Archive for February, 2016


February 29, 2016

We leap every fourth year to avoid Christmas in July? What would be wrong with that?

Social life requires the reliability of a consistent calendar. Academic scheduling requires it. The Almanac requires it.

But wouldn’t it be an interesting psychology and sociology experiment, if we all just started marking off our days one by one like prisoners awaiting their release? We might, like prisoners, resent each new day as an obstacle to our freedom. Or we might welcome it as a step in the right direction.

We might come to think of each day as unique, in the Emersonian “days are gods” sense, and be more open to Michael Sandel’s “unbidden”. We might be more receptive and spontaneous, less structured and controlling. More in touch with our subjectivity, less in harness to the objective demands of the public world. Leap day is a good day to think about Kierkegaard.

Each day might really be a new beginning.

We’d stop celebrating one another compulsorily every 365th day. We’d more accurately recognize every day as a birthday, a potential party-&-gift occasion. Possibly we’d not take the present so much for granted.

And I’d eat more cake.

6:00/6:20, 50/64/47

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February 27, 2016

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Those were the concluding words of the speech that made Lincoln famous and propelled him to the Republican nomination, delivered on this date in 1860: a reminder that Republican presidential candidates used to be eloquent, serious, admirable, and wise, because the electorate used to insist on it. TR’s “bully pulpit” wasn’t meant for bullies.

But I’d rather think this morning about Brooklyn, which we saw at Regal Hollywood last night. It’s a gorgeous step back into the early ’50s, and as powerful a depiction of the fateful and momentous importance of choice as I’ve seen. Whoever calls it “sentimental drivel” has no heart, and probably hasn’t read the Toibin novel it’s based on. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as Eilis, landing alone in Flatbush feeling lost as Crusoe but growing quickly and confidently into her new life.
A question to walk with this morning, thinking some more about Crusoe the castaway’s salutary courage, independence, and immersion in the immediacy of his stranded situation: in light of Scheffler’s doomsday scenario, would we still expect those salutary qualities to emerge in the utter absence of hope for a possible return to the collective human fold, or for humanity’s future? If he were the last man on earth, on his island, would he still care? Or would he, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, have to get back to Memphis?

Does personal immediacy, in its richest form at least, presuppose collective humanity?

6:25/6:22, 30/61

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February 26, 2016

Turning disgustedly away from appalling reports of the latest trainwreck of a GOP “debate” between those petty and petulant little violators of their mythic hero’s 11th commandment, this morning I’m thinking instead about a shipwreck, immediacy, and the passage of time.

John Lachs, in person and in Intermediate Man, put immediacy on my scholarly agenda when I arrived in Grad School back in the Great Communicator’s early presidency. Far more importantly, he put it on my personal agenda. No one had ever drawn my attention so explicitly to the rich and rewarding possibilities inherent in attention per se, when we attend to the simple stuff of ordinary perceptual life.

The shipwreck in question was Robinson Crusoe’s, fending entirely for himself without help to procure his meals, build his shelter, interpret his Bible, or plan his days. He had no choice but to attend, raptly and constantly. His stranded life was adverse but authentic, socially impoverished but perceptually full. His utter isolation is not to be envied, but his independence and self-reliance are impressive.

William James also spoke of shipwreck as one of life’s permanent possibilities. If we love life we must be prepared to survive it, and to do that we must learn to live in immediacy. Most of us are rarely tested by anything so extreme as genuine shipwreck, thank goodness; but survival through conditions of extremity and hardship is within our range.

We’ll survive this election season, for instance, if we don’t allow our attention to be swallowed by the false “reality” of those contrived media circus events but instead turn to other and better things. What isn’t better?

John Lachs dedicated Intermediate Man to his family, “three generations of immediacy.” Way better!

5:50/6:24, 34/49/31

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Scholars and politics

February 25, 2016

Moving poem today about feeling “stretched between past and future,” rooted in time while gazing forward through moon and stars, imagining much earlier gazers who “stood where I stand, dreaming of what we’ve become.” It evokes for me that collective mortal afterlife we’ve been pondering in Atheism, and the thought that living fully in the present is not denying or repudiating our future but realizing that our present was, in the past, their future.

A teacher’s job is to help prepare young people of the present to meet and manage their future, when it presents itself. A scholar’s job is to hone the skills of critical reflection that inform good teaching. I keep having to remind myself of that, these strange days, when it can seem irrelevant and self-indulgent to pursue a scholar’s agenda while a carnival-barking, bullying “reality” huckster marches unimpeded towards a shot at the highest office in the land.

Next week I’m heading out to Portlandia to chair a philosophy session at the SAAP conference on Emerson and Dewey. What would they say about our current politics, and what a scholar should have to do with it? Would they think our time, at this moment, could be better spent than in extended and probably irresolute discussion of how naturalistic and Hegelian they were, respectively? Would they feel the Bern?

Emerson said lots of empowering things about the American Scholar but he could not possibly have imagined this moment. I barely can. But he’s right, there’s a right and wrong way to do it. “In the right state, he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” We’re hearing lots of parrots on the campaign trail and in the reporters’ galleries, but not much parroted thinking.

Dewey said “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.” That we includes us and them, the gazers and dreamers of our present and those to come. In times like these it’s comforting to imagine them, looking back on us and shaking their heads in astonished wonder.

5:35/6:25, 40/42
6:00/6:26, 56/35

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Good words

February 23, 2016

“Most of what happens happens beyond words,” say the first words of today’s poem. It’s about marriage, but it applies to life at large. Bearing those words in mind makes it easier, curiously, to find more words.

I do love the words on the sign beside the little walking trail at the Baptist Church down the street:

“Regular walking can strengthen your heart and improve your general health. Walk and enjoy yourself as you enhance the quality of your life.”

I’ve been walking dogs (and the occasional daughter) past that sign for almost twenty years, and it’s taken on a talisman-like significance for me. It’s a personal mile-marker and reminder of temps perdu. It’s by far the most positive message I’ve ever received from church, the church whose portal I’ve only ever passed to cast electoral votes.

The sign has been in decline for some time, the building & grounds committee apparently not considering it worthy of their attention. I took it upon myself to apply duct tape to a corner a few months ago, to hold it together a little longer. But the big windstorm the other day was too much. I found it blown several feet down the hill. Was this another kind of sign?

I deposited it at the church’s door, and later emailed “Pastor Tom” who says he’ll attend to it.

Moral of the story: don’t underestimate the value of a few well-placed words.

What would our CoPhi subjects today say about that?  Machiavelli might say just steal it (but don’t admit anything). Hobbes, I think, would be pleased that I didn’t, that I’d upheld my end of the social contract with my neighbors. And as a fellow walker, I’m sure he’d understand my peculiar sentimental attachment to the words on that sign.

More good words will occupy us in Atheism: Kindness, Education, and Tenderness are our chapter titles in Religion for Atheists.

And before we consider eugenics in Bioethics, we’ll follow up on last time’s lively conversation on drugs. What is a drug, anyway, Alain de Botton? “Essentially a drug is anything that alters your mood acting via either the body or the senses to make an impact upon the mind.” So that includes pomegranate juice, emmentaler cheese, the music of Mozart…

And words.

5:45/6:27, 46/61

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Auden’s drugs

February 22, 2016
Michael Sandel’s plea in The Case Against Perfection for openness to the unbidden, as a counter to the coming seductions of genetic engineering and biotechnological reconstruction, somehow led us the other day in Bioethics to a conversation about recreational drugs. If you climb high enough into the “mountains,” said one of us, the new view may be transformative. 
Others were more concerned about the disruption and degradation likely to follow the climber back down. It’s still part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life, as James said, that so many of our peak experiences are unsustainable and eventually destructive.
That conversation was still echoing in mind when I came across this item in yesterday’s Almanac:

W.H. Auden’s writing habits were simple: he woke up, had strong coffee and toast for breakfast, smoked cigarettes while completing the New York Times crossword puzzle and reading the obituaries, and then got to work. He had a liking for tripe, tongue, brains, polish sausage, Smirnoff martinis, and cognac. He enjoyed the freedoms of American life, especially during the 1960s, when he experimented with drugs. He tried LSD once and said, “Nothing much happened, but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate with me.”

It seems that Auden’s better drugs were the legal ones, beginning with caffeine. Noted.

5:45/6:29, 46/57/41

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All together now

February 18, 2016

I voted!

Early-voted in the March 1 Tennessee primary, down at the Belle Meade city hall, for the revolutionary candidate of my choice. Hooray, democracy! Always feels good to exercise the franchise, while the country’s still in business.

Encouraging poem today about not fearing to fail. “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew” before he returned to Earth, notes poet Jack Gilbert. The only things worth writing about, he said, are “Love, death, man, virtue, nature, magnitude, excellence, evil, suffering, courage, morality. What is the good life. What is honor. Who am I.” That’s plenty, but it’s still a short list and Gilbert was a relatively un-prolific writer. “All Jack ever wanted to know was that he was awake — that the trees in bloom were almond trees — and to walk down the road to get breakfast. He never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench.”

In CoPhi today it’s Boethius in his cell with stoic Lady Philosophy, then Anselm and Aquinas. Christians all, though Bo didn’t usually say so.

In Atheism, we turn to Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. It’s a provocative title (and a more-than-provocative image of his fanciful notion of secular church on p.67), and he admits that most godless people don’t like the R-word.

But just as John Dewey anticipated Scheffler’s collective natural afterlife with his “continuous human community,” he also proposed (in A Common Faith) a naturalistic reconstruction of our understanding of what it really means to be religious. Natural piety means recognizing, honoring, and working to sustain the ties that bind us all to one another and to the mortal world. You don’t have to get religion, he’s saying, to be “religious” in this sense. But atheists who like to congregate should feel free.

In Bioethics we consider the zealotry of overly-involved parents. They move heaven and earth to get their toddlers into elite pre-schools, and later helicopter their way into hyper-managing their kids’ college lives. When genetic technology allows, says Michael Sandel, they’ll likely intrude pre-natally too. They don’t understand that we “do not choose our children” but must “accept them as they come.” As the poet said, our children are not really ours.

Or rather, they’re all ours. John Dewey again: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” I was thinking about that yesterday in the voting booth. Casting a ballot is a small, mostly symbolic way to connect and join forces with others who share your vision of how best to reconstruct your community. You could think of it as a religious or spiritual act. Or you could just say: we’re all in this together.

5:45/6:33, 28/59

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February 16, 2016

We turn to Augustine in CoPhi today, with his famous “not yet” plea for pious purity. What would he have said about Sam Scheffler’s collective afterlife, or the idea that personal salvation takes a back seat in our imaginations and aspirations to a shared though mostly tacit commitment to the continuance of life on earth? Nothing very supportive as Saint, I’m sure, but in that fabled (and probably exaggerated) misspent youth he clearly understood the impulse for more of the sort of life we know as healthily embodied carnal spirits. The ethereal sort, he thought, could wait.

He wanted to live long with his youthful passions and animal vigor intact, not swap them for the “dangerous wisdom” (as today’s poem has it) that leaves the playing field early and retires to the cloister too soon.

…Keats starved
himself to death because he yearned
so desperately to feast on Fanny Brawne.
Emerson and his wife decided to make
love sparingly in order to accumulate
his passion.

But passion and life can’t really be hoarded, young A. knew. Use it or lose it.

Speaking of playing fields…

In Bioethics we look today at Michael Sandel’s “Bionic Athletes” and what’s troubling about enhanced performance. Justice Scalia’s opinion on the subject, that a game’s rules are entirely arbitrary, is “far-fetched” indeed if we’re thinking of the game of life. It’s an essential rule of that most treasured game that winners leave it all on the field.

My favorite novelist Richard Ford (whose birthday it is) knows that, I think. “People always know more than I do, but what I know I know.”

Do we know that we possess (in Sandel’s words) a “capacity to act freely, for ourselves, by our own efforts, and to consider ourselves responsible – worthy of praise or blame – for the things we do and for the way we are”? No, but maybe we should act as if we did.

5:40/6:36, 39/43/33

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February 11, 2016

Skeptics and Stoics share the bill in CoPhi today. In Atheism, critics offer their critiques of Samuel Scheffler’s “collective afterlife.” And in Bioethics we transition from Alastair Campbell’s last chapter, on justice, to Michael Sandel’s first in his Case Against Perfection, on the ethics of enhancement.

It’s a confluence of themes in light of which it seems relevant to note Nelson Mandela’s birthday. The struggle for justice never ends, but its greatest champions persevere. They insist that justice for all must be sought here and now, however many decades and generations it takes to expose and discredit the agents of injustice on earth. It is not to be permanently postponed or reassigned to another world, and it is not to be exchanged for the enhancement of the relative few.

The ultimate bioethical issue, as Campbell and the Royal Society conclude, is simply global survival.

Over the next 30-40 years [we face] the opportunity to move towards a sustainable economy and a better world for the majority of humanity, or alternatively the risk of social, economic, and environmental failure and catastrophes on a scale never imagined.

So there it is, a version of doomsday only slightly less terminally foreboding than the one Scheffler’s had us playing with. Perfection is not on the table, but collective progress had better be.

The good news, as Susan Wolf says, is that doomsday is still only a scenario. Having turned this chilling thought experiment over in mind we’re soberly brought back to “the meaning and value of the activities that would truly have been rendered pointless by imminent extinction.” Time, though scarce, is not yet gone. “Now, once again, we have a reason to cure cancer, to find more sustainable energy sources,” to give a thought to posterity as thought has been given to us.

5:40/6:41, 26/40

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February 9, 2016

We got a dusting of snow overnight, so – this being middle Tennessee – my school has just alerted us that we’ll be starting late this morning, at 9:40. That’s when my first class meets anyway, so I’ve not been gifted with more time after all.

Time’s slippery elusiveness: that’s a big theme today in class, and it’s my theme this week as I approach yet another birthday. My step-Mom sent a card and a charming old photo of my Dad at about age two. He’s been gone for over seven years now.

I awoke this morning, as I sometimes do, with the fragmented vestige of a quote I read somewhere recently clamoring for attention. The precise wording and source are eluding me. I’d like to pin it down, so I can call it up later at will. It was a well-wrought question about what causes some individuals and cultures to flourish, to greet each day with confidence, energy, and enthusiasm, while for others it’s a constant struggle with anxiety, trepidation, and dread.

Was it Eric Weiner in Geography of Genius? But I can’t find it there.

Whoever and wherever, it’s a good question and that’s a good book. Weiner thinks we overrate genetics and underrate the contribution of social environments in producing creativity and the zest for living and learning that you could call “genius” if you were careful not to mean something entirely beyond cultivation. We can plant and harvest the seeds of good living, it’s not an entire mystery as to why some lives and lifestyles flourish while others founder.

And that’s why we study the likes of Pyrrho and Epicurus and John Rawls, who’ll turn up in my classes today. Pyrrho the skeptic was no role model, if you ask me, but he apparently had a genius for attracting the protective patronage of his peers. People who doubt the danger of dancing at cliff’s edge don’t survive without it.

Epicurus was much brighter (in both the “Bright” senses of practical wisdom and sunny disposition), but his dismissal of death as “nothing to us” was disingenuously glib.

 John Rawls comes into both our Atheism and Bioethics discussions today. His “circumstances of justice” suggest to Samuel Scheffler an aalogy to circumstances of value, and the idea that we only begin to truly grasp life’s exquisite tenuity when we acknowledge time’s scarcity. When time’s up, we’re out. That’s not “nothing,” Epicurus.

5:45/6:43, 27/30/17

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