Archive for June, 2015


June 30, 2015

6 am/5:33, 70/88.
Anniversary of the legendary 1860 Oxford evolution debate, when Darwin’s bulldog bit the bishop.

‘Huxley – young, cool, quiet, sarcastic, scientific in fact and in treatment… gave his Lordship such a smashing… “I asserted, and I repeat, that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for a grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with… success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he had no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.”‘

Everyone who knows of Huxley knows of this storied exchange, and of his response when he first encountered Darwin’s theory of natural selection: “how extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” Most also know that he coined the term “agnostic.” Less known is his devotion to David Hume, and the book he wrote about le bon David. Of Hume’s strange encounter with Rousseau he says simply that it reflected “lunatic malignity on Rousseau’s side and thorough generosity and patience on Hume’s.”

Lunatic malignity. Nicely stated! I’m embarrassed, on behalf of walkers and dog-lovers everywhere, that such a lunatic issued from our ranks. But as Huxley told Wilberforce, there is no shame in honestly owning our actual lineage and embracing our humanity. Every family tree, when shaken, reveals its share of frauds and fools. The point is to evolve. Generosity and patience are possibilities of our nature, too.

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Never walk alone

June 29, 2015

6:45/5:32, 72/84. Podcast.
What a mild mellow weekend that was, and a quiet one. Younger Daughter’s visiting friends in the Big Apple, Older Daughter in St. Louis, and we’re getting a foretaste of the empty nest to come.

I take Sundays off, or rather work hard to hone my hammock skills, so I’m late to note the birthdays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Robert Louis Stevenson.

[And then the !!@#$%^!! cable & wifi went down again… AT&T is making Comcast look better every day. Hear the rest of this morning’s post here.]


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The Delta phenomenon

June 27, 2015

6 am/5:32, 72/81. Podcast.

Birthday of Helen Keller and Edward Gibbon, who both testified to the power of will to communicate through symbolic representation. “Delta,” the Helen Keller phenomenon, Walker Percy called it: the startled, triangulated awareness that words can mean something, can direct action, can be made to alter hearts and minds. “The Delta phenomenon lies at the heart of every event that has ever occurred in which a sentence is uttered or understood, a name is given or received, a painting painted and viewed. What Helen had discovered, had broken through to, was the Delta phenomenon.”

Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire showed that Delta could reveal the buried past, “the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind.” And the occasional triumphs.

It’s been a triumphant couple of days just past, in American history. The Supremes, in spite of themselves, voted (barely) to do the right thing for the health and happiness of the nation in upholding challenged provisions of the Affordable Care Act and the right of all to marry.

And then the president went to Charleston to deliver a remarkable sermonizing eulogy for the latest high-profile victims of American hatred and violence (we mustn’t forget the unsung uncelebrated daily victims). As sermons go, so far as this heathen is competent to judge, it was extraordinary.

But, “the lord works in mysterious ways” – ?!!? The line worked in context, bringing grieving congregants to their feet. It suited the occasion and fit the mood, it was part of the “healing balm” the president meant to administer with his words.

But what an outrageous thought: the allegedly all-powerful and all-knowing creator and sustainer of the cosmos could find no better way to advance the cause of social justice in our time, no better way to lower a stupid old symbol of seditious racism, than through the barrel of yet another gun in the hands of yet another hateful punk, mowing down still more innocent good god-fearing men and women?

Come on, Mr. President. You’re so good with words, such a marvelous delta communicator; you don’t really mean to communicate the thought that there’s ever anything divine in cold-blooded murder. Sapere Aude. You can do better. We can.

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Accept the warming rays

June 26, 2015

5:45/5:33, 78/90. Podcast.
Harry Potter’s birthday, sorta.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in Britain on this day in 1997. Joanne Rowling was an unemployed, single mother waiting for a delayed train, when an idea suddenly came to her. “I did not have a functioning pen with me,” she said. “I simply sat and thought for four hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me … I began to write that very evening.”

She just “sat and thought.” Sounds so simple. Rowling’s original Thinking Place was a train station, and then a coffee shop. This is what I was trying to say: it’s not about the place, spatio-temporally speaking, it’s about the “aura and mental associations” the place conjures for you. Those can travel. The actual thinking place is between the ears.

We don’t keep it between our ears, we externalize and symbolize, investing mere objects with more power than they deserve. Flags and buildings, for instance.

My old Mills Bookstore colleague Michael Sims tweeted the other day, “I was born in rural eastern Tennessee, but to me the Dixie flag has always been a symbol of three things: treason, slavery, and losers.” He’s right, but all this flag fuss in response to the Charleston massacre, I fear, is diverting our attention and allowing us to imagine we’re actually addressing the root causes of racism.  Taking down flags is not taking down ignorance and hatred.

And yet, symbols and names are important. The ROTC building on our campus, named for the notorious confederate general and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, is again, finally, being “revisited“.

University officials said it dedicated the ROTC building as Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall in 1958 because of Forrest’s military record with the Confederate Army and his Middle Tennessee ties. The Confederate cavalry leader was known for his tactical battlefield skills and for leading a successful 1862 raid that captured more than 1,000 Union troops and freed local residents in Murfreesboro. He also reportedly served as the first grand wizard for the Ku Klux Klan after the war…Phil Oliver, a 12-year philosophy professor at MTSU, said it’s past time to rename the building for someone who isn’t a “symbol of racism. “I’m embarrassed every time I teach there,” Oliver said.

And pass by. Or even just think of it. A new name won’t change everything but it will symbolize new sensitivity and better intentions. If (as the wall in my old Forrest Hall classroom proclaims) we’re ruthlessly enforcing high standards of humanity, that name’s got to go.
One more thing before I have to go: last night I read an old interview with E.B. White, the subject of one of Michael Sims’ many delightful books. He said writing is a form of therapy. (So is reading.) And he said,

I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.

“Accept the warming rays” – that’s what Rowling was doing at the station and in the coffee shop. It’s what I try to do out here on my porch, in my Thinking Place, and wherever else I can manage to find them.

How’s that for a symbol?

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Two Erics & no wifi

June 25, 2015

5:30/5:31, 72/97. Podcast.
11 am. A belated post, the new AT&T cable & wifi system went down last night just in time for me to miss Vandy’s 4-2 loss to Virginia in the College World Series. Coulda gone and sat on the gridiron and watched it on the big board at Dudley Field, but that woulda felt anomalous and weird. I don’t like to mix my sports, and I’m still at war with football anyway.

The latest cable guy – they never send the same one again -just left. Says he’s fixed it this time.

Felt an odd disorientation as I rolled out of bed this morning, remembering that my keyboard would not be responsive before the service call. Almost decided to bag it and not write. Why? Have I become so accustomed to tap-tap-tapping my morning missives that I couldn’t imagine going old-school and writing things down in a notebook? Not quite, but that seems to be the trend-line. Digital dependency is a real problem.

Well, I went ahead and fired off a dawn podcast (shifting my dependency to the 3G technology of my phone) about the two Erics, then went rambling and riding with a fretful concern about Internet addiction. Also pondered Thinking Places. More on that later.

About those Erics: light candles today for Eric Blair and Eric Carlisle. You may not have known George Orwell was called Eric, and unless you’ve raised small children you may not have known Eric C. at all.

Eric Arthur Blair, born in 1903, was of course the author of Animal Farm and 1984. (Hey, S: did he walk, or write about it?) Most everything he wrote addressed the historical confrontation between democracy (“democratic socialism”) and totalitarian despotism. That’s what inspired the late Christopher Hitchens to name him his favorite author.

The other thing any writer should appreciate about Mr. Blair is his fastidious advocacy of clear and muscular writing.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself. “Politics and the English Language,” via Maria 

The other Eric wrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which it pleases me to recall reading endlessly to Older Daughter in our formative years, back before the millennium. It was in steady rotation with Goodnight Moon, Goodnight Gorilla, the Berenstain Bears, and Little Critter. We both learned a lot from Mr. Carle about gluttony and moderation and I forget what else. Mostly I just remember the delight of shared and growing bibliomania, and the innocent laughter of childhood (her first and my second). Thanks, Eric.

So, digital dependency and what makes a Thinking Place a place to think? Later.

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Changing everything

June 24, 2015

5:50/5:33, 72/94. The Almanac today shares “Sweetness,” a poem by Stephen Dunn  that says “often a sweetness has come and changed nothing in the world… just long enough to make sense of what it means to be alive…” But it reconciled the poem’s subject to grief and loss, and it helped the poet write that poem. That’s change, isn’t it? Change at least of the stoical variety, an inner adjustment to outer circumstance? A change in attitude and temper is change I can believe in, whether it changes events in the world or not. I’m betting it does.

Continuing the epiphenomenal theme, it’s the birthday of Ambrose Bierce. His caustic and clever Devil’s Dictionary (1906) defines philosophy as “the most ancient occupation of the human mind” and “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.” He was a philosopher and a cynic, with no use for this hour of the day.

DAWN, n. The time when men of reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh. They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe years; the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them. The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the others who have tried it.

Bierce was a misanthrope, but an entertaining one.

MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.

The word “epiphenomenon” is missing from Bierce’s dictionary, but its flavor is there.

EFFECT, n. The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other—which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in the pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of a dog.

And he offers

PERIPATETIC, adj. Walking about. Relating to the philosophy of Aristotle, who, while expounding it, moved from place to place in order to avoid his pupil’s objections. A needless precaution—they knew no more of the matter than he.

Ha ha.

Bierce is wrong, though. Even when rambling alone, the peripatetic philosopher cannot avoid confronting objections. Especially then. The point of all that motion is precisely to summon and deal with them. That changes everything.

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Hegel’s walking dead

June 23, 2015

5:40/5:30, 76/95. Today’s WA poem, about the natural and finite spirit that soaks the ground and nurtures future history, might be construed as Hegelian. Hegel, so far as anyone can tell, was all about spirit (geist) and history.

…I like to think
that when I’m gone the chemicals
and yes the spirit that was me
might be searched out by subtle roots
and raised with sap through capillaries
into an upright, fragrant trunk,
and aromatic twigs and bark,
through needles bright as hoarfrost to
the sunlight for a century
or more…

But Hegel famously supposedly said that even the one reader who understood him didn’t really understand him. I don’t admire willful obscurity in a philosopher, and I especially disdain philosophers who take pride in their deliberate opacity. That’s why, when we get to Hegel in my classes, I always make a point of mentioning William James’s “Hegelisms” and his nitrous oxide experiments. Is Hegel clearer, under the influence? So it seemed to James, fleetingly. But ultimately James concludes that Hegel badly overstates the possibility of rational reconciliation in life and in history. Some negations are permanent, some losses are ireemediable, and the failure of philosophers like Hegel to say so, honestly, directly, and clearly, really rankles.

So Hegel deserves a degree of scorn for his gratuitous density; on the other hand (and notice, looking at the other hand is a stage in the Hegelian dialectic if we’ve understood him at all), he deserves credit for getting us to think about the long-term impact on history of our finite lives. That doesn’t quite reconcile a pragmatic stoic and empiricist like James (or me) to Hegelian perfectionism, but it wins him a point or two.

But back to yesterday’s question, part two: did Hegel walk? We’ve already determined that his dialectical successor Marx did. It would be the height of irony for any dialectician, let alone the progenitive dialectician-in-chief, ideologically committed to forward movement in life and history, to just sit and think.

Well, someone did go walking with Hegel in Marseilles, someone else with Hegel and Kant in Berlin. But maybe the best way to picture Hegel’s vision of history as a progressive realization of spirit is in terms of another prominent search result: “the walking dead.” Seriously. Think about it.

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Summer flows

June 22, 2015

6 am/5:32, 73/94. Nice long Dads Day solstice, treated by the family to lunch at M.L. Rose, a beautiful hand-crafted tribute from Younger Daughter, and just a bit more general deference than usual. A holiday filled with light, love, and kindness, officially launching summertime. A good day.

Went for a morning bikeride on the literal other side of the tracks, past Al Gore’s place. Later joined Older Daughter in her continuing  binge-watch of 30 Rock, and there he was. Season Two, I think. Pitching for the planet, as always.

The difficult thing about summer is, it’s the season when serious thinking is generally thought to go on holiday. The season for beach reading. But also the season when I always promise myself I’ll get serious and write that book. So for me it’s a cross-purposes sort of season, presenting the challenge of doing serious work in a playful season, writing easily and breezily of difficult things. It’s a dialectical season. (Hey S: were Hegel and Marx peripatetic at all?)

The trick, I think, is to get so caught up in the flow of the work that it, well, flows (in the Csikszentmihalyi sense of the word.) Summertime, so languid and lazy, can also be a time of transcendent achievement. Can’t it? That’s my goal this summer: be like Darwin, so absorbed in his sandwalks and the ideas they churned up that he had to count stones to stay in touch with normal time.

So, how to make time flow: a question to walk with. And another, posed by Nigel Warburton @philosophybites: “Is it a coincidence that many great philosophers loved walking?” It is not. But why not? Flow’s got something to do with it. Maybe everything.

And flow has something to do with good writing too. Oliver Sacks, via Maria, is onto this.

“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

It’s a lot easier to flow, I think, when you’re not standing silent and still.

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Riding the carousel

June 20, 2015

5:30/5:29, 73/90. Non-peripatetics are mystified by the seeming futility of a daily walker’s circuitous ramblings. “You don’t go anywhere, it looks so boring, you always end right  back where you started…” etc. That’s how it may appear on the surface, from the outside. But they forget, we’re all on a rocky carousel of a planet and always have been, going round and round. “Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving…”

When we do remember that, we marvel that vertigo isn’t our constant condition. We have to stand and move, to stay upright and hold our momentum, to keep facing forward. The alternative, it seems, is to be permanently floored by the sheer centrifugal nature of our existence. How else can we hope to keep up. 

Once more around the sun then, please, and another spin on the carousel each day, until the ride is over.
Thinking again about my Peripatetics Abroad course, delayed but not forgotten. A visit to Darwin’s Down House and Sandwalk will be a highlight. How exactly did he convert those little walks, those modest revolutions around a country estate, into the biggest revolutionary idea of all time? 

The Sandwalk was Darwin’s ‘thinking path’, a quarter-mile walk that formed the basis of his daily perambulations around the estate. He made regular circuits five times round it at noon, for example. His children skipped alongside from time to time, teasing their father by adding stones to the pile he would kick away to count each lap, but mostly Darwin walked alone, ‘using a walking-stick heavily shod with iron which he struck loudly against the ground’, as Darwin’s son Francis recalled.

Mostly he walked alone. That’s always true, ultimately. But we know he was a close observer of canines. Surely they sometimes accompanied him? (There’s a specific research topic for you, S.)

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The Wall

June 19, 2015

5:45/5:29, 75/91. Today is Juneteenth, “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day,” commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed on this date. It’s the birthday of Blaise Pascal, “torn between a spiritual life and a scientific one,” whose famous wager is less than scientific. And courageous “blaspheming” novelist Salman Rushdie is 68 today. WA

Had yet another delightful night at the ballpark, with another friend & colleague from school. The home team absorbed another tight loss, this time to Omaha, despite the cool retro ’40’s-era Nashville Vols uniforms they sported. But that was more than offset by convivial conversation and cheap “Throwback Thursday” beer.

Before the game we strolled the Wall of History at the nearby Bicentennial Mall, created in 1996 to celebrate Tennessee’s two-hundred years of statehood. The Wall is a 1,400 foot long series of words cast in granite, bounded by a series of imposing monoliths to mark each decade. But the most surprising thing about the Wall, this being Tennessee after all, is its honest acknowledgement of pre-history. The land we now occupy was here, it admits, long before our state, our schools, our churches…

and our continuing denial of scientifically established truth.
(Thanks to Matt, apparently a science-denier himself, who posted these and other images of the Wall. All the inscriptions are here.)
Inherit the Wind (1960)-What Happened to Reason? (YouT)… Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin and philosophy… Darwin@dawnevolutionDennettMatthew ChapmanScopes TrialLoyal Rue]

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