Time’s arrow

May 19, 2015

I’ve not met many thirty year olds as wise as Maria Popova. Or any.

You know, we never see the world exactly as it is. We see it as we hope it will be or we fear it might be. And we spend our lives going through a sort of modified stages of grief about that realization. And we deny it, and then we argue with it, and we despair over it. But eventually — and this is my belief — that we come to see it, not as despairing, but as vitalizing.

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is.

She’s wise because she puts in the time, takes no shortcuts.

I listened to her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett late last night (this morning), waiting up on Older Daughter and meditating on temps perdu. Spent a lot of time yesterday after school with Younger Daughter, too, running errands all over town and secretly rueing the rapidly-approaching day when she won’t need me for that.

And that’s the way it is. Tempus fugit. “The only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time.”

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David Hume, Don Draper, and a happy conclusion

May 18, 2015

(But of course “nothing has concluded, that we may conclude in regard to it.”)

Older Daughter’s home from college, Younger Daughter’s wrapping up her High School year , and Don Draper’s been to Esalen. Changes abound. Forward!

I’m looking forward in particular to the return of Happiness class in August, and to a new David Hume independent readings class. Decided we’ll begin the former with Daniel Haybron’s Very Short Introduction, which skims his most impressive earlier and denser Pursuit of Unhappiness.

What is happiness, anyway, and what really matters in life? What should our
priorities be? Consider your own case. You are, let us suppose, on your
deathbed. What from your life would you most like to have just one more
experience of?*

Umm (or do I mean Omm, Don?)… Mad Men? Maybe not. But it was fun while it lasted, those seven years that spanned the decade of my own most formative years. Coke was it, in 1971.






David Hume has been falsely maligned on the Internet by cuckoos who want to picture him and everyone like him (which would include myself and my impending Hume CoPhilosophers) “in flames.” In fact, as Darwin’s Bulldog Huxley observed, his exit was as placid and composed as Don’s meditation, “one of the most cheerful, simple, and most dignified leave-takings of life and all its concerns, extant.”

So, a toast to Le Bon David and to a happy life! (And to Don, who should drink more Coke and less liquor, and who never really believed in happiness.)

*To answer Professor Haybron’s question: I’d like the experience of one more semester, please. But first, one more summer. And one more chorus.



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At the ballgame

May 12, 2015
Grades officially posted yesterday, another semester in the book! 
It was a beautiful night to celebrate endings and beginnings out at the old ballgame, at the new ballpark. The threat of harsh weather lifted, a lovely wispy-clouded pinkish sunset dabbed the sky, and a small but eager crowd (held down by that earlier threat) settled in for what William Carlos Williams called a sporting crowd’s delightful “spirit of uselessness.”
And the evening unfolded in just that spirit, up until sometime in the middle innings when the leather-lunged moron in our section apparently imbibed his tipping-point swallow of expensive cheap beer. (There’s also expensive craft beer to be had at First Tennessee Park. I recommend the Turtle Anarchy Red, to complement the “Band Box” Quinoa salad, hummus veggie plate, or -traditionalist that I am -the  loaded nachos.)
Everyone who’s been to many games at all has encountered this guy, who isn’t always an obnoxious boor. 

There really is a fine art of hecking. But “the vast majority of hecklers, to borrow their term, suck at it. The truly gifted ones—those talented few who understand the rules, the etiquette and the point—are as rare as a .300 hitter and, for my money, just as enjoyable to watch.”

Sometimes, it’s true, The Heckler can be entertaining and amusing. Last night he was not. He just about ruined my evening and, to judge by some of the many expressions of disgust and annoyance I saw, also that of others in section #111. Especially the dad and his little boy two rows in front of us. If my friend hadn’t been there to join me in amusing ourselves by  quietly berating TH, I might have had to relocate far away – maybe to the left field berm, from our choice location behind the plate. 
As it happened, we decided not to stick around for bonus innings when the score remained knotted at two, after nine. I could not have listened to the oaf for even another minute. 
The home team collapsed in the tenth. Honestly, it gave me considerable satisfaction to think of TH going home a literal as well as figurative loser.
Mike Matheny, the Cardinals’ manager who’s issued a manifesto to youth league parents, says kids want their parents to be quiet in the stands. If your read, Heckler, put that on your summer reading list. If you don’t shut up, some of us are going to find out where you work and we’re coming over to holler at you. “You suck.”
 
I woke up this morning with almost a feeling of guilt-by-association, merely for having sat in the same section as TH. The spirit of uselessness is not a delight, when it forces you silently to absorb such verbal invective as though it were your own.

But it wasn’t. It’s a a new day, it’ll be a new ballgame. Delight always returns.

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Standing by

May 6, 2015

I don’t think Nigel @philosophybites is talking about grading here.

Nigel Warburton (@philosophybites)
If things get bad, I’d like a doctor like Freud’s standing by with an overdose of morphine.http://ift.tt/1lfD8HN… #assisteddying

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Grading in the cloud

May 4, 2015

My final report grading this year has gone paperless, practically, and early results are very good.

Instead of the traditional daunting, demoralizing stack of printed papers destined to be abandoned and forever forgotten by their student authors, I face a rolling series of blog post installment waves from my co-philosophers. What’s lost in scholarship (if anything, frankly) is more than replaced in interest, visual appeal, and collaborative possibility (a possibility I may have to actualize, in the future, by making student comments on one another’s work mandatory and not simply-but-repeatedly requested).

It still takes lots of time, cloud-grading, but feels less like a trudge and more like idea-surfing. I’m diving in. No excuses!


(More comic distraction)

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Goals

April 29, 2015

A final word to my classes of ’15.


A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal,” Nietzsche’s “formula” of happinessNot that it worked out all that well for him… but you’ll do better, you’re less misanthropic and more committed to human flourishing for all. And you’ve learned to include, with your yes and your no, a possibly and an I don’t know

Also, you do realize that yesterday was not your last day of philosophizing.

Get those last installments posted (you don’t have to wait for Tuesday’s deadline), and please comment on your classmates’ reports.

Again: keep your health. Be happy. (I look forward to seeing some of you in Happiness class in the Fall.) Good luck and farewell, ’til we meet again.

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Wittgenstein, Arendt, Rawls, Turing, Searle, & Singer

April 28, 2015



Sounds like a law firm…

Last day of class, before exam week (blog post week, for my classes). But, as I never tire of repeating, nothing has really concluded. The sun will come out tomorrow, figuratively at least. 

(Also worth repeating: “A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal,” Nietzsche’s “formula” of happiness. Not that it worked out all that well for him.)

We begin with Wittgenstein (and recommending Barry Smith on Wittgenstein) and Arendt

Wittgenstein is said to have favored American westerns, but didn’t admit to enjoying them. “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class. (In fairness, his family historywas less than cheering.)

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might “capture reality” and toward a more constructive inquiry into “the relationship between language and us.”

We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to “explain” Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed “our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given.” That’s what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.




Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It’s supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its “meaning-as-use” was often mysteriously cryptic.

But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called “Glorious Accident“) tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.



A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion,” it says he said on the wall in Vandy’s Buttrick Hall. It doesn’t say where or when (1929) he said it. It’s in the posthumous collection Culture and Valueright below “Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed.” Tell me about it, Ludwig.  But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That’s from Douglas Adams, but curiously it’s also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein’s biographerRay Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn’t give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)

Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. “Explaining,” says novelist Richard Ford, “is where we all get into trouble.”

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.



Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…” 
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth



She also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.  
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it… 
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.



Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists “brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders” without reflection. There’s nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.

John Rawls’ veil. Rawls was committed to the idea of selfless mutual self-interest as the precondition of justice and fairness. Justice is fairness, he said.

What principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent? Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) liberty (2) fundamental  individual equality, allowing only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.

An amusing (if not especially animated) rendition of Rawls:


Last time we talked Rawls somebody suggested a sporting example: a Rawlsian social contract won’t entirely level our playing fields, won’t be purely egalitarian. Behind the veil we’d probably want to design a society in which those who excel at a game others  might enjoy watching, for instance, will have sufficient incentive to actually play. The basketball fan does not begrudge Michael Jordan’s fortune, if he thinks it contributes to his own delight at courtside. It’s to his “advantage,” too, for Michael to have more money and notoriety.

But whatever the deliberators decide, behind that veil, Rawls wanted to give them a procedural opportunity to agree on the basis of relevant considerations. We’ve instead been auctioning public office and social influence to the highest, loudest bidders, not the coolest reasoners.  There’s nothing fair or just about that. The “law of peoples” can do better.

Michael Sandel is a semi-Rawlsian, with his talk of restoring respectful forms of democratic argument. He’s also, as Wolff notes, “a communitarian who thinks Rawls is biased towards liberal individualistic conceptions of the good.”


And he likes to think about trolleys too.


The late Robert Remini, biographer of Jackson and Clay, was by my reckoning a Rawlsian in spirit. He bemoaned the lost art of political compromise. (“Clay,” btw, is a family namesake: my Dad was James Clay, his Dad was Clay, and back it went deep into the 19th century. A rooted source of my pragmatic attraction to anti-ideology, perhaps?) [Remini on NPR]

An important question: “who’s doing the imagining in the Original Position?” A bunch of philosophers will presumably think and deliberate differently from a bunch of fascists, or monks. But if it’s a polyglot mix drawn from a diverse society, and none of them knows their race, sex, earning power, or basic preferences, maybe they won’t think exclusively like (narrow or partisan) philosophers, fascists, and monks. Maybe they’ll think like pluralists and cosmopolitans. Maybe they won’t be prepared to gamble with their liberty. Maybe they’ll want to be just and fair, and be more inclined to take care of the least well-off. Maybe so.

Carlin Romano fills out Rawls’s position with the important, astonishing, neglected biographical Rawls back-story. It’s useful and illuminating to know who he is, in assessing his theory of justice. He was a lucky child, recovering from diptheria and pneumonia, then a lucky soldier. His siblings and army brothers were not so lucky. He felt bad about his good luck, and angry about the theodicies offered to account for it. 

A Lutheran pastor… said that God aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs. I don’t know why this made me so angry, but it certainly did. I upbraided the Pastor (who was a First Lieutenant) for saying what I assumed he knew perfectly well… were simple falsehoods about divine providence… Christian doctrine ought not to be used for that…

To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice… I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil. 

Did Rawls “fail” to justify his theory of justice? Wolff doesn’t think so. Nor, apparently, do the theatrical producers behind this:

You don’t have to follow anybody, but you could do worse than to follow the example of Peter Singer“the best known living moral philosopher” who urges us to “think through” what most take for granted, then alter our acts and assumptions accordingly.

Singer’s on our final CoPhi bill (after John Searle and Alan Turing [PhilDic] at the end of Little History of Philosophy today. 

“How should we treat animals?” Respectfully, of course. But does that mean we can eat them or not? Singer says no. Michael Pollan, among others, says maybe. I say I wish they’d build a better Boca Burger. 
Alan Turing was a strange, heroic, and tragic figure who contributed more to preserving the world we had (by cracking the Nazis’ codes) and shaping the digitized world we live in now (by contributing to the creation of the computer). Turing’s Cathedral… The Enigma Imitation Game

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Turing’s test for artificial intelligence is said by some to imply that if something functions intelligently, it is intelligent; and if its functionality resembles human personality in superficial ways, we may then speak of it as possessing human-grade intelligence.

And who knows? If you’re prepared to entertain that proposal, maybe you can also envision a mainframe host in your personal future. Maybe there will be a way to “map the billions of functional connections” of your brain onto a machine capable of replicating and preserving your intelligence and memories. Welcome to the brave new afterlife.
Seems pretty far-fetched, and it’s unclear that one’s hopes and dreams and delights– the stuff of embodied personhood– can be self-replicated (as distinct from propagated or transmittedor mimetically reproduced) in any meaningful sense. Never mind whether they should be. Planet’s pretty crowded as it is, and maybe one time around the wheel is only our fair share.
And anyway, as John Searle says, tests like Turing’s may not be any more conclusive about real intelligence than his Chinese Room thought experiment.
Advances in AI don’t seem to have come as quickly as some have speculated they might. But it’s still fun to ponder the possibilities, as Richard Powers did in his wonderfully informed and entertaining Galatea 2.2.
 
What a moment we find ourselves in! Ray Kurzweil calls this the Age of Spiritual Machines. If you can just live long enough– until the year 2040 or so, last I heard– you can live forever. He means you, kids. And he’s popping enough vitamins to delude himself into thinking that maybe he means himself as well. Good luck. I’m not holding my breath. I confess, I used to have a Sleeper fantasy like Woody’s. But Ted Williams kinda ruined it for me. (Fresh Air 12.3.13)
The best form of immortality may be the same as it ever was: a legacy rippling across time, impacting lives far beyond one’s own. Alan Turing didn’t live long enough to get himself fully digitized, but the digital world he set in motion has already secured a legacy likely to outlive us all. It dwarfs the primitive world of reflexive sexual bigotry he had to suffer in his brief lifetime.

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To those who have a hard time fathoming how machines might ever acquire self-awareness, intentionality, and thought, Turing asks you t o ask yourself: how did we?
Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s? If this were then subjected to an appropriate course of education one would obtain the adult brain. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”
Singer’s challengePeter Singer challenges the way we live in the relatively prosperous western world (“western” here is less a geographic designation than a state of mind and material comfort) on many fronts, including how we eat, how much we luxuriate, how much we earmark for our own offspring, and how much we give away to strangers. He sets the bar of selfless generosity much higher than our culture of consumption rewards. But the rewards of consumption don’t begin to match those of humane compassion.

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  • “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
  • “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
  • “The Hebrew word for “charity” tzedakah, simply means “justice” and as this suggests, for Jews, giving to the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.”
  • “Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.”
  • “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
  • “Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”

So, the end is nigh. But since it’s really not: carry on. Keep asking questionscreate satisfactionfollow your bliss, and as Joseph Campbell also said: “your own track, kid, not what your guru tells you.”

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Peirce & James, Nietzsche & Freud

April 21, 2015

It’s Peirce and James (and Vandy’s Robert Talisse on the pragmatists and truth)Nietzsche (and Aaron Ridley on Nietzsche on art & truth), and Sigmund Freud.


Through the years I’ve written repeatedly and delightedly on PeirceJames, and Nietzsche @dawn, especially WJ.

I’m not especially pleased with Nigel Warburton’s take on James, true enough to the letter but not at all to the spirit of his pragmatic conception of truth. More on that later. At least he gets the squirrel right.

               
               

Here’s what James actually said, about the squirrel and about pragmatism’s conception of truth:
…Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.
I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as THE PRAGMATIC METHOD. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right… Pragmatism, Lecture II

==

Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term ‘agreement,’ and what by the term ‘reality,’ when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with…

Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as…

…truth is ONE SPECIES OF GOOD, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. THE TRUE IS THE NAME OF WHATEVER PROVES ITSELF TO BE GOOD IN THE WAY OF BELIEF, AND GOOD, TOO, FOR DEFINITE, ASSIGNABLE REASONS… 

Certain ideas are not only agreeable to think about, or agreeable as supporting other ideas that we are fond of, but they are also helpful in life’s practical struggles. If there be any life that it is really better we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really BETTER FOR US to believe in that idea, UNLESS, INDEED, BELIEF IN IT INCIDENTALLY CLASHED WITH OTHER GREATER VITAL BENEFITS.

‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we OUGHT to believe': and in THAT definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is BETTER FOR US to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart?

Pragmatism says no… Pragmatism, Lec. VI

This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is “expedient” in a situation James’s critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It’s more like Richard Rorty’s invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a “Santa Claus” philosophy of truth.

James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling’s comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.

Besides, he’s the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he’s the one I’d most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn’t drink. (Too bad they don’t serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters and correspondence, they humanize his philosophy and place his “radical” views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.

They also counter my friend Talisse’s hasty semi-assent to Nigel’s outrageous misreading of the pragmatists as missing “a sense of awe and wonder.” James had it in spades, and so did Dewey and Peirce in their own ways. Likewise Rorty, who did not like being called a “relativist” and who would not agree that “Nazism and western liberal democracy are the same.” Not at all.

But, I do think Talisse does a good job of summarizing James’s rejection of “truth-as-correspondence” as an unhelpful formula, once you move past trivial matters like catching the bus. He’s also correct in pointing out James’s interest in religion as rooted in the lives and experience of individuals, not particularly in God, heaven, the afterlife and so on. He psychologizes and naturalizes religion. It’s mostly about life on earth, for Jamesians, not (again) about Santa.

Speaking of dead philosophers…


Our text rightly (if inconsistently) points out the non-literal intent of Nietzsche’s infamous “God is dead” proclamation. More to come on that too. Meanwhile, the theists among us will enjoy imagining that their God has the last word.
Aaron Ridley points out that Nietzsche split from Schopenhauer (as he eventually split from everyone) over the question of where we should go after god’s “funeral.” Ultimately Nietzsche thought we should find a way to go back to our lives, and to affirm them. Schopenhauer, he decided, was a nihilist content to wallow in ultimate meaninglessness (or adopt that pose)… except while walking his poodles or visiting the art gallery or attending a concert. But isn’t that the very stuff of life? It’s the stuff Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” challenges us to affirm.
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? -“The Greatest Weight” (in The Gay Science [When Nietzsche Wept]

Ridley doesn’t talk about that, but he’s helpful with the Apollonian-Dionysian distinction.

In the final analysis, Nietzsche thought what didn’t kill us, what merely made us suffer, made us stronger. That’s his blustering pose. It’s kind of pathetic. I’d have to agree with James, who pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies” and likened Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to a pair of rabid rats in a cage (or think of alienated Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine, in his room)… largely a cage of their own design.

But what would Freud say?


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Freud is darker than Nietzsche… Sheer joy and sheer affirmation of life is pretty hard to find, if you’re being absolutely honest about what reality is.
As long as your ideas of what’s possible are limited by what’s actual, no other idea has a chance. 



If life is a gift, then the more you partake in it, the more you show thanks. Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists… 
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Some wonder what makes Freud a philosopher. In the spirit of Carlin Romano I wouldn’t worry about that. He philosophized (albeit reluctantly, says one biographer) about civilization, psychic health, happiness, religion, the material mind, conscience, consciousness, and the scope of philosophy itself.

Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves itself as if it were a science, and to a certain extent it makes use of the same methods; but it parts company with science, in that it clings to the illusion that it can produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe. Its methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological value of our logical operations…

Like Kierkegaard, Freud endlessly mucked around in the morass of anxiety and depression and, like those other great explorers of the mind, was often accused of being of too depressing. Yet, when pressed to provide some positive vision of health, Freud more than once implied that what is fundamental to happiness is the ability to love and work; that is, to be able to invest in something other than yourself. G. Marino, “Freud asPhilosopher

“Frude had it all figured out,” insisted Barney Fife, a guy I’d not have expected to endorse the Oedipal Complex. But Mayberry was always just a dream, anyway. What did it all mean, Herr Doktor?

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Help is on the way

April 20, 2015

I have somehow lucked into happy, unsolicited association with an enthusiastic volunteer Research Assistant, who has eagerly agreed to help me delve deeper into the world’s buried archival treasury of peripatetic-philosophical literature. HOO-ray and woo-HOO!

RA’s greatest assistance will be to expand my Walking bibliography, and eventually the world’s, by contributing to the creation of the long-simmering new volume I keep threatening to complete.

Between this unanticipated good fortune and that new ballpark downtown, it’s shaping up to be a summer of forward movement. Onward!

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Walk away

April 17, 2015

I walk every morning for a little more than an hour. I’ve been doing that for many years. I’ll continue doing it until I can no longer lift a leg.

I’ve been saying that for many years too. Then yesterday, this:

The sweet spot for exercise benefits, however, came among those who tripled the recommended level of exercise, working out moderately, mostly by walking, for 450 minutes per week, or a little more than an hour per day. Those people were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised… nyt 

Yesterday, too:

Not even the thought that the author of Sickness Unto Death would die at 42.

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