Books

Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel's Essays Make It Fun to Ponder, 'Am I a Jerk?

Eric Schwitzgebel's excellent and accessible philosophy in A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures would be great at parties—just open up to any random three-page essay, read it aloud, and let the conversation flow.

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures
Eric Schwitzgebel

The MIT Press

November 2019

Other

There is more than one kind of philosopher. Many of them tend to reflect their stereotype: tweed jacket and thick spectacles, cozy tenured professorship, a couple of academic publications whose titles are unpronounceable, and whose theories are indecipherable. Even with consideration for the concise list of "famous" philosophers, like Kant and Nietzsche, most regular humans and even a lot of highly educated ones cannot say more than three or four remotely useful things about their work.

Eric Schwitzgebel is not that kind of philosopher. He's like me and you, precocious readers of PopMatters. Though a professor at UC-Riverside who may do a fair impersonation of the tweedy and tenured, Schwitzgebel has long been garnering a reputation as a highly accessible explainer, primarily through his excellent blog, The Splintered Mind. Many of the short, fun essays from his blog have been collected into his new book, A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures. Overall, it's a great read: clear to comprehend, free of jargon and name-dropping, full of visualizable examples, and easy to flip through for a few minutes at a time without losing sight of the overall picture.

Because there is no main argument. This is a true essay collection in that each of its essays can stand entirely alone. Where the author wishes to reference a previous concept, the relevant other essay is marked with a parenthetical, but then the concept itself is always made clear enough that a reader need not check the reference and can continue moving forward unabated on a topic. Though the book contains endnotes and a reference list, the surface of each essay is entirely plausible and coherent without foraging through the fine print.

This book would be great at parties—just open up to any random three-page essay, read it aloud, and let the conversation flow. It's also appropriate size and structure for a party of one if your toilet tank reading material needs refreshing. In moving through the five sections, the essays can ultimately stack up to some sense of what Schwitzgebel truly believes, but the book as a whole is not driving toward any unified conclusion.

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Each of the five sections has a different and very loose subject heading. Section One, "Jerks and Excuses", focuses on ethics. Even though this section contains some of the more nuanced philosophical ideas, it's a great kick-starter for the book. Ordinary people can most easily invest in discussion of whether their own choices are moral ones. All of us like to measure ourselves against ethics claims, as in the titular essay where every reader will want to decide: Am I am jerk?

Other questions the author weighs in on: How much should you care about what you feel in your dreams? Is it perfectly fine to aim for moral mediocrity? Do our intentions matter if the outcome of our action is terrible? What does it really mean to do the most you can do?

Section Two focuses on the nature of consciousness. Schwitzgebel is particularly interested in artificial intelligence here. If sci-fi novels and movies about robots who catch feelings are heavy in your rotation, Theory of Jerks has a lot to offer as far as a forward-looking, speculative yet pragmatic approach to machine learning. A key question that Tesla's self-driving functions have put on all our minds: Should your driverless car kill you so others may live?

The author also raises concerns about how the cuteness of robots impacts our treatment of them, whether we should have a greater moral obligation to conscious robots, whether conscious robots should have any moral obligation to humans as we gradually and then rapidly become their inferiors, and the possibility that our AI technology will ultimately make us gods. I expected to be least interested in this section, but the author provides compelling stories that allow a fairly concrete way of imagining such a variety of possible futures. It's easy to sink into them even if at the outset one isn't that interested in robot stuff.

The third section, "Regrets and Birthday Cake", is a series of reflections on how we know the things we know. These essays run the gamut from how we love, to how we treat our own death, to how we decide what profanity is. Also addressed is the most pressing journalistic issue of our time: What happens to democracy when the experts can't be both factual and balanced? One of my favorite essays is "The Legend of the Leaning Behaviorist". Faced with a person who studies why we do the things we do, how do you make such a studied expert do a thing you want them to do? Could such an experiment succeed, and if so, would the behaviorist even notice?

The fourth section, on "Cosmic Freaks", is similar to the second in that it engages a wide and wild variety of space-time problems with an emphasis on Schwitzgebel's interest in human cognition. Is the United States literally conscious? Are garden snails conscious—yes, no, or gong? Is it possible to defeat causation? Is our memory any more lasting than a goldfish's memory? What would immortality really involve?

The fifth and final section focusing on profundity and common sense, "Kant versus the Philosopher of Hair", does name-drop that original gangster, but only to insult him. In questioning the Kantian side of philosophical living, this essay title will do nicely for a summation: "Obfuscatory Philosophy as Intellectual Authoritarianism and Cowardice".

Then there's the rest of us. We get Schwitzgebel's ultimate mission statement in my other favorite essay, "The Philosopher of Hair". Straightforwardly and obviously, but also joyously and laughably, the philosopher of hair is a barber. Because hair matters. Each of us thinks a little about it each day. And this general inclination of humans to be thinky is above all what Schwitzgebel endorses.

Theory of Jerks and Other Misadventures is a killer book precisely because it performs the kinds of daily philosophical thinking that interest and occupy all of us. Or as the author notes, "For every x, there is a philosophy of x" (261).

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