Before returning to our series of posts on Core Texts in modernity, I would like to draw your attention to a BBC radio broadcast (h/t Bob Sandmeyer) that explores the philosophical movement in which I have been schooled.

Phenomenology-CloudMy philosophical scholarship has been concerned with a phenomenological inquiry into quantum mechanics, starting with the measurement problem. You can view and download some of my work on this subject on my Academia page.

To the uninitiated, phenomenology can seem an arcane approach to doing philosophy. It doesn’t originate in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition, so its questions, aims, and methods are often obscured by its bewildering conceptual vocabulary as well as issues of translation (mostly from German). But to help you get started, the content of this radio show is very helpful at drawing out some of the key insights a phenomenological approach brings to philosophizing. This, by the way, I think is key to understanding what phenomenology is about: it does not attempt to adopt, evaluate, remodel, or create de novo a theoretical framework or a set of doctrines as an explanatory mechanism for answering the basic philosophical problems with which humans have wrestled with from the beginning. It is, of course, historically situated and in some measure a response to the philosophical zeitgeist of its period and place. But starting with its founder, Edmund Husserl, it has always been a method of inquiry, and one which he thought should occur, like the natural sciences, in the context of the collective effort of a research team, rather than the stereotypical solitary “thinker” in his nightgown sitting by the fire.

Below the fold I’ve listed the topics discussed on the radio show, with the concept-rich elements in Husserl’s phenomenology highlighted.  Continue reading

Core Texts: Martin Luther King Jr

In honor of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, today’s core texts post will focus on his work. In 2012, I decided to interrupt the regular chronological flow of the Human Event readings to jump to the 1950s – 60s and examine selections of King’s thought and work. This was always one of my favorite discussion days and almost everyone encountered King in an entirely new light.

king-knockI chose one of his early sermons, one he preached frequently for over 10 years, as the starting point for understanding the basic convictions and commitments underlying his thought and work. “A Knock at Midnight” often surprises students with its forthright declarations of good and evil in society, commitment to absolute truth, and other presumptions they hold about the vocabulary of “progressive” social thought. This is useful as a self-reflective moment, if embraced, to examine why one responds to King the Baptist preacher with surprise, discomfort, or confusion. After all, as one of the preeminent civil rights leaders in world history, he might simplistically be regarded as a “progressive,” in contemporary terms. Which he was! So how do his convictions about civil rights and the secular sphere stand in relation to his ethical and religious convictions?

A second reason I enjoy teaching this text is that its form, the sermon, does not cooperate as readily with social-theoretical grids that some academics apply whose priority in the encounter with the text is to ferret out class and race consciousness. Such approaches like to dispose of the messy, real and uncomfortable material, like King’s religious arguments, as so much embroidery that doesn’t impinge on the “important” content, the abstracted “social justice” core. It takes no small chutzpah to dismiss King’s religious self-understanding and vocabulary as nothing more than self-estrangement, “flowers on the chain” that enslave, or as impediments to social progress, yet that is the contradiction some instructors entertain. Such ideological impositions are more readily exposed when dealing with a cultural and social icon like King. This predisposition to abstract content is one of the limitations of reading every text like it’s a book. Though his sermons are compiled and can be read as essays or other written forms, you are less likely to engage in fundamental distortions of the text if you encounter it in its native form: as an oral text, as a proclamation heard, as a spoken exhortation. Listen to these texts if you want to engage them authentically.

The texts I recommend for a quick but somewhat complete picture of the breadth and depth of King’s thought and work are “A Knock at Midnight,” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” his final speech, delivered in Memphis at the Sanitation Workers strike (pdf available in the sidebar). Be sure to check out the numerous materials digitally archived by the King Center. You may also want to check out one of the most important contemporary scholars on King, Dr Cornel West of Union Theological.

[Edit] My friend Jack Heald has helpfully summarized King’s six observations regarding non-violent social change as described in Stride Toward Freedom:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage.
  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary.
  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer.
  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it.
  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence.
  6. Faith that justice will prevail.

The Obvious

He’s a Christian minister. Specifically, a Baptist. He’s also from the Southern United States. These biographical details should inform your analysis.

He addresses his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” to the white, “liberal” and “moderate” Christian clergy, and singles them out for criticism. But they’re on his political and religious “side,” right? Why is he criticizing some of his co-belligerents?

What do you notice in the 10-year progression of his thought and work starting from “Knock” and ending with “Mountaintop?” Substantively what changes and what remains the same?

The Not-so-Obvious

In a recent book on “The Lord’s Prayer,” N.T. Wright recently referred to the phrase “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a “manifesto of revolution.” King understands the struggle for civil rights as a duty for the disciple of Jesus. In theological terms, this is because King sees himself, his society, and the world, as living in God’s history, and the future component of that history, the eschatological, is supposed to shape what we do in the present. Further, this living into an eschatological “not-yet” shapes King’s self-understanding of his life and work in prophetic terms. For example, in his final speech, he concludes with an eerily prescient vision of himself as Moses. The “mountaintop” that King says he’s been to is Mount Nebo, a height from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land in which his people would one day dwell. The more you unpack such allusions in King’s work, the richer your understanding of his thought will be.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

— from Dr King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964

The Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century was by no means ideologically monolithic. In 1964, just before the the passage and approval of the landmark Civil Rights Act, King and Malcolm X met briefly in Washington, DC (this page excerpts King’s autobiography about his recollection of this meeting). One of the key fault lines concerned the moral legitimacy of using violence in the struggle for civil rights. King, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Gandhi, was committed to direct, but non-violent action. Malcolm X publicly referred to King as a “religious Uncle Tom” who was in the pocket of the white man. He thought that King’s message of non-violence amounted to defenselessness in the face of the white man’s violence, and served only the interests of white power. King, obviously, disagreed. (See James H. Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? for an in-depth look at this debate.) So what do you think King means by “unarmed truth” in the quote above, what does “fighting back” look like from King’s perspective, and which methods do you think are more effectual for combating injustice?

Another opposition opened up by the quote above appears throughout King’s work: that between “unconditional love” and coercive power. Is love really an effectual force for social change and transformation? Can institutions permeated by racism be reformed by unconditional love? Why does King think so, and what does that look like? Pride (In the Name of Love).

AckbarThe Traps

As a minister with a formal seminary education from Crozer Theological and an academic theological PhD at Boston University School of Theology, the images, rhetoric, and theology in the Christian Bible (aka “Old Testament” and “New Testament”) are woven so tightly into his thought that without some familiarity with those images, rhetoric, and theology, your grasp of his words’ meaning and import to his audiences will be desultory, superficial, and at worst, plain wrong.

Example: non-violence = passivity, weakness, cowardice.

“No justice, no peace” the popular slogan goes. Would Dr King agree that? Well, what about justice? How do you get that? Can you have justice without truth, without telling and facing the truth? But do you value truth only if it fits your worldview or social aims–will a lie do just as well? Are truths relative? Is there “your” truth and “my” truth? If one thinks truth is non-absolute, then on what grounds can you demand justice from another since they can simply wave aside your claims about what has and has not happened?


Some linguistic background

King adopts many of the forms and cadences of biblical Hebrew poetry. These poetic forms were refined as musical, specifically within the context of singing in a liturgical setting, hence their suitability for King’s oratory style. Some of the key elements are:

Anadiplosis: Repetition of the final word or phrase in the beginning of the next line. “I have a dream,” “Now is the time.”


  • Antithesis: “the x, not the y”
  • Synonymous: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Chiasm: A B B A

Chiastic structure provides emphasis to two (or more) ideas in a pattern that is easily remembered.

Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill shall be made low;

And the crooked shall be made straight

And the rough places plain.

The chiasm of this passage is:

A   B   –A   –B

A   –A   B   –B

Two Views of Space

First image: the Earth, the “pale blue dot” taken by the Voyager I spacecraft from 3.7 billion miles away (a distance equivalent to a point between the orbits of Neptune and Pluto).


Source: Scientific American, 19 Jun 2013

Second image: the “Pillars of Creation” (a portion of the Eagle Nebula 7,000 light-years away) taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.


Source: ABC News, 6 Jan 2015

Before I upload my next post on Galileo, sometimes wrongly credited as the inventor of the telescope, I wanted to whet your appetite for thinking about the profound change in not only our knowledge of the universe since the time of Galileo, but our view of ourselves in light of that knowledge, a view which has been opened up by image-making instruments.

Does one affect you more profoundly than the other: the one that looks back at us from afar, or the one that looks out from our position within the universe?

When you look attentively at each image, what do you feel and think?

Wonder? Fear? Delight? Dread? Gratitude? Indifference? Hope? Doom? Pride? Humility?

Be sure to have a listen to Sagan’s famous description of the pale blue dot I linked to above.


Honors Seminar – Second Semester

For most first-year undergraduate Honors students, January 2015 commences the second semester of your first-year interdisciplinary Honors seminar. If you’re new to the site, I’ve written a multi-part tutorial to help you navigate this challenging course. The tutorial is called “Mastering the Human Event.” A permanent page link to it is here. I’m reposting the table of contents to the front page so that you have easy access to review and use its contents.

The “Human Event” is the name of the first-year interdisciplinary “Great Ideas” seminar I taught at Barrett Honors College at ASU for six years. I have produced this series based on my experience teaching this course and prior philosophy courses. I hope all Barrett students–current, prospective, or past–find this tutorial helpful and informative. And I hope all students who take a similar course, whether in high school or college, will find much that they can apply as well.


I am currently building out my series on Core Texts. This is a long-term project and new texts will be uploaded sporadically, but I’m aiming for at least three per week. Other series in the works include one on writing sins and how to avoid them, which focuses on analysis and reasoning rather than linguistic issues, and another on writing an Honors thesis. I want to serve the needs of teacher and student communities, so if you have any ideas for tutorials or posts that you’d like to see, drop me a line at

Thanks for reading, sharing, linking, and discussing!

“Mastering the Human Event” Tutorial

Table of Contents

  1.  Introduction
  2.  Preparation
  3.  Academic Goals
  4.  Why the Human Event? I
  5.  Why the Human Event? II
  6.  Why the Human Event? III
  7.  Selecting Your Instructor
  8.  Communicating With Your Instructor
  9.  Seminar Dynamics
  10.  Behaviors
  11.  Seminar Discussion I
  12.  Seminar Discussion II
  13.  Seminar Discussion III
  14.  Seminar Discussion IV
  15.  Essay Writing I
  16.  Essay Writing II
  17.  Essay Writing III
  18.  Conclusion


Francis Bacon

francis-baconI have used extracts from Bacon’s Novum Organum that focus on his well-known “four idols.” This is an excellent text for introducing the significant cultural change in the West to a period that historians designate as modernity. Important features of modernity are present in the text, but it also straddles the preceding era. Do your background research at carefully curated sites like the Stanford Encyclopedia.

The Obvious

The four idols. Know the differences between them and be able to describe them in your own words.

Why “idols?” What is an idol?

This is a text within a text within a text. The selection is from the Novum Organum, or New Organon, which is Part II and the most complete portion of The Great Instauration. Look up words you don’t know so that you can use and refer to them correctly.

The form of the text is aphoristic. This should matter.

The Not-so-Obvious

The “Baconian method” of induction is present, but must be pieced together from several of the aphorisms.

Bacon is an empiricist, but not a naive one. The human intellect is not a tabula rasa. We see through a glass darkly. So if the student wants to investigate and know Nature “out there” he must account for a human nature that is defective, including and especially his own.

Natural philosophy is another name for ‘science’, but it is not reducible to the empirical sciences. It recognizes and wrestles with its philosophical foundations in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.

AckbarThe Traps

The Baconian method is a scientific method. Beware essentializing Bacon’s inductive method as “the” scientific method.

Then-and-Now thinking. If Bacon’s doctrine of the idols is accurate, it isn’t limited to the errors of his own time. The careful Baconian scientist is not triumphant – “oh those silly benighted rubes in the Dark Ages” – but epistemologically humble. The Baconian scientist is not immune to the errors described by the idols.

Forgetting the context. Read the title page carefully. What’s the subtitle? What is the overall project of Bacon’s work? What’s going on in late 16th and early 17th century England and Europe?

Books and the New Year

In anticipation of a year rich with reading and thinking, and the distinct joys of both, I want to share with you a beautiful short film from 2011, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore,” created by some wonderful folks in the northwest corner of Louisiana.

Enjoy the details of the animation and the message of the story. Be sure to pause at 10:15 to read Mr Lessmore’s entry. I’ll be back soon with our next entry on core texts.

h/t Ben Myers.