Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

“We must cultivate our gardens”

May 31, 2013

My wife has many talents I do not share, including the proverbial master gardener’s “green thumb.” I’ve never tried to compete, have in fact evaded and tried to escape the whole earth-scratching, seed-planting, weed-yanking, endless-summer-watering routine. I’ve pretty much ceded that turf to her, with an Emersonian shrug. My version of transcendental domesticity also craves mobility and freedom, leaving the nurture of non-sentient life to better hands.

I delight in long free walks. These free my brain and serve my body. . . . But these stoopings and scrapings and figurings in a few square yards of garden are dispiriting, driveling, and I seem to have eaten lotus, to be robbed of all energy, and I have a sort of catalepsy, or unwillingness to move, and have grown peevish and poor-spirited.

And yet, for reasons still mysterious to me, this spring I decided I’d try and tend a tiny plot of earth. Don’t know why. But it was with real pleasure and anticipation that I stooped to the work of preparing the ground near my back porch and the old shed to host a pair of petunia plants, one white, one purple. “To garden well,” as Michael Pollan says, “is to be happy amid the babble of the objective world, untroubled by its refusal to be reduced by our ideas of it, its indomitable rankness.”

I’m trying.

Wish I’d taken a picture, before the ravenous rabbits arrived to devour my work.


Daunted but not defeated, I’ve gone to a hanging basket of impatiens. So far, so good.


But if my garden fails to grow I’ll be philosophical about it and just walk away.

Then I’ll walk back in an hour, to the pool.

And then to that hammock.

Where I’ll write a book this summer.

Nice work if you can get it.

Wag more

May 24, 2013

When you talk dogs and philosophy you really have to begin with Diogenes of Sinope, don’t you?

DiogenesSolvitur ambulando* (“it is solved by walking”) is often attributed to him. Don’t know why canes is typically omitted from the phrase, since the philosopher whose full nominal designation (“D. the Cynic”) practically means dog, knew the  ultimate solution almost always involves a second or third set of appendages. Preferably a quadra-set, and canine.

(Actually my Latin teacher, Ms. Google-Translate, prefers *solvendum est per ambulationem canes. Write that on the board a hundred times! Tense is tricky. But cynics do not cavil over convention.)

Unless they’ve been “trained”, dogs and Cynic philosophers do what it occurs to them to do when it occurs to them to do it, without regard for local custom or popular propriety or (especially) the presence of commanding authority. Diogenes told Alexander to step out of his sunlight. We’re told Alex was impressed. The dog was not. But why does that make either Diogenes or his dog a “cynic”?

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.

AngelPupMy dogs are actually much sweeter and more compliant than that. They’re waggers, not barkers. They don’t even hassle fundamentalists or Platonists. (Squirrels & chipmunks are another story.) One’s an “Angel,” not a “Cynic,” thanks to Younger Daughter’s inspiration at the puppy pound. But wouldn’t Cynic and Diogenes be perfect names for a pair of pups? Their eventual successors perhaps, should I live so long.

But not so fast, they’d say if they could. These two are still fabulous walking companions and they’re infinitely patient. I won’t keep them waiting another moment.


Pedagogue dogs

May 23, 2013

That dog gazing uncomprehendingly (yet agreeably) at that treadmill reminds me, as most everything does, of something William James said:

We stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things.

This is James in speculative mode, towards “whatever [we] may consider the divine.” I prefer to keep the divinity (and cats) out of it myself, but I think the point still sticks: our experience merely brushes up against realities, most of the time, if and when it encounters them at all. So a little more good-natured humility, curiosity, and patient anticipation is in order. And unconditional loyalty. That’s what our dogs can teach us.

Books have been written on this theme, of course. Inside of a Dog and What’s a Dog For? are both on my list. And Rousseau’s Dog.

Schopenhauer was inexplicably partial to poodles. When they misbehaved he berated them: “Bad human!” Meanest insult he could imagine.

So, there’ll be a chapter in PW on walking the dogs. Rousseau did it, Schopenhauer did it, I do it daily.

Anhedonic treadmills

May 22, 2013

“I can stay on my feet a whole day, and I do not weary of walking… My walk is quick and firm.” Montaigne in Motion

I’ll bet Montaigne would have enjoyed Susan Orleans’ treadmill, on those days when weather (meteorological or internal-psychological) trapped him in his tower. Slight but perpetual motion is what we need. Bodies in motion are so much healthier than at rest.

But if you’d just as soon tread in place, at your elevated “work station,” as pad the actual ground and sniff the open air, then you’re not really a Walker. Don’t tread on me. Motion of limb is only one component of this activity. Geographic exploration, changing panoramic vistas, space to roam both physically and mentally, shifting proprietary territoriality, little epiphanies of insight, new discoveries in familiar places, chance encounters, etc. etc., are missing from this picture. And yet…

The skies were threatening here yesterday morning, so I ducked into the Vandy Rec Cernter, climbed onto the platform, set my speed for 4.2 mph, and enjoyed myself. A Platonic cave-wall of muted shadowy images provided the visual backdrop: ESPN on one channel, Montel (I think) on another, amateur cell-phone video of the Oklahoma tragedy on a loop on CNN on a third. It was diverting for awhile. For thirty minutes. And then the skies cleared.

So I climbed down, went home, and walked the dogs. So much more diverting, rewarding, real. I think the dogs would agree.

Einstein always walked

May 21, 2013

Que sais-je?” And what do I know about Einstein? He said “there is one thing we do know…”

And,”everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

And, I know he was a walker.


“Yes, I saw Einstein often walking on Mercer Street… sweater hanging down, sandals… We heard that his stepdaughter wanted to give him a car, but he preferred walking.”

“He was very friendly. It seems as though it was almost every day… He always walked.”

And did you know that Einstein loved to smoke? So if he visited our campus, having no car, he’d have nowhere to indulge. We’re too good for him. (Maybe we need to rethink that policy, President McPhee?)

As he walked between his house and his office at Princeton, one could often see him followed by a trail of smoke. Nearly as part of his image as his wild hair and baggy clothes was Einstein clutching his trusty briar pipe. In 1950, Einstein is noted as saying, “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs,” Although he favored pipes, Einstein was not one to turn down a cigar or even a cigarette.

One more thing I know about Einstein: he loved to ride.

So he’ll be in Philosophy Walks’ sequel, Philosophy Rides.

The sufficient moment

May 17, 2013

In 1870 a young and previously-irresolute William James confided to his diary,

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

Within the decade, the vacillating, self-doubting, despairing young man had given way to the confident philosopher who would vigorously defend “the sentiment of rationality,” a diverting phrase that was really his own masked synonym for happiness.

When enjoying plenary freedom either in the way of motion or of thought, we are in a sort of anaesthetic state in which we might say with Walt Whitman, if we cared to say anything about ourselves at such times, “I am sufficient as I am.” This feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of its absoluteness,–this absence of all need to explain it, account for it, or justify it,–is what I call the Sentiment of Rationality.

Just as I am, sufficient unto the moment: it’s a condition and a state of mind an honest and ambitious person can’t reasonably hope to sustain indefinitely, but James learned and taught that it can be recaptured frequently and regularly throughout a lifetime. Different strategies serve different people. One of mine, like James, is to walk.

Lachs, Locke, “Lost,” & lawn

May 1, 2013

Another very fine round of final report presentations on Tuesday: Chloe on food, Trevor on technology, Dave on morality, Celecita on the Wizard of Oz, Matthew on House, Jade on Camus, and (for sentimental reasons) my favorite: Khalid’s testimonial to John Lachs.

What an unexpected (yet ideal) illustration of Stoic Pragmatism Khalid came up with, using Lost‘s “John Locke” first to show us how to chill like a Stoic and then act decisively like a Pragmatist.

But the most memorable image from the last day of April was my colleague and his class, out on the lawn:


In the age of MOOCs, it’s important to remember how special it is to sit with your class in the open air in the Spring. “Brick & mortar,” grass & sunshine… it’s still real. You can’t do this online, and you don’t want to.

All kinds

April 26, 2013

Nice mix of conventional and quirky, in yesterday’s CoPhi reports. Jessica on Rawls, Andrew on Sandel, Jake on Buddhism, Regan on Meditation, and Logan on a crazy, humble “goofball” climber who “knows” he can’t fail or fall (though most of his mentors have).

Alex is an atheist, Logan told us, a YOLO guy who says live. 

That’s one of my mottos too, but in my case it keeps me literally off the wall.

One of my others: it takes all kinds.

Cottingham, Law, Ward, Grayling

April 23, 2013

We finish Philosophy Bites today in CoPhi with John Cottingham on the meaning of life, Stephen Law on the problem of suffering, Keith Ward on eastern idealism, and A.C. Grayling on atheism.

There’s a sequel, Philosophy Bites BackI’ve already put in the order for next year. (And for Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical, to complement the Little History.)

“What is the meaning of life? Does it, perhaps, have no meaning at all?” It may have no fixed, final, universal, or intrinsic meaning, but for an emergent and pluralistic species that’s no barrier to emergent meanings, in the plural. Why settle for just one, or even forty-two?  [MoL @dawn] But that’s not to say we can entirely “create our own values,” a la Friedrich Nietzsche. “We have to find value within a given cosmos, a world that is not of our making.” Humility is called for, not arrogant “will to power.”

Cottingham on “Happiness, God, and the Meaning of Life”:

I do continue to think the Pythons pretty well nailed the answer to the meaning of life, if we take the question as asking how practically we should live:

Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

I can confirm Cottingham’s statement about “meaning” in the largest sense being an embarrassing or illicit question amongst many professional academic philosophers. When I found the MoL course in Vandy’s catalog a few years ago it was dusty and moldering. I dusted it off and had a great semester with it.

Last thing we read, as I recall, was Viktor Frankl on Man’s Search for Meaning. He rediscovered the wisdom of the Stoics, in the death camps. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Is there a more profoundly human philosophical problem than how to live well, when life itself is tough and tenuous? And when is it not?

Evil or suffering is an existential problem for us all, but it’s a philosophical problem (or a logical one) for those who wish to assert the reconciliation of an omni-propertied God with the facts on the ground. [PoE/suffering@dawn]

But let’s not get carried away in the opposite direction. “There’s just too much good stuff in the world”– like rainbows, laughter, sunshine, ice cream, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong– “for this to be plausibly the creation of a supremely powerful, supremely evil being.” Flipped too far either way, towards good OR evil, the idea of a Supreme Being becomes a joke. So “we should probably do without any gods at all.”

Speaking of “flip,” Bertrand Russell often was. But his rhetorical question about intelligent design is still devastating nonetheless, for the problem of evil and suffering: “Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?” An unanswerable question.

And Simon Blackburn’s dorm analogy still hits close to home, even though they’ve leveled this one to make room for our new Science Building.

Law’s “evil god challenge,” and on Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole:

“Is the ultimate nature of reality non-physical?” If kicking a stone won’t settle that question, it’s not clear why it should matter (pun partially intended) to most of us any more than it did to Dr. Johnson. But we might be more interested, today, in Keith Ward’s comments on atheists and why he’s not one anymore:

“Is belief in the existence of a God or gods the equivalent of believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden? Or can it be defended on the basis of reason or evidence?” Anthony Grayling says “the best and deepest thinking about ethics has come from non-religious traditions” that value reason and evidence over faith and fairies.

[atheism/Grayling @dawn… Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age… The Good Book: A Humanist BibleGrayling’s Latest God Argument… Grayling & Hitch at the Goethe Institute in ’06 on the morality of Allied air attacks on civilians during WWII]

Can’t resist adding a plug for the course I teach every other Spring, coming again next year: Atheism & Philosophy, or (stenographically) just A&P.

PHIL 3310 – Atheism and PhilosophyThis course examines various perspectives on atheism, understood as the belief that no transcendent creator deity exists, and that there are no supernatural causes of natural events. The course compares this belief with familiar alternatives (including theism, agnosticism, and humanism), considers the spiritual significance of atheism, and explores implications for ethics and religion.

There’s always a nice mix of belief of various kinds, running the spectrum from atheism to Atheism Plus to pluralism, naturalism, humanism, agnosticism, skepticism, non-theistic ‘isms, alt-religious ‘isms & non-‘isms, paganism, Islamism, Sufism, Buddhism, and (yes, of course) Judeo-Christian theism. The conversations are always civil, often enlightening, and we almost always demonstrate the pedagogical value (not to mention sheer pleasure) of actually listening to one another and having our horizons expanded.  Nobody proselytizes, nobody gets mad, nobody impugns anybody’s character or integrity. No name-calling or soul-damning, just lots of good mind-bending discussion. I’m getting excited just thinking about it. You should register as soon as you can, January 2014 will be here sooner than you think.

First, though, Happiness in the Fall. And before that, starting almost immediately (maybe even today?):  final report presentations in CoPhi. It’s the most wonderful time of the year… (Sorry, Spring makes me hyperthymic.)

de Botton, Smith, Neill, Cupitt

April 18, 2013

We’re all doing Philosophy Bites today in CoPhi: Alain de Botton on architectureBarry Smith on wineAlex Neill on tragedy, and Don Cupitt on God. Connecting the dots will be interesting. Or impossible. But that’s how the world generally hangs together, isn’t it? Loosely, at best?

This lineup’s just a bit on the esoteric side. I do like Alain de Botton’s thoughts on the art and beauty of great architecture, and how we’re better people when we live in beautiful surroundings. But, to draw a connection with something we spoke of last semester in Environmental Ethics & Activism, functionality and efficiency are beautiful too. Windmills and solar panels are far more beautiful to me than internal combustion engines, and “earthships” more than ranch houses. The art of sustainability is beautiful.

The philosophy of wine? In vino veritas? Well, Barry Smith’s focus is even tighter. (Is “tight”still a euphemism for inebriation, btw? Along with things like pissed, sloshed, blitzed, plastered, etc.?) But he’s not interested, as William James was, in biochemically altered states of consciousness as vehicles of experience whose pursuit may be both mind-expanding and soul-destroying (and thus “tragic”).

No, Smith’s concerned with connoisseurship, the refined aesthetic splitting of hairs as to the fine phenomenological differences that can be bottled and capped and sold for outrageous sums to ostentatious self-congratulatory tipplers. What would Peter Singer say?

But ultimately, Smith’s obsession with spirits (like de Botton’s with architecture) is about the pursuit of happiness. I think Nigel’s right to wonder “what’s special about wine”? Smith’s reply does not go out of its way to recognize  the mutual inner significance of such devotions as his. How does he know someone couldn’t get as romantic and rhapsodic about orange juice as he does about his Cabernet? Our respective delights must be known at first hand to be appreciated.

Next, Alex Neill wonders how tragedy can be so pleasurable, how the painful feelings generated by the suffering of a dramatic character on stage or screen can be experienced as art. Beyond that, why do some of us enjoy horror, murder mysteries, roller coasters? Takes all kinds, is all. Or not all, but that’s about the extent of my own interest in this question. Others may differ. Bottom line is still, again, what makes you happy. That may be enough to redeem the paradoxical experience of tragedy.

Don Cupitt’s “God,” no omnipotent hegemonic universe-maker, is an anthropomorphic Jungian symbolic projection of love, perfection, bliss. He/It is an archetypal reflection of recurrent mortal human hopes and fears, and “doesn’t exist apart from from our faith in him.” That’s not what they taught me in Sunday School, but I do recall forming an early impression of a “very large human being, probably of the male sex.” Only later would I encounter New Age/New Thought notions of the omni-gendered “Father-Mother God(dess).”

For his part, Cupitt says “commitment to co-humanity has become my religion.” He’s a humanist, like (he says) Jesus. [Manifestos] And, I’ll bet, like the job applicant who says “straight edge punk is my religion” or the other one who was ready to make the sacred case for baseball. We all have our projections to bear.