offered by this beautiful island of Oahu! As Burghardt notes in the final sentence of his book- "The ultimate paradox may be that play can only be understood through itself". So I'm off to play for a few days! :)

Cheers,
Colin



Getting into the Literature on Play (Part 2)


This morning I was able to get through the remainder of The Genesis of Animal Play. Some of the important take-home insights for me from Burghardt's extensive study of play in animals:

#1 What is play?

B. argues that play is recognized by 5 criteria:

1. Limited immediate function
2. endogenous component
3. structural or temporal difference
4. repeated performance
5. relaxed field.

"Play is repeated, incompletely functional behavior differing from serious versions structurally, contextually, or ontogenetically, and initiated voluntarily when the animal is in a relaxed or low-stress setting" (82)

#2. Play is a heterogeneous category and different types of play have their own phlogenetic and developmental trajectories. This means, if I want to run a functional explanation about the developmental purpose of play there isn't one single thing that can be identified as THE primary developmental objective.

#3. B defends what he calls the SURPLUS RESOURCE THEORY (SRT) of play, which incorporates physiology, life history, behavior repertoire and psychological factors into the story of why species engage in the different types of play then do. The SRT emphasizes 4 important processes which underlie play, which B says some may be necessary but not sufficient for play to occur:

A. sufficient metabolic energy (store energy)
B. buffered from serious stress and food shortages
C. need for stimulation to elicit species-typical behavioral systems (e.g. susceptibility to boredom)
D. life-style that involves complex sequences of behavior in varying conditions, including diverse and unpredictable environmental and/or social resources.

B also links play with "flow" (p. 398), and notes that play can be cruel (chapter 2 contains the story of a magpie that stoned a toad! B also notes that when animals kills more than can be eaten or stored elements of play might be involved), play can be risky and dangerous (sky diving), and addictive (gambling). These are all significant insights I need to address if I plan to utilize play as the foundation for a realistic (vs overly idealized) utopia.

The next book on my reading list for today... The Power of Play.

Cheers,
Colin

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Getting into the Literature on Play


I am now (somewhat) settled into my sabbatical term in Manoa, at the University of Hawaii. I haven't done any site seeing yet but I definitely will given the beauty of this island.

Within the first two weeks of my sabbatical I have attended to the matters of getting a fridge for my residence room, filling it with food, and getting a gym membership to the impressive Warrior Recreation Center. I also made revisions to a forthcoming publication on aging and freedom, and wrote a 1500 word commentary piece on gene patents and justice.

My focus is now turning to the scientific literature on play, to get some foundational research completed for what I hope will result (one day!) in a new book on play and a realistic utopia.

Yesterday I spent the day reading Sutton-Smith's (SS) masterful book The Ambiguity of Play. Some important take away notes for me: SS identifies 7 "rhetorics" of play:

(1) play as progress
(2) play as fate
(3) play as power
(4) play as identity
(5) play as the imaginary
(6) rhetoric of the self
(7) play as frivolous

The rhetorics I am most interested in for my argument are (1) [the most crucial]; (3) [which shows play is not always positive and beneficial!]; (4) [a great way to link justice concerns and play to communitarianism, deliberative democracy and multiculturalism); (5) [especially linked to a virtue epistemological defence of democracy, which I want to do in the book]

(1) involves many interesting and contentious issues. My argument is predicated upon the idea that play helps us adapt and develop by facilitating moral and intellectual virtue. Fagan (Animal Play Behavior) characterizes play as flexibility, quoting Fagen (p. 31 of SS), he says "play was selected to develop complex social and generalized cognitive abilities including the potential to innovate and to maintain or enhance the flexibility of existing skills at the cost of their efficiency in particular contexts".

SS does not believe the evidence supports the rhetoric of play as progress. What SS endorses is what he calls the rhetoric of play as adaptive variability. The finer details of this scientific debate goes beyond what I, as a political theorist, will need to get into. What I want to ensure is that what I argue about (1) is "empirically credible", that (1) humans are, at our core, a playful species (in contrast to the starting assumption of many other political theories), and (2) that play does have important developmental benefits (for motor development, social roles, information, creativity, cognitive abilities, etc. and, ultimately, for moral and epistemic virtue!). I am confident that a loosely "functional explanation" that posits that play helps us flourish as individuals and collectively as societies will be sufficient to generate the type of "emancipatory knowledge" my theory seeks to yield. It doesn't have to detail every scientific insight, debate and nuance. Provided it tracks some "credible insights" from evolutionary biology, physiology, psychology, and neuorscience then I think I will meet the "empirically informed" bar I set myself for this book, which is a work in normative political theory.

The starting premise of this project (independent of the methodological issues related to utopian thinking, which will take up 1/3 of the book) is that play is essential to our wellbeing (both as individuals and collectively as a society). The potential benefits go much further than the obvious ones- like promoting our health and happiness, but also moral and epistemic virtue in ways that can promote important societal aspirations relating to solidarity and community, fairness, reciprocity, etc.

After reading through SS yesterday, today I starting making my way through this 500 page tome on play by Burghardt (B), and I think his arguments might prove more helpful to me than SS's. B notes the search for "the" major function of play continues. Many of the proposed benefits are controversial and largely unsupported empirically. I am only through the first 100 pages of his book. So I may post again on it when I have a better sense of what his conclusions are.

If you are interested in hearing Burghardt give a talk on play there is a detailed one here.

Cheers,
Colin

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Theorizing the “Non-Ideal” (Part 1)

As academics we have the luxury of spending significant amounts of time and energy learning about this world, and contributing to the project of creating, and disseminating, knowledge. And with this opportunity comes great responsibility- to use our time, and talents, prudently. This requires us to be critically reflective inquisitors, to ask ourselves what is important to know, and what is important to challenge, and why.

Within my field of research- political philosophy- there is often a general (somewhat ambiguous) divide between what is called “ideal” and “non-ideal” theory. What constitutes this divide is very contentious, with some arguing that the distinction itself lacks precision and muddies the intellectual waters rather than helps things. But I remain convinced that this general distinction is helpful, despite what the naysayers might argue.

Ideal theorists tend to theorize “the ideal” (with perhaps some occasional smatterings of the non-ideal variety thrown in as an afterthought). Plato is perhaps the best example of an ideal theorist. And so this multi-series blog post begins with a discussion, and brief criticism, of ideal theory and Plato.

Plato’s Republic is concerned with the question “What is justice?”. And after rejecting the conceptions championed by his contemporaries (e.g. justice is telling the truth and returning anything borrowed, justice is in the interest of the stronger party, etc.), Plato came up with his own conception of justice- both at the level of the individual (his account of the hierarchy between reason, courage and the appetites) and for society as a whole (his account of the hierarchy between philosophers, soldiers and the masses).

When deriving his account of justice Plato theorized ideals- his “epistocracy” posits philosopher kings and queens, people like Socrates, who pursue, and comprehend, the truth. The allegory of the cave, and the philosopher as possessing the rare intellectual virtues needed to grasp “the forms”, is a great example of this ideal theorizing. As is his assumption of our soul’s immortality, which provides the foundational justification for why justice has intrinsic (as well as extrinsic) value.

Of course Plato does consider some non-ideal considerations along the way- filling in details of why his ideal society is necessary and how it could be viable. For example, Plato believed that democracy was epistemically bankrupt because it gave political power to those skilled at pandering to the masses rather than those who genuinely possessed intellectual virtue. To ensure this elite intellectual class ruled for the “common good” rather than their own private interests, the Guardians would not be permitted to own private property or be distracted by the parental duties of the family. And Plato advocated selective eugenic breeding and emphasized the importance education would play in forming character.

I love Plato’s work, I think Plato’s Republic is among one of the most significant contributions to the history of political thought. But I think we have learned a lot in the past 2.5 thousand years, such that theorists today, in the 21st century, are not justified in doing the arm-chair theorizing Plato engaged in.

Plato could be excused for pontificating from the armchair about our propensity towards intellectual vice and virtue because psychology, for example, had not yet shed light on the various biases and shortcomings and strengths of the human mind. And perhaps Plato could be permitted to fixate solely on the alleged shortcomings of democracy because he lacked the empirical insights needed to make an informed, more comprehensive and comparative analysis of what the virtues and vices are of democratic and non-democratic forms of governance. But today we know much more about human nature and governance than Plato knew living in Ancient Greece. So I do not think we should start with “theorizing the ideal” in the manner Plato does.

A contemporary example of this Platonic form of ideal theorizing is luck egalitarianism (LE), which was/(is?) a prominent position in the field during the 1980s, 1990s and beyond. The “equality of what?” debate was mostly preoccupied with figuring out what the distributive ideal was (e.g. welfare, resources, opportunity for welfare, capabilities, etc.). Inequalities that were chosen were fine, according to LE, but inequalities that arose because of circumstances beyond our control were unjust. Little concern was given to the reality that many inequalities are a complex mix of chosen and unchosen factors, or that some types of inequalities might be more easily redressed than others, etc. The literature on equality was dominated not by analyses explaining how real (income) inequality was created and perpetuated over time. Instead it was dominated by hypothetical stories about shipwrecked survivors engaging in clam auctions and Malibu surfers expecting to be fed without any expectation that they should be willing to work in order to enjoy the benefits of the welfare state.

Defenders of ideal theory often respond to criticisms of it by saying one of two things: (1) that we should “let a thousand flowers bloom” in our discipline and/or (2) non-ideal theory needs ideal theory, for the latter details the objective, and non-ideal details the route to realize that objective. I don’t find either response particularly satisfactory.

With (1) I have no problem with the discipline being diverse in its methodology, with some theorists doing “high theory” while others work on more concrete/applied topics. Ten years ago my complaint would have been that too few people did non-ideal theory compared to ideal theory. Things seem to have shifted somewhat. But I think the dominance of the ideal-theory paradigm has stunted even the development of our non-ideal theorizing. (1) should not be done in a fashion that impairs the development of intellectual virtue- such as an understanding of our history and the current state of the world, or why real injustices occur and persist, or what constitutes large vs small societal problems, etc. So what might strike some of my colleagues as my “intolerant” attitude towards ideal theorizing stems from my conviction that I believe ideal theory impedes what ought to be the raison d’être of the discipline- namely, the creation of emancipatory knowledge.

Political philosophy is the exercise of practical reason. It is in the business of diagnosing practical predicaments that we perhaps underappreciate the significance of, or are blinded to, without the insight of the political philosopher. And it is in the business of offering some practical guidance to help us move from the “here and now” to a more fair and humane future. It is not a discipline for navel gazing, contemplating, as medieval scholastics did, the epistemic characteristics of angels (e.g. do they think more clearly in the morning?).

The reason I do not take the “let a thousand flowers bloom” mentality about the discipline is that I believe, as educators employed at institutions of higher education, we should be in the business of cultivating and refining intellectual virtue. Our undergraduate and graduate students are with us only for a few years, and if the time they spend with us in our courses doesn't help them better understand the predicaments of the world, or to critically evaluate different moral and political aspirations, then we have failed in our job. If our students walk away with bafflement about the bizarre thought experiments constructed by ideal theorists, or walk away with reinforced moral intuitions and convictions without every seriously challenging and defending them, then our pedagogical mission to help cultivate and disseminate emancipatory knowledge has failed.

I think our research and teaching are deeply and intricately related. The latter is not a burden academics must endure in order to get a pay cheque. Like doing research and writing, teaching ought to be something that motivates us to get out of bed each day, to learn something new, to challenge our own intellectual growth and curiosity. We are extremely fortunate to get to interact daily with bright young students who have diverse and interesting perspectives on these issues.

In my next post I plan to write something about one historical figure that I think exemplified “non-ideal” theory in that he theorized the non-ideal- and that figure is Karl Marx. Stay tuned!

Cheers,
Colin

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Play! (part 1)

After tying up loose ends of various other research projects these past 4-5 years, I am now officially investing my intellectual energy into a new book project on play. Over the course of the months and years to come I hope to return to regular, substantive posting on the ideas for this book as they evolve and develop. This post touches briefly on some preliminaries. What is play?

Play is notoriously difficult to define. The more I read the play literature the greater my appreciation for the title of B.S.S's book The Ambiguity of Play. There are different types of play that interest me for my argument- physical, social and imaginative play.

The most significant insight about play, the one that will orient the normative political theory I intend to develop based on play research, is that play is evolution based. The fact that play is evolution based means that the political theory I develop will take our evolved biological history seriously. Rather than falsely assuming, as rational choice theory does, that we are "homo economicus" [the rational man], the theory I develop highlights our nature as "homo ludens" (Man the player).

In addition to the evolutionary story of our play nature, two other key aspects of play I plan to emphasize are the facts that (1) play is fun, and (2) play is developmentally beneficial. I will have much more to say about these points in due time.

For now, how should we define play? What is play? Here are some main contenders:

C. Garvey (p. 4) identifies the following features of play:

(1) Play is pleasurable, enjoyable. Even when not actually accompanied by signs of mirth, it is still positively valued by the player.
(2) Play has no extrinsic goals. Its motivations are intrinsic and serve no other objectives. In fact, it is more an enjoyment of means than an effort devoted to some particular end. In utilitarian terms, it is inherently unproductive.
(3) Play is spontaneous and voluntary. It is not obligatory but is freely chosen by the player.
(4) Play involves some active engagement on the part of the player.


S. Brown describes play as "preconscious and preverbal- it arises out of ancient biological structures that existed before our consciousness or ability to speak” (2009, 15). According to Brown (2009), play is apparently purposeless (done for its own sake), voluntary, has inherent attraction, frees us from time, diminishes consciousness of self, and has improvisational potential and continuation of desire.

And S. Eberle defines play as having the following 6 characteristics: anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise.

I will have more to say about defining play as I undertake more serious research on this topic in the months to come, and try to piece together a coherent story about the normative significance of taking our playful nature seriously.

One final point-- why focus on play? To most of my colleagues this might seem like a trivial, perhaps even objectionable, topic to focus my attention on when there are so many pressing societal problems in the world. Of all the issues I could address- from global justice, to racism, patriarchy and climate change- why the focus on play? I have a lengthy answer to this question, but for now I will just quote from Brian Sutton-Smith, who has this to say about what the opposite of play is (p. 198):

The opposite of play... is not a present reality, or work, it is a vacillation, or worse, it is depression. To play is to act out and be willful, as if one is assured of one's prospects.


I think, given the current state of Western democratic culture, there is a very important message to be heard by the emphasis on play. And I hope to spend a good deal of time thinking through what the message ought to be.

Cheers,
Colin