Russell’s intro

August 24, 2016

We’re off, with Bertrand Russell’s introductory chapter in his History. There we’re cautioned against the “impertinent insolence towards the universe” of dogmatic theology, and directed instead to the gray space between certainty and paralysis that good philosophers occupy. Then we’re told that the Stoics presaged Christianity, that Montaigne’s “fruitful disorder” made him a representative man of his age, that Descartes’ subjectivist inflation of ego as philosophic method was insanely contrary to common sense, and that every community must negotiate the extreme opposite dangers of either too stultifying a regard for tradition or too much personal independence.

Those are just a few of the countless sharp opinions Russell will deliver, with audacity and biting wit, in this narrative. Another: that philosophy occupies a No Man’s Land between theology and science. So, we’ll wonder: are no theologians or scientists philosophers? Is there more than one way to be a philosopher? Here I’ll invoke Professor James’s observation that we all have some implicit philosophy or other. For a No Man’s Land, it’s pretty crowded.

Other points to ponder, prompted by this chapter: Is there any higher duty than that to one’s fellow humans? What do we owe the state, our contemporaries, our successors? In what specific ways should it matter to us that we’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving, on a distant spiral arm of a relatively nondescript galaxy, one among trillions? Ought we ever to acknowledge the authority of any individual or institution, to settle matters of belief and conscience? (Good question to ask on the anniversary of the first edition of the Gutenberg Bible.)

Some students will become frustrated with all these questions. I’ll happily suggest answers, and will not hesitate to advocate for my own. But the key takeaway today is that in philosophy the questions always outpace the answers, and we’re okay with that. Love it, in fact.

5:30/6:15, 72/93, 7:24

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Visions of Ecotopia

August 23, 2016

Two more Honors CoPhi classes today, then Environmental Ethics. There we’ll be looking for hope, amidst all the ominous portents of planetary catastrophe we’ve noted lately. July apparently was the warmest month on record, ever. The heat is on. (Yesterday happened to be a marvelously mild respite, in middle Tennessee. Weather’s not climate.)

But is hope vanishing? Naomi Klen says wait a minute, “we can seize the existential crisis of climate change to transform our failed economic system into something radically better.” It’s just barely possible, at least through 2017. Grasping and running with possibility is what philosophy is all about. Just look at what this little English village has done. Look what’s in the wind just offshore.

Our next author, Tim Flannery, says “there is also diverse, effective, and innovative activity toward cutting carbon dioxide emissions.” If we can do that, in tandem with moving towards renewable energy sources, there may indeed be hope for something radically better.

Then we’ll revisit the late Ernest Callenbach’s vision of Ecotopia, because hope requires vision. Without it, the people proverbially perish. “The novel, now being rediscovered, speaks to our ecological present: in the flush of a financial crisis, the Pacific Northwest secedes from the United States, and its citizens establish a sustainable economy, a cross between Scandinavian socialism and Northern California back-to-the-landism, with the custom — years before the environmental writer Michael Pollan began his campaign — to eat local.”
And then, my hope is that the class will decide to read at least one more text in November before our curtain falls. My candidates, pending a class vote:
  • The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand – “How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common,” asks Stewart Brand, “instead of difficult and rare?” Or, to put it another way, how does one get people to develop a natural perspective of their present moment that extends beyond a few days in either direction? The Clock of the Long Now describes a potential solution…”
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert – “She makes an irrefutable case that what we are doing to cause a sixth mass extinction is clearly wrong. And she makes it clear that doing what is right means accelerating our transition to a more sustainable world.”
  • Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson – “Robinson presents us with three options of how the future might be, and some concrete ideas for making the third (and best) future come true… his most important idea seems to be that we should limit the size of corporations.”
  • OR all of the above, via crowdsourcing & division of labor
  • OR none…
So we’ll begin the conversation today. Full of hope, can’t wait.

5:20/6:14, 63/89, 7:25

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Opening Day

August 22, 2016

Another one again, already. Meeting the first of three Honors Intro sections today. Hooray.

We’ll introduce ourselves in the usual way: Who are you? Why are you here?

I’ll explain why I call the Intro to Philosophy course CoPhilosophy: because we’re all in it together, and because I agree with William James’s collaborative approach: “The pluralistic form takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of, being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of co…”

And, we’ll remind ourselves that there should be far more to a university education than just a quick crash-course in vocational credentialing. Higher education is supposed to equip us to become good people leading good lives, not just good consumers earning good salaries. It’s supposed to make us successful in the fullest sense, not in the constricted way James ridiculed in a wonderfully acidic epistle to H.G. Wells: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”

Our goal, simply put, is success at school as the first step on the road to non-squalid success in life. That’s what college is for.

One clear mark of our success in CoPhilosophy will be the enhanced ability to perceive and consider alternative points of view, to sustain amicably constructive conversation in the face of dissent. To that end, and now that “an Authorized Employee may carry a concealed handgun on MTSU property,” I’m in the market for one of these:

Image result for hhgtg pov gun

POV gun

It’s Annie Proulx’s birthday. She “dropped out of a Ph.D. program after realizing she wasn’t fit for the academic life. She said: ‘I’m not a person who works well with others. Having to get along with people you don’t respect very much, having to deal with a bureaucracy, just the whole weight of idiots turned me off.’”

She’d probably not be a very good CoPhilosopher, with that attitude, but I have to admit – even on Opening Day – that sometimes I know just what she means. Don’t point that thing at me.

6:00/6:13, 62/83, 7:27

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Golden cave

August 10, 2016

Back from Illinois, helping Older Daughter settle in for senior year. Time flies faster and faster.

We returned to another storm-induced cable service disruption. Not wanting to miss the Olympics,  we headed to the nearest sports cave. What a metaphor,  so many flickering, captivating shadowy images on the walls all around. It was Sam’s, but it coulda been Plato’s.

Got there just in time to experience the crowd’s frenzied cheering reaction to Michael Phelps’ and Katie Ledecky’s wins. Heard no chants of U-S-A (the TV sound was down), but if our heroes had been swimming for Canada or Belarus it would have been a different scene entirely. We won gold last night, was the clear implication. Add another medal to our total.

Wouldn’t it be nice, if we could all learn to cheer like that for all the winners of every nationality, and if every winner would be gracious enough in victory to deserve all those cheers?

6 am/6:03, 76/91, 7:41

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Shelley’s truth & Satchmo’s love

August 4, 2016

Good words from two radically different, astonishingly creative people on their birthday:

“Do it now — write nothing but what your conviction of its truth inspires you to write.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret.” Louis Armstrong

Simple expressions, to the world, of what it needs now.

In that spirit, listen to what my favorite septuagenerian student – “Donald in Murfreesboro TN” – said to On Point’s radio audience Tuesday morning, 18 minutes in. His point: we all have a lot to offer, if we’re motivated by truth and love.

5:53/5:59, 74/86/72, 7:48

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Parting advice, unsettled hash

August 3, 2016

Trotting out William James’s signature parting words once again today, for our last Stroll Thru Western Civilization class of the summer. They were never more apt.

“There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.–Farewell!” 

That was James’s farewell in the summer of 1910, an encomium to a certain “pluralistic mystic” whose openness to new experience and constant intellectual reconstruction was unstinting. Aristotle and his peripatetics were early exemplars of that kind of openness in philosophy. Plato’s mind, from a Jamesian perspective, was not so supple.

But we still need to read and argue with Plato, and not simply dismiss him. That’s one of the few nonambivalent conclusions our main texts have led us to this summer. The empiricist-rationalist conversation has not concluded. The stroll continues.

But we need to stroll with a lightness of step, and resist the heaviness of heart that weighs down too many philosophers with too inflated a self-regard. A few years before his final farewell James acknowledged this malady, and punctured its pretensions.

I am convinced that the desire to formulate truths is a virulent disease. It has contracted an alliance lately in me with a feverish personal ambition, which I never had before, and which I recognize as an unholy thing in such a connection. I actually dread to die until I have settled the Universe’s hash in one more book, which shall be epoch-making at last, and a title of honor to my children! Childish idiot—as if formulas about the Universe could ruffle its majesty, and as if the common-sense world and its duties were not eternally the really real!

So this is not goodbye, it’s “talk to you later.” Meanwhile, I just want to leave my fellow strollers with the message on the sign on the little looping trail in my neighborhood. I used to recite it mantra-like, every time I passed it. So though the sign’s now gone the message is indelibly stored in memory, and in an old photo* on my bulletin board:

“Regular walking can 
strengthen your heart and
improve your general health.
Walk and enjoy yourself as
you enhance the quality of 
your life.”

There is implicit “advice to be given,” after all. It pairs well with Mr. Einstein‘s: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

Later, guys.

5:50/5:58, 77/92/72, 7:49

*Found another one:

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Antimatter lunch

August 2, 2016

Tomorrow’s my last class of summer, and Younger Daughter’s first of “fall.” Reason enough, we thought, to go out for lunch yesterday at the eccentrically-appointed chicken shack we like so much. Delicious! Delightful! Also ephemeral, evanescent… not forever, not even close. Like summer.

And that’s why it’s so important to me to document these small but worthy moments, notch them on that walking stick of extruded memory Thoreau talked about. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Something completely different, but maybe not really:  “on this day in 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence[of] antimatter…”

My scifi pre-education taught me that we need that stuff to balance our material existence, but if it comes into too-direct contact with our world the whole thing goes kablooey. The whole thing. That’s how fragile it all is.

Another reason why we need to get out to the chicken shack once in a while, to notice how delicious and delightful it is to be here. Soon enough it’ll all be gone.

6:30/5:57, 73/91/70, 7:49

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Captain Fantastic

August 1, 2016

Saw Captain Fantastic at the renovated Belcourt Saturday, another film with a profusion of Spocks (in a hilarious scene that makes you feel bad for the brilliant young man who knows the Baby Doctor but, having been raised beyond the range of tv land, not the Vulcan).

I wouldn’t want to live so far off the grid, it’s not how I imagine Plato’s “paradise” republic, and it really wouldn’t be good for kids not to know all their Spocks. But, what a dual indictment of both our know-nothing consumer/pop culture and of utopian social experiments gone too far. And what a great idea, “Noam Chomsky Day”!

Another weekend highlight: listening to the Angels-Sox game while getting play-by-play updates from Older Daughter, in the stands in Anaheim as her first summer in the city of Angels winds down. The slight radio delay made her prescient, I knew the home manager had been tossed before it happened.

This is not the birthday of Noam Chomsky but it is that of Herman Melville AND of Maria Mitchell, “the first acknowledged female astronomer.”  May this be another great year of female firsts, lest we be sunk by the great orange whale.

7:15/5:56, 74/93/72, 7:50

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Rousseau’s Reveries revisited

July 30, 2016

Rousseau predicted Drumpf? No, nobody could have predicted Drumpf. Rousseau was just one of many whose philosophy of chauvinism, paranoia, and resentment preceded and paved his way.

On the other hand, Rousseau’s acknowledgement that the collective good is more than a sum of individual interests was far more public-spirited than “the corn-haired guy” (as he’s known south of the border) seems capable of grasping.

Pankaj Mishra’s essay includes a paragraph my fellow MALA strollers and I should follow up on:

Heinrich Meier, in his new book, “On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life” (Chicago), offers an overview of Rousseau’s thought through a reading of his last, unfinished book, “Reveries of a Solitary Walker,” which he began in 1776, two years before his death. In “Reveries,” Rousseau moved away from political prescriptions and cultivated his belief that “liberty is not inherent in any form of government, it is in the heart of the free man.”

If things don’t go well in the next 100 days, a lot of us are going to have to think about moving “away from political prescriptions.” Or just moving away. Just moving.

6:55/5:55, 74/90/71, 7:52

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The dailiness of life

July 29, 2016

“It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self,” said Stanley Kunitz, who once had the great satisfaction of tossing a potted plant in the face of his college president. That must have been a revealing moment of self-recognition for him, though it can’t have been a daily sort of occurrence.  

The “dailiness of life” is habitual, repetitive, ordinary, familiar, a surface phenomenon. It takes a poet, perhaps, fully to experience and chart its corresponding depth. Most of us lose ourselves, our selves, in everydayness. But I think of my daily round of routine as a canvas inviting and awaiting creative response. A page a day, as they say, is a book a year. The creative selves I admire most have submitted and then reveled in the dailiness of life.

Charles Darwin planted a 1.5 acre strip of land with hazel, birch, privet, and dogwood, and ordered a wide gravel path built around the edge. Called Sand-walk, this became Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ where he roamed every morning and afternoon with his white fox-terrier. Of Bertrand Russell, long-time friend Miles Malleson has written: “Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.” Gymnasiums of the Mind

Dailiness frees minds and extends lives. “An hour a day keeps death away. An analysis of data from a million people has found that an hour of moderate physical activity a day is enough to cancel out the deadly effect of working at a desk all day.”
Stanley Kunitz, philosopher-poet of dailiness, lived for a century. No surprise.

7 am/5:54, 77/83/70, 7:53

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