Category Archives: ideas

Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Walking Tour

I recently took a trip to Berlin. The city has a difficult past and was home to many influential philosophers. While many lived and wrote in Berlin, fewer were born and raised there. Walter Benjamin, though, was one of the few. He grew up in Berlin.

I brought Benjamin’s autobiographical essay “A Berlin Chronicle” on the trip. I read the essay each night and circled references to particular streets and parks, as well as phrases, commentaries, and concepts which Benjamin expresses about or close to those locations.

Inspired by the Stanford University mapping project for this essay, I made a walking tour out of it. (I’m not the first to think of doing something like this.)

If you’d like to do this walking tour, follow the directions below. The idea is to amble around the city, find each street or place, and do the activity with friends or strangers. (The numbers correspond to places in the text and not necessarily the order in which you should complete the activities.)

Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Walking Tour

6)  At Chauseestrasse, open your imagination to a boundless horizon.

11) Thinking of the people closes to you emotionally, go to Kupfergraben and contract your life into a single, profound symbol.

10) Stand somewhere on Kochstrasse and list five mysteries of your father’s work or job.

8) On Magdeburgerstrasse, find 1-2 examples of how your imagination adorns the edges of your memory with capricious frills.

9) At the Lutzkow Quay come up with an aphorism, an image with a caption, or a first attempt at philosophical reflection on “nobility.”

5) Go to Schillstrasse and talk about a time when you emanated forlornness.

4) Pause life at the Lichtenstein Gate.

7) Find a decisive bench in the Tiergarten. Debate a political question.

3) Either write a poem for Fritz Henle at his street Klopstockstrasse, or, in his honor, turn an insignificant phrase into a magic formula that heals a wound.

1) Go to Carmerstrasse, where Benjamin was born. Remember the place you were born, particularly the colors.


Eight Ways to Say No

I barely remembered this as part of my DARE training in 4th grade, but now it seems extremely helpful–particularly with insidious ideologies. (Thanks for remembering Erica!)

Meaning, Pictures, and Reality–Online Discussion at Art=Text=Art

I’m moderating an online discussion this week at Here’s the prompt:

My question for this week’s discussion is about meaning, pictures, and reality. Given Mel Bochner’s explicit interest in Ludwig Wittgenstein–and this exhibit’s general interest in language and art–it could be interesting to (re)visit what Wittgenstein, early in his career, called the “picture theory of meaning.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it well. “According to this theory propositions are meaningful insofar as they picture states of affairs or matters of empirical fact.” Wittgenstein writes as much in proposition 4.01 of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. 

“The proposition is a picture of reality. The proposition is a model of the reality as we think it is.”

We picture reality to ourselves–that’s what it means to “make sense” in the picture theory of meaning. One interpretation of this theory, extremely significant for the history of science, is that “[a]nything normative, supernatural or (one might say) metaphysical must, it therefore seems, be nonsense.” (IEP) Since we can’t picture things that are “metaphysical” like God, morals, or existence-as-such (things beyond what we can observe), then it is impossible to make sense when talking about them.

This is generally called “the problem of unobservables,” and was present in the positivist and empiricist traditions both before and after Wittgenstein’s early work. A common response to this problem, and Wittgenstein’s view of it, is that the things we can’t observe–God, morality, even knowledge itself–seem very real to us, perhaps more real than the things we observe!

Here is a fascinating occasion of tension, particularly between art and text.  On the one hand, the picture theory of meaning prioritizes images. Without images we can’t understand what we mean when we communicate with one another. On the other hand, this same theory rejects the possibility that we can make sense when communicating about what seems the most real: God, morality, and what it means to exist. My questions, huge as they may be, are: What is reality? Is it what we picture or what we observe? In other words, is it possible to make sense when speaking about things we can’t observe? What role do images play here?


Rolling Jubilee

Another interesting project out of the StrikeDebt group of OWS: Rolling Jubilee.  

From the website:

Rolling Jubilee is a bailout of the people by the people. With your help we buy defaulted personal debt for pennies on the dollar.
Instead of collecting it, we abolish it.

The Jubilee begins November 15.

New review at Full Stop.

After a long hiatus Full Stop was kind enough to publish my review of Luc Boltanski’s latest book, On Critique.


A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about Downton Abbey and Aristotle and natural slavery. After getting several troubled responses to this post I’ve taken it down. The interpretations of it were way beyond what I intended and I realized my own lack of understanding of what I was saying.

Thanks to those who took the time to trouble themselves about it. I’m going to read a little more about the topic before I blog about it again.

Schooling Bubble

They say there’s an education bubble. Makes sense.  A bubble is when there’s a pocket of capital concentrated in one place where assets are valued disproportionately to their actual value. When you’re in a bubble you think you’re hot, but you’re not. Everyone thought dotcoms were awesome; but they weren’t. Same with mortgage-backed securities, which were made of CDOs and toxic subprime loans. Like in those cases, at some point your bubble bursts. Like when your friend thinks that she’s all that and a bag of chips, you say something like ‘I hate to burst your bubble, but…’

So the question is: how is there an ‘education bubble'; if so, why? and what will happen if/ when it bursts?

Short answer: there’s no short answer. I have to read more. I’m not prepared to say anything yet. I’ve read a few things so far (Forbes, Economist, Chronicle of Higher Ed, n+1, Education Sector), but I need to keep looking into it. My understanding, at this point, goes like this:

A bubble is when assets are valued disproportionately to their actual value. If there’s an education bubble, it means education is valued disproportionately to its actual value. At this early stage in my thinking I want to add the following idea, which doesn’t seem present in the discourse:

Schooling isn’t education. We entrust our schools (primary, middle, high, higher) to educate children, but what happens in these buildings and institutional settings isn’t necessarily educational. We rely on them to reproduce our social norms and maybe even progress them beyond the status quo. But educational experience itself isn’t subject to economic bubbling. Education–transformative learning experience–will always be valuable.

To the extent that schooling insures the citizenry against low wages, our schools–particularly university schooling, since we don’t guarantee it like we do K-12–are vulnerable to bubbling. That’s what we see happening now: we think schooling will protect us from low wages (or bad household income in general). But we’re wrong.

That’s what’s happening. But it’s not an education bubble. It’s a schooling bubble.