Archive for November, 2009

Wiki whack

November 30, 2009

Time for all good students to get their research together for the final assault on Mount “A”… and my advice to them is to use Wikipedia if they must, but only as a springboard and not a final destination.

Can you trust Wikipedia? Most of us have stopped asking and simply bookmarked it. That makes sense when you consider the alternatives: you can explore the first dozen or so Google search results, or you can go straight to the occasionally erroneous Wikipedia entry, typically culled from the very same search results. If you are looking for fast, up-to-date information, it is Wikipedia or Google (not Wikipedia or Britannica), and Wikipedia wins on speed.

Wikipedia still has its critics, skeptics who doubt its merits as a reference source…

Yes, that’s me.  Again, I don’t advise not going there. (That would be hypocritical and probably ineffective.) But I insist, young people: don’t just go there. We have a fine library, and in it you’ll find lots of wonderful, portable, interactive artifacts called books. Check ’em out.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Check your email, too. I’ll be doing my parental duty today, so you can do yours of being studious. Read Passion and be ready for some expeditious presentations on Wednesday, I’ll bring my timer.

go slow

November 29, 2009

Another wonderful installment in Maira Kalman‘s “pursuit of happiness” series. Slow down, you move too fast… and be happy.

(But I still agree with Mr. Clemens: young people should not be pessimists.)


November 28, 2009

The New York Times reports: (Albert) “Camus’s son, Jean, says interring his father’s remains at the Panthéon, the Paris monument to some of the great men and women of France [as proposed by President Sarkozy], would be contrary to his father’s wishes and does not want to have his legacy put to work in the service of the state…”

Camus, author of The Rebel, The Plague, The Stranger, and The Myth of Sisyphus, is “currently buried in the cemetery of Lourmarin, in the Luberon area of Provence. He died in a car crash in the town of Villeblevin, in Burgundy, on Jan. 4, 1960, at the age of 46.”

I think he’d have  had a good laugh about this. One more stone to shove up the hill.

thanks a lot

November 27, 2009

The gap between actual conditions and ideal aspirations, I always say, is the correct measure of our distance from _______. (choose your preferred honorific: Utopia, Heaven, God, Nirvana, Salvation, Redemption, Enlightenment, Transcendence, Wisdom,  ___, …)

So, a more perfect Thanksgiving holiday for me would include: a shorter drive, less anxiety, more meaningful conversation, a lot more attention to the real meaning of gratitude,  less meaningless football (and no Detroit Lions or Dallas Cowboys), a lot less variety of turkey stuffing and gravy, and no prayer of thanks to our Heavenly Father for all He has done for Our Country in These Troubled Times. But… even more pie would be just fine with me. And maybe Garrison Keillor’s right: Thanksgiving is good enough the way it is.

And today, I’m most  grateful that my sister is driving a great distance to join us for a post-Thanksgiving weekend visit. As we say in Tennessee: we appreciate her very much.

Thank goodness

November 26, 2009

Here’s* gratitude for you. Thank Dan Dennett.

*And here, and here. Happy Thanksgiving!

“Que sçais-je?”

November 25, 2009

A student writes, noting that the Thanksgiving holiday officially commences on Wednesday at 5 pm… so naturally he wonders if we’ll be meeting for our regular noon class. (!)

Not a good omen, class attendance-wise. People apparently just can’t wait to start giving thanks for all they’ve been given.

But as their content provider it’s my job to show up and give them some more, so I will. Topics to be covered:

1. Gratitude (naturally!)

2. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), humanist, essayist, earthy philosopher of everything corporeally human… just because he was bumped from the syllabus earlier this semester and I’m grateful for the opportunity to re-instate him just as we arrive at his fifteen seconds of fame in our text. He was “heir to the Skeptics of old,”  the anti-Descartes who knew better than to lodge too much confidence in our ability to know anything for certain. “Que sçais-je?” (“What do I know?”)

And he owned the coolest library/study ever (much moreso than Descartes’ methodologically hypothetical “meditation” zone).

His greatest virtue may have been tolerance. His most refreshing attitude, though, may have been his candor about bodily matters. “For it is indeed reasonable, as they say, that the body should not follow its appetites to the disadvantage of the mind; but why is it not also reasonable that the mind should not pursue its appetites to the disadvantage of the body?” So he philosophized a lot about his own body parts, one member in particular. (NOTE to Plato and other transcendentalists: philosophers who rise too far above our natural state make themselves ridiculous, remote, and irrelevant in their transcendent detachment. Montaigne’s parts were all immanent, and attached, and so are yours and mine. )

“There is a plague on Man, the opinion that he knows something.” Like Socrates, and like science, not presuming to know is what drove Montaigne to study and learn and stay humble. Not a bad example for us all.

And now, scholars study and publish on Montaigne (while non-scholars quote him without attribution). He’d be amused.

Alain de Botton comes by his interest in Montaigne naturally: his late father Gilbert (1935-2000) collected Montaigne-iana. His impressive collection is now an exhibit at Cambridge University Library.


November 24, 2009

Time is winding down on our course, and it keeps popping up in our reading selections. Nietzsche, whose “eternal recurrence” thought experiment invites personal reflection on one’s own meaningful relation to past, present, and future, raises the subject this time, and Sartre (remember Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion and their excellent adventure?) chimes in with his claim that since “existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves.” Time is nothing, we are nothing, until we act and choose. But when we do, we create something we can’t run away from. Scary, and– as previously noted (“renunciation“)– not so happy. Recall, too, his distinctively French- intellectual disdain for the distinctively American “myth of happiness” and Americanism generally.  Robert Solomon says Sartre said he never had a real moment of despair in his life. Huh. It was all affected, then. Sounds like “bad faith,” doesn’t it? But “Jean-Paul Sartre is currently dead,” authentically an object without possibilities. So let him be.

We’ve noted the views of at least two Taylors, Richard and James, and of Philip Zimbardo. Is time even real? Well, aging feels real enough. When time passes slowly it feels oppressively real, and when it “flows” it feels unbearably light. “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” said Thoreau. Meaning?

Meaning, I suppose, that we experience time as a condition of meaningful, happy-making activity. So it’s as real as happiness, happiness is as real as time, and both are real-as-experienced. We need time to unfold our projects, construct our relationships, and enjoy our lives. When we succeed, we experience them and it together as a subjective unity that closes the loop on each episode of expectation. A closed loop is a moment in time– which may or may not correspond to a conventional moment as measured by our clocks and calendars– that represents fulfillment or (in Dewey‘s language of everyday aesthetic experience, and in Nietzsche’s of self-overcoming, in the clip below) consummation. Enough moments like that will make some of us describe ourselves as happy, whether or not Aristotle would approve.

For Dewey, btw, the thing about time is not that it’s not really  real, but that it’s not just yours and mine: it’s ours. It’s the stream humanity goes a-fishing in. We still have our consummations as individuals, but our largest meanings embrace the “continuous human community.” When we affirm our place in that pan-temporal community, our inescapably-subjective relation to time trades the worst vestiges of misanthropic narcissism for the more sympathetic angels of our nature: social solidarity and species identity. My time then is your time, and our kids’ time, and theirs, and… and aren’t we glad we had this time together?

Does it help, though, to live now and into the always-cresting now of what was the future just a moment ago, to  excise big chunks of the past? Nietzsche (among many others) said happiness requires living in the now. How forgetful must we be, to accomplish that? Must we aspire to the “blissful blindness” of childhood, the animal (“dog-like”) spontaneity of the Cynic, (IEP) or the aphasia of the amnesiac?

“Forgetting is essential to action” and for “the life of everything organic.” That seems right, we accumulate too much informational dross every hour of every day for our finite minds to absorb. We can be “healthful, strong, and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon.”

But then he gives us “eternal recurrence,” the “greatest weight.” The horizon, fixed decisively to the shores of this world, seems suddenly, paradoxically infinite and dizzying. And liberating? “Be calm.”


November 23, 2009

I’ve been using this little book, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece in my Intro courses for many years. This semester I’ve saved it for last, hoping to provide a bit more historical perspective than the same authors’ topically-arranged Big Questions achieved. I’ll be going back to the old approach next time. (I know where to find a much cheaper version of at least one “big question.”)

The  brooding thinker doesn’t really represent my idea of philosophy anyway. A little sitting-and-thinking is fine, but I prefer the perambulating, peripatetic spirit of motion and activity. The best ideas come while walking, said Nietzsche (who showed, in spite of himself, that the worst ones do, too).

Philosophy is something you do, not something you just ponder. I did enjoy the art history lessons.

I’m a big fan of the late Robert Solomon (his widow Kathleen Higgins, still at the University of Texas in Austin, published the latest edition of Big Questions just after his untimely death in a Swiss airport a couple of holiday seasons ago). He also wrote Spirituality for the Skeptic, which we’ll be reading in the “Atheism & Spirituality” course next semester. In that book, love of living is the simple essence of spirit– made poignant by our knowledge of the author’s own foreshortened fate, which he would remind us is inevitably our own. We must not take a moment of life for granted.

Solomon: “Whether or not there is a God to be thanked seems not the issue to me. It is the  importance and the significance of being thankful, to whomever or whatever, for life itself.” Thank who? Thank God, thank goodness, or thank pitchforks and pointed ears. But give thanks. Gratitude is a renewable resource, and then some. It’ll leave you feeling gratified.

He was a critic of overly-narrow, technical philosophy that, with “mind-numbing thinness,” fails to speak to ordinary human concerns. He was the sort of academic philosopher you might look for, if you were inclined to look for one,  in a popular film like Waking Life:

“it’s true”

November 22, 2009

I’m not a Darwinian fundamentalist– I don’t think evolution supplants religion– but I understand what motivates alleged Darwinian fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins (though he rebuts the charge): sheer frustration with the intemperance of religious fundamentalists.

I delivered my standard mutual tolerance pitch on this theme in class Friday, making concession after concession to religion. I agreed with William James that religion is a meaning-quest, and as such is among the most important things humans can do… even making full allowance for the residual ungrounded supernaturalism, and frequent absurdity, of the various creeds and dogmas of faith.

But are theistic fundamentalists mollified, do they temporize their hostility to evolutionary theory in the face of such concessions? No. They still spout creationist nonsense, they repeat the confused canard that evolution is “just a theory,” and in the process discover their cozy compatibility with brethren from other traditions. Evolution seems to be the great unifier of  Judeo-Christian and Islamic anti-intellectualism.

Yes, it’s a theory… like gravitation is a theory. And like gravitation,  it’s true if anything is. Jerry Coyne is not a strict fundamentalist, he does not advocate jihad against religion; but like the barmaid and Carl Sagan, he endorses elementary instruction in critical thinking as the best solution. Ours is a time, yet another time, when the fragile candle-flame of reason and respect for natural reality gutters under the assault of pseudoscience and superstition. Time, again, to exorcise our demons.

If you don’t want to listen to Coyne or Dawkins, try Liam Neeson.

Whole Earth

November 21, 2009

“Mr. [Stewart] Brand got his first look at the big picture one afternoon in 1966 while sitting on a roof in San Francisco [and consuming LSD]… He printed up buttons asking, ‘Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?'” NYTimes, 2.27.07

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold–brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.”  Archibald MacLeish

Rabbi Rami notes in his blog “Toto”: In the current issue of Kosmos (Fall/Winter 2009) Mark Gerzon offers a two-part exploration of global citizenship. Using the analogy of upgraded computer software, Mark identifies five iterations of citizenship:

Citizen 1.0— Worldview based on one’s self (egocentric).
Citizen 2.0— Worldview based on one’s group (ideocentric).
Citizen 3.0— Worldview based on one’s nation (sociocentric).
Citizen 4.0— Worldview based on multiple cultures (multicentric).
Citizen 5.0— Worldview based on the whole earth (geocentric).*

Rami rightly points out that this is not a new insight, but maybe its time is coming. He asks:

As more and more of us become Citizen 5.0 what will happen to Religion 2.0? As I become more geocentric, can I maintain Zionism? As I recognize the blending of many spiritual teachings in my own life can I maintain Judaism as my singular religious identity?

For me the answer is clearly “no.” The more global I become the less exclusively anything I become. The more global I become the more I find myself articulating what I believe to be true using metaphors drawn from all the world’s religions. The more I live with Citizen 5.0 the more I experience Religion 5.0 and refuse to be limited to any one faith. My loyalty is to truth, and no religion has a monopoly on that. I draw from art, literature, philosophy, science, music, mysticism, myth, etc. to create a rich 5.0 tapestry of reality reflecting what I experience as real. And I no longer care where it comes from.

It could come from a hydrated moon, maybe?

*Citizen 6.0— Worldview based on the whole cosmos (cosmopolitan).