A New Liberal Arts


(the liberal arts, circa 12th century)

The traditional liberal arts (logic, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) arose for two reasons: to preserve knowledge and to render young men fit for positions of influence. Knowledge had pretty much been wiped out in western Europe with the fall of Rome, and winning it back again was hard work. The resulting strategy was to train young men in the arts, and to establish scriptoria in monasteries where any surviving texts could reproduce themselves through monks’ hands. Information that survived from the ancient world was thus uploaded into a distributed network of texts likely to survive any calamity – and for the most part, it did. Learning the liberal arts also gave young men the credentials for joining the segment of society that did all the reading, thinking, and writing, which came to be a disproportionately powerful class of people: if they were not the ones in charge, they were the ones who presided over the networks of influence used by those in charge (and so, they were medieval equivalents of internet hubs).

Universities were built around scriptoria and the teaching of the liberal arts – along with the teaching of the “higher faculties” of Theology, Law, and Medicine (the business schools of their day). The liberal arts remained relatively stable, at least in general form, while new continents and moons were discovered; and their descendants still govern universities’ general education curricula. The goal of teaching “everything a well-educated person should know” is still with us, and in their attempts to meet that goal, universities still offer main dishes that draw upon medieval ingredients. A typical gen ed curriculum features Writing (Rhetoric), Critical Thinking (Logic and Dialectic), Math (Arithmetic and Geometry), Science (Astronomy), the Arts (Music), and some sort of “Culture” or “Diversity” class (as a sort of “oopsies” apology for medieval hegemony).

But here’s a shocker: the conditions giving rise to medieval universities no longer obtain. It’s certainly not clear that what the young men of A. D. 1320 needed to know is what people of the 21st century need to know. Indeed, it’s far from clear that we should believe there is a single set of things everyone needs to know. If we’ve learned our lessons from Darwin, we ought to expect that some wide variation in educational curricula would be a good idea: for we do not know what the future will expect us to know, and in the absence of any plan, a broadly varied onslaught is a good strategy.

Some colleges may be well-situated to continue to teach some version of the traditional liberal arts. They have small classes that dive deep into historical texts, and they track how students evolve from one insight into others. Other schools try to teach big populations, and can’t track individual development, and have a more applied orientation. Still other schools might specialize in one sort of training (like business or engineering), and not care so much about other stuff. “What everyone needs to know” should vary among all these schools, it would seem, given their different missions. And this is a good thing: as I said above, variation is what we need when the future, whatever it may be, is bound to come as a surprise.

So it would be a good idea for traditional liberal artsy-type curricula to remain in force in some places. But there is also room for some experiments at updating the medieval curriculum. With that in mind, I have my own variation to propose – a new set of liberal arts for students who want to be well-equipped for the world as we now find it.

  1. NETWORK SCIENCE: We spend most of our waking hours on the Internet, and most of what we do supplies ore to data-mining agencies whose operations are perfectly opaque to us. It might be a good idea to learn how we’re being used. Students should learn how the internet works – how algorithms can be deployed, how information is used, and ways information can be stacked, gamed, or skewed – basically, what we might call “the uses and abuses of information for life”.
  2. THE NEW NEWS: News isn’t what it used to be. It’s written in response to real-time measurements of user hits, and skewed to provoke our appetites. This has a huge effect on how events are reported – or whether they are. Again, knowing how we are being gamed might help to make us better consumers, and changes in our consumption will inevitably reshape the news.
  3. WAYS WE’RE STUPID: We all fall prey to my-side biases, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and other cognitive shortcomings. But we are smart enough to be able to learn what these shortcomings are, and we can develop our skills at self-diagnosis, so at least we can be on the lookout for the sorts of errors we’re liable to make as we go along.
  4. EPISTEMIC HUMILITY: It would also be good to learn the lessons of Socrates – that in every case, we might be wrong, and that it’s through honest, open, respectful, and critical discussion with others that we can learn how we’re wrong. But typically we are clueless about how to do this without resorting to bitter name-calling, as anyone who has explored a comment thread can attest. This might be a good skill to teach.
  5. NEED-TO-KNOW SCIENCE: It also would be nice to know – wouldn’t it? – what scientists are looking into these days, and what they think may be possible in the near future – alongside reasonable accounts of what evidence there is for their views, as well as how one figures out what sorts of tests or findings would refute their theories. This would give us valuable content knowledge, but also insight into how evidence works, and how any theory – no matter convenient it is, or how much we like it – can be laid low by empirical findings.  
  6. HOW NOT TO GET BOXED IN BY A PROBLEM (AKA, CREATIVITY): Very often the problems we face are result from how we conceive a situation. By reframing it, we can discover possibilities we hadn’t seen before (“thinking out of the box”, as the slogan goes). While there’s no sure-fire method for doing this, there are plenty of practical exercises that demand creativity and mental flexibility, and some effort spent in this direction can encourage the hope that, with some creativity, what seems like a no-win situation can actually be reconceived and become a new opportunity. Not always, of course. But sometimes, and that’s good.
  7. HOW TO DO POLICY: It’s easy to have opinions about what has to happen, but a lot harder to think through implications of policies aimed at making it happen. How do we craft policies in ways that take all factions’ concerns into account, but still manage to get something done? How do we minimize the harms of unforeseen consequences? These are hard challenges, no doubt, but ones we will always face, and some practice with them will make us better at them.

My suggestion is that these subjects (with more dignified names, of course) could become a new liberal arts, at least for some schools: a new basic toolkit for educated people. Students who spend time studying these matters could easily combine what they learn with the work they go on to do in their own particular degrees (Accounting, Philosophy, Zoology), confident that what they learned will integrate with further studies and also be relevant to their lives.

Again, this is not meant as a “one size fits all” solution. We need people with all sorts of training and preparation. But it is a “one size fits many” proposal, and maybe even “most”. These new liberal arts would be undeniably useful for a thick swath of people bound for influential positions in our society. In this regard, they serve one of the original purposes of the classical liberal arts tradition. Regarding that other purpose – to guard against a massive calamity that wipes out everything we know – well, these days, that would take a calamity of enormous proportions. We can try as we might to try to safeguard ourselves against such an event; and such a curriculum also might be helpful for that purpose as well.

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“I read as one who abdicates.”

Fernando Pessoa, writing (or reading) as Bernardo Soares in The Book of Disquiet:


I read and am liberated. I acquire objectivity. I cease being myself and so scattered. And what I read, instead of being like a nearly invisible suit that sometimes oppresses me, is the external world’s tremendous and remarkable clarity, the sun that sees everyone, the moon that splotches the still earth with shadows, the wide expanses that end in the sea, the blackly solid trees whose tops greenly wave, the steady peace of ponds on farms, the terraced slopes with their paths overgrown by grape-vines.

I read as one who abdicates. And since the royal crown and robe are never as grand as when the departing king leaves them on the ground, I lay all my trophies of tedium and dreaming on the tiled floor of my antechambers, then climb the staircase with no other nobility but that of seeing.

I read as one who’s passing through. And it’s in classical writers, in the calm-spirited, in those who if they suffer don’t mention it, that I feel like a holy transient, an anointed pilgrim, a contemplator for no reason of a world with no purpose, Prince of the Great Exile, who as he was leaving gave the last beggar the ultimate alms of his desolation.

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Artefactual language as the enabler of Spirit

Cultural information rains down on the landscape of our genetically endowed mental capacities, mouldering the paths along which future information must travel, eroding and shaping the patterns of our thoughts and reactions (Distin 2011, 177-8)

Chasing down some of Sloterdijk’s references has led me to two early-20th-century thinkers who recognize the reality of our conceptual artistry and try to provide some sort of foundation for it. (Or is it a foundation? Perhaps it is just a further improvisation upon the mystery of being capable of thought).

Both Max Scheler and Ernst Cassirer put forward the claim that human beings are amalgams of Life and Spirit. (Scheler and Cassirer both studied under Georg Simmel, and on this topic at least were swayed powerfully by him.) But, refreshingly, they know better than to reify These Capitalized Entities; they seemed to know that what they were saying had serious metaphorical weight to it, but only metaphorical. Life is the world of causality: it is our genes, triggered by environment, and the interplay of psychological forces and other material forces. Life has its own life, so to speak, but pushes forward blindly, greedily, Dionysianly. Spirit is the world of reasons, beauty, “ought”, and thought, and if we want to explore it thoroughly, we have to traipse through other territories, like philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics. Scheler and Cassirer say we are Spirit immersed in Life, or beings capable of thought having to work our ways through Life’s complications, understanding those complications, correcting for them, and striving for some measure of transcendence – and, of course, failing in all these endeavors either sometimes or always.  For, as Nietzsche and Freud taught, our motivations are rarely if ever what they seem to be, and Life secretly pushes us along when we think Spirit is in charge. But coming to realize this, and dealing with it, is a matter that can be pursued only through Spirit, oddly enough: in any predicament like this, we have no choice but to think our way through it. (Well; either that or just give up, I guess.)

cult evoThe foggy reflections upon Life and Spirit are interesting in their own ways; but luckily I have also been reading Kate Distin’s more recent and clearer book, Cultural Evolution (Cambridge 2011). Distin is in the camp of Dennett & Co., seeking to extend Darwinian explanation into the domain of culture through the invocation of memes and language. The rough story is that, at some crucial point, our ancestors developed the capacity for communication and for conveying information to others in increasingly effective ways. Thus natural language. But natural language has its limits, so long as we can shout only so far and remember only so much. Eventually artefactual language developed, or representations pressed into clay or (later) marked onto paper-like surfaces. This is, basically, the addition of a hard drive to our operating system, as it hugely expands our information storage capacity. It also enables us to keep track of how many sheep I owe you, or how many I gave you last time; and it also enables us to falsify records, and so prompts us to develop more secure information technology that can’t be faked or tampered with.

But artefactual language is more than just record keeping and enhanced storage capacity. As Distin argues, it is no longer merely about communication, but about representation: the scratchings on the medium are things representing things:

Just as other artefactual languages have evolved for the representation and manipulation of concepts that could not be managed so efficiently by natural language, so the written language serves our representational purposes. It has the potential to preserve our ideas in a permanent, unambiguous format, and in the evolution of jargon we can see the same sorts of conceptual tools as are provided by nonlinguistic symbols. Writing is a means of representing our thoughts as well as of communicating them (103).

Once a rich capacity for representation is developed, we can begin representing representations (what Distin calls “metarepresentation”), and then we really are off to the conceptual races. To run with the metaphor I’ve been using, artefactual language enables us to build arches. Writing, particularly for economic or cryptographic ends, forces us to consider both medium and message. It introduces questions of both content and style, and forces us to make words about words. And I can’t help but think that the act of transcribing a sound – of turning what’s heard but invisible into a tangible thing that can be seen – encourages abstractions, or reifications of words, which is all anyone needs to get arches going. When I put Distin’s work together with Scheler and Cassirer, what I get is that artefactual language is the enabler of Spirit, built upon nothing more than what Life has made, but enabling distinctly new capacities of which Life is necessarily ignorant. Writing enables a dialogue between a representing mind and concepts, and at that point we find ourselves with many new words – and through them, many new worlds.

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Jordi Savall, “Celtic Universe”

For a long time I’ve longed to hear Jordi Savall play. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s probably the most famous musician you haven’t heard of. He discovers and resurrects European and Mediterranean music from the medieval to the early modern period, assembles groups of musicians who have amazing talents with old instruments, and thus builds human bridges across times and spaces. He’s received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, which is the Nobel prize of music.

Jeannine and I traveled to Denver for an overnighter to hear the maestro perform, alongside Carlos Núñez (Galician bagpipes and other pipes), Pancho Alvarez (guitar), Xurxo Núñez (percussion), Andrew Lawrence-King (harp and psaltery), and Frank McGuire (bodhran, or Celtic drum). Their music was mostly Celtic, though there was a Basque section of the program that included a heartbreaking lullaby (“Aurtxo txikia negarrez”) with wonderful Arabic tones.

Below is a sung version of the lullaby:


What a marvelous performance in both style and content!

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The Hope of Concepts (or, some sorely needed arch support)

(Loosely reflecting while re-reading Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life…)

As in Spheres, PS’s aim is to create (or at least open up a space for) a new life-support system for humans, a post-religious quasi-religion grounded in practice and values that can support us and remain believable even when we realize that we have just been making stuff up. His efforts encourage me to also “change my life”, or find a way to think about and live about value.

It is as if his verbal visions, and those of other concept-artists, provide us with an access to insight and value, in something like the way the language of mathematics opens up the inner secrets of nature. No one has ever seen a 2. But pretend that you can know it, and – kazam! – a new world opens up, a world which encompasses and surpasses the world revealed by eyes and ears. No one has really explained the power of mathematics, but no one really has denied its truth. Similarly, might there not be a similar move possible in the domain of concept artistry, even if we cannot explain it? Is this in fact what it is to be alive to wonder – to feel the tug of conceptual dynamics? Or is this just giving philosophical weight to the prettiness of words?

ARCH11Well, if there is anything to it, then this may be where my flat-footed naturalism can restore its arches. An arch (now turning to the not-footly variety) is raised from the ground up, of course; but its structural integrity relies upon the capstone, which keeps its height by resisting the inclination of the arch stones to collapse in on themselves. Similarly, the ideals we hold keep themselves aloft precisely by pushing against a natural tendency to collapse. Collapse, obviously, is always possible; it is as natural as free-fall, and without gravity, there can be no capstone, and no arch. But collapse can be forestalled; that is the hope of concept artistry.

What all that architectural metaphor amounts to is that the hope of concepts is the suspension of an ideal made possible through the gravity of collapse. We raise an ideal or a principle, knowing full well who and what we are. We recognize at all points our crippling stupidities, our cruel self-deceptions, and our bad faiths made manifest in institutions. And yet … what guards against the collapse of an ideal is an insistence that has the form, “But despite all this….” We manage to respond to the pull of gravity with new revelations, criticisms, and creations, and even at times new practices, all made possible through thinking.

But – again –  it’s crucial that the arch remain a terrestrial structure, and not one we imagine as supported by heavenly block-and-tackle. For the little bit that we know tells us that that is impossible engineering. Thinking happens in brains – and not merely in brains, but in vast networks of historical, cultural, political, and economic influences. Our age is resolutely post-miraculous. And yet … we can build arches. Rule by law (though doubly imperfect, both in the rule and the law), refutation through clinical trials, jazz improvisations, after-school programs, poetry readings, vaccinations, and on and on – there stand endless rows of arches one would never have predicted if entranced by the spirit of gravity alone.

But what about eugenics, global slave trade, fascisms, various wicked dimensions of capitalism, and all manner of brutal ideologies? Are these not also arches? They are too well-organized to be seen as anything else. Capstones, we can see, issue from all manner of material. The central moral challenge of the conceptual artist is to develop a practice of arch critique, developing further principles of arch construction which selectively favor some arches over others. How do they accomplish this? How does one establish such high principles? Through the construction of further arches, the answer must be – erecting further ideals, supported by stones placed upon the earth. We turn toward human dignity, toward autonomy, and we elevate the sympathy placed in us through evolution to charity toward strangers.

This is what we do – meaning, this is all humans ever ever done: we construct ideals, both cruel and beneficent, from a variety of building materials: biological, historical, philosophical, psychological, cultural, etc. We engage in critique of those ideals, weighing practical consequences (or rather our judgments of those consequences, issuing from capstones of our own making) against seemingly transcendent principles of design (and note well the seeming). This business of critique follows its own weird logic, as it is conditioned by our own place and time: criticism takes place within a particular realm of concept artistry, one we live and think in. Under the optics of that particular realm, we construct our arches and make our judgments, all the while being acted also upon by decidedly non-archly forces like markets and inherited biases.

When described from this high altitude, it sounds pretty pathetic and ridiculous: we are ants, contemplating the Metaphysics of the Mound as we scurry about shifting materials from one place to another. There is material aplenty here for satirists. But when we ourselves are in the midst of it all, it is gripping and meaningful; and even the satirists are in the grip of the perspective they inhabit as they launch their satire. I guess that it should come as no surprise that, when we are thinking or criticizing or satirizing, concepts are gripping and meaningful. But the wonderful fact is that this illusion (if illusion it is) is possible in the first place. This fact is itself an arch, probably made possible by artefactual language – but more on that in another post.

Posted in Books, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Metaphysical musings | 2 Comments

Enlightenment now

(Reading Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)

pinkerI am totally down with this book. Its main thesis is that the core values of the Enlightenment – Reason, Science, and Humanism – have resulted in human life being better in every measurable way. And if anyone wishes to deny this, they will have a big job in front of them, as Pinker provides 70+ charts over 16 chapters documenting the decline of social, medical, and economic evils and the growth of corresponding goods over the last three centuries. It turns out that, over time, a general trend in the direction of building science and more responsible social institutions, and setting to the side Iron Age religious ideologies, can do a lot for a species.

Pinker is not blind to human weaknesses, nor to the real evils that accompanied the Enlightenment, like slavery and colonialism. But to say that the Enlightenment was only about slavery and colonialism, or that these twin evils and others are necessarily bound up with the essence of science, is to leave unexplained the rather astounding improvements of life that have coincided with the Enlightenment – and not just for wealthy capitalists, but for for people generally across the globe. As Pinker notes, we usually take these astounding improvements for granted:

… newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with the flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket. (4)

And, yes, there are still too many tragic cases where these benefits are wholly absent – but many, many fewer than ever before in human history. That’s Pinker’s point. The chief causes of human misery that have dogged our steps through history – plague, war, and starvation – are not really chief anymore. One could try to claim that all of these improvements have happened despite the work done by humans under the banners of Enlightenment ideals – but really? by whom? Faith healers? Existentialist Marxists? God? Faeries? And when your child has a serious infection, or when you try to broker a peace deal, or when you decide what crops to plant next year, it is to these entities you turn for guidance?

So Pinker’s case is powerful. The majority of his book is spent on gathering and displaying evidence for his overarching claim that human life is continuously getting better, and pointing out the likely causes for these improvements – which, in general, comes down to humans using their science and reason to make life better. A smaller portion of the book is devoted to explaining why some intelligent people resist the conclusion that the Enlightenment is on the whole a good thing. Part of the explanation is that news of calamity sells better the news of goods we take for granted. We won’t be seeing headlines celebrating the eradication of smallpox in the natural world anytime soon, despite the fact that every morning we should wake up and cry tears of joy over that fact. (In the 20th century, something like 70 million people died in the two world wars; in the same century, over 300 million died from smallpox. And smallpox only had three quarters of that century to do that much.)

The other part of the explanation for under-appreciating the Enlightenment has to do with humanist scholars like me. Granted, a big part of our job is to explore the shadows, and provide alternative narratives, and challenge prevailing orthodoxies. The fact that Pinker knows that individuals and societies, while doing their best to be rational, can nevertheless get swept up into all sorts of cruel and evil projects is at least in part the consequence of thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault, who went ahead and challenged a prevailing blind optimism in progress and science. But Pinker is right that this humanist challenge to orthodox opinion has itself become an orthodox opinion in the academy, and it is time to temper the denouncements of the Enlightenment with some close attention paid to real data. It is time to challenge those who challenge Enlightenment ideals.

This is a critical discussion that I hope the humanists themselves will begin to undertake (though I rather doubt they will, for tribal reasons). For Pinker is clearly not the guy to do it. In his final pages, he launches pretty stupid invectives against Nietzsche and undergraduate philosophy classes which demonstrate only the limits of his own studies. His criticisms of religion probably are apt for the bulk of believers, particularly in the U.S., but he shows no awareness of more sophisticated theologies. These lapses at the end are a bit surprising, as I generally admire Pinker’s intellectual demeanor, and his efforts to be fair and square in his conclusions. But some sort of anti-humanist demon gets hold of him in the final chapters, and like many other scientists he gives in to the temptation to believe that he really does know better, even without much study. Alas. Enlightenment ideals are good ones we all fail to live up to. But that doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t try.

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Philosophy as an art of concepts

portrait of a woman

Picasso, Portrait of a Woman (1910)

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the intellectual landscape changed radically and forever. The old view, let’s say, presumed the intelligibility of a God’s eye perspective: a vision of Things as They Are, or Things as They Really Are (if that helps). Moreover, according to this view, humans can gain that vision, or at least approximate it, through history, science, and philosophy. It requires only the Victorian virtues of discipline and patience. But along came Einstein, who of course did not entirely repudiate a God’s eye perspective, but reduced its scope so dramatically that it became one reachable by us only through mathematical tricks (and this was only amplified by quantum mechanics). Along came deeper and more sympathetic explorations of non-western, “primitive” cultures, whose ontology and metaphysics was incommensurable with our own. Along came Nietzsche with Freud in his wake, undermining our confidence in our own thoughts and theories, given the psychological viper’s nest from which they issue.

(I’m setting aside the political and economic upheavals for now, though obviously they can’t be ignored. The new visions were made possible by colonialism, industrialization, and kleptocratic parliamentarianism; in treating the new visions, we are looking at symptoms of deeper social transformations. But anyway….)

Artists responded with cubism, music of alternative scales, paradigm-challenging architectures, and novels lacking omniscient narrators. Their works aimed at bringing all of us into conversation with the new reality, or new realities, and our own complicities in them. Historians and scientists soon realized their jobs had become a whole lot harder, for now they had to consider not just what they found in archives and in nature, but also the baggage they were carrying with them into their inquiries – presuppositions, expectations, and values. But philosophers for the most part found two ways of sidestepping the revolution. Some of them retreated deep into The Subjective, construing their free association of ideas as unimpeachable revelations from an inner oracle. Others exiled themselves into the Land of Logical Forms, where there never is any change. Either way, philosophers disengaged with the 20th century, and the legacies of those departures haunt their houses to this day.

Obviously, philosophers could have taken other paths. They probably could not have followed in a path parallel to those of the historians and scientists, because Wittgenstein was profoundly right in observing that philosophy does not have its own subject matter. There is not some special set of facts philosophers discover through special methodologies. They can join forces with historians and scientists, of course; but then they are simply historians and scientists, though on the more theoretical end of the spectrum of practitioners – and there is nothing wrong with this. Philosophers might boast of a special ability to clarify empirical findings and think through the logics of disciplines, but in truth this is not a special ability. It’s just clear thinking, which is always in short supply, but always in some measure of supply everywhere; philosophers are not the sole suppliers.

But here is an idea: what if philosophers followed the artists? What would that mean? It’s never safe to offer a universal pronouncement of what art is all about, but it’s not clearly wrong to say that artists try to provoke us to think about the human experience in new ways without telling us what to think. (I’ve lifted this from Maya Lin, who lifted it from Kant.) Philosophers, by temperament, like to tell us exactly what to think. But this need not be so. If they armed themselves with a more informed vision of their discipline’s own limitations, together with an appreciation for the revolution described above, they might content themselves in starting new discussions rather than in trying to end old ones.

The philosopher as artist is not providing poems or paintings. They are producing new visions, or new orientations in the cognitive landscape. There isn’t really a way to argue “here’s the right way of seeing things”; each new vision should be judged on the basis of how it intrigues us, how it opens up new possibilities for us, and how deeply it challenges our preconceptions. All these qualities are what we expect great works of art to do. Philosophers paint with concepts. Reason is necessarily involved, in the way that the logics of composition and logics of technique are inextricably part of an artist’s creation. We require philosophical works to make sense, but they must make sense to us, with our sensibilities, and not win over the sympathies of some disembodied observer.

It is an interesting possibility, and highlights just how different philosophy is (or rather should be). As with scientific theory, there is a concern to provide a well-grounded perspective that coheres with empirical discoveries. But philosophical theories are radically under-determined by scientific discovery, just as the compositions of paintings are underdetermined by the chemistry of pigments. As with literature and the arts, there is a concern to speak to the subjective dimensions of human experience. But philosophy always tries to provide some sort of judgment and direction, and does not rest content with reflecting that subjectivity. It’s preachy in a way art isn’t (or tries not to be). One might characterise this style of philosophy as an open-ended attempt to illuminate who we are, where we are, and where we might go from here.

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