Archive for the ‘Progress’ Category

Better angels

March 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative tension

January 21, 2013

On MLK Day, we who study philosophy should recall Dr. King’s advocacy of constructive Socratic tension, and continue to ratchet the pressure for progress in this imperfect time.

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.  Letter from Birmingham Jail

We may not reach the promised land, but it shouldn’t be for not trying. As historian Taylor Branch wrote of King’s “last wish,”

How do we restore our political culture from spin to movement, from muddle to purpose? We must take leaps, ask questions, study nonviolence, reclaim our history.

So no, we’re not there yet. But asking questions and “creating tension in the mind” will move us on down the road. That’s the faith of a philosopher, and it’s why MLK makes the last cut on our timeline.  We can argue about whether his religion “improved” King, or whether his own virtuous character improved his religion. Just let the late great Hitch, no small instigator of creative tension himself, have the last (for once) uncontroversial word:

One wishes every day that Martin Luther King had lived on and continued to lend his presence and his wisdom to American politics.

Wisdom in American politics: what a concept. But taking the long view, it’s still possible to dream of progress and a better world. Forward!

Pursuing progress

May 29, 2012

For the record: our freshly unveiled low-rent pool was a big Memorial Day hit. The little blue float’s gonna be my new summer hammock. Felt like Benjamin Braddock, happily adrift and pondering the future of plastics. Who needs the beach when you’ve got the Redneck Riviera!


But, back to what passes for work here in the sunny season of my greatest content. I love it out here in the warming world, always have. Get out of the stuffy hothouse and embrace the real heat, I told my brother-in-law at the birthday party. He doesn’t get why anyone would ever walk away from air conditioned comfort if they didn’t have to.

Of course my infatuation with summertime needs to be rethunk, in the sobering sweltering light of catastrophic climate change. Anthropogenic natural heat is something I’d never seriously considered. Had any of us, really? But if the planet’s crossed a line and is soon to become uninhabitable at this latitude, I intend to be among the last to enjoy it anyway.

So, to work: I’m juggling two new projects & seeking to integrate them: Philosophy Walks, a rumination on all the ways philosophy and philosophers get around in space, time, imagination, and possibility. This includes the literal forms of motion dearest to me, perambulation mainly, but increasingly also cycling. Philosophy rolls, too. And climbs. And floats. Maybe Philosophy Moves is a better working title.

And the second project needs a working title. It’s a fact-based fiction starring William James, ambling towards a heart-taxing climax on Mt. Marcy.

WJ is practically my alter ego already. I relay his tweets, for instance. The environmental writer Andrew Revkin spotted this recent one…

To be happy most of us need some austerity and wintry negativity, some roughness, danger, stringency, and effort, some “no! No!”

And said in response

I’m likning the evidently posthumous tweets from the philosopher/psychologist @WillmJames

Thanks, Andy. He’d be liking your work “pursuing progress on a finite planet” too. That pursuit was in fact his philosophical quest also, and the best reason I can think of to pursue my 2d summer project.

And there, I think, is my working title: Progress.