Archive for August, 2017

I’ve just posted on my Blog about: “Life is good” https://t.co/ZAHSddfrZd

August 31, 2017

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“Life is good”

August 31, 2017
So said the Amazonian Piraha people, according to Daniel Everett, before it became a popular marketing slogan.
Image result for life is good

Happiness (the class) begins today with Daniel Haybron’s Very Short Introduction, which includes that epigramatic reference to the Pirahas and then tells us that Socrates – so often exalted as a paradigmatically happy man, right up until the hemlock kicked in, in his 70th year – “didn’t miss out on a thing.” Well, he missed out on his 71st. Life might have been better, certainly longer.

Was Socrates happier than the average college student? “You might think the typical college student lives in a state of bliss,” with minimal obligations and maximal opportunities to ruminate, socialize, and party, but apparently that would be wrong. How many of them are living the examined life? Ignorance is perhaps not bliss, after all? But what about enlightened Socratic ignorance? Either way, American students are apparently less happy than we thought.


Panama is most blissful, evidently. Or was. More recent results point elsewhere. Denmark? Iceland? (I think I recall Eric Weiner’s Geography of Bliss giving them high marks.)

One way to chart our happiness index is to ask what’s on your bucket list. Another: what’s not on your deathbed list of things you just have to do one more time. Maybe not “another peck at the mobile phone, or one more trip to the mall.” Maybe you won’t wish you’d bought more crap.

“What sort of life ultimately benefits a person,” wondered Aristotle. What, not shopping or iPhoning? How many of us can even imagine how bizarre those activities would seem to an old Greek philosopher?

A young Intro student yesterday told me it was his impression that philosophy was mostly about pondering and pontificating on our feelings. But Haybron quickly withdraws feeling theories from the field, in favor of “life satisfaction.” But don’t confuse that with “subjective well-being,” a catch-all of psychologism he says we must confuse with our real quarry.

Has there really never been a better time to be alive? I wouldn’t have said the first decade of this millennium was the best ever, but it depends on the yardstick. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels makes the case for our good luck.

Many indigenous peoples say the only thing they envy about the western industrial lifestyle is healthcare (and we know how fraught that is). William James told his friend Schiller to “keep your health, your splendid health – it’s worth all the truths in the firmament.” Hard not to agree, especially after a bout with serious illness. If you’ve not experienced that, by the time you reach “a certain age,” you’re even luckier than most.

Haybron says “we need a theory – a definition – of happiness.” Do we? What do you mean, we? We philosophers? We authors? We moderns? We shoppers and social media fanatics? Why can’t we be happily undefined and atheoretical? Presumably because the absence of a good theoretical framework leaves us in the wrong “state of mind.” 
Happiness is a state of mind, for sure, but it’s even more a state of experience and expectation. No?
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On this day in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous “American Scholar” address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard (books by this author). He told the students to think for themselves rather than absorb thought, to create rather than repeat, and not to look to Europe for cultural models… 

It’s the birthday of Armenian-American writer William Saroyan (books by this author), born in Fresno, California (1908). His parents were recent refugees from the Turkish massacres in Armenia. His father died when William was three. Saroyan’s mother, placed her children in the Fred Finch Orphanage in Oakland, California. Saroyan spent five years there before his mother was able to claim him… Towards the end of his life and dying of prostate cancer, he called the Associated Press to give a statement to be released posthumously. The statement was: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

And it’s the birthday of Maria Montessori (books by this author), born on this day in Chiaravalle, Italy (1870)… She believed that children were not blank slates, but that they each had inherent, individual gifts. It was a teacher’s job to help children find these gifts, rather than dictating what a child should know. She emphasized independence, self-directed learning, and learning from peers. Children were encouraged to make decisions. She was the first educator to use child-sized tables and chairs in the classroom. WA

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: The dream begins https://t.co/fZhk4fED8h

August 30, 2017

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The dream begins

August 30, 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 year 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. “Our intelligence cannot wall itself up alive, like a pupa in its chrysalis. It must at any cost keep on speaking terms with the universe that engendered it,” said the author of A Pluralistic Universe. The way we stay on speaking terms is by speaking with one another, honestly, humbly, and (as Mr. Rosewater knows) kindly. That, again, is our “philosophy of co.

 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. 
Image result for the thinkerBut 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. We’re all philosophers in embryo, but to grow into mature thinkers we need to learn when to trust our common inheritance and when to challenge it. We need to stand up from our respective Thinking Rocks and move, and converse, and think again – like the pair of peripatetics in the School of Athens.

 

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.

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.
==
1.19.17 5:30/6:57, 47/64, 4:58
Happy birthday to the creator of the Imagination Library, and the largest employer in Sevier County TN. (A bonus run to the student who today first tells me who that is.)

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Happiness returns https://t.co/8v4UBj8SAI

August 29, 2017

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Happiness returns

August 29, 2017

My Philosophy of Happiness course only comes around every other year. Who could have predicted, when last we met in 2015, the current state of things? Who could have imagined this eclipse-defying, race-baiting, ally-smacking, self-infatuated POTUS? It’s been surreal, mostly not in a happy way. Some of us may be tempted to surrender to this moment, to suspend talk of happiness as self-indulgence of another sort, and to brace ourselves for conflict domestic and foreign as we soldier through a time of troubles.

But not me. Happiness and its pursuit are too important, too central to the meaning and point of being human, to abandon for anything as fleeting as the particular political absurdities of this passing show.

Weren’t you happy to experience and share that cosmic diversion last Monday? But that gets it backwards. Politics, impactful though it is on lives and prospects, is the diversion. We need to remember that we’re standing on a planet that’s evolving, and revolving, etc. We need to retain a cosmic perspective. Then, we’ll not be so inclined to discount the importance of our happiness.

If we were to ask the question: “What is human life’s chief concern?” one of the answers we should receive would be: “It is happiness.” How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.

Thus spake my philosophical spirit-guide James, a little over a century ago. But if that’s too current, you can go back to Aristotle. “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

But the issue of our existence is never settled by the citing of authorities, no matter how lustrous. We have to work it out for ourselves, find a way to flourish in personal terms while also remaining responsibly committed to the welfare of our peers and the survival of our species. No simple task, but there’s none more urgent.

That sounds almost grim, in an existentialist sort of way. “You will never be happy,” said Camus, “if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

Well, I disagree. That’s too pessimistic, too Schopenhaurian.

“What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original. Much would have been gained if, through timely advice and instruction, young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.”

If that’s the course you signed on for, this one will disappoint. The world does have a great deal to offer. It has a world. We get to live here. We’re the lucky ones who got to live at all, who’ll get to be happy if we apply ourselves just a bit to the question of how to do it.

 That, anyhow, is our working hypothesis. It makes me happy to begin working it out again.

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Lest we take the notion of dawn too literally…“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.” https://t.co/VdC9DhxDXq

August 28, 2017

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Opening Day! https://t.co/USsGlJZuuZ

August 28, 2017

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Opening Day!

August 28, 2017
Opening Day! I’ll meet two sections of CoPhilosophy this afternoon, commencing once again to try and explain what philosophy is for: it’s for getting better at asking questions and entertaining alternative possible answers, for coexisting with those who answer differently, for learning to love thinking for ourselves, for learning how to be happy, for learning how to live and die…. among other things.
 Alain de Botton’s School of Life has its critics, but it sure performs a valuable service when it comes to opening a philosophical conversation. That’s what our classes are, extended conversations with one another but also with philosophers long past and, we may hope, into a far future. 


Our quest is for clarity, in William James’s sense when he defined philosophy as an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly, and for sweep:

“…explanation of the universe at large, not description of its details, is what philosophy must aim at;
and so it happens that a view of anything is termed philosophic just in proportion as it is broad and connected with other views… any very sweeping view of the world is a philosphy in this sense.” Some Problems of Philosophy

We’re also in search of mutual understanding and respect, in Spinoza’s sense when he said “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

And we’re also after kindness, in Kurt Vonnegut‘s sense when he welcomed babies to planet Earth and informed them of its one indispensable rule:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Ultimately of course, in philosophy we’re searching for wisdom. We like it, we love it, we need a lot more of it,  philo-sophia

And so we begin. Put on your philosophy goggles, everyone. You don’t want to look directly at the Form of the Good (aka the sun) without ’em. No one’s exempt from the laws of nature.

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“Without language there is no poetry, without poetry there’s just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing.”

August 25, 2017

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