Archive for May, 2009

Squirrel logic

May 31, 2009

Arlo and Janis


William James tried to learn from a squirrel too. How you look at something has a lot to do with how you see it, & vice versa. Or as a wise Yogi may once have said, you can observe a lot by watching.

Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I
returned from a solitary ramble to find everyone engaged in a
ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a
squirrel–a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a
tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human
being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight
of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how
fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction,
and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never
a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now
Pragmatism, II

Spectator birds

May 30, 2009

This is a special day. It’s our anniversary, and also that of our friends who are driving a great distance today and will arrive for an eagerly-awaited visit later this afternoon. We were there in Virginia for their wedding, on the 5th anniversary of ours, all those years ago. More years have elapsed since we last got together, shortly after the birth of their youngest.

Collectively we and they have been hitched – not always a state of holy engagement, let’s be honest – for 27 years now. There were three of us and just the two of them, on the day of their espousal; now we are four, and so are they. More generational and experiential shingles, as memory deepens (but loses a bit of suppleness, alas) and as hairline recedes. (Speaking strictly for myself here, of course.)

parasailing3 It is a happy anniversary, I do have vivid and pleasing memories of events during the first week of June, in that first summer of the Clinton presidency. One stands out, or soars over: flying high over Captiva Island and the Gulf of Mexico, at the end of a very long tether secured firmly (I hope!) to a speeding boat. It was a great thrill, of the type that I habitually, reflexively resist in my constant, mostly-successful quest to avoid  significant personal injury. That day, though, it seemed like the right thing to do. Marriage was a serious proposition, fraught with risk, but also intoxicating in its promise of life-transforming possibility. We were looking, or I was, for symbolic punctuation of the high-wire act that brings two kindred, but also stubbornly-distinctive spirits together and impels them to exchange sacred vows of mutual trust and commitment before friends and family (it was the last time Mom and Dad, then already long apart, were together in public).  Philippe Petit being unavailable, parasailing seemed the perfect symbol of our connubial future. Controlled, but potentially dangerous. And thrilling to anticipate.

I remember soaring above the island and thinking about birds: not in fly-away mode, but as co-occupants of a perch, and a life. I thought about Wallace Stegner’s “spectator bird” – from whom weStegner truest vision

drew the wedding memento scroll-quotation we gave our guests on that happy day.

It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom birdsyou can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.

It has been something. I wouldn’t want to have celebrated our kids’ 23 birthdays without S. on the perch beside me. Career ups and downs would’ve been alternately less joyous and more painful alone. I’d not have a Ph.D on the wall, or a wall to hang it on, without my rafter-mate. I don’t know how I could have withstood the loss of both my Mom and Dad in the span of five months without her steady comfort.

Mine is a solitary nature, I fly solo in many ways. Too many. Summus quod summus, I suppose. Or as Bob McDill wrote and Don Williams sang,  I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be. But I’m very grateful for the best of what we’ve been, and for the perch and the life we’ve shared. Happy anniversary.parasailing4

Opening time

May 29, 2009

Ours is a planet sown in beings. Our generations overlap likefor-the-time-being shingles. We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall. Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.

Annie Dillard

Towing the line of the present moment, being wholly absorbed in experience as we face it, attending to what’s happening right now: it sounds so simple, and for simpler beings it probably is. But we’ve inherited our species’ evolved tendency to ride the wave of consciousness away from boat’s stem. As Dillard said in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,

This is it, right now, the present… this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy.

It’s not consciousness per se that spoils the moment, but the hyper-self-consciousness that draws you out of yourself and makes you hover over your own experience instead of inhabiting and enjoying it.  Fortunately what is lost is not forgotten. Focused attention can find it again, and savor and store it in memory.

The second I know I’ve lost [the present] I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him.

Follow the pup.

The gift of now

May 28, 2009
PhilosophersNotes sells digital audio downloads, frequently of philosophical interest (though sometimes too far out on a New Age ledge, from my pov). I subscribe to their daily “Big Idea” email feed. Yesterday’s was a very helpful and timely reminder from an old dead Stoic to take one step, one moment, one day at a time, and not to rush ahead of myself:

marcus_aurelius“Never confuse yourself by visions of an entire lifetime at once…remember that it is not the weight of the future or the past that is pressing upon you, but ever that of the present alone…. To live each day as though one’s last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing–here is the perfection of character.” ~ Marcus Aurelius from Meditations

That reminded me of one of my favorite John Dewey quotes:

“We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each presentdewey stamp time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.”— John Dewey (Experience And Education)

Or, as E. likes to say: yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not here yet, today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present….which is why education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. Be here now.


May 27, 2009

Simon Critchley, recently applauded here, has a nice new Times essay on happiness. He quotes 18th century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great  romantic dreamer of noble savagery in a benign state of nature, from “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”:reveries

If there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.

Sounds a lot like what has been called “flow,” a state of body and mind in which time is mooted and we are  contentedly one with what we’re doing, as we’re doing it. Like Rousseau, I try to experience such reveries afoot – usually in the semi-solitude afforded by my companionable canines.  Perfect walks are infrequent, but very good ones are common. Happiness can be taken in stride.

There are degrees of walking reverie; at the upper end of the scale the experience is indeed a matter of sauntering in a spirit of receptive, contemplative spontaneity, making space for unbidden thoughts that “happen as they will,.” Then there are more meditative walks, aiming (like seated meditation) at a pleasant blankness.  And there are purposive problem-solving walks, each step confidently gaining on something.

Someone should write The Varieties of Perambulatory Experience. I’ll put it on my list.

But Critchley is also right to remind us that  reverie can be tapped from many sources, in many ways, at many angles of inclination… if we’re fully present to them.  It’s just that walking works most reliably for me, as apparently it did for J-J R.

“The case for working with your hands”

May 26, 2009

In grad school most of us were relatively unskilled in the deployment of anything other than words (and we were shaky there too)… then D. arrived from southern Indiana (via Rochester, NY)  with an evident background and competence in farming and carpentry and a budding expertise in Kant. Were we impressed!

I’ve contended that well-chosen words, the ones that connect us with our experience and our bodies, stake a claim on reality as substantial as anything. I’ll make that argument, especially over a Guinness or a few. (Never could go for the PBR.) But I still defer to D. when it comes to hammering home something solid enough to be there tomorrow and next week and next year. After all, “you can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” Words slip away, deeds and things endure.

I thought of D. when I read this piece by one of his kindred spirits.

Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience…It is a rare person who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

And that rare person, in my experience, is not the best philosopher. Don’t just sit there, do/fix/make something. Get your hands dirty. That was John Dewey’s point about education.

Oh, and I defer to D. on Kant, too.


A day for the peace-makers

May 25, 2009

A CBS report on disfigured veterans yesterday invoked their “divine right to appear human.”

That’s wrong. Gods do not deploy road-side bombs, or dismantle them, or end the wars and secure the peace, or impede our rights, or confer them, or save us from ourselves. Gods do not guarantee our humanity or its appearance.

I am humbled by the profound and ultimate sacrifices of men and women in uniform, and am deeply grateful for their service. Those who die for their country deserve their country’s gratitude. They deserve a holiday and much more.

But those who live for humanity light the way to a world in which no one has to die for the limited vision of pietists and politicians. It is unconscionable to ask someone to be the last to die for a particular mistake, as young John Kerry averred. And it is wrong to require everyone’s collaboration in a misplaced patriotism that glories in every uniformed human sacrifice expended for country, cloaking it in divine sanction, expecting divine favor.

So let us also memorialize and celebrate the peace-makers, the practitioners of non-violence, and those who understand that the preservation of our humanity is ours to keep. They deserve a day too. Happy Memorial Day.peace flag

“Atheism then and now”

May 24, 2009

The first to teach an atheism course? Surely not. But if so, I guess I’ll be a pioneer too. I belayed plans for “Atheism Old & New” in the Fall, to make room for “Happiness.” But it’s still on the books for next Spring. I agree with Professor Coleman: Atheism “offers young people new ways of thinking about the physical world, human society, morality and the meanings of their lives.”

What are atheists for? Many subscribe to the “bright” worldview (while despising the moniker as needlessly provocative), affirming naturalism, rationalism, and secularism.  They’re for standing on our own feet, leaning on one another for strength and support, not waiting for a cosmic bail-out. They tend to value what leads to happiness in this world: prosperity, peace, tolerance, a healthy environment, independent thought and freedom of expression.

And they’re among the most misunderstood and villified minorities in America. Thank goodness for academic freedom.

Intoxicated w/Spring

May 23, 2009

warner park may21.09jpgHere’s what you can do when an illuminating early am visit to the 4th grade “Electric Houses” exhibit puts you off your May morning routine of writing and then walking the dogs before the sun climbs too high for their comfort (we’re already getting those summerish mornings here):

Give the dogs the day off, and head (w/bicycle) to Edwin Warner Park. Hike the Harpeth Woods trail, scale the semi-strenuous bisecting hill, then bike the paved, conveniently  non-auto-vehicular roadway that girdles the park… while listening to a great mp3 audio rendition of Jim Harrison’s The English Major. I share “Cliff’s” Whitman- esque intoxication with spring, and I agree with his fictional Harvard prof who said: in the realm of absolute imagination we remain young late in life.

But at 60 it’s getting late early for Cliff, I still have some years on him.  Or so I choose to believe.

The Value of Philosophy

May 22, 2009

Yesterday the president of my school, the largest public institution of higher learning in my state, released his tensely-awaited, now roundly-derided report – including a recommendation that the philosophy department be “eliminated” or “merged” if it does not significantly increase its number of undergraduate majors.

It seems, therefore, like a good time to revisit Bertrand Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy” – perhaps the president hasn’t read it.

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find  that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect…

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Bertrand Russell hippie