Monday, November 17, 2014

First advance copy: My Pop is a Pirate

My second children's book, My Pop is a Pirate, will be out in Australia, 25th February 2015.

More coming. And stay tuned for news on My Nanna is a Ninja...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A little more on progress

Following on from my New Philosophy essay, a small opinion piece on progress.

Prompted by a recent fracas surrounding Barack Obama, I'm discussing what's taken for granted by adversaries: that things will get better their way.
"Ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs," said Barack Obama recently, and "order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign." Obama's words were greeted with knowing contempt by many conservative and libertarian Americans - at last, the puppet of the "New World Order" had revealed the global conspiracy. 
If only facts followed fantasy. In his Brussels address, Obama was actually lauding ideals of democracy, equality and liberty. Portraying Europe as the origin of modern liberalism, the president spoke of a continuing conflict between tolerant, free suffrage and bigoted tyranny. "We must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world," he told audiences, "because the contest of ideas continues for your generation." 
Obviously, this did not silence Obama's critics, for whom universal healthcare, for example, is at odds with freedom. Commenters on Glenn Beck's conservative website  responded to a fact-check story on Obama's speech with scorn. "He may not have said it, BUT HE BELIEVES IT," said one. "We were doing fine until he came into office with world vision," said another, "meaning either communism and/or   Islam since we know he is a Muslim of the worst order!" And so on. 
Interestingly, and for all their righteous fury, none of Obama's critics questioned the basic idea of progress. Conservatives often lambaste progressives, but this is usually shorthand for social democrats, liberals, left-wingers - "nothing more than patient communists," as Beck told the David Horowitz Freedom Centre. They take issue with movements towards tolerance and state welfare, but not with  the US, and perhaps the world, moving towards some ideal state. "Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose," said George W. Bush, "set by the hand of a just and faithful God."
(Photo: The White House)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Progress and conservatives

I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine, out now: 'The right side of history is wrong'. The issue is on progress, and I reveal why the idea of necessary progress--whether Christian, Marxist or liberal humanist--is dodgy.
For many, the idea of progress is not simply psychological recompense – it is also a political lure or cudgel. Take the common phrase, "the right side of history". The idea of progress becomes a rhetorical means to its own end: the world changes because we are told the world must change. And those with conflicting values ought to change too. 
Think of the ideal of democratic liberalism, in which freedom is supposedly cherished by all humans, in all times. Yet given the chance, many ordinary citizens will, with a little prodding--and sometimes gladly--give up their liberties for security, and torture or maim others for pleasure, profit or righteous tribalism. 
The point is not that freedom is evil, or all humans likewise. The point is that the ideal state of universal emancipation is utopian: it removes much that is selfish, petty and cruel in homo sapiens, and turns this ideal into tomorrow’s promise. “To think of humans as freedom-loving,” writes John Gray in The Silence of Animals, “you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.” Thinking this way has, as Gray notes, encouraged laws and customs that do promote liberty – for a handful of citizens. But the fantasy of innate freedom-seeking is often a failed means to its own end. 
This is by no means solely a liberal democratic or capitalist principle. Vladimir Lenin argued for a orthodox Marxist theory of history, in which the contradictions of economy and society ended in communism. But this did not happen without help: the intellectual vanguard had to lead Russia’s oppressed. The conscious revolutionaries would direct the “spontaneity” of the masses, and stop them from being perverted by the bourgeoisie.  “Through self-renunciation and ascetic self-discipline,” writes philosopher Arran Gare in Nihilism Inc., “Lenin’s followers could experience themselves as transfigured into instruments of Providence through which the millennia would be achieved.” 
The capitalists were, in other words, on the wrong side of history – a history the Bolsheviks had to righteously guide. Historians recorded how this glorious willing ended.

Michael Oakeshott
I also had a piece in the Canberra Times, on conservative thought. 

Instead of using 'conservative' as shorthand for greedy villainy, I wanted to recognise its recent intellectual history, with a couple of notable examples: Oakeshott and MacIntyre. 

My point was not that conservatism is therefore my 'go to' philosophy, or that the current Australian (or UK) government exemplifies this thoughtfulness. I simply wanted to note that 'conservative' need not be a slur. A sample:
In Rationalism in Politics, the English philosopher argued against the reduction of political and ethical life to technical expertise. His point was not that such specialised knowledge was bunkum, but that it simply did not apply everywhere. Technique can be written down and taught; can be turned into rules and maxims. However, much of civilisation is actually what Oakeshott called 'practical knowledge', which can only be learned by doing. 
This does not make it mysterious or esoteric. It is the kind of knowledge familiar to doctors, carpenters and artists alike. It is cultivated in habits, customs, traditions. But it cannot be turned into some universal law or official statement without losing much of its nuance and agility. 
One reply to this conservatism is that all kinds of cruelties and illusions are hidden away in 'the old ways', which are then sanctified. For example, we accept that women cannot vote, or that indigenous land ownership is void, simply because of The Way Things Are. This is a genuine danger, and conservatism can easily turn into ideology. But so, as Oakeshott points out, can liberalism when it is 'living by the book'. Knowing the difference between just wisdom and malicious prejudice, and then knowing how to keep the first or reject the second, requires practical wisdom. Put another way: progressive politics, if successful, will involve some conservative know-how.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Engagement: Out Now

My new academic collection, edited with Graham Priest, is out now: Philosophy and the Martial Arts: Engagement

Published by Routledge, it's the first of its kind: a series of essays exploring the relationship between martial arts and philosophy, written by and for professional philosophers (and postgraduates). You can read more at the Routledge site, but here are the chapters:
Introduction: Philosophy and the Martial Arts (Priest & Young) 
Part 1: From Philosophy to the Martial Arts  
1. The Promise and the Peril of Martial Arts (Simon Roberts-Thomson)
2. Practicing Evil: Training and Psychological Barriers in the Martial Arts (Gillian Russell)
3. Martial Arts and Moral Life (Sylvia Burrow)
4. The Martial Arts as Philosophical Practice (Henry Martyn Lloyd) 
Part 2: From the Martial Arts to Philosophy  
5. Understanding Quality and Suffering through the Martial Arts (Steve Bein)
6. Is Proprioceptive Art Possible? (Markus Schrenk)
7. A Sublime Peace (Ross Barham)
8. On Self-Awareness and the Self (Koji Tanaka)
9. Mushin and Flow: An East-West Comparative Analysis (Kevin Krein and Jesús Ilundain)  
Part 3: Buddhism and other Asian Philosophical Traditions  
10. Ahimsa, Buddhism, and the Martial Arts: A Soteriological Consequentialist Approach to Understanding Violence in Martial Practice (Richard Schubert)
11. The Martial Arts and Buddhist Philosophy (Graham Priest)
12. Bowing to Your Enemies: Courtesy, Budō and Japan (Damon Young)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Happy ninth birthday Nikos

Today our boy turns nine.

It seems like just yesterday he was leaning on me, watching Arrow well past his bedtime, and whispering 'WHOA, COOL' at Deathstroke.

(Because it was.)

Some Homeric epithets for Nikos:

- 'who climbs whatever is near, including the dinner table'
- 'that languorous reader of twitching toes'
- 'whose mind held plans for sticky-tape and cardboard'
- 'his flat belly full of infinite meals'

Happy birthday to my son, with love and pride.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Fragility, in everything." (The Saturday Paper)

Writer and artistic gadfly Nic Low has written a generous profile of me in today's Saturday Paper.

Instead of a series of quotes, Nic offers a story of our rambling walk from the eastern suburbs to the city--with a quick sprint and jog in between:
Single file on a narrow elevated footpath, Damon tells me that from a young age he’s been aware not of death, but of his death. Paused over chilli and garlic in Little Vietnam he says: “It’s my death: no one else can die it for me.” On a suburban kerb he recalls a trip to Wilsons Promontory when he and Ruth were students. He was swept out to sea. Some time later he struggled back in through waves and rocks, bloodied but joyous in the knowledge that his body was equal to the task. “It was awesome!” Ruth thought he’d drowned. She was so furious she wouldn’t speak to him for the rest of the day. 
Then, amid the roar of a 12-lane intersection, Damon’s exhilaration fades. Four years ago, Ruth became gravely ill. “Bad sushi, perhaps,” he says quietly, hitting the crossing button. She contracted hepatitis A and suffered acute liver failure. The doctors talked them through the possibilities, from recovery to coma and death. 
For all his willpower, Damon had to confront his own uselessness. In such situations the temptation to find someone to blame is strong. But central to the project of the self is resisting false consolation, and recognising what is and is not within your control. Damon put his head down and did what was within his control: the exhausting, messy work of caring for his wife and their two young children. There were no self-help revelations, but the experience became one of the engines of his philosophy. “It’s not just mortality,” he says. “It’s fragility, in everything.”
Read more of 'Damon Young on'.

(Photo: "Squeaky Beach-Wilsons Prom-Vic" by L sale.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

On solitude

Photo: Meredith O'Shea
Last weekend I was quoted in The Sunday Age, in Jill Stark's story 'Why being alone means keeping good company'.

I note that my comments here aren't necessarily tied to modern telecommunications. The same mechanisms would work in classical Athens or nineteenth century Germany:
"When you don't have the time or energy to cultivate that sense of a separate self you're far more likely to seek it in the crowd. People don't know how to negotiate solitude so they're deferring to the most vulgar kind of pack behaviour. If you look at the kind of xenophobia that a lot of Australians are feeling it's a lot easier to define yourself against some nasty other than it is to figure out what you think and feel..." 
"It's a way of keeping you preoccupied and stops you asking those awkward questions about your own cruelty or pettiness. Much of what we do and think is opaque to us. We make all kinds of decisions without understanding why, and have quirky reactions to other human beings – whether it's fear or lust or spite – and often we don't work this stuff out. Solitude is absolutely vital for trying to become more intimate with this weird self that we are."

Saturday, October 11, 2014

What is a mind? (BWF 2014/RN Big Ideas)

Charles Babbage's brain in a jar
Photo by Adam Levine
At Brisbane Writers Festival I was on a panel called 'What is a mind?' with with medical researcher Kate Richards, psychologist David Roland and novelist Sean Williams, hosted by the ABC's Anthony Funnell 

The conversation was broadcast recently on ABC RN's 'Big Ideas' program, and you can now listen to the entire show online.

(For the record, I'm not really sure what a mind is.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Happy Anniversary, Fanny Price

Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price in the 1983 TV adaptation
I've a piece in The Saturday Age, 'Enraptured by a world less petty'.

It's the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. I'm reflecting on Fanny Price's character, and why I love this wallflower heroine.

This is an extract from my forthcoming essay in Island magazine, which is an edited transcript of a lecture I gave at the Jane Austen Society of Australia in July.

A sample:
What Fanny finds through her window is completeness: the feeling that things are of a piece. But behind this contrived elegance is a more profound one: the world itself. This is why, for Fanny, it is greater than Turner's oils or Handel on the harp strings – even out of poetry's reach. Austen is describing the world's divine order. 
Austen herself enjoyed this vision of the universe. It is neither cruel nor random – overall, it is as perfect and as good as can be. Poetry cannot quite grasp this truth, but, as Austen suggests, it can gesture at it. In a letter to her sister, the author quoted one of her favourite poets, Alexander Pope: "Whatever is, is right". The line is from Pope's famous An Essay on Man, which argues in favour of a kind of Enlightenment deism. To Pope, God is somewhere between artist and engineer, fabricating this delicate machine we call the world. 
The Mansfield Park gardens hint at this, what must be. They exemplify a greater harmony: existence itself. And a reminder of this existence consoles Fanny Price as it did her creator. For a few moments, our heroine is taken away from the pettiness, malice and egotism of her family and neighbours, and shown a reality more noble, altruistic and expansive.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Seeds of Thought (Literary Review)

Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the garden
My Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies is reviewed in the September issue of Literary Review (UK).

In 'Seeds of Thought', Miranda Seymour covers the chapters neatly, criticises my Orwell and Kazantzakis chapters (for reasons that don't quite fit with my book's philosophical premise), and adds generously that "Young writes with a delightful combination of humour and insight."

I was particularly pleased by Miranda's celebration of the Leonard Woolf chapter, which is perhaps my favourite. Woolf was a mensch.

You can read the full review here.

(Photo: courtesy of the Keynes family)