The Philosopher’s Tooth

Digital StillCamera

“For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently.”
~ Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, V.i.36

“It’s been like this for years.” The old Armenian doctor with a thick accent and a kind face heavily scarred from acne is yanking back and forth on my numbed tooth.
“What?” I mutter absent-mindedly.
“The infection. It’s been like this for years, no? This affects everything: heart, brain, everything.”
I think back to when I had the filling put in.
The Saban Free Clinic off Beverly Boulevard. Jennifer, a dental student at USC, worked on my teeth. She told me she’d X-Ray the area and if there was no infection, she’d give me a filling. Otherwise, I’d need a root canal. I knew it was at least mildly infected, as I sometimes used to have to pop little pustules on my gum above the tooth. I didn’t say anything, because I was a student too, and couldn’t afford a root canal. Jennifer read the X-Rays negative. I got a filling. That was four years ago.
“Four years? I’ve been running my arteries & nerves through a cesspool of infection for four years? How has this affected my writing?” I wonder. I get another burst of body-wide perspiration. I’m trying to control the shaking. I’m light-headed. I’ve barely slept or eaten for three days. I’m using the deep breathing and mental focus techniques I’ve learned in the last few years to control my panic attacks. I’m having one now, but it’s not like the others.
“Breathe normal,” the old man tells me, as if that were easy.
He’s using a drill to cut my molar into three parts. I smell burning enamel and taste sand grain-sized tooth particles on the non-numbed side of my tongue. He puts the drill down, picks up dental pliers, and starts yanking again.
All I feel is pressure. There’s no pain. So why am I reacting this way? What’s up with my bodily reaction? It’s beyond my control.
Maw. Something is happening to my mouth. My mouth is a cave surveyed by an alien intelligence with hostile intent and precise metal tools. My mouth is a stage filled with tiny white actors. A flash of recognition and the prolonged gaze of the specialist makes my mouth visible as an object for my consciousness as a vulnerable opening-for-another, in addition to the usual invisible apparatus for subjective chewing. So this is what it feels like to have one’s subjective mouth objectified. Uncanny, unsettling, surreal. Mouth-subject becomes mouth-object, but the latter is missing a habituated concept, so the alienated concept of “cave” temporarily substitutes. A cave at once mine and not mine. Mouth now exists in some uncomfortable place between subject and object. With the mouthwork as the site of transformation, the “I” with which I usually identify has become liminal: I am the subject, and the subject is this open mouth. Or, as the Narrator in Fight Club might say, “I am Jack’s infected molar.”
“Unngh! Unnnggghh!!!” There’s the pain. The alien pulls his pliers out of my mouth. “I’m super light-headed.”
“Let’s stop a bit,” the Armenian obliges. “Sit up.” He pushes a lumbar button and the robotic dental recliner shape-shifts into its upright configuration. “Turn toward me.”
“Now head down.” He pushes my head between my legs and puts his hand on the back of my neck. “Push up!” he commands.
I push against his hand for a few seconds. Then he lets me sit up. He takes my wrist and pulse.
As soon as he reassures, “Pulse is normal,” “I know” comes out of my mouth. I do know. I’ve become an inside-out expert in the various kinds of panic attacks and can distinguish among their subtle experiential differences. So I know my pulse is normal. Still, it’s comforting to know that he knows, and that he’s willing to say it out loud to me. We make small talk for a few minutes.
“We go again?” he smiles. I consent. I lie back. More yanking, twisting, pulling.
The old quip, “The only thing to fear is fear itself” is eerily poignant to people who get panic attacks. Thinking about the fact you’re panicking makes you panic more. It’s a feedback loop.
Feedback loops have a structure and function all their own. Since physics often provides cognitive metaphors for metaphysics, the idea of a feedback loop may prove a rich source for philosophy. Poetry is one of my favorite genres in which to write philosophy and I’ve written a poem or two using the meme of feedback loops. Very different from linear causality.
Another tremor. I usually don’t shake during panic attacks. This is different. This is body trauma. Something doesn’t want to let go.
Excruciating pain.
He removes the pliers. “That hurt?”
Thank you, Dr. Obvious. Yes. It hurt.
Scarface puts down the pliers and picks up a syringe. He pokes the needle into the roof of my mouth, just as he’d done at the beginning of the surgery. I feel the prick, the hot flow of chemicals into my system. It burns for a second, then feels good. As we wait for the numbing agent to kick in, I resolve that if I ever do this again, I’ll wait the extra day and go in for general anesthesia.
In circumstances like these, a day is no small matter. A couple days ago, I ingested enough painkillers to kill a medium-sized zebra. And that was just to get the pain manageable. In the last week, I’ve only had two truly “pain-free” instances, each lasting only a few moments. First instance: 10mg hydrocodone, 1000mg acetaminophen, 400mg ibuprofen, 20% benzocaine (topical). Single dose. One hour later, pain free for about two hours. Second instance: oddly enough, after no other topical or oral combination worked, 6 drops of cannabis glycerin. Immediate relief, pain-free mentally and physically for a few moments. Then enough pain reduction to get a highly rare and extremely coveted hour of sleep. Then six more drops. A second hour of sleep.
The doctor pushes against the huge, swollen, infected mass that covers the entire right side of my hard palate. “Is numb?”
“I can still feel it.”
Another injection.
I used to live near here, back in the day. Less than a mile from this office. Golden years. Post-religion, pre-anxiety. Sacred Dice glory days. My first drug phase, which remade me as a philosopher. “Consciousness rides chemicals” has been my formula, ever since the days my mental village turned cosmopolitan. Pre-divorce too. Talk about emotional trauma. Worse than my mentor’s suicide or the wholesale social exile and character assassination that often accompanies leaving a conservative ideological group. At the end of those days, I was an utterly desperate man as the finality of the separation descended, shamelessly crying my eyes out in public places like the Wilshire & San Vicente Coffee Bean or at La Cienega Park, where just this morning I strolled with my wickedly intelligent and ravishing girlfriend of two years. Destruction and creation.
“Is numb yet?” He pushes again.
“I still feel it.”
The doctor explains to me that the infection is blocking the medicine. He’s injecting local anaesthesic straight into pus. From here out, it’s pliers vs tooth, no filter. Raw pain.
I lie back. “I can deal with pain,” I think. I played high school football. Invaluable training for mental toughness.
This is not high school football. The Armenian grows bold, pulling harder, working faster than before. He takes our chat as license to inflict any pain necessary to get the job done.
Burn your thesaurus. The pain is beyond words. I clench my fists as tears stream down my face.
My friend John introduced me to mind-altering drugs. At the time, he fancied himself something of a shaman, even loaned me his copy of Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. Following his lead, part of my induction into the world of shamanic drug use was learning the art of willed psychosomatic mindfulness. My eyes opened wide onto a new world rife with magic. Back then, I had enough of a mind-body connection to look my friends straight in the eyes and extinguish a burning cigarette on my hand without feeling any pain. I achieved this feat two or three times before the blister on my hand pulled me back into my body and checked my misguided shamanistic egoism.
This isn’t that. There’s no escape.
Doc clamps onto my tooth and TWISTS his pliers from the right side of my mouth all the way to the left.
Medieval torture. Nerve rape. Back in the Middle Ages when the theory of “humors” ruled medicine, they’d drain fluids to restore the body’s balance. They believed vile spirits inhabited certain fluids. I’m shaking and sweating and hoping for a quick drain. Extraction as exorcism.
I hear my tooth crack. I clench my fists harder, looking for somewhere to go in my head.
During my darkest hour, when my version of Winston Churchill’s “Big Black Dog” was at its biggest and blackest, I used to identify and catalogue suicidal ideations by noting which internal sensory modalities they affected (e.g. images, voices, feelings), before summoning the courage to stave off most varieties by taking mental vacations to El Matador Beach. It’s a tiny State Beach nestled just north of Zuma on the PCH. Sea caves. Tide pools. No tourists. Feels like a private beach. I’ve had beach sex there several times. Think about the good things. Easy trick, really. Dissociation.
Yank! T-W-W-I-I-I-S-S-S-T-T!
Then I remember the scene in Fight Club where the Narrator has been visiting self-help groups for people with all sorts of fatal ailments he doesn’t have. He’s just there for the camaraderie. The guided meditation guru at one such group recommends a similar pop-psychology magic trick: find a safe place and a power animal. Whenever pain or fear intrude, go to your safe place and find your power animal. The Narrator chooses an ice cave with a penguin. Fuck that. Tyler Durden holds the Narrator down and pours lye on his hand. The Narrator tries to dissociate. Tyler won’t let him: “This is the greatest moment of your life man, and you’re off somewhere missing it.”
Narrator grovels, begs.
“First you have to give up. First you have to know… not fear… know… that someday you’re gonna die.”
“You don’t know how this feels!”
Tyler shows Narrator burn mark on his own hand.
Narrator becomes placid, subdued.
Tyler’s closing remark: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
I decide to try it on the next yank. Clenched fists, tears gushing spontaneously. Blood, I’m sure, too. I can’t see the blood, but I know it’s part of the process. What is pain?
Oh, that’s pain. Suddenly, I’m in my body. I’m integrated. Whole. There’s a sort of twisted peace in this. It’s not perfect. I’ve still got thoughts and ideations. I imagine my tooth as the cork to a champagne bottle. I know I don’t get better unless it comes out. I focus on the tooth itself, the pain, the meaning of it all as part of the healing process.
It’s out. Immediate relief. The doctor informs me that pus is oozing out. The pain is gone. What’s utterly amazing is that the panic is gone too. Years of anxiety ooze out, their enamel headstone uprooted.
The doctor waves the bloody crown and root in front of me. “See?”
I do see. I’m hallucinating crystal clarity. Like sunrise over downtown Los Angeles after a night of hard rain from the top of Runyon Canyon. Like years of high-decibel television static, switched off in an instant. Like mushrooms.
Doctor Incredible sews me back up as I marvel at my new superpowers. All that pus. All that anxiety. How will this affect my writing? I’ll probably need to go home and rest. My friend Lauren brought over the Star Wars trilogy. A New Hope sounds good.

performing conscious process

Photo credit: Android Jones

in consciousness and life,
we identify with our practice.

being “in practice” as a philosopher
is more about daily reading & thinking
than having a degree on the wall,
just as being a practicing martial artist
requires daily discipline.

if you wish to become anything of value,
you must train daily to become who you are.

consciousness is procedural.
identity is procedural.

the salience filters of consciousness
are in constant flux.
they are more like a standing wave
than a sieve.

many (if not most) of the lived categories
that suffuse our lives with meaning
are ad hoc,
since our lives are ad hoc
(we don’t merely experience generic concepts like “hat” or “friend”,
but “this particular favorite black ball cap of mine” &
“that individual friend with whom I discussed X yesterday.”)

the “this” of the “hoc”
in “ad hoc”
is temporal, spatial, & idiosyncratic:
“my” “here” “now”.

cognition & perception
(including those of the “proprio-” flavors)
are procedural & largely ad hoc.

hence the effects in
well-performed magic tricks,
hypnogogic hallucinations,
hypnotic states,
and psychedelic states.

for a while now
i’ve been fond of saying that
“consciousness rides chemicals”:
in other words,
consciousness is procedural
(at least in a chemical sense
if not other senses as well).

conceptual distinctions (e.g. “categories”)
& cognitive context
may be sedimented into core cognitive operations.

such sedimentation is common in early development.

later in life,
it becomes clear that
for many forms of
conceptual & cognitive infrastructure,
the “use it or lose it” rule applies:
neurons that no longer fire together
relax their wires.
machinery not well used & maintained
decays into
the neuro-chemistry of forgotten skills.

as it is in detroit or in ancient rome:
so it is with the mind.

many mansions of the mind
lie in ruins.


is a local & logical
piling up of memes
such that a thesis makes sense.

“framing” is how some academics today manage to cling to partial intelligibility.

framing is local.
for framing to perform any useful logical work,
the local frame
must resonate with a sedimented conceptual framework,
leading to resonance with the thesis.

in rare cases,
local framing
may alter a conceptual framework
on a specific topic.

(nested contexts,

consciousness is performed.
consciousness is performative.
identity is performed.
identity is performative.

what i
“identify with”
who i
“identify as”
often dramatically,
with life circumstance.


graziano hypothesis:
consciousness is signal processing.
only signals & processors exist.

like the genome,
the neural substrate for signal processing
will appear largely similar
across individuals
in most test cases.

like small individual differences in the genome,
sedimented or locally framed infrastructure
that provides a salience context
for signals
may differ wildly,
especially with respect to high-level, abstract sub-signals
like those we find in religion, politics, morality, or worldview.

who tunes the channels
for the internal radars
that sniff out
in our lives as animals
in academics?

when i say
“consciousness is procedural,”
on one level,
i mean to echo
something very similar to
graziano’s “attention schema theory”:
viz., “awareness is a model of attention.”

saying “consciousness is procedural”,
means i wish to treat
consciousness as a physical process,
highly attuned to initial conditions.

change those initial conditions,
(e.g. by changing your conceptual frame,
changing your set & setting,
changing your life situation,
reading an article full of useful & persuasive philosophical distinctions,
drinking a glass of wine,
or smoking cannabis),
and you’ll change consciousness-as-process
as well as consciousness-as-(signal)-processor.

existential upshot:
consciousness & identity are in flux.
they’re procedural & performative.
they’re part of a great becoming.
daily practice helps determine them.
choice is involved.

even one’s sedimented conceptual framework
& salience filters
are in flux
and may be altered.

no “soul” exists.
no “mind” exists.
no “i” exists.
(or, if that’s too strong for you:)
“i” change (even “the i” we mean by “i” changes.)
“existence precedes essence” (sartre).
you only ever “are” who you “are” here & now.

consciousness & identity are procedural & performative.

that’s why it’s important
in your ongoing quest for awareness & self-awareness
to pay attention to set & setting
to develop a practice.


The Essence of Peopling

Intuition of the Instant: French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Our Paradoxical Experience of Time

On Global Economy and the Spirit of the Age

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money.  They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.”
The Dark Knight

“America isn’t a country.  It’s a business.  Now give me my money.”
– Killing Them Softly

Theoretically, capitalism isn’t the problem.  Aristotle once argued that democracy was the “least among evils” as a political architecture (compared, for instance, to tyranny and oligarchy).[1]  Similarly, perhaps, capitalism…among economic architectures.  It’s certainly more egalitarian than feudalism.  No.  Capitalism isn’t the problem.  The way global capital is practiced today is a problem.  Hey U.S. citizens, are you surprised that the world is turning evil?  The legal mandate for corporations in the USA is that they maximize profit to shareholders.  The army of American corporations is an army of money-robots with no morality except for the single virtue:  maximize profit.  We made it that way.  It’s not just the norm.  It’s in the legal fabric that is subject to our votes.  If we want a better world, let’s change the laws that govern corporations, allowing them to be socially responsible.  Then let’s motivate corporate social responsibility.  After all, we’ve got centuries of traditions that sustain the legal fiction that corporations (of any size) are rational agents.  What kind of rationality would you give to an army of robots with super-human economic strength?  What future exists for a world ruled by ruthlessly greedy, giant robo-dinosaurs?

Suppose we win the race to the Singularity…and lose our very humanity in the process.  Suppose we accomplish Strong AI in ways that would make this generation’s Einsteins blush.  We map the physics of subatomic particles.  We build warp drives.  We travel the known universe in seconds.  These accomplishments would be marvelous, breath-taking, ground-breaking, and awe-inspiring.  Far better than pyramids.  But what if the trade-off is a world that is heartless and inhumane?  Is it worth it?

Yesterday, I saw a bum get arrested for sitting on a curb in the 99 Cent Store parking lot.  Was his crime being poor?  Smelly? Unsightly? Disturbing working class consumers trying to score some cheap coconut water and sunglasses?

Today, I got angry at a California Buddhist trying to tell me “you can’t take it with you.”  Can I leave it to my kids?  My community?  Do the words “legacy” or “heritage” mean nothing?  Don’t get me wrong.  Buddhism is, overall, a peaceful belief-system.  As a critique of Christianity, I used to say that “resurrection puts the Ego back into reincarnation.”  The issue I had today with the California Buddhist was precisely that of Ego.  Individualism.  Buddhism grown individualistic.  Here was a suboptimal display of Buddhism confronting private property.  He says, “You can’t take it with you.”  I ask, “Does that mean I can’t give back?”

Belief systems are social.  Moral choices are social.  Moral judgments are social.  Indeed, language is social.

Aristotle talks about how we owe our parents an infinite debt.[2]  They gave us the infinitely valuable gift of life.  What do we owe to our parents?  What do we owe to the rainforest, the oceans, the earth?  What do we owe to Homo Erectus, the first African story-tellers, the first Indian musicians, the first painters of caves, builders of cities, tamers of goats, planters of crops…Aristotle, Da Vinci, Bach, and the vast wealth of our global cultural heritage?  What do we owe to the sun, the moon, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe?  What do we owe to the love of our friends, our family, our community?  All of these are the common heritage of humanity.  All of these are infinite debts.

Infinite debts can’t be calculated.  They can never be repaid.  That doesn’t mean we can’t be accountable to them.  Kant said, “Keep your promises.”  Even financial ones?  What if you fall on hard times?  What if you’re a mega-bank?  Sorry, Kant.  Worse than promise-breakers are ingrates in the face of magnanimity.  Use your judgment.  Which is worse?  A man who repays every penny of debt he ever borrows…but lacks gratitude for the infinite gifts at his fingertips (e.g. despises his parents, extorts usury on his borrowers, relentlessly harvests all common lands for personal profit)?  Or on the other hand, a person who cannot always repay her debts but fosters constant gratitude for life among her peers:  who creates, collaborates, and shares with her community?  Keep your promises.  Even more:  be grateful.

Today’s global economy wants to privatize the global abundance that is our common legacy.  And today’s global economy wants to make you in its image.  Not only are you expected to believe in private property, you are supposed to be motivated by private property to the extreme.  Coconut water and sunglasses.  Employment ads.  Patent trolls. Exxon. All of this is backward. Today’s ethos murders our common global heritage so that it might dissect it into private profits for a privileged few. Isolationist privatization breeds vicious social Darwinism.  It’s not just corporations that need new incentive.

Fortunately, at least for networked individuals, it’s not all bad news.  A shift is afoot.  Clay Shirky outlines it in his book Cognitive Surplus.  Projects and movements like Wikipedia, Wikileaks, the Open Source movement, the Pirate Party, Arab Spring, Occupy, and Makers of all sorts are emerging.  The motives here are not for profit.  Even Aristotle would laud creating and sharing and contributing freely out of our personal abundance as a noble and grateful response to the infinite gift we’ve been given.

Forces in the global economy systematically minimize the infinite gratitude that defines our humanity.  These forces are its moral defect, its ugliness.  Today’s practice of global economy is a bad habit.  Let’s change it.


[1] Aristotle, Politics, III.11.
[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 8.14.

Creation & Compensation

“All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind” – attributed to Aristotle (Google it)

So far as I can quickly ascertain, the quote “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind” is a paraphrase of Politics, 1328b-1329a, “But at present we are studying the best constitution, and this is the constitution under which the state would be most happy, and it has been stated before that happiness cannot be forthcoming without virtue; it is therefore clear from these considerations that in the most nobly constituted state, and the one that possesses men that are absolutely just, not merely just relatively to the principle that is the basis of the constitution, the citizens must not live a mechanic or a mercantile life (for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue), nor yet must those who are to be citizens in the best state be tillers of the soil.”  (tr. Rackham)

Just previously, however, Aristotle had stated, “These then are the occupations that virtually every state requires (for the state is not any chance multitude of people but one self-sufficient for the needs of life, as we say, and if any of these industries happens to be wanting, it is impossible for that association to be absolutely self-sufficient). It is necessary therefore for the state to be organized on the lines of these functions; consequently it must possess a number of farmers who will provide the food, and craftsmen, and the military class, and the wealthy, and priests and judges to decide questions of necessity and of interests.”  In this passage, Aristotle uses ‘priests’ (ἱερεῖς) as a synonym for ‘councillors’ (βουλευομένους).  So apparently, it’s not that Aristotle thinks all paid labor is ignoble, just that it’s ignoble for citizens to work and be paid full-time for anything other than military, judicial, or legislative activities in the community or “partnership” (κοινωνίαν, 1252a).  IOW, what today we’d call “the work of politics.”   Specifically, those who strive to be Aristotelian citizens shouldn’t be farmers, merchants / bankers, or “mechanics” (post Industrial Age, read “factory workers,” the great 19th and 20th C stock metaphor for all labor).  Aristotle’s pupil Alex built Empire.

Of course, in Plato’s great work on politics, he observes that “no one wishes to rule voluntarily, but they demand wages as though the benefit from ruling were not for them but for those who are ruled” (Republic, I.345e tr. Bloom).  The entire passage from which this quote is lifted in Republic I resonates with the sentiment “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind”.  Summary:

[Socrates:] “Then this benefit, getting wages, is for each not a result of his art; but, if it must be considered precisely, the medical art produces health, and the wage-earner’s art wages; the housebuilder’s art produces a house and the wage-earner’s art, following upon it, wages; and so it is with all the others; each accomplishes its own work and benefits that which it has been set over. And if pay were not attached to it, would the craftsman derive benefit from the art?” [Thrasymachus:] “It doesn’t look like it,” he said. [Socrates:] “Does he then produce no benefit when he works for nothing?” [Thrasymachus:] “I suppose he does.” (Republic, I.346d tr. Bloom).

As I see it, Plato is saying something like this:  Artists are inherently valuable to communities. Artists create value by the active exercise of their virtue of being artists. Each artisan produces benefit apart from, before, and beyond any transactional wages that could later be attached to the benefit she creates.  Initially, the artist creates benefit for herself and whomever she, in her magnanimity, gifts with that benefit.  For example, the shoemaker would have the best shoes in abundance…but only shoes.  The doctor’s family would be healthy, but might struggle to plant crops or forge flatware.  The community recognizes the potential communal benefit of the artist by embracing her art and asking her to benefit the community rather than just herself.  In exchange, they offer her wages to benefit them rather than only herself. The community grants the artist a measure of Universal Sign (Marx, money trades for anything) in exchange for the Particular Signed (the artisan’s work).  Higher still, I’d like to think that it really can be gifting in both directions, with the notion of “exchange” abstracted as far as possible.

As far as Aristotle is concerned, the situation is even worse than slavery being his next point in the book.  Sadly, it’s quite close to being his first point in the book.  IOW, it’s foundational.  His myth is:  we’re born masters & slaves.

“In this subject as in others the best method of investigation is to study things in the process of development from the beginning. The first coupling together of persons then to which necessity gives rise is that between those who are unable to exist without one another: for instance the union of female and male for the continuance of the species (and this not of deliberate purpose, but with man as with the other animals and with plants there is a natural instinct to desire to leave behind one another being of the same sort as oneself); and the union of natural ruler and natural subject for the sake of security (for he that can foresee with his mind is naturally ruler and naturally master, and he that can do these things with his body is subject and naturally a slave; so that master and slave have the same interest).” (Aristotle, Politics I.1252a)


English-Greek for passages cited:
– Aristotle, On Work:
– Plato, On Work:
– Aristotle, On Master-Slave:

English Plato (with Stephanus numbers):
– Republic (tr. Bloom):

English Aristotle (with Bekker numbers):
– Politics (tr. Carnes Lord):  cheap on amazon, hit me with a link if you find it online free.

Secondary Refs:

– Politika:
– Politeia: (Bloom’s Preface)
– Zoon Politikon:

Co-creating Values

“Companions, the creator seeks, not corpses — and not herds or believers either. Fellow creators the creator seeks — those who write new values on new tablets.”

– Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Prologue

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”[1]

– Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

@Kant.  First critique:  What are you smoking, Kant?  Too big, too fast.  In startups as in morality, inflated abstraction kills.  Get off your megalomaniacal dopamine.  Too many entrepreneurs and dreamers fail, thinking “Everyone will love it.  It’s gonna be huge.”  To some extent, Hegel reminds you that your philosophy is only good at blowing morality bubbles.   Despite your best intentions, truth (or knowledge) in morality isn’t like math or physics.  Your magnum opus dreamed of updating certainty in metaphysics to match Newtonian physics.  Granted, Kant:  Newton’s work titillates.  Enter Einstein.  Morality is contextual.  Still, your insight remains:  morality must always be shared.

@Kant.  Second critique:  your model of the self is isolated.  Perhaps it was politically necessary–in order to revolt from monarchy and aristocracy–to posit a robust notion of the individual, endowed by Reason with freedom, autonomy, individuality, and rights.  But highlighting individuality hides solidarity.  Highlighting the fact that we each have a unique genome hides the fact that we all share over 99% of it.  How much more do we share memes?  What first appeared as maxims now manifest as social memes,[2] metaphors capable of cementing solidarity among those who share and live by them.  Maxims (like fetishes) are private and unique.  Memes (like totems) are shared while remaining personal and lived.  Memes are values.  Go masturbate to your maxims, Kant.  I’ll take my meme-experiment to the pub.

@Nietzsche.  Nice Bible reference.[3]  How does one write on these “new tablets” of the heart?  We’re always the page, but we’re also the pen.  We author and coauthor each other every day.  I hear so many read you, Nietzsche, as an intensification of Kant & Descartes:  your command “Become hard!” can have a very individual ring in some ears.  Today’s egoists and identity-addicts listen thus.  But here, you seek companions.

@Nietzsche.  In logic, the moral premise (often hidden) is the premise that contains the should.  The should is impotent without the willAction alone matters, and action requires only will, not should.   In a world where the standard template for should has been hijacked, what new moralities are possible?  What does it mean for will to free itself from alien law, to roar to death its 1,000 golden “shoulds?”  At least that desire and impetus-to-act feel authentic.  Becoming a hero of the will, a liberator of choice, does not always require isolation as a prerequisite.  It often requires companions.

What does it mean to be a creator of values?  Values aren’t maxims.  Maxims can be scribbled in the dark.  Values need at least one like, one share.  Values are memes.  They live somewhere between maxims and Laws of Reason:  never private, never universal, rarely widespread, always shared.  This is the New Enlightenment–don’t strive for Universality (like Kant), or even virality (like today’s fame-frenzied startup marketeers).  Though spread is an objective metric of any value, from the inside, creating values always feels like sharing.

The first step toward creating values is to have values.  Transvaluate your maxims into memes.  Live in public.  Let your memes compete with other memes for survival.  If the lion’s share of this self-overcoming feels “hard” at first, it is.  And it only gets harder.


[1] For Kant, a “maxim” is a private principle for guiding personal behavior.

[2] In Dawkins’ original sense: a “meme” is a “unit of mimesis.”

[3] 2 Corinthians 3:3.


Review of Patricia Kuhl, “Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain?” Developmental Science 10:1 (2007), pp.110-120.

“I consider the body of a man as being a sort of machine…” – Rene Descartes

In this article, Patricia Kuhl discusses the results of a set of experiments designed “to compare the efficacy of live social interaction as opposed to televised or audio-only presentation as vehicles for learning foreign-language material” for nine-month olds (112).  Kuhl found that infants at this age learn more from interaction with their mothers than from television or audio only.  Kuhl did not discuss any experimental designs in which televisions had fur and tits and had raised the child from birth.   Moreover, Kuhl did not discuss experimental designs in which infants had received, from birth, several hours a day of rigorous operant conditioning that primed them to “veg out” in front of televisions.  Regardless of such omissions, in summary, when it comes to language acquisition, Kuhl found that actual mothers are better mothers than televisions or audio devices.  Kuhl’s results reinforce what human mothers have suspected for hundreds of thousands of years—if a mother wants her infant to learn a language, her best strategy is to socially reinforce language skills in a natural and nurturing setting.

Kuhl’s article is a welcome, if partial, corrective to a sad state of academic affairs.  The HUMANS ARE MACHINES metaphor, in vogue since Descartes, has been refined in the past few decades into the deeply-entrenched and stratified metaphor HUMAN BRAINS ARE COMPUTERS.  The metaphorical entailments reach all the way down to the minutiae of brain function, in which language-users are said to “process” “information.”  (If information is information, why would it matter to an infant whether linguistic information comes from a TV screen or from their own actual mother who carried them for nine months, gave birth to them, then suckled, cuddled, nurtured, and loved them for nine more?)  All hail the Information Age.

If adult human brains are computers, then the development of those brains implies the metaphor that INFANT BRAINS ARE LITTLE COMPUTERS.  Kuhl begins her seminal article by announcing the theory she wishes to depose, what she calls “the computational conclusion”:  “Research in the last decade has provided some hints on how infants ‘crack the speech code’ – they possess powerful computational strategies that have been shown to advance early language learning” (110, emphasis mine).  Kuhl partially explodes the BABIES ARE COMPUTERS metaphor by promoting the hypothesis that normal social interaction is crucial to an infant’s language development.

It is understandable that with the advent of widespread personal computing and internet-usage in the early 1990’s in the Western first-world, the BRAINS ARE COMPUTERS metaphor might capture the popular imagination as a pop-culture meme and the academic imagination as a potentially fecund research tool.  The philosophical underpinnings of the psychological establishment’s methodologies were not immune to the spread of this powerful meme.  Kuhl’s genuflection to this philosophical style of analysis is nowhere more evident than in the section entitled “What constitutes a social agent?” She parses social agency into interactivity, contingency, reciprocity (turn-taking), and asks such questions as, “…would an inanimate entity, imbued with certain interactive features, induce infant perception of a social being?  And if so, could infants learn language from such a socially augmented entity?  …Would infants learn from an interactive TV presentation, one in which the adult tutor was shown on a television but actually performing live from another room so that contingent looking, smiling, and other reciprocal reactions could occur?  Could infants learn a new language from a socially interactive robot?” (115)

Kuhl discovered that social interaction is integral to language-learning in infants.  But isn’t social interaction, especially between a mother and her infant, such a bother?  Isn’t there another way?  What about robots?  Computers?  Televisions?  If mothers could simply outsource to robots the time they spent teaching language to their infants, they would be much more productive in the workplace and would have far more leisure time.  The same felt-imperative, of course, applies to teachers and professors from preschool through post-doctorate:  why waste time on face-to-face instruction if we can make learning virtual?  Let’s find a way to make machines educate us.  If only the world of The Matrix were here already, we could plug ourselves in…and, even better, we could plug in our infants.  Why do today’s Luddites persist in the preference of Mother to Matrix?

The answer may have to do more with Nim Chimpsky than Noam Chomsky.  In a section entitled “Neurobiological connections:  communicative learning in animals,” Kuhl notes that “young birds operantly conditioned to present conspecific song to themselves by pressing a key learn the songs they hear” (115).  While Kuhl fails to address primates in this section, it is well-known that some great apes raised in zoos from infancy are taught to comprehend human language on computer screens.  Because no experiments have yet been performed on human infants raised in zoos from infancy and taught human language on computer screens, evidence that might balance the following claims is scant.  However, it is clear that great apes raised in human environments from birth and taught American Sign-Language (ASL) are not only immersed in human communication, but also in human culture.  Of course, such apes lack an actual mother’s breast-feeding and care, and, being another species, could never integrate into a society of homo sapiens, try though they may.  In one famous instance, Lucy, a chimp raised by human caregivers from birth to 12 years, after being placed in a chimpanzee rehabilitation center, displayed sexual attraction only toward humans.  It is reported that Washoe, another chimp raised by humans from birth, when placed among chimps for the first time, had trouble adjusting to the idea that she was not human.  However, after integrating into her community of ASL-speaking chimps, Washoe spontaneously used ASL to communicate with others and even taught the language to her offspring.

Given the foregoing, it might be argued that caregivers nurture their young to be adaptable to a culture.  Inculturation (socialization, “Bildung”) is a Gestalt process—complex, intimate, generational and communal.  In humans, language acquisition is only one part of this process.  Human young adopt skills that help them adapt to their local environment.  For instance, Michael Merzenich points out that 40% of boys in San Paulo can bounce a soccer ball on their heads by age six.  Freud enlightened the West to the fact that adult human sexuality begins to form in infancy.  Feral children seem ill-adapted.  Children raised by TV often demonstrate undesirable behavioral and psychological traits.  In this context, Kuhl’s observation that “language learning relies on children’s appreciation of others’ communicative intentions, their sensitivity to joint visual attention, and their desire to imitate” (110) is welcome.

The notion that inculturation is a Gestalt process points to philosophies of language and cognition that offer stark alternatives to the “computational” model.  For instance, Michael Reddy reminds us that speech is not a mere “conduit” for information. Searle and Austin remind us that speech is a human action, and that each utterance may be fruitfully analyzed first and foremost within the realm of human interaction.  Crucially, Nietzsche reminds us that the desire to “exist socially” lies at the origin of language.  Many post-structuralists suggest that symbolic representational systems are ubiquitous—including Barthes who argues that “fashion statements” can be analyzed as signs in a system, and Lacan who contends that the unconscious is structured as a language.  Upshot?  Kudos to Kuhl:  Language acquisition, in any form, is an aspect of socialization.

What’s yours?

For a while now I’ve been pondering the question:  What is money?  I’ve come to some rough hypotheses:  (1) money measures our lives; (2) money is a placeholder for value; (3) money is infused with the values of those who hold it in trust.  My thought-experiment today follows up on this last point:  what if every time you spend your money, you are actually spending everyone’s money?

Many of us have jobs.  What is a job?  From one angle, a job is a place where you go to perform a service that society values.  In exchange, you receive a certain amount of “tokens” at a certain rate.  You trade your time for value.  Your time is valuable.  Karl Marx and Adam Smith agreed on the engine of labor-economy:  ORGANIZED LABOR IS MONEY.  Since your life is made of time, and you can use some of that time to labor, and labor trades for money, LIFETIME IS MONEY.  Alternatively, if life is measured by time, and time is money, then life is measured by money.  The heavens move and money circulates.  Money is the clock by which we live.

Karl Marx once observed that money is the “universal solvent”–money trades for anything.  So what if we took money out of the equation?  The equation still balances as a barter between yourself and your society:  you go to work, create goods or perform services that society values, and in exchange receive (something that trades for) goods and services you value–food, shelter, clothing, a new xbox, etc.  Money, then, is a placeholder for value.

“Your money’s no good here.”  Which of us wants to work for Hitler?  Who among us would be willing to buy clothes from a store known to be a front for a child-slavery cartel?  I imagine we all understand the risk in accepting a loan from the Mafia.  Similarly, under certain conditions, some of us wouldn’t even consider taking a loan from our own parents.  Being in debt to someone means being in debt to their values. Employees tacitly represent company values. Employing and being employed, earning and spending, borrowing and lending:  money is infused with the values of those who hold it in trust.  Add this to the fact that each of us is, potentially, a creator of value.  If money is infused with the values of those that hold it in trust, and each of us is a creator of value, then each of us is poised to redefine the meaning of money.

Peter Singer[1] asks:  What would you do if you knew you could save a toddler from drowning, even though it meant ruining your brand new $200 shoes?  Singer follows up this question by alerting you to the fact that it takes roughly $200 to feed, clothe, house and provide clean drinking water to a child in Africa for an entire year.  Reflecting on Singer has led me to the question:   What if every time you spend your money, you are actually spending everyone’s money? The imperative to ask this question may be the new cornerstone of a rational economic ethics.  I call it the capitalist imperative.

To qualify this, it may be argued that, from the standpoint of theoretical ethics, the capitalist imperative is hopelessly broad.  Just as Hegel critiqued Kant’s categorical imperative for being hopelessly general, how much more might a similar critique be leveled when the general rule for individual action is economic?  It’s not always clear how to stand in the shoes of another, even when they’re standing right in front of us.  How much more so if we’re being asked to try on seven billion pairs of shoes?

As another qualification, it may be pointed out that we’re animals.  We’re bodies.  If the local environment offers abundance, what kind of great apes feel guilty for eating?  If the local environment provides shelter, what kind of great apes feel guilty for sheltering themselves?   Given the choice, what great ape wouldn’t choose air-conditioning, delicious meals, power, status, and pleasure?  However globally we may choose to think, we must still live and move and have our being locally.

So the capitalist imperative is a general and heuristic rule for individual action.  It is also sensitive to our practical needs and desires as animals.  It teaches mindfulness that we live in a global system of exchange; that there is a global system of monetary equivalences that most people happily and intentionally ignore; that every time money changes hands, values and lives are being created and destroyed.   It’s your two hundred dollars:  new shoes or saving a life in Africa?  The choice is, more than ever, yours.

[1] Singer’s original question is posed in The Life You Can Save (2009, p. 3):  “On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand over the child to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?”