Archive for January, 2018

I’ve just posted on my Blog about: What it’s all about https://t.co/6VjYoDXWlT

January 23, 2018

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What it’s all about

January 23, 2018

We begin at the beginning in all four classes today, asking What is philosophy? What is atheism? What is bioethics? Or answering, to turn it around Jeopardy-style. The short affirmative prompts, then, to which these simple questions are each an appropriate respective response:

  • The stubborn commitment to thinking and speaking clearly, motivated by the love and pursuit of wisdom.
  • The belief that there are no gods or other supernatural agencies and forces guiding the fate and destiny of human beings.
  •  The study of life in light of the rules, conditions, and actions by which it may flourish.
I’ll solicit crowd-sourced alternative prompts and definitions from each class, as always. 
Not every philosopher is devoted to clarity, nor does every philosopher seem especially clear on the meaning of wisdom. When the Philosophy Bites inquisitors asked a sampling of contemporary philosophers to say what their profession is and does, the results varied widely. None of them came up with a better answer than William James’s “stubborness.”
There’s less variety among atheists, definitionally, but there’s a distinct spectrum of attitudes and temperaments within the godless community. Some atheists are “friendly” like Hemant Mehta and Julian Baggini, some are nasty like P. Zed Myers, many just want to understand what others mean by “God” and why, like Spinoza. I’m urging him as our role-model.
There’s plenty of difference among bioethicists, particularly when religious convictions concerning the god-granted sanctity of life are introduced, but none would deny that good living is the field’s focus. And good dying. That’ll be our capstone topic, as Atul Gawande leads us into the thicket of issues surrounding life’s final chapters. 
King Louis XVI was beheaded on this date in 1793 in Paris, btw. Lots of heads rolled in the French Revolution. Not a good last chapter for anyone, though the King’s gracious last words weren’t bad.
What does it mean to live a good life and anticipate a good death? If that’s our jeopardy answer, the affirmative prompt might just be: What all of our classes are ultimately about…

1.21.16-5:50/6:67, 31/41

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RT @sapinker: I collect ambiguous headlines. This one, on our President’s health, is among the best. https://t.co/G6YTMc9hNM

January 18, 2018

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Opening Day, take 2 https://t.co/GhhKaQqDSf

January 18, 2018

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Opening Day, take 2

January 18, 2018

Let’s try that again…

After two snowdays we’ll finally kick off the “Spring” semester, with two sections of CoPhi, Atheism, & Bioethics on tap today and every Tuesday/Thursday ’til winter’s well behind us. An old new routine, up at 5 and straight into the shower, before coffee, before walking the dog, way before dawn.

So that’s a reality check, to commence a semester dedicated to the proposition that we who value philosophy must embrace facts, truth, and reality.

In the spirit of Heraclitus, who didn’t exactly say you can’t step twice into the same river – it was more like, the same river perpetually hosts new waters – I try to approach each rendition of these old courses with new eyes and fresh receptivity to what can and must be different.

For one thing, we’re now a full year into the benighted age of Drumpf’s reality-bending world of alt-facts. That’s the elephant in the room, whatever his physician says. (6’3/239 – really?)

So to address and tame the elephant we’ll be reading and discussing Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland in CoPhi, alongside Anthony Gottlieb’s Dreams (of Reason and Enlightenment) and Nigel Warburton’s Little History. It’s not enough to chart the history of (mostly-western) philosophers’ takes on truth, facts, and reality, we’ve got to think about where we’re taking those ideas/ideals… and how to take them back from the charlatans who’ve somehow seized the spotlight and, for the moment, the reins of political power.

As my sometime-namesake Philip Roth says, “No one [but Mencken, maybe] could have imagined that the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the U.S.A., the most debasing of disasters, would appear not, say, in the terrifying guise of an Orwellian Big Brother but in the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon.” But there we are. We must deal with it.

Again in the spirit of Heraclitus: my friend the new interim Dean to our south has a nice tagline on his emails, from the author of  A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, that seems worth noting on Opening Day: “The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do, with great artists; … with artists like these we do really fly from star to star.” And so we must do what we can to borrow other eyes, not only by accessing the perspectives of “great artists” and thinkers but by simply showing up and conversing, collaborating, co-philosophizing.

I’ll drop a couple more names in class, to kick us off: Immanuel Kant, not a real pissant, said (says the Muse) “science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.”

And the guy Kant said woke him from his dogmatic slumbers, David Hume, said “philosophical discussion unites the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life: study and society.”

Once more, then, into the breach. Let’s get organized, and let’s get to studying. It will be my  pleasure and I hope, fellow co-philosophers, yours.

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“I go to sleep smiling and I wake up smiling. I’m very pleased that I’m still alive.” Philip Roth https://t.co/1lgKeyGlrj

January 17, 2018

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I go to sleep smiling and I wake up smiling. I’m very pleased that I’m still alive.

January 17, 2018

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Character & a capacity for happiness belong to those with a feeling for fictional lives, learned JS Mill https://t.co/446S9K9bao

January 16, 2018

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Opening Day! https://t.co/aUI4dUPXcl

January 16, 2018

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Opening Day!

January 16, 2018

It’s Opening Day of the Spring 2018 semester at our school. (I’m glad we call it Spring and not Winter, though I do try to appreciate George Santayana’s observation that “to be interested in the changing seasons is, in this middling zone, a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” But spring and summer are still what will pull me through, following Thoreau: “A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart.”

I’ll meet two sections of CoPhilosophy today, 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 – philo-sophia – we’re searching for wisdom.
“It’s one of the grandest and oddest words out there, so lofty, it doesn’t sound like something one could ever consciously strive to be – unlike say, being cultured, or kind. Others could perhaps compliment you on being it, but it wouldn’t be something you could yourself ever announce you had become…” SoL

This semester we acknowledge the particular duress lately suffered by our grand old standby philosophical abstractions “truth, reality, fact,” et al, by taking up Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. This moment may have blindsided many, but we might have seen it coming. Maybe, with the right vision, we can see how to get past it.

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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