Archive for the ‘CoPhilosophy’ Category

Sartre, deBeauvoir, Camus, Crane

March 26, 2013

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals.  That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi, along with Tim Crane on mind and body (“How could a piece of soft tissue think and feel?”). [SartreCamus @dawn… roads to freedom… deB SEP,IEP… “Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoirtrees and bridgesSartre’s cat]

It is arresting to realize that when we get mad and then busy (as Bill McKibben says we must), it’s all at the instigation and the behest of that hunk of soft tissue between our ears: an unlikely candidate for freedom and resistance, and yet it’s fundamentally who and what we are, when suitably harnessed to a motive agent like a body. Like? What else is like a body, in a way capable of executing events in a world?

So, to some of those extreme Gallic statements:

Sartre:

  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”

And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-bombs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love. At least the guy who said hell is other people liked cats.

de Beauvoir:

  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”

Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.

Camus also said

  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Albert Camus gave us the Existential version of Sisyphus, and the “fundamental question of philosophy”:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”

OK, got it. My answer is yes, of course life is worth living. Living’s not always easy, but there’s usually something to show for your hard work. It can be a source of happiness. (And what does Sisyphus do after hours?)

The next question, having consented to live, is how. Politics is supposed to help with that. But in this political season, there have been moments when many of us have wondered if it’s all worth it. Camus felt the same.

“Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people’s anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble – yes, gamble – with a whole part of their life and their so called ‘vital interests.”

Politics was supposed to be all about freeing the people to pursue happiness, Mr. Jefferson said. If it’s hard to imagine Sisyphus happy, it may be harder to expect that from our politics these days. But we must keep on pushing.

Freud, Russell, Ayer, time

March 21, 2013

Time in CoPhi for FreudRussellAyer, and Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”). [Freud and Russell @dawn]

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own. He claimed it in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]

…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.

“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!!”

No moral system can rest solely on authority.

There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.

 

There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. It it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you should not… it’s intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

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?  [Why I Am Not a Christian… More Russell]

 

 

Freud is darker than Nietzsche… Sheer joy and sheer affirmation of life is pretty hard to find, if you’re being absolutely honest about what reality is.

As long as your ideas of what’s possible are limited by what’s actual, no other idea has a chance.

If life is a gift, then the more you partake in it, the more you show thanks.

[Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists]

 

Back to the question of time: Mellor’s point is that time lacks objective tense (past, present, future), not that it is an illusion. This may take some time to grasp, for

 if you think of tense as a feature of the world, that is an illusion. [But] what is not an illusion is that we are in the world, and need to think about it, and especially about how to act in it, in terms of tense… time itself– tenseless time, what makes events earlier and later than each other– is indeed a real feature both of the world, and of our experience of it.

So does he agree with Einstein, who said ”the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one,” or not? Yes and no.
Time and again, time after time, the intersection of philosophy and physics is maddeningly inconclusive. Add history to the mix and you get logic-defying paradox. The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined (willdetermine?) that time travel is impossible. But apparently that just goes for this actual universe, at this point in time. Hmmm. Logic aside, however, it’s at least biologically impossible to go into the past and annihilate your own forebears. That should be reassuring, though of course it would destroy a lot of amusing plot-points in film and fiction (not to mention Trek).
BTW: we might want to use this topic as a springboard back to Nietzsche and his strange notion of eternal recurrence. And what about Deja Vu, all over again? Have we all been here before? Well, that would imply the real existence of tense, wouldn’t it?
Does your head hurt yet, Geordi? Or yet again?
I think Tagore’s butterfly still has the best perspective on time.

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.

Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx, Papineau

March 5, 2013

I was up much too late last night, playing with my new Chromebook. But wasn’t it just day before yesterday, we were all skeptical of Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop? We’re nearly there, even in our so-called developed world. And in New Jersey. A school in the cloud looks more promising than ever.

It’s DarwinKierkegaardMarx, and Scientific Realism today in CoPhi.

What was the best mindless eye-opening idea anybody ever had, Dan Dennett?

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin and philosophy… Darwin@dawn… evolution… DennettMatthew Chapman… Scopes Trial… Loyal Rue]

We were talking yesterday about Hegel’s idea of history as a progressive march to expanded human consciousness of reason and freedom, driven by ideas in conflict (“thesis-antithesis”). I think we all have to admit (though of course we-all don’t, in these environs) that Darwin’s discoveries were a big hitch ahead on that road. His autobiographical account of an argument he had with the Captain of his storied ship (the Beagle) over slavery is instructive in this regard:

In the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.

Darwin and Fitzroy patched that one up, and history is now clear about the winner of that debate. Progress, right? Fitzroy would later regret his role in Darwin’s saga, and our species’ climb up the tree of life from ignorance and superstition.  But Darwin’s big idea, like Lincoln’s, was a great emancipator of the human spirit.  They shared a birthday, curiously, and (as Hegel might have said) a zeitgeist.

So Darwin offered an account of our proximate origins that does not require the theistic hypothesis. He himself remained agnostic on the question, unlike our contemporary Richard Dawkins. He’s reviled by many Americans (deluded or not), but I can only envy the “popular understanding of science” he and others have proffered students in the U.K. and that our public schools continue to neglect.

Then today, a leap. Followed by a revolution. Don’t we all want to see the plan?

Kierkegaard said something similar to what Hegel more cryptically assigned to the owl of Minerva, when he said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He also said

  • “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
  • “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
  • “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
  • “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
  • “Once you label me you negate me.”
  • “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
  • “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”

But what about the possibility of overriding the ethical, humane, and parental demands and privileges of fatherhood in the name of a sacrificial faith? The  Abraham and Isaac story still chills, especially in an age when young women around the world continue to be sacrificed by their pious fathers, brothers, and other young men.

Members of the Taliban just perpetrated another of these unspeakably obscene “pious” faith-murders, as reported in this morning’s news. They shot a schoolgirl for being “anti-Taliban and secular.”

Honor killings,” such atrocities are sometimes euphemistically camouflaged. There’s nothing honorable about them, and nothing a respectable philosopher can say in their defense.

It’s not just Islamist fundamentalists, btw, who support the abuse and murder of children in God’s name. Ophelia Benson cites an Arkansas congressional candidate who says “God’s law” decrees death for “rebellious children.”

Marx said some things too.

  • History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.
  • As Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel.
  • Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.
  • The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.
  • The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
  • The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Whether Kierkegaard’s and Marx’s words have ultimately been a force for emancipation and the change we need is a question for historians, and philosophers, and historians of philosophy, and philosophers of history. It’s probably best to leave the politicians out of it. [Kierkegaardand Marx @dawn]

We were speaking of infinity the other day, of course finding words and even numbers inadequate to the boggling scale of the concept, and I was reminded of that art installation outside Vandy’s Science Library celebrating the reach “from atom to cosmos… ever into mystery.” But can we believe that science really solves micro-mysteries and discovers real entities at the subatomic level? Yes, says David Papineau. Not always, but sometimes for sure.

I consider myself that kind of selective scientific realist, too, because ultimately a humble belief in the progressive (though incremental) probity of science is optimistic. That’s why I always drop in, whenever I’m in the neighborhood, to appreciate Nancy DuPont Reynolds’ wonderful sculpture in the window.

Hegel, Schopenhauer, Mill, infinity

February 21, 2013

We’re well into the 19th century, in CoPhi: Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Mill. And the Philosophy Bites interview is with Adrian Moore, on the concept of “infinity“-and beyond? Is the universe infinite? Not only do we not know the answer to that, just try solving Zeno‘s Paradoxes. [Paradox #1YouT… How big is infinity? An animated TEDexplanation] Or getting a plumber on the weekends.

Hegel was the ultimate optimist, Schopenhauer the uber-pessimist. And Mill? I’d call him a realist with strong aspirations. [Hegel up@dawn]

They’re all in the song, if that helps. Let’s see… Schopenhauer and Hegel were both out-consumed by David Hume. And Mill, of his own free will, “on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.”

But it would probably be more helpful to relate the Germans to their predecessor Kant, and to bring Mill to bear on his countryman Bentham.

First the Germans: both Schopenhauer and Hegel tried to go beyond Kant’s proscription against specifying the “thing-in-itself,” the ultimate “noumenal” reality beneath the appearances. For Hegel, History’s the thing. For Schopenhauer it’s Will.

An amusing sidelight: in spite of himself, and his intent to renounce personal will (so as to starve ultimate Will, or at least deprive it), Schopenhauer was stubbornly competitive with his philosophical rival Hegel. He insisted on lecturing at the same time as the more popular Hegel, with predictable results. But you have to wonder if his auditors understood a word Hegel said? Maybe free gas was provided? (See William James’s “observations on the effects of nitrous-oxide-gas-intoxication” and his essay On Some Hegelisms – ”sounds like nonsense, but it is pure on-sense!”)

I have to admit: for a sourpuss, Schopenhauer’s a lot of fun to read. His aphoristic Art of Controversy is a good place to begin.

The average man pursues the shadow of happiness with unwearied labour; and the thinker, the shadow of truth; and both, though phantoms are all they have, possess in them as much as they can grasp. Life is a language in which certain truths are conveyed to us; could we learn them in some other way, we should not live. Thus it is that wise sayings and prudential maxims will never make up for the lack of experience, or be a substitute for life itself.

And his Studies in Pessimism are oddly cheerful.

One of the lesser-known but more intriguing facets of Schopenhauer’s philosophy was his belief that music is our point of entree to Will, and to ultimate reality.

Schopenhauer, like Rousseau, loved his dog

And he would have agreed with J.S. Mill‘s statement: “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” Understandable, perhaps, after an execrable childhood when his father pushed him much too hard to excel. He had a nervous breakdown at twenty. Cautionary tale, young scholars? [Mill’s Autobiography]

But he rebounded impressively, going on to become one of the my favorite philosophers, an early champion of feminism, and a friend of personal freedom in general.

Mill tried to correct Bentham’s indiscriminate “happiness” by introducing a quality distinction among pleasures. I’d love to endorse this move, and say things like: unit for unit, an inning of baseball is far superior to a quarter of football. (We might agree, though, that both are superior to “push-pin” and some poetry.) But happiness, pleasure, satisfaction et al have to be left to the judgment of the beholder if they’re to be actual motivators of conduct. So, I agree with Mill in principle and in conscience, but must stick with Bentham in practice. [J.S. Mill up@dawn]

But the harm principle, and On Liberty (1859) in general? I’m with him.

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

 

I love too what he says about Socrates and truth. In Utilitarianism (1861) he adds,

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. [JSM]

And remember this, when we discuss William James and “what works”: “The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful.”

Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, & Brown

February 19, 2013

Three classical philosophers today: a Swiss contractarian, a German deontologist, and an English utilitarian. And, Wendy Brown of UC-Berkeley on tolerance. [Chains, laws, stars, push-pin & poetry]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an emotional thinker with a romantically-inflated opinion of human nature and the “noble savages” who would have embodied it in a hypothetical state of nature.

What’s most interesting to me about Rousseau is that his Emile so arrested the attention of Immanuel Kant that he allowed it to disrupt his daily walking routine “for a few days.” Nothing short of seriously-incapacitating illness would do that to me. Apparently Kant was typically the same way, except for just that once.

Kant could get very upset if well-meaning acquaintances disturbed his routines. Accepting on one occasion an invitation to an outing into the country, Kant got very nervous when he realised that he would be home later than his usual bedtime, and when he was finally delivered to his doorstep just a few minutes after ten, he was shaken with worry and disgruntlement, making it at once one of his principles never to go on such a tour again.

So what’s in Emile that could so dis-comport a creature of such deeply ingrained habit? A generally-favorable evaluation of human nature, and a prescription for education reflective of that evaluation. Kant thought highly enough of Rousseau’s point of view to hold us all to a high standard of reasoned conduct. We should always treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means to our own ends. We have a duty to regard one another with mutual respect.

The character of Emile begins learning important moral lessons from his infancy, through childhood, and into early adulthood. His education relies on the tutor’s constant supervision. The tutor must even manipulate the environment in order to teach sometimes difficult moral lessons about humility, chastity, and honesty. IEP

Yes, fine. But what precisely in Emile kept Kant off the streets, until he was finished with it?

Don’t know yet. But I love a good mystery. I’ll look into it. Could have something to do with other characters in the story. “Rousseau discusses in great detail how the young pupil is to be brought up to regard women and sexuality.” Now maybe we’re getting somewhere.

Or not. Rousseau’s observations regarding women sound pretty sexist and ill-informed, nothing Kant (as a  relatively un-Enlightenend male) wouldn’t already have shared.

Maybe it’s what Emile says about freedom that so arrested Kant? “The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature.”

Or religion? “It is categorically opposed to orthodox Christian views, specifically the claim that Christianity is the one true religion.” Maybe.

The Vicar claims that the correct view of the universe is to see oneself not at the center of things, but rather on the circumference, with all people realizing that we have a common center. This same notion is expressed in the Rousseau’s political theory, particularly in the concept of the general will.

That’s very promising. Kant’s Copernican Revolution etc.

I wonder if the mystery of Kant’s lost walks could be related, too, to another of fellow-pedestrian Rousseau’s books, Reveries of the Solitary Walker?

The work is divided into ten “walks” in which Rousseau reflects on his life, what he sees as his contribution to the public good, and how he and his work have been misunderstood. It is interesting that Rousseau returns to nature, which he had always praised throughout his career… The Reveries, like many of Rousseau’s other works, is part story and part philosophical treatise. The reader sees in it, not only philosophy, but also the reflections of the philosopher himself.

That may not be a clue but it’s a definite inspiration for my own Philosophy Walks project, still seeking its legs.

BTW: we know Rousseau had a dog. Did Kant? If so, wasn’t he neglecting his duty to walk her?

What I love most about my teaching job is that it keeps teaching me new things about our subjects. Utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham is a good example.

It should come as no surprise that the philosopher who had his body preserved and housed for public display in University College London had other charms and quirks, but I learned of them only recently. The first volume of Parekh’s Critical Assessments reports that (like Kant and Rousseau) Bentham also was a walker and an eccentric, an understatedly “amusing” man.

Bentham was an extremely amusing man, and in many respects rather boyish. Most of his life he retained an instinctive horror of being left alone… He had a large black tom cat of an ‘uncommonly serious temperament’ which he nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ and ‘The Reverend Doctor Langborn’… He had amusing names for his daily activities and favourite objects. His favourite walking stick was called Dapple, after Sancho Panza’s mule, and his ‘sacred tea-pot’ was called Dick. His daily routine included ‘antejentacular circumgyration’ or a walk before breakfast, an ‘anteprandial circumgyration’ before dinner, and an ‘ignominious expulsion’ at midnight accompanied by the ‘putter-to-bed’, the ‘asportation of the candle’ and the ‘transportation of the window.’

So yes, he was weird. But also “basically a warm, generous, and kind” man. He wanted to reform the misery-inducing industrial culture of his time and place, and to improve the basic quality of life of his fellow human beings.

Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own…

Sorry, Mr. Mill, that’s just not what I’d call a “pig philosophy.” It’s humane and compassionate, and it deserves a hearing too.

And following up on Rousseau and Kant and the mystery of what it was about the former’s Emile that kept the latter off the streets– “Everybody who does Education has to read Emile cover-to-cover,” says this jet-lagged Yale lecturer– Rousseau’s Dog is instructive:

According to one anecdote, the fastidious Immanuel Kant, whose daily routine was so rigid and undeviating that people set their watches by him, became so absorbed in Émile that he bewildered his neighbors by forgetting to take his usual post-lunch constitutional… Rousseau understood, he thought, the paradox of autonomy—that freedom meant conformity to a rule. As he was writing his own masterpiece, the Critique of Pure Reason, he had a single portrait in his house—of Jean- Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s Dog

So while it was Hume whom he credited with waking him from his “dogmatic slumber,” it was the somber Swiss who really inspired his work and set his Copernican Revolution spinning.

But I still wonder what the dog thought.

[Chains, laws, stars, push-pin & poetry]

 

Berkeley & Locke, Voltaire & Leibniz, Hume, Kymlicka

February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine’s Day! Gotta love a holiday about love. Philosophers haven’t really nailed the topic yet, though Plato tried. [Plato loves play-doughSocrates in LoveSchopenhauer on love] But it’s a good excuse to let us all consume unhealthily and recall how lucky we are to be here. Every day’s a birthday that might easily not have been.

vdaycakes

“Where there is love there is life.” Gandhi

“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” Dr. Seuss

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” Lao-tzu

“Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.” Bertrand Russell

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” R. Heinlein

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Paul McCartney

Today in CoPhi we take another pass at John Locke, this time contrasting him with Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) odd esse est percipi thesis. Also Voltaire vs. Leibniz,Hume vs. Design & miracles [SEP], and Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka‘s Philosophy Bites interview on rights. He asks if immigrants should be given rights that other citizens don’t have. Good luck finding Americans who’ll assent to that, Will. “The difficulty of reconciling apparently preferential treatment with a policy of equality is a central one for anyone committed to multiculturalism.”

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.

There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.

Well, the idea of him is now hung again at least.

Voltaire was one of those salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide

“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…”

David Hume (follow his little finger) agreed, attributing goodness and upstanding personal character to the positive reinforcement of social custom and collective experience. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place… JMH

Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. [Hume at 300… in 3 minutes… Belief in miracles subverts understanding]

On the question of Design, intelligent or otherwise, and before we forget entirely about Darwin Day

Open your eyes,” Richard Dawkins likes to say. They really are an incredible evolutionary design. Not “perfect” or previsioned, but naturally astounding.

Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, multiculturalism

February 12, 2013

Dwan Adams of the Peace Corps made such a terrific pitch, I’m expecting half the class to have run off and joined when I get to Bioethics tomorrow. I’m half considering it myself. I don’t know how she made life in a tent in Mongolian winter sound appealing but she did. So, you want to join?

peacecorps

Today in CoPhi it’s Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, and a Philosophy Bites interview with Anne Phillips on multiculturalism.

There’s more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois (without an accent). Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!

Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”

And

“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

And

“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*

And

“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”

But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being “omne animal” sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal’s platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God’s grace, he writes, we are “like unto the brute beasts.” He doesn’t seem pleased about that, but I’m with Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d… They do not sweat and whine about their condition… They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…”]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.

Spinoza believed in Einstein’s God [Tippett], and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive. God just is.

They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As Jennifer Hecht notes, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” And his bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

[Descartes to Deism… Tlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)…]

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. (But see below.*)

Cesar Kuriyama told the TEDsters the other day that he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?

“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”

Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more.

Anne Phillips says one of the smartest things I’ve heard anyone say about the niqab, the Islamic full face veil, and whether it has a place before the faces of those who most directly influence our children:

“…it’s a bit problematic sending a message to 11-year old children that it’s impossible for men and women to engage in face-to-face communication.”

And J&M note other problems

Walter Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right, long ago, when he wrote:

*“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

So there’s our challenge: to do our best. Push that stone, and push it again. And be happy. Sail on, sail on, sailor. Watch out for those shoals, those rocks and bergs. Be safe. Prepare the rafts.

And consider the Corps.

Hands off, glasses on

February 8, 2013

So, about that particular “Jesus and Mo” cartoon I mentioned here and in class yesterday, the one I like to use to introduce the free will/divine foreknowledge problem, the one a couple of students thought contrary to the spirit of cosmopolitan “citizen of the cosmos” acceptance of difference we’d been discussing in connection with Anthony Appiah’s PB interview

Maryam Namazie has some thoughts on standing by our Author.

Some atheists are not happy with One Law for All’s use of the Jesus and Mo cartoon on leaflets to promote the 11 February Day in defence of free expression [in the UK]. They feel that since the Jesus and Mo cartoons have been deemed offensive, it is best not to use them.

But that’s the whole point isn’t it? We’re rallying in order to say that the right to offend is part of free expression. No one needs to rally for inoffensive speech, do they?

Free expression is a big part of the point, and offense is something one can choose not to take.

But the issue for me is not about whatever “insult” might attend the scenario of cartoon caricatures depicted in bed, reading and talking. Author’s simply reminding us that the Abrahamic faiths have a great deal more in common than  their fervent partisans want to admit.

No, the issue is really to do with whether we’re up for an open exploration of ideas, diversity, and “the value of different points of view.”

The man who has not read is like the man who has not traveled — he is not an intelligent critic, for he has nothing with which to compare what falls within the little circle of his experiences… That to which we are accustomed we accept uncritically and unreflectively. It is difficult for us to see it somewhat as one might see it to whom it came as a new experience. George Fullerton

When we read a text or gaze at an image that makes us uncomfortable or angry or hurt, we’re broadening the circle of our experience. We’re “traveling” to the land of someone else’s consciousness, someone else’s way of seeing. If I can invoke one more metaphor, we’re putting on and viewing the world through someone else’s glasses.

And that’s what I try to do in my philosophy classes: get everybody talking, swapping glasses, seeing things as others see them.

You don’t believe in god? Slip on the Augustine or Anselm or Descartes- Rx lenses: clearer or fuzzier? Think you’re essentially an immaterial spirit? Take a gander through these Hobbes specs: matter in motion, finely resolved.

You believe in god? Here, Julia Sweeney, try the no-god glasses for a second.

…Let’s just try on the not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off. So I put them on and I looked around.

I’m embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, “Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we’re just hurtling through space? That’s so vulnerable!” I wanted to run out and catch the earth as it fell out of space into my hands.

And then I thought, “Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a really long time.” Then I thought, “What’s going to stop me from just, rushing out and murdering people?” And I had to walk myself through it, why are we ethical? Well, because we have to be. We’re social animals. We’re extremely complex social animals. We evolved a moral sense, like an aversion to wanton murder, in order for communities to exist. Because communities help us survive better in much bigger numbers. And eventually we codified these internal evolved ethics inside of us into laws against things like wanton murder. So… I guess that’s why I won’t be rushing out and murdering people! …[Begins at 1:32]

The aim is not uniform vision or a permanent “correction,” necessarily, just a momentary glimpse of insight that may eventually improve our mutual understanding and lessen the tension and mistrust between us.  It may make us slightly less blind to one another’s various ways of seeing and being in the world.

Guess who said this?

And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us.

Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

No, not Monty Python.

Now… ready to try the google glasses?

Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Fricker, & Poore Richard

February 7, 2013

MachiavelliHobbesDescartes, and Fricker are on tap today, in CoPhi. Some of them sound like cricketers, but they all have a sharp point of view worth considering. But first…

modfamOsophyWhat a night of televiewing! The girls were time-shifting Modern Family when I got home, and there was the very book I need to send our senior off to college with: Phil’s Osophy. “The most amazing things that can happen to a human being will happen to you if you just lower your expectations.” Priceless wisdom for the ages.

Then, my favorite brewpub and brunch venues got their fifteen seconds of glorious hi-def prime time exposure on “Nashville“: the mayor and his new fling strolling up and down in front of Fido’s, across from Bosco’s.  Too cool.

As Walker Percy might have said, my familiar places suddenly felt “validated.”

And second…

I almost always show my CoPhi collaborators a particular “Jesus and Mo” cartoon, to introduce the free will/divine foreknowledge problem. Usually it elicits a few snickers, but only rarely an overt complaint, and almost never an articulate one.

Yesterday was different. This time, a couple of students indicated extreme umbrage and suggested that the mere act of acknowledging the existence of that strip and those images was contrary to the spirit of cosmopolitan “citizen of the cosmos” acceptance of difference we’d been discussing in connection with Anthony Appiah’s PB interview.

Well,  I respectfully disagree. As Appiah says, being cosmopolitan doesn’t mean submerging or ignoring or fuzzing the differences between us. It means registering, appreciating, and finally celebrating them. It means giving ourselves permission to talk about them openly, to explore our different ways of being human, and to engage criticism without feeling threatened by it.

I’ll continue to use “Free Willy” in my classes. But I’m going to have to work on polishing my provocation “disclaimer,”* it doesn’t seem to have done the job this time.

*As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed. They’re just a couple of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless fun, zealots, not blasphemy. But if it provokes a little thought, it’s useful.

Anyway, I do appreciate the spirited exchange those images provoked. We may all have actually learned something from it.

But back to our regularly-scheduled program.

Fricker’s probably the one you’ve not heard of. She’s our contemporary, and she has possibly the most constructive observation of any of our philosophers du jour: we too frequently fail to listen to one another, for entirely unexamined and indefensible reasons. We write one another off, for falling into one or another stereotyped identity. We don’t take one another seriously, just because we think we’ve found the right pigeon-holes to place one another into. Whites and blacks, theists and atheists, Republicans and Democrats… we all commit “testimonial injustice.”

This is a new term, a new way of indicting our ancient ancestral blindness. I’ll admit, the topic doesn’t quite spring to life in Fricker’s accounting. But read William James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” then give her another listen. She’s definitely onto something, a perennial weakness in our species. We need to open our eyes to these prejudices, and close our minds to them.

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli and Hobbes knew it. Maybe if they’d heard Fricker’s podcast they’d have written different books and articulated kinder, gentler philosophies.

And maybe if she’d lived in 16th century Italy or 17th century England, she’d have committed more  ”testimonial injustice” too.

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says.

A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of Fortune.

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, hehobbes-walking-stick lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say humans were once “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel, why do you lock your doors? Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it?

I for one do not agree that it’s better to be feared than loved. And as I place an even greater premium on being listened to, and understood, I owe it to others to really listen to what they’re saying too. It’s when we write one another off, isn’t it, that suspicions arise and conflict ensues?

Rene Descartes, not at all a drunken fart, simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?

Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.

I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me. I do try to write things worth reading, do things worth writing, and not lie down with dogs more often than I have to.