Philosophy

Do animals have a sense of morality?

January 27, 2009
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Do animals have a sense of morality?

Scientists have long counseled against interpreting animal behavior in terms of human emotions, warning that such anthropomorphizing limits our ability to understand animals as they really are. But in a recent opinion piece for Boulder, Colorado’s Daily Camera, Marc Bekoff, author of the forthcoming Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, cites numerous examples of animal behavior that he claims would be quite difficult to explain otherwise. Bekoff’s article begins: Do animals have a sense of morality? Do they know right from wrong? In our forthcoming book, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, philosopher Jessica Pierce and I argue that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “yes.” “Ought” and “should” regarding what’s right and what’s wrong play important roles in the social interactions of animals, just as they do in ours. … Consider the following scenarios. A teenage female elephant nursing an injured leg is knocked over by a rambunctious hormone-laden teenage male. An older female sees this happen, chases the male away, and goes back to the younger female and touches her sore leg with her trunk. Eleven elephants rescue a group of captive antelope in KwaZula-Natal; the matriarch elephant undoes all of the . . .

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Writing on deadline

January 23, 2009
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Writing on deadline

Each day is another deadline. Then there is that ultimate deadline at the end of our lives. Our sense of the passage of time, and how our experience is shaped by the complexities of multiple deadlines, is the subject of Harald Weinrich’s book, On Borrowed Time: The Art and Economy of Living with Deadlines. John Gilbey reviewed the book for the Times Higher Education: Any tome that starts with a discussion of Hippocrates, Socrates, and Plato and ends with an analysis of the 1998 film Run Lola Run has to be worthy of closer study. This one does not disappoint. Weinrich gives himself a very broad canvas—the impact that shortness of time has had on humanity across history—and he fills it well. He uses an unhurried, easy, and assured narrative style to tease out the complex nature of how we perceive time in natural and contrived situations. Gilbey goes so far as to venture: I believe that the structure and style of this book would lend itself well to being adapted for the screen, either as a single banquet or as a selection of very tasty snacks. If there is anyone out there looking to produce a high-quality, slightly quirky . . .

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“Who knew Camus had something to say about gardens?”

December 8, 2008
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“Who knew Camus had something to say about gardens?”

If you’re living in the northern U.S. it is likely that your garden is presently covered under several inches of snow, but as a recent article in the New York Times demonstrates, through the long winter months many gardeners never cease thinking about them. Writing for yesterday’s “Sunday Book Review” Dominique Browning offers a list of a few of her favorite gardening books for midwinter reading that includes Robert Pogue Harrison’s new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Browning writes: The year’s most thought-provoking, original and weighty garden book (though the lightest in heft) is Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. Here the author of Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and The Dominion of the Dead, a book about cemeteries and burial practices, turns his thoughts to the garden as “sanctuary of repose.” Making a garden fulfills, as Harrison puts it, “a distinctly human need, as opposed to shelter, which is a distinctly animal need.” Burrowing into a more refined issue than what makes a garden, he meditates on why we garden. It’s impossible to summarize the answer, overflowing as his book is with eccentric connections and voracious readings, ranging over centuries and . . .

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Derrida lives on

October 27, 2008
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Derrida lives on

This month marks four years since the death of a philospher who then-French president Jacques Chirac remembered as “one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time.” Jacques Derrida died in Paris on October 8, 2004, but his legacy lives on in many fields of the humanities, as well as many volumes of books published by the University of Chicago Press. The most recent is the newly-published Islam and the West: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida by Mustapha Chérif. In the spring of 2003, Derrida sat down for a public debate in Paris with Algerian intellectual Chérif. The eminent philosopher arrived at the event directly from the hospital where he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the illness that would take his life just over a year later. That he still participated in the exchange testifies to the magnitude of the subject at hand: the increasingly distressed relationship between Islam and the West, and the questions of freedom, justice, and democracy that surround it. For more on Derrida, check out Chicago’s extensive list of his publications and our website memorial in honor of the great philosopher. . . .

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The problems and possibilities of human intimacy

August 19, 2008
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The problems and possibilities of human intimacy

Yesterday’s Financial Times ran a positive review of Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ psychoanalytic exploration of human intimacy in their new book, Intimacies. Summarizing the work the FT‘s Salley Vickers writes: Taking the form of a conversation between this congenial but not necessarily like-minded pair, Intimacies explores the pitfalls and possibilities of human intimacy and the damage that a zeal to know ourselves and others can wreak. The exchange of views reflects the authors’ philosophies: differences are the source, not the stumbling blocks, of intimacy; distance should enhance not diminish pleasure in others’ company; and it is disastrous to take things personally. Read the full review on the Financial Times website. . . .

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The garden as a cultural institution

June 25, 2008
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The garden as a cultural institution

Last week in the June 16 New York Times cultural critic Edward Rothstein had an interesting commentary on the New York Botanical Garden drawing on Robert Pogue Harrison’s new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, to help him place the concept of the garden in the wider context of western history and demonstrate its enduring cultural and historical importance. Rothstein writes: From medieval cloisters, botanical gardens made their way into universities, beginning with the University of Pisa in 1544. Later the garden’s terrain expanded with botanical expeditions, oceanic trade and imperial adventures. Victorian botanical gardens could be encyclopedic in scope, arranging their displays according to Latin classifications of species by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Now, in our humid, dry, cooled or heated greenhouses, we shun such systematic display. Instead we replicate ecological niches, miniature worlds that supposedly show nature at work: the desert, the rainforest, the tropical pool. But peel back the environmental stagecraft, and the scientific cultivation continues with even greater passion… There is something moving about the entire enterprise. In a remarkable new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, Robert Pogue Harrison (who wrote similar meditations on cemeteries and on forests) elicits some . . .

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Robert Pogue Harrison on WBUR

June 23, 2008
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Robert Pogue Harrison on WBUR

Robert Pogue Harrison, author of Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, was a guest last Friday on the public radio call-in show On Point from WBUR in Boston. Host Tom Ashbrook questioned Harrison about the literary and philosophical aspects of the garden. The call-in segment of the program elicited discussion of community gardens, gardens and church history, and secret and sacred gardens. In the second half of the program Irene Virag, garden columnist at Newsday and a writer for several gardening magazines, joined the discussion. You may also read an excerpt from the book. . . .

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The Messiah can wait

June 10, 2008
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The Messiah can wait

Jonathan Rosen, editorial director of Nextbook, wrote an appreciative review of Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition for the June 7 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Titled “Paradox Among the Petals,” the review begins: The rabbis of the Talmud counseled that if you are planting a tree and someone tells you that the Messiah has come, you should finish planting your tree and then go out to investigate. Robert Pogue Harrison implies something similar in his rich and beguiling Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Gardens, though they offer peace and repose, are islands of care, he writes, not a refuge from it. That is why they are important, since care is what makes us human. This is the third book by Harrison that we have published and each has been a meditation on humanity and the natural world. As a professor of Italian literature, Harrison’s work is steeped in classical and modern literature, but as the quote above suggests, he also draws deeply from the religious and philosophical traditions. His previous books include The Dominion of the Dead and Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Update June 11: Gardens was also reviewed in today’s . . .

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Caretaking vs. consuming

June 4, 2008
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Caretaking vs. consuming

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Susan Fornoff recently talked with Stanford University professor Robert Pogue Harrison about his new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Harrison uses gardens both literally and figuratively for a philosophical exploration from antiquity to the present, showing the connections between horticultural cultivation and the cultivation of the human mind. Fornoff’s engaging article appeared today in the Chronicle and discusses gardening, the culture of consumption, and human happiness: Harrison’s … excursion through literature and history revealed a gardening ethic of care that the garden he tends at Stanford University—that of young minds, not plant seedlings—leads him to believe is in some jeopardy. “This gardening ethic is very much in danger these days, where the emphasis on cultivation has given way to an emphasis on consumption,” says Harrison, asserting that a Stanford student would be more inclined to inspect another’s backyard on HGTV than to investigate one of the many campus gardens. “We live in a kind of frenzy of consumerism which forgets that the true source of human happiness is not in the consuming but in the cultivation, in seeing something grow, or caring for something that is not yourself. And I don’t know how . . .

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Press Release: Harrison, Gardens

June 2, 2008
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Press Release: Harrison, Gardens

Nothing banishes winter’s lethargy more quickly than that first sight of the green of spring, as trees bud and our gardens, once again, burst into glorious bloom. For Robert Pogue Harrison, it’s not just the depths of winter that gardens help us escape: throughout human history, gardens—both real and imagined—have been essential places of refuge and comfort in the face of a harsh, often violent world. Employing the richly learned and allusive approach that he brought to his classics, Forests and The Dominion of the Dead, Harrison explores here the central importance of the human urge to nurture and cultivate gardens. Beginning with ancient conceptions of the garden as a place for the quiet work of self-improvement that is crucial to serenity and enlightenment, Harrison then travels widely through the history of Western culture. Enlisting such varied thinkers and writers as Voltaire and Calvino, Boccaccio and Arendt, Harrison profoundly demonstrates the role the garden has long played as a necessary, humanizing check against the degradation and losses of history. Read the press release. . . .

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