Archive for August, 2012

Philosophy, trivial and sublime

August 31, 2012

I feel like Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo, trying to move beyond our opening “What is Philosophy?” query in CoPhi. “One more thing…” Or two.

The one thing I awoke this morning wanting to be sure to have said to my philosophy neophytes, especially all those who told me during this first week that they don’t think they have a personal philosophy or even a rudimentary grasp of what it would mean to have one, is: Yes, you have. You just haven’t tried to say it yet. Or think it. So you’ve come to the right place, we’re all about throwing new seeds into the discussion in my classes.

We’re also all about acknowledging that not every seed will sprout. Not every word is helpful. Frequently we “solve” our problems in philosophy by moving beyond them and framing others.

That said, here are some helpful words from James’s first seminal lecture introducing his philosophy of Pragmatism – A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1906):

I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. And yet I confess to a certain tremor at the audacity of the enterprise which I am about to begin. For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos…

Believing in philosophy myself devoutly, and believing also that a kind of new dawn is breaking upon us philosophers…

Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ‘bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage; and repugnant as its manners, its doubting and challenging, its quibbling and dialectics, often are to common people, no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives…

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments…

So one thing we can anticipate on our CoPhi expedition is temperamental weather, the unpredictable play of personality and preference in setting and sharing our respective agendas of interest and advocacy. Won’t always be easy, but should often be illuminating. Some of us will be surprised to learn that we’d already begun the journey before we ever arrived at school. Others will echo Mr. Twain: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

And so a new dawn breaks upon us CoPhilosophers.

“One more word”… no, never mind. It’ll keep. Happy Labor Day.

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What philosophy really is

August 30, 2012

“It is a Weltanschauung, an intellectualized attitude towards life. ”

There. Clears it right up. Why couldn’t all those confused and laughing philosophers simply have said that?

Oh yeah: every time I’ve ever asked students about their weltanschauungs, they either giggled or recoiled or looked nonplussed… as though I’d mentioned something not suitable for discussion in polite company.

So let me clarify.

The quote is from William James, trying in the first chapter of his last published (posthumous) work (Some Problems of Philosophy, 1911) to answer the Philosophy Bites stumper question “What is philosophy?”

And here to clarify the Jamesian clarification is Herr Doktor Professor Freud, writing two decades later:

By Weltanschauung, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place. It is easy to see that the possession of such a Weltanschauung is one of the ideal wishes of mankind. When one believes in such a thing, one feels secure in life, one knows what one ought to strive after, and how one ought to organise one’s emotions and interests to the best purpose.

Oh. “No question is left open” by a good weltanschauung? In that case, I ain’t got one and I really don’t want one. The open questions are the ones that get me out of bed in the morning and give me something to talk about at work.

And James felt the same way. He was always ambivalent about philosophy, and his dying words were: “What has concluded, that we may conclude with regard to it?”

Nothing, is of course the implicitly correct reply. (BTW: Freud and James met once, in 1909, and reportedly had a fairly spirited conversation. But you know what was really on Freud’s mind, right?)

So philosophy is an open-ended, never-ending quest for clarity that gives you an “intellectual attitude” and feeds your curiosity. It is intellectually unifying, to that extent, but should never be stultifying. As James’s thorny friend Charley Peirce insisted: “Do not block the road of inquiry.”

One more thing: good philosophy is interesting.

 Philosophy, indeed, in one sense of the term is only a compendious name for the spirit in education which the word ‘college’ stands for in America. Things can be taught in dry dogmatic ways or in a philosophic way.

So there’s the gauntlet I’ll be picking up, as chief facilitator of three sections of CoPhilosophy at MTSU: don’t be dry, don’t kill curiosity or the cats who have it, don’t dogmatize. And don’t block the road.

Or as DNA pioneer James Watson put it: avoid boring people.

What is (green) philosophy?

August 29, 2012

It’s Day Two. Three, really, we had two Opening Days.  I’m still excited for the new semester, but I think I’ll take off my tie, get comfortable, settle in. Let the conversations begin!

For CoPhi we’re supposed to all read “What is Philosophy?” in Philosophy Bites, the book by Edmonds & Warburton that I waved around in class yesterday… the one amazon sent to me in less than 48 hours… the one our campus bookstore says doesn’t exist. (!!) I know they’re stressed from the move into their fancy new digs, in the new Student Center. But they screwed up.

Fortunately we have the Google version, and this podcast to fuel our reflections. And this one.  And all these too. There’s also an app for that.

So what is philosophy? Funny question, apparently. Several of the PB respondents respond by simply laughing, or changing the subject, or stonewalling. “Philosophy is an unusual subject in that its practitioners don’t agree what it’s about.” No kidding. That may be the understatement of the millennium.

But a few common themes do emerge: the quest for clarity, as noted in yesterday’s post. The Sellarsian urge to see how things hang together. (I met Sellars once, after he gave a talk at my undergrad alma mater. He wasn’t hanging together too well, he and Quine in the kitchen.) The stubborn refusal to accept convention and common sense without a critical challenge.

A few of the cats’ meows:

Richard Bradley: “Philosophy is 99 per cent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.”

Clare Carlisle: “Most simply put it’s about making sense of all this . . . We find ourselves in a world that we haven’t chosen. There are all sorts of possible ways of interpreting it and finding meaning in the world and in the lives that we live.”

Donna Dickenson: “Philosophy is what I was told as an undergraduate women couldn’t do—by an eminent philosopher who had best remain nameless. But for me it’s the gadfly image, the Socratic gadfly: refusing to accept any platitudes or accepted wisdom without examining it.”

Anthony Kenny: “Philosophy is thinking as clearly as possible about the most fundamental concepts that reach through all the disciplines.”

Will Kymlicka: “Well I’m in a philosophy department but I’m always wondering what exactly I have in common with many of my colleagues, because, to be frank, I don’t necessarily understand the work they do in the philosophy of language or metaphysics. ”

Ray Monk: “Philosophy is the attempt to understand ourselves and the world.”

A. W. Moore: “I’m hard pressed to say, but one thing that is certainly true is that ‘What is Philosophy?” is itself a striking philosophical question.”

Raymond Tallis: “My dream of philosophy is to make the universe we live in mind-portable…”

Michael Sandel: “Philosophy always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are. And better.”

*Thomas Pogge: “I think wisdom is understanding what really matters in the world. In my view what really matters is the enormous injustice that’s being perpetrated on the poor in this world.

Jeff McMahan: “Can I just laugh? I have no idea what philosophy is.”

Bottom line seems to be: philosophy is whatever philosophers think they’re doing, but don’t try telling them what to do. That would be like herding cats.

And it would be just like yesterday’s second (already!) departmental staff meeting. We were trying to address the Tennessee Board of Regents’ edict that we (like other academic departments) develop a common “instrument” of student assessment that would work for all of our courses. So we were trying to answer the question: What is it that you’re all trying to do, in all your classes? It quickly became a “depressing” exercise. My Peircean colleague, not surprisingly, was most frustrated at our imprecision. After a while it just became comical. We couldn’t even agree that we’d like our students all to know of Plato’s Myth of the Cave, let alone draw up a formal document committing us to a long and precise list of “learning outcomes.”

After an hour I had to go, saved by 8th grade Parents’ Night back in Nashville. But I’m sure we’ll revisit this wonderful unfinished business next Tuesday. Can’t wait. Who knows, maybe in the process we’ll actually figure out what in the hell philosophy is!

Actually I think many of the PB voices speak part of the truth, and Thomas Pogge’s concern* for social injustice gives us a good segue.

Later this afternoon, it’s back to the ’70s in EEA. We begin with Earth Day.

Earth Day 1970 – “Earth Days” documentary film, trailerGreening of America quotesebook (recommended); Ernest Callenbach, Epistle to the Ecotopians; Gus Speth, “America the Possible” Manifesto

I’ll bring in my ratty old copy of Greening of America and let my students decide if what I told Gina Logue on the radio about it, that it doesn’t seem quite so hippy-dippy as it did to some back in its own early Green day, is right.

And we’ll consider the late Ernest Callenbach‘s last words to America. Was he deluded about the real possibility of ecotopia, if reality continues its present trajectory?

“But of course human society, like ecological webs, is a complex dance of mutual support and restraint, and if we are lucky it operates by laws openly arrived at and approved by the populace.

If the teetering structure of corporate domination, with its monetary control of Congress and our other institutions, should collapse of its own greed, and the government be unable to rescue it, we will have to reorganize a government that suits the people. We will have to know how to organize groups, how to compromise with other groups, how to argue in public for our positions.”

I read Callenbach’s prequel to Ecotopia back in June:

It’s satisfying in the same way that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century socialist-utopian classic Looking Backward was: for the briefest tantalizing moment it allows readers like me to believe we could get there from here, and may even  constructively motivate some of us to positive action. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” It’s a nice tune to hum on a summer’s day, at least.

How realistic is it to suppose that such a world might actually be achieved? Probably not very, in the foreseeable future. But it’s still a profoundly pleasing revery, and it’s important to visualize powerful practical changes that are well within our ability to achieve if we want it enough: dedicated bike-lanes, open-source solar & wind (etc.) technology to get people off the grid in large numbers, a less manically-driven consumer culture, and many other possibilities worth working for.

Sometimes literary merit is less important than catalysis: chemical transformation plays a crucial role in Callenbach’s story, as his 18-year old scientific whiz Lou Swift figures out how to make an efficient DIY solar cell. A metamorphosis of mind and perception is precisely what it’s going to take, to push us toward Ecotopia… or at least away from the eco-political dystopia this book was so prescient about in 1981.

Clarify, clarify

August 28, 2012

Every Opening Day every semester,  it seems, I follow my colleague Mary into James Union Building Room 304 and find this on the board:

That’s Charles Sanders Peirce, the “pragmaticist” (“ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers”). In case you find either Mary or CSP (or both) difficult to decipher, here’s what he said… followed by what I think of what he said:

Philosophy is that branch of positive science (i.e., an investigating theoretical science which inquires what is the fact, in contradistinction to pure mathematics which merely seeks to know what follows from certain hypotheses) which makes no observations but contents itself with so much of experience as pours in upon every man during every hour of his waking life.  CSP

I think Charles & Mary are on the right track, to call attention to everyday experience as the raw material of philosophy. Quotidian, commonplace, ordinary experiences and exceptional, rare, out-of-the-ordinary experiences happen to people. What has existence must have its reflective moment.

But, must philosophy aspire to the status of a science? I say no. (Think of Emerson, or for that matter Emily Dickinson.) This may just be a semantic hairsplitting, depending on how much of the vast range of possible-plus-actual experience the “scientific philosopher” is prepared to reflect on, and how much she is prepared to jettison in the name of positivity.

My view: there are many diverse and legitimate forms of philosophical reflection. Some look less like science than like poetry. They all have their place.

And maybe Peirce thought so too. He definitely had his poetic/metaphysical flights: agapism, cosmic love, firstness and secondness and thirdness, his metaphorical likening of philosophy to an impassioned marriage (“The genuis of a man’s logical method should be loved and reverenced as his bride”-Fixation of Belief 1877).

“It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauung but is a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear.” As James said: philosophy and metaphysics are just an “unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly.”

The consensus here is kind of Thoreauvian, isn’t it? “Simplify, simplify.” And how do you do that, in our discipline? Clarify, clarify. Science can help, and so can the poet.

Day 1!

August 27, 2012

Opening Day is here: Happy New Year!

First day of class means a fresh start, a blank slate, a chance to sew “fresh seed” into our discussions. We’re like birds fluttering into a lighted hall to roost briefly before flying back out into the darkness.

We’re all whales wondering what’s happening as we whoosh towards that large unnamed expanse below.

But this is crucial: we’re birds of a feather, a plurality of plummeting whales, a surfeit of seed-sewers. We don’t have to wonder wordily in solitude, we can talk about our thoughts and experiences and the transient objects of our world.

We won’t always see eye-to-eye in philosophy class, but our arguments won’t just be exercises in mutual contradiction either. Though of course they can be.

In any event, it should all be eye-opening. “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones…”

Ready, set…

Oh, wait. Those remarks are tailored to the Intro/CoPhilosophy course. I think they can readily be adapted to Environmental Ethics and Activism too, since collaboration very often does lead to ethically-rooted action in pursuit of shared goals like, say, sustainable ecosystems. I’ll talk about that a bit on the radio this afternoon.

Here’s where we begin in EEA:

Go!

True Blue

August 25, 2012

Two faculty meetings in one day: that’s sure to be the most fun I’ll have all year!

The first was our annual gathering of the entire university faculty, when new hires are introduced, old faculty are “reco’nized” (our leader is one of those who drops his “g”s) and awarded, and we all get a pep talk. They’re pushing us to be “True Blue,” we Blue Raiders of Murfreesboro. But that’s not a marketing slogan, “they” insist, it’s an affirmation of our commitment to being “student-centered”… and that means “graduate ’em!” We got out of Tucker well before noon this year, and on to the only free lunch we can expect. That was good for my morale.

Then, the first departmental staff meeting of many… despite my motion to meet with slightly less frequency. Seems to me we’re no more decisive in our weekly sessions than we ever were, even back when meetings tended to be impromptu hall-collarings. But I’m not The Decider.

I shouldn’t complain, I’m no longer a Senator and my other committee responsibilities are perfectly intermittent. But the meetings I really signed on for are the ones beginning Monday, the ones where I’m the oldest guy in the room without a close second.

I usually begin, once we’re past preliminaries about office hours and exam dates et al, by noting the summer reading assignment that most haven’t completed. Like many schools now, we seek to “provide a unifying experience” and “encourage intellectual interaction among students” (ahem) by designating a book all (or at least all freshpersons) are encouraged to have read by Opening Day.

Faculty are also encouraged to read and incorporate the summer selection into early lesson plans. In the past I’ve enjoyed doing that, with philosophically-suggestive titles like Listening Is An Act of Love (the StoryCorps book) and Three Cups of Tea (before Greg Mortenson became infamous).

But this time I’m kinda stumped. A Peal in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean just doesn’t resonate with me. I suppose students are expected to identify with the metaphor of being tossed about by stormy weather, far from shore. I just can’t get past the puzzle: why would any sane person try to row the ocean, in the 21st century? “Just because it’s there” does not strike me as an intelligent answer.

But I’ll ask the kids. They know more than we tend to give them credit for.

To market, to market

August 24, 2012

Mitt unveiled his energy plan yesterday, with not a word about climate. Let the genius of the market sort oil from wind and sun, he said. Meanwhile, his policy seems simply to be drill baby drill. Squeeze out every last drop and fume of fossil fuel, as quickly as possible, so we can be “energy independent.”

Michael Sandel diagnosed the recent history of this mindset accurately in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:

The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.

And Bill McKibben doesn’t pussyfoot about the standard-bearer’s loose standards. “He is to atmospheric science what Todd Akin is to obstetrics.”

But enough of that non-reality based community, it’s time at last to head my fossil fuel burner down the road to school. In our only annual meeting of the whole, the entire faculty (minus a few rogue malcontents and boycotters) will gather again in Tucker Auditorium this morning to launch the academic year and open the marketplace of ideas.  I can’t wait. Caveat emptor.

Growing ideas

August 23, 2012

It’s good to recall, on semester’s eve, what we collegians are supposed to be up to: discovery, creativity, new ideas and the novel application of good old ones. So it was nice to stumble upon a symbol of that, while strolling Vanderbilt’s campus on their first day of class.

That’s an alleged descendant of Sir Isaac’s own tree of knowledge, planted in front of Vandy’s library in honor of Murfreesboro’s retired Congressman Gordon. He was a good friend of science and technology. There are few enough of those, in Washington, from Tennessee. He deserved at least a clipping.

So the kids are here now, with the class of ’16 all moved in and ready for a new idea.

And so I’m reminded of Fred Rogers’ good question: “Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind?” I’m trying. I’ll be trying again this semester, in collaboration with a hundred or so young apple-polishers at our school. We’ll see how close we can land to Sir Isaac’s tree. It really is good to be curious about many things.

Circles rippling outward

August 22, 2012

Another reason to read, write, & walk: to expand the circles of our imaginative attachment to the world. “The eye is the first circle,” observed Emerson. “The horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end.” 

Emerson understands education as a process of enlargement, in which we move from the center of our being, off into progressively more expansive ways of life… such rippling outward happens every day, too, as when a child leaves her family and goes out into the painful, promising world of school. Then the child’s circle of knowing has to expand to meet the new circumstances, or she’ll suffer for it. Mark Edmundson

Spent most of the morning yesterday discussing the “rippling outward” Older Daughter will soon commence, as she and we go deeper into the college selection process. The good news, our counselor advised, is that there are so many good schools out there. Her “transition” promises to be an exciting growth opportunity, no matter who she chooses or who chooses her.

Same goes for the commencement of a brand-new school year for me. Convocation is on Friday, followed by the first departmental staff meeting. (The growth opportunity there, if anyone asks me, lies in shrinkage: less is more.)

And then, classes begin anew. We’ve again come full circle.

Round and round we go. Maybe this is the circuit when we’ll really know our place better at the end, which of course is always also the next beginning. Walk on.

Against the grain

August 21, 2012

One good Birkerts quote leads to another. Here he describes how useful and enlightening it can be to reverse a familiar walk. Turn around. Go the other way. See how things look from the other perspective.

…going against the grain of my usual track, seeing every single thing from the other side, was suddenly welcome… the waft of that elusive something added to the usual air. Habit and repetition. It’s not as if I don’t know this other walk intimately too– not as if I haven’t taken it  hundreds of times over what are now becoming these years of walking. How is it I haven’t written more on this topic? It’s been a big part of the day’s business for years. I don’t remember when I started.The Other Walk

I started in college. I’m still circling, still trying to enclose something amorphous but important. Or maybe it’s just become important to me that I keep circling, to occupy myself with something rather than nothing. I like to think of myself as sleuthing a mystery, following a trail to some unforeseen revelation. Or to nothing at all. But I’ll keep tracking ’til I can’t, and like Sven I’ll turn around when the trail goes cold.

It’s nice to know I’m not the only one out there. But Sven’s in Minnesota, I think. We probably won’t cross paths, except in words. Good reason to read, indeed.