I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Gravity, repetition, and fantasyland https://t.co/W0PVO8XtED

November 16, 2017


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Gravity, repetition, and fantasyland

November 16, 2017

We’ll finish our stroll with Gros’s Philosophy of Walking today. He says the distance walker experiences “an immense renunciation,” or resignation to being earthbound, that issues ultimately and paradoxically in “the joy of being” and an “utter bliss.” He’s probably exaggerating at both ends of that statement, hikers typically begin not in a spirit of resignation but rather of eager anticipation, and end at the bliss end of the scale for sure, but possibly not utterly  – but I haven’t hiked the AT yet, so I’ll suspend judgment. Bryson ended his hike all aglow, sure enough, but didn’t soft-pedal the challenges and indignities of the abortive journey either.

Daily walkers, or this one anyway, do not set out in the expectation of slipping the surly bonds of earth, nor do the typically mild and reassuring rewards of transit for its own sake generally rise to transcendent levels of ecstasy. We keep our feet on the ground and our heads out of the clouds, or short at least of Cloud Nine. Slow and steady is our mantra, we’re not racing anyone or renouncing anything. But we do indeed understand and accept that our place is here, on this earth and in this skin, as every step reinforces the point. We’re down to earth.

And yet, we also feel a pleasant lightness of being as we realize and celebrate the ease of traveling without encumbrance. Gros had to ditch his rucksack at the foot of a mountain to feel that. I ditch my figurative rucksack every morning as I step out the door and also find “nothing between me and the sky, me and the ground” but a leash and a friend.

Reflecting on Gandhi’s disciplined, principled marches for justice, Gros says you can better “hold yourself to account” through “meticulous self-examination” measured a step at a time. You can, but you can also – as he’s already told us – slip away from hyper-self-examination. A walk is a canvas, and each can be different.

Does walking cure apathy (“acedia”)? Some monks have said so, owing somehow to the rhythm and regularity of a steady gait. I know I find it harder not to care about things, during and after a walk. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure I need to know why. Some gift horses just must be ridden and not riddled out.

I don’t know if Wordsworth was really the first poet of walking, but he was surely its poet laureate. “I calculate,” said De Quincy, “that… Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles—a mode of exertion which, to him, stood in the stead of alcohol and other stimulants whatsoever to animal spirits; to which, indeed, he was indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings.”

Wordsworth achieved in his wanderings what the Tibetan masters devised breathing and gymnastic exercises (lung-gom) to attain, the ability “of walking very fast over enormous distances without fatigue.” He and they may be our peripatetic role models, if we need them. For me, it’s enough simply to echo Montaigne’s observation:  “My thoughts sleep if I sit still.” I don’t necessarily have to go long and far, to shake off somnolence. I just have to go. And go. And go. It’s not for nothing that our last chapter is Repetition. Once more into the breach. Let’s go.
And once again, tonight, I get to repeat the happy experience of teaching the first of a two-class block in our school’s Master of Liberal Arts (MALA) program. Last semester it was Human Migration, this time it’s Cheating. My contribution: Cheating Truth (which, to be clear, I’m against). We’ll begin with a look at Princeton Professsor Harry Frankfurt’s classic “On Bullshit,” originally a mid-’80s essay in Raritan, revived in teeny pocket-book format in the mid-’00s, and on target now more than ever. As the author told Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, it just keeps “piling.”

I’ve been instructed not to require introductions from our students, since they’ve already had a half-dozen opening nights with different teachers all semester long and should know one another well enough by now. I get that, but it’s still hard for me not to begin my opening night, as I begin all my opening days each semester, with two questions: Who are you? and Why are you here? So, folks, I won’t ask. If any of you would care to volunteer that information, however…

And if anyone would care to volunteer a synopsis of what’s gone on in the cheating class so far, I’d love to be caught up. (So far the class has heard from my colleagues in Theater and Dance, Global Studies and Human Geography, Music, Political Science, and Sociology and Anthropology.)

Why “bullshit”? Isn’t it obvious? As Kurt Andersen says in his timely, troubling, yet vastly entertaining new alt-history of our land, it’s not a new phenomenon but lately it’s really coming to a head.

When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things,” the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: “our wishes, our inclinations” and ‘the dictates of our passions’ now apparently do ‘alter the state of facts and evidence,’ because extrteme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule…

…mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – a 500-Year History

We’ve fostered “a promiscuous devotion to the untrue,” one nation under Twitter with liberty for disinterest in truth and facts for all.

Well, fortunately not all. Wits like Andersen and Frankfurt, and before them sages like Carl Sagan with his euphemistic baloney-detection kit, have done their best to call out and rein in our promiscuous magic thinking. May the force be with them, and with us all.

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Mill, Darwin, Kierkegaard, & Marx https://t.co/6uqIQpLAB1

November 15, 2017


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Mill, Darwin, Kierkegaard, & Marx

November 15, 2017
Busy days ahead! MillDarwinKierkegaardMarx
Then tomorrow tonight, it’s the first of my two classes in the MALA course on “Cheating”… my contribution: “Cheating Truth”…
 Last time this quartet of philosophers came up I was doing my bit for the Spring MALA course on Human Migration, worth a look back. Then, I called my block contribution “The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism,” first retracing the genetic trail of Y-chromosome crumbs that prove we have indeed walked far, then wondering if we’ll ever complete the mission summarized by that ambitious (if premature) plaque on the moon.
Image result for "we came in peace" moon flag
“Premature,” I say, as evidenced by that other marker we left in the lunar dust.
Image result for "we came in peace" moon flag

Also premature perhaps in its implication that humans at this stage of their evolutionary development have in fact become a peaceable, or even reliably civil, species. I ventured out to the airport last night and was met with several instances of gratuitous incivility. Lots of us seem like powder kegs waiting to blow, these days. Oh well. At least I didn’t get beat up or kicked off a plane. I’d rather walk than fly any day.
We might check in tonight with Frederic Gros’s Philosophy of Walking, and Christopher Orlet’s Gymnasiums of the Mind, and “Walking to the stars“: Some of us fervently believe, with Nietzsche, Rousseau, and so many others, that the best ideas first come while walking. Some of us also believe we should expand our range to include more distant turf, over the Terran horizon. I’m a believer.

But first, those 19th century stars.

Mill, we’ve noted, disagree with Bentham about pleasure. He had nothing against “pushpin,” just impatience with humans who wouldn’t bother to explore more. His great passion was of course for liberty, so his insistence on qualitative pleasure-standards sets up a taut challenge: how to prescribe but not impose those standards, and still respect the rights of all to seek their own good in their own ways without (as John Lachs puts it) meddling. Open discussion in a free society, especially about our differences, forces invaluable self-critique. “If you don’t have your views challenged by people with opposing views, then you will probably end up holding them as ‘dead dogmas’…” But of course we rarely call out our own dogmas, it’s other people’s prejudices we detest. So we need to hear out other people.

The great Huxley-Wilberforce debate has probably grown in legend beyond its moment, but what wouldn’t I give to have been there! I think Dan Dennett is probably right, evolution by natural selection is probably the single best idea anyone ever had. Huxley was probably right too, when he upbraided himself for not having thought of it first. The best ideas are often right under our noses, out of sight.

Since Darwin’s day genetics, tonight’s topic, “has given a detailed explanation of how inheritance works.” It’s not just a theory, it’s a hypothesis with “a very substantial weight of evidence in support.”

The Danish Socrates said evidence/schmevidence, what’s that to me if my “subjective truth” says I should take a flying leap into the darkness. Some of us think Kierkegaard committed intellectual suicide, but we’re glad somebody stepped up to defend the irrationalist position. It gives us more to talk about. And it’s clear enough why some Existentialists (though not the atheists like Sartre) look back to the Melancholy Dane as their early prototype. Kierkegaard was all about “choosing how to live and the difficulty of knowing that your decision is the right one.” My view is that you only make that more difficult, when you renounce reason. And, you do contradict yourself in the broadest sense of reason when you write tracts attempting to vindicate your irrationalism. Nigel’s unvarnished judgment: “Faith involves risk. But it is also irrational: not based on reason.”

But, give Kierkegaard credit for defending “the subjective point of view” against the pure objectifiers in philosophy who leave themselves no place to stand, pretending to occupy Professor Nagel’s “view from nowhere.” That really is a Nowhere Land, Nowhere Man.

Karl Marx always looks angry. The “grim conditions” of industrial capitalism and its assault on the poor and powerless dispossessed sent him to the British Library and into collaboration with Engels to crank out their Manifesto. The political struggle of class demanded and predicted revolution, they said. They took Hegel’s history and said it’s all coming to a head much sooner than his intellectualistic analysis allowed, given its manifest material contradictions. Theye didn’t predict the Soviet Union, though.

“From each according to ability, to each according to need”: a beautiful vision, which American students seem conditioned to reject as impossible. Seems to work pretty well in places like Denmark and Switzerland, though.

Finally, Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people.” He didn’t think that was an insult, but a sympathetic explanation. “In the new world after the revolution human beings would achieve their humanity.” Sounds so naive, from the perspective of 2017. But humanity isan achievement, not just a genetic fact. We’ve got to reclaim it constantly.

Lotsa questions: Name two or three of your favorite pleasures. Are any of them higher or better than the others? In what way? Are any of yours higher or better than those of a friend whose list includes none of yours? Why or why not? Is state paternalism ever warranted? Why don’t we ever talk about state maternalism? What are the appropriate legal limits on speech and expression in a free society, if any? How would you reply to Wilberforce’s debate question? What do you think was the best idea ever? Do you want a map of your own genome? Why or why not? Do you agree with Darwin that the subject of God is “too profound for human intellect”? Does it mean we should all be agnostic? What would you have done, in Abraham’s position? Would you have doubted the “message” or challenged the messenger? Does it damage the parent-child relationship if Mom or Dad make it clear to the child that they’ll always defer to the perceived instructions of a “heavenly father,” even including murderous instructions? Does anything “trump the duty to be a good [parent]”? Would you ever do something you considered morally wrong, in the name of faith? Does taking a “leap of faith” make you irrational? How do you balance your subjective point of view with objectivity, and with the subjectivity of others? What role should inter-subjectivity play, in forming that balance? If you ever own a business will you pay your workers as little as possible and extract as much “surplus value” from them as you can? Is anything in history “inevitable”? Does religion make people more reconciled to oppression and exploitation, and less likely to revolt?

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Thoreau, Cynics, Kant https://t.co/2Pwi4RpnOh

November 14, 2017


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Thoreau, Cynics, Kant

November 14, 2017

More Thoreau in Happiness today, along with the Cynics and Kant. Wouldn’t that be an interesting walking party?

Thoreau, wishing “to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness,” wrote “Walking“:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks… We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return… I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

Nice work if you can afford it, though most of our peers would rather die than spend so much time on shanks’ mare. For Henry it was the very condition of living. His “new economics” measured every cost by the currency of life, a currency you’d think to be harder to devalue than a dollar. A strictly sedentary and interior life does exact quite a cost, whether we’re aware of it or not, in terms of health and happiness.

A long forest walk produces nothing “saleable,” says Gros, but isn’t Gros’s book saleable? Isn’t Thoreau’s? Sadly the bourgeoisie does not much buy or read such books. How much life they’re missing. “Living is something no one else can do for us,” though of course the vicarious experience of other lives may add depth and value to our own. The missed-opportunity cost of those who don’t read, finally indistinguishable (as Twain said) from those who can’t, is immeasurable.

“Ah! To be able to get drunk on the air we breathe” and salt away “vivid feelings and sunny memories” for winter. Simplicity of that sort costs nothing in nominal terms, repaying an interest that never stops accruing.

The real, for Thoreau, is truly priceless. It can’t be commodified, packaged, and re-sold like virtual reality. (What would he say about our preoccupation with that?) So he went to Walden, looking for the hard rock-bottom “which we can call Reality… no mistake.” No phony happiness Experience Machine for him.

More hymns to aurora, and pity for “those who have lost their subscription ticket to morningtime in this world.” But Henry is generous, “morning is when i am awake and there is a dawn in me.” But the air just is sweeter when the rooster crows. That was true even before the internal combustion engine invaded our lives.

Thoreau’s response to whether he’d made his peace with God is often quoted – “I didn’t know we’d quarreled” – but less remarked is his decisively grounded humanst commitment when presented with the specter of the afterlife: “one world at a time.” 

It’s cold-walking season here, or (as we get more than our share of unseasonable warmth in late autumn and early winter) anyway colder. Thoreau pointed out that we’re all equipped with handy portable furnaces. I used to recoil from winter, but with Henry’s encouragement now I lean in and speak no more of that self-inflicted malady called seasonal affective disorder. So easy to turn SAD to well-being, so few though actually do it. Sad.

Earth and landscape are themselves at once energizing and comforting, making the walker at home. Safe.

Socrates not a great walker, Plato? Once again, I suspect you’ve foisted your own view onto the mute canvas of your mentor. Nature has plenty to say to us all, though her message does not conduce to your dialogue format. She speaks more directly. To walk and to converse, peripatein, is wonderful but is necessarily mediated by symbolic language. Nature speaks in a tongue we’ve always knows, but don’t always choose to hear (as our Lyceum speaker was saying during Q-&-A the other day).

The old Cynics tried to get closer to nature, thinking “Truth is the elements” whose “primitive energy” mocks the verbal sophistication of more refined reflection. If you can really be free wherever you can walk, you can be at home almost everywhere – if they’ll have you.

Kant didn’t share much with Nietzsche, philosophically, but both were obsessive about their walks and their meals. The latter, in particular, suffered a delicate gastrointestinal constitution and held his beer-loving countrymen in contempt for what he considered their self-indulgent weakness. He could not allow himself to appreciate and enjoy the “aesthetic moment” a well-crafted ale might afford, nor the camaraderie and human connection. “Nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya,” except that. It wouldn’t have killed him. Might even have made him stronger. 

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Kant keep up https://t.co/aSaq0pxlPG

November 13, 2017


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Kant keep up

November 13, 2017

We’re running a day late in CoPhi, today catching up with Kant et al…

It’s the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia, a part of North Africa that is now Algeria (354). He converted to Christianity as an adult and wanted nothing more than to settle down to a quiet life of thinking about theology and writing books. But when he moved to the port town of Hippo to set up a monastery, he was forced to take over the duties of the local bishop, and he regretted for the rest of his life that he had to spend so much of his time delivering sermons and running a parish, when he could have devoted all that time to writing…

It’s the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850)… Around the same time that Treasure Island was published, Stevenson woke up one morning and told his family that he did not want to be disturbed until he had finished writing a story that had come to him in a dream. It took him three days to write it, but when he read the story aloud to his wife, she said it was too sensationalistic. So he sat down and rewrote the whole thing. By the end of the week, he was fairly happy with the result, which he called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885)… He said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” And, “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.” WA

And the great Buck O’Neil was born on this day in 1911. He stole the show at my Baseball in Literature and Culture conference presentation time before lasty… 
"How can a you hit and think at the same time?"
"I always thought that record would stand until it
was broken."
"In baseba...

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Homo viator https://t.co/o10FSAzDmm

November 9, 2017


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Homo viator

November 9, 2017

Frederic Gros is humming my tune in today’s Happiness assignment, with his paean to the sacred silence of early morning walks, “dim light slanting through red and gold leaves” in autumn, “muffled footsteps under a white sky” in winter’s snow (a rare occasion in these parts), and in every season an invitation to peaceable coexistence in and with the antique world. Silence is the golden muting of deafening nonsensical noisy chatter. People used to say, ironically or moronically, “Thanks, Obama”… I say Thanks, Drumpf… 

Thanks for pushing chatter beyond the tipping-point and breaking my morning addiction to NPR and all the other news-speaky organs of idle talk and breathless speculation driven by our benighted CEO’s latest tweet-storm. Now the only information I require before leaving the house and hitting the pavement is a brief weather update, so I’ll know whether to to lay down the base layer, grab the rain gear, or just go.

Then, I check the Writers Almanac for a little historical and literary context, a little poetry and a reminder that all things must pass. In a dark time that’s lightening.

I think Gros overstates the extent to which walkers lose the use of language, even when “doing nothing but walk” (and even if they emulate their canine companions’ version of “nothing”-the aforementioned sniffing, squirreling, circling, meandering etc.)… and the Wallace Stevens/Nietzsche/Rousseau style of peripatetic composition obviously intends the opposite. But I do get the point of appreciating those moments when words are seen to be mere innocent bystanders to the silence in which “you hear better” because you’re finally really seeing, really noticing things and not just issuing a running commentary.

The sight of desk or chair does not suffice to sicken me, as Rousseau said it did him, but too much direct seat-of-the-pants acquaintance definitely can. Some see standing and treadmill desks as the solution, but unless it’s 20 below I’ll pass on that. For a while I tried setting an hourly alarm, to make sure those sedentary sessions didn’t exceed safe limits. Better to just train ourselves to know what sick-desk syndrome feels like. You don’t have to set an alarm to let you know your nasal passages need clearing, after all, why should blocked mental and emotional passages be any harder to diagnose?

“The doggish man of the Enlightenment” was through, like his cynical forerunner, with the proprieties and conventions of polite society. That’s fine, to a point. But untrained dogs are less than impolite, they’re a sanitation and safety hazard. Get up and show a little respect, Diogenes.
Image result for school of athens diogenes

The aspiration to identify and personify homo viator, “walking man,” is one I certainly relate to. “Sitting man” is normal, sadly, but definitely not natural. We’re designed, naturally selected, to move. But the romantic notion of a natural man who loves but does not favor or prefer himself, who does not wage even a cold war against all others, is still strictly aspirational at the species level. The Hobbes-Rousseau debate continues. But I’ve known healthily-altruistic non-egoists who nonetheless suffered no noticeable self-loathing. 

In Rousseau’s final walking reveries, recounted in Reveries of the Solitary Walker, he may have experienced “marvelous contentment” – it’s hard enough to recognize that state in oneself, never mind an old dead philosopher. And, we may still wonder about the gap between contentment and true happiness. But if in my own future final reveries I can manage to “walk at my ease… without being obliged to hurry, and with a pleasant prospect at the end,” you can call me happy. If I then also  manage to “rediscover the simple joy of existing… that permeates the whole of childhood,” well, I don’t guess there’s a word for that. Or needs to be.

Image result for emerson transparent eyeball
 ‘I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all…’

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