Posts Tagged ‘David Hume’

An earthbound philosophy

June 28, 2012

It’s a cool 63 degrees out here on the porch this morning, sun already hanging high. Hard to believe the triple-digit forecast. Hard not to believe this is more than just extreme weather we’re having. Hard to stay away from the reality-denying cool of the pool.

Floated with Songlines yesterday, pondering native Aussie wisdom with Bruce Chatwin:

The Aboriginals had an earthbound philosophy. The earth gave life to a man; gave him food, language, and intelligence; and the earth took him back when he died… To wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence.

So, they’re a hybrid of Berkeleyan idealism and indigenous pagan naturalism. Esse ist percipi, to be is to be perceived. And honor thy mother.

There are worse things to be, worse perceptions to sing. As Carl Safina pointed out, most western philosophy (David Hume a notable exception) “hasn’t had the world in mind,” hasn’t appreciated the natural sympathy, the “feeling for the other” that is fundamental to our humanity.

It’s really too late now for us to leave the land untouched, though. We need to retouch and restore it to as much aboriginal health as can be reclaimed. We need to sing our own song, and to remember that we’re somebody’s ancestors too.

Chatwin was already very sick when Songlines was published a quarter century ago, and probably knew he had just a couple years left to the rare bone marrow disease that would take his life at age 48. ”Hazards of travel – rather an alarming one.” Didn’t keep him from traveling and singing, right to the end. His books are still singing,  still shaping perceptions of a healthier planet. The aboriginal truth: we’re not dead yet, it’s not either.

Belief in miracles subverts understanding: David Hume

April 29, 2011

I arrived on campus Wednesday just as the sirens started to wail, but we were given the all-clear in time for our last NW class to proceed. Heard good reports on alt-energy and pre-Pueblo/pre-Columbian civilization from Matt & Nathan. Another of George Washington’s walnut trees hit the ground in front of Cope Hall, but on the whole we were very lucky. They weren’t so lucky a couple hundred miles to our south.

The storms knocked out our Internet at home, making “Dead Day” (aka Study Day) an especially good one for reflecting on luck. I guess I’d call that Tuscaloosa firefighter whose 8-year old survived a terrifying Oz moment lucky.

 I said, R.J., which is my older son, get up, son. And right when I said get up and I put my hands on him, the walls went, and he went. He just – he left. The tornado took him right then. I held onto what I have which is James Peter, and my wife held onto my other son, which I could hear her praying to my left. And I was praying over my boy, and I said -and I could see his little face (unintelligible) I could see him. He was looking up. I said it’s OK. It’s OK. And I was getting hit, you know? I was just shielding him. And my wife yells – she said: Do you have R.J.? I said no. I said I don’t. And then, I heard her get louder praying. And then, I started – I kept going, and I look up, and my oldest son come walking right through the rubble. And I got…

NORRIS: He walked back.

Mr. EPPES: He walked back the rubble.

NORRIS: How old is R.J.?

Mr. EPPES: R.J. is eight. My boys are eight, six and four.

Despite Older Daughter’s insistence I wouldn’t call the youngster’s incredibly lucky survival a “miracle,” for all the good reasons David Hume gave us.

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….’

Whoever is moved by Faith to assent to [miracles] is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.

It was astonishing, extraordinary, inexplicable, sure… but not a sign of divine grace or intervention, unless your notion of the divine includes arbitrary cruelty and death for all those whose luck ran out, and hell on earth for so many of the survivors.

And yet the man in Alabama says, astonishingly: “I do know that neither my wife nor I would have lost any of our faith if we lost any of our children.” The claim to know such a thing, and to boast of it, is as close to miraculous as David Hume or I can imagine. And “contrary to custom and experience,” in this context, is a nice way of saying crazy.

Hume’s pricked finger, & other outrages

March 24, 2011

The classic Rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza) were pretty confident they could get to the metaphysical bottom of things by shutting out ordinary worldly distractions and sensory confusions, thinking hard, and coming up with the foundational (“substantial”) First Principles of everything.

The Empiricists answered with a classic triumvirate of their own: Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. They were sure we would need some data, built of sensations and subsequent reflection thereupon, to have any shot at all at knowledge.

That approach led John Locke (no, not that John Locke) to his tabula rasa, Bishop George Berkeley to his “esse ist percipi” slogan and his “don’t blink” philosophy of divine oversight, and David Hume (not Desmond*) to his billiard table and the conclusion that philosophy is a good pastime but ought not be allowed to ruin anybody’s day.

Our text mentions unicorns as an example of an idea Locke would say is drawn from experience, though the beast is mythical. They devoted a whole program on the BBC to unicorns, in case you ever wanted to know all about them.

Hume was the freest free-thinker of the bunch, but Locke the Deist said to improve life, do not ask God for help. He also said that everything the churches had added to the claim that there was a creator God is “bunk.”

Locke also inspired Jefferson and Paine et al. That might explain why he snipped the Bible, to get the bunk out.

Jesus would reject all Christianity. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried was Jefferson’s attempt, when he took scissors to the Bible. The resulting  Jefferson Bible, he intended, would reflect “the most sublime and benevolent [and humane and natural] code of morals” yet devised by mortal man, and it would nestle safely behind the sacred wall so many of our self-righteous contemporaries have been so eager to tear down. That’s one founder’s “original intent” they consistently ignore.  He was a Deist, but considered that his personal business and none of the state’s. (Check out Maira Kalman’s tribute to the Sage of Monticello.)

Jennifer Hecht is especially helpful on Hume, noting his debt to Cicero, recounting his remarkable trip to Paris in 1763 (where he met the leading lights of the French Enlightenment, Diderot, d’Holbach et al), and citing his inversion of the usual wisdom concerning morality. Doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow, so

We don’t need religion for morality, and what is more: religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place.

So, he agrees with the DalaiLama:

I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion.

Hume’s “ought/is” distinction was in service of moral skepticism, but not an attempt to de-nature our ascriptions of value. He thought Ben Franklin was our first world-class philosopher, btw. Maybe it’s time to trot out again old Ben’s proposal for a new political party, our old ones haven’t worked well together for a very long time. A United Party for Virtue, composed of excellence-seekers “acting only with a view to the good of mankind,” is a pretty dream. (Maira Kalman is a fan, too. And of Jefferson.)

Hume also said:

  • A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.
  • Be a philosopher but, amid all your philosophy be still a man.
  • Custom is the great guide to human life.

Hume’s famous reiteration of “Epicurus’s old questions“:

Whence, then, is evil?

Hume’s pal was Adam Smith, usually cited (praised or excoriated) for his mysterious  ”invisible hand” and his seeming apologia for acquisitive  selfishness. But Smith actually was  a Humean about morality and politics:

Smith believed that people are not essentailly selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society. PW

Thomas Hobbes didn’t call himself an atheist but his Leviathan state was widely perceived to be a God substitute, an authority to keep us all in awe. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things…”

Voltaire, a Deist who found no grounds for believing in a worship-worthy Creator, probably inspired more people to reject their childhood religion than anyone else at that time… “Ecrasez l’infame!”

Hume in 3 minutes:

& Locke, & Descartes… Voltaire… Jean-Jacques Rousseauand his dog… “Great Minds Behaving Badly“…show me… Lost*… body language… rationalists & empiricists R.I.P.

My view is that the classic empiricists fail, for not being “radical” enough. More on that when we come to William James‘s “radical empiricism.” Suffice for now to invoke the spirit of Emerson, which is to my mind the quintessential spirit of empiricism (nothwithstanding his having called himself a Kantian transcendentalist):

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books.

NEXT WEEK: O 98-114 & PW 89-101, from Kant to Schopenhauer. Exam #2 is Thursday, so bring your review questions Tuesday.

empiricists

November 4, 2010

The classic Rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza) were pretty confident they could get to the metaphysical bottom of things by shutting out ordinary worldly distractions and sensory confusions, thinking hard, and coming up with the foundational (“substantial”) First Principles of everything.

The Empiricists answered with a classic triumvirate of their own: Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. They were sure we would need some data, built of sensations and subsequent reflection thereupon, to have any shot at all at knowledge.

That approach led John Locke (no, not that John Locke) to his tabula rasa, Bishop George Berkeley to his “esse ist percipi” slogan and his “don’t blink” philosophy of divine oversight, and David Hume (not Desmond*) to his billiard table and the conclusion that philosophy is a good pastime but ought not be allowed to ruin anybody’s day.

Our text mentions unicorns as an example of an idea Locke would say is drawn from experience, though the beast is mythical. They devoted a whole program on the BBC to unicorns this week, in case you ever wanted to know all about them.

Hume was the freest free-thinker of the bunch, but Locke the Deist said to improve life, do not ask God for help. He also said that everything the churches had added to the claim that there was a creator God is “bunk.”

Locke also inspired Jefferson and Paine et al. That might explain why he snipped the Bible, to get the bunk out.

Jesus would reject all Christianity. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried was Jefferson’s attempt, when he took scissors to the Bible. The resulting  Jefferson Bible, he intended, would reflect “the most sublime and benevolent [and humane and natural] code of morals” yet devised by mortal man, and it would nestle safely behind the sacred wall so many of our self-righteous contemporaries have been so eager to tear down. That’s one founder’s “original intent” they consistently ignore.  He was a Deist, but considered that his personal business and none of the state’s. (Check out Maira Kalman’s tribute to the Sage of Monticello.)

Jennifer Hecht is especially helpful on Hume, noting his debt to Cicero, recounting his remarkable trip to Paris in 1763 (where he met the leading lights of the French Enlightenment, Diderot, d’Holbach et al), and citing his inversion of the usual wisdom concerning morality. Doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow, so

We don’t need religion for morality, and what is more: religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place.

So, he agrees with the DalaiLama:

I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion.

Hume’s “ought/is” distinction was in service of moral skepticism, but not an attempt to de-nature our ascriptions of value. He thought Ben Franklin was our first world-class philosopher, btw. Maybe it’s time to trot out again old Ben’s proposal for a new political party, our old ones haven’t worked well together for a very long time. A United Party for Virtue, composed of excellence-seekers “acting only with a view to the good of mankind,” is a pretty dream. (Maira Kalman is a fan, too. And of Jefferson.)

Hume’s pal was Adam Smith, usually cited (praised or excoriated) for his mysterious  “invisible hand” and his seeming apologia for acquisitive  selfishness. But Smith actually was  a Humean about morality and politics:

Smith believed that people are not essentailly selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society. PW

Thomas Hobbes didn’t call himself an atheist but his Leviathanstate was widely perceived to be a God substitute, an authority to keep us all in awe. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things…”

Voltaire, a Deist who found no grounds for believing in a worship-worthy Creator, probably inspired more people to reject their childhood religion than anyone else at that time… “Ecrasez l’infame!”

Hume in 3 minutes:

& Locke, & Descartes… Voltaire… Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his dog show meLost*… body language… rationalists & empiricists R.I.P.

My view is that the classic empiricists fail, for not being “radical” enough. More on that when we come to William James‘s “radical empiricism.” Suffice for now to invoke the spirit of Emerson, which is to my mind the quintessential spirit of empiricism (nothwithstanding his having called himself a Kantian transcendentalist):

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books.

words

October 14, 2010

Are words powerful enough to carry us from verbal definitions to ultimate realities? Or are there ineffabilities beyond their reach, but within that of unreasoning faith? What is the sound of one hand clapping, and why do you ask? A few of the questions addressed in these slides:

William James once complained that it would be an awful universe if everything could be converted to “words words words…” He was frequently talked out but rarely at a loss for words. He’d have happily picked up the POV gun and replaced his “conceptual shotgun” with it. But like most of us, while he lived and breathed he never did stop talking.

We were talking about radiotelepathy in FoL class yesterday, wondering if Wittgenstein’s notion that language limits our worlds has implications for the possibility of inter/intra-species nonverbal/nonvisual communication (with or without a microwave boost). We can talk about that today too.

This is one of the trickier topics in my discipline, which does indeed live in words. If something’s ineffable, shouldn’t we really shut up about it? But try telling (or tele-telling) that to a philosopher. They’ll listen; but unlike the best  kabbalahists (not sure the guy in this video is one of the best) and sufis they’ll probably also respond.

Following up last class’s discussion of Aquinas‘s “Fifth Way” Design Argument: a good book-length critique is offered by Michael Shermer in Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.

In his classic Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion David Hume has a character he calls Philo say:

The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable than it does a watch or knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation.

The Dialogues express several objections to I.D., most prominently a rejection of the analogy in the first place.

Hume does not think that the universe resembles a complex machine at all. While the regularity of the laws of nature may superficially inspire the analogy, human artifacts are always clearly designed for a function. It often takes quite a bit of imagination to see what the purpose of some aspects of the universe really is. Biologist J.B.S. Haldane once answered a reporter who asked what his study of genetics told him about God: “He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles,” referring to the hundreds of thousands of species of these insects existing for no apparent purpose other than their own reproduction. M. Piggliucci

They’re colorful and abundant, and well accounted for by random variation and natural selection. But now, this would be interesting:

avoid boring people

May 9, 2010

Sam Harris‘s recent public utterances on the old fact-value/ought-is debate, particularly at TED, have re-ignited a lively discussion and rekindled my interest in doing a course on the subject. [Thanks to my unpaid but not unappreciated quasi-research assistant D. for bringing "Toward a Science of Morality," in the Huffington Post, so quickly to my attention.]

Harris’s forthcoming new book, due out in October, is called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It already has Richard Dawkins’ endorsement. Not, probably, Karen Armstrong‘s.

Here’s a statement sure to infuriate many of my professional friends and colleagues:

Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.

Ha! “Avoid boring people” is solid counsel; but Jim Watson should have added, and Sam should heed: avoid pissing people off if you want them to give you a respectful listen. (From what I’ve heard, Watson also missed that lesson.)

The line between boredom and depth of insight is difficult to draw. Academics and philosophers need to attempt it. I might argue that one’s capacity for boredom is in direct proportion to one’s receptivity to reasonable persuasion. Sometimes you have to wade through some stuff to get to the goods.

Jennifer Hecht is not boring. Her account of Hume’s salon party with the French atheists Diderot, d’Holbach et al in 1763 suggests that he has been misunderstood all these years. His ought/is distinction was in service of moral skepticism, but not an attempt to de-nature our ascriptions of value.

Well, not wishing to bore you on such a lovely Mother’s Day morn I’ll just state a couple of facts: (1) someone really ought to do a course on this; and (2) nobody loves you like your mother, so you should go and call her. Right now.

show me

March 15, 2010

School’s back in session today. I hope Spring Break recharged everyone’s batteries. Mine had its moments, although it didn’t quite rise to earlier expectations. It was, in fact, the sort of week that can reconfirm a skeptic.

I’m from Missouri, you have to show me something. Honestly, though, my own experience doesn’t bear out that state’s reputation for skeptical self-circumspection. In fact, St. Louis in the 19th century was a hotbed of Hegelianism.

Maybe that’s why my fellow undergrad philosophy majors and I communed every Friday afternoon (c. 1978) at a now long-gone little deli/pub on the Mizzou campus in an informal thinking-and-drinking club we pretentiously dubbed the Hegel Society. What did we know? (We should have been the Montaigne Society!)

Be all that as it may, today we turn our attention to classical British empiricism (not yet radicalized by William James).

John Locke (1632-1704) gave us the tabula rasa, assumed that the mind was a blank tablet… an empty closet illuminated only by the light that enters from the outside. Don’t get Steve Pinker started…

Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) was an odd empiricist, since he was also what empiricists usually are not: a metaphysical idealist. “To be is to be perceived.” Except when it’s not. I still like Dr. Johnson’s “refutation.”

David Hume (1711-1776) saw the limits of reason and resolved to live skeptically in response. Hume’s skepticism was, paradoxically, the clearest example of solid, self-scrutinizing Enlightenment thinking. Our most basic beliefs and behaviors rest on a foundation not of a priori Cartesian certainties but upon custom, habit, social tradition, and common sense.

“It is not against reason that I should prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my little finger.” But I definitely should not prefer it.

That’s what Hume’s pal the economist would have said, too.

Adam Smith (1723-1790). The American ideology has always invoked the magical authority of his “invisible hand” in support of the proposition that individuals behaving selfishly in free markets would invariably result in “the overall good of society,” thus always and paradoxically  ratcheting up the spiral of freedom  for ambitious individuals on their respective missions of personal acquisition and self-aggrandizement.

Actually, though, Smith– David Hume’s best friend– agreed with the skeptic that free-market capitalism can only secure a rich andrewarding freedom in the largest sense when individuals seek to coordinate their respective entrepreneurial aspirations with the well-being of the community at large. Contrary to inherited convention, Smith believed that people are not essentially selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society.

PW 1.1

January 25, 2010

I’ve been using this little bookPassion for Wisdom, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece (or “spine”)  in my Intro courses for many years. Last semester’s different approach was ok, but I think we’ll have better luck with Passion restored to pre-eminence. So, today we kick off our weekly Monday readings from it with a particular focus on the classic “problem of evil.”  PW 1

The monotheistic version of the question’s been around for at least 2,600 years, since the time of Zoroaster in Persia (who inspired Nietzsche’s Zarathustra): “How can God allow so much suffering and wrongdoing [from human malfeasance, natural disasters, etc.] in the world?” More non-theists attribute their inability to believe in a benevolent deity to this problem than to any other cause. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in the 18th century: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

The most common reply: free will. But what’s that got to do with earthquakes in Lisbon and San Francisco and Haiti? What’s it got to do with innocent children who get swept away in floods and tsunamis and tornadoes and hurricanes? Suppose you’re a kindergarten teacher, and you sit idly by while little Johnny pokes his classmates’ eyes out?  “I gave him the stick but it was his free choice to use it that way.” Not so impressive a defense, especially if you possess omniscience.

And omnipotence and moral perfection and a little common sense. Good people aren’t robots, so why couldn’t God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives? As the Archbishop of York said recently of Haiti, “I have nothing to say to make sense of this horror.” That’s one bishop with more sense than Pat Robertson. (But my dog has more sense than Pat Robertson.) He knows (as does Dan Dennett) there’s no verbal solution to this problem.

This semester I’m also using another book by Solomon for the first time, in A&S: Spirituality for the Skeptic.

Coincidentally: my iPod clock radio woke me yesterday to a Philosophy Bites podcast featuring a philosopher from UNC, Marilyn Adams. She contends that optimists can only sustain their optimism by believing in some “Super-human” power capable of “making good” on all the suffering and evil that can befall humans in this life. That view didn’t look so promising to Voltaire, at least not through Leibniz‘s “best possible world” spectacles.

And there are other problems with the picture of a controlling divine over-seer whose all-seeing, all-knowing micro-management might seem less than nice to those whose personal destiny is less than the best.

Robert Solomon was an optimist, and a skeptic about super-human powers. He didn’t agree with Professor Adams at all, as we’ll discuss.

When I think of Solomon, my first thought is of his cameo appearance in a strange and wondrous film called Waking Life. And then I think of what Thoreau said about wakefulness– “to be awake is to be alive”– and that brings my mental train inevitably to the now-slumbering Warren Zevon, who said “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”…

I need to get that on my iPod!

happy skeptic

November 17, 2009

David Hume (1711-1776) was a wit, a good friend (especially to Rousseau, whom he helped escape Swiss and French charges of sedition and impiety), and a happy man. He proposed the “consolation” that one should “expect not too great happiness in life,” but he got his share. Personally, he found consolation in long walks, good beer, and just a bit of gaming and gambling. I’d bet he was happier than these guys:

Borrowing from his friend Adam Smith (and from Balzac), and wishing to reinforce the value of (virtuous) custom and sentiment over narrowly-constructed reason, he declared it not “against reason to prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my little finger.”  But it is decidedly against humanity, and Hume was among the most human and humane of philosophers.

More consoling, fortifying, entertaining, nourishing bon mots from Le Bon David, as the French affectionately knew him:
*Health and humor all. The rest of little consequence…
*Life is like a game, one may choose the game and passion, by degrees, seizes the object.
*I desire to be rich. Why? That I may possess many fine objects; houses, gardens, equipage, &c. How many fine objects does nature offer to everyone without expense? If  enjoyed, sufficient…
*By habit and study acquire that philosophical temper which both gives force to reflection, and by rendering a great part of your happiness independent, takes off the edge from all disorderly passions, and tranquilizes the mind.
*You will never convince a man, who is not accustomed to Italian music, that a Scotch tune is not preferable. You have not even any single argument, beyond your own taste… If you be wise, each of you will allow, that the other may be in the right.
*The epithet beautiful or deformed, desirable or odious, must depend upon the particular fabric or structure of the mind [of every individual]…
*To be happy, the passion must neither be too violent nor too remiss… must be benign and social, not rough or fierce… must be cheerful and gay, not gloomy and melancholy. A propensity to hope and joy is real riches. One to fear and sorrow, real poverty.
*A passion for learning is preferable, with regard to happiness, to one for riches.
*The happiest disposition of  mind is the virtuous, which leads to action and employment, renders us sensible to the social passions, steels the heart against the assaults of fortune, reduces the affections to a just moderation, makes our own thoughts an entertainment to us, and inclines us rather to the pleasures of society and conversation…
*Even upon the wise and thoughtful, nature has a prodigious influence; nor is it always in a man’s power to correct his temper and attain that virtuous character to which he aspires.
*A serious attention to the sciences and liberal arts softens and humanizes  the temper… the mind is not altogether stubborn and inflexible, but will admit of many alterations…
*Habit is the chief triumph of art and philosophy…
*Cicero’s consolation for deafness [you don't have to bother learning so many languages] is somewhat curious… I like better the repartee of the Cyreniac when some women were consoling him for his blindness:  Do you think there are no pleasures in the dark?
*”Man is  not a plant, rooted to a certain spot of earth.
*To a very good-natured man, the view of human miseries should add, to his lamentations for his own misfortunes, a deep compassion for those of others.
*Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

peaches or onions?

October 14, 2009

Common onion - Allium cepaMan is an onion made up of a hundred layers… Herman Hesse

Man is a peach, with a solid, single pit in the center (the soul). BQpeach

Leaving the Produce dept:

No man is an island… John Donne

Man is by nature a social animal… Aristotle

Man is a network of relationships… Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… the paragon of animals.  Shakespeare

In other words, we’re a complicated species of critter. This big brain we all haul around can be a huge asset, or a huge liability. On a given day it’s apt to be both. It’s the organ of our freedom, and of self-imposed constraints.

Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about freedom is that if we’re ever free to choose then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. Darn! This is about commitment, not about results, as Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion learn. Double-darn!!

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I’m a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom.

But if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But let’s cut him some slack; his country was being over-run by Nazis when he came up with this stuff.

Head back across the Channel, though, and consult Adam Smith (1723-1790). The American ideology has always invoked the magical authority of fatcathis “invisible hand” in support of the proposition that individuals behaving selfishly in free markets would invariably result in “the overall good of society,” thus always and paradoxically  ratcheting up the spiral of freedom  for ambitious individuals on their respective missions of personal acquisition and self-aggrandizement.

Actually, though, Smith– a close pal of David Hume– agreed with the skeptic that free-market capitalism can only secure a rich and rewarding freedom in the largest sense when individuals seek to coordinate their respective entrepreneurial aspirations with the well-being of the community at large. Contrary to inherited convention, “Smith believed that people are not essentially selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society.” Passion for Wisdom

And what about love? It may not be all you need, or the whole meaning and purpose of existence, but it seems to have a lot to do with self-possession, self-discovery, self-overcoming… let’s just say real self-hood. If there is a wider self capable of surmounting narrow egoism and saving us from self-absorption, it’s surely predicated on love directed outward. (William James explores this “wider self” in Varieties of Religious Experience.)

“The presumption of a shared identity” based on relatedness and connection instead of insularity and isolation, the exchange of me for we, means we’re not all alone in the vast cosmic dark. Solipsism is wrong. The egocentric predicament is defeated. “We are not isolated individuals searching desperately for other people; we already have networks or relationships,” to lovers and friends and colleagues and the companionship of nature.

aristophanesAnother fable from Plato: once we were “double-creatures,” with two heads, four arms, four legs, and hubris to burn. The capricious Zeus decided to take us down a notch, lopping us in half, dooming us to wander the earth in search of our other “better” half. When, if you succeed in finding your soul-mate, the search is over. If you don’t, you’re incomplete and unfulfilled.

I don’t much like that story, I’ve seen versions of it make too many people– romantic types especially– too unhappy in solitude, and too expectant in relationships. Some people are as whole as they can be alone. Others are miserable in tandem harness. Our authors read the Symposium more broadly and positively: “the complete self is people together and, sometimes, in love.

John Prine is one of the wisest and wittiest song-writers ever, and his song about peaches is one itself.

But onions, without a hard and ineliminable core but with lots of interesting overlap and complexity, win this contest.

prine

Pitch the pit, and with it the inviolable, unrelated, essential soul in the center of everything.

Still, you probably should go ahead and blow up your TV, and try to find Jesus on your own. Maybe you don’t have to go to the country, or across the pond, to do that.


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