Archive for January, 2017

Change

January 31, 2017

Today in CoPhi our topic is change. What kind of change can we believe in? Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Zeno of Elea all had ideas about that. And so did Goober of Mayberry.

The waters around us have definitely grown, the constitutional crises du jour are flowing faster than we can step into, the times are changing and the battle outside is raging. It was another weekend of street protests, even in Nashville (in front of our Senators’ offices at West End & Murphy). Robert Altman’s Nashville seems more timely than ever, Hal Phillip Walker more electable than ever, as our nation’s newly-staffed National Security Council now excludes the National Security Adviser and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs but somehow has room for the guy who said “I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

President #45 is issuing orders with his pen, and #44 has broken his 10-day silence to speak to our core value as an open-door society hospitable to all the yearning huddled masses. Have the ancients any relevant wisdom for us, on all this? Has the more recent hirsute philosopher anything valuable to bring out, besides Floyd’s razor?

Heraclitus was the Heidegger of his time, presumably indifferent to complaints  like Aristotle’s about his ambiguous syntax and cryptic aphorisms. Gottlieb gives us examples, some curious and others fairly clear, including:

  • Death is all things we see awake; all we see asleep is sleep.
  • Lifetime is a child at play, moving pieces in a game. Kingship belongs to the child.
  • As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.
  • War is father of all and king of all.
  • The way up and down are one and the same.
  • It is disease that makes health sweet and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest.
  • Much learning does not teach understanding.
  • It is in changing that we find purpose.
And the goodreaders share these, decrypted and streamlined:
  • Time is a game played beautifully by children.The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change.
  • The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny – it is the light that guides your way.
  • The people must fight on behalf of the law as though for the city wall.
  • Wisdom is to speak the truth and act in keeping with its nature.
  • Allow yourself to think only those thoughts that match your principles and can bear the bright light of day.
  • The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts.
  • The sun is new each day.
  • What was scattered gathers. What was gathered blows away.
So, he had his vapid moments but also his Dylanesque depths. The main takeaway, inarguable I’d say, is that change is our constant companion and we must work to make it our ally. The universal flux and turmoil is the stream we’re destined to fish and swim in, we “beasts, drunkards, sleepers, and children” who keep letting slip our proper logos, our ruling principle. 
And what is that principle, exactly? He doesn’t exactly say. He does say we’re an oppositional species. Our opposites attract and clash and sometimes issue in the attuned harmony of high and low notes. 
Also, he was an “intellectual pyromaniac,” fascinated by the transformational symbolic fire of living. 

Parmenides, pupil of Xenophanes (the guy who said horses and oxen would describe their gods as horses and oxen too) and teacher of Zeno, said everything’s eternal and so the times can’t be a changing after all. But that’s absurd on its face, isn’t it?

His main question was a serious one: how can language and thought hook onto the world? Through “touch,” somehow, presumably meaning that a prerequisite of knowledge is some form of perceptual immediacy. That doesn’t sound absurd to me, but it does seem to block the possibility of inferential knowledge. Again, we’ve got to ditch the armchair and the classroom and go out into the world we seek to know.

Zeno, like so many philosophers before and since, was trying to subvert our confidence in common sense with his paradoxes. It leads too often to confusion and unacceptable consequences, so a good dialectician walks us back from paradox to a reconsideration of our first premises. Socrates was a better one than Zeno, says Gottlieb, because the former had constructive intentions while the latter just wanted to defend his mentor Parmenides.


As for the Achilles paradox, I still prefer the Diogenes solution: solvitur ambulando: just walk away. A few quick strides will cover an infinitude of minute distances.

Among the problems we might ponder and possibly solve today: Should philosophers be deliberately enigmatic and impenetrable? Can an obscure epigrammatic statement really be profound? Or should philosophers always strive for prosaic clarity? 

And, oh yeah: What do we think of Goober’s pre- and post-beard persona, and of his friends’ recoil from philosophy? Couldn’t he have kept the beard and, unlike Heraclitus, just toned down the arrogance and pretense?

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Perchance to dream

January 26, 2017

In CoPhi today we return to The Dream of Reason. (What an apt title at this strange moment in our country’s history, when the drowsy absence of commitment to reason, fact, and truth in the new administration feels increasingly and disorientingly somnambulistic. Gerald Ford’s “long national nightmare” has a sequel. It’s been said before…

It’s very tempting, to just nod off and request a wake-up call when it’s safe and sane out there again. But as Lord Russell said, that’s a form of slumber to conjure monsters. We’ve got to keep our eyes open. Fight the power, for the planet. Sapere aude. Make the world safe again for the dreamers
It does in fact feel a bit like retreating into an ancient dreamscape, to take up the topic of preSocratic Milesians and Pythagoreans at a moment when every time we look up we discover the jarring rollback of another hard-won milestone of progress, on healthcare, the environment, gender equality, the 1st amendment…
But we must remind ourselves, those old first philosophers were modeling the very activity we must emulate now more than ever: throwing off convention, defying false authority, standing up to face the facts and seek the truth. They didn’t know they were pre-anything, but went ahead and invented the best method of fact-finding and whistleblowing we’ve yet hit upon. They were our first, if not our best, naturalists (physici), and they were smarter than popularly believed. 
Thales may or may not have fallen in a well or monopolized the olive presses, but his claim about the ubiquity of H2O, “intimately connected with life” and flowing wherever life has managed to sustain and replicate itself, was not crazy at all. “In order to refute him we have to reason with him,” as opposed I suppose to just stating the facts and telling the truth on him. (Or “giving him hell,” as Harry Truman had it.) 
If Thales was a reductionist and precursor of Occam and Thoreau (“simplify, simplify”), Anaximander “exemplified an additional and equally fundamental” scientific impulse, to peek behind the veil of appearances to discover the world’s real generative machinery. He thought it was something determinative of all the oppositions we encounter in phenomena (hot-cold, wet-dry, red-blue) but itself indeterminate and without “observable qualities of its own.” He called it apeiron.

What an odd duck was Pythagoras, with his numbers mysticism and belief in reincarnation and antipathy for beans and love for the inaudible celestial “music of the spheres.” Study numbers, geometry, astronomy, and music, he instructed, and you’ll grasp ultimate order in the cosmos.

Young Bertrand Russell had a Pythagorean and Platonic phase (as indeed did Plato), alleging our “highest good” in the mind’s spectral “union with the universe.” He later rethought that commitment, but in The Conquest of Happiness Old Russell still spoke of conjoining our respective destinies with the great “stream of life” that both antedates and succeeds our brief groundtime on Earth. Rising above petty day-to-day worries to contemplate eternity does in fact allow a bit of it to rub off on us, to lift us up. For a time.

Russell had another rethink, another “retreat from Pythagoras, ultimately giving up the rationalist “feeling that intellect is superior to sense.” No. Intellect and sense have to collaborate, for ideas, sensations, and perceptions to come together and sound the alarm, to get us up and doing. Sleep then can be the restorative it’s supposed to be, not an escape from responsible engagement with monsters and tweeters and oblivious fabulators who would trap us in their own terrible needs. 

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Solvitur ambulando

January 24, 2017

Today in CoPhi we consider and practice the peripatetic way of life, the approach to philosophy and philosophizing legendarily credited to Aristotle’s Lyceum apprentices and carried forward through the ages by the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Mill, Darwin, Russell, and so many more. Christopher Orlet guides our tour.


Solvitur ambulando was Diogenes the Cynic’s supposed rebuttal to Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion. It’s a clever and (say some possibly sexist celebrants) manly rhetorical riposte, but more impressively it’s a solid practical demonstration that ideas simply have to travel, to get anywhere. Up again off your Thinking Rock, your comfy chair, your laurels and your conventions. Perambulate, people, at least down the hall and back if not out into the wide open spaces of our local lyceum. It’s about to get wintry here again, but that never stopped Socrates. Maybe some of us are more like Descartes, whose mind purportedly “only worked when he was warm.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, said “My mind only works with my legs.” I’m with him on that, at least so long as I still have legs to stand on. A mind really should be flexibly adaptable to circumstantial necessity. Rousseau was not in fact known for his adaptability, being one of the more bumptious and difficult thinkers of all time. He was a little crazy, but his Reveries of the Solitary Walker registers some of the delights of the long-distance strider while striking a few good aphorisms along the way. “I have never thought, for my part, that man’s freedom consists in his being able to do whatever he wills, but that he should not, by any human power, be forced to do what is against his will.”  And, “Truth is an homage that the good man pays to his own dignity.” And, “In all the ills that befall us, we are more concerned by the intention than the result. A tile that falls off a roof may injure us more seriously, but it will not wound us so deeply as a stone thrown deliberately by a malevolent hand. The blow may miss, but the intention always strikes home.”


And consider this passage, in which J-J describes the temporary suspension of ego that a good walk can engender.

Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me. I did not know who I was, nor where I was; I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me. I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.”

The New England transcendentalists went in big for the “gymnastics for the mind” too. “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.”  Henry walked to work every day. Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try (and don’t live 42 miles away from campus).

“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.” He loved dogs as much as he loved walking and thinking. Like us, Darwin’s dogs are still evolving.

“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.'” That really works, sometimes. But it doesn’t work for “the average citizen [who] walks a measly 350 yards a day… it is not surprising that half the population is diagnosed as obese or overweight.”

Several cities around the globe have a designated “Philosophers’ Walk,” and we peripatetics are doing our best to inaugurate informal ones everywhere we go. Did you see all those philosophers marching out there Saturday?

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The dream begins

January 19, 2017

We begin this semester in CoPhi with Anthony Gottlieb’s acclaimed Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Last semester we did Bertrand Russell’s History, so a bit of cross-referencing seems in order. Two storytellers are better than one, say we pluralists and CoPhilosophers.

 Gottlieb’s approach is avowedly journalistic, in the best sense: go straight to the primary source whenever possible, question everything, and be clear. All of that is easier said than done, especially (when exploring complicated ideas) clarity. But it’s to Gottlieb’s credit, as it was to Russell’s, to make that a priority.  James’s “stubborn effort to think clearly,” and Russell’s “unusually obstinate” description, may seem mere common sense. 
But common sense is itself often stubbornly, obstinately wrong. That’s “the joke at the heart of philosophy” as it deliberately spurns conventional wisdom, in search of the real thing. Sometimes the joke’s on us philosophers, sometimes on the commoners. But of course we all recur to common sense, and we all need to get better at putting it on the rack of critical scrutiny.
Western science was created when the first (western) philosophers stopped settling for the “God(s) did it” non-explanation of things and went looking for natural causes. That led to enlightenment, of a sort, and to Gottlieb’s next volume, The Dream of Enlightenment. Perhaps one or more of our reporters will enlighten us about it soon. It’s on tap for next semester.

But today, our topic is bounded by these questions: What’s your definition of “philosophy”? Do you have a favorite philosopher? Can you summarize your current, personal philosophy of life?

A glance back, to last August 24:

We’re off, with Bertrand Russell’s introductory chapter in his History. There we’re cautioned against the “impertinent insolence towards the universe” of dogmatic theology, and directed instead to the gray space between certainty and paralysis that good philosophers occupy. Then we’re told that the Stoics presaged Christianity, that Montaigne’s “fruitful disorder” made him a representative man of his age, that Descartes’ subjectivist inflation of ego as philosophic method was insanely contrary to common sense, and that every community must negotiate the extreme opposite dangers of either too stultifying a regard for tradition or too much personal independence.

Those are just a few of the countless sharp opinions Russell will deliver, with audacity and biting wit, in this narrative. Another: that philosophy occupies a No Man’s Land between theology and science. So, we’ll wonder: are no theologians or scientists philosophers? Is there more than one way to be a philosopher? Here I’ll invoke Professor James’s observation that we all have some implicit philosophy or other. For a No Man’s Land, it’s pretty crowded.

Other points to ponder, prompted by this chapter: Is there any higher duty than that to one’s fellow humans? What do we owe the state, our contemporaries, our successors? In what specific ways should it matter to us that we’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving, on a distant spiral arm of a relatively nondescript galaxy, one among trillions? Ought we ever to acknowledge the authority of any individual or institution, to settle matters of belief and conscience? (Good question to ask on the anniversary of the first edition of the Gutenberg Bible.)

Some students will become frustrated with all these questions. I’ll happily suggest answers, and will not hesitate to advocate for my own. But the key takeaway today is that in philosophy the questions always outpace the answers, and we’re okay with that. Love it, in fact.

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Welcome to class

January 17, 2017

That was a nice long winter’s sabbatical, much of which we enjoyed spending with Older Daughter’s new pup Scooter. (The old pup Angel was less thrilled to welcome the interloping lapdog.)

 

But Scooter’s gone off to college now, out of state, and it’s time for me to get back to school too. Happy Opening Day! Three sections of Intro (CoPhilosophy, I call it, or just CoPhi) and Bioethics. Also looking forward to a directed readings course in Metaphysics and Epistemology, and a senior Honors thesis.

What to say on Day 1? Just to strap on sturdy shoes and prepare to entertain lots of questions-and-answers. I’m still peripatetic, and it’s gonna be unseasonably warm in middle Tennessee all week.

And, let’s look to our Bibliophile-in-chief (for three more days) for inspiration, while we still can. In college “he spent a focused period of deep self-reflection and study, methodically reading philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr, to strip down and test his own beliefs.” That’s it: we’re here to strip down and test our beliefs, to challenge ourselves to think for ourselves, to open ourselves to a wider universe of humble hopeful reflection.

Maybe I can also squeeze in a little inspiration from one of my own favorite authors. He was addressing newborns, but aren’t we all newbies on Day 1?

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

I actually have a couple more rules, in my classes, but they’re all in exactly that spirit.


Kurt said something else that seems quite timely this week too: “So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”

And so it goes. Hi-ho. Let’s go!

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