Posts Tagged ‘Woody Allen’

Augustine, Boethius, Anselm & Aquinas, Appiah, Allen

February 5, 2013

AugustineBoethiusAnselm & Aquinas, and Appiah on cosmopolitanism are up today in CoPhi. But Allen‘s the philosopher who’s influenced me most. More on that in a bit.

Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”? Jesus and Mo have puzzled this one:

jandmofw

Here too: Free Willy! But as usual, the Atheist Barmaid is unpersuaded.

(As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed. They’re just a couple of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless fun, zealots, not blasphemy. But if it provokes a little thought, it’s useful.)

Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP

Boethius was consoled by the thought that God’s knowing he was about to be tortured to death in no way impaired his, Boethius’s, freedom. That’s apparently because God knows things timelessly, sees everything “in a go.” I don’t think that would really make me feel any better, in my prison cell. The real consolation of philosophy comes when it contributes to the liberation of mind and body. But it’s still very cool to imagine Philosophy a comfort-woman, reminding us of our hard-earned wisdom when the going gets impossible.

And then, of course, they killed him. The list of martyred philosophers grows. And let’s not forget Hypatia and Bruno. The problem of suffering (“evil”) was very real to them, as it is to so many of our fellow world-citizens. You can’t chalk it all up to free will. But can we even chalk torture or any other inflicted choice up to it, given the full scope of a genuinely omniscient creator’s knowledge? If He already knows what I’m going to do unto others and what others will do unto me, am I in any meaningful sense a free agent who might have done otherwise? The buck stops where?

[Christians 2, Philosophers 0… Christians & MuslimsJandMoandPaulMystics, scholastics, Ferengi… faith & reason…]

Undeterred by such questions, Anselm continued to stump for the divine moral perfection (and omnipotence and omnscience) of a being “than which none greater could be conceived.” His Ontological Argument is either ingenious or ridiculous, but is not persuasive. Strange argument indeed.

Aquinas was sure there had to be an uncaused cause in back of everything, or else we’d never get to an end of explaining. Well, we probably won’t. Not ’til the would-be explainers themselves are gone. But is an uncaused cause really a step forward, explanatorily speaking?

The appeal of Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is summed up, for me, in his observation that the fundamental aim of our philosophical conversations is to enable us “to live with people, whether you agree with them or not.” That’s helpful.

Appiah is the headliner at this year’s annual March meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, this time in New Jersey, with the conference theme “American Philosophy and Cosmopolitanism.” [Appiahn WayThe Real Cosmopolitans]

I’ve found members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for instance, to be amongst the most agreeable people on the planet – and I couldn’t disagree more with many of their ideas. Simon Critchley’s Stone essay last September includes one friendly Mormon’s cheerful announcement that “we, too, can become Gods, American Gods, no less.”

Well, that was the premise and the title of an entertaining fiction from Neil Gaiman. But what would Augustine, Anselm, Boethius et al think about it? Not much.

The great secret is that, through heroic effort and striving, God was a man who became exalted and now sits enthroned in the heavens. You see, God was not God from all eternity, but became God.

A Woody Allen character was once accused of playing God. “I have to model myself on someone.”

Woody’s not God, nor even remotely a God (a Phil Connors/Groundhog God). He’s very human. But he asks great questions (recently answered some too), shoots great scenes, and cares. [DS]

(My favorite Manhattan scene, btw, asks What Makes Life Worth Living?)

But everyman a God is really not a serious proposition, is it? Anymore than the notion of one man, one planet? Can it really be true that Joseph Smith’s followers anticipate living forever off-world with their families and robots, Jetson-like? Or is that just another example of uninformed bias? (We could ask that Mormon Girl on Twitter what they really believe. Or check out the Book of Mormon.) Anyway, live and let live. It’s a big cosmos.

Strings, freedom, and the future

September 17, 2012

Augustine, Boethius, Anselm & Aquinas, Appiah on cosmopolitanism in CoPhi, and (in EEA*) the end of Blessed UnrestA Monday to get up for.

Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”?

Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP

Boethius was consoled by the thought that God’s knowing he was about to be tortured to death in no way impaired his, Boethius’s, freedom. That’s apparently because God knows things timelessly, sees everything “in a go.” I don’t think that would really make me feel any better, in my prison cell. The real consolation of philosophy comes when it contributes to the liberation of mind and body. But it’s still very cool to imagine Philosophy a comfort-woman, reminding us of our hard-earned wisdom when the going gets impossible.

And then, of course, they killed him. The list of martyred philosophers grows. And let’s not forget Hypatia and Bruno. The problem of suffering (“evil”) was very real to them, as it is to so many of our fellow world-citizens. You can’t chalk it all up to free will. But can we even chalk torture or any other inflicted choice up to it, given the full scope of a genuinely omniscient creator’s knowledge? If He already knows what I’m going to do unto others and what others will do unto me, am I in any meaningful sense a free agent who might have done otherwise? The buck stops where?

[Christians 2, Philosophers 0Christians & MuslimsJandMoandPaulMystics, scholastics, Ferengifaith & reason…]

Undeterred by such questions, Anselm continued to stump for the divine moral perfection (and omnipotence and omnscience) of a being “than which none greater could be conceived.” His Ontological Argument is either ingenious or ridiculous, but is not persuasive. Strange argument indeed.

Aquinas was sure there had to be an uncaused cause in back of everything, or else we’d never get to an end of explaining. Well, we probably won’t. Not ’til the would-be explainers themselves are gone. But is an uncaused cause really a step forward, explanatorily speaking?

The appeal of Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is summed up, for me, in his observation that the fundamental aim of our philosophical conversations is to enable us “to live with people, whether you agree with them or not.” That’s helpful. [Appiahn Way]

I’ve found members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for instance, to be amongst the most agreeable people on the planet – and I couldn’t disagree more with many of their ideas. Simon Critchley’s new Stone essay includes one friendly Mormon’s cheerful announcement that “we, too, can become Gods, American Gods, no less.”

Well, that was the premise and the title of an entertaining fiction from Neil Gaiman. But what would Augustine, Anselm, Boethius et al think about it? Not much.

The great secret is that, through heroic effort and striving, God was a man who became exalted and now sits enthroned in the heavens. You see, God was not God from all eternity, but became God.

A Woody Allen character was once accused of playing God. “I have to model myself on someone.”

(My favorite Manhattan scene, btw, asks What Makes Life Worth Living?)

But everyman a God is really not a serious proposition, is it? Anymore than the notion of one man, one planet? Can it really be true that Joseph Smith’s followers, from Mitt on down, anticipate living forever off-world with their families and robots, Jetson-like? Or is that just another example of uninformed bias? (We could ask that Mormon Girl on Twitter what they really believe. Or check out the Book of Mormon.) Anyway, live and let live. It’s a big cosmos.

*Finally today, Paul Hawken inspires with his immune system analogy, and the hope that together we’ll be strong enough to ward off the ecological and social diseases that have lately been threatening the health of our planetary organism.

My favorite moment, in these last two chapters, recounts Michael Chabon’s conversation with his (then) eight-year old. “Will there really be people [in 10,000 years], Dad?”

‘Yes’, I told him without hesitation, ‘there will.’ I don’t know if that’s true… But if you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly… then I don’t see how you can have children.

Me neither. That’s why I’m restless about the present torpid state of environmental and social activism, and why we’ll next bring Gus Speth back into our conversation. Good place to start, before stepping onto his Bridge at the Edge of the World, is with his recent two-part Orion manifesto America the Possible.

Subway hero

February 17, 2012

In CoPhi yesterday we were talking about courage, and how we don’t really know what we’re capable of doing until we find ourselves in a crisis situation. I recalled the real-life (not the 30 Rock) “subway hero,” Wesley Autrey. On January 2, 2007,

Mr. Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.

Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep. The train’s brakes screeched, but it could not stop in time.

Five cars rolled overhead before the train stopped, the cars passing inches from his head, smudging his blue knit cap with grease. Mr. Autrey heard onlookers’ screams. “We’re O.K. down here,” he yelled, “but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s O.K.” He heard cries of wonder, and applause…

“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Mr. Autrey said. “I did what I felt was right.”

Incredible but true. The point I wanted to make: neither a Utilitarian nor a Deontologist would have had time to ponder a decision like that. Was it even a decision? No, it was an instantaneous, impulsive, selfless reaction based on a long-prepared disposition to do what feels right. You don’t get that from sitting around in a bar talking about what you’d do if this or that scenario were to arise. Woody Allen in Manhattan says he’d never have to face the situation of whether to risk his own life to save a drowning person since he, Woody, doesn’t swim. Heroism is not hypothetical.

You don’t develop such a disposition merely by sitting in Philosophy class either, reading Bentham and Mill and Kant, meditating on First Principles, or tabulating the hedonic calculus. Doing those things might help some of us think about how to build the character and will to do the right thing, but this really goes back to David Hume: it’s not reason, in the end, but fellow-feeling and a sense of connectedness that clinches our altruism. We become the sort of person who performs heroically in a crisis by performing countless repeated small acts of kindness.  Generosity of spirit is made, not born.

And reason, if it’s smart, notices.

“Turn your attention to other things” and be happy: Bertrand Russell

October 4, 2011

We begin Bertrand Russell‘s Conquest of Happiness in SOL today. Woody Allen’s Dr. Flicker must have read Russell.

The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the contemplation of the unvierse painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead.

~~======~~

Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen
millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.

The younger Russell was much like Allen’s “Alvy,” burdened by the weight of the world and compelled to lighten it by seeking certainty. Several good biographies attest to this (Monk, Clark), as does the breezier recent graphic novel Logicomix.

Older Russell was disabused of that quest, and– to judge by our book, as I read it– was a much happier man.  He was much more attuned to present satisfactions, much less hostage to future attainments. Now he enjoys life, he writes as an older and wiser egg. He’s learned to pursue what he most desires, and he’s “successfully dismissed certain objects of desire – such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge”…  but mostly he credits “a diminishing preoccupation with myself.” He learned “to center my attention upon external objects,” not as sources of ultimate happiness in the future but as objects of interest and action in the present.

The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts.

And, in life’s brevity resides its capacity for beauty.

…if I lived forever the joys of life would inevitably in the end lose their savor.

But Russell had wise words for future generations, including you & me:

My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable. I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to the destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness ultimately depends.

With due respect to Lord Russell, there were a few obvious external causes of discontent in 1930 and there are today. Have you been watching Ken Burns’ “Prohibition“? Russell comes off as a supporter of the 18th amendment here, denying that drink can be a “pathway to joy” –  but as a Brit, of course, he wasn’t tempted to demonize it as a road to hell, either.

His  main point, though, is that we resort to external excuses for what is after all an inner turmoil of spirit. This is one way in which, ironically, Russell tilts more toward Matthieu Ricard than to Barbara Ehrenreich. “Changes in the social system to promote happiness” are necessary, but hardly sufficient. Happiness is a relatively-selfless state of mind. You can’t ignore your own heart’s desires, but to be interested only in oneself “is not admirable.” Megalomaniacs and narcissists aggrandize themselves, they don’t make themselves (or their associates) happy.

“I was not born happy.” No, he was born under a cloud of scandal. He was also born with a silver spoon. A mostly-irrelevant material and social advantage, do we think? But it’s hard to read much of Russell, especially in his playful “Why I am Not a Christian” mood, without gaining the impression that his personal genetic “set-point” for happiness must’ve been pretty high to begin with. The tone of A Free Man’s Worship (YouT)is more elegiac, but it seems to come from a place of ingrained deep-seated contentment with the world.

Finally, this is not a very prevalent contemporary attitude, but I think Russell was dead on:

A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

That’s not the most welcome news, in this cacophony of a 21st century,  but it may be what we need most to hear. So, later this afternoon I’m turning my attention to a nice quiet ballgame. Go Cards!

Note to Robert Ettinger: the best dreams are waking

July 30, 2011

Robert C. W. Ettinger: now there was a guy who understood that “life only avails, not the having lived.” Or maybe not.

He gave us cryonics, separated the Splendid Splinter’s head from his bat, inspired Woody Allen (“Sleeper“), and now seems to have shuffled off this mortal coil.

I know I shouldn’t make light of anyone’s passing, but this is just too rich.

“Life is better than death, healthy is better than sick, and immortality might be worth the trouble.” I don’t disagree. It might be.

It might also be more sensible to recognize our personal mortality as a small but crucial part of the much larger and more enlivening story of life on the grand scale, at the species and cosmic level where death and life are yin and yang. It’s really not all about me, or you, or her. It’s about us, about we who’ve been privileged against all odds to wake up in the universe and begin to sniff around, we who have a golden opportunity to prepare our immediate successors for their own moment of lucidity and aspiration.

Links in a chain, we are. Not a chain dangling from a hook in a meat locker, but a chain of genes and dreams stretching beyond every perceptible horizon.

Still, I’m entirely with Mr. Ettinger in his lust for more life. Give me more experience, please. “So when I come back I’d like to try skiing,” and a few dozen other risky ventures. I’d like to meet my great-great-great… grandchildren. I’d like to know how the story turns out.

Older Daughter said last night she’s miffed that there’s this great, vast universe out there and she can’t reach it. I know what she means, and I think I know what Robert Ettinger wanted. But the thing is, we can reach it. What else is an expanded and evolving cranial capacity for, besides foraging and fending off predators more efficiently, if not to dream?

As she and Dumbledore and Emily Dickinson remind me, just because something’s in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real. The brain is wider than the sky and warmer than a deep freeze. It’s a pretty good time machine and rocket ship too.

I forget what I need to remember

June 30, 2011

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That was Faulkner in 1951. In the past.

But I’ve been pondering it in the present because it came up in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” which I can’t stop thinking about. And then it came up again yesterday when I looked into the short final version of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, “Heroes of History“:

There is a veritable City of God, in which the creative spirits of the past, by the miracles of memory and tradition, still live and work, carve and build and sing. Plato is there, playing philosophy with Socrates; Shakespeare is there… Keats is still listening to his nightingale, and Shelley… Nietzsche is there, raving and revealing; Christ is there… the Incredible Legacy of the race, the golden strain in the web of history.

Is this the past as escapist fantasy? Or as nourishing legacy? Whatever it is, it’s fun to watch on the big screen. The big screen of imagination. But what do you do when the screen dims? Billy Collins wrote a funny and frightening poem about that, if I could just remember what it was called. Oh yeah: Forgetfulness.

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of…

Midnight in Paris: “brilliant”

June 27, 2011

Finally saw “Midnight in Paris” yesterday. Loved it, especially its skewering of the insufferable pedantic pseudo-intellectual professor. Shades of Annie Hall’s Marshall McLuhan. “Boy, if life were only like this.”

Also loved the moment early in the film when Gil tells Inez that

it is perfectly fine for your father & I to disagree. That’s what a democracy is. Your father defends the right wing of the Republican party and I happen to think you have to be like a… demented lunatic [to think that way]… Doesn’t mean we don’t respect each other’s views.

The serious message, beneath layers of literary nostalgia and visually-delightful ’20s Parisian charm, is that the Golden Age exists only in our imagination. If we imagine richly enough we bring it to life in the present, which is where everything nourishing has to live. We must endeavor to infuse our own time with vivacity and interest. Sentimental longing to live in the past denies and cheats the present. As John Dewey pointed out: “we always live at the time we live, and not at some other time.”

But sooner or later, count on it: someone will get misty-eyed and revisionist about our time, just as many youngsters now seem to be for the 1970s. Believe me, as one who was there: that time was not Golden.

On the other hand, some great Woody Allen movies were made then. If I’m not mistaken.

“Our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone”

April 4, 2011

In chapter 3 of Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock calls efforts to stabilize CO2 and global temperature “no better than planetary alternative medicine.” He’s clearly no fan of alt-med. Lots of Gaians are, though, like our indigenous authors. How about it, class? Can a true Gaian be dismissive or contemptuous of holistic health in any form? [My favorite alt-med health care provider]

He reminds us that as oxygen-breathers, we and our domesticated pets contribute substantially to the world’s net supply of green house gases. Thank goodness we don’t have “great and powerful” leaders eager to fix that through subtraction. Or, don’t have more of them than we do.

Michael Shermer’s thoughts about false positives and negatives, and why people believe weird things, ring true enough. The former  are mostly harmless, while the latter can get you killed. Climate denialism might be the very best example. (“How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results“)

But, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean somebody’s not after you, and just because the mobile phone menace was suspected long before evidence could be produced doesn’t prove that it’s a phantom.

It’s our duty as a species to survive, so we may be obliged to pick up stakes and seek cooler climes. Will Gaia help us move? Lovelock says again and again that Gaia’s needs, expressing the interests of the many, outweigh those of the few. Guess which group we’re in?

Last time’s post touched on this: Lovelock has been accused of being a sentimentalizing anthropomorphizer, even after he clarified Gaia’s status as more metaphor than literal fact. And he is one, I think: he’s soft and sentimental for the non-human biosphere, more than for you and me. But he asks a fair question: if she’s not alive, how can she die? “And die she will when the sun’s heat becomes more than can be withstood.” OK, but I think we should revisit Dr. Flicker & Prof. Russell.

What alternative energy form has the best chance of helping offset climate change? Wind doesn’t blow in enough places, solar’s not yet scalable (not sure what that means). As of the writing of this book, Lovelock liked nukes. As for radiation? It’s “a natural and normal part of our environment.”

Right. That’s hollow reassurance these days, isn’t it? Did you hear “This American Life” last night? We owe it to ourselves and to Gaia to listen to those voices from Chernobyl.

Interesting Kuhnian point about scientists being “reticent” in the face of possible peer pressure and scorn, and about the old urban/wilderness schism within environmentalism. Maybe we just need to “queer” the old deal. (“HT Queer Ecology and the Environmental Movement“)

Not sure about his Silent Spring observation, though I guess it’s consistent of him to be unperturbed by free-range chemicals if he’s also down with radiation. Are we really being “hysterical” about the latest Japan crisis?

Did you notice, BP’s trying to drill in the same deep troubled Caribbean waters again. They apparently think nothing’s unseemly about that, less than a year after their own malodorous contribution to hysteria. It seems to me we’re collectively being pretty docile, not hysterical. End of the world? We feel fine.

“Coal is the truly dirty fuel.” And yet, Lovelock finds Mr. Rogers of Big Coal “as concerned with our future as I was.” Well, as long as the dirty energy guys are “concerned”…

How concerned should we all be?

Now, as a result of the crisis in Japan, the atomic simulations suggest that the number of serious accidents has suddenly doubled, with three of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in some stage of meltdown. Even so, the public authorities have sought to avoid grim technical details that might trigger alarm or even panic.

“They don’t want to go there,” said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert who, from 1993 to 1999, was a policy adviser to the secretary of energy. “The spin is all about reassurance.” NYT

“Assessing the Radiation Danger” graphic

“Our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.” Atlantic

As the disaster in Japan illustrates, so starkly and so tragically, people have a hard time planning for events that they don’t want to imagine happening. But these are precisely the events that must be taken into account in a realistic assessment of risk. We’ve more or less pretended that our nuclear plants are safe, and so far we have got away with it. The Japanese have not. Elizabeth Kolbert

[Rousseau, Snow’s two cultures 50th anniversary, food, walking, Geoengineering, Gaian engineering]

Chapter Five concludes smartly:

Perhaps the greatest value of the Gaia concept lies in its metaphor of a living Earth, which reminds us that we are part of it and that our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone, but includes human obligations.

That, at least, sounds a lot like native wisdom. Now we just have to figure out how to apply it. What kind of energy do we need? How much? How quickly?

just a thinker

December 23, 2010

“No limos, no bimbos…just a thinker”-Woody Allen’s Professor Levy:

It is only we, with our capacity to love, who give meaning to the indifferent universe… And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, & even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more. Crimes & Misdemeanors

Professor Levy, no Sisyphus, took his own life: a cautionary tale for all would-be “thinkers” and philosophy-documentarians. [The real Levy]

But what a terrific film.

 

Freud & friends

December 2, 2010

Frege’s linguistic turn still holds many of my peers captive to the quest for reductive, analytic clarity. Some of my best friends are analysts, though not of the Freudian kind.

From their point of view, of course, we pragmatists (among others) are the ones behind bars: in the prison-house not of language, but of fuzzy imprecision.

Russell was an atomist, though not quite like Democritus: he was trying to link atomic bits in language precisely and isomorphically to their corresponding bits in the world. That would be the ultimate analytic reduction, and its the larger project Russell and Whitehead were trying to serve by anchoring arithmetic in logic. Hegelians like Bradley, as usual, saw everything as much too interdependent to permit so decontextualized an analysis.

Edmund Husserl tried to understand consciousness from the inside, phenomenologically.  I still don’t understand how to “bracket” phenomena so as to isolate their real essences. It sounds easy enough, but then again: it sounds easy to eliminate cancer by finding a cure, too. But how to do it, exactly?

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus says sentences picture facts, and implies in its conclusion that there is meaningful experience to be had (but not described) beyond the bounds of philosophy, language, and reason.

Later, he turned therapeutic and talked about “language games” instead of sentences and propositions as the currency of thought and action. We don’t just map the world with our words, we shape it. And, we envision new worlds altogether. On this reading, Wittgenstein II is the most expansive and possibility-enlarging of philosophers.

But it was the narrow positivism his early readers thought they found in him that may be Wittgenstein’s largest and least pleasing legacy. The heirs of Alfred Jules Ayer (Language, Truth, and Logic) are still with us.

Sigmund Freud spans both pro- and anti-Enlightenment camps, as a champion of the idea of mind as brain, “analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and physics,” AND as a welter of irrational drives and instincts.

Our discontent is caused by civilization? That’s not encouraging.

[Hecht on Freud]

Max Weber said capitalism comes from Calvinism: predestination is so stressful that it drives Protestants into a frenzy of work, “working feverishly and living ascetically” to prove their cosmic worth.

I don’t actually know many frenzied Protestants myself, but I think my grandparents did.

We’ve already met Russell’s early collaborator Whitehead; his French counterpart was Henri Bergson.  They pioneered “process philosophy,” [IEP] which rejected static metaphors of eternity and timelessness and emphasized the primacy of events instead of objects.

We noted Whitehead’s affinity for James, “that adorable genius.” James, in turn, admired Bergson. It was he who led James

to renounce the intellectualist method and the current notion that logic is an adequate measure of what can or cannot be… to give up logic, squarely and irrevocably… reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows, and surrounds it. A Pluralistic Universe (1909)

Which reminds me of the time Captain Picard gave a copy of that very book to Ensign Crusher, with some terrific advice for his future studies.

The young man protests: “William James won’t be on my Starfleet exams.” Picard answers, “Nothing really important will be. Open yourself to the past, history, art, philosophy, and all of this might mean something.”

A Pluralistic Universe contains what may be the single most important statement in James’s entire corpus of published works:

I am tiring myself and you, I know, by vainly seeking to describe by concepts and words what . . . exceeds either conceptualization or verbalization. As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field. The return to life can’t come about by talking. It is an act; to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation, I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk. . . . Or I must point, point to the mere that of life, and you by inner sympathy must fill out the what for yourselves.

This is a perplexing, disconcerting thing to read in the flat middle of a book, and might incline some readers to put it down in tired exasperation. But a footnote anticipates and defuses the mood, with a little help from James’s friend Bergson.

In using concepts of his own to discredit the theoretic claims of concepts generally, Bergson… shows us to what quarter we must practically turn if we wish to gain that completer insight into reality which he denies that they can give.

James is with Bergson on this. Fight bad concepts with better ones– the ones that admit their own limitations and point to what they cannot say, and move us past contemplation for its own sake. Another Woody Allen quote is to the point: “the brain is the most highly over-rated organ.”  The final message, then:

Don’t just sit there, Wesley. Think. Then, do something. And don’t just tweet about it, Wil.


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