Archive for July, 2015

Raising hell

July 31, 2015

Two great justice-seekers, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837) and Primo Levi (1919), were born on this date. Labor crusader Jones has become a progressive icon, Auschwitz survivor Levi a reminder that our greatest foe is our own tendency “to believe and act without asking questions.” WA

“The first thing is to raise hell,” said Jones, “that’s always the first thing to do when you’re faced with an injustice and you feel powerless.”

Levi spoke for the powerless, and depicted a startling vision of aurora so different from mine. “Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction.” Those of us fortunate enough to face each new day in freedom, graced with the gift of hope in the rays of a morning star, should be raising more hell.

I recently finished Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a novel in the spirit of Primo Levi. It makes a subtler point: before raising hell, you have to see the injustice in front of you. “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever,” is a repeated refrain.

Also recently finished Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit. TR was often a hell-raiser and usually a justice-seeker, if also a swaggering imperialist and “bully”; but as I read it the great heroes of this story were the “muckraking,” eye-opening journalists who shined light into dark corners. Ida Tarbell was a Mother Jones for her time. We need more like her now.

7:30/5:54, 68/91

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July 30, 2015

Birthday of Casey Stengel (1890), who said “there comes a time in every man’s life and I’ve had plenty of ’em,” and C. Northcote Parkinson (1909), whose eponymous law decrees the expansion of work “to fill the time available for its completion.”

Don’t I know it. I’d like to repeal that one, or amend it with a provision that the quality of work expands indefinitely to match extended time. That would not be necessary, if real deadlines were imposed. But those only work if they’re accurately anticipated and scrupulously enforced. Douglas Adams (1952-2001) said it best, before his own final deadline arrived (as they do) unannounced : “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” He must have said that before he died, Casey might have observed. Or Yogi.

Image result for deadline cartoon new yorker

I was extolling the virtue of patience yesterday, of taking small steady steps towards the largest destinations and goals in our lives. But reflecting on deadlines, especially the big one at the end, challenges that mindset. Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), when asked about his least favorite virtue, named (of course) “Faith. Closely followed, in view of the overall shortage of time, by patience.”

6:15/5:54, 77/91. SenecaDeadlines

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July 29, 2015

Another nice evening at the ballyard, with Older Daughter this time. Rooting for the home team is rough these days, but we’re patient fans. At least we got tee-shirts and a souvenir cup featuring former Cy Young winner Barry Zito, patiently working his way back to the bigs.

It’s the birthday of Democracy in America author Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th century French aristocrat who found America’s middle class possessed of sufficient “practical intelligence” to offset their vulgarity and ignorance and allow them to govern the new nation. WA

We tend to identify the middle class in terms of relative wealth and income, but if vulgarity and ignorance are the key markers there’s never been a larger middle class competing for political office in America than is represented by the current crop of presidential candidates. The vulgar and ignorant billionaire who makes the other “jackasses” (Lindsey Graham’s word) look good is, by this criterion, the most middle of them all. What would de Tocqueville say now? I imagine he’d be impatient with this bunch.

It’s also the birthday of the patient centenarian poet who said “it is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self,” Stanley Kunitz. There’s a statement for our Hume group to ponder, given the skeptic’s dual commitment to dailiness and to metaphysical selflessness.

Dailiness, the everyday repetition of routine, the return to work, the renewal of purpose: my daily walk is a model and metaphor of that. Deep recesses? I might not choose those words to describe the experience derived from dailiness, and the word “self” might even be negotiable; but I know that without the scaffolding provided by repetition and routine, there would be no structural support for reflections on selfhood or anything else. That’s why I try to plug patiently away, day after day.

7 am/5:53, 75/93

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Hume the pragmatist

July 28, 2015

Looking forward to the David Hume course my cophilosophers and I are about to embark on. We’re so eager to get going, in fact, that we’ve already sort of begun. One of us has ventured the view that Hume was not a pragmatist.

He was a skeptical but not a radical empiricist in the sense intended by William James, one who notices not only the objects of phenomenal experience but also their conjunctive relations, as mirrored in the grammar of speech (“and,” “with,” etc.) but only partially articulated thereby. James thought Hume’s version left our experience chopped into bits, when in reality it flows in and through the interstices of nominative thought.

If Hume were right, James suggests, it’s as if that bird I’ve been watching flit about, here near my thinking porch, were visible only in the moments of arrested movement and I had to be skeptical about how he arrived at each successive stop. In fact, his flits and flights and hops and skips are continuous with his perchings. It’s part and parcel of his experience. The attentive birdwatcher sees this, where the intellectualist is tricked into missing it.

But not being a radical empiricist is one thing, not being a pragmatist another. Depends as always on how we define our terms, of course; but that famous Humean call to common life – “Be a philosopher, but be still a man” – is to me the epitome of a pragmatic sensibility. Acknowledging the impracticality, imprudence, and un-sociability of using reflective reason to cover one’s un-salubrious retreat from what the world calls “real life,” Hume knew when to remove his philosopher’s cap, drop the skeptical routine, and join his peers in a game over a pint.

His was the extrovert’s version of Thoreau’s definition of philosophy, as the ability to solve some of the problems of life not just theoretically but practically. I’ll be surprised if we students of Hume don’t end up agreeing that the most pressing practical problem, from both Hume’s and James’s points of view,  is how to live happily and well. They’re both that kind of pragmatist.

6:45/5:52, 77/91

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Full of life

July 27, 2015

Great time at the ballgame last night with my young friend from New Orleans who, attending only his second professional ballgame ever, was delighted to find that my home team was playing his. The Zephyrs from NOLA beat Nashville 9-7, and he tolerated my complaints about our relatively mild humidity. Down on the bayou the air’s thick as water, he says. We have no idea. Like William Carlos Williams’ crowd at the ballgame, the spectatorial spirit of uselessness delighted us too. David Hume (“be a philosopher but… be still a man”) would have approved.

It’s the birthday of a woman to whom I feel a real debt of gratitude, Elizabeth Hardwick (1916). She co-founded the New York Review of Books, dedicated to spotlighting “the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and, above all, the interesting.” I like the NYRB, but what I most thank Ms. Hardwick for is her earlier (1961) edition of The Selected Letters of William James. I first came across it as an undergraduate, rediscovered it in grad school, was charmed by the irrepressible humanity of its subject, and began a lifelong fascination with the philosopher who was capable even as a very young man of writing letters like this one to a despondent friend:

To Thomas W. Ward.
BERLIN, Jan. —, 1868.

…It made me feel quite sad to hear you talk about the inward deadness and listlessness into which you had again fallen in New York. Bate not a jot of heart nor hope, but steer right onward. Take for granted that you’ve got a temperament from which you must make up your mind to expect twenty times as much anguish as other people need to get along with. Regard it as something as external to you as possible, like the curl of your hair. 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 Kosmos.

That was the tip of an iceberg I’m so happy I ran into. Thank you, Elizabeth Hardwick.

6:50/5:51, 75/97

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The autodidact

July 25, 2015

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” That was the great autodidact philosopher longshoreman Eric Hoffer, born on this date in 1902. He also wrote:

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

He was no fan of our youth-besotted culture:

If a society is to preserve stability and a degree of continuity, it must learn how to keep its adolescents from imposing their tastes, values, and fantasies on everyday life.”

He knew the value of kindness:

“Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.”

And of work:

“The greatest weariness comes from work not done.”

To work.

6:15/5:49, 70/93

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The sound of human nature

July 24, 2015

The Almanac features a Gary Snyder poem this morning, describing the peaceful dawn sounds of animal nature returning to life-

distant dogs bark, a pair of
cawing crows; the twang
of a pygmy nuthatch high in a pine—
from behind the cypress windrow
the mare moves up, grazing.

 And then, the less peaceful drone of human nature returning to the office-

a soft continuous roar
comes out of the far valley
of the six-lane highway—thousands
and thousands of cars
driving men to work.

I can relate. From my dawn porch I too hear the occasional bark, caw, twang, and chirp. And, I hear that continuous roar of internal combustion, on I-40 a couple of miles away. “Soft”? Not the word I’d choose. Some days the sound is less invasive, that may have something to do with topography and the state of the atmosphere but probably more with the hearer’s state of mind and the poet’s prompt. Usually I tune out the roar. This morning I can’t. Thanks, Gary. Thanks, Henry Ford.

But it’s all nature, it’s all right here with us whether we’re attending or not. We’d better attend. It may be tolerable or ignorable, but it’s not sustainable.

6:15/5:49, 70/87

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The speed of thought

July 23, 2015

Ford sold its first Model A on this date in 1903, a topless red two-seater that soared to the dizzying speed of 28 mph. (WA) It’s been life in the fast lane for humanity ever since, but as Rebecca Solnit says, faster’s not always better. “The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by the electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.” Less necessary, maybe, but no less rewarding.

Moving from Point A to Point B with rapidity is one thing, internal movement another. What is the optimal speed across a landscape, if you want to go far within? All motion is relative to its frame of reference, of course. Just remember that we’re standing on a planet that’s revolving at 900 mph, give or take. That should be dizzying, but we never notice.

Likewise, internal motion’s optimal locomotive frame is the one that falls away from notice. There was a time when the passenger train, indeed, was a great engine for thought – occasional catastrophic train-wrecks excepted. Running on smooth and sturdy rails, creating its own interior space, I would gladly trade my Corolla for a daily commute on a commercial steam locomotive.

That’s not a present option, nor (at forty miles out) is the bicycle. But since re-committing to a daily fitness ride earlier this summer, I’ve found two wheels increasingly conducive to the flow of ideas. When I want to file one for future reference I pull from my pocket the voice recorder that doubles as a phone (etc.) and spit it out. One hand on the rudder’s not optimal, though, so it keeps those memos short.

Walking to work would be best, if only the workplace were always within range. That’s why summer’s such a good season for me, when I walk to work every single day like Henry. And bike. If he’d come along just a little later, I’ll bet he would’ve too. Bear on a bicycle, why not?

One reason, perhaps. Solnit again: “I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

6:15/5:48, 74/84.

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Whole-hearted empiricism

July 22, 2015

Birthday of Edward Hopper (1882), who said “all I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight…” (WA)

In these early hours of day, that’s a worthy ambition. I’d do it myself, if I had any aptitude for painting. Words don’t capture the light, but once in a while they reflect it in unexpected ways. So I carry on.

Perseverance, putting down one word and then another and then another, and then circling back with pencil and eraser and delete key – that’s a simple mirror of the steady routine involved in perambulating and in pedaling, one foot in front of the other, legs up and down, wheels round and round. Take breaks and breathers as required but don’t quit. Do it again tomorrow. Keep a’goin.’

William James criticized David Hume for a “half-hearted” empiricism…

(Is this relevant? I never know, unless and until my subconscious informs me later, so I’d better just go ahead and put it down. Words work that way, like tracks or traces in the mist to pick up later. Or not.)

James thought Hume didn’t get at the roots of our experience, didn’t persist to notice the everyday “powers” that produce our confident common-sense expectation of the dawn and all that follows, billiard balls knocking predictably into pockets, people generally behaving with kind sentiment and fellow-feeling, moments transitioning to moments like a flowing stream, particles of experience coalescing into practical knowledge and life wisdom. He noticed these phenomena but did not fully credit their value, and so became a skeptic and not a radical empiricist. He didn’t, James thought, go the distance.

A whole-hearted empiricist is all in, noticing connections others miss (like “and” and “or” and “but” as particles not just of speech but of experienceable reality, said James) and boldly risking error in pursuit of happiness and truth. “Our [intellectual] errors are not such serious things.” The verdict on that isn’t all in. But with a whole heart you persevere.

 Hume’s friend Franklin said our sun is rising, not yet setting. Thoreau said it’s but a morning star. If Hume was too skeptical and old-worldly, maybe the American “radicals” weren’t skeptical enough. But the great thing about sunrise is its implicit promise: if you persevere, light will be cast.

6:45/5:48, 73/87

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An old-fashioned view

July 21, 2015

Hemingway, noteworthy here if only for the splendid title of his first novel, was born on this date in 1899. The Sun Also Rises would be a decent name for a blog. But I wouldn’t want to emulate his bullfighting sexist lifestyle, or the manner in which he ended it. I’m not crazy about his writing style either.

It’s also the birthday of a later and (to my taste) more admirable American writer, John Gardner (1933). Sunlight Dialogues could name this blog too. I recall reading his novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts early in grad school because it was rumored (probably falsely) to be modeled on one of my new teachers, an eccentric distinguished philosopher. Most philosophers don’t believe in ghosts, but this one (the fictional character and his alleged template) did. And does, so far as I know. I believe in human spirits too; but mine are alive in the natural world.

Gardner’s Art of Fiction made me want to write a novel myself. Still do. He wrote, possibly with Hemingway in mind:

To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write […] so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write […] so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.


Fiction does not spring into the world fully grown, like Athena. It is the process of writing and rewriting that makes a fiction original, if not profound.

Gardner’s On Moral Fiction took a hard line against art for art’s sake:

In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue–by reason and by banging the table–for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does…

 It confronts despair and emboldens the reader to get up and face the sun another day. In fairness, lots of ultimately-suicidal writers (like Papa Hemingway) did that too, before despair got the better of them. We all have to take life one day at a time.

Gardner was not a fan of Faulkner, as he made clear in an interview with Paris Review, but his stance towards the moral function of art reminds me of Faulkner’s nobel speech:

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

In other words, humankind: don’t quit.

6:50/5:47, 79/90

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