Archive for January, 2015

Graphic philosophy

January 30, 2015

It was unseasonably warm in middle Tennessee yesterday, so students in three of my four classes opted for peripatetic discussions. In two classes we all went out for twenty minute strolls. I’m sure it was a revelation for some, just how quickly time and ideas can fly when you’re in motion. Can’t wait to do it again. Walking the walk.

Something else I’m pleased to see developing this semester, thus far: a Graphic Philosophy caption contest. I’m going to continue posting thematically-timely images in search of pithy insightful narration. Like these:

The first one evokes my biases against sedentary thinking and for canines. The second may represent a symposium gone wild.

For the first I like a talking-dog scenario: “Solvitur ambulando, Diogenes.” The second was originally tagged “Another false start for the western philosophical tradition.” But maybe the crowd can come up with better suggestions.

Here’s one we definitely need to caption, next class. Aren’t these guys funny?

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Socrates & Plato

January 29, 2015

Western philosophy began well before Socrates, but we’ll leave the pre-Socratics to themselves for now and pretend that Socrates was indeed the first (western) philosopher. We’ll also soft-pedal Bertrand Russell’s judgment (later shared by Izzy Stone) that the Platonic Socrates is “dishonest and sophistical in argument… smug and unctuous… not scientific in his thinking… [guilty of] treachery to truth” and so on. If the esteemed Socrates-as-paragon and personification of intellectual integrity (“I’d rather die than give up my philosophy” etc.) didn’t exist we’d have had to invent him. Perhaps Plato did.

In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories

And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.

The old Parthenon must have been lovely, but I think ours is prettier nowadays. And btw, our Parthenon’s city (“The Athens of the South”) is hot (as in cool) lately. 

??????????

[There’s a new theory about the old Parthenon, btw. Horses and riders, youths and elders, men and women, animals being led to sacrifice: What is the Parthenons frieze telling us?”… more]

Socrates, from Alopece, near Athens, asked a lot of questions. Like Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna. Like Bertrand Russell:


In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.


Did curiosity kill the philosopher? No, a narrow plurality of 500 jurors did. (His unrepentant attitude during sentencing didn’t help, either.) They convicted him of “impiety” (atheism) and corrupting the youth of Athens. One more reason I’m lucky to live in the 21st century: I don’t like hemlock. I’m like Woody Allen, that way. (But if shocking new allegations are true, hemlock may be too good for him.) Steve Martin (did I mention that he was a philosophy major?) had a go at it too. Here’s a good Discussion Question: what would you do, in Socrates’ cell?

He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. “He was ugly,” says podcastee Mary McCabe. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go.  Said he had nothing to teach, but those around him (including young Plato) said they learned plenty from him, especially how 

to discuss with others in this open-minded, open-ended way that allows them to reflect on what they think and us to reflect on what we think, without dictating, without dogma, without insistence, and without imperative… to be true to themselves: to be sincere about their beliefs and to be honest… and to have some respect for their companion.

 If that’s not good teaching, what is? 

The annotated and hyperlinked Last Days of Socrates is a gripping and inspiring tale, whether or not its hero was really as heroic through all the days of his life as Plato and his other admirers would have us believe. The honored pedestal version of this gadfly remains a worthy ideal for philosophy.

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Plato, they say, could stick it away…” –they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.


He also had interesting thoughts about love and eros, as expressed through his constant dialogue character “Socrates” (who may or may not have spoken faithfully for his martyred namesake) in Symposium.  Angie Hobbs says Plato rejected Aristophanes’ mythic notion that we all have one unique other “half,” formerly parts of our hermaphroditic spherical selves, that would complete us and make us happy. But he defended a view some of us find equally implausible, the idea that the true and highest love spurns (or spins upward from) particular persons and embraces the Form of Beauty.

The Form of Beauty “is always going to be there for you,” but on the other hand “it’s never going to love you back.” Unrequited affection is hardly what most of us think of as Perfect Love. There’s a myth for you. This really was an early foreshadowing of the phenomenon recently deplored in the Stone, our modern turn to abstraction and virtual experience in lieu of immediacy and reality and touch. (“Losing Our Touch“, nyt). Reminds me, too, of Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.

We romantics (as Angie Hobbs pronounces herself, and as I confess to being too) should know better than to seek a perfect match. We should know better than to think that any enduring relationship can be wholly free of “pain, fragility, and transience.” Those are inevitable parts of the story and the glory of human (as against Ideal, Platonic, Perfect) love, no? Just ask Cecil the Butler about Sidney Poitier. 

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I believe in the peripatetic life

January 27, 2015

Back for Day 3, we turn happily to our philosophical labors in CoPhilosophyToday we introduce (and maybe even emulate) the peripatetics, and we explore the earnest atmosphere of This I Believe.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) founded his Lyceum just outside Athens and 

gathered around him a group of brilliant research students, called “peripatetics” from the name of the cloister (peripatos) in which they walked and held their discussions. The Lyceum was not a private club like [Plato’s] Academy; many of the lectures there were open to the general public and given free of charge. EB

Nowadays, a “peripatetic” has just come to mean someone who travels a lot. I prefer the older signification, of someone who (like Aristotle’s students in the Lyceum peripatos) walks while talking philosophy. That’s how we’ll understand and apply the concept in our CoPhi collaborations.

…the act of ambulation – or as we say in the midwest, walking – often serves as a catalyst to creative contemplation and thought. It is a belief as old as the dust that powders the Acropolis, and no less fine. Followers of the Greek Aristotle were known as peripatetics because they passed their days strolling and mind-wrestling through the groves of the Academe. The Romans’ equally high opinion of walking was summed up pithily in the Latin proverb Solvitur Ambulando: “It is solved by walking.”

…Erasmus recommended a little walk before supper and “after supper do the same.” Thomas Hobbes had an inkwell built into his walking stick to more easily jot down his brainstorms during his rambles. Jean- Jacques Rousseau claimed he could only meditate when walking: “When I stop, I cease to think,” he said. “My mind only works with my legs.” Søren Kierkegaard believed he’d walked himself into his best thoughts. In his brief life Henry David Thoreau walked an estimated 250,000 miles, or ten times the circumference of earth. “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” wrote Thoreau, “unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from worldly engagements.” Thoreau’s landlord and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson characterized walking as “gymnastics for the mind.”

In order that he might remain one of the fittest, Charles Darwin planted a 1.5 acre strip of land with hazel, birch, privet, and dogwood, and ordered a wide gravel path built around the edge. Called Sand-walk, this became Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ where he roamed every morning and afternoon with his white fox-terrier. Of Bertrand Russell, long-time friend Miles Malleson has written: “Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.” 

None of these laggards, however, could touch Friedrich Nietzsche, who held that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Rising at dawn, Nietzsche would stalk through the countryside till 11 a.m. Then, after a short break, he would set out on a two-hour hike through the forest to Lake Sils. After lunch he was off again, parasol in hand, returning home at four or five o’clock, to commence the day’s writing. Christopher Orlet, “Gymnasiums of the Mind”

This I Believe was MTSU’s freshman summer read this year. Jay Allison, who revived the old ’50s TIB franchise, was to have spoken at convocation on August 23 but weather interfered.

Here’s where it all began, in 1951. As Mr. Murrow said, there’s no “pill of wisdom”… but lots of wise people are real pills. Many of these concise testimonials of conviction will make you feel better about the human condition.

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These little essays are sometimes light and fluffy, sometimes dense, sometimes funny, occasionally profound. I’m asking students to find their faves. Sticking just to those included in Jay Allison’s first book, I guess these would be mine:
This just scratches the surface. There are tens of thousands of essays in the archives, growing daily; and that probably doesn’t include yours. Yet.

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Gravity

January 26, 2015

Younger Daughter and I screened “Gravity” the other night. It was one of her Christmas gifts to me, along with exclusive membership in her “pie of the month” club. My first installment was apple, and it was out of this world. Can’t wait for February.

“Gravity” was great to look at, and great to share, though not quite as satisfying to consume. When it comes to space-based cinema, “2001” may have set the bar impossibly high for me. Like “Interstellar,” “Gravity” falls short of displacing the film I listed at #2 on my recently-composed favorites list* for Older Daughter. I’m trying to recall memorable quotes from the newer film and can come up with nothing more profound than Dr. Emma Stone (Sandra Bullock) declaring “I hate space.”

For my part, I still love thinking about space. So though “Gravity” isn’t much about ideas, it got me thinking. The “final frontier” will always loom large in my youthfully-dreamy imagination of what human life might still someday make of itself.

*2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Arthur C. Clarke’s story famously infuriated premier attendees including Rock Hudson (“Can anybody tell me what the hell this is about?!”) and mystified me too, near the end. But this was the year before Neil Armstrong’s “one small step,” and I really thought there’d be Martians (from Earth) by now. This movie captured and amplified my generation’s dreams of cosmic exploration. The recently-released Interstellar has been called this generation’s 2001, but that’s silly. Oh, the echoes are there alright. But in 1968 the idea of space as our beckoning “final frontier” had real credibility. Or so we thought. “Unlike the animals, who knew only the present, Man had acquired a past; and he was beginning to grope toward a future.” More groping, please. Open the pod bay door, Hal.

“Gravity” treats space, even low-earth-orbit space (misidentified in at least one review as “Deep Space”), as too far from home. “2001” expands our territory. It has the better idea.

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“Who’s your favorite?”

January 22, 2015

That’s the Philosophy Bites question we take up today in CoPhi. If you think it puts Descartes before the horse you can visit What is Philosophy? first. (That was the first bad phil-pun I heard, btw, from a perky Scot called Cogan on my first day of Grad School back in 1980. Not the last. It was already an old joke.) 


We don’t all agree on what philosophy is. Not even we “Americanists,” amongst ourselves. But we try to disagree agreeably. A little post-HAP 101 exchange between a pair of students once threatened for a moment to become disagreeable (unlike the class itself, which was thrilling in its impassioned civility). Almost made ’em watch the Argument Clinic. “An argument isn’t just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes,” etc. etc.  But I don’t want to argue about that.

Maybe a round of Bruces would be welcome today, simultaneously introducing several stars of philosophy, teaching us how to pronounce “Nietzsche” (and mispronounce “Kant”) and disabusing anyone who falsely presumes our subject to be overly sober and serious about itself. If any doubt about that persists, just drop in on the Philosophy Club’s Thursday Happy Hour – not that I’d want to reinforce the spurious conceit that philosophers are drunks. G’day.

I don’t have a “favourite”… but my favorite (as I’ve already told my classes, on Day #1) is of 

course William James.I don’t always agree with him, but I almost always want to know he’d say about the topic du jour. 

Philosophy, beginning in wonder, as Plato and Aristotle said, is able to fancy everything different from what it is. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. Its mind is full of air that plays round every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices. SPP

My favorite living philosopher is John Lachs. He came for a visit last year, to my CoPhi classes.

It’s no surprise that David Hume outpolls everyone on the podcast, given its Anglo-centric tilt, or that Mill and Locke pick up several votes. They’re all on my short list too, as is Bertrand Russell (who definitely knew the value of philosophy).

I notice that my Vandy friend Talisse is one of the handful of Americans here, and he, like Martha Nussbaum, picks Mill. Sandel picks Hegel.) Other big votegetters: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.


No surprise either that James, Dewey, Peirce, Santayana, Rawls, and other prominent Yanks don’t win wide favor across the pond. (But I hear the Rawls musical has been a hit with the Brits.)

I did hear an English philosopher praising James once, on the BBC’s excellent “In Our Time.” But generally they prefer William’s “younger, shallower, vainer” (and more Anglophilic) brother Henry, who lived most of his adult life in Sussex.

The British roots of American thought do run deep, and the branches of reciprocal influence spread wide. Stay tuned for info on our Study Aboard course, as it moves from drawing board to future reality.

Why do I find WJ so compelling? Hard to put my finger on a single reason, there are so many. I was first drawn to him through his marvelous personal letters. Then, his essays (“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” “What Makes a Life Significant”) and lectures-cum-books (Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe). His warm, charming, playful, disarming, sympathetic personality shone through all. He was so great at tossing off wit, profundity, and practical wisdom with seeming effortlessness and concision. A born tweeter. But his health, physical and emotional, was a lifelong challenge. He expended vast effort to become William James.

Honestly, the best explanation for why I became a lifelong student of, and stroller with, WJ may just be that little moment in the Vandy bookstore back in my first year of grad school – the moment when my new mentor John Compton noticed me browsing the McDermott anthology o fThe Writings. John’s warm and enthusiastic familiarity with “Willy James” hooked me. Thank you, John.

The thing James said that’s stuck with me longest and made the most lasting impression, I think, is the little piece of youthful advice he once wrote to a despondent friend. I’m not quite sure why, but it lifts my mood every time I think of it:

Remember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Is this true? Maybe. Is it useful? Definitely.


We’re also looking today at Nigel Warburton’s introduction to Philosophy: The Basics.(5th ed., 2013), in which he quite rightly points out that while philosophy can help you think about who you are and why you’re here – about the meaning of your life – it isn’t an alternative to other fields of study. “It is important not to expect too much of philosophy,” to  the neglect of literature and history and science and art, et al.

That’s right. But it’s equally important not to expect too little of yourself, and to think you’re not up to the challenge of an examined life. To repeat Professor James’s empowering declaration: “I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds.” If you don’t all know that yet, CoPhilosophers, we’d better get to work. Serious fun, dead ahead. 

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Opening Day!

January 20, 2015

The Spring Semester begins today, and a quirk of the schedule has all my classes this time on Tuesdays and Thursdays: two regular and one Honors Intro to Philosophy sections (“CoPhilosophy,” as I call it, or just CoPhi) and a Bioethics. Dawn to dusk. Hooray.

I mean, Hooray! Really. A fresh start, a clean slate, a tabula rasa. Everybody’s still tied for 1st.

My old season-opening schtick (the Pythons’ argument, Brian’s reluctance to lead, Douglas Adams’ whale and SuperComputer etc.) still appeals, at least to me. But I think this I’ll go with this, this time:

0:01
From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring…
0:06
and yet also – just a little – intriguing.
0:08
But what are philosophers really for?
0:11
The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.
0:16
In Ancient Greek, philo means love and sophia means wisdom.
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Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.
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Being wise means attempting to live and die well.
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In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very
0:29
specific skill-set. They have, over the centuries, become experts in
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many of the things that make people not very wise. Five stand out:
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There are lots of big questions around: What is the meaning of life?
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What’s a job for? How should society be arranged?
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Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair of trying
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to answer them. They have the status of jokes. We call them
0:56
‘pretentious’. But they matter deeply because only with sound answers
1:00
to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.
1:04
Philosophers are people unafraid of asking questions. They have, over
1:07
the centuries, asked the very largest. They realise that these
1:11
questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks and
1:14
that the only really pretentious thing is to think one is above
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raising big naive-sounding enquiries.
1:23
Public opinion – or what gets called ‘common sense’ – is sensible and
1:27
reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends
1:30
and neighbours, the stuff you take in without even thinking about it.
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But common sense is also often full of daftness and error.
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Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason.
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It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say
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about love, money, children, travel, work? Philosophers are interested
1:50
in asking whether an idea is logical – rather than simply assuming it
1:54
must be right because it is popular and long-established.
2:00
We’re not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds.
2:03
Someone we meet is very annoying, but we can’t pin down what the issue is.
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Or we lose our temper, but can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about.
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We lack insight into our own satisfactions and dislikes.
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That’s why we need to examine our own minds. Philosophy is committed
2:18
to self-knowledge – and its central precept – articulated by the
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earliest, greatest philosopher, Socrates – is just two words long:
2:26
Know yourself.
2:30
We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power
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of some things to improve our lives – and underrate others.
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We make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamour,
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we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer
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will make a bigger difference than it can.
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At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things –
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like going for a walk – which may have little prestige but can
2:54
contribute deeply to the character of existence.

2:58
Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the

3:00
activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

3:08
Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t.
3:12
On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions in a shipwreck,
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the Stoic philosopher Zeno simply said:
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‘Fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.’
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It’s responses like these that have made the very term ‘philosophical’
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a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength-of-mind,
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in short, for perspective.
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The wisdom of philosophy is – in modern times – mostly delivered in
3:35
the form of books. But in the past, philosophers sat in market squares
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and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government
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offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a
3:45
philosopher on the payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal,
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basic activity – rather than as an unusual, esoteric, optional extra.
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Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought but we
3:58
just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom
4:02
coherently in the world. In the future, though, when the value of
4:06
philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more
4:09
philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in
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university departments, because the points at which our unwisdom bites
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– and messes up our lives – are multiple and urgently need attention –
4:21
right now.

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