A Divine Orgasm? How to be a Philosopher celebrates turning two

Well, as regular readers may have noticed, this Philosopher has been on blog hiatus so she can get her PhD written. But today I have put a pause on the thesis-ing to do a bit of blogging to celebrate the second birthday of How to be a Philosopher!

Since I really can’t escape my thesis at the moment, I thought I would deviate from talking about philosophical practice and tell you about some philosophical content. You guessed it, my thesis. Definitely not my academic pitch, the ‘thesis of my thesis’ for fellow philosophers, but the after a pint or three in the pub ‘well you asked for it’ random punter pitch.

Yet, this will be much less swear-y and you will just have to imagine the drunken slurring. (In truth I have done an uncensored version sober for fellow philosophers, you can approximate it for yourself here by replacing every ‘oh GOD!’ with a ‘F*CK me!’.)

Here we go. [Spoiler alert: GoT Series 7 finale referrence below.]

So you know that feeling you get on rollercoasters, that thrilling ‘oh God!’ sensation of the adrenal load suppressing the impulse to evacuate your bowels? For those of you who only get the impulse to evacuate your bowels, how about the thrill looking out off a cliff over a storm-whipped sea, the awesome ‘oh God!’ might of the ocean? If you think we should really be tucked up in bed on such occasions, what about when you come? Yes, you know, orgasm. That, no matter how you get there, feeling of ‘oh GOD!’

Well a heap of dead, white, did I mention privileged, eighteenth-century blokes mostly in Britain got all hot under the collar about how to understand that ‘oh God!’ feeling philosophically. They even gave it a name — the sublime.

By the middle of that century, all these blokes could think about was how the seemingly terrible could bring so much delight — the ‘oh God!’ of not only those crashing oceans but also ragged mountains. Remembering, it was a relatively new thing to find the vista of the Alps in any way delightful rather than just jolly terrifying. But before then the ‘oh God!’ of the sublime was all about jolly good poetry.

That’s right, poetry.

The sublime originally arrived in Britain via a popular French translation of a rediscovered ancient Greek fragment of a rhetorical text, commonly known in English as, Longinus’ On the Sublime. In it that ‘oh God!’ feeling is first described as ‘irresistible transport’ in poetry.

You know that feeling when you just get caught up and ‘oh God!’ taken up in a thrilling literary expression. If unlike the well-bred gentleman of early modern polite society and you haven’t been moved by Achilles rage, the fate of Dido, or the Lucifer of Paradise Lost, then for the timely popular reference, think of Daenerys ‘oh GOD!-ing!’ on a dragon and/or Jon Snow.

Apart from some truly hilariously chaste allusions to the true beauty of loving the ‘fairer sex’ there is no Dany on Jon ‘oh God!-ing!’ But there is definitely the ‘oh God!’ of an epic’s sublime hero exercising the height of her moral character, who happens to accessorise with a couple dragons.

Although they are the first to discuss it, currently the earliest literary critical accounts in Britain are thought to play no part of the story of the sublime in philosophy, they are only interested in rhetoric not aesthetics. Instead that privilege goes to Third Earl of Shaftesbury, who first described ‘oh God!’ in a forest.

But what the current picture misses (and this is my thesis) is that when you look closely at both the literary critical accounts and Shaftesbury both are actually talking about the sublime as a harmonious ecstatic experience of coming together with god. A divine orgasm? Significantly, they think that only the best and wisest of us have the character for it. Not all is lost for us low-born, apparently we can learn, it just takes practice.

There you go, then, my philosophy PhD is all about how to have the best eighteenth-century orgasm with god.

What about that for a birthday treat?


Bernini, Blessed Ludovica Albertoni  (Credit Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55700839)

P.S. Better get back to the thesis-ing. Expect How To Be A Philosopher to return to regularity in the new year. In the meantime you can always browse the back catalogue. Check out the full list here.


Special Edition #IWD17: My PhilosopHERs to read

I recently experienced that moment of teacher gold-dust, when at the end of a meeting with a student she stops to tell you how much she likes your course, how glad she is that you are her tutor. Most pleasingly, though, she especially appreciated the philosophy I had chosen for our class to read.

i.e., All philosophers who happen to be women.

Now I did not knowingly read a philosopher who happened to be a woman until I was in my final, philosophy honours year — most memorably Judith Butler, amongst others. It is likely I had read some philosophy by women before then but not, to my recollection, as the main event, the primary sources, the authority.

So when I had the chance to choose the reading material for a first year philosophy course, they would ALL happen to be women. A vital, obvious approach would have been to look to feminist philosophy, plenty of excellent women philosophers to choose from there! However, I took the equally important, yet alternate tact of reading authoritative, perhaps groundbreaking, or even game changing texts on a central theme in philosophy that just happen to be written by women.

The theme? I went big, perhaps the oldest and the biggest of them all. That gad-fly, know-nothing Socrates searched the streets of Athens for it, Aristotle wondered how to cultivate it, many of us aspire to be it — the good. Not just the morally virtuous, little goody-two-shoes, but the good for, good at, and its aesthetic counterpart, beauty.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, here is my reading list, in reading order (with references). None of these are ‘easy’ reads. All of them are ‘good’ reads.

Christine Korsgaard ‘Two Distinctions in Goodness.’

Things can be good for their own sake, good for some other sake, good in themselves, good from some other thing. Confused? Don’t worry, so seems most of moral philosophy. Thankfully, Korsgaard sorts these out. In The Philosophical Review, 92:2, (1983) pp. 169-195.

Susan Wolf ‘Moral Saints.’

We all want to be morally good, right. We ought always do the right thing. Right? Well, Wolf warns that such moral saintliness is not really worth our heart’s desire. In The Journal of Philosophy, 79:8, (1982) pp. 419-39.

Caroline Korsmeyer ‘Terrible Beauties.’

The terrible — discomforting, confronting, challenging — beautiful? Korsmeyer goes beyond the idea of beauty as merely easy on the eye, to reveal beauty’s emotional depth. In M. Kieran (ed) Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. (2006) pp. 51-63.

Martha Nussbaum, ‘The Speech of Alcibiades: A Reading of Plato’s Symposium.’

Socrates’ good soul is the ideal beauty, while Alcibiades’ beautiful looks cannot save his broken soul. Yet, which is worthy of love? Against the assumption that we should follow Socrates in all things, Nussbaum argues that Plato actually show us that it is a tragic choice between love of good and love of flesh. In Philosophy and Literature, 3:2, (1979) pp. 131-172.

G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy.’

In 20 decisive pages Anscombe annihilates the efforts of moral philosophy pretty much since Aristotle. She argues our main mistake is holding onto a special moral sense of good. In Philosophy, 33, (1958) pp 1-19.

Helen Knight ‘The Use of “Good” in Aesthetic Judgments’

We can all point to a work of art and rightly say ‘that is a good painting, sculpture, film, book, etc’. But Knight tells us exactly what we are picking out when we use good. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 36, (1935-6) pp. 207-222.

Mary Mothersill ‘The Concept of Beauty’

For us philosophers on the street, beauty is a concept eternal, but for mid-twentieth-century philosophical aesthetics, it fell out of fashion and conversation. So for of the good of us all Mothersill put it back on the philosophical books. In Mothersill, M. Beauty Restored. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (1986) pp. 247-77.

Iris Murdoch, ‘The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts.’

Murdoch not only offers a description of the good, but also argues that it is the unifying concept, fundamental to all philosophy. That it is sovereign. In Murdoch, I. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge. (1970) pp. 77-104.

Eileen John ‘Beauty, Interest, and Autonomy.’

We take for granted that we can judge beauty for ourselves. But, we probably do not think that owning such judgments make us a person in our own right. Or that when do not own them, we no longer own ourselves. John shows us otherwise. In The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70:2, (2012) pp. 193-202.


It only really happens when you don’t realise…

An odd thing happened when I reached university. I automatically became an ignorant, racist, homophobe — well, at least in the eyes of my fellow newly acquainted middle-class, liberal, southern state first years. All because I came from rural Queensland (i.e., Australia’s version of the UK’s up north or the US’s deep south, etc).

No doubt I was ignorant when I arrived at university. I have said so previously. However, I was not completely unsophisticated, which is what they meant. I might not have been on a school trip to Europe, but I could still easily point it out on a map. Wow, I even knew it was a continent not a country. Similarly, I was bemused (and quietly amused) that their exclusive institutions necessarily made these homogeneously white north shore Sydneyites (and Melbourne’s equivalent) better educated on Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island peoples, when I had actually met some, even went to school with a couple. I was also well aware of the consequences for my grandparents when they arrived off the boat as the wrong sort of immigrants. While, I remain deeply saddened that the unwavering belief of my supposedly inherent prejudice was cause for a couple of my closest friends to push me away when they came out, despite our favourite local club being the gay bar.

Nevertheless, it is true that I grew up amongst such prejudices. I even learnt to harbour some of them — what child doesn’t? Importantly, though, I unlearnt them, too. Continue reading