More than possible, and likely that we’ll be judged deficient in other respects too. As noted moralist Woody Allen says in Manhattan, we are too easy on ourselves.

July 10, 2020

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: WJ 13 — “a mystery of rightness”

July 9, 2020

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WJ 13 — “a mystery of rightness”

July 9, 2020
“There is a mystery of rightness about the Parthenon that I cannot understand,” James muses in Athens in 1905. Then, serendipitously (or perhaps predictably, philosophers flocking to Athens is not exactly like Pentecostals in Vegas) he runs into George Santayana, “that gifted fish, the oddest spectator of life,” whose rightness is also  hard for a Pragmatist to understand, and yet somehow he is inescapably ours. Maybe it’s the naturalism, the “animal faith,” I don’t know. Good subject for another post.
But James clearly perceives a natural ally in Santayana, against the “dessicating and pedantifying” tendencies of all those “baldheaded and baldhearted” young scholars of erkentnisstheorie being churned out by the new “Ph.D.  Octopus” we noted in the last installment.
For the record: some of my best friends are erkentnisstheorists (we call them epistemologists), a few are bald through no fault of their own, and none are quite heartless.
I do know what James means about the Parthenon, I took classes to our local version when I taught down the street at Vanderbilt… just to sample the atmosphere and soak up the aura. Athena really is something to behold. (A few blocks away, another Alan LeQuire production called “Musica” stops traffic at the head of Music Row. Also a  subject for another post.)
Besides his professional brother Santayana, James had some difficulty understanding his real sibling Henry, “younger and shallower and  vainer” and much less direct in his writing.
(More on this, and other highlights from the present section– including the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which was  just about to rumble– as soon as I can regain control of the letter “P” on my keyboard. A liquid mishap, curiously, has disabled only that key and I cannot seem to finish a sentence without it… This is now being pounded out on an alternative machine which, I now discover, cannot handle apostrophes… so I can’t do possessives and contractions, and that proves to be  a much bigger crimp in my style than I’d have guessed. Really, not making this up. Our dependence on the mechanics of symbolic expression, normally ignored, is just too absurdly fragile. How funny.) — Orig. published 12.11.09
WJ 13.1

James loved the Parthenon, aesthetically, architecturally, symbolically. Me too.  It’s one of the great monuments to wisdom,and gilded Athena is cool… WJ 13
But let’s talk now about his response to great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. [USGS] He was there, or close enough in Palo Alto, during a visit to Stanford. His vivid description of the April 18 disaster (as detailed in the preceding link) reveals a predominant attitude of excitement, exuberance, even boyish delight in the unexpected demonstration of nature’s awesome but usually-restrained energies.
Most of Stanford lay in ruins. James went into San Francisco and saw the “whole population in the streets”… his first, instinctual response was to greet the earthquake with a wild Olympian joy…. in his heart of hearts he embraced and welcomed chaos, cataclysm, change, Zerrissenheit (brokenness)impulse, and chance.
His openness to experience, even to disastrous experience, is the key to the temperament that was now driving James’s interest in radical empiricism, panpsychismpluralism, and pragmatism. We may ignore no experience.
Also of note, at this time: the infamous “bitch-goddess” letter to H.G. Wells decrying our squalid national aping after the lowest-common-denominator variety of “success.” (This link includes Alain de Botton’s TED Talk on the subject. Wouldn’t it have been fun to see WJ’s TED Talk? Wonder what he’d have said about James Randi‘s?)
And in the late Fall of ’06 he commences the lectures that are later published as Pragmatism. He begins with the announcement that the history of philosophy records an ongoing “clash of human temperaments,” loosely ranging under the headings of “Tough-Minded” and “Tender-Minded.”  The former tend to favor empiricism, facts, materialism, pessimism, irreligion, fatalism, pluralism, and skepticism. The latter: rationalism, intellectualism, idealism, optimism, religion, free-will, monism, and dogmatism. But most of us are a composite of both types, and pragmatism (which derives directly from Darwin) promises to mediate between them.
This first lecture (“The Present Dilemma in Philosophy“) is also where James goes after Leibniz’s “superficiality incarnate” and the “airy and shallow optimism of current religious philosophy.”
One of Pragmatism‘s more intriguing analogies:
We stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part  in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tanget to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things.
Maybe so. (Our cat “Zeus” is trying to use my keyboard as a pillow, even as I type this.) But the smartest “dogs” in our pound seem to exhibit a greater curiosity and potential for mental expansion than I’ve detected in my own charmingly simple walking & blogging companions. I predict we’ll continue to fruitfully explore the wider life, without any serious risk of disenchanting our drawing rooms.
The Energies of Men” is one of James’s enduringly-popular essays from this time. Ideas power the world, he writes. “Ideas set free beliefs, and the beliefs set free our wills. The  result is freedom…”
James gave his last Harvard lecture in January 1907, “dying as a Professor” but continuing to think and lecture elsewhere.  And he continues to discover and celebrate other thinkers, including Gustav Fechner… who inspires James to observe  that “when we die, it’s as if an eye of the world were closed.”
But his eyes are still wide open. There’s  so much to experience, so much to see.
Orig. published 4.21.10

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@deanhallmusic Though not quite so stomach-churning as the governor of Missouri’s cringey sycophancy in the Oval Office.

July 8, 2020

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@GreggDCaruso @philosophybites @danieldennett @paulbloomatyale @seanmcarroll I’ll bet it didn’t feel that casual when you were doing the work!

July 8, 2020

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: On first looking into Chapman’s Dayton*

July 8, 2020

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: WJ 12 — penultimate

July 8, 2020

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On first looking into Chapman’s Dayton*

July 8, 2020
We’re into Week Two of our July mini-mester study of Evolution in America. Some thoughts, prompted by the class’s reaction so far to Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods and Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey…

I’m a bit surprised at the vehemence of some students’ negative response to Chapman. His book is 20-plus years old now, which in 2020 definitely dates it in some respects — especially when it comes to those sensitivities in reference to whic lately we talk about being “woke”. I really don’t think anything I’ve read in his pages marks him as an inveterate racist, and if he was sexist it was a form of sexism not at all uncommon among men late in the last century. That’s no excuse of course, ultimately, but it’s still useful to remind ourselves that attitudes many now recoil from were widely and un-circumspectly shared not so long ago. I don’t mean to let him off the hook, I just don’t think we ought to leave him out to dry as though he were the only one ever (for instance) to call attention to morbidly-obese Greyhound passengers. May we just note his serial insensitivities, class, and turn our attention in a different and potentially more constructive and instructiver  direction?

My hope is that we can release our author from the amateur psychoanalyst’s couch, stop speculating about his possible childhood traumas (beyond those he himself reveals), and concede that while his confessions do sometimes place him in an unflattering light they also show him to possess a degree of self-effacing humility and self-critique that I for one find honest and even refreshing. As one of us has commented,

Chapman has not offended me in the way he has some others in the class. His is disrespectful, irreverent and brutally honest but I also find him self-effacing, most often kind to others (at least to their face) and certainly a passionate observer to the people and places he encounters not to mention having a very humorous turn of the phrase. My thoughts keep going back to the fact that he is Hollywood screenwriter and in this role he has learned what arouses an audience, what placates an audience and what entertains an audience. I think he has his well developed “writing tools” on full display in this book. There are time when I wonder what the people he encountered and profiled in the book thought if they ever read the book and if is still welcome in Dayton but I enjoy his writing-crassness, foibles and all. He certainly makes no secret to who and what he is and the elements of his psychological make-up.

Quite so.

In any event, what I’d like to urge is that we view ourselves not as Chapman’s character judges and jury but simply as fellow visitors (virtually this semester, alas, in this time of COVID) to a small Tennessee town with a big history of aggressive resistance to Chapman’s famous ancestor’s evolutionary hypothesis. Let’s peer over his shoulder as he encounters people very different from himself culturally, linguistically, ideologically etc., and eavesdrop on his conversations. Let’s see if he and they can make any headway in understanding where each other are coming from.

Not to spoil the story, but I’ve already indicated that I do find Chapman’s willingness to reach across those chasms of difference and his progress in coming to understand and even respect his new friends — all while maintaining a different point of view — quite rare by comparison to the way people in our day typically regard those of a different party, faith, culture, etc. etc.

So to sum up: to me the point of reading Chapman is not to analyze and it’s definitely not to obsess over his personal character flaws. The point is to see how very strange American anti-evolutionism can look from a British pro-evolutionist perspective… and then to see if that gap can be narrowed, if mutual respect can emerge from civil conversation and awakened curiosity about the circumstances, values, aspirations and so forth that created the gap in the first place.

And, we also and simultaneously want to be reading Larson’s historical account of the events in Dayton in 1925 with at least as much active engagement. It’s a fascinating tale, and it really happened in our Tennessee back yard.
* Don’t know if you saw what I did there, just a little poetic humor. Very little, perhaps. But let’s keep having fun with our subject-matter.

On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer Poem by John Keats - Poem ...

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is a sonnet written by English poet John Keats when he was just 20 years old. Essentially, it is a poem about poetry itself, describing a reading experience so profound that an entire world seems to come to life. The poem talks specifically about a translation of Homer, the Classical Greek poet, by George Chapman, an Elizabethan poet whose translations were more concerned with the reader’s experience of the text than loyalty to the original form. The poem was published in the newspaper The Examiner soon after it was written in 1816. LitCharts

John Keats by David Levine | Dessin, Caricatures, Portraits

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WJ 12 — penultimate

July 8, 2020
We rejoin James in his early sixties, in 1903: a time of rapid (by the standards of the day) mechanization. “A Packard accomplished the first automobile trip across the United States,” San Francisco to New York, in the astonishing time of just fifty-two days. The Wright Brothers have just gone aerial. And Henry Adams is yearning for the thirteeth century’s cult of the Virgin of Chartres.

To get slightly ahead of our story: James exchanged letters with Adams not long before his death, responding to the latter’s dark musings about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the inevitable “heat death of the universe” and so on, this way:

“Though the ULTIMATE state of the universe may be its… extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the PENULTIMATE state might be a happy and virtuous consciousness… In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe’s life might be, “I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer.”

That’s looking on the bright side.*

James’s great intellectual excitement at this time is his discovery of the “process” philosophy of Henri Bergson, his elan vital and his perception of time’s inexorable forward momentum. “It is like the breath of the morning and the song of birds. And to me it tells of reality itself and not merely of what previous dusty-minded professors have thought about reality.”

(Note that it’s always other professors’ dusty-minded ideas one must shake off.)
This is when James wrestles, somewhat ineffectually, with “the Ph.D. Octopus.” If exclusionary formal credentialing was already out of hand then, how much worse is it now? Short answer: lots.

This is also when he really first appreciates his fundamental consanguinity with John Dewey, who “makes biology and psychology continuous” and whose “favorite word is situation.” (His second-favorite was “reconstruction”).

And this is the time of the Emerson centenary, when James orates in memory of New England’s great Socratic Transcendentalist:

“The deep today which all men scorn” receives thus from Emerson superb revindication. Other world! there is no other world.” All God’s life opens into the individual particular, and here and now, or nowhere, is reality. “The present hour is the decisive hour, and every day is doomsday.” Such a conviction that Divinity is everywhere may easily make of one an optimist of the sentimental type that refuses to speak ill of anything. Emerson’s drastic perception of differences kept him at the opposite pole from this weakness. After you have seen men a few times, he could say, you find most of them as alike as their barns and pantries, and soon as musty and dreary. Never was such a fastidious lover of significance and distinction, and never an eye so keen for their discovery. His optimism had nothing in common with that indiscriminate hurrahing for the Universe with which Walt Whitman has made us familiar…

1904 brings the nominal birth of  James’s “radical empiricism,” made radical by its refusal to concede the reality of “any element that is not directly experienced nor exclude any element that is directly experienced.” Bertrand Russell, famously disapproving of James’s “Will to Believe“– make-believe, Russell had sneered— said James “was right on this matter, and would on this ground alone deserve a high place among philosophers.” (More Russell quotes)

*Russell also agreed with James’s rejection of cosmic pessimism, even supposing our sun and galaxy and universe must someday expand and collapse and disappear:

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries 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.

Long-term thinking is good, wondering what life will make of itself is vital… but let’s not get carried away! The end of the universe is (almost) unimaginably remote, much moreso than the potential end of a humanity victimized by its own self-destructiveness. This would have been Russell’s answer to young “Alvy Singer”… it was in fact the essence of what “Dr. Flicker” advised:

Orig.published 12.4.09

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This is beyond embarrassing. #NotMyPresident

July 7, 2020

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