Philosophy Is Not Funny
Baruch Spinoza wrote, "Deus sive natura."
In English words, this translates as "God is nature."
These words got Spinoza excommunicated from the synagogue in 1656 with the following words:
"Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in."
That's a hell of a lot of cursing.
Takashi Murakami is Japan's Andy Warhol.
A lot of people in the art world curse him.
©Murakami responds to these curses by saying, "In the West, it is totally dangerous to blend the two [art and commercial products] because people will throw all sorts of stones, but that's okay—I'm ready with my hard hat."
2012 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 40" x 124" | Edition of 2
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz is the only philosopher immortalized in a cookie.
Leibniz, by all accounts, was an ambitious hypocrite who kept his best work secret and published only stuff that would make him popular with his employers. He deeply admired and was influenced by Baruch Spinoza, whom he denounced as soon as Spinoza became philosopher non grata.
One person attended Leibniz's funeral.
Leibniz opened himself up to unmerciful ridicule when he wrote, "This is the best of all possible worlds."
Voltaire was first with Candide. Candide is the funniest of all possible novels about floggings, devastating earthquakes, epidemics, wrongful executions, injustice, more floggings and assorted unpleasantness. Throughout it all, Candide's philosophical mentor, Dr. Pangloss, reminds the happy-go-lucky Candide, "everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."
It is no secret Pangloss is Leibniz. When Candide attempts to save a Dutch Anabaptist from drowning in the Bay of Lisbon, Pangloss stops him by proving that the bay had been "formed expressly for the Anabaptist to drown in."
Leonard Bernstein followed up two centuries later with his musical Candide. The show's funniest song, "The Best of All Possible Worlds," featured Pangloss and cast singing the praises of war because it unites us all as victims.
Only in the best of all possible worlds is war a blessing in disguise.
Never mind that both Voltaire and Bernstein miss Leibniz's point entirely. Leibniz didn't think there wasn't a boatload of shit in the world; he simply believed that for God to create the world in any other way would have resulted in a bigger boatload of shit. All of this controversy surrounding Leibniz has not stopped millions from enjoying the delicious cookie named after him.
(This piece is dedicated to my pal and professor, Ken Clatterbaugh. It is truly the best of all possible worlds because Ken is in it.)
2012 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 25" | Edition of 10
Immanuel Kant was a rather regimented fellow.
At 4:55 every morning, Kant's footman, Lampe, would enter the philosopher's bedroom and cry, "Herr Professor, the time has come! "
At 5:00 on the dot, Kant would be seated at his breakfast table. He drank tea and smoked his only pipe of the day.
From 7:00 to 9:00, Kant would head downstairs and teach.
From 9:01 to 12:45, Kant would head upstairs and write.
At 12:45, Kant would call to his cook, "It has struck three-quarters." This meant lunchtime for Kant.
At precisely 1:00 p.m., lunch was served. Kant loved his lunch; in fact, it was his only real meal of the day. Kant's lunches always included guests, but never women, and plenty of conversation, but never a peep about philosophy. Kant believed that healthy conversation led to healthy digestion.
After lunch, Kant would take his famous walk. So famously regular were his perambulations that the women of Konigsberg set their clocks by them.
Kant always walked alone. He did this so he didn't have to talk because he believed breathing through the mouth was healthier. In other words, one of the most brilliant minds in history couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time.
Kant never wore garters during his walk because he thought it would cut off the circulation to his legs. He abhorred perspiration and, on warm days, would always stand in the shade to dry off before entering his house.
The perspiration-free Kant would spend his evening reading and writing.
At 10:00, Kant would hit the sack. He would wrap himself in his bedclothes in a very precise manner, saying "Cicero" over and over while doing so.
Kant slept like a rock.
Unfortunately, he wrote like one too.
2009 | Color Digital Print on Museo Silver Rag | 20" x 38" | Edition of 5
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a monumentally systematic, ponderous and obtuse philosopher, to put it as mildly as possible.
Arthur Schopenhauer put it far less mildly when he wrote, “The height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had been only previously known in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most barefaced, general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, as a monument to German stupidity.”
Speaking of monuments to posterity, Hegel had something to do with the Brooklyn Bridge.
John August Roebling was teacher's pet to Hegel. Herr Roebling, after leaving Prussia for the good ol' USA in the year of Hegel's death, developed a then-unheard-of technique of bridge building using wire rope and trusses.
Roebling's engineering doohickey landed him the Brooklyn Bridge job in 1867. Unfortunately, Roebling died from tetanus before the bridge was completed.
So, what again does all this Brooklyn-Bridge-building stuff have to do with Hegel?
During their time, the Brooklyn Bridge and Hegel's philosophy were hailed as the most impressive feats of their kind.
And both were built on sand.
2009 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 30" | Edition of 10
Arthur Schopenhauer was a notoriously grumpy fellow.
He wrote such cheery things as, "Life is to be regarded as a loan received from death, with sleep as the daily interest on that loan."
A lot of things upset Schopenhauer. In 1820, he pushed a woman down a flight of stairs because he felt she was talking too loudly. Thanks to this bit of poor behavior, Schopenhauer was legally forced to pay her a monthly stipend until her death. When she died, Schopenhauer wrote, "The old woman dies; the burden is lifted."
But nothing upset Schopenhauer more than his contemporary Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: "If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right."
This begs the question: Would Schopenhauer have pushed Hegel down the stairs if he had had the chance?
2009 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 24" | Edition of 10
About the only thing philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and artist Keith Haring have in common is the fact that they are both dead.
Hegel's work was extremely stodgy, wooden, obtuse, unnecessarily complex and boring.
Haring's work was playful, colorful, vibrant, carefree, exciting and anything but boring.
Physicist Ludwig Boltzmann was told to read Hegel if he wanted to learn the answers to life and stuff. So Boltzmann read Hegel, but came away scratching his head, saying, ". . . what unclear thoughtless flow of words I was to find there."
A New York Times critic had this to say about Haring: "Keith Haring was not a great artist. He might not even have been a very good one. But he was the right person in the right place at the right time, and he had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of just the right energy: a radiant, joyful enthusiasm that he shared with unflagging vitality first on the streets of New York and then on the world stage."
At the center of Hegel's philosophy was the dialectical method. It remains a buzzword in philosophy to this day. It basically shows how opposites find resolution.
THESIS + ANTITHESIS = SYNTHESIS. The synthesis becomes the new thesis, which logically leads to its antithesis, which leads to a new synthesis and so on throughout history. For Hegel, reality is a historical process.
You are staring at the dialectical method at work:
HEGEL (THESIS) + HARING (ANTITHESIS) = GEORG WILHELM FRIEDRICH HARING (SYNTHESIS).
So much fun!
2009 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 30" x 30" | Edition of 10
Immanuel Kant loved to write letters.
However, there is one kind of letter Kant never wrote: a love letter.
To put it as politely as possible, Kant's love life was drier than his writing and his writing was as dry as dust.
Kant's thoughts on sex aren't exactly pickup lines: "Sexual union is the reciprocal use that one human being makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another."
Talk dirty to me, Kant.
Furthermore, Kant thought sexual desire was immoral because it turned a person "into an object . . . As soon as the person is possessed, and the appetite sated, they are thrown away, as one throws away a lemon after squeezing the juice from it."
Talk dirty to me, Kant.
Premarital sex was also a no-no for Kant. "It is not only admissible for the sexes to accept each other for enjoyment under the condition of marriage, but it is possible for them to do so only under this condition."
Talk dirty to me, Kant.
In fact, the only sexual act more abhorrent than premarital sex for Kant was masturbation. He so loathed masturbation, he couldn't even say the word masturbation:
"That such an unnatural use (and so misuse) of one's sexual attribute is a violation of duty to oneself, and indeed contrary to morality in its highest degree, occurs to everyone immediately, with the thought of it, and stirs up an aversion to this thought to such an extent that it is considered indecent even to call this vice by its proper name . . . In the case of unnatural vice it is as if man in general felt ashamed of being capable of treating his own person in such a way, which debases him beneath the beasts."
It doesn't take a mind as big as Kant's to figure out why he died a virgin.
2009 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 24" | Edition of 10
In 1970, the West German government issued a commemorative Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel postage stamp.
Four years later, it issued a commemorative Immanuel Kant postage stamp.
It makes no sense that Hegel got a stamp before Kant.
But then again, nothing about Hegel makes sense.
2009 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 24" | Edition of 10
In a 2005 BBC poll, Karl Marx was voted the greatest philosopher of all time.
No one was a close second.
While most of his writing was as dry as Saudi Arabian asphalt, and the more well-written parts of his thoughts were expressed by his partner Friedrich Engels, Marx wrote two of the most powerful lines in the history of philosophy: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it" and "In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."
Unfortunately, Marx did not have a powerful body. The greatest philosopher of all time was plagued most of his adult life by what he called "abominable catarrh, eye inflammation, bile-vomiting, rheumatism, acute liver pains, sneezing, dizziness, persistent coughing and dangerous carbuncles."
He spent the last decade of his life chasing warm weather to cure his many ailments. However, everywhere he went it always rained.
Marx eventually died of pleurisy. Engels said in his funeral oration, "On the 14 of March , at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think."
Eleven people attended his funeral.
Today, his gravestone is the most visited gravestone in the world.
2012 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 19" x 22" | Edition of 10
Soren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, was a perpetually unhappy guy.
He gave his books such cheery titles as Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Dread and The Sickness Unto Death.
He filled his cheery books with such jolly lines as, "It requires courage not to surrender oneself to the ingenious or compassionate counsels of despair that would induce a man to eliminate himself from the ranks of the living; but it does not follow from this that every huckster who is fattened and nourished in self-confidence has more courage than the man who yielded to despair." Also, "I begin with the principle that all men are bores. Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this."
Kierkegaard never married. He was engaged to the love of his life for a while, but he broke it off because he fretted that being married to him would bum her out too much.
He spent the later part of his all-too-short life in a bitter public feud with the editor of the Corsair. One of Kierkegaard's works received a good review in the journal; Kierkegaard being Kierkegaard complained in a letter to the editor that a good review in that particular magazine was an insult.
This did not sit well with the editor.
Kierkegaard got his ass kicked in the ensuing war of words with the editor, and it affected his posture; over the next few years he developed a pronounced stoop and he looked much older than his 41 years. He became the laughingstock of Copenhagen.
It was not pretty.
Kierkegaard died about a year later.
Yes, Kierkegaard lived a fairly miserable life. But what do you expect from a man whose name, Kierkegaard, means "cemetery" in Danish?
Anyway, in an effort to cheer Soren up, I wrote him a song about the Danish postage stamp bearing his melancholy image:
Oh yes, wait a minute
Mister Existentialist Postman
Please Mister Existentialist Postman, look and see
If there’s a letter with a Kierkegaard stamp in your bag for me
I’m filled with angst and despair all the time
How can I get over this sickness unto death of min?
2009 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 26" | Edition of 10
Friedrich Nietzsche was Dr. Phil before Dr. Phil but with a better mustache and a sharper tongue.
He encouraged man to improve himself with such less-than-soothing exhortations as, "All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment? And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape."
Unfortunately, these exhortations got Nietzsche into hot water in the history books. He was unfairly blamed for Adolf Hitler, the rise of National Socialism, that whole "master race" nonsense and the attendant unpleasantness of World War II that followed. It probably didn’t help matters any further that Nietzsche, advocate of a better man, went hopelessly insane and subsequently became fond of eating his own feces and drinking his own urine.
2009 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 25" | Edition of 10
Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Foucault were many things—Plato, wise; Spinoza, sincere; Kant, fastidious; Hegel, obtuse; Schopenhauer, grumpy; Kierkegaard, melancholy; Nietzsche, mad; and Foucault, weighty—however, these gentlemen were no empiricists.
Aristotle, William of Ockham, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Mill—now they were some empiricists.
Empiricists believe all knowledge comes from experience and anyone who believes otherwise is just plain stupid.
Empiricists, often British and boring, and non-empiricists, often decidedly un-British and fond of really big words, spent centuries arguing with each other about who was right and who was wrong.
To this day and billions of hard-to-read words later, it is not really known who was right and who was wrong.
Perhaps the matter can be settled once and for all with a rousing game of Red Rover.
Red Rover, Red Rover, send John Locke right over!
Red Rover, Red Rover, send Immanuel Kant right over!
Don’t laugh. It beats reading Locke or Kant.
2012 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 40" x 83" | Edition of 10
Martin Heidegger is not recommended reading for the novice philosophy student.
He delighted in writing such obfuscations as, "'Being' is not something like a being . . . What determines beings as beings, that in terms of which beings are already understood."
Heidegger defended his mind-numbing obfuscation by saying, "Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy."
Unfortunately, Heidegger also delighted in being a cad.
He happily joined the Nazi party. He did nothing to prevent the Nazis from firing his mentor, the Jewish phenomenologist Edmund Husserl; he dropped Husserl's name from the dedication page of Being and Time; he did not attend Husserl's cremation.
Heidegger never apologized or expressed an ounce of remorse for any of his Nazi behavior.
Although married, Heidegger liked to sleep around, especially with his students. Hannah Arendt was his favorite student booty call. His first pickup line to his 18-year-old student was quite clear: "Dear Ms. Arendt! I must see you this evening and speak to your heart!"
Arendt visited Heidegger in his office that night, and they did the nasty for the first time. It was the beginning of a passionate, four-year affair that played out in his office or in the woods behind the university.
The affair ended in 1933 when Heidegger became a card-carrying Nazi and the Jewish Arendt fled to America and became a relatively big deal in the philosophy world herself.
After things didn't turn out so well for the Nazis in World War II, Arendt sought out Heidegger to resume their friendship but not the sex part. She constantly defended Heidegger against the scathing criticism that befell him because of his past fondness for all things Nazi.
She went to her grave believing she, not Mrs. Heidegger, was the love of Heidegger's life.
Yes, love is blind.
And sometimes it is just plain dumb.
2012 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 24" | Edition of 10
Jean-Paul Sartre is the epitome of the French intellectual.
As a French intellectual, Sartre was expected to write on a variety of subjects, say brilliant things (who cares if they were mostly incomprehensible), smoke a pipe, hang out at cafés, flirt with Marxism, remind the rest of the world that the French are better than it, get involved in politics every now and then and behave French.
To Sartre, behaving French meant sleeping with a lot of women. Even for a man of Sartre's mental capabilities, this proved to be an arduous task, and he concocted some whoppers of lies to account for his whereabouts when he failed to show up to one of his girlfriend's houses because he had double-booked himself.
He once told a woman the reason he failed to show up to meet her on the night promised was because he was locked up in an Austrian castle.
She believed him.
Anyway, all this womanizing wasn't bad for a man who was barely five foot nothin', dressed in clothes two sizes too big, wore some seriously thick glasses, had a lazy eye and had absolutely no concept of personal hygiene.
He also had a number of run-ins with crabs. He once said to a friend:
"After I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class. I got used to them. I would wake up in the morning and say, 'Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?' I would talk to them all the time. I would say, 'Okay, guys, we're going into class now, so we have to be still and quiet,' and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang . . . The crabs stayed with me until the day I simply decided that they bored me and that I just wouldn't pay attention to them."
2012 | Rug | 49" x 50" | Edition of 5
Two cows are standing in a field.
The first cow says, "In Being and Nothingness, Sartre says, 'But what are we then if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are? Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tightrope walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually reestablishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to changing his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us.'"
The second cow says, "Moo."
2012 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 20" x 40" | Edition of 10
As a boy, Michel Foucault wanted to grow up to be a goldfish.
Instead, he grew up to be a brilliant but extremely weighty, enormously complex and detailed philosopher fond of inventing his own philosophical terms without explaining what they meant.
Foucault also liked to dress up as a leather-clad woman and take his fair share of drugs.
He advocated, in terms nowhere as simple as this, that everyone must pursue his own legitimate strangeness.
This statement should come as no surprise coming from someone who wanted to grow up to be a goldfish.
Foucault, like most French intellectual superstars, wrote on a wide range of subjects: philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, medicine, gender studies, sexuality, madness and criminology, to name but a few.
Of course, anyone in France who was French owned his books. Foucault, correctly, said most people who owned his books never read them, let alone understood them.
(I told you he was smart.)
Foucault was basically interested in the relationship between knowledge and power. He said power is "the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization."
Of course it is.
Furthermore, "The new methods of power are not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the state and its apparatus."
In other, understandable, words, the new form of power is not right and wrong or good and sin but normal and abnormal. This new power is far more subtle than that under the traditional definition and much easier to overlook and, therefore, much harder to resist.
Near the end of his life, Foucault reflected on his personal life, politics and writing, tying them all together while thinking about the turmoil of the '60s: "We must see our rituals for what they are: Completely arbitrary things, tired games and irony, it is good to be dirty and bearded, to have long hair, to look like a girl when one is a boy (and vice versa); one must put 'in play,' show up, transform and reverse the systems which quietly order us about. As far as I am concerned, that is what I try to do in my work."
This is not a bad line of work for a man who wanted to be a goldfish.
2012 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 30" x 49" | Edition of 5
It is no secret that the French are—ahem, how shall I put this—difficult. In that regard, twentieth-century French thinkers are extremely French.
And Jacques Derrida is the most extremely twentieth-century French thinker of them all.
(As far as philosophers go, Derrida was the closest thing to a celebrity. He had a documentary made about him. It was kind of boring. It had lots of shots of Derrida buttering his toast. Sometimes he put marmalade on his toast.)
Derrida is the father of deconstructionism. Deconstructionism is not for the faint of brain.
Derrida obtusely wrote and spoke about a wide variety of subjects, including, but far from limited to, language, Hegel, speaking, writing, literature, sociology, touching, hermeneutics, Walter Benjamin, death, friendship, Abraham, music, philosophy, pointing, Freud, mourning, America, postcards, psychology, ethics, Plato’s Phaedrus, hauntology, Paul de Man, anthropology and ghosts. He even went so far as spelling difference differance because he believed it made no difference, saying, "one can tell the differance between difference and differance only in writing."
My favorite philosophy professor, Ken Clatterbaugh, no slouch in the brains department himself, once told me, "I have no idea what Derrida is talking about."
See if you can figure out what this Derrida ditty means: "That philosophy died yesterday, since Hegel or Marx, Nietzsche or Heidegger—and philosophy should wander toward the meaning of its death—or that it has always lived knowing itself to be dying (as silently confessed in the shadow of the very discourse which declared philosophia pernnis); that philosophy died one day, within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony, on the violent way it opens history by opposing itself to nonphilosophy, which is its past and its concern, its death and wellspring: that beyond death, or dying nature, of philosophy, perhaps even because of it, thought still has a future, or even as said today, is still entirely to come because of what philosophy has held in store; or, more strangely still, that the future has a future—all these are unanswerable questions."
(Yes, that was one sentence.)
However, near the end of his life in 2007, Derrida said, "I have never given in to the temptation to be difficult for the sake of being difficult."
("Nobody Gets Derrida" is dedicated to my pal, David Terry. David wrote his master's thesis on Derrida at ASU. This is the academic equivalent of a sixth-grade book report on Derrida.)
2012 | Digital Print | Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl | 30" x 36" | Edition of 5