Kafka: The Early Years

How did Kafka become Kafka? This eagerly anticipated third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s definitive biography of the writer answers that question with more facts and insight than ever before, describing the complex personal, political, and cultural circumstances that shaped the young Franz Kafka (1883–1924). It tells the story of the years from his birth in Prague to the beginning of his professional and literary career in 1910, taking the reader up to just before the breakthrough that resulted in his first masterpieces, including “The Metamorphosis.” Brimming with vivid and often startling details, Stach’s narrative invites readers deep inside this neglected period of Kafka’s life. The book’s richly atmospheric portrait of his German Jewish merchant family and his education, psychological development, and sexual maturation draws on numerous sources, some still unpublished, including family letters, schoolmates’ memoirs, and early diaries of his close friend Max Brod.

The biography also provides a colorful panorama of Kafka’s wider world, especially the convoluted politics and culture of Prague. Before World War I, Kafka lived in a society at the threshold of modernity but torn by conflict, and Stach provides poignant details of how the adolescent Kafka witnessed violent outbreaks of anti-Semitism and nationalism. The reader also learns how he developed a passionate interest in new technologies, particularly movies and airplanes, and why another interest—his predilection for the back-to-nature movement—stemmed from his “nervous” surroundings rather than personal eccentricity.

The crowning volume to a masterly biography, this is an unmatched account of how a boy who grew up in an old Central European monarchy became a writer who helped create modern literature.

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Read also: Review

Kafka: The Decisive Years

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Islamic Philosophers to Know

If challenged to name ten philosophers in ten seconds, some of us might make it to ten. Most of us could possibly hit seven. Of those, the majority are likely to be ancient Greek figures with the remainder more modern, western ones. If a non-western name is to be offered it is likely to be one of the extremely famous thinkers of Asia, such as Confucius, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, or Sun Tzu. How many of us would produce a thinker from the Islamic world as an example?

This is a shame, as the Islamic Golden Age produced some of the most important thought in human history. It is through Islamic thinkers that the west was able to regain access to the thought of Aristotle and Plato. Of the stars that have proper names in common usage, most of them have the names given to them by Arabic astronomers. We use the numeral system they devised, including the zero. They set the standard for the scientific method for hundreds of years. It is impossible to fully understand western thought without understanding the ideas of Islamic thinkers.

Here are ten of the most underrated and under-appreciated philosophers from the Islamic world, ordered by date.

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La religion de l’ère moderne

Une approche marxiste du phénomène religieux implique un bilan critique du sécularisme libéral. Contre les prétentions de ce dernier, il s’agit d’abord d’envisager le moment théocratique de la religion comme une incapacité de la politique à s’autonomiser. Dans ce texte, Bolivar Echeverria constate que la religion du monde moderne (le fétichisme marchand), bien que sécularisée, reproduit des aspects notables de la religiosité archaïque : elle consacre une impuissance collective, elle empêche la prise en charge commune des affaires publiques. À l’inverse, l’auteur montre en quoi certaines formes de religiosité encouragent l’autonomie politique, citant le jésuitisme catholique et sa tentative de produire une modernité alternative. « Il est indispensable, malgré l’impasse dans laquelle nous a conduit la modernité capitaliste, de revenir au projet profond de la modernité – une modernité qui permet l’abondance et l’émancipation –, et de s’aventurer dans la construction d’une modernité alternative. »

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Why Philosophy Needs Literature

Why do you think that philosophy (in general) needs literature, the humanities, and other arts?

The answer to that question goes to the heart of my recent book Inside Ethics which is—this is one way of putting it—an argument for placing greater importance on the humanities, including literature and the other arts, within moral philosophy in particular. I bring out how we need these disciplines’ non-neutral methods to arrive at the kinds of empirical images of human beings, and also to animals, that we seek in ethics. One of my core claims is that, absent humanistic methods, we can’t bring clearly into view certain egregious wrongs to human beings and to animals.

There is a moral here that extends beyond ethics. I set out to challenge ingrained ideas about how we get the world to view in a manner pertinent to ethics, showing that humanistic and literary contributions are immediately relevant. Along the way, I contest received beliefs about what objectivity and rationality are like. What emerges is a lesson that has application in every part of philosophy—a lesson about needing to widen our understanding of the objective world, and of the types of thinking capable of revealing it. In the book, I bring these ideas to bear, for instance, on a philosophy of mind, arguing that our thinking has to reflect this new framework if we are to do justice to mental phenomena.

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Read also:  Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought

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The Conquest of Happiness

Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness attempted to diagnose the myriad causes of unhappiness in modern life and chart a path out of the seemingly inescapable malaise so prevalent even in safe and prosperous Western societies. More than eighty years later, Russell’s wisdom remains as true as it was on its initial release. Eschewing guilt-based morality, Russell lays out a rationalist prescription for living a happy life, including the importance of cultivating interests outside oneself and the dangers of passive pleasure. In this new edition, best-selling philosopher Daniel C. Dennett reintroduces Russell to a new generation, stating that Conquest is both “a fascinating time capsule” and “a prototype of the flood of self-help books that have more recently been published, few of them as well worth reading today as Russell’s little book.”

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Becoming Other: Foucault, Deleuze, and the Political Nature of Thought  

In this paper I employ the notion of the ‘thought of the outside’ as developed by Michel Foucault, in order to defend the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze against the criticisms of ‘elitism,’ ‘aristocratism,’ and ‘political indifference’—famously leveled by Alain Badiou and Peter Hallward.  First, I argue that their charges of a theophanic conception of Being, which ground the broader political claims, derive from a misunderstanding of Deleuze’s notion of univocity, as well as a failure to recognize the significance of the concept of multiplicity in Deleuze’s thinking.  From here, I go on to discuss Deleuze’s articulation of the ‘dogmatic image of thought,’ which, insofar as it takes ‘recognition’ as its model, can only ever think what is already solidified and sedimented as true, in light of existing structures and institutions of power.  Then, I examine Deleuze’s reading of Foucault and the notion of the ‘thought of the outside,’ showing the ‘outside’ as the unthought that lies at the heart of thinking itself, as both its condition and its impossibility.  Insofar as it is essential to thinking itself, finally, I argue that the passage of thought to the outside is not an absolute flight out of this world, as Hallward claims, but rather, a return of the different that constitutes the Self for Deleuze. Thinking is an ongoing movement of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, or as Foucault says, death and life.  Thinking, as Deleuze understands it, is essentially creative; it reconfigures the virtual, thereby literally changing the world.    Thinking is therefore, according to Deleuze, thoroughly political.

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Philosophy Is Not a Science

In sum, philosophy is not science. For it employs the rational tools of logical analysis and conceptual clarification in lieu of empirical measurement. And this approach, when carefully carried out, can yield knowledge at times more reliable and enduring than science, strictly speaking. For scientific measurement is in principle always subject to at least some degree of readjustment based on future observation. Yet sound philosophical argument achieves a measure of immortality.

So if we philosophers want to restore philosophy’s authority in the wider culture, we should not change its name but engage more often with issues of contemporary concern — not so much as scientists but as guardians of reason. This might encourage the wider population to think more critically, that is, to become more philosophical.

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Karl Polanyi and twenty-first century socialism

In recent decades, grassroots movements around the world have mobilized millions of people against the commodification of land, labor, and money that has been central to the project of “free market” globalization. Efforts to build the solidarity and social economy, to expand and defend the commons, to implement a Basic Income for all citizens, and to resist land grabs by speculators and giant corporations  all rest on the recognition that it is inhuman to leave people and their natural surroundings vulnerable to the dictates of impersonal markets. These initiatives have sometimes been inspired by the powerful argument that Karl Polanyi developed in The Great Transformation, where he explained the disastrous consequences of imagining that land, labor and money could and should be treated like any other good or service, to be sold on the market.

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Aristotle on the Nature of Friendship

One part of the investigations into human nature in the Nicomachean Ethics is the subject of friendship. Two whole books, Book Eight and Book Nine, are dedicated to analyses on this subject. Aristotle uses the Greek word philia for what we would call friendship. In Book Eight Aristotle proposes that there are three different types of friendship, each with corresponding circumstances that in a way determine each type. There are friendships based on utility, pleasure, and the good. If Aristotle’s goal in his investigations in the Nicomachean Ethics is to determine the best way to lead a good life, and to achieve eudaimonia, or human flourishing, then understanding what friendship is and in fact having good friends is a prerequisite for the acquisition of a life which may be called truly good.

This paper will analyze Aristotle’s arguments on the nature of friendship and will examine in what ways that friendship indeed is a component required for living a good life. Although it may appear from a reading of the Nicomachean Ethics that it may seem that only perfect or virtue friendship is the type of friendship that is worth pursuing, this paper will argue that all three types of friendships are worthy of pursuit. This argument is supported by Aristotle’s definition of friendship in the Rhetoric that states that friendship is a type of reciprocal well-wishing. This study will analyze Aristotle’s arguments for the three types of friendships and show how his distinctions are relevant to the modern world. This study will also propose that by understanding Aristotle’s distinctions one may achieve a clarity concerning human relations and that by practicing caution and moderation in the early stages of friendship will protect a virtuous person from the non-virtuous.

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Ethical Know-how-Action, Wisdom and Cognition

How can science be brought to connect with experience? This book by Francisco J. Varela addresses two of the most challenging problems facing contemporary neurobiology and cognitive science: first, understanding how we unconsciously execute habitual actions as a result of neurological and cognitive processes that are not formal actions of conscious judgment but part of a habitual nexus of systematic self-organization; second, creating an ethics adequate to our present awareness that there is no such thing as a transcendental self, a stable subject, or a soul.

In earlier modes of cognitive science, cognition was conceptualized according to a model of representation and abstract reasoning. In the realm of ethics, this corresponded to the philosophical tenet that to do what is ethical is to do what corresponds to an abstract set of rules. By contrast to this computationalism, the author places central emphasis on what he terms “enaction” cognition as the ability to negotiate embodied, everyday living in a world that is inseparable from our sensory-motor capacities.

Apart from his researches in cognitive science, the bodies of thought that enable Varela to make this link are phenomenology and two representatives of what he calls the “wisdom traditions”: Confucian ethics and Buddhist epistemology. From the Confucian tradition, he draws upon the Mencius to propose an ethics of praxis, one in which ethical action is conceived as a project of being rather than as a system of judgment, less a matter of rules that are universally applicable than a goal of expertise, sagehood.

The Buddhist contribution to his project encompasses “the embodiment of the void” and the “pragmatics of a virtual self.” How does a belief system that does not posit a unitary self or subject conceive the living of an “I”? In summation, the author proposes an ethics founded on “savoir faire” that is a practice of transformation based on a constant recognition of the “virtual” nature of ourselves in the actual operations of our mental lives.

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