Archive for the ‘experience’ Category


October 31, 2012

More good report presentations yesterday in CoPhi, including one from Michael and another from Jon that independently observed something important about how we live now: many of us are so busy crafting and  projecting Platonically-ideal social media versions of ourselves that we’re actually lost in cyberspace. Danger, Will Robinson: those “friends” are not reliable, those experiences are not real.

Michael said we’re like Plato’s cave-dwellers, mistaking our own projected “forms” for reality. Jon said real Forms are all around us. Both were really saying, I think, that reality is immediate, embodied, personal, and subjectively experienced. I concur. So would William James, who said “the only form of thing we directly encounter, the only experience we concretely have, is our own personal life.”

“Impersonal experience” is an oxymoron. Virtual experience is better, but still not as direct or immediate or concrete as a walk in the woods or a face-to-face in exterior space. Or a hurricane, lest we forget that reality is not always more pleasant. But it is always more honest. More real. As a very old philosophy primer puts it:

If we ask the plain man, What is the real external world? the first answer that seems to present itself to his mind is this: Whatever we can see, hear, touch, taste , or smell…

So, I vote for the “plain” empiricists, as opposed to the flighty and speculative rationalists… for Aristotle over Plato, Locke and Hume (but not Berkeley) over Descartes and Leibniz. (But I like Spinoza, determinism aside.) I will continue to tweet and blog, but will also continue to resist full immersion in the second-hand, mediated world of clicks and strokes. Step away from the keyboard.

And now I really must turn to an immediate and concrete encounter with that pile of student essays. I’m sure it’ll be real.

Attention must be paid

August 4, 2011

TED continues to astonish. I watched Julian Treasure’s talk [transcript] about paying closer attention to the sounds of our lives the other morning before walking in my neighborhood…

…and found myself distinguishing more levels of aural complexity than I’d noticed in a long time. It’s too easy to surrender to the blooming buzzing confusion.

But then something even more delightful happened. I noticed that, having re-awakened to sound,  I was also attending more closely to all the other information streams on my perceptual horizon. I’m not a “visual person” normally, but this day’s shafts and beams of light caught my eye and I snapped this picture.

The moral, of course, which I have to keep re-learning: pay attention. When you “lose your listening,” and your seeing and feeling et al, you really do lose access to the world. You sacrifice experience on the altar of speed and efficiency, or “practicality,” or something. We must retrain ourselves to see, hear, and enjoy what’s all too frequently missed. The simplest perceptual acts can be founts of joy and delight, and as Robert Louis Stevenson said: to miss the joy is to miss all.

Treasure’s right, this should not be extracurricular.


January 13, 2010

I was praising my colleague Rabbi Rami the other day, for the cosmopolitan/pluralistic spirit of his openness to the arcana of Hindu spirituality in peaceful coexistence with his equally distinctive native cultural identity. He follows up here:

God is change, reality is change, you and I are change. Note I didn’t say we are changing for that implies we are something that changes into something else. This is not so. To be change is to be nothing at all. The “I” I feel myself to be at this moment is not the same as the I, I felt myself to be a moment ago. What ties moments together is the narrative I spin about who I am. The story creates a continuity that reality rejects.

Interesting. But here’s where the pragmatic radical empiricist (me) must part company with the Rabbi. The “I” changes, but there’s real continuity in experience. To change is not to be nothing, it’s to be something incomplete but in the making. Narrative spin may distort reality’s continuity but does not spin it from whole cloth, except in the purest cases of delusion and mania.

See, that was Goober‘s problem. (“It seems like the me that is really me and was bein’ held back by the I that I am is comin’ out all over my face.”) He tried to spin a self-narrative that conflicted with the reality of his actual relationships in Mayberry. This matters because it shows we can err in our interpretations of experience but can also correct our errors. “Corrections” make no sense in a world of pure discontinuity.  Like it or not, our stories have to fit the stubborn facts.  I happen to like it.

So, I respect many elements in the respective story-lines of Hinduism and Judaism and Christianity and Buddhism and Taoism and on and on (and on thru most ‘isms, insofar as they’re rooted in the actual experiences of real people). But I won’t become an Initiate myself. I’m keeping a respectful distance, it being the spin most in keeping with the continuities of my own experience.


November 19, 2009
Recall Bentham’s claim: pleasure (“happiness”) is the only quantifiable good.
Now, consider Robert Nozick‘s famous thought experiment:
Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?
“What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Well, real activity (and not the mere simulacrum thereof) matters. The real nature of our existence, how we are, the extent of our actual motility matters. The possibility of transcendence matters.

“Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)”

It is in the light of thought experiments like this one that we can better appreciate John Stuart Mill’s repairs to Bentham’s utilitarianism. “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure… A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy.” And he requires experience that is real, most of the time.

But then again, it might be fun to get stuck in the holodeck for just a little while.



November 16, 2009

venusBotticelli’s Venus is beautiful, by most human standards. Can we say why?

I don’t suppose I can. I’m no aesthetician. On my first pass through a museum exhibit, in fact, I don’t always even know what I like. I look at “those cezanne_apples-pears1incredible apples and pears by Cezanne” (on Woody Allen’s list of things that make life worth living) and yawn. If they made me hungry I’d not yawn. But Kant‘s view was that “it is not an aesthetic response if you find yourself gettting hungry and wanting a piece of fruit. An aesthetic response is free from such interests, or any other practical concern.” Or lustful appetite? No You Kant, the Kill-joy of Konigsburg.

I do know I like Venus on her half-shell.

And I  know that I like John Dewey’s pragmatic aesthetic, with its idea that beautiful objects, experiences, moments, and possibilities dot our daily landscape in places not generally noticed or discussed by art critics.

For instance:
Every baseball fanatic of years [yes, I’ll continue to talk about my favorite game throughout its winter off-season, aka the Hot Stove League] who contracted this blessed affliction in childhood understands “the thrill of the grass,” the ripple of pleasure and anticipation and the promise of happy absorption that comes with that first glimpse of outfield through the grandstand tunnel. The aesthetic timbre of such moments is not opposed to intense, active, self-forgetful involvement, but it is something subtly different. This is a neglected dimension of flow, involving as it sometimes does a rapt (but undistanced) spectatorship rather than the engaged technical proficiency and expertise of the chess player, climber, or team athlete. But Dewey’s antipathy for spectator theories of knowledge did not block his acute perception of “the sources of art in human experience [that] will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd. . . .”
That passage, from the first chapter of Art as Experience (1934), continues: “. . . who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants, and the intent interest of her goodman in tending the patch of green in front of the house; the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals. . . . He does not remain a cold spectator.”

So, the bias for high or fine art over craft, and over so-called ordinary experiences, is on my Deweyan view a prejudice we ought to extirpate. There’s nothing wrong with standing and gawking at Venus, and it may actually be more socially acceptable to do that than to stand and gawk at the lovely Venuses to be found at the bus-stop and on the subway and the ballpark and the museum. But let’s not demean the quality of quotidian life with an arbitrary, peremptory declaration that it does not  rise to the level of Art. Of course it does.

Once we’ve unstiffened our aesthetic in this way, we can really begin to appreciate the artistry of life in every dimension.

The native American tradition called “the beauty way” is one example of this. Exploring the Navajo concept of harmony and virtue, hozho, Chris Phillips in Six Questions of Socrates quotes a tribal elder:

“The most important thing, in order to have hozho, is that you must ‘walk in Beauty.’ Every morning, before sunrise, you must run toward the sun to greet the day. This is the Beauty Way… Every dawn is a new day. If you run toward the sacred sun, if you greet and embrace it as it rises, you are blessed with a new beginning, a new chance for hozho.”

I don’t run at 5 am, but I definitely think of my daily pre-dawn appointment at this venue as my peculiar way of seeking the blessings of a new beginning.  Some days, the resulting experience partakes of beauty. Or so I perceive.

I don’t know art and only occasionally do I know what I like… but I know I don’t like the impersonality of  Kantian aesthetics, and I do like David Hume’s acknowledgment of art as a subjective enterprise concerned with feeling.

I like Sappho’s statement, an improvement on Keats’ beauty-truth equation: “what is beautiful is good and what is good will soon also be beautiful.” Our taste is educable, our conventions can change. For instance, some people still think these are ugly:

windmillBut of course they’re beautiful.

Photographic art can do much to transform not only our aesthetic regard for the splendors of nature, but our impact on the planet. That’s why photographer Edward Burtynsky makes a [TED] wish: that his images — stunning landscapes that document humanity’s impact on the world — help persuade millions to join a global conversation on sustainability.

nietzsche-e-schopenhauerWhat of these guys? There’s plenty to dislike in their philosophies, but if art “makes us much more sympathetic to other people” and helps us “transcend egotistical interests and empathize with universal emotions,” it’s just too bad old Arthur didn’t spend more time at the opera. And, the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy in Birth of Tragedy explains a lot.

…the further development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, just as reproduction depends upon the duality of the sexes, their continuing strife and only periodically occurring reconciliation. We take these names from the Greeks who gave a clear voice to the profound secret teachings of their contemplative art, not in ideas, but in the powerfully clear forms of their divine world.

With those two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we link our recognition that in the Greek world there exists a huge contrast, in origins and purposes, between visual (plastic) arts, the Apollonian, and the non-visual art of music, the Dionysian. Both very different drives go hand in hand, for the most part in open conflict with each other and simultaneously provoking each other all the time to new and more powerful offspring, in order to perpetuate for themselves the contest of opposites which the common word “Art” only seems to bridge…

simpson-collegeThe art and philosophy of pop culture matter, too. “Whole books offer philosophical analyses of The Matrix and The Simpsons… (What does make humor funny?)

And Dylan and the Beatles and Springsteen and Buffett…

And advertizing. “What do you think this does to your daily experience and the way you think about yourself and the world?” Makes us mad, mad, mad!

handling it

October 5, 2009

curieMarie Curie (1867-1934), Nobel laureate in chemistry, 1911… “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”

She knew she wasn’t dreaming. Only in philosophy class, and in Hollywood, do apparently mentally-healthy people really entertain that improbable hypothesis. “No one in his or her right mind ever really wonders whether the world exists.” (And even those who believe everything is predestined look both ways before they cross the street.)

I’ll bet Madame Curie also knew that not all human questions are as responsive to scientific habits of inquiry as those whose answers were radium and polonium. The best questers after truth know when to wear which hat. They learn how to pose productive questions. But they also learn that some “imponderable” questions are well worth pondering anyway.

Our chapter begins with some good, productive (though debatable) questions. Here’s another one: is it always and everywhere wrong, in an ethical sense, to believe anything on insufficient evidence? That was W.K. Clifford‘s view. William James disputed it. More about that next time. For now, let’s take note that the resolution of this dispute depends heavily on how we answer the question “What is truth?”

Is it correspondence, coherence, satisfaction, pragmatic utility, or something else? Is it necessary or contingent? Is it objective or subjective? Can you blame the voice of youth for asking…? Maybe we just can’t handle it.

But that won’t be our assumption here.

There are contingent, empirical truths. I’m typing on my computer keyboard right now, as a matter of fact. (Well, I was when I wrote this. Is it still true?) There are necessary, logical truths.  “2 + 2 = 4.”

And there are much more interesting candidates for truth, hotly contested by intensely interested humans. “Is there a God?” is much more interesting, and should be much more controversial, than “Do you believe in God?” (There’s actually considerable dispute as to the gospel truthmore… epistemological relativism is not true for everyone… knowing the truthalready knowing… really really… radical skepticismsuperstitionfideism.) BTW: here’s what atheists talk about when they gather at their big  annual “shindig,” according to Jerry Coyne.

Does experience generate knowledge? Are there innate ideas? Is the mind a blank slate? Is this a world of pure chance? Are we evolving? Do I have a meaningful future? Do we? What’s going to come of this world, and our species? Is life good, or no good? Is the truth about all these things already settled? Or does truth– like other items more commonly mentioned on bumper stickers– happen? If so, what makes it happen?

Imponderable? Not at all. Let’s put on our thinking hats.

What about thinking itself? Is it immediately in touch only with ideas in your head, representations of allegedly real things we can’t directly encounter? That was John Locke‘s assumption (no, not that John Locke), shared by Hume. James the radical empiricist had another idea.

But David Hume (1711-1776) (more… & more) was still wedded to representational realism, and concluded that knowledge is beyond us. But habit and custom, sentiment and decency, are not. On his skeptical/empiricist view, we  can lead perfectly respectable, responsible, neighborly, happy, honest lives without possessing– or knowing that we possess– absolutely-certain knowledge of what is true.

little fingerHere’s a nice Humean challenge:  Is it unreasonable (“against reason”) to “prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of [your] little finger”?  David said no. (And David was a nice guy.)

What do you say? world destruction

o “prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my little finger” would not be
unreasonable (“against reason”)?

Raw energy, “pure delight”

August 27, 2009

Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster “investigates the fleeting, purposeful joy that fills human beings in the face of disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and even terrorist attacks…” My favorite example, which she discusses: William James’s reaction to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his first-hand account of which exudes a strange joy and gratitude for the mere opportunity to be present to witness such unanticipated destruction and its amelioration. It is, I once wrote,

James’s personal account of the great San
Francisco earthquake, an account that must be at least curious
and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited
with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake
experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a
relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but
enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an
immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening.
I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.
James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906
is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:
@EXT: [L]ying awake at about half past five . . .I felt the bed
begin to waggle. . . . Sitting up involuntarily and taking a
kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was
shaken like a rat by a terrier . . . [My] emotion consisted
wholly of glee . . . at the vividness which such an abstract idea
or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into
sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace
whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .
@TEXT:James described his total quake experience as “mind-
enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of
cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the
sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness
that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind
of misfortune. . . .”88
It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things
James wrote after the quake was an essay called The Energies of
Men. Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the
very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a
puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are
conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort
is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his
limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves
below his optimum,”89 habitually. But here is our greatest seed
of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson,
James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.
Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the
collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San
Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a
fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so

an account that must be at least curious and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening. I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.

James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906 is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:

Lying awake at about half past five… I felt the bed begin to waggle… Sitting up involuntarily and taking a kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was shaken like a rat by a terrier… [My] emotion consisted wholly of glee… at the vividness which such an abstract idea or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .

James described his total quake experience as “mind-enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind of misfortune. . . .”

It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things James wrote after the quake was an essay called “The Energies of Men.” Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum,” habitually. But here is our greatest seed of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson, James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.

Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so uplifting.


July 18, 2009

It’s a chilly morning, I actually debated coming out to greet the sun. But not heatedly. That’s what long sleeves are for. *** Younger Daughter is having a reunion sleepover with her best friend since kindergarten, who moved away to Cleveland. And at around midnight, she had her usual pangs of homesickness and called to tell us so. Growth opportunity for us all. *** Walter Cronkite died, I see. He’s the short answer to all those kooky Moon Hoaxers: Uncle Walter wouldn’t have lied.


So, what’s wrong with epistemology, the systematic study of what we can know and how we can know it? Some of my best friends are epistemologists, and they do good work. Nothing wrong with them.

The fact is, most of my prejudice probably stems from an unexamined reaction to the personal demeanor of one epistemologist in particular, a sallow and stoic fellow with a constant smirking expression, who knew nothing of pop culture or sports or my  version of “the real world.”  I thought he sucked the life out of every question he addressed.

Then, I got to know him a little better and realized for real what philosophers are supposed to know implicitly: appearances can’t be trusted, ad hominem observations bake no bread . He was a nice guy. He’s gone on to do great work in the field.

If epistemology can help correct such leaps of ignorant presumption then I should embrace it wholeheartedly.

But it wasn’t the systematic study of knowledge that overturned my false belief about my peer, it was experience.

OK, experience plus reflection. We need both.

If epistemology can be practiced without detaching knowledge from the rest of life, without reducing philosophy to an impersonal, uncompelling set of conceptual problems about the conditions of “justified true belief,” without failing to connect the dots between those beliefs  and the totality of our experience, then I’ll withdraw my objections.

I’d like to have a non-argument

June 19, 2009

My friend A. in Alabama, epistemologist and (Rod) Chisholm trail guide extraordinaire, reports an epiphanic breakthrough (my characterization… I was going to call this a concession but that might be perceived as gratuitously provocative) and I’m eager to reinforce it before he changes his mind.

A. is now prepared to acknowledge “the possible limits of my view that the unit of philosophical discussion is the argument.” (As in You got an argument for that? Or, for Python fans, I’d like to have an argument, please.) Arguments, ordered chunks of verbal discourse involving premises, inferences, and conclusions, make effective discursive units just to the extent of our confidence in the range and depth and transparency of our words. But what of experiences that don’t crack the shell of articulate language? The peculiar felt quality of the sunrise I’m glimpsing right now, or the tang of coffee on my tongue, or the personal emotional resonance of living with the permanent loss of a parent? They’re experiences I can evoke with words to some degree, but cannot replicate. A. continues:

“…one way to do philosophy might be to present a way of looking at things to see whether it is faithful to one’s experience. This does not require discursive argument, it seems.”

William James said a similar thing in Pragmatism, as I never tire of repeating:

The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.

James also said, in Varieties of Religious Experience,

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

Beliefs, even justified true beliefs, can’t replace personal experience.


She’s a witch!

No, that’s not the right conclusion. This might be:

“…lots of culture can be seen as philosophical despite the fact that it falls outside my narrow conception of it.”

Yes, I vote for that one. Not that truth can be put to a plebiscite, but popularity just is one. In these troubled times, we state-sponsored philosophers can’t afford to ignore vox populi. The question is: can it be done well? Another question: are we the guys to do it?

Further analysis seems indicated, A. Or perhaps not?

(Meanwhile, don’t forget to order your copy of Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy, and to tune in a popularizing philosopher on the radio this weekend.)

Opening time

May 29, 2009

Ours is a planet sown in beings. Our generations overlap likefor-the-time-being shingles. We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall. Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.

Annie Dillard

Towing the line of the present moment, being wholly absorbed in experience as we face it, attending to what’s happening right now: it sounds so simple, and for simpler beings it probably is. But we’ve inherited our species’ evolved tendency to ride the wave of consciousness away from boat’s stem. As Dillard said in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,

This is it, right now, the present… this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy.

It’s not consciousness per se that spoils the moment, but the hyper-self-consciousness that draws you out of yourself and makes you hover over your own experience instead of inhabiting and enjoying it.  Fortunately what is lost is not forgotten. Focused attention can find it again, and savor and store it in memory.

The second I know I’ve lost [the present] I also realize that the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him.

Follow the pup.