Archive for the ‘CoPhilosophy’ Category

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.


Turing, Searle, Singer

April 16, 2013

The events of the world are so often dreadful, the history of philosophy almost seems to offer an escape. But it won’t do to pretend. Yesterday’s terror in Boston reminds us that our national gun obsession is part of a larger violence problem in America. In the world. 

[A runner in the Boston Marathon wearing a camera got footage of the first explosion: ]

It was the last sort of news a parent wants to hear, after packing his child off to the nation’s capitol. (And where were the kids yesterday afternoon, while the news from Boston was breaking? At the national holocaust museum, and then Ford’s theater. I do hope today’s itinerary takes them to the sunnier side of human possibility.)

Imagine running for four hours, finally arriving at your finish line and what should be your triumphal moment of earned ecstatic rest, in a horrible flash to find the legs literally cut off beneath you.  Now try not to imagine it.

To the 78 year old who was felled by the blast wave but got up and finished: thank you. Such splendid examples of courage and perseverance are too rare.

To the parents of children who fell in Boston: no words. We simply must act.


We’re to the end of Little History of Philosophy today, with Alan Turing [PhilDic], John Searle, and “the best known living moral philosopher” Peter Singer (who also turns up in Philosophy Bites).

“How should we treat animals?” Respectfully, of course. But does that mean we can eat them or not? Singer says no. Michael Pollan, among others, says maybe. I say I wish they’d build a better Boca Burger. But more on this later.

My mind this morning is on Alan Turing, a strange, heroic, and tragic figure who contributed more to preserving the world we had (by cracking the Nazis’ codes) and shaping the digitized world we live in now (by contributing to the creation of the computer). Turing’s Cathedral… The Enigma

Turing’s test for artificial intelligence is said by some to imply that if something functions intelligently, it is intelligent; and if its functionality resembles human personality in superficial ways, we may then speak of it as possessing human-grade intelligence.

And who knows? If you’re prepared to entertain that proposal, maybe you can also envision a mainframe host in your personal future. Maybe there will be a way to “map the billions of functional connections” of your brain onto a machine capable of replicating and preserving your intelligence and memories. Welcome to the brave new afterlife.

Seems pretty far-fetched, and it’s unclear that one’s hopes and dreams and delights– the stuff of embodied personhood– can be replicated in any meaningful sense. Never mind whether they should be. Planet’s pretty crowded as it is, and maybe one time around the wheel is only our fair share.

And anyway, as John Searle says, tests like Turing’s may not be any more conclusive about real intelligence than his Chinese Room thought experiment.

Advances in AI don’t seem to have come as quickly as some have speculated they might. But it’s still fun to ponder the possibilities, as Richard Powers did in his wonderfully informed and entertaining Galatea 2.2.

But, what a moment we find ourselves in! Ray Kurzweil calls this the Age of Spiritual Machines. If you can just live long enough– until the year 2040 or so, last I heard– you can live forever. He means you, kids. And he’s popping enough vitamins to delude himself into thinking that maybe he means himself as well. Good luck. I’m not holding my breath. I confess, I used to have a Sleeper fantasy like Woody’s. But Ted Williams kinda ruined it for me.

The best form of immortality may be the same as it ever was: a legacy rippling across time, impacting lives far beyond one’s own. Alan Turing didn’t live long enough to get himself fully digitized, but the digital world he set in motion has already secured a legacy likely to outlive us all. It dwarfs the primitive world of reflexive sexual bigotry he had to suffer in his brief lifetime.

To those who have a hard time fathoming how machines might ever acquire self-awareness, intentionality, and thought, ask yourself: how did we?

Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s? If this were then subjected to an appropriate course of education one would obtain the adult brain. 

ALAN TURING, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”

Singer’s challenge.

Peter Singer challenges the way we live in the relatively prosperous western world (“western” here is less a geographic designation than a state of mind and material comfort) on many fronts, including how we eat, how much we luxuriate, how much we earmark for our own offspring, and how much we give away to strangers. He sets the bar of selfless generosity much higher than our culture of consumption rewards. But the rewards of consumption don’t begin to match those of humane compassion.

  • “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
  • “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
  • “The Hebrew word for “charity” tzedakah, simply means “justice” and as this suggests, for Jews, giving to the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.”
  • “Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.”
  • “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
  • “Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”

Singer’s website… Practical Ethics… The Life You Can Save… Animal Liberation… The Singer Solution“… “Unspeakable Conversations

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.

Foot, Thomson, Rawls, Matravers

April 4, 2013

It’s Thought Experiment day in CoPhi (TX-Phi?)with Philippa Foot’s runaway trolleyJudith Thomson‘s unwanted violinist (as discussed recently in Bioethics),  John Rawls‘ Veil of Ignorance in LH, and Derek Matravers on art in PB.

What’s the point of thought experiments? To “trigger our awareness of conflicts between judgments that we previously held in combination” and “open up new conversations.” And they’re fun.

[Philosophy Experiments… What is a thought experiment?… Nozick’s Experience Machine… Top Ten… PhilSciXphi]

John Rawls’ veil. Rawls was committed to the idea of selfless mutual self-interest as the precondition of justice and fairness. Justice is fairness, he said.

What principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent? Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.
An amusing (if not especially animated) rendition of Rawls:
We were discussing a sporting example recently (the Baseball Conference is tomorrow, btw): a Rawlsian social contract won’t entirely level our playing fields, won’t be purely egalitarian. Behind the veil we’d probably want to design a society in which those who excel at a game others  might enjoy watching, for instance, will have sufficient incentive to actually play. The basketball fan does not begrudge Michael Jordan’s fortune, if he thinks it contributes to his own delight at courtside. It’s to his “advantage,” too, for Michael to have more money and notoriety.
But whatever the deliberators decide, behind that veil, Rawls wanted to give them a procedural opportunity to agree on the basis of relevant considerations. We’ve instead been auctioning public office and social influence to the highest, loudest bidders, not the coolest reasoners.  There’s nothing fair or just about that. The “law of peoples” can do better.

Michael Sandel is a semi-Rawlsian, with his talk of restoring respectful forms of democratic argument.

Robert Remini was a Rawlsian too. Biographer of Jackson and Clay, Remini just left us. He bemoaned the lost art of political compromise. (“Clay,” btw, is a family namesake: my Dad was James Clay, his Dad was Clay, and back it went deep into the 19th century. A source of my pragmatic attraction to anti-ideology, perhaps?) [Remini on NPR]

And Lawrence Lessig makes a point I think of as Rawlsian, too: “There is a corruption at the heart of American politics, caused by the dependence of Congressional candidates on funding from the tiniest percentage of citizens.”

A good argument, after all, really isn’t just interrupting and saying no it isn’t/-yes it is/no it isn’t. With the rude and acrimonious election season we’ve recently come through, we should give serious thought to how we can elevate our political discourse. The 2014 campaign season will be opening any second now.

I don’t claim to know what art is, or if Marcel Duchamp’s “fountain” should count. But like most of us, I know what I like: I like John Dewey’s approach in Art as Experience.

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.”

The crowd at the fountain had best be careful not to be infected by something less delightful.

Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, Williamson

April 2, 2013

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein [W@dawn], ArendtPopper & Kuhn in LH, and Tim Williamson on vagueness in PB.

First, let’s be clear about vagueness:

Frankly, I don’t much care how many grains of sand make a heap, or how many hairs I’m short of baldness. Sorites Paradoxes are logically important, if you’re into that sort of thing (as was Lewis Carroll, btw-beware the rabbit hole of logical obsession), but I think my old friend Bill Gavin wrote the more interesting book on why vagueness matters.

Gavin argues that William James’ plea for the ‘reinstatement of the vague’ to its proper place in our experience should be regarded as a seminal metaphor for thought in general. The concept of vagueness applies to areas of human experience not captured by facts that can be scientifically determined nor by ideas that can be formulated in words. In areas as seemingly diverse as psychology, religion, language, and metaphysics, James continually highlights the importance of the ambiguous, the contextual, the pluralistic, or the uncertain over the foundational. Indeed, only in a vague, unfinished world can the human self, fragile as it is, have the possibility of making a difference or exercising the will to believe.

But if you’d rather split hairs and play in the Fuzzy Logic sandbox or talk to computers, feel free.

Hannah Arendt didn’t bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:

The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…”

The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth

She also said, more pithily:

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. 

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it…

Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.

Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality]

Verify, insisted the logical positivists (especially Freddie Ayer). FalsifyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas. Best Popper quote:

True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.

“Paradigm shift” is one of those catch-phrases everybody thinks they have a handle on, but almost nobody knows in its original incarnation. That would be Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 Structure of Scientific RevolutionsHis view was that big new theories bring change, but not necessarily “progress”… depending, as always, on how we define our terms.

I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.

Well, “ontological development” or not, greater insight into how our theories actually reorganize intellectual life is still a kind of progress. Whether Kuhn’s own theories shed such light is still being debated, but there’s little doubt as to his fundamental claim: shift happens.

== == ==

More Wittgenstein. He said “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class.

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, for instance, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him.

On the other hand, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 he tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as is now widely acknowledged) he’d changed his views in the nearly three decades since the publication of his Tractatus in 1922. Wittgenstein asked what paper he worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein simply walked away.

Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.

A “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.

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.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein agreed: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable.

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude.

Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.

Rising in freedom

March 28, 2013

It’s an exam day, so I’m free to think and talk about whatever I please this morning. In fact, my family’s on Spring Break this week (half of them at the beach), so I’ve been free to alter daily routines in all kinds of ways. Coulda slept in an hour this morning. But I and my dawn habit chose otherwise.

FreeThe Existentialists warn us against the “bad faith” of supposing our freedom merely occasional and intermittent. Like Phil Connors, we’re always free to pound the alarm into submission.

(Thanks for the .gif of endless repetition, Quinlan.) We don’t have to get up, go to work or school, give or take that “miserable” exam James said good students should care less about, the night before.

Then again, freedom really does become dreadfully burdensome when it drives us to subvert our own larger goals and aspirations. Sleeping in and skipping out might feel free today, but how will it feel in six weeks when you get that disappointing course grade? Or in six years, when you still don’t have that degree?

No, when my alarm rings I find it far more constructive to side with the pragmatic defenders of habit, routine, repetition, and the illusion of  personal compulsion. I do “have to” get up, because I’ve already made the choice to live well and be at least as happy as Sisyphus. Existence precedes essence, sure. But who wants only to exist? We want to flourish.

And also, of course, because body clocks are harder to pound into submission than digital alarms.