Posts Tagged ‘Waking Life’

passion 1.2

September 2, 2010

Once again, the passion returns…(1.1)

Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins published this breezy, brief little history of philosophy in ’97 and I’m very attached to it. Show me a better concise guide to our discipline and I’ll use it. I guess.

I’m also very attached to the memory of Prof. Solomon, who left us much too soon in a Zurich airport three winters ago. But we still have the wisdom of his semi-animated Waking Life* avatar to ponder. He was not one to indulge excuses or illusions:

*Want an example of what Solomon means when he talks about not making excuses or taking responsibility for your life? Check out the film critic Roger Ebert‘s heroic adaptation to a cancer that might have shut an excuse-making person down. This film may just have saved his life.

This time we’ll do short installments of PW on Thursdays. Today it’s the opening pages that begin in wonder about the fons et origo of all this philosophizing. Which came first, our “oversized brains” or the curiosity that grew them? Is philosophy a “useless” epiphenomenon? Did the impulse for reflective thought precede sophisticated language use or grow out of it? What happened to the neanderthals? Why did philosophy get so much more interesting in so many places between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE?

Note the convergence of free-thinking and mysticism in India, prior to the Buddha’s arrival. There’s more than one way to think outside of boxes.

Zoroaster (Zarathustra) was among the first to try out a strategy still in play, and still unsatisfying as an account of needless suffering in a world stipulated as the sustained creation of an all-powerful deity “on the side of the good: the ubiquity of evil. PoE (SEP)

Taoism, Confucianism, mystery cult of Dionysos, Silenus, Xenophanes

Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt QuizSoF

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!


November 23, 2009

I’ve been using this little book, 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 in my Intro courses for many years. This semester I’ve saved it for last, hoping to provide a bit more historical perspective than the same authors’ topically-arranged Big Questions achieved. I’ll be going back to the old approach next time. (I know where to find a much cheaper version of at least one “big question.”)

The  brooding thinker doesn’t really represent my idea of philosophy anyway. A little sitting-and-thinking is fine, but I prefer the perambulating, peripatetic spirit of motion and activity. The best ideas come while walking, said Nietzsche (who showed, in spite of himself, that the worst ones do, too).

Philosophy is something you do, not something you just ponder. I did enjoy the art history lessons.

I’m a big fan of the late Robert Solomon (his widow Kathleen Higgins, still at the University of Texas in Austin, published the latest edition of Big Questions just after his untimely death in a Swiss airport a couple of holiday seasons ago). He also wrote Spirituality for the Skeptic, which we’ll be reading in the “Atheism & Spirituality” course next semester. In that book, love of living is the simple essence of spirit– made poignant by our knowledge of the author’s own foreshortened fate, which he would remind us is inevitably our own. We must not take a moment of life for granted.

Solomon: “Whether or not there is a God to be thanked seems not the issue to me. It is the  importance and the significance of being thankful, to whomever or whatever, for life itself.” Thank who? Thank God, thank goodness, or thank pitchforks and pointed ears. But give thanks. Gratitude is a renewable resource, and then some. It’ll leave you feeling gratified.

He was a critic of overly-narrow, technical philosophy that, with “mind-numbing thinness,” fails to speak to ordinary human concerns. He was the sort of academic philosopher you might look for, if you were inclined to look for one,  in a popular film like Waking Life:


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