Archive for July, 2013

Looking on the bright side

July 31, 2013

I don’t teach in summer, so it takes a good reason to get me out onto I-24 for the 50 minute commute from Nashville to Murfreesboro in July. Yesterday I had three.

First, an encouraging meeting with our Education Abroad staff. They’re as excited as we are, my colleague and me, about our proposed 3-week course on the British Roots of American Philosophy. I’m ready to pack. Almost. Just need to sign on a few more enthusiastic travelers first.

Program Description
Program Name:     “American Philosophy in Britain”
Program Site(s):   Oxford University, Oxford U.K. and environs
Term to be offered: Summer 2014 (2015?)
Anticipated dates of the Program:     July 2014 (2015?)
Approximate duration (in weeks): 3
Proposed Course Title and Description: (Academic Content, briefly describe the academic content of your course):      “American Philosophy: British Roots” – American philosophy in general, Classic American Philosophy more particularly, and Pragmatism precisely (especially in the writings and the person of philosopher/psychologist William James) was heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, John Locke’s, David Hume’s, and J.S. Mill’s empiricism, and F.C.S. Schiller’s pragmatic humanism. This course proposes to highlight their significance and contributions as the British “roots” of American thought, and also to explore some of the more salient “branches” of that thought amongst contemporaneous and subsequent philosophers in Britain including Oxford’s more prominent post-Shiller “enfant terrible” A.J. Ayer.
Additional rationale: I’m now completing the draft of a book I’m calling Philosophy Walks. It’s about the interplay of walking, landscape, and ideas. The landscape of Darwin’s, Locke’s, Hume’s, Mill’s, & Schiller’s Britain is the perfect backdrop for exploring pragmatism’s genealogy. The course will be based at Oxford, possibly at Schiller’s Corpus Christi College or Locke’s Christ Church, or at the Merton College home of James’s and Schiller’s Oxford bete noire F.H. Bradley. In addition to exploring the immediate environs of Oxford and Oxfordshire, we will make day-trip excursions by train to Darwin’s Down House in Kent, to Cambridge (home of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein), and possibly for an overnight to David Hume’s Edinburgh (also home of the famous Gifford Lectures and site of James’s 1901-1902 “Varieties of Religious Experience” lectures. Also possible, depending upon logistics and feasibility: trips to Anjou in France, where Hume wrote his Treatise of Human Nature, and to the site of John Locke’s exile in Holland. And back in Oxford we will attempt to connect with Professor Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading Darwinist.

 The good news is, you don’t have to be enrolled and seeking a degree from MTSU to join us. Don’t even have to be a student. So come on along!

Stopped by the department after our meeting. Oh, what they’re doing to my old classroom. But it’s going to be ok.

Then, recorded another fun session On the Record with Gina Logue. We talked happiness, mostly, and Gina asked about the Python wisdom of always looking on the bright side. She let me pitch the Study Abroad course too. It’ll air soon, stay tuned.

And finally, met my student at the library Starbucks to talk philosophy and his prospective career therein. A woman in line ahead of us couldn’t help overhearing, and declaring,  you must be philosophers. She then regaled us with her story of meeting a famous philosopher of science on a web-dating site. She doesn’t think things are going to work out between them, but apparently he talks like us.

First time I’ve ever closed a Starbucks, at 4 in the afternoon no less. But I think my student was reassured that his new major, and the philosophy in  his future, look so bright he’ll have to wear shades.

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Happy to see the light of day

July 30, 2013

Philosophers of happiness, no less than any of us, experience their own weal and woe variably and moodily.

There are moments and days of stoic gratitude when our respective Sisyphean rocks feel lighter and we think, this is good. This may be as good as it gets. William James was having such a day when he wrote:

Happiness, I have lately discovered, is no positive feeling, but a negative condition of freedom from a number of restrictive sensations of which our organism usually seems to be the seat. When they are wiped out, the clearness and cleanness of the contrast is happiness. Letters

I have more and more of those days myself, lately, when the small nagging annoyances and aches and pains of everyday are in temporary abeyance. I’m much more sympathetic to them than I used to be. “Negative?” Not at all. “Freedom!” I think that’s what some call “aging.” Or nothing left to lose.

There are other occasions when the dominant mood is more robust, strenuous, and euphoric. Sometimes even ecstatic. That’s the kind of day James must have been having, only weeks before he died in 1910, when he answered Henry Adams‘ dark ruminations on entropy and cosmic death.

Though the ultimate state of the universe may be its vital and psychical extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the penultimate state might be the millennium — in other words a state in which a… maximum of happy and virtuous consciousness would be the only result. In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe’s life might be, “I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer.” You don’t believe this and I don’t say I do . But I can find nothing in “Energetik” to conflict with its possibility. 

I’m likeliest to be in that mood during and just after my morning walk, when all is positive possibility.

And then there are the quieter, more reflective times, when the larger and longer meanings of life give happiness a depth and satisfaction it misses on those lower and higher days. That’s the feeling I get from “What Makes a Life Significant”:

The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place.

The reflective mood yokes happiness and meaning most effectively. It’s Sissela Bok’s starting place in Exploring Happiness, when she marvels at her mother’s decision to risk the pregnancy that became her life.

THE MIND REELS AT THE THOUGHT OF THE INFINITESIMAL chances that any one of us had of being born, able to relish even the slightest glimmer of happiness… Were it not for  my young mother’s newfangled ideas about happiness, I would never have seen the light of day.

In whatever mood, we can be happy to see the light of day.

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A peripatetic prophet

July 29, 2013

It’s 58 degrees, and (says the BBC) the Pope has apparently asked who he is to judge gay people. Are the end times at hand? I hope not, I’ve got travel plans and a Cause to carry.

Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (let’s just call him FCSS), I’ve confirmed, was both a prophet and a peripatetic. I want to take some students and a colleage and go track his steps. And his missteps. The author of the parody journal Mind! (with “I Cant’s Critique of Pure Rot”) made plenty of both.

FCSS (1864-1937) was a British pragmatist and humanist at Oxford (and later USC). He influenced and inspired William James (“I leave the ‘Cause’ in your hands…”), and fell into a deep unwarranted obscurity after his death. Before, really. He was a clever and too-eager polemicist and enfant terrible. He made James smile and cringe.

But his obscurity’s beginning to recede, thanks to recent scholarship by John Shook and Mark Porrovecchio and others. Porrovecchio says Schiller’s a “tonic” for our times. We need that!

I intend to do my part for the Schiller revival too, with a future Study Abroad course devoted to American philosophy’s British roots (and branches). Going for a meeting about that tomorrow.

Last night I came across a delightful account of the then-still-heralded Prophet, from 1917. Edwin Slosser tracked Schiller down “at the gate of Corpus Christi College,” dismounting his bicycle.

…he is alert and agile physically as he is mentally. He usually spends his summers mountain climbing in the Alps… Mr. Schiller wears the pointed beard that was the distinguishing mark of the radical of the nineties. He has a Shakespearean-shaped forehead, but wears un-Shakespearean glasses. He is as interesting to converse with as he is to read, which is more than you can say of many authors. He talks best while in motion, a real peripatetic philosopher.


Slosser continues, deliciously,

I wondered why he did not take his students out of the old gloomy lecture room and walk with them as he did with me, up and down the lawn between the trees and the ivy-clad walls of the college garden. Curious turf it was, close-cut and springy; I never felt anything like it under my feet… 

And that’s all the encouragement I need to take my students out on the springy turf of middle Tennessee, when we get going again in a few weeks. Nor can I wait to feel the grass of Corpus Christi.

Just a few forms to fill out, and a few more students to snare.

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More light, more light

July 27, 2013

Finally got over to see the Bruce Munro light show at Cheekwood last night. Luminous indeed.

If you squint just right, the “Field of Light” symbolizes “the good things in life.” Like light itself. As a wise wizard said, we just have to remember to turn it on.

Montaigne was a wise wizard too. “There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity…”

And Wallace Stegner. “The truest vision of life I know is that bird… that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark…”

And, whoever said it first, Carl Sagan. It’s better to light a candle than curse the night, and “far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”  

More light, more light. More “light“…

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Standing your ground, gazing at clouds

July 26, 2013

Home, one of my perennial themes and the subject of that impressive, inclusive portrait one week ago today, was also Pico Iyer‘s recent TED topic. I tried to share it yesterday but it gave Blogger and Twitter the hiccups. I’m holding my breath and trying again, because this world traveler’s thoughts about home are so congenial to a walker’s sensibility. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights but in looking with new eyes,” which then make the old sights new again.

Iyer’s cosmopolitanism hits, you could say, close to home. And home, you could also say, is the ground you stand without fear, threat, malice, or harm. “Movement is a fantastic privilege,” but coming home puts it all in perspective.

And because one good TED Talk leads to another, here’s an idle occupation you can enjoy on the road, with attentive care for your safety. But it’s really best at home, in the hammock or on the pool float. Look up!

“It’s such an aimless activity, you’re not going to change the world by lying on your back and gazing off at the sky are you? It’s a pointless activity. Which, is precisely why it’s so important.”

So much of what we do amounts to nothing. “Cloudspotting legitimizes doing nothing.” This “nothing” is a delight, and a reminder that a house is not a home. Some of us are more at home with our heads in the clouds.

Aristophanes thought he was mocking Socrates. He didn’t realize what he was missing.

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Happiness is a choice

July 25, 2013

Mill also said “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” 

I’m ambivalent about that. Of course the Stoic knows what he knows, the world spins on its own axis (not yours or mine), and the satisfaction of desire is often enough out of reach to make this sound like simple good sense. The Sisyphean laborer only compounds his injury with unrealistic desires. The prisoner only magnifies his captivity by pining for immediate release.

But where’s the joy in this conception of happiness-as-compromise? Why merely settle?

I prefer the position James starts from in “Moral Philosopher and Moral Life“:

The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all. Some desires, truly enough, are small desires; they are put forward by insignificant persons, and we customarily make light of the obligations which they bring.  But the fact that such personal demands as these impose small obligations does not keep the largest obligations from being personal demands.

In other words, don’t trim your desires until you have to. Begin with great expectations. Go out and conquer happiness. Realize too that one person’s small desire is someone else’s joy. “Hands off!”

But recognize that you’re not the only seeker out there, not the only castaway on the island. You must be prepared to compromise. Our happiness sometimes consists in the strategic limitation of some of your desires, and mine, in order that the greatest number and quality of them may eventually be met.

Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire. Shall a man drink and smoke, or keep his nerves in condition?‑-he cannot do both. Shall he follow his fancy for Amelia, or for Henrietta?‑-both cannot be the choice of his heart.

Well, that last may be the Age of Victoria speaking. (And it’s probably true.) But we do get James’s point, don’t we? Happiness is always a choice. But it’s also always a stimulant, not an anaesthetic.  It’s an expansion of the heart’s desires, or more precisely the hearts’…  not their constriction. We don’t have to settle.

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The meaning of happiness

July 24, 2013

Happiness and meaning belong together: we want our happiness to count for something, to have a point, to mean and (after we’re gone) have meant that our lives are worth living. And we want the meanings of our lives to make us happy.

That’s my hypothesis. It’s why I’m partial to J.S. Mill’s supplemental extension of Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness principle: the point is not for the greatest number of us merely to wallow happily, contentedly, and filthily in our respective sties, ingloriously thoughtless and complacent in dull porcine mediocrity.The point is to be lifted in our happiness, to become better human beings for it. It’s not to sink back in it, in our mudholes and on our couches and (ahem) our hammocks.

And it’s why the next rendition of my Philosophy of Happiness course, PHIL 101 as I call it (PHIL 3160 in the MTSU course catalogue), is devoted to the question of meaning. Should we settle for the lowest common denominator of our happiness, the path of least resistance, the quantifiably greatest hedonic calculation?

Anti-elitist democratism might argue that we should.  Pluralistic toleration and humane simplicity, not to mention simple opportunity, support Benthamism. Life is short, pleasure can be sporadic: get it while you can. “There is no why,” Kurt Vonnegut once said, we’re just all here “trapped in the amber of the moment.” We should just do our best to enjoy our captivity, and (he often added, to his great credit) be kind.

Yes, but… Kurt also spent a lifetime trying to work out the personal trauma of the insanity of war, the firebombing of Dresden, the repeated failure of human beings to learn from their errors and treat one another kindly. He spent a lifetime searching for, and to a greater extent than he probably realized, creating meaning for his happy readers.

And Kurt also said, meaningfully, “being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.” No reason why decency can’t be squared with happiness, is there?

Well, that’s some of what our course will be about. I considered adopting Lisa Bortolotti’s anthology Philosophy and Happiness (Palgrave ’09) as one of our texts, since Part I is all about “Happiness and the Meaningful Life.”

But they want $105 for it! One more sign, in the age of digital information, that expensive textbooks are doomed. Fortunately a proof version of Thaddeus Metz’s opening essay is here. I don’t like his conclusion that happiness and meaning “are distinct not only conceptually but also substantially,” but at Internet prices I’ll invite our class to discuss it. (Isn’t it just like a  certain sort of philosopher, though, to devote great energies to defending a counter-intuitive conclusion whose truth would leave us more confused and less satisfied with our lives than we began?)

Anyway, the best words on this subject are free, in the public domain, and in public libraries. Words like J.S. Mill’s…

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

 Looking forward to considering all sides of this question in class, in (yikes) just a few weeks. “Endless summer,” where art thou?

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When the volcano blows

July 23, 2013

Enjoy ourselves while we can sounds so simple, and so it should. Over-thinking everything, happiness included, is the philosopher’s biggest occupational hazard. Why not just let everyone discover what makes them smile, and get out of their way so they can do it? So long as we and they are doing no harm, what’s the problem?

People find all kinds of ways to complicate the pursuit of happiness, of course. Philosophers tend to get hung up on questions of meaning. We want to be meaningfully happy. Or sad. Or indifferent. We want there to be a point, an enduring purpose and resonance to our acts and our days.

Call it the Alvy Singer problem. I’ve been calling it that for a long time, in fact. Last night I discovered that Samuel Scheffler has too. He’s the latest Philosophy Bites interviewee, and it was surprising to hear him mention Alvy on the podcast right after I’d written of Woody’s young alter ego yesterday morning. Scheffler asks: If all sentient life were to end a few minutes after my death, how would that affect the meaning of what I’m doing now?

Young Alvy’s problem was less hypothetically urgent. Having become aware of our universe’s finitude, he now saw no point in doing anything. Especially homework. It didn’t matter to him that billions of years would elapse before the End. The sudden winding down of our ticking clock does seem to alter the scenario in important ways.

But either way, the solution proposed by Dr. Flicker, is to put annihilation and oblivion out of mind and get on with today. That was Bertrand Russell’s solution too.

Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. 

 They’re right, right? Get on with living and doing and making and being. Stop fretting and worrying and philosophizing. Try and  enjoy your life. Sound and satisfactory advice, for most of us most of the time.

But Scheffler makes a point about the long historical context of attending to the day at hand that’s not easily shrugged away. We can enjoy ourselves today because today is presumably not doomsday, nor will the final curtain fall tomorrow, or tomorrow. That day will eventually, inevitably come for us all, one by one and, in the long run, collectively.

But meantime, we can try to build happy lives whose meaning may endure and resonate. Or not. But the bare possibility of meaningful happiness counts for a lot. The withdrawal of that possibility would be devastating, for all except those who really do live entirely in the moment. The thought that our personal expiration date will coincide with the extinction of all life on Earth seems to suck the meaning right out of the marrow of existence.

Happy days set against a backdrop of an enduring species and planet make reassuring sense. This is the meaningful happiness of John Dewey’s “continuous human community.”

Dancing on the rim of the volcano just before it blows, or even millions or billions of years before it blows, seems (to continue speaking Dewey’s language) too precarious and unstable.

On the other hand… remember how Arthur and Ford prepared for Earth’s immanent demise? They headed for the pub, for a couple of last-minute rounds of “muscle relaxant.” Made the barkeep happy with a fat tip, too. Sounds like a plan.

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Meaningful distraction

July 22, 2013

Older Daughter’s trip to Coney Island yesterday put me in mind of Alvy Singer’s monologue at the beginning of “Annie Hall,” when he reminisced (admittedly in slight exaggeration) about his ancestral home under the coaster tracks.

Memory’s a tricky thing. That’s a euphemistic way of saying it’s often unreliable. But we also know that it is capable of storehousing the images, incidents, attitudes, and emotions that can make a life seem worth living. It fuels our nostalgia, which research shows to be therapeutic when taken in small doses. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.

Concerns about death, of course, are central to just about all of Woody Allen’s films. They’re also what the brilliant Maira Kalman tries to reconcile with a cultivated, unpretentious optimism. Maria Popova rightly keeps coming back to her.

The day contains many ups and downs. But the point is that you are alive. So you might as well do something that brings pleasure, joy, humour. Also, I walk a lot and listen to a lot of music. Always good things to do[Kalman @dawn]

That’s the answer to young Alvy’s protest that, given the universe’s inevitable expansion and ultimate doom, there’s no point in doing homework. For one thing, homework provides what Kalman calls “meaningful distraction.” What’s meaningful? “It’s love and work. What else could it be?” 

What else? How about memory? Kalman may have forgotten, she’s also reading Proust.

As Dr. Flicker told Alvy, and as Arlo knows too: we’ve got to enjoy ourselves while we can. Whatever else Mr. Ferlinghetti may have meant, that’s the true Coney Island of the Mind.

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Smile, we’re on candid camera

July 19, 2013

The day some of us have been waiting for is here: picture day! Between 4:27 and 4:42 pm this afternoon my time, here in Tennessee (that’s between 21:27 and 21:42 UTC), we’re getting our photo snapped. Astronomer Carolyn Porco wants us all to smile and wave at Saturn. This one’s for the yearbook.

The point is not to make anyone feel small, but to remind us all that we’re  in the same vulnerable, beautiful little lifeboat. Consider again that dot

Last time, the photographer caught us candidly. Picture turned out fine, but perhaps a little primping wouldn’t have hurt.

This time, if we give the moment a little forethought, maybe the lingering afterglow will lift our collective consciousness just enough to secure the planet’s continued congeniality for our form of life. It is still, after all, the only home we’ve ever known.

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