Archive for August, 2011

nothing at all

August 31, 2011

The posting on our new “CoPhilosophy” blog of brief bios and thoughts on the question of what philosophy is, and to what extent each of ours has been influenced by others, is going well. Most intriguing so far, under the subject heading “William’s Thoughts,” a post containing literally nothing at all. My posted comment in reply to William:

I’ll bet your favorite philosophy book is “Being & Nothingness”… your favorite philosophical question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But as one wit said to a colleague who posed the question: “If there was nothing you’d still complain.”

We’ll work on getting you some thoughts, and a public identity.

Reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s alleged empty exam, turned in to Professor James. “I’m sorry,” she supposedly wrote, “but today I do not feel like writing a philosophical essay.”  His legendary and I hope not apocryphal reply: “Dear Ms. Stein, I often feel that way myself.” Her grade? A

Sometimes I sits & thinks, & sometimes I just sits.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Next time before we get into groups,  I’ll answer your questions about the course and the syllabus… so please read all of it before class, and identify any sources of confusion. When we break into groups you’ll each select a leader (or your first leader, if you decide to rotate the job), discuss your posted responses and whatever anyone has to say about Listening is an Act of Love and the value of listening respectfully to one another. If you’ve not read the book, take a look at the StoryCorps website or the Google books version and find a story that speaks to you. Try to formulate a discussion question about it, and share it with your group-mates. Browse the podcasts by category. Don’t miss Nashvillian Hector Black‘s amazing account of his daughter’s murder, especially if you doubt the transformative power of listening.

Something else very cool you’ll find at the StoryCorps site: animations, like this one of legendary storyteller and listener Studs Terkel:

I’ll circulate from group to group, to help everybody get comfortable with this format.

Isn’t this fun so far?


Postscript. William wasn’t being ironic, self-deprecating, or modest after all. He just couldn’t figure out how to post his thoughts. Now he has. Guess he’s not a Sartrean after all.

Post-PS. NOTE TO STUDENTS: A student asks, of a class he says he’s going to have to miss, “Is there any way that I could get any missed notes from class online?” You can always check my posts here, and your classmates’ posts on “CoPhilosophy.”

Happiness and the Secret

August 30, 2011

Time again to get happy!

Last time I set out to teach Happiness 101 two years ago we were just trying to get the lay of the land, Happyland, reading books with titles like The How of Happiness (Sonja Lyubomirsky) and The Happiness Hypothesis (Jonathan Haidt). A couple of titles from then are back again this go-’round, Jennifer Hecht’s Happiness Myth and Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness.

Hecht doesn’t dispute the possibility of happiness, she just rejects the mythic notion of a royal road that will take us straight to Happyland. She thinks the side-roads and “blue highways” are more interesting.

Ricard has been called “the happiest man in the world.” That’d be hard to prove, but he’s one of those guys who just radiate serene well-being. Does he have a secret?

That’s the anchoring question for us this time: is there a secret of happiness, a secret of life? Or are we truly SOL, as I’m told they abbreviate disappointment in some of our armed forces, when we bank our happiness on big  revelations and answers to ultimate questions?

I think we are, but I also think we need not back ourselves into that particular corner. Let’s keep and tell no secrets, but by all means let’s share what we’ve found that seems to work for some of us some of the time.

So, after some “getting acquainted” preliminaries we’ll dive in to a discussion of one of the leading sources of Happy Secrets in America: the positive thinking movement.

What’s that, you ask? It’s everyone from Dale Carnegie to Rhonda Byrne. Some critics, like Barbara Ehrenreich, want to convict my favorite philosopher William James of aiding and abetting a way of thinking… more a way of believing, really (“…believe, receive”) that she thinks drags America down. I’m pretty sure she’s not understood him, and I’m not so sure there is or ever really was a univocal “movement” anyway.

But then, I’ve been called by colleagues (or one colleague) a Happy Pragmatist myself.  Positive thinking can get sappy and delusional, when its claims about our ability to transgress “limits” through the power of mindspirit go unchecked by critical reason. But it can also pick a person up from impotent despair. It’s way better than resignation. I’ll be holding a brief for a version of it, as we work our way through our first read: Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided.  I’ve set up an in-house course blog where we’ll have unrestrained converse with one another. Maybe some of that will spill over to this site too, we’ll see.

I’m sincerely happy with anticipation.

Hope springs eternal in the Fall

August 29, 2011

…and in January, for those of us anchored to the conventional university calendar. But “Opening Day” of the Fall semester is when time really begins, for me at least. Happy New Year! I usually try to kick it off with a good argument or an existential whale or an Ultimate Question. Not sure we’ll have time for those today. We’ll see.

It really is a new ballgame this time. We’ll be experimenting with a new course format in my classes, a more collaborative and pluralistic approach involving multiple small-group discussions and closer, more attentive listening. I’m calling it CoPhilosophy, after a statement by William James:

The pluralistic form takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of, being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of ‘co’-

We’re going to test that hypothesis as thoroughly as we can this semester. We’ll be swimming against the current, and maybe the zeitgeist. But we’ve seen where that’s been taking us, as a culture, and I don’t want to go there. We all need to talk so others will listen, and listen so others will talk. Who does that anymore? Hardly anyone in Washington, for sure.

But Dave Isay, who was on campus yesterday to discuss his StoryCorps project, has been getting people to do it. It inspired Listening is an Act of Love, the book I hope a few of my freshmen devoted at least a tiny portion of their summers to reading. “Every voice matters” is the StoryCorps motto. Every voice in the chorus is required to create the opera.  We are each “a syllable in human nature’s total message.”

I’m reminded of another James quote:

Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.

Our first assignment will be to identify exemplary instances of talking and listening, in that book and on those podcasts, that will inspire our own efforts.

Isay’s StoryCorps conversations, typically between family members, exude an atmosphere of humanity, civility, mutual respect, and (let’s not shy from his word) love. We CoPhilosophers aren’t family, exactly, except only in that largest and most meaningful sense in which we’re all descended from life’s common tree.  But I hope we’ll all come to embrace those atmospheric virtues that make constructive philosophizing possible in the first place.

In the proccess, I expect we’ll decimate the misguided statement of a young student of my recent acquaintance who claims that no one ever really learns from anyone else’s experience. What a sad and solipsistic approach to your education. I don’t buy it, and I’m not peddling it either.

So, let’s get out there and talk and listen, and model some humanity, civility, and respect. Maybe some of us will eventually “feel the love,” too.

POSTSCRIPT: Good first day, sections 16 & 17. Post your thoughts on “CoPhilosophy,” we’ll break into groups and start collaborating for real on Wednesday.

The new academic year is here. Huzzah!

August 25, 2011

Awoke after an academic  anxiety dream, probably triggered by the scene in Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God in which protagonist Cass Seltzer (the “atheist with a soul”) suddenly remembers that he’s scheduled to debate a Francis Collins-type theist the very next day. He’s made no preparations and given no thought at all to what he might say.

It’s not unlike the classic undergraduate nightmare, which still occasionally disrupts my slumbers, of forgetting you’re enrolled in a class. Suddenly it’s final exam day.

Or like the naked dream most people have, at one time or another. (Don’t they?)

What it means in the present instance, Professor Freud, is that this is my last summer morn. Tomorrow I head to the ‘boro for our big Full Faculty convocation and the academic season’s inauguaral address by President McPhee. Then a free lunch. (No such thing, of course.) Then a department faculty meeting. And then, the curtain rises on 2011-2012. Ready or not.

My first cogent thought this morning, once the dream haze cleared, was: “last day of freedom.”

My second was: “that’s no attitude to carry to school.”

My third: Kant was right about this one. Freedom is a law, regimen, or discipline we voluntarily impose upon ourselves and accept. We do that because we value the actual experience of effort and achievement. We want to know our lives, inside and out, as meaningfully structured to ends that meet our purposes and plot our days.

So if you’re a teacher, a student, an academic administrator, a university employee, a ‘boro citizen, you should be excited about tomorrow and the season ahead. You may not exactly look forward to sitting in the big hall with all your colleagues and listening to a mostly platitudinous ritual service, but the prospect of a new year should still feel just like freedom.

I’m awake now. That was just a summer’s dream. Borrowing Older Daughter’s new favorite all-purpose interjection, in celebration of the new season: huzzah!

Color me Raider Blue, free at last.

Long reading in an age of short attention

August 23, 2011

For all practical purposes summer’s over. My daily trek to Murfreesboro begins in a couple of days, and in the meantime I’m the uncompensated taxi driver for my overscheduled girls. Three 20″ trips to their school yesterday, plus extra-curriculars later. They have no sympathy, having long since laid their own summers to rest.

Must find a few more minutes to wrestle with my syllabi today. As usual, as Opening Day approaches I feel I’ve been too ambitious and must decide what to leave out, what not to require. It’s harder these days to put together a syllabus students will take seriously. We routinely hear that kids don’t like to read long assignments.

Or just don’t like to read what they’ve been required to read. “Back in my day,” as we old-timers say, professors didn’t lose any sleep over lengthy reading assignments. They’d have laughed if we complained. Guess I’m too nice. I’ll have to work on that.

But what’s “long,” anyway, in the Twitter Age? Attention span’s never been shorter. Reading entire essays, never mind books, is exceptional. “Long Reads” are treated as something exotic and rare.

So what do we teachers do, hoist the white flag and wax nostalgic for the reading equivalent of the cliched five-mile slog through rain and sleet that we had to endure while lowering present expectations and doling out dinky single-digit assignments?

No, I won’t do that. A long read in college is not to be thought of mainly as a test of endurance, it’s more  an opportunity to exercise your curiosity, expand your commitment, and develop your capacity for focus and self-discipline.

And the payoff couldn’t be bigger: a wider sensibility, a deeper reservoir of knowledge, greater self-confidence. Whatever else is on your college transcript, that’s really what you matriculate for.  It’s what we should be teaching, all across the curriculum.

Then again, time is short. Some of it needs to be left free for exploring. The solution, easy to say and harder to strike: a moderately ambitious schedule of required reading, with supplemental recommendations on the side, and constant encouragement to students to stretch themselves. Your reach should always exceed your grasp, etc. Dare to be extraordinary. Become who you are. Don’t sell yourself short.

The best teachers are motivators, not just content-providers. That’s the lesson I need to remember, as I nail down those syllabi.

Thumbs up for “The Help”

August 22, 2011

We saw “The Help” yesterday. Critics who’ve complained of a whitewash or a softening of the real brutality of racism in American history are off-base, I think. It’s an important film, as well as an entertaining one, and it was just about the only reality-based title to be seen on the marquee at “Hollywood 27.”

Despite misguided critical complaints, even from Ebert, there was no Hollywood ending. Ross Barnett and his ilk remained in charge in Jackson and throughout the south, racism would continue to rule in 1965 and beyond. It’s with us still, and accounts for more of our present political miasma than most want to admit.

But for those of us who remember living through those years, with or without a “real Mama” of a different complexion, there’s something remarkable about this story. Sitting with a multiracial audience in Nashville, Tennessee in 2011 in solidarity against the stupidity of Jim Crow, all cheering together for those strong women of color who helped raise generations of white America and retained their dignity through every humiliation, I couldn’t help feeling that we’ll get to the promised land.

Kathryn Stockett told the Times, “I appreciate anything that points out how absurd Americans can be.” Me too. But I also appreciate anything that points out how good they can be, eventually. I’m going to read the book.

Sing a simple song

August 20, 2011

Just before time to pick up the girls yesterday I was seized by one of those recurring grips of musical nostalgia that I seem more prey to, lately, since the grungy and irresistible Used Books & Music emporium showed up down the street.

So that’s where I found myself at a quarter to three, picking urgently through the CD bins. (One of these days I’ll take the ultimate music nostalgia plunge, for a guy of my seasoning, and come home with vinyl… even though I presently have nothing to spin it on.) My mission: fill the 5-disc changer in my Corolla with some of the oldies & goodies I used to play on the hi-fidelity 8-track in my Dodge Dart, c.1973.

Mission Accomplished! And in almost no time at all, with credit to spare. It’s there in my wallet, awaiting the next sentimental wave.

So there I was in McKay’s parking lot, transported by a handful of compact discs right back to that first driver’s seat in the waning days of Nixon, imagining myself about to tool up I-70 to UMSL with my freshly pressed Driver’s License, my state of the art Pioneer 8-track, and Sly & the Stones imploring me to “sing a simple song.”

Being sixteen had its moments. Happiness, if that’s what you want to call it, isn’t always such a complicated affair. The girls couldn’t understand my illegal smile in the hook-up line, straight from the Dart and in precisely the following sequence. But someday they will.

The Art of the Moral Essay

August 18, 2011

How’s this for an ambitious and appealing course, and an answer to critics who allege that academia in general and the humanities in particular have become the “playground” of self-indulgent specialists with nothing valuable to offer young people?

PHIL 352.02

Topic: The Art of the Moral Essay (T2)
T 6:00-9:00
Instructor: John Lachs

Philosophy has a great deal to offer to the community that supports it. One way to make philosophical thought accessible to a broad audience is by means of the moral essay, which consists of a set of reflections on a topic of significance in our shared human life. We will read two moral essays a week, starting with Bertrand Russell’s “Free Man’s Worship” and paying particular attention to the interplay in them of argument and rhetoric. Students will have an opportunity to suggest readings for the second half of the seminar.

Students will work on a moral essay of their own, aiming to complete a publishable piece of writing by semester’s end.

Readings include:

1) Bertrand Russell, “Free Man’s Worship”

(2) Richard Taylor, “The Meaning of Life”

(3) William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War”

(4) William Shaw, “Punishment and the Criminal Justice System”

(5) Jane English versus Christina Hoff Summers on duties to parents

(6) John Lachs, “Both Better Off and Better: Moral Progress Amid Continuing Carnage.”

(7) John Isbister, “Welfare and Social Justice”

(8) David Boaz, “A Drug-FreeAmerica–Or A FreeAmerica?”

Ambitious indeed. John Lachs is old school, when he says everyone will complete a publishable piece of writing he’s not talking about the Internet. Lachs is my old mentor at Vanderbilt, and this course is on tap for the Fall semester about to commence. I may have to swipe it someday myself.

A glance at other Vandy Fall courses suggests that Lachs has infected many of his colleagues, as he always has his students. In Phil 120, for instance, my old “Meaning of Life” course, Rebecca Tuvel wonders “what counts as a livable life”…  In Phil 217, Metaphysics, Jeff Tlumak asks “What and who am I? What sort of freedom do I enjoy? How should I live?” Rob Talisse in Phil 252, Political and Social Philosophy, is “focusing on questions concerning the value of political dissent.”

Can I go back to school?

But what’s the question?

August 17, 2011

This used to be on my office door, but I took it down because it has a tendency to disillusion and discourage philosophical neophytes. I don’t want new philosophy students to be discouraged, though some disillusion is necessary and good.

“There ain’t no answer.

There ain’t gonna be any answer. 

There never has been an answer.

There’s your answer.” 

Gertrude Stein

I actually read this as a positive and empowering statement, the opposite of nihilism. Think I may dust it off and hang it up again, for Happiness and the Secret of Life.

Internet curfew is a GOOD thing

August 16, 2011

I hate it when illness robs me of the dawn and of pre-dawn slumber, as it did yesterday. Making it up for it today, though, with school back in session and alarms about to go off all over the house. The peace and quiet of 5 a.m. is at a premium once again. It’s 64 with no sun in sight.

The enforced discipline of the “mechanical servitor” (Thoreau’s version of an alarm clock, or a rooster) and the school-bell is a good thing, despite the hard transition from summer it imposes. You can’t scoff at the clock at night without paying in the morn.

I’d already decided to commence the new academic year with a self-imposed 9 pm Internet curfew. Then I learned of GOOD’s latest challenge, to unplug at 8 pm. I’m up for it, and not just ’til September either. It feels like a sane response to the information inundation (and idea deficit) people like Neal Gabler have been protesting lately, and it’ll get me to the dawn post on time. Maybe even stimulate some ideas.