Archive for September, 2009

more reality

September 30, 2009

Or less…

I gave short shrift to the pre-Socratics, but Democritus (c.460-360 BCE)  was a genuine visionary. He “developed a picture of thedemocritus world that is remarkably close to our current scientific views.” He never appeared in public without laughing at human folly, hence his moniker “The Laughing Philosopher.” (Looks a little grim here, the sculptor may have been unsympathetic.) He had the last laugh, if it’s true that he lived past 100. He had good atoms.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete.” His “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was more like a breath than a spirit. “I would rather understand one cause,” he said, “than be King of Persia.” Carl Sagan celebrated him on Cosmos.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and
demythologize the world was complete…”
Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied,
and then was a “mere breath”…

Many of Democritus’ successors developed views remarkably inimical to current scientific wisdom.

descartes crcleRene Descartes (1596-1650) thought it useful to doubt the reality of everything; he was a mind-body dualist; and he demanded indubitable certainty as the gold-standard of scientific knowledge. All of these views have been doubted, if not flatly rejected, by most scientifically-minded moderns. His famed Meditations seem circular. (Here he is, squashed and truncated.)circular

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony

prearranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

George Berkeley (1685-1753) said esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” Don’t blink, God, or we’ll wink out of existence. The lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson thought he had a practical refutation of Berkeley’s idealism.  He missed the point, but made one too: your philosophy of reality really ought to make a discernible difference in your experience of life .

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said “things in themselves” (tits, as I’m afraid my undergraduate Kant professor taught me to abbreviate them) are out of reach. We deal strictly in phenomena, or appearances. But the good news for Kant is that we can be sure that appearances are not deceptive in at least one crucial respect: they appear as they must, in the light of our own categorical nature. We constitute the world through the categories our collective minds impose upon them, and thus are normally in touch with reality when we ply our minds and use our reason.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw the world as a kind of universal Spirit, coming to maturity through the clash and conflicts of human history. He was the ultimate Systematic philosopher and devotee of Rationality, the antithesis of Kierkegaard (though some scholars have begun to challenge this). He made Schopenhauer crazy.

marxKarl Marx (1818-1883) “turned Hegel on his head,” seeing the world mainly in material terms. History was for him, as for Hegel, a grand unfolding process (“dialectic”) tending toward some higher “synthesis”  that would represent our apotheosis as a species. But as we know, his particular political synthesis has met with some resistance in recent decades.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)– separated at birth from Ebenezer Scrooge– was the pessimist-par excellence: life (on his view) is no good, without purpose, the clatter of pointless striving will. But he wasn’t a total scrooge: he loved little dogs, and (as we’ll see) as a young man he loved at least one or two other human beings. That’s why Alain de Botton chooses him to exemplify “consolation for a broken heart.”


September 29, 2009

“They suffer, Majesty.”darius1_01

That’s the squashed version of human history, boiled down from 36 thick volumes for the King of Persia (as recounted by Matthieu Ricard).

“Yes, they suffer, at every moment and throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’re giving birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride, or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion, others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by the waters…

These are not mere words but a reality that is an intrinsic part of our daily lives: death, the transitory nature of all things, and suffering.”

Bleak. But not so bleak as the misnamed optimism of a Leibniz, one of those western philosophers “for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach” (though of course he’d never say so). Sartre, in his very different style, may be another. (He pretty much does say so, despite all the existentialist bravado about radical freedom.)

And so Buddhists commit to alleviating as much of it as they can for others, and liberating themselves.

Suffering is real, and an enumeration of instances can overwhelm. But all is not suffering. If it were, there could be no meaningful alleviation– let alone liberation. The problem of evil is mirrored by the happy problem of gratuitous good: there is a lot of “pointless” joy to be had in the world, by those who’ll have it. (“Cards win. Cards win!”)

But the melioristic impulse Ricard highlights in ch6 is admirable. I’ve written about it:

Above all, his keynote celebrates
the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may
prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push
back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.
These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal,
the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the
optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically
defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in
the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is
true,”13 James will insist on another way around or through the
poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection
reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only
believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and
injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing,
in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals
who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction
must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who
are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be
pitied than envied.
What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real
suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real
capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our
humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our
felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for
dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from
responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels
reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble
benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the
Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-
appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity”
workers, et al.) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing
for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament
James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?
It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian
optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies
that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is
Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the
Rational is the Real.”14 What a startling, potentially
stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in
the world of our collective experience!

Meliorists relish the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.  These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal, the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true,” pragmatic meliorists will insist on another way around or through the poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing, in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be pitied than envied.

What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity” workers, et al) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?

It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the Rational is the Real.” What a startling, potentially stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in the world of our collective experience!

And so I give Ricard and Buddhism all credit for working to make the best of suffering and even learn from it. “Resigning ourselves to it with a simple ‘that’s life!’ [ignores] any possiblity of the inner change that is available to everyone…”

Right. But this talk of mainly- inner change is a shift from the bolder meliorist resolve to push back at suffering’s external sources. I confess, I’m not much impressed by this suggested exercise:

gray cloud“Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusion, and mental toxins of [suffering] people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others… “

It will? Or will it transform how I feel about suffering? Sounds pretty Stoic. Is that the change we need?

Don’t misunderstand me: we should do what it takes, internally, to allow ourselves (amidst suffering) to “feel a great happiness.” But we should also refrain from describing that inner transformation as (in itself) effective remediation. Moral holidays are  necessary. They’re not sufficient.


September 28, 2009


“The fons et origo of all reality is subjective, is ourselves.”

-William James

Reality is a concept we may find easier to glimpse through the back door, by noticing the innumerable daily examples of people being out of touch with it. We may not be able to say precisely what it is, but we know when someone’s missing it. The “reality based community” has room to grow.

The invocation of Einstein to grace a chapter on Reality implies some preference for  inquiries into the far-flung cosmos and its abstract underlying principles.  No doubt, much light is to be shed on the real nature of things by looking “out there.”

But we shouldn’t overlook our more intimate acquaintance with reality at first hand, in our own immediate perceptions and observations. The late great literary critic Alfred Kazin graced us, shortly before his death, with sharp insight into William James’s passionate respect for each person’s “own sense of the exceptionality of his existence” as part of  “the axis of reality,” what he called the deep and insistent “throb of our actual experience.”

On this view, our own original thinking and feeling present our most concrete encounters with “fact in the making.” We are ourselves pieces of natural reality. “The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience,” so we should “take reality bodily and integrally up into philosophy in exactly the perceptual shape in which it comes.”

There is a long tradition of dispute among philosophers as to whether we can directly know reality, or must filter it through the presumably-distortive lenses of our words and concepts.  The radical empiricist’s position on this is unambiguous: use concepts in the same way a carpenter uses his tools, to get the job done; but choose the right tools,  remember their instrumental (not essential) nature, and when the time comes lay them down. Sometimes, too, you have to fashion a new tool.

The “job” here  means respecting (and accurately characterizing) reality when it jumps up to greet (or bite) us… as it did James in Palo Alto in 1906, for instance. Or, as Garrison Keillor says of his recent medical adventure, as it “bit [him] in the butt.”

There aren’t always words for our most primal and immediate and delightful experiences, but that shouldn’t shut us off from them. We just need to remember to holster the “conceptual shotgun” we all use to excess, and that philosophers more than anyone ought to be wary of:

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...

The thrill of a crisp autumn sunrise, a new idea, a sharp feeling of love, a subtle feeling of separation, an empty feeling of loss atautumn sunrise the death of a loved one, a rollicking earthquake, a brush with your mortality… all such experiences may give rise to feelings you can’t articulate but also can’t ignore. “There are occasional moments,” wrote James’s student and biographer R.B. Perry, “when experience is most fully tasted—in the exhilaration of a fresh morning, in moments of suffering, or in times of triumphant effort, when the tang is strong, when every nuance or overtone is present. James would arrest us at such moments, and say, “There, that is it. Reality is like that.” There’s no formula, no E=mc2, to encapsulate those moments. But they’re very real.

Our chapter begins with a list of items we’re to rate on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being “most real”:

___The person sitting next to you. ___The chair you’re sitting in. ___God. ___Last night’s headache. ___The wo(man) of your dreams. ___Electrons. ___Love. ___Truth. ___Beauty. ___Einstein’s brain. ___Your mind. ___The color red. ___The NFL. ___Your body. ___Your soul. ___Time. ___Dreams. ___[          ]…

Strange list. Everything on it is real, right? So what does it mean to be more or less so? Maybe the question is really asking you to prioritize your sense of reality. Are particulars more real than abstractions? Are things less real than experiences, events, and processes? How can you even compare unseen, unproven things (souls, Deities) to tangible objects? Is reality itself even real, or is it just a concept? But wait. Why aren’t concepts real, since real people invent and entertain them?

The pre-Socratic materialists wanted desperately to summarize and simplify reality (“It’s all air/water/fire/number…”) but, most moderns would say, were too reductive in their analyses. It’s not all any one thing.

school of athensPlato had some wild ideas about reality. Aristotle was more grounded. (Recall your art history.) Two worlds or one? Are essences (Forms, Ideas) here or there? Are we in a cave, or in the light? Myth of the Cave, Republic Bk VII… cave

“A strange image, and they are strange prisoners.”

Like ourselves?

What would Socrates say?


The great critic Alfred Kazin graced us, shortly
before his death, with sharp insight into James’s passionate
respect for each person’s “own sense of the exceptionality of his
existence” as part of “the axis of reality.” His deepest
commitment was to “the throb of our actual experience.” His
spiritual sensibility was not that of a true believer but of a
“fellow soul.”


September 27, 2009

Spent all of Saturday morning and part of the afternoon yesterday getting “oriented” to the hazards of High School. It was a meeting for parents of 9th graders, facilitated by lawyers, counselors, therapists, and educators, evidently designed to frighten the bejeebers out of Moms and Dads who are sure that their kids are the  “good kids” who would never get into trouble with drugs, alcohol, drivers licenses, inappropriate sexual behavior, and other things we don’t want to think about (but should). The message seemed to be that worst-case-scenarios involving good kids are a commonplace, as are various forms of “parental malpractice.”

It was a good reality check and wake-up call, especially the attorney’s testimonial about the troubled “good kids” he represents week in and week out. But it was also a relief finally to be reassured that it wouldn’t happen to most of our kids, that the point of our session was to raise awareness that– having been raised– would effectively nip deviant adolescent hi-jinx in the bud. The largest message of the morning: talk to your kids and to their friends’ parents, ask questions, challenge false perceptions (“everybody’s drinking/using/going to unsupervised parties…”), be involved in their lives, realize that the teen-age brain is still very much a work in progress with respect not only to knowledge acquisiton but especially on the  emotional maturity front.  Mostly solid stuff, worth a little Saturday morning startle for the sake of their and our long-term good.

But I took issue with a couple of things one of the counselors had to say.

makebelieveFirst, he seemed to endorse a “backlash” he had observed against the late, great Fred Rogers. “That’s just wrong!” I heard myself blurting. And it is. Mr. Rogers gets a lot of unwarranted criticism, mostly from the right, for allegedly padding kids’ self-esteem without a corresponding insistence that they earn it. Don’t tell them they are uniquely special, we heard, unless you also spell out the counter-vailing message that they all are “uniquely ordinary.”

Now, I understand the importance of instilling a feeling of community and compassion for others in young people. Being special does not mean being haughtily superior. And yes, all humans are “ordinary” at most levels. We share DNA and history and mortality and so much else that ought, eventually, to awaken in any normally-developing brain a powerful and comforting sense of solidarity with other people. So much about ordinary experience reinforces feelings of social isolation and difference, and these feelings can be especially painful during adolescence. We need also to tap into the ordinary perceptions that will help us coordinate our respective journeys. You are special, young man, young woman. We all are.

But it’s also a plain fact that every one of us is unique. We all have our distinctive talents, our personal predilections and enthusiasms and assets, and we need to learn from the earliest age to treasure and nurture those gifts. Fred Rogers was a genius at conveying this to the youngest kids, and reassuring them that they are worthy to be loved “just the way they are”– whatever they may accomplish in the classroom, however they may be regarded by peers.

When I taught Philosophy of Childhood and talked about Fred, college students who’d grown up in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood became misty-eyed and  sentimental. Some said Fred was the only adult they got that explicit message of acceptance from, and it had shaped them profoundly. Note, they grew up in the Neighborhood. He did establish that warm kind of intimacy, across the often-cold divide of the television medium. Fred’s young viewers didn’t just watch, they entered his world and carried it back with them into “reality.”

My other bone to pick yesterday: we were told that there is “no psychological, theological, or philosophical basis” for our culture’s preoccupation with the “myth of happiness.”  It’s ok for adults to model contentment, but that’s something other than happiness.

Well, that’s interesting.  I agree that our culture is badly confused about the real sources of happiness. We spin our wheels and chase false forms of gratification. In Happiness 101 we’re about to read Eric Wilson’s case “Against Happiness.” And Jennifer Hecht will expose “The Happiness Myth” (though she won’t toss the baby with the bath).  However…

The counselor then reported his finding, among High Schoolers, that many of them perceive their parents to be stressed out and unhappy– leading lives they do not wish to emulate, and why should they? Most adults– like the ones in attendance yesterday– do seem stressed and clueless much of the time: focused on dysfunction and potential disaster, not so much on what can go right in everyday life.

Those adults are not “contented,” and I’ll bet a lot of them gave up (or fore-swore) the dedicated pursuit of happiness a long time ago. Before they buy into the notion of happiness as a sham and a myth, I say they ought to give it a real shot. And do it ostentatiously. Let the kids see them do it.

And the next time the 9th grade parents are assembled for shock treatment, it might be useful to them to hear a few words from a happiness researcher. Or– is it too wild a dream?– from a happy philosopher. I work cheap.

And oh, by the way: there is a very long list of stellar work in psychology and philosophy– I’ll leave the theology to other hands– that might be argued to form a pretty formidable foundation for taking happiness seriously as a worthy human aspiration. Epicurus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Mill, Russell, James, and all those recent Positive Psychology proponents, for starters. There’s that Jefferson guy, too.

And Fred Rogers is not a bad resource,  either. He gives tough legislators goose-bumps. This almost made me  cry:


September 26, 2009

Did my annual hitch at the school book-sale fundraiser last night. I like to work that for a few reasons, including nostalgia for my previous life as a bookseller all those years ago. I loved that job. The salary was insulting but the benefits– getting to handle all those new books and take ’em home, the opportunity to acquire  bibliographic expertise in fields I knew nothing about, the daily company of fellow Book People (some of whom were also on staff)– suited my bookish nature and made me happy. And of course there was the staff discount, the insidious and irresistible temptation of which added injury (to my nominal bank account) to the insult of that nominal paycheck. I had bibliomania, aka book compulsion disorder.

When I first worked the Fall Frenzy sale five years ago, nostalgia still blended with compulsion. I bought too many books, squirreling them away between sessions at the check-out table throughout my shift. But I notice that each year, I come home with a lighter bag. I’ve found other, cheaper ways to feed the book compulsion. As an academic it’s pretty easy to acquire “desk” and “examination” copies of the books I’m most eager to see. And there’s the e-book universe, which– some of my old cohorts will be appalled to hear me say– I’m actually quite approving of. I admit it: I enjoy reading my little iTouch screen. It doesn’t have that distinctive aroma that was one former colleague’s peculiar compulsion, but it fits in my pocket and goes everywhere. I like it.

But reading is not my only compulsion. Periodically I’m stricken by the urge to express myself on my bumper. Bare bumpers are so boring, is my attitude. They should put that on a sticker. Probably have. (Along with “Bumper stickers are not the answer.”)

Of course I always support my candidates , in electoral seasons. The rest of the time, I try to hold the impulse more or less  in check by sticking to one or maybe two messages at  a time, usually twinned to a current teaching preoccupation. When last I taught environmental ethics, for instance, it was  “Evolve– every day is Earth Day.”  When I taught the philosophy of childhood and early education, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” That one does double-duty, covering the philosophy of happiness as well.

But it’s threatening to get out of hand. We’ve been talking a lot in class about free will lately, and yesterday I couldn’t stop myself from adding “Even those who think everything is predestined look both ways before crossing the street.”

I think I’ve gotten it out of my system, for now. But for every one on the bumper there are ten in my drawer. One favorite: “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t.” Mark Twain

Another: “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” (But I already am that person, of course: the meal ticket.)  And: “Philosophy students make better lovers.” (That would get me in trouble!) And: “Philosophy teachers rock!” (That would get me laughed at by my kids.) But, the best, most subversive of all:

Your Philosophy Of Life Shouldn't Fit On A Sticker

James bio – 3

September 25, 2009

“The moral business.” On February 1, 1870, twenty-eight year old William James– a brilliant, charismatic young man possessed of tremendous (if diffuse) creative energies  and an evident aptitude for the arts and sciences alike, but who nonetheless felt guilty and adrift in life because (or so he imagined) he could not commit himself to a definite vocational path– recorded this entry in his personal diary:

James1869“Today I about touched bottom, and perceive plainly that I must face the choice with open eyes: shall I frankly throw the moral business overboard… or shall I follow it, and it alone, making everything else merely stuff for it?”

“The moral business” for James meant the possibility of genuine personal volition and free choice, expressed in the form of a definite life-plan which he could embrace as his own freely chosen path. He had come to doubt himself so severely, after abandoning earlier careers plans centering on art, medicine, and scientific field exploration, that he was now wholly without confidence in the efficacy of his own will. He questioned his ability to identify any preference compelling enough to awaken even a modest passion, and was now on the verge of wondering whether life would even be worth living.

So his choice was very stark: act as if his will was free, and sufficient to motivate real action; or give it up, and surrender to apathy and drift. Existential shipwreck loomed.

“Stuff” for the moral business would be the hard challenge of staying the course and sticking with a plan, through thick and thin. Was he ready to face and fight adversity, and persevere to accomplish important goals? He frankly didn’t know.

The James who would later declare his implacable hostility to evil, and his zest for the fight, had not yet materialized into clear view, in 1870. The young man had indeed arrived at a crisis-point in his life (and this is now widely recognized by James scholars as a “crisis text” in his biography).

One of the precipitants of this crisis was the death of a dear friend, possibly a romantic interest, and (btw) his first cousin,minnie temple Minnie Temple,* at age 23.

Minnie and Willy “were in some ways similar spirits, restless, yearning, hungry for life, ambitious, scornful of second best, sensitive, ironic, and outgoing… Minnie Temple was the first woman William had ever been able to accept as a complete equal, and the first person he could talk with about his deepest religious and spiritual concerns.”

But William’s depression blocked the union of souls and merger of lives they might have pursued, cousin-hood notwithstanding. “Nature and life have unfitted me for any affectionate relations with other individuals.” Yet at this time, incidentally, he was preparing an ambitious reading list that included Schopenhauer: probably not the best choice, at this low ebb in his life.

James received a letter from Minnie in February declaring: “the question will always remain, what is one’s true life,– and we must each try and solve it for ourselves.” Less than a month later, Minnie passed away.

James wrote to her, posthumously. “By that big part of me that’s in the tomb with you, may I realize and believe in the immediacy of death. Minnie, your death makes me feel the nothingness of all our egotistical fury… Use your death (or your life, it’s all one meaning) tat tvam asi (lit., that you are).

And so young Willy took another giant step towards becoming himself, the pragmatist philosopher William James. “The closing days of Minnie Temple’s life mark the first time in James’s life that he was able to accept the active religious struggle of another person as a valid religious experience… his first glimpse of a view of life as larger than our individual lives.”


* Minnie Temple was the real-life prototype for Henry James‘s most interesting American girls, for Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, and Milly Theale, and it was this provocative and irresistible Minnie – charged to the lips with life – who broke in upon William James’s turbulent, unfixed, unsatisfied existence when he returned home from Germany. “Everyone was supposed, I believe, to be more or less in love with her… but it was William that Minnie had her eye on, and it was William who was in love with her….”


September 24, 2009

Matthieu Ricard begins Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by trying to rehabilitate an idea I confess I’ve always looked down on: renunciation, “a much-misunderstood concept.” It’s not about giving up anything good or beautiful or meaningful, he says; it’s about “freedom from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions,” and “meaning through insight and loving-kindness.”

So it doesn’t parallel “negation,” is in fact an affirming state of mind? Joyous, even? It will be a stretch for me to make that connection, I thought joi de vivre was a condition requiring active, energetic, integrative and positive movement– none of which are normally connoted for me by the word “renounce.” But I’m listening.

Here’s an illustration of how I’ve tended to think about renunciation: “The purity of [the Jamesian concept of ] pure experience,” I wrote, ” is not that of renunciation in the eastern sense, of personal desires and attachments. James was quite at home with the idea that we are the particular bundles of wants, preferences, valuations, and (especially) experiences, and actions that uniquely individuate each of us. As they change and grow, or stagnate, so do we. The people, places, and things to which we sustain voluntary attachments are the most important constituents of our respective identities. To renounce them, or detach from them, would be to die… you can reach a state of consciousness called ‘clear consciousness’ in which the mind is perfectly lucid, without being caught up in discursive thoughts.” We can reach such a state, but James does not advise futile efforts to stay there. Life presses forward.”

Renunciation, in other words, has always seemed to me to mean something like stagnation, torpor, ennui, even suicide. But I stand ready and receptive to Brother Matthieu’s correction.

meditate-on-a-mountainBut I also note that some advocates of renunciation are quite frank: it means “losing interest in life’s activities… letting go of all desires and attachments… turning inward instead of constantly being focused outward.” This is the diametrical contradiction of Russell’s advice in Conquest of Happiness. Happy people of my stripe take an active interest in the  far-flung “outward” world. Is there some reason I’m missing, why we can’t honor our inner subjectivity while also caring about people, places, and things out there?

It’s not, they say, about “going off to meditate on a mountain and escaping the world.” But Ricard opened his TED talk with that enticing Tibetan mountain view. It sure looks, at the very least, like holding the world at arm’s length. It looks like detachment, when engagement seems the more responsible attitude. Is this just semantics?

Then, Ricard gently disputes Henri Bergson’s view that the vagueness of “happiness” is a virtue, allowing us each to interpret its meaning as we see fit. He wants to be more precise.

Can we agree that the Sage of Konigsburg, dutifully bearing the world of pure and practical reason on his back, following his impersonal imperatives and acting categorically for all humanity, was badly mistaken when he said happiness must be “rational and devoid of anyKant personal taint.” Taint?!

can kantThis is one of the nubs of the issue, for me. Personal values, predilections, enthusiasms, interests, idiosyncracies, peccadillos… these are our delights. For us to abandon them for the rational, impersonal, categorical (etc.) out of a sense of duty to the Moral Law and Reason for its own sake, is not to pursue happiness, it’s to denigrate happiness as peripheral to more important things (to be ascertained by always supposing that our choices must legislate for all, imperatively, impersonally, and categorically).  Kantians can help us remember not to denigrate the common world, and bless them for that. But if happiness  is not, at the end of the day, about personal satisfactions and my individual flourishing (and yours), I say it’s over-rated. It is, though. So it isn’t. Critique that, Immanuel.

This looks like a more promising formulation: happiness is “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind… not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being.” And the stoic element of Buddhism is prominent here too: “while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.” I’m prepared to take that possibility as axiomatic, though it seems impossible to “prove.” No problem.

I think Ricard must (to his credit) be a walker, with his example of a perfectly happy pedestrian “walking through a serene wilderness, [with] no particular expectations beyond the simple act of walking. She simply is, here and now, free and open.” Yep, that’s precisely the feeling behind my goofball smile, if you ever spot me ambling down the street or around the lake. (Kant was a daily walker too, I wonder what his problem was.)

But that’s not the whole nine yards, “the difference between these flashes… and the immutable peacefulness of the sage is as great as that between the tiny section of sky seen through the eye of the needle and the limitless expanses of outer space.” So it’s vast, cosmic. I’m familiar with the flash, and find it readily repeatable. But I wonder how I’d do as a sage.

Better than Sartre, I hope. We’ve already seen that he has no use for what he regards as the silly American pursuit of happiness. He makes me sick. Nauseous. Dukkha-filled. Redundant. Superfluous. Suicidal. Well, he would if I swallowed his Nothingness nostrums.

Jean_Paul_SartreIn fairness, Sartre is expressing the state of mind of the pre-Existentialist hero who has yet to take full personal responsibility for creating his own essence, when he says “we hadn’t the slightest reason to be [here].” He’s quite clear, in Existentialism is a Humanism, that fashioning one’s own raison d’etre is a worthy and meaningful undertaking. He’s also quite clear in subverting that activity through the concept of “bad faith.” No wonder he sat around in bars smoking harsh unfiltered cigarettes, suffering logorrhea and the “wicked world syndrome.” (And I suppose I might, too, if the Nazis occupied my country.)

“Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions,” and Ricard says it is also an undistortive window on reality. My framing question remains: can I have some without disengaging from responsible activity and involvement in the world? Windows are good. So are doors.

So: how to begin to meditate. I love the instruction to just “watch your mind, the coming and going of thoughts… do not be bothered by them.” I do it every day. But I don’t sit first, I walk out the door and I keep going. Works for me. But what works for you?

Why not the best?

September 23, 2009


bniz: this universe must be in reality better than every other
possible universe…Leibniz

This universe must be in reality better than every other possible universe Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Dr. Pangloss taught metaphysico- theologo- cosmolonigology. He could prove that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as allpangloss things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings… Voltaire (1694-1778), Candide

So she’s like all “problem of evil.” And I’m like, “theodicy, barmaid, theodicy!”

..if you wish for superficiality incarnate, you have only to read that charmingly written Theodicy of Leibniz, in which he sought to justify the ways of God to man, and to prove that the world we live in is the best of possible worlds… William James, Pragmatism wj

Philosopher Susan Neiman reminds us that eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire saw the great Lisbon earthquake as a metaphysically game-changing event.

For some, Lisbon lessened either God’s beneficence or his power.

For others, the quake lessened their estimation of human reason  and a reasonable world. Nature, according to enlightened minds,  was a benign and intelligible force. Its well-oiled operation  reflected the intelligence and skill of a designer God. Could we,  though, retain our confidence in reason, and thus in God’s ways,  in the rubble of Lisbon?

voltaireWhere are our Voltaires, spotlighting the suffering wrought by natural phenomena (Katrina, quakes, tsunamis, tornadoes et al) and the challenges they pose to any rational theist?

Well, there’s Bart Ehrman. (BTW: Ehrman is a former classmate of my colleague Mike Hinz. We hope to bring him to our fair campus next year.) He’s a respected Bible scholar at the University of North Carolina who until quite recently considered himself a devout Christian.

The leading reason given by atheists and agnostics for their disbelief is the problem of suffering or evil. David Hume put it this way, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

In God’s Problem, Ehrman joins the skeptics. He writes:  “the Bible fails to answer our most important question– why we suffer.” Suffering, he says, “is not only senseless, it is also random, capricious, and unevenly distributed… Why are the sick wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies born with birth defects? Why are young children kidnapped, raped, and murdered? Why does a child die  of hunger every five seconds?”

That was Dostoevsky’s question too, in Brothers Karamazov (Book V, Ch. 4 – “Rebellion”), where Ivan asks:  “Are you fond of children, Alyosha? I know you are, and you will understand why I prefer to speak of them. If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers’ sins, they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten  the apple; but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth…

dostoevskyI renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed… to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony.”

So is Ehrman the Christian-cum-agnostic in despair about evil? No. “The solution to life is to enjoy it while weecclesiastes can, because it is fleeting. The idea that this life is all there is should not be an occasion for despair and despondency. It should be a source of joy and dreams—joy of living for the moment, and dreams of trying to make the world a better place… This means working to alleviate suffering.”

Finally, consider a somewhat banal analogy. “Suppose you found yourself at school in a dormitory. Things are not too good.  The roof leaks, there are rats, the food is almost inedible, some students in fact starve to death.

dormThere is a closed door, behind which is the management, but the management never comes out. You get to speculate what the management must be like. Can you infer from the dormitory as you find it that the management, first, knows… …exactly what conditions are like, second, cares intensely for your welfare, and third, possesses unlimited resources for fixing things? The inference is crazy. You would be almost certain to infer that either the management doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or cannot do anything about it. Nor does it make things any better if occasionally you come across a student who declaims that he has become privy to the mind of the management, and is assured that the management indeed knows, cares, and has resources and ability to do what it wants. The overwhelming inference is not that the management is like that, but that this student is deluded. Perhaps his very deprivations have deluded him.” Simon Blackburn, Think

And perhaps belief runs hotter in nice dorms. Should it?


September 22, 2009

The world is flat, & blind. Commenting on the somewhat raucous atmosphere of last Tuesday’s class, I referenced William James’s notion of  “a certain blindness” to which we all periodically succumb when defending our own precious subjective sense of things. We forget that others see things from the alternate angles of their own perspectives, every bit as central to them as ours are to us; and we focus exclusively on how it is for us. In Tigger’s solipsistic self-inflating words: “I’m the only one.”

Jon Haidt has something similar in mind in ch9. Like  the square in Flatland, “we have all encountered something we failed to understand, yet smugly believed we understood because we couldn’t conceive of the dimension to which we were blind.”

Haidt, calling himself a Jewish atheist, nonetheless contends that we can bust out of our blind corners to apprehend something life-quickening and meaningful he somewhat misleadingly calls “divine.”

We can, and we do. Our inherited faith and wisdom traditions are quick to claim and try to assimilate such “vertical” perceptions, but Haidt says they float free of history. The world of spirit or transcendence– other potentially misleading terms, if you have better suggestions please pass ’em to the front– is a huge fount of happiness if we learn to tap it, and don’t over-indulge.

One way to learn to tap it is to leave your home culture for a time, and learn the ways of some other corner of the world. Haidt went to India, and got a fresh angle on things at home in Flatland, Virginia. For instance, “I began to feel disgust for the American practice of marching around one’s own house– even one’s bedroom–wearing the same shoes that, minutes earlier, had walked through city streets.” I had the same feeling after visiting our friends who follow Japanese custom and check shoes at the door.

But let’s cut to the chase. What is the secret of happiness, the meaning of life?

“The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that  happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.”

In other words, Jon Haidt agrees,

And that’s about it, really. Happiness is the meaning of life.


September 21, 2009

god willliam blake

The Ancient of Days, aka God

William Blake, 1794

(–“What do you mean, William Blake?”

–“I mean William Blake!”)

Chapter Three is the God chapter, but of course this topic– like the last one, the Meaning of Life– is just too sprawling for a single chapter, book, or course. It may be too big for a human lifetime.

For those drawn to it not merely as an interesting object of study but as the sacred source and center of life itself, we need to catch our breaths before we begin. And let us remind ourselves: not everyone thinks about God (or “God,” “Allah,” “Yahweh,” “Jehovah,” “Bhagwan,” “Ahura Mazda,” et al) the same way you or I do.  Humans have nominated many alleged supreme supernatural beings through the centuries. They have advanced many claims and fewer arguments  in the names thereof. Non-believers have ignored, studied, disputed, and sometimes ridiculed those claims.

Philosophers have attempted to identify, examine, and critique those arguments (or argument place-holders), as they should: it’s in the job description. Pious non-philosophers have often protested this activity.

The next caution for us all: we are not obliged to respect a view just because those who espouse it call it their religion. We are not obliged to bite our tongues and refrain from saying that we find a particular religious view unworthy of respect. I’ll say it right now: I do not respect the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. OK, you say, but that’s not a serious religion.  Further up the mainstream, then: I do not respect Scientology. Its founder is on record as saying that if you want to get rich, start your own religion. He was a charlatan, and the tenets of his faith as I have examined them are just laughable.

Yes, laughable in my opinion. But in philosophical conversation we don’t just swap opinions. If the subject comes up in the classroom, or the agora, or in an online exchange hosted by a conscientious and self-respecting philosophy blogger, reasons will need to be provided if the exchange is to bear fruit. And if any of the defenders of any of those religions comes up with a good case for God, I’ll try to be among the first to say so.

I’m not just picking on L.Ron Hubbard.  I could swim further up the mainstream, discovering more cause for derisive laughter. I have, I will. So have others. But one must be sensitive to time and place and circumstance.

And in fact, there are considerations of social civility, politeness, and prudence that make full disclosure of anyone’s view of someone else’s creed  inappropriate in many social settings, and that I don’t deny. But in the classroom, in books and other printed matter, in the streets and on the Internet, I’m particularly wary about laying down strict ground rules or prohibitions that would have the effect of stifling anyone’s first amendment rights or, as the American philosopher Charles Peirce said, “blocking the road of inquiry.”

And so I just advise: distinguish belief from believer, and accord everyone– classmates included– presumptive respect as human beings.  Remember the ad hominem fallacy, among others, and don’t attack others’ character or impugn their motives. Ask for their reasons. Offer your own. Let them speak, one at a time, and speak in turn when they’ve finished.

But all, heed: “that’s just how I was raised,” or “that’s what we believe in my faith,” are not good philosophical reasons. You can’t win or even begin an argument with such statements. Presumably those who raised you and taught your Sunday School had reasons. Specify them, and defend them rationally, if you’re going to bring them into the conversation at all.

I count close friends among the representatives of most major religions and faith traditions. We agree to disagree on matters of spirituality and religion. They understand that my rejection of their faith is not personal.

Another very important distinction, in a free and secular society: church and state. Not sharing a friend’s faith, not respecting a neighbor’s religion, not having a recognized religion or believing in God yourself at all, are well within your constitutionally protected rights as a citizen of the American republic.  They do not make you unpatriotic. They might not make you popular; but studying Socrates brought us to a pithy rejoinder on that point: so what?

But after saying all this, it remains to acknowledge: some will be made uncomfortable by the fact that we’re discussing this topic at all, in the public space of a university classroom. (Others are made uncomfortable by the discussion’s being online; but of course they can re-direct their browsers.) To that I say, again: philosophy exists for the very purpose of making all who enter its ambit uncomfortable. Discomfort is a positive sign of thinking-going-on. Now, if you’d rather not think at all, I don’t suppose there’s much else I can say that will change your mind.

The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan (aka Matthew Harrison Brady, in “Inherit the Wind”), told his legal nemesis Clarence Darrow at Dayton, Tennessee in 1926: “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow replied: “Do you think about things you do “think” about?” I know what he was asking, but there really wasn’t anywhere for that conversation to go.

Still, there’s one form of faith we must all evince, all who’ve consented to participate in this class:  faith in philosophical reason to ameliorate your discomfort, one way or another. Even an irrationalist like Kierkegaard must invoke reasons for rejecting reasons. Why the passionate “leap of faith”? No reason at all? Surely not.

Enough preliminaries, for now. Let’s begin by thinking about the survey in our text. “How Do [You] Think About Religion?” Which boxes did you check under “I believe what I do about religion because __,” “When I go to a religious service I feel __”? What does “spirituality” mean to you? What’s your view of organized religion in general?

William James is quoted in this chapter, sounding very much like the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, exploring  his feeling that the universe is not a mere It to us but a Thou.

James said many other interesting things about what he called “the varieties of religious experience.” He  sympathized with others’ beliefs, because he thought they all reflected a universal human impulse for life. “Not God, but more life,” said James, is the most natural human impulse , the ultimate source of religious variety, and the real point of religion.  And he was very open to alternative approaches. The religious, for him, meant anything that brought home for people the reality of whatever they considered “divine.”

And, as he informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by what he could not help regarding as the progressive epic of evolution. “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.”

James would probably understand where Karen Armstrong is coming from in her new book, The Case for God. But he’d probably rather discuss Robert Wright’s: The Evolution of God.

James filled out a “God & religion” questionnaire himself once:

Do you believe in personal immortality? “Never keenly; but more strongly as I grow older.” Do you pray? “I cannot possibly pray—I feel foolish and artificial.” What do you mean by ‘spirituality’? “Susceptibility to ideals, but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about them. A certain amount of ‘other worldly’ fancy. Otherwise you have mere morality, or ‘taste.'” What do you mean by a ‘religious experience’? “Any moment of life that brings the reality of spiritual things more ‘home’ to one.”

Some have read in these responses a Jamesian tilt toward supernaturalism, but I am more inclined to view them as a nod of sympathetic recognition and moral support, an instance of neutral distancing and what’s been called James’s belief in (others’) believing. In any case, his use of the term salvation in the present context is neutral with respect to any supernatural implications. It means something like “deliverance from evil,” where ‘evil’ is not taken necessarily to imply a malevolent supernatural agency at work in the world, and where it is hoped and supposed that natural human powers are equal to the task of resisting it successfully, not always but often, at least in the long run.

As for the “problem of evil”: it was a problem, to James. “I cannot bring myself, as so many seem able to do, to blink the evil out of sight, and gloss it over,” James wrote to his brother as a young man in 1870. “It’s as real as the good, and if it is denied, good must be denied too. It must be hated and resisted while there’s breath in our bodies.” And sixteen years later: “There is no full consolation. Evil is evil and pain is pain.” James biographer R. B. Perry: “He was too sensitive to ignore evil, too moral to tolerate it, and too ardent to accept it as inevitable. Optimism was as impossible for him as pessimism. No philosophy could possibly suit him that did not candidly recognize the dubious fortunes of mankind, and encourage him as a moral individual to buckle on his armor and go forth to battle.”

And yet, he also believed wholeheartedly in “moral holidays.” Holidays are celebratory times, and James never forgets the celebratory elements of experience, most especially the moments of “transcendence.” They are the saving elements that “make life worth living.”

jimmy_buffettBut that’s another story, another song. If you’re interested, check out chapter four in Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: the Porpoise Driven Lifethe chapter called “License to Chill.” (BTW: Jimmy Buffett’s full name is James William Buffett.) Suffice here to say: Buffett’s God, and James’s, would want you to enjoy your life. Fall Break is coming; but have a little fun today too. And find some “evil” to resist while you’re at it. That’s a divine agenda.

“I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays.” -William James.

“Well it’s only up to you, no one else can tell you to Go out and have some fun… And take a Holiday. You need a Holiday…” -Jimmy Buffett

human impulse80 and the ultimate source of religious variety.
And, as he informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of
life was most quickened by what he could not help regarding as
the progressive epic of evolution. “I believe myself to be
(probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian
scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously
evolutionary mode of thought.”