Archive for the ‘pessimism’ Category

Planet walkers

June 5, 2013

Searchers are optimists, and walkers are searchers. Are walkers optimists?

Well, I am. I wouldn’t say I was born that way. I recall a pessimistic teenage phase, coincident (or not?) with pounding headaches and an infatuation with William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. I walked away from it, and them, and from my initially-declared Poli Sci major, after my sophomore year in college. Thank goodness.

I know, there are and always have been pessimists who also walked. Schopenhauer springs instantly to mind. Nonetheless, every walk is an optimistic undertaking. And, I suspect, every self-avowed pessimistic walker is a closet optimist. Can’t prove it, but to paraphrase Camus: one must imagine daily walkers happy. More on that anon.

I discovered Walker Percy and his character Binx Bolling’s “search” in college. Percy saw the search as looking ultimately for a way out of this world, which he and his religious confreres viewed as “fallen” in its natural state. But reading his books, and then standing in his gazebo and surveying his “lost cove,” convinced me that his search was really for a way to love living.

I discovered a happy documentary worth sharing, last night:

Philosophical walkers are like John Francis: planet walkers. That’s another name for cosmopolitans, citizens of the globe and the universe who choose to accept responsibility for the whole. Every step symbolizes that choice, and that sense of a shared and universal identification with the natural world and all its lifeforms. In one of the stranger TED Talks on record, Francis declares “we are the environment, and how we treat each other is really how we’re going to treat the environment.” Similarly, he told  the Atlantic,

The environment is therefore also about human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic and education equity. It is about all the ways we relate to one another because how we relate to each other manifests itself in the physical environment around us.

That’s a way, Walker.

Better angels

March 6, 2013

No, not Trout and Pujols. They’re just the better-compensated Angels.

Lincoln’s marvelous closing lines from his 1st Inaugural came to mind during our discussion yesterday of the endemic human proclivity to resolve differences violently.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(I think I prefer Day-Lewis, but let’s not fight about that.) Bill had asked us if we thought Hobbes was right, that we just can’t help ourselves, that it’s so ingrained in our permanent and instinctive nature that we’ll always require an iron-fisted external authority to keep an uneasy and temporary peace.

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” George Santayana, a Platonist, evidently said that, not (as the Internet would have us believe) Plato. Like Yogi Berra, Plato did not say half of what he said. (Socrates probably didn’t say half of what Plato said he did either.) But Santayana did say:

“There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”

“Love make us poets, and the approach of death should make us philosophers.”

“We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.”

“Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”

“The mass of mankind is divided into two classes, the Sancho Panzas who have a sense for reality, but no ideals, and the Don Quixotes with a sense for ideals, but mad.”

(But maybe the two classes are those who think there are just two classes, and everybody else.)

As usual, more of us yesterday  seemed reflexively pessimistic about the human prospect. Also as usual, I put in a modest word for possibly-naive optimism. Most of us in that room, after all, weren’t being bellicose or territorial. We seemed a pretty good-natured bunch. Could Rousseau have been right just to this extent, that it’s our political and corporate institutions that tend to bring out our worst? Remember Ike’s “military-industrial complex“?  It hasn’t gone anywhere.

But there’s our glimmer of hope. Better institutions might deliver better behavior. It’s worth a try.

Steven Pinker enlisted Lincoln too, to counter our pessimism and point out that against all odds we are becoming a less violent species.

Well, recurring to George’s two classes: I vote for ideals tempered by reality improved by ideals tempered by reality and on and on. I’d love to believe things could only get better, but our satisfaction is not guaranteed. We’ll have to work for it.

And on that note, I still have some work to do in preparation for SAAP 13. My airport taxi arrives in about 22 hours.


July 25, 2012

Back on my perch after  another summer road-trip, this one to the sweltering American breadbasket. I was going to lay low ’til August but sometimes, as they say in Mayberry, things have just got to be brung out.

I spent some time with Irv Yolem’s Schopenhauer Cure yesterday, and then with Carlin Romano’s mention in America the Philosophical of the vitriolic philosophy blogger Brian Leiter. I think I’ll find it helpful to myself this morning to think a bit about the uses and abuses of misanthropy.

Old Arthur hated his species,  probably due in large part to a bad formative start with his hard-hearted Mama. She never missed an opportunity to tell him what a drag he was, as a youth, on her freedom. He more than fulfilled her vision of him, long after she was gone. He isolated himself from both his fellow “bipeds” and his own bipedal nature, thinking himself superior.

And who knows, that very attitude may have fueled the imagination and will to write the books that almost give pessimism a good name. What we can’t know, except through the fictive  speculations of people like Yolem, is whether Schopenhauer’s misanthropy seemed to himself to make his own life worth living, in his own mind. We do know he said it did not make him “happy.”

Leiter is merely emblematic of the cheap culture of snide  and sneering rudeness so prevalent and apparently popular on the Internet. I don’t know if it makes him or his readers happy to be that way. It doesn’t me. I tend to avoid his posts and their comments, as I try to avoid mood-dampening & heart-shrinking contaminants generally.

So what I just want to bring out about all this is a small piece of hard-earned self-knowledge: I find that I am a happier and a better person when I actively resist the misanthropic impulse, and do not surrender to it as Schopenhauer and Leiter apparently did.

I also picked up the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion yesterday. I like him. He may be naively humane, but at least he’s no misanthrope.

My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this. I am confident that it is both possible and worthwhile to attempt a new secular approach to universal ethics… We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect, and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect, and resentment?

I know I do. Anger, in my experience as apparently in the DL’s, is not a usefully generative fuel. But I’m a pragmatic meliorist, and pluralist. I presume to speak only for myself here.

We went to the (bleeping) MOON!

April 25, 2011

Looking forward to three or four more presentations in NW today. It’s getting very near the end for our course. But optimistic eco-pragmatists like to think it’s near the beginning for our species.

In chapter seven of Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand (who considers himself a “green” as well as a pragmatist) complains of ideological narrowness among some environmentalists.

I saw a version of this narrowness played out after 1966, when I was inspired by a rooftop LSD trip to distribute buttons that read, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” Everyone in the New Left opposed Kennedy’s space program, seeing it (correctly) as a cold war episode that they thought (incorrectly) was being carried out to no good purpose by crew-cut military squares. (Only Abbie Hoffman disagreed with his compatriots: “Are you kidding? We’re going to the fucking MOON!”) Environmentalists joined the leftist opposition to the space program: “We have to clean up the earth before we can leave it.”

That was a false dichotomy that got locked in as core environmentalist ideology. It’s not constructive, from an eco-pragmatic point of view. Is it?

We may differ about that, about “solidarity,” and about Brand, but I think most of us are glad his rooftop reverie inaugurated that first Earth Day in ’70 and has us thinking today about the future of life on this rock.

It takes all kinds. Romantics, scientists, and engineers are Brand’s “stock characters” but he knows there are countless, varied, particular, real people behind “the largest movement in the world.” They’re meliorists, not ideologues. They’re focused on results. Read Blessed Unrest and try to sustain a pessimistic mood, I dare you.

Biomimicry, I think we can claim to have learned in our course, is central to what we’ve been calling native wisdom. Ask not what we can extract from nature, but what she can teach us.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think the world is irreducibly complex, and those who think it can be explained strictly in terms (for instance) of hedgehogs and foxes. More stock characters. Contrary to the message of this clever little film, Einstein and Darwin both knew many things and had grand theories. The point Brand wants to make about successful politicians, statesmen, and friends of the earth is that they’re skeptical, flexible, and pragmatic, open-minded and experimental, not hidebound confirmation-biased ideologues.

Chapter Eight takes us back to the garden. Not to Eden, but to the pre-Columbian Americas of 1491 and before. “It’s All Gardening.” It’s not all a “bogus” tale of “native spiritual teachers who impart ancient wisdom.” Brand says beware The Education of Little Tree, The Teachings of Don Juan, and the like. Wonder what he’d think of our reading list this semester? More importantly, what do we think of it?

Yet, he (like Gary Snyder and Kat Anderson) claims to have learned important lessons from native Americans like “how to be an American in a way that had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance.” But it has plenty to do with the Conservation Pledge, both the Boy Scout and Buddhist versions. Give  life. Undo harm.

We’ve been planet-killers lately, and it’s hard to live sustainably in the Garden when our peers are trashing it. But the native wisdom we’ve been studying offers the encouraging lesson that we can “settle down” and pay closer attention to the conditions of life on our homeworld. We can protect it from ourselves and for ourselves, both tending the wild and leaving it alone as intelligence and empathy require.

We can do good work for the wild. We’re all native to this place, after all. We just need to “reinhabit” it, take the “Where You At” bio-regional quiz, and finally know our place. Then, we can explore other places without remorse. (Maybe even “boldly go” with Chakotay?) Call that the return of the native. And now we’ve come nearly full circle in our course.


December 4, 2010

It’s cold and gray out there this morning. A good day to pull out a favorite piece of inspiration from William James, and hang it up with the holiday decorations:

Remember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached.

I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Sure beats Barbara Ehrenreich and “Dr. Steel,” Jamie. Go gulls!

hot ideas

July 15, 2010

Matt Ridley says we’re just nodes and neurons in the cloudy, crowd-sourced Collective Brain, and our promiscuous ideas are having a lot more fun “meeting and mating” and “accelerating the rate of innovation” than we are. As-simi-late, Seven-of-Nine, resistance is futile. Freethought and Group Think don’t seem quite compatible to me, whatever “we” may think.

Will he then be sharing the proceeds of Rational Optimist with us all?


July 9, 2010

Whether we know it or not, wisdom– applied understanding, meaningful perspective, self-knowledge that is not self-absorption, the examined life– is what reflective humans really want most, for ourselves and for posterity. Some of us are geeky enough to dream of a long and prosperous future for our kind, and that won’t happen without a lot more wisdom than has been on public display lately.

If we continue to accumulate only power and not wisdom, we will surely destroy ourselves… If we become even slightly more violent, shortsighted, ignorant, and selfish than we are now, almost certainly we will have no future. Pale Blue Dot

That was true when Dr. Carl wrote it a decade and a half ago. We’re on borrowed time here.

And so it was with quickened concern that I picked up Stephen Hall’s new book yesterday, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. It’s a thoughtful journalist’s survey of the history of wisdom as a concept and cultural ideal, re-framed in terms of what we are beginning to understand of its biological basis. The most pleasing passage I’ve yet come across cites Montaigne:

“The most manifest sign of wisdom is continual cheerfulness.” If by that he meant optimism about the future, he is backed up by neuroscientists, who have begun to find support for that notion.

Great. “It don’t come easy” (as the septuagenerian  Starkey, wiser than reputed, sang) to be an optimist in this hot and oily summer of our discontent,  but I’m definitely up for trying. Just like Charles Schulz‘s crew, cheerfully “working out the interior problems of their daily lives without ever actually solving them.” Yet.


July 7, 2010

Our home, un-walled and in multiple dimensions. “We need a much larger sense of what home is.” No crumbling infrastructure, no collapsing market, just an expanding and inviting horizon beyond the pessimists’ bubble. Sky’s the limit.

rational optimism

May 19, 2010

People will ask what Matt Ridley’s been smoking.

Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.

That’s his line and his vision for the century ahead in The Rational Optimist, whose thesis is supposed to be “in your face”– or in the faces of those fashionable pessimists who insist that the end is nigh. (NYT reviewamazon)

The catch, for some of us, will be the book’s advocacy of unrestricted global trade and its implicit faith in perpetual growth and economic expansion. But the allure is the upbeat recognition that, for solid evolutionary reasons, we’re becoming better co-operators (or mutual enablers) and are living better (at least materially and medically), longer lives. “Everybody is working for everybody else.” (There’s a Hitchhiker’s Guide-style video blurb under that title on YouTube and at Ridley’s site.) Unlike Arthur Dent, Ridley’s not “gone off the idea of progress.”

We can quibble about particulars, and will in the “Future of Life” course this Fall. But on balance he’s right, by most tangible measures of species well-being we’re better off than our ancestors, and the past is no paradise. All who want to transport back to the 13th century and stay there, raise your hand.

Thought so. Of course, the future’s still in the balance. No guarantees. But don’t panic.

hard problem

May 15, 2010

There are many hard problems in philosophy– in life– but Owen Flanagan is right to identify the problem of meaning in a material world as among the very hardest. (Here it is at amazon. Monetize me!)

He’s right, too, to say that we can meaningfully differ in our respective solutions.

We can adopt different legitimate attitudes toward the truth about our nature and our predicament. I recommend optimistic realism. Joyful optimistic realism. Life can be precious and funny. And one doesn’t need to embrace fantastical stories– unbecoming to historically mature beings– about our nature and prospects to make it so.

I agree, enthusiastically… but you’ll still have a hard time persuading me of the legitimacy of Sorrowful Pessimistic Irrealism. Hit me with your best shot.

In any case, I’m excited that Flanagan is lined up as the keynote speaker for the next annual Tennessee Philosophical Association conference in the Fall, and motivated to prepare a submission on a consciousness-related theme.

And, to trot out again the “Meaning of Life” course I last taught at Vanderbilt in 2005.  Stay tuned.