Archive for the ‘American Philosophy’ Category

John Lachs and the mystique of teaching

April 12, 2013

John Lachs was charming as always, and as spontaneous, mirthful, elegant-& earthy…

Above all he was fully present with us, for three solid classroom hours on either side of lunch yesterday. And still, he apologized for having to leave for an alumni meeting back at Vandy before our last class.

Refused his honorarium too, insisting on picking up the lunch tab himself. Add generous to the “as always” list.

So many memorable moments of wisdom and insight, discussing consciousness, rectitude, stoicism, pragmatism, music, writing, “progress,” happiness, life and death. “All of life is an experiment.” And, “I’m not a libertarian but I am a friend of liberty.” In the spirit of James, he counsels a “hands off” attitude towards every soul’s birthright and privilege, to be left alone, each to discover their own bliss in their own ways. “One of the great joys of my life is to think…”

The whole scene just really epitomized for me the magic and mystery (and mystique) of my profession, bringing together the wisest and the freshest, spanning seasoned experience and youthful possibility across the generations in potentially life-altering philosophical dialogue. The man who witnessed horrible carnage in the streets of his Hungarian childhood and grew up to become an affirming philosopher of liberty and light, offering his own story to millennial children of the ‘nineties who must learn the lessons of history to avoid repeating its atrocities.

John Dewey’s “continuous human community” was right there on full display in my classrooms yesterday, asking and answering and wondering across the years. The opportunity for such occasions is why we do what we do, we teachers who know ourselves and our charges as links in a chain of indeterminate (but possibly glorious) portent.

On days like yesterday the question is not Why study philosophy?, it’s Why doesn’t everyone?

And for me, personally, it was very special to profess in public the hold on my heart of that wonderful little book with its dual inscriptions: one penned by my late father in the twilight of his days, the other by  my forever-young father figure. This morning I’m inspired and renewed, all over again.

A stoic pragmatist

April 9, 2013

It’s an exciting week in CoPhi: John Lachs, my old mentor at Vandy, will put in a virtual appearance to kick off our reading of his new book Stoic PragmatismAnd on Thursday he’ll be here for real. [works by JLwikiJL@dawn/DS]

Dr. L’s  main message: “Stoic pragmatists are committed to making life better…” We can’t save life on earth all by ourselves, but we can do a lot more than we’ve done to make life in our small corner of it better. There’s a lot we can do to exemplify more humane and sustainable forms of life.

Leading by example is what John Lachs is all about.

That’s the public Berry Lecture Lachs delivered at Vanderbilt last February, drawn from chapter three and described in this space as characteristically crisp, elegant, and insightful. “The limits of human capacity and the vagueness of the ideal make attainment of perfection impossible, yet its lure ruins our satisfaction with what is clearly excellent and therefore good enough.”

He’s not calling for mediocrity or laziness, but he is calling us to pursue our happiness and our ideals with a measure of stoically-informed common sense. Our standards of excellence must be ours, and thus must be imperfect. Plato would object, but he was of course an unrealistic metaphysician.

Perfection was always an illusion, in Forms and Gods alike. [“An Imperfect God,” nyt] Some Christian fundamentalists even imagine God will wreck our economy, for our own good.  Or (as Van Jones tweets) that the “end times” are nigh “and we’ll all be forced to become Muslims.” That’s definintely not good enough, I’d say.

I first met Lachs as a “green” (in this context meaning inexperienced, not environmentally attuned)  grad student back when we both were young. Long story short: his interest in the American pragmatists James and Dewey, like his general joie de vivre,  was infectious. I committed to working under his tutelage on a Dewey-centered dissertation that ultimately transmuted into a celebration of James’s philosophy (with just a side of Dewey). I gave up on my project more than once. He never did. He’s a prince, a model, an inspiration, and a continuing fount of wisdom. That’s what somebody says at amazon, anyway.

Lachs writes:

Age clarifies… the arrival of self-recognition warrants celebration… only recently [have] I managed to characterize my attitude to life as that of a stoic pragmatist… The great question we face again and again is how long to pursue our goals with all our energy and when to pack it in… pragmatists are unlikely ever to give up, while stoics may acquiesce too soon.

I’m really glad I caught Lachs in a pragmatic mood, back in grad school. I was an accidental stoic before my time, when I really needed to be engaged with discovering what I could still do, not complacently settling for what I’d already done. Thanks to his strong shot of pragmatic encouragement– I fondly recall his cheerleading emails, as I labored over the final lines of my final chapter, imploring me to “go go go!!!“– I’m where I am today, not looking to pack anything in just yet, looking for others to encourage in turn.

And like my teacher I’m happy, in all my delighted finitude, to be here.

Transcendentalism at home

March 29, 2013

Thinking this morning about the Transcendentalism chapter of my book-in-progress on walking and philosophy.

Good philosophy transcends mere theory and solves some of the practical problems of life, said Thoreau. Take housework. Please.

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.

Simple solution. (But what to do about that cat on my desk? Can I fling him too? Wanted to, when he woke me in the wee hours battling his counterpart on the other side of the French doors in the library.)

Another practical problem a walker must solve, especially this time of year, is yardwork – not how to do it, but how to hold it safely at bay, away from our sacred hours of perambulation. Henry’s friend Emerson:

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.

Precisely. But it’s a simple solution again: toss that rake and shovel, slide away from the barrow, step over the mulch-pile, stride swiftly and repeat. Don’t look back.

The days are gods.

Peirce, James, Nietzsche, Stroud

March 19, 2013

PeirceJamesNietzsche (LH) and Barry Stroud’s Philosophy Bites discussion of Scepticism await our return to CoPhilosophizing today, after Spring Break. (Notice, class: for some reason the Brits prefer to spell that with a “c”-but I’m still skeptical.)

“Can I trust my senses? Can I tell that I’m not now dreaming?” I’m pretty sure I can. But Maria Popova (who, btw, is also a William James fan) passes along a surprising stat: there’s a 1 in 10 chance that you’re snoozing right now. Wake up and post your questions! (And next time, when we talk about Freud, we can also revisit Maria’s past Monday post on Freud and daydreaming.) Be lucid, please.

As for those other guys… I’ve written reams on them all, most delightedly on WJ. [PeirceJamesNietzsche @dawn]

I’m not especially pleased with Nigel Warburton’s take on James, true enough to the letter but not at all to the spirit of his pragmatic conception of truth. More on that later. At least he gets the squirrel right.

And, he rightly (if inconsistently) points out the non-literal intent of Nietzsche’s infamous “God is dead” proclamation. More to come on that too. Meanwhile, the theists among us will enjoy imagining that their God has the last word.

America the Philosophical at breakfast

March 9, 2013

What a sumptuous feast President Saatkamp put out for us at his home last night. In fact, the food at this conference has been a highlight. Will it continue to surpass at tonight’s banquet? Will it be as good as the perfectly-timed $1 hot dog I devoured in the middle of my snowy lunchtime stroll down the famed Atlantic City boardwalk yesterday? The questions just never stop, do they?

I concluded my contribution at our “New Dawnings”  session yesterday morning with a bunch of them, and then with an assertion:

Should it trouble us that we cannot easily or entirely reconcile our respective personal subjectivities (Rorty’s “wild orchids”) with the collective spirit of social reform and progress?
For myself: I am not troubled. I drove past Walt Whitman’s Camden yesterday, on the road to Galloway NJ, and cannot resist closing with a paraphrase of his famously audacious, charmingly impudent locution: Our tradition is large, it contains multitudes (of ideas). This is good. But greater multitudes of philosophically reflective Americans?  That is still the great undiscovered country we must achieve.
But it’s almost time for the breakfast session with Carlin Romano, who’ll talk between bites about America the PhilosophicalHe has a different idea from mine and de Tocquevillle’s (“in no country in the world is less attention paid to philosophy”). Carlin asks and answers,
Does America take philosophy seriously? One might as well ask whether America takes monarchy seriously.
Guess that answers that. I think we’re going to have to try and come up with a better question.
Postscript. Breakfast was good, Carlin was too. We swapped cards, I (tentatively) invited him to come meet our philosophical students at Middle Tennessee, we agreed America’s big & plural enough to be the most and least philosophical of civilizations. If that sounds impossible, re-read your Whitman (“Do I contradict myself?” etc.)… Next stop: the William James Society’s session featuring my old friend Micah Hester’s bioethics book on the end of life

New dawnings: Lincoln, Rorty, Putnam, Cavell and beyond

March 8, 2013

Finish each day

February 22, 2013

I’d read a lot of Emerson over the years and never come across this piece of practical wisdom in precisely this formulation, before Maria Popova passed it along from Jon Winokur’s Advice to Writers yesterday: “Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two.”

Here’s the more common version, brought nearly to life:

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Whichever way The Sage really said it, I do try always to rise fresh and ready. My sleep rarely interposes as solid or lasting a wall as I’d like, but the spirit of daily renewal in anticipation of another good day’s work is what the dawn’s all about for me too, and for melioristic pragmatists in general.

So, and despite a detour to the doc’s office with Younger Daughter yesterday, I’m back at it today with “new dawnings” for the impending American Philosophy conference. The symposiasts at my session won’t find me a hard sell, I was already sure there’s a pragmatic line running from Emerson and Thoreau through Rorty and Putnam and Cavell. And Lincoln. [“What Would Lincoln Do?”] And beyond.

Sometimes, when preparing to gather with colleagues in a professional setting, it’s tempting to think you must speak and communicate with such clarity as to remove all possibility of being misunderstood. But that, Emerson knew, is an impossible bar to clear.

Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

And to be merely competent is also to be misunderstood. To be human is to make mistakes. Big deal.  I like to remind myself, before traveling to meet my peers, of what James said about our fallibility in Will to Believe:

Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

So I’ll just keep on rising before the dawn of day, catching a few reflections, committing a few errors, and occasionally glancing out and up for inspiration. One more insight, Mr. Emerson? “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”

Irrepressible desire

February 16, 2013

The family treated me to my annual Valentine’s/birthday dinner at Boscos last night, and I predictably ordered and enjoyed my customary pair of craft beers (Poor Richard’s Ale and a London Porter this time) chasing (as nearly always) the goat cheese tamale.

boscos-loyalty-cardsmBut where’s my “special birthday gift,” Boscos? It says right here on my “Beer Police” card that I’m entitled, and you did give me a mug last year. “Nobody’s ever asked about that,” said our server. “The manager would know,” said the greeter. No big deal, said I. But I left feeling like crotchety old Spencer Tracy in the film that had such an impact on me back when I was about ten, irritated at the ice cream stand attendant because she didn’t have his favorite Pistachio. Why can’t the world be as predictable as me?!

Well… that’s not a good POV for a pragmatist. We’re supposed to be firm yet flexible, non-ideological, committed to constant and constructive change.

And that’s just what I need to reflect on this morning, to begin preparing to participate in the American philosophy conference in less than three weeks. I’m supposed to have something to say about “old and new dawnings,” and about how old honest Abe was or was not a good pragmatist when confronting his own unpredictable battles.

So, the family took me home and presented me with a much better gift than Boscos ever did or would: the companion book (purchased at Parnassus, no less) to the acclaimed Spielberg biopic that should soon be reaping big Hollywood rewards. The back cover image represents Lincoln the nurturing Dad, rocking and reading to his little boy. The accompanying quote perfectly conveys Lincoln’s instinctive melioristic pragmatism:

I have an irrepressible desire to live till I can be assured that the world is a little better for my having lived in it.”

That’s an attitude worth celebrating, and emulating. Happy Presidents’ Day.

Blindness and the moral life

November 29, 2012

In Stoic Pragmatism John Lachs mentions my two favorite William James essays: “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” and “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” Both were included in part 2 of Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals [Gberg] (1899). Can’t let pass the opportunity to remark on them.

If you don’t agree with me, don’t see the world just as I see it, you must be blind.

That’s the ancestral blindness we all inherit and must struggle to resist, according to William James in his 1898 essay On a Certain Blindness in Human BeingsHe said it was his favorite too. Our myopia stems in large part from our literal neglect of the visible and natural world. “We grow stone-blind and insensible…”

We of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.

Is there a cure? Yes: simplify.

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level… The savages and children of nature, to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead, along these lines; and, could they write as glibly as we do, they would read us impressive lectures on our impatience for improvement and on our blindness to the fundamental static goods of life.

The “savage” practitioners of native wisdom have much to teach us (as we learned in “Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom” last year).

Another great James essay is “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891). I’ve been quoting it recently, in connection with the “Atheism & Philosophy” course I’ll be doing again next year, and in connection with the recent TPA keynote by Robert Kane. It says it takes only two of us to constitute a moral republic. Our desires make a presumptive claim on the world of our peers, as nothing else can.

…we have learned what the words “good,” “bad,” and “obligation” severally mean. They mean no absolute natures, independent of personal support. They are objects of feeling and desire, which have no foothold or anchorage in Being, apart from the existence of actually living minds.

MPML concludes:

The ethical philosopher, therefore, whenever he ventures to say which course of action is the best, is on no essentially different level from the common man.  ”See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; therefore choose life that thou and thy seed may live”–

James’s language may have taken a turn for the scriptural here, but his ultimate message in this essay is solidly secular, earth-bound, and common-sensical. This is not from the Good Book, or any good book, but from real life itself.

When this challenge comes to us, it is simply our total character and personal genius that are on trial… and if we invoke any so-called philosophy, our choice and use of that also are but revelations of our personal aptitude or incapacity for moral life.  From this unsparing practical ordeal no professor’s lectures and no array of books can save us.

This is James’s anti-intellectualism rearing its tangible head. “Dumb” is not stupid:

The solving word, for the learned and the unlearned man alike, lies in the last resort in the dumb willingnesses and unwillingnesses of their interior characters, and nowhere else.  It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy hear, that thou mayest do it.

In other words: no one is coming, from heaven or abroad, to relieve any of us of our personal responsibility to choose as wisely and generously as we can. We need to be kind and compassionate and good, and to act accordingly, because that’s the right thing to do. We need to open our eyes and see the real people, with their real desires and real lives, with whom we share this real world.

Addendum. And what about the real animals, and all the other forms of life who live here too? Neither James  nor Lachs nor I would deny that sentient beings of every species merit kindness and compassion. All would also probably agree with Sara, who said in her final presentation yesterday that so-called “animal whisperers” may be extraordinarily good at interpreting non-verbal signals but they’re no telepaths. My dogs are plenty clever (though not so clever as Hans), they react predictably to words like “treat” and “walk,” but they and their kind have not crashed the communications barrier that separates symbolic and purposive thought from mere conditioned behavior. But, that’s no excuse for humans ever to be blind to their needs or to abuse their trust. Peter Singer was right about that.

“The point is to change the world”

November 28, 2012

It’s not enough for an inquisitively industrious species merely to understand, we seek transformation. “We” includes Marxists and pragmatists and eco-activists and maybe even some (pragmatized) stoics. So we turn to John Lachs’ second chapter in Stoic Pragmatism today in CoPhi, and to Ecotopia in EEA. Final report presentations begin as well.

“It is unseemly to question one’s heritage.” I don’t think Lachs really means that, not fully. Philosophy questions everything, especially what’s been passed along without critical assessment. But he’s right to notice that there’s no shaking our origins, even when we manage to rise above them. “You can take the boy out of the country,” the midwest, etc., but if he’s been steeped early in (say) Hegel, as Dewey was, he’ll have a hard time entirely letting go.

My first philosophical collaboration was with undergraduate peers at Mizzou in the ’70s. We hung out on Friday afternoons at Michael’s pub on campus (long gone) and tried to settle the universe’s hash (including one memorable occasion when one of us thought he could prove free will by doing something really stupid with a beer stein). We called ourselves “The Hegel Society” (possibly aping the St. Louis Hegelians of local memory),  and in spite of my developed preference for pragmatism I still can’t help thinking in terms of geist. (But, I no longer think progress is inevitable, or that history often isn’t simply one damned meaningless thing after another).

So… sometimes we reflect our heritage most when we’re trying hardest to distance ourselves from it. Might as well own our starting places, then move on. That’s real growth, the “progressive enrichment of experience and improved control over circumstances” that comes from deep self-knowledge.

Lachs acknowledges his own growth in moving on from his earlier epiphenomenal phase. You can’t change the world if your very consciousness is an ephemeral by-product disengaged from events.  He distances himself as well from Hegel’s detached, owlish, spectatorial stance towards history, and steps up to offer guarded support for Peirce’s focus on the future while holding on to a special fondness for luminous “firsts,” immediacies, and non-verbal experiences. “Delightful absorption” in the present is hard to beat, and “much of what is interesting and truly important in life cannot be put into words.” Philosophers don’t like to admit that, for obvious vocational reasons. We must continually “fire our volley of vocables,” after all. But silence can be golden.

I don’t think, with Lachs, that pure non-verbal presence is “the only spirituality open to nonreligious people”– I still hold a brief for Dewey’s “continuous human community,” in that regard– but it’s right up there.

Lachs is also a friend of progress. “If we do not permit ourselves to suppose that we progress, we ban pragmatism as a mode of thought and a way of life.” Progress is not inexorable or inevitable, as Hegel and some Marxists would once have had it, but it is real. A pair of Steves, Pinker and Johnson, have lately been making this point.

Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) says violence has been in steady decline for quite some time, while Steven Johnson (Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age) says the “networked” present marks the high-water mark (so far) of human achievement. When Sully Sullenberger landed his plane safely in the East River, well, he didn’t land that all by himself. Many humans, many technologies, many evolved support systems were his co-pilots. [Pinker on Social Science Bites with Nigel]

Only time will tell for sure, of course, but I’ll bet not many of us would volunteer to go back and live in an earlier century when medicine was primitive, human intercourse was fierce and brutal, and longevity was predictably brief. What does that tell us?

Such a rich chapter, and I’ve not yet even mentioned Lachs’s mention of my two favorite James essays (“Blindness” and “Moral Philosopher“). Tomorrow, and tomorrow. Speaking of which…

Is “ecotopia” our glorious Tomorrowland? Can we ditch the fossil fuel burners, get off the grid, give up heavy consumerism and the forty-hour workweek, and get on with better lives in the great Pacific Northwest? Doubtful, but for some of us irresistibly alluring (except for the war-games and some of the emotional histrionics and cringe-inducing male casual-sex fantasies). But even if the late Ernest Callenbach‘s vision is all a pure fictional fantasy,

Ecotopia still poses a nagging challenge to the underlying national philosophy of America: ever-continuing progress, the fruits of industrialization for all, a rising Gross National Product.

Well… there’s progress, and then there’s real progress. We need not “give up any notion of progress,” just the debilitating and self-destructive one we’ve been burning at both ends. And we really should give up our traditional and habitual greed, short-sightedness, superstition, ignorance, and fear. Just listen to JL. Just read Callenbach’s last letter.

Will we ever get there, to a genuine and sustainably “stable state” in balance with nature? Surely so, if we can plausibly imagine there will  be a flourishing and recognizably-human civilization still here in a century. Surely not, if we’re committed to keeping on doing what we’ve been doing. We need to commit to something better.

That’s my prediction. Please don’t wake me if I’m wrong. And maybe don’t wake me period. As John Lachs says, there is “something deeply appropriate in dying when our purposes are fulfilled.” And as the other JL would agree: if we want to progress, we really must “clear the field for the next generation.”