Archive for October, 2013

Get Happy

October 31, 2013

Get happy?! Easy for you to say, Red Sox Nation. But I really am happy for you. You paid your dues, waited 95 years to clinch a championship at home. Your biggest fan who happened also to be a Yale scholar and MLB commissioner said it best: the game is designed to break your heart

And so it’s a comforting metaphor, offering the reminder that hearts broken over far more serious matters than a mere game may also mend. I don’t need to believe with Mr. Giamatti that anything lasts forever, I just need to look forward to the green fields of another Spring Training. There will be new growth in Spring. Up again, old heart. Get happy!

We have a little exam in HAP 101 today, followed by an introduction to the author of our next text. Here’s an oldie from four years ago. I don’t think there’s anything I want to retract. Just note, this time we’re following Owen (Happy) Flanagan, not Eric (Grump) Wilson. (Look who gave Wilson a blurb endorsement. Scary!)

But I do want to add: Happy Halloween! And Boo!! 

I hope everyone understood, I wasn’t joking: extra credit for good costumes (zombies, serial killers, bearded Boston ballplayers,…) and candy for teacher.

hecht_bw-thumbJennifer Michael Hecht‘s The Happiness Myth “reads like your favorite college teacher on caffeine…” (Hecht at Hampshire College… interviewed…)

My favorite college teachers taught that way too. I’m on caffeine, but only occasionally rise to their electric level of energy and excitement. (You can take the boy out of the midwest, etc.)

But I have to agree about Hecht, totally. She’s smart and funny and thorough and fair, and a very good poet to boot. Her Doubt: A History is, as the late Howard Zinn said, a “romp”  And so is this one.

This book shows you how past myths functioned, and likewise how our myths of today function, and thus lets you out of the trap of thinking you have to pay heed to any of them. This process of examining myths is also good for sharpening our ability to see truths other than our own.

She’s the perfect act to follow Eric Wilson, giving a hearty Bronx cheer to the notion that sad people are deeper or more in touch with their mortality and the inherent tragedy of self-consciousness. I’ve sported one of her countless aphoristic gems as my email signature for several months. Time for a change, I guess, but I’ve really grown attached to it:

Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center.

I found those lines not long after losing Mom and Dad. They were the very words I needed to hear then, and they’ve become a mantra. The “lovely center of life,” so easy to misplace, so central to the hunt for meaning and purpose. Carpe vitam, seize the life.

The myth in question is the “mental corset” of supposing that the prejudices of our particular historical moment regarding a raft of things including our bodies, what we put into them, the consumption of pop culture, how we comport ourselves in public and with other persons, our sexuality, etc. etc., are conclusive. “This book seeks to prove that the basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense.” There have been, will be, and are other ways of seeing the world and inserting yourself successfully into it. Brian Cohen said it best: “You don’t have to follow me,” or them, or it. “You don’t have to follow anyone. You’re all individuals.” Yes you are.

But not really. We’re enmeshed in relationships, another mine-field of modern prejudice. Hecht echoes G.B. Shaw’s reminder that our significant relationships span generations. Pace Shakespeare, “Life is no brief candle [but] a splendid torch… I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” But in case this sounds treacly, she quickly temporizes the sentiment. “Neither Shakespeare nor Shaw must have been to High School or a faculty meeting.”

Hecht has  good breaking stuff, as we say in baseball. She throws curve-balls. “The idea that drugs create fake happiness is a prejudice… A good day includes more playing than would add up to a happy life… Insight and wisdom can be useless against a dark mood… We live in little cognitive comas… We today are ridiculously goal-oriented… As lame as the game [of modern life] is, it is also a majestic continuation of human culture and we are lucky to be part of it…”

Last I heard, Hecht is currently engaged in writing a new book about Bertrand Russell, who– surprising those who know him asbertrand-russell a serial philanderer and early “free love” enthusiast– said parenting had been his greatest joy. “The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.’

Hecht cites William James on “the pop culture of 1902,” the so-called mind-cure movement that was not so different from our own Secret-smitten New Age. (Secret review) I think we’ll be hearing from Kristen about that today.
A propos of the Holocaust Conference getting under way in our building today, Hecht notices: “survivors of an almost fatal experience are understood to be happier than other people,” experiencing “posttraumatic bliss.” (’09 Conference schedule)

pigFinally, Hecht has standards. Reminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” she comments: “This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-– can end in a flash, without warning.

The Wisdom section concludes with a lesson we’ll want to master in “Atheism and Spirituality”:
“Secular happiness requires the same kind of meditative work that religion requires.” Or as Richard Starkey once said: You know, it don’t come easy

Let us think on these things…

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Kant, Bentham, Burke, PC

October 30, 2013

In CoPhi, after our little exam, we’ll talk Immanuel Kant (and Adrian Moore on Kant’s metaphysics), Jeremy Bentham, Richard Bourke on ancestral conservative Edmund Burke, and Carlin Romano on (among other things) political correctness.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*

No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But  that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Brucesand my old Kant professor from grad school whose Brooklynese made his “how I met my wife” story downright vulgar. 

Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s  later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive, eventually, as he was un-flashy.

“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance with Rousseau and  Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.

“It’s as if we have innate spectacles through which we look at reality,” and knowledge is what we get from “reflecting on the nature of our own spectacles.” The spectacles give us categorical knowledge of space and time, causality, and all the other things Hume called mere habituation and custom, or constant conjunctions. “Science is concerned with how things appear to us through the spectacles,” continues Adrian Moore, and the result (nicely summarized by Nigel) is supposed to be the protection of the possibility of God, free will, the moral law, etc., “even though we can’t be absolutely sure about these things.”

But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.

Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to reason and think.

What I love most about my teaching job is that it keeps teaching me new things about our subjects. Utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham is a good example.

It should come as no surprise that the philosopher who had his body preserved and housed for public display in University College London had other charms and quirks, but I learned of them only recently. The first volume of Parekh’s Critical Assessments reports that (like Kant and Rousseau) Bentham also was a walker and an eccentric, an understatedly “amusing” man.

Bentham was an extremely amusing man, and in many respects rather boyish. Most of his life he retained an instinctive horror of being left alone… He had a large black tom cat of an ‘uncommonly serious temperament’ which he nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ and ‘The Reverend Doctor Langborn’… He had amusing names for his daily activities and favourite objects. His favourite walking stick was called Dapple, after Sancho Panza’s mule, and his ‘sacred tea-pot’ was called Dick. His daily routine included ‘antejentacular circumgyration’ or a walk before breakfast, an ‘anteprandial circumgyration’ before dinner, and an ‘ignominious expulsion’ at midnight accompanied by the ‘putter-to-bed’, the ‘asportation of the candle’ and the ‘transportation of the window.’

So yes, he was weird. But also “basically a warm, generous, and kind” man. He wanted to reform the misery-inducing industrial culture of his time and place, and to improve the basic quality of life of his fellow human beings.

Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own…

Sorry, Mr. Mill, that’s just not what I’d call a “pig philosophy.” It’s humane and compassionate, and it deserves a hearing too.

And following up on Rousseau and Kant and the mystery of what it was about the former’s Emile that kept the latter off the streets– “Everybody who does Education has to read Emile cover-to-cover,” says this jet-lagged Yale lecturer– Rousseau’s Dog is instructive:

According to one anecdote, the fastidious Immanuel Kant, whose daily routine was so rigid and undeviating that people set their watches by him, became so absorbed in Émile that he bewildered his neighbors by forgetting to take his usual post-lunch constitutional… Rousseau understood, he thought, the paradox of autonomy—that freedom meant conformity to a rule. As he was writing his own masterpiece, the Critique of Pure Reason, he had a single portrait in his house—of Jean- Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s Dog

So while it was Hume whom he credited with waking him from his “dogmatic slumber,” it was the somber Swiss who really inspired his work and set his Copernican Revolution spinning.

But I still wonder what the dog thought. [Chains, laws, stars, push-pin & poetry]
Another thought on American brows from Carlin Romano, via UCal-Berkeley historian Lawrence Levine: we should not allow dubiously-absolute scales of value, with their “tired old binary symbols and metaphors” (like highbrow and lowbrow), to prevent us from philosophizing together. Let a hundred conversations bloom!

“We should look back to the critic Gilbert Seldes for the principles of the democratized, brow-removed culture we’ve become–at least outside of philosophy… Only in philosophy have the high/low binaries continued to rule, with professors typically belittling popular thinking…” 

Not guilty. I’m definitely not one of those hostile turf-guarding epistemological alpha male academics. I’m Open Court‘s biggest fan.

The PC debate of recent years was kinda silly, and widely misunderstood. Of course we should try to be “correct,” not because the keepers of culture will slap us for violating their proprieties but because correct, properly understood, means right. Or at least, honest.

Common sense is the ultimate correction here. “Not a common sense in which everyone [thinks] the same” (etc.) but one with no bulldozing. Here’s a wise and timely tweet from HDT, to the point:

“Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.”  


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Easy as pie

October 29, 2013

We’ve come to the end of Flanagan’s Bodhisattva’s Brain, the postscript he calls “Cosmopolitanism and Comparative Philosophy.”  He’d like to wrap it all up with a quod erat demonstrandum, ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι, a Q.E.D., but admits “philosophy is not like that.”

He’s not that kind of epistemologist, the kind I’ve been sniping at for their dessicating and pedantifying style of presentation. I forgive them their baldness of head (being personally credentialed in that area myself), and find their baldness of heart generally overstated.

The point, though: Philosophy is not mathematics, the Big Questions are not amenable to definitive and conclusive logical proof. The meaning of life cannot be demonstrated in that way.

But it can be demonstrated in countless other ways, in all the ways humans continually find to make life worth living. There’s much to be said for Buddhist ways, especially the ways of compassion and kindness and the amelioration of suffering. The way of “resignation” is less appealing, to me, but maybe I’ve tended to overemphasize it. A resigned Buddhist is probably happier than most epistemologists. I hope so. May even be happier than most Pragmatists. I hope not.

Buddhist compassion + kindness + resignation invites serious consideration of the relative merits of Happiness/(supply your preferred superscript) and meaning. I’d rather have both, but if you had to choose… what would you? Socrates dissatisfied, Buddha satisfied, Bodhisattva busily engaged in helping others…?

There’s no demonstrably right answer here, ours will vary. This is good. Isn’t it?

Still, wisdom, virtue, and happiness do attach to lives well lived. What’s the nature of the attachment? For one thing, it’s contingent and variable. “There are ignorant, unreflective souls who are good and happy.” But there are also relatively wise and happy but compassionless Ubermenschen. There are Nietzscheans whose compassion for horses exceeds their human sympathies, whose antipathies for their fellow humans are boundless. Bad things happen to good people, good to bad. Living is risk. Uncertainty accompanies all our days.

But looking on the bright side, there are still lots of ways to flourish. There may be “several right answers” (including many still untried) to how to live. But we probably can’t infer them just by inspecting brains. Flourishing isn’t just in the head, though presumably it is in the natural world. Naturalists like Flanagan think so. Wherever it is, it’s hard to measure precisely or univocally. “There is no one state of happiness (well-being, positive mood) that all contenders seek.”

Buddhism appeals to some naturalists because it accepts our impermanent selfless empty compassionate relatedness. It repels as well, with immaterial spirits, rebirth, karma, insufficiently-explicit concern with Rawlsian justice. Western Buddhists (like western naturalists or western whatevers) can be narcissistic and “not very nice” (the common denominator might account for that).

“If I were a Buddhist I would be troubled by not understanding how Buddhist ethics follows from Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology.” Maybe. Or maybe you’d just be preoccupied with the sound of one hand clapping, with the thought that how things follow from other things is a western philosophical hang-up. You’d not have solved the problem but might have dissolved your own troubled concern.

So, here “at the intersection of many traditions” we can just enjoy our hybridity. That’s what I used to call cherry-picking, which you’ve got to do if you want to bake a cherry pie. The universe will be provided.

That, of course, is part of an answer to how to live: assemble your ingredients, combine, heat, cook, cool, eat, enjoy. Do something constructive with the resultant boost in your personal energy budget.  Share (the pie, the recipe, and the convivial communion). Repeat.

Don’t get stuck with the same old recipe every time. Try the cherry. Even try the rhubarb. Imagine what it would be like to like it. Be happy.

And be “philosophical”: remember, the end of the World Series is not the end of the world. It’s only a game.

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Hume, Smith, Rousseau, Durant, & Brows in America

October 28, 2013

TPA was fun, notwithstanding my noted reservations as to the keynoter’s and some of the presenters’ epistemologico-centric style of presentation. I’m reminded of what James said about the “baldheaded and baldhearted” young scholars of erkentnisstheorie in his day, and their “dessicating and pedantifying” ways. 

For the record, again: some of my best friends are erkentnisstheorists (we call them epistemologists), a few are bald through no fault of their own, and almost none are quite heartless.

The style and substance (no pun intended) of my session on AA & WJ, though, couldn’t have been finer. And the impromptu afternoon Mellow Mushroom session with my old friend unexpectedly up from Alabama was, content aside, a pleasant surprise. Not exactly Happy Hour, but the stout was good. And he could definitely use a dose or two of HAP 101. Needs to get his bicycle repaired too.

Older Daughter’s birthday yesterday was her first away from home, and our first skyped chorus of Happy Birthday. I’ll bet her roommate loved that wake-up call.

Later she called from Goodwill (?) to offer me a bargain on a Cardinal bobblehead. Was it an omen? Another Series game ends weirdly, and it’s all tied up at 2 apiece. I just want it to go 7 games, then (win or lose) it can break my heart again. Like Bart Giammatti said it must. Nothing is forever. 

Am I pining for Spring Training already? Really?

What would this guy say?

Or this guyHe’d say to enjoy what you’re doing when you’re doing it, stop pining, remember it’s “quite within our power to regard our doings as so many ends,” etc. Relax and enjoy. As they like to sing up at Fenway, “don’t worry ’bout a thing…”

Who’s worried?

In CoPhi today:  David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (LH), Millican on Hume, Phillipson on Hume’s pal Adam Smith,  Melissa Lane on Rousseau, (PB), and Carlin Romano on “brows” high, middle, and low. 

Also note: not assigned by highly recommended, Alison Gopnik’s recent PB discussion of the Hume-Buddhist connection, and Vandy prof Bob Talisse on why & how to argue constructively.

David Hume (follow his little finger) agreed with Diderot that good and honest people don’t need threats to make them so, they just need to be well nurtured and postively reinforced in the customs and habits of a good and honest society. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place… JMH

Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. [Hume at 300… in 3 minutes… Belief in miracles subverts understanding]

On the question of Design, intelligent or otherwise, Hume would definitely join in  the February celebration of Darwin Day. Scientific thinking is a natural human instinct, for him, for “clever animals” like ourselves, providing “the only basis we have for learning from experience.” (Millican)

Open your eyes,” Richard Dawkins likes to say. They really are an incredible evolutionary design. Not “perfect” or previsioned, but naturally astounding.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an emotional thinker with a romantically-inflated opinion of human nature and the “noble savages” who would have embodied it in a hypothetical state of nature.

What’s most interesting to me about Rousseau is that his Emile so arrested the attention of Immanuel Kant that he allowed it to disrupt his daily walking routine “for a few days.” Nothing short of seriously-incapacitating illness would do that to me. Apparently Kant was typically the same way, except for just that once.

Kant could get very upset if well-meaning acquaintances disturbed his routines. Accepting on one occasion an invitation to an outing into the country, Kant got very nervous when he realised that he would be home later than his usual bedtime, and when he was finally delivered to his doorstep just a few minutes after ten, he was shaken with worry and disgruntlement, making it at once one of his principles never to go on such a tour again.

So what’s in Emile that could so dis-comport a creature of such deeply ingrained habit? A generally-favorable evaluation of human nature, and a prescription for education reflective of that evaluation. Kant thought highly enough of Rousseau’s point of view to hold us all to a high standard of reasoned conduct. We should always treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means to our own ends. We have a duty to regard one another with mutual respect.

The character of Emile begins learning important moral lessons from his infancy, through childhood, and into early adulthood. His education relies on the tutor’s constant supervision. The tutor must even manipulate the environment in order to teach sometimes difficult moral lessons about humility, chastity, and honesty. IEP

Yes, fine. But what precisely in Emile kept Kant off the streets, until he was finished with it?

Don’t know yet. But I love a good mystery. I’ll look into it. Could have something to do with other characters in the story. “Rousseau discusses in great detail how the young pupil is to be brought up to regard women and sexuality.” Now maybe we’re getting somewhere.

Or not. Rousseau’s observations regarding women sound pretty sexist and ill-informed, nothing Kant (as a  relatively un-Enlightenend male) wouldn’t already have shared.

Maybe it’s what Emile says about freedom that so arrested Kant? “The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature.”

Or religion? “It is categorically opposed to orthodox Christian views, specifically the claim that Christianity is the one true religion.” Maybe.

The Vicar claims that the correct view of the universe is to see oneself not at the center of things, but rather on the circumference, with all people realizing that we have a common center. This same notion is expressed in the Rousseau’s political theory, particularly in the concept of the general will.

That’s very promising. Kant’s Copernican Revolution etc.

I wonder if the mystery of Kant’s lost walks could be related, too, to another of fellow-pedestrian Rousseau’s books, Reveries of the Solitary Walker?

The work is divided into ten “walks” in which Rousseau reflects on his life, what he sees as his contribution to the public good, and how he and his work have been misunderstood. It is interesting that Rousseau returns to nature, which he had always praised throughout his career… The Reveries, like many of Rousseau’s other works, is part story and part philosophical treatise. The reader sees in it, not only philosophy, but also the reflections of the philosopher himself.

That may not be a clue but it’s a definite inspiration for my own Philosophy Walks project, still seeking its legs.

Melissa Lane, like me, is very interested in Rousseau’s walking. 

BTW: we know Rousseau had a dog. Did Kant? If so, wasn’t he neglecting his duty to walk her?

And like Rousseau and me, Romano is concerned that aspects of American Brow culture, especially the culture of sales and adverizing, is an obstacle to happiness. He cites an astonishing figure: the average American takes in 37,822 TV ads per year. Not me, I was hitting the mute button before there was one.

The first philosophy book I think I ever read cover-to-cover was The Story of Philosophy by Will and Ariel Durant. I didn’t know it was considered middlebrow at best, libelous at its worst. That was the view of one of my later Mizzou profs. It’s not mine. I think it was a darned good invitation to philosophy.

We want to know that the little things are little, and the big things big, before it is too late ; we want to see things now as they will seem forever — “in the light of eternity.” We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death.

Then he quoted Thoreau (“…simplicity, independence…”) and I was hooked. Now you know who to blame.

Didn’t know then that I’d eventually come to share Will Durant’s prescient view that “epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy.”  Did he poison my well? Again to quote the eloquent old baseball skeptic Joacquin Andujar (as I did to an increduolous old Vandy prof over the weekend): Youneverknow

Also didn’t know Durant was a cradle-robber. But I have nothing against his “entertaining and popular” style. Does that make me a middlebrow? Even if it doesn’t, some of my epistemologist friends will still say my penchant for Open Court’s pop philosophy does. Middlebrow, “vulgar,” ephemeral, superficial… but also “relevant” and in some ways “whole.” Should I apologize? Would Mill? Should we, in a pluralistic would-be democracy’s marketplace of ideas? (In case it’s not clear: I say no.)

I do agree with Romano, that it’s a good idea to try and “impose quality control on a university culture with low standards of clarity, originality and style.” And, to recognize that “Brow labels, like art itself, shift over time.”

Speaking of which: Requiescat in pace, Arthur Danto

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October 26, 2013

The TPA keynoter turns out to have been an undergrad at Vandy all those years ago, just prior to my arrival from Mizzou for grad school. His teachers were mine, he singling out two (Hodges and Dore) for particular appreciation. They, he says, taught him to do what he did last night.

What he did was give us a good argument. I was in fundamental accord with his “atheological” conclusion that, in one narrowly specified sense of “rationality” (not the “Sentiment of Rationality” sense of William James) theism is irrational.

I know that I was in accord with our speaker because his densely detailed handout spelled it all out, step by numbered, lettered, clever acronym-laced step. It’s a style I recognize, from all those years ago. It’s a style I can no longer sit through, let alone perpetrate. I don’t, and I didn’t.

By my early departure I intended, and by my recap here I intend, no disrespect for the speaker or my old teachers. He was witty, intelligent, friendly, gracious, all good things. They were and are, too. One remains (I hope) a good friend.

It’s just that this epistemologically-driven style of philosophizing, the search for a reductive/coercive argument that aims to compel assent by force of logical erudition and structural perspicacity, now strikes me (as it had begun to strike me even back in the day) as irrelevant. Even when successfully hitting its mark, such a style of argument tends to miss the point of its subject.

The subject being theism and rationality, what got missed? The story angle.

Since coming across it again in Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical, I’ve been reviving and repeating the late Richard Rorty’s contention that a good story beats a good argument. What’s that mean?

For one, it means we humans don’t live our lives inside structures built of words, symbols, logical annotations, abbreviated and capitalized acronyms, precious pseudo-verbs (last night it was “scrute,” derived from “inscrutable,” that was my tipping point and exit line) and inference rules. On occasion some of us do, or should, use those tools. But that’s not a good place to live permanently, and it’s not good to think we can “settle the universe’s hash” (as WJ liked to say) in a numbered finite series of steps.

Wittgenstein figured that out sometime between his numbered Tractatus argument and his posthumous Philosophical Investigations, btw. I think I recall Prof. Hodges saying so, in fact. He came to value the narrative complexity and nuance of “forms of life” as truer to life than good arguments. Even the best arguments.

Well, it’s my turn this morning at TPA first to listen and then respond to an argument and a story about AA. My story, possibly in scandalous defiance of conference convention,will be informal and personal and bloggish. It will begin thus:

I thank Sam for his paper, an exemplary piece of applied philosophy in the authentic spirit of William James, brought to bear on just the sort of life-centering issue he and other pragmatists became pragmatists to address. We must applaud its relevance and its deeply practical implications for one of the more vexing, momentous, and frequently ruinous problems faced by actual men and women who would look to philosophy for guidance and support, were it on offer. My comments aspire to share in that same spirit.  

I have no sharp criticism to offer, of Sam’s general analysis of James’s pragmatic defense of faith and advocacy of the right of individuals to invoke their willing natures when confronting major life choices whose resolution is not conclusively settled by normal evidentiary criteria. I do offer questions and a point of view that I hope will provoke illuminating discussion. My questions center on the place of personal will in bringing people to recovery programs like AA or its secular alternatives, and on how best to understand and apply James’s philosophy when thinking about addiction and self-possession.  

It’s well known that AA founder Bill Wilson was heavily influenced by James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and that aspects of James’s thought– especially those concerned with the ethics of belief (as articulated by Sam in his essay)– directly support the use he made of it in founding AA. I do not dispute this.
But, I question whether Wilson and AA have adequately comprehended the full bearing of James’s philosophy. James was not hostile to the personal invocation of Higher Powers, but he was a naturalist about the human assimilation of supernatural belief.

In other words: effective supplication was unthinkable, for James, when and if coupled with a total confession of abject impotence (“powerlessness”) on the part of an individual seeking recovery and redemption. One must not renounce one’s will, if one wills the recovery and maintenance of health and self-possession.

The decision to submit to God (or to AA) is, in the final analysis, a willful decision and an exercise of personal will, albeit one typically undertaken only on condition of support from other supportive and willful humans. 

I also offer, with your indulgence, an unorthodox style of commentary. For better or worse, I have developed something of an addiction– though I’m told that may be a confusing misappropriation of a term that has come to signify something more precise, for many, than I intend– to the blogging medium. If I shouldn’t call my dependency on that form of expression an addiction, I’ll happily entertain any alternative suggestions you may propose. But by whatever name, it is the format in which the following remarks were drafted.  

Our topic is very serious, and so is the intended tone of my remarks. But blogging is by its nature a dated and informal exercise, at my keyboard anyway. Rather than perform potentially mutilating surgery on this text, to remove references and allusions and an occasional lightness of tone that might risk seeming to some misplaced in the context of an academic exchange, I’ve opted to leave them in. I mean allusions to baseball, mostly. I think they lend a thematic relevance that will help me convey the attitude I mean to communicate. If not, perhaps you’ll still indulge an old Cardinals fan.

So I’ll put on my World Series tie, that being one of my ritual-devotional ways of professing belief in something high (if not Higher), something without whose support I cannot succeed: my team.

What makes my team the best in my eyes, as Dan Dennett once wrote of his Red Sox, is not that it’s objectively the best but that it’s subjectively mine. That’s the natural form of belief for humans.

Having a team, and belief in your team, can be meaningful and gratifying (or galling, Braves fans?) if you don’t forget it’s only a game. 

I am a Red Sox fan, simply because I grew up in the Boston area and have happy memories of Ted Williams, Jimmy Piersall, Carl Yastrzemski, Pudge Fisk, and Wade Boggs, among others. My allegiance to the Red Sox is enthusiastic, but cheerfully arbitrary and undeluded. The Red Sox aren’t my team because they are, in fact, the Best; they are the Best (in my eyes) because they are my team.

Same here. I grew up in the St. Louis area and have happy memories of Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, and Mike Shannon, among others. Those Cards went all the way in ’67 against the Sox. The two teams next met again in ’04. Different result, nice movie.

As another great baseball philosopher, Crash Davis, put it in another nice movie: Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, sometimes it rains.

The late great baseball commissioner, also a Red Soxer, said the game breaks your heart. It was designed to do precisely that. Here’s that story, the story of the green fields of the mind. One of the many unseen worlds James says its natural for us to believe in, act on, cherish.

Then comes the long hard winter. Stories are told, the heart heals, then it hopes again. It reports to Spring Training.

Go Cards.

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You’ve got to be carefully taught

October 25, 2013

If being a sports fan is good for anything, I was saying in class, it’s for reinforcing resiliency and hope. One day you’re down, the next you’re up. StL 4, Boston 2. Series knotted. I’m up!

But I do feel for the New Englanders who are down this morning. I learned to stop being such a “homer” and to enjoy the happiness of Sox fans in ’04, when I saw what breaking The Curse at the Cards’ expense did for them. I’d never seen so many beaming smiles, such radiant joy, as on display by the Vandy contingent of Red Sox Nation the day after Game #4.

That’s what else sports can reinforce, if you let it: a cosmopolitan feeling of empathy for other tribes. If I’d been born just slightly to the north and east, after all, I’d likely have been fated to be one of those longer-suffering Cubbie fans. “Hey Chicago, whaddya say…”

Our friend from Brooklyn who was in my living room when I got home and turned on the game last night, the Yankees fan, harbors no such feelings. “The Red Sox are evil!” My colleague in the next office says the same thing. It’s South Pacific syndrome: you’ve got to be carefully taught to hate, etc.

My students taught me well yesterday, sharing great songs and images and ideas. John Lennon, Steely Dan, Chris Arnade’s disturbing photos, the 2013 World Happiness Reporta mood quiz, The Geography of Bliss, Ishmael

And Mary Schmich, via Baz Luhrmann:

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday…


And be liberal with the sunscreen.

Then, some insight from Brennan on how to take Buddhist “woo” when it comes to talk about candles and karma and rebirth and other supernatural-sounding stuff. Remember, he says, these are stories (parables, myths, koans) designed to provoke and awaken, not necessarily theories or arguments intended to persuade western philosophy-style. He also cautions not to assume, on the basis of that quote from Meaning of Life citing beer-drinking as an example of desire and attachment without satisfaction, that HH the DL does not condone our Happy Hours.

And then, some constructive feedback from James on being careful with “addiction”. I’d said I have a walking/biking addiction but merely a beer-drinking habit. Really?

Maybe. I do think a good habit can be a positive, life-giving, happy-making (psychological, physiological) addiction. I also think taking habitual personal pleasure in beer can enhance life, pleasure, satisfaction, and conviviality without sapping all will and self-control. It need not turn into William James’s “so degrading a poisoning.” Though it can, of course. It did for one of his siblings. 

Do take care.

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Virtue and Happiness, and beer

October 24, 2013

Not much to crow about this morning, World Series-wise, for a recovering partisan midwesterner. Must retreat to my default mantra, on such demoralized days after: it’s only a game. I will say, I’m very tired of ballplayers in biblical beards, especially the ones nested under stylized B’s. Time to wield Occam’s Razor. Virtuous fans are happily consoled in the wisdom of Crash Davis (“Bull Durham”):  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. It’s a long season, ya gotta trust it. And don’t forget your cliches.

Virtue and happiness is our theme today in HAP 101. But I must first acknowledge what’s really on my mind this morning, besides all those questions we didn’t get to last time. (I’d love to hear what the class thinks about candles, rebirth, reincarnation and karma, Vonnegut’s rule of kindness, and whatever other old business they’d care to mention.)

Last time we noted the Dalai Lama’s Meaning of Life and its seeming endorsement of what naturalists like Flanagan and me and at last a handful of others in our class would consider supernatural woo (“woo,” that’s a technical term deriving I think from Michael Shermer’s Why Do People Believe Weird Things, maybe), regarding death, rebirth, karmic lives, candles etc. We can talk about that, if anyone would care to. I’ll shut up and listen. Take my seat and take my answer off the air, as Dean put it.

What else is on my monkey mind this a.m.: TPA, AA, WJ, the DL (His Holiness I mean, not the Disabled List), the desiring will, the addictive personality, windows & monkeys & beer. Oh my.

Don’t worry, class, the reading assignment for Tuesday is slim. We can catch up, if we get distracted at any of those windows G.W. (“Superficiality Incarnate”) Leibniz said we don’t have.

Although most Buddhist systems posit six types of consciousness, the picture is often one of a monkey going from window to window in a house… like the single monkey at many windows, [consciousness] is only one… karmas are not lost or wasted…

Attachment is depicted as a person drinking beer. This is easy to understand, is it not? No matter that you realize that it makes you fat and you do not want to be fat, you still keep drinking and drinking and drinking it. Attachment is a mental factor that increases desire, without providing any satisfaction. Dalai Lama, Meaning of Life

I like beer. Sometimes it makes me a jolly good fellow, or at least a mellow fellow. It almost never makes me drunk, or angry, or sad. (I don’t write country songs.) I find it satisfying. I consider it a voluntary attachment. Am I deluded? That’s not a question, on Happy Hour day, and on TPA eve. My topic there, again: “Alcoholics Anonymous & God: The Sobering Affect of the Pragmatic Method.” Help me out, class. (Thanks for the Penn & Teller link, Jon.)

 [Tennessee Philosophical Association“A Jamesian Personscape”AA, SOS, TPA, Beat LA!AA and the sunny side of life]

Now, where were we? Right…

In Chapter Six of Bodhisattva’s Brain Owen Flanagan says Buddhist, Aristotelian, Stoic, and Epicurean ethics “are all worthy participants in a potentially profitable anachronistic, ethnocentric, and cosmopolitan conversation about the good life.”

It’s still not immediately clear why we should take any great interest in fostering an anachronistic or ethnocentric conversation, even recalling Flanagan’s admonition way back on page one that we “Allow it.” Allowing anachronism is supposed, apparently, to free us from total time-and-place parochialism.  But what does ethnocentrism get us, again?

It gets me a powerful hankering for cosmopolitanism, which it seems we can never get enough of. I’d just place a few more seats at the table, for the pragmatists and utilitarians and Rawlsians and maybe even a token Kantian or (do we dare?) libertarian. Just don’t all talk at once.

One of the absorbing issues here: What’s the connection between virtue and happiness generally, and what connection should there be? Another, for Flanagan, is whether Buddha’s or Aristotle’s virtue is better. And, how surmountable are the “destructive states of mind” that block our paths to virtue and happiness?

I always thought Aristotle’s catalog of virtues was plenty thick, but Buddhists may have a point about compassion, mindfulness, joy, equanimity, kindness et al. “One can go wrong in a lot of ways.”

Aristotle’s Law: Virtue is a necessary condition for happiness, and usually sufficient too.
Buddha’s Law: Wisdom, virtue, and mindfulness together form a necessary (and “reliable”) condition for happiness.

Those are the initial versions, then supplanted by “weaker and more plausible” versions:

AL”: Virtue (& reason) is the normal and reliable cause of happiness.
BL”: Virtue (& wisdom & mindfulness) is the normal and reliable cause of happiness. 

Much to ponder in all this, so far, though maybe not so much to dispute. But here’s a contentious suggestion, a “normative exclusion clause” disallowing happiness acquired via “magic pills” or “false belief”. “Happy states born of delusion are undeserved.” Do we agree?

And, are we bothered by the return of the superscripts to muddy the waters and render our two versions of happiness potentially incommensurable? I wonder why we should be, unless our goal is to draft a blueprint for a new univocal republic of happiness.

Virtue involves the amplification of our social nature… which becomes ever more pleasant the more fully it blossoms.

Mother Nature wired us over evolutionary time to feel positively about being with others and about their well-being, especially relatives, and those others with whom we share communal projects… Excellent social relations are a source of happiness.

That’s good. But we’re also wired to prefer our own tribe, right or wrong, “enabling certain unfortunate tendencies of moral chauvinism.” That’s bad.

“These tendencies could be overcome by also teaching about the danger I have just spoken of.” That’s optimistic.

And so, I suppose, is the emphasis on our “shared humanity” both Flanagan and I and Confucians and unitarians and others like to invoke as our great unifier and chauvinism breaker, our best reason to be as good and kind and compassionate and generally virtuous as possible.

Imagine actually acting on that, continually growing our native capacity for fellow-feeling, exchanging residual egoism and mutual suspicion for spontaneous compassion and kindness, not giving thought to other lives than those we’re in a position to help. Imagine all the people, living in peace, living for today.  Wouldn’t you call that Buddhism naturalized?

Shouldn’t you call it happiness?

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Berkeley, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rorty redux

October 23, 2013
Today in CoPhi we take another pass at John Locke, this time contrasting him with Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) odd esse est percipi thesis; John Campbell on Berkeley’s Puzzle; Voltaire vs. Leibniz; and one more look at Richard Rorty.

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson

The conventional judgment of philosophers, in relating this funny little story, is that Johnson missed Berkeley’s point. Mine is that Berkeley missed the point of Johnson’s demonstration: nobody really lives exclusively in his own (figurative or literal, res cogitans or res extensa) head. Not even distracted bishops or philosophers.

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.

There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.

Well, the idea of him is now hung again anyway. If a portrait hangs in a gallery but nobody looks at it, does it make an impression? Its subject surely did, we always talk about him between Locke and Hume. Why is that? He was an empiricist only nominally, not temperamentally and (despite the extremity of his view) definitely not radically: Radical Empiricists [wiki]who think like William James perceive the relations in experience that connect us and our sometimes-whacky ideas to the real “external” world.

Campbell (who, btw, speaks in the most charming Scots brogue) nonetheless describes Berkeley’s puzzle and its solution as radical, tearing at the roots of everyday common sense. “If all I’ve got to go on is this wall of sensation, how can I even frame the idea of something beyond that?” His solution is no solution: “You can’t, it’s just an illusion… All we have are our ideas.” That’s a really bad idea, Bishop B.
Campbell himself makes more sense. There are “different levels in the description of reality,” and everything we experience, from colors and smells and tastes (the so-called secondary qualities of experience) to quantum phenomena to observer-independent quantitative/”objective” features of the world, is “out there,” i.e., real… but appropriately described in different terms. James again clarifies:

Common sense is BETTER for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be TRUER absolutely, Heaven only knows.

That last bit is purely rhetorical, James didn’t think heaven has a dog in this hunt. It’s up to us to decide when to speak the language of common sense and when to defer to some corrective scientific or critical or other specialized vocabulary. Levels. And brains, “it’s very important that we have brains. But their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk.”

Voltaire was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably 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 castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide

“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…” [Voltaire @dawn]

What’s more to say about Rorty,”unquestionably the best philosophical writer since Bertrand Russell… the Rhett Butler of professional American philosophy”? 

For one thing, his impact in advancing Applied Ethics. (“Applied” means practical, relevant, and useful. Our Lyceum is Applied.) “Applied ethicists tended to follow a Rortyan method in their practice– not handing down theories or edicts, but talking to their new colleagues, questioning hidebound assumptions.” I’d like to think I’d have done that anyway, with or without Rorty, in my approach to Bioethics and Environmental Ethics. But I appreciate the moral support.

I was also a big fan of his Achieving Our Country, with its “secular, reformist, anti-epistemological” message.

And I still applaud his observation that old noble-sounding vacuities like “the intrinsic nature of reality” and “correspondence to reality” really don’t help us discern things like the intrinsic nature of reality or correspondence between it and our ideas.

I also agree that our best guide to “objectivity” is usually intersubjectivity, and prefer “What use is it?” to “Is it real?” I like his lower case truths. I like his naturalism, holism, and non-reductivism. He was right: we can’t enjoy a View from Nowhere. He was right again: a good story tops a good theory. “Let me tell you a story…”

But, give up the appearance-reality distinction? No, not yet. Drop the goal of getting closer to truth? No. Define philosophical progress in terns of our ability to assimilate new theories to old ideas? No. But more imagination in philosophy? YES! 

In Rorty’s view, our traditional seeking of “authoritative guidance”—from God, 
Reason, “the fierce father,” “a nonhuman authority to whom we owe some sort of 
respect”—debilitated us as free agents.

But relying entirely on oneself for authoritative guidance is also  debilitating. Nietzsche, for instance, “served the hormonal imperatives of philosophical teen males” — (have you seen Little Miss Sunshine?) — as efficiently as Bart Simpson does those of normal adolescents.”

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Being Nice

October 22, 2013

Our topic in HAP 101 today is Owen Flanagan’s fifth chapter, “Being No-Self and Being Nice.” It poses the two questions he says every tradition must answer: What is morality? and Why Be Moral?

Big questions, possibly of the “If you have to ask, you may not understand any reasonable answer” variety. Likewise, if your unblinking answer is that morality is god’s law and you must submit, to get to heaven. Or, that being moral is in your narrow self-interest. Or, that it “pays.” (There is a more sympathetic construction of the admittedly unfortunate and ill-chosen “cash value” metaphor, but that’s another conversation.)

Practical moral skeptics say the questions are unclear.Many nontheists would take [the] question to be meaningless,” notes one infidel, but surely that’s obtuse. 

Peter Singer’s “soundbite answer”:

If you ask me: morality is the disposition to live a life of rectitude, honor, principle, and virtue; to act consistently in ways that try to expand our heritage of constructive value, correct our history of injustice, and improve the lives of as many others, now and in the future, as possible. Bottom-line goal: leave the world better than we found it, make life better.

Why develop that disposition and those goals for myself, you might ask, and why should any self– Heraclitean or otherwise– be obliged or even just inclined to do so?

Answering for my own neo-Heraclitean but mostly non-Buddhist self: because that’s the disposition and those are the goals I want others to display, because that disposition and those goals seem to offer the greatest prospect of health, happiness, and graceful living for our kind, now and in the future, and indeed because a meaningful life (to me) involves participating in the progressive unfolding of that very prospect.

It’s Solomon’s “thoughtful love of life,” Comte-Sponville’s “atheist spirituality,” James’s “susceptibility to ideals,” and especially Dewey’s common faith and “natural piety” towards the continuous human community: The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves

But that’s just me, that’s a too-wordy first draft. We can discuss whether or how to chisel it down to something as compact as its provoking pair of questions. More importantly, we’ll discuss Flanagan’s provisional answers and his interpretation of Buddhism’s answers. Some may still press the issue: “Why should I care? What’s in it for me? Why shouldn’t I simply seek to maximize pleasure?” Etc. Some who persist with such questions are sincere seekers, others self-styled “enlightened egoists” (or “un-“), some nihilists, some just trouble-makers.  Some feel a native or communal impulse to be “nice” and “good” and want to rationalize it. Some don’t, and that worries them.

Whatever motivates the motivational question, asking it is central to the examined life.

Many, not just Buddhists, think the moral life is entailed by wisdom and “seeing things as they really are.”

Buddhists in particular think things are thus: impermanent, dependent, selfless, and empty. Buddhist Credo: “everything is impermanent, and everything is subject to the principles of cause and effect.” Everything includes you and me.

So what? Why should an impermanent causally dependent no-self who doesn’t believe in punitive gods or karmic ultimate justice go out of his way to care for others (or even future renditions of what we’re grammatically stuck with calling “himself”)? Why treat any sentient beings with  lovingkindness and compassion?

Well, for starters, Why not? Treating others as one wishes to be treated, and as one wishes others to treat one another, affirms a pleasing and positive vision of humanity. Isn’t that enough? It may well be that the only way “creatures such as us flourish and find happiness” is by affirming and reaffirming such a vision.

Will that sway the seeker, convert the nihilist, open the egoist’s heart? Don’t bet on it. But it probably reflects the mind of the contemplative arahant and the motivation of the more pro-active bodhisattva. If we can begin to understand that, we may be on our way to answering those opening questions for ourselves.

But questions are what I have most of, with this chapter. To name a few:

The goal of liberating numberless sentient beings still strikes me as supererogatory. It would be impressive enough simply to liberate oneself, wouldn’t it, and in the process inspire whoever might be watching?

Is it enough to “transcend” delusions? Don’t we want to dispatch them?

Plato’s cave and Buddha’s dreamland are indeed strikingly similar, and Flanagan’s been diligent in comparing and contrasting Buddha and Aristotle. Is it possible we can shed valuable light on our situation without endorsing the more extreme (Platonic and Buddhist) characterizations of it?

Do we agree that Locke, Hume, James, and Parfit all endorse the SELFLESS PERSON and see it as automatically subverting normal human selfishness? James in particular contends for a robust WILL rooted in self-reliance. Is there any place for that impulse in Buddhism?

“Why isn’t no-self just a piece of information, motivationally irrelevant unless I want to be compassionate?” And what if I want that for an extraneous or morally irrelevant reason (like a seizure)?

Why not just own my no-self by maxing out my hedonist credit card?

Do we all have a strong moral obligation to help others both materially and spiritually, by “returning to the cave” and really acting on a feeling for others?

Is it true that seeing oneself as no-self makes it easier (if not automatic) to overcome craving and acquisitiveness?

Is nirvana really a state of permanent oblivion, like “just being dead”?

Is there a non-literal understanding of reincarnation that can be naturalized? Do our successors partake in our former consciousness in a non-metaphysically spooky way? Does the “row of candles” analogy make sense?

What do you say to all those “soulophiles” and “soulophiliacs” in the west, the 90% + who believe in a separable god and immortal souls, to make no-self (etc.) more appealing?

Why does Flanagan say “What ordinary people think or are ontologically committed to is not really any of my business as a philosopher”?

Mozi and Locke were wrong, the mind is not a thorough “tabula rasa” with respect to perception and morality. Right?

Also right?: “Reality is filled with many real ‘things’ that are not really things.” Days, love, friendship, the Heraclitean self…

“Everyone, even Hitler, will feel himself moved (emotionally and physically) to want to rescue a child falling into a well.” Really?

“The wise and compassionate Buddhist is a different sort of person than the rational and virtuous Aristotelian.” Can we be more specific?

“Anatman is the view one gets when one reads Locke, then Hume, then William James…” But again (and it’s a BIG but): those guys, especially James, insisted on coupling no-self with resolute will and deliberate intention as co-constitutive of flourishing. The pursuit of happiness is ineliminably personal, though ideally not selfish. No?

If “my self surfaces in narrative,” then I’ve got to pay attention to my story, my enthusiasms and delights, my ideals. “Find some worthy goals and projects that suit you”– you— and get fired up and passionate about them… Delight in the small steps… nothing less than the meaning of your life turns on doing your best to make them work out.” And then, when it’s time to go, entrusting those goals and projects to the living.

With all these questions, and maybe with most in this difficult domain, we’re just scratching the surface. Let’s keep scratching, but let’s also finally dismiss the skeptic. Of course we should be moral, not just as Buddhists or theists or humanists but above all as human beings. Clemens Vonnegut‘s great-grandson said it best. (Feel free to substitute “nice people” for Humanists.)

We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectations of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife… We don’t fear death, and neither should you. 

And better than best:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—”God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Lovingkindness and compassion and what have you are all very well and good, but more than halfway through my aspirant century this is about the best phronesis I’ve heard yet.

Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail. Be kind. Be nice.

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Spinoza, Locke, Reid, Rorty

October 21, 2013
Today in CoPhi: Baruch (nee Benedict) Spinoza (and Susan James on his concept of the passions), John Locke (not the “Lost” one) and Thomas Reid on personal identity (and John Dunn on Locke’s concept of toleration) & more Romano on Rorty.

Spinoza believed in Einstein’s God (or would have), and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive or do anything intentional and deliberate. No more than nature does, anyway. God just is. Paul Davies:

Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance. 

You could say the very same of Spinoza.

In HAP 101 we’ve been trying to make sense of the Buddhist-inspired statement that we’re not part of nature but all of it. Spinoza offers another take on that disorienting notion.

In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.

I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them. 

 Nothing in nature is by chance… Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.

The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature… I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids. 

They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we noted  Jennifer Hecht noting, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” This contrasts sharply with Spinoza’s view. “What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.”

[Descartes to Deism… Tlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)… Spinoza @dawnPantheism SEP… John Locke Can Walk]

Spinoza, says Susan James, was interested in our capacity to maintain ourselves as ourselves, which he called our conatus. How do we do that? By breathing, sleeping, fighting, friending,… but ultimately he thought our best bet was to resign ourselves to an acceptance of rational necessity. 

“Spinoza thinks that, in so far as you’re passionate,” subject to external influence, “you’re in bondage and unfree.” How to free yourself? Become mentally active, get “a better understanding of yourself and the world,” and experience his version of cosmic bliss or supreme happiness. And what does this maximal understanding come to, in a word? Pantheism

In Spinoza’s vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken… Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reasonPassion for Wisdom

And still they called him heretic and atheist, and excommunicated him despite his “intellectual love of God,” which he said was “the highest felicity.” God only knew why.

He’s still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.

  1. “[True & blessedness does not consist in enjoying wellbeing not shared by others or in being more fortunate than others].” (TTP)
  2. “It is the of reason to conceive things under a form of eternity.” (E5p29pr)

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. 

But Walter (“That’s the way it is”) Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right when he wrote:
“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

Cesar Kuriyama told TED he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?
“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”

Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more. 

Locke is more familiar to Americans as the underwriter of our pursuit of life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, we know, edited Locke on that last point.) He defended separation of church and state, and toleration. A very enlightened guy, for his time and place, but still not clear-sighted about freedom from worship for those who choose it.

In his continuing discussion of Richard Rorty, Carlin Romano points to the “vulgarization of the word ‘pragmatic’ by ordinary Americans, who used it as a synonym for crass everyday practicality…” I’m not sure I’d agree that everyday practicality is crass at all, but it’s true that the word has been abused. Especially by political chatterers.

Rorty wrote with “energy, humor, great tolerance, an exemplary clarity… and a rare ability to communicate enthusiasm and sheer love of ideas.”  Well, no wonder he aroused so much jealousy and resentment among his peers! Also, he was extremely “well read.” He liked Dewey. And he thought philosophy should acknowledge its “literary character.” I have close colleagues (close as in near) who don’t agree, with any of those points of substance and style. I do.

 Rorty dismissed the “relativist” charge, saying the “view that every tradition is as rational or as moral as every other could be held only by a god [who’d] escaped from history.” That’s not us.

But he, too, was given to excess. Where Spinoza said all is necessity, Rorty said all is contingency. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in-between.

via Blogger