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The real John Locke, “apostle of the Revolution of 1688″ (Russell) apparently had trouble walking too.
He was naturally very active, and employed himself as much as his health would permit. Sometimes he diverted himself with working in the garden, which he well understood. He loved walking, but not being able to walk much, through the disorder of his lungs, he used to ride out after dinner…
[I have to keep reminding myself that these “riding” philosophers were on horseback, not bikes. Philosophy Rides, the sequel, will not be a historical survey.]
His bad health was a disturbance to none but himself… his usual drink was nothing but water…
Good for him, I guess. He’s not the philosopher I’d most like to spend time in a pub with, though I admire his most pragmatic statement that “the actions of men [are] the best interpreters of their thought.”
His near-dying words were that we should regard this world and life as nothing but a vanity and “a state of preparation for a better.” Repugnant words, to a humanist. And yet, other words of his (“all mankind being equal and independent, none ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty”) inspired some of our greatest social and political experiments.
And some of our strangest television. Don’t tell me what I can’t do.
The Locke who inspired the eighteenth century was the philosopher who wired Aristotle’s most important insight, that all knowledge comes through experience, into the modern western mind. (Cave & Light)
“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.”
“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.”
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[Johnson’s Boswell]
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.
Common sense is BETTER for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be TRUER absolutely, Heaven only knows.
There is therefore a justification for common sense in philosophy, but only as showing that our theoretical principles cannot be quite correct so long as their consequences are condemned by an appeal to common sense which we feel to be irresistible.
Calvin, btw, seems to have taken the Bishop seriously.
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Sitting in the Nashville airport lounge last evening, awaiting the return from Florida of my Spring Breaking family, the inescapable television presence of CNN suddenly grabbed my attention with something genuinely newsworthy: American Atheists uncloseted and partying in Tennessee, with a paid tv spot proclaiming next week’s national convention right here in our backyard. It was surreal. Or maybe, finally, simply honest and real.
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Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance.
In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.
I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.
I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.
Nothing in nature is by chance… Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.
The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature… I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.
They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces” etc.) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we note Jennifer Hecht noting, 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.” Pascal’s fright contrasts sharply with Spinoza’s cosmic bliss. “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.”
In Spinoza’s vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken… Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reason. Passion for Wisdom
He’s still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.
But, there are difficulties involved in trying to internalize a “Spinozism of freedom”…
Spinoza is led to a complete and undiluted pantheism. Everything, according to Spinoza, is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God’s inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. This leads to difficulties… Bertrand Russell
Also today: art. We’ll try to discern the artfulness of Duchamp’s Fountain, Dewey’s ballplayer, maybe even Mapplethorpe’s transgressive iconoclastic work. We’ll introduce Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, the Institutional Theory, and more.
And then we’ll be done with Philosophy: The Basics.
Arthur Danto, premier aesthetician of his generation (and former MTSU Lyceum speaker), had interesting thoughts on what makes Andy Warhol’s Brillo cartons and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (click, then scroll to the bottom to see his “Fountain”) works of art. In a word: interpretation. Or in another word: philosophy. “Things which look the same are really different” is Danto’s “whole philosophy of art in a nutshell.” Thus spake the “weightiest critic in the Manhattan art world” of his generation. [The end of art]
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.”
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Somewhere in Walden Thoreau says something about needing a little water in his world, to provide a reflective glimpse of eternity. He also has things to say to today’s headliner Pascal, about not being cowed by the scale of the cosmos. Pascal famously confessed: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” (No wonder he was frightened, say J & M.) Henry said, in reply to neighbors who wondered if he wasn’t lonely out there by the lake in the woods:“Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?” Unlike his French predecessor, our transcendentalist was at home in the universe.
Trivial pop-culture factoid: last night on “Madam Secretary,” the husband (a teacher)mentioned Pascal.
Less trivially, Voltaire (we’ll soon see him skewering Leibniz) intervened in the Pascal-Montaigne conflict. He called Pascal a “sublime misanthropist” whose vision of humanity as imprisoned and terrorized by the immensity and uncertainty of the cosmos was “fanatic.”
Bertrand Russell mostly felt sorry for him, approvingly citing Nietzsche’s critique of Pascal’s “self-contempt and self-immolation.” He meant Pascal’s intellectual suicide, driven by fear.
Fortunately there’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], which we’ve already encountered in CoPhi.
Besides his mathematics and “Pascaline,” his proto-computer, there are all those thoughts (“Pensees“-you can listen for free, here) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow philosophe Francais, Montaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois. 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.
“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”
“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.”*
“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.”
Reminds me of what Montaigne said about needing to kickstart his mind with his legs.
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.
And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind.
Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy’s long quest to represent “external reality” accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our “comic” efforts “to guarantee this and clarify that.”
Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.
My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that’s what he’d call a duct tape question.
Rorty, with his metaphor of mind as (cloudy) mirror, is a good segue to the discussion of philosophy of mind, also on tap today.
Dualism gets us ghosts and spirits and other non-physical entities. Scary! But not for most students, I’ve found, so deeply have most of them drunk from the holy communion trough. It’s not a question of evidence but of familiarity and fear, in many cases – fear of the alternative. A student expressed that just the other day, asking with incredulity and contempt how anyone could possibly ponder facing the end of mortal existence without an immortal safety net firmly in place (in mind).
Why do they think the evolution of mind so closely parallels that of the brain? They don’t think about it, mostly.
Nor do most think much about the possibility of mind and body being on parallel but never-converging tracks, pre-arranged to keep a synchronous schedule and never throw up a discordant discrepant “occasion.” And forget too about epiphenomenalism (which Sam Harris seems to be trying hard to revive).
If neuroscientists ever succeed in mapping the brain (TED) and modeling the causal neurological events correlated with thinking, will that solve the mystery of consciousness? [John Searle‘s view…] Is there a gap between the explanation and the experience of pain, pleasure, happiness, etc.? I say no and yes, respectively. But let’s try and draw that map, it may take us to interesting places none of us have thought about.
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Rene Descartes, not at all (Pythons notwithstanding) a “drunken fart,” simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. He asked his version of the Howard Baker question. (The majority of students in my Tennessee classrooms could not identify the statesman-Senator when asked, the other day. Sigh.)
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?
Reducing the operations of the universe to a series of lines,circles, numbers, and equations suited his reclusive personality. His most famous saying, “I think, therefore Iam” (cogito, ergo sum), could be stated less succinctly but more accurately as ‘Because we are the only beings who do math, we rule.’
For Descartes, the essence of mind is to think, and the essence of matter is to exist-and the two never meet… we are the ghosts in the machine: souls in a world machine that operates inexorably and impersonally according to the laws of geometry and mechanics, while we operate the levers and spin the dials.” The Cave and the Light
The thing is, the quest for certainty in philosophy tends to go hand-in-glove with the assertion of rational necessity. That, in turn, courts determinism and fatalism. Do we really want to rubber-stamp everything that happens as fated, not free? Hobbes (the contractarian and the cat) did. Calvin learned not to.
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Our father-daughter Spring Break/Spring Training adventure can’t happen fast enough.
We greet the dawn snow-and-ice-bound this morning, she in sub-zero Illinois, me surrounded by a record (for this date in Nashville) snowfall. But in our minds we’re already there, a stone’s throw from the best Grapefruit League venue ever (Al Lang Stadium) and short drives from next week’s games in Clearwater (Tigers-Phil), Tampa (Red Sox-Yanks), Bradenton (Sox-Bucs), and Dunedin (O’s-Jays). So, my topic for next month’s 20th annual Baseball in Literature and Culture conference at my school is inevitable: Spring Training and the Perennial Renewal of Life.
We need to have some adventure too, Older Daughter and I. We need to get out of this deep freeze and into the sunshine. Vamanos!
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One thing we know for sure is the historical timeline. Montaigne comes first, but since I always introduce him as the anti-Descartes he rarely gets top billing. The late Robert Solomon did the same thing. Not fair, for a guy who gave us the essay and (as Sarah Bakewell says) is so much “fun” to read. Unlike Descartes he was a true skeptic (again though, not so far over the cliff as Pyrrho) and “quite happy to live with that.” His slogan was Que sçais-je?
Montaigne retired in his mid-30s to think and write, and ponder what must have felt to him (ever since his unplanned equine-dismounting event) like ever-looming mortality. He inscribed the beams of his study with many of his favorite quotes, including “nothing human is foreign to me” and “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”
Some of Montaigne’s life-lessons and rules for how to live, as decoded by Sarah Bakewell: Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.
Montaigne leaps from the page as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker.
When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.
Sarah Bakewell quotes Montaigne, disabusing us of the false image of him “brooding” in his tower. He was a peripatetic, too: “My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” So, like Emerson he might have said “my books are in my library but my study is outdoors.”
There’s just something irresistibly alluring about the candid and disarming familiarity of his tone, that’s drawn readers to this original essayist for four and a half centuries and obliterates the long interval between him and us. He makes uncertainty fun.
Also today, we’ll consider the philosophical status of science. Montaigne the fallible skeptic actually had a better handle on it than Descartes, the self-appointed defender of scientific certainty. That’s because science is a trial-and-error affair, making “essays” or attempts at evidence/-based understanding through observation, prediction, and test, but always retreating happily to the drawing board when conjectures meet refutation.
To answer some of my own DQs today:
Q: Are there any “authorities” (personal, textual, political, religious, institutional, traditional…) to whom you always and automatically defer? Can you justify this, intellectually or ethically? A: I don’t think so. Whenever I feel a deferential impulse coming on I remind myself of the Emerson line about young men in libraries…
Q: Can you give an example of something you believe on the basis of probability, something else you believe because it has to be true (= follows necessarily from other premises you accept as true), and something you believe because you think it’s the “best explanation”)? Do you think most of your beliefs conform to one or another of these kinds of explanation? A: Hmmm… The sun will probably rise within the hour. I’m mortal. Life evolves. Yes.
Q: Do you think science makes genuine progress? Does it gradually give us a better, richer account of the natural world and our place in it? Is there a definite correlation between technology and scientific understanding? Do you think there is anything that cannot or should not be studied scientifically? Why? A: Yes, yes, yes, no. Science is a flawed instrument, because the humans who practice it are finite and fallible; but we have nothing to take its place. We shouldn’t be scientistic, to the neglect of all the other tools in our kit (including poetry, literature, history, humor), but we definitely should be as scientific as we can.
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Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
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“Hobbes (the English social contract philosopher, not the tiger) was fond of his dram,” sang the Pythons. But he was fonder of his stick. His walking stick. (See below.)
He was also a Royalist, a materialist, a determinist, and a pessimist about human nature. He was “difficult to classify” (Russell). I had an undergrad prof at UMSL, back in the day, who spoke weirdly of “mainlining on utopia with Tommy Hobbes.” The Hobbesian utopia is no place I want to live.
But still I like much of what I know about him, particularly his daily morning ramble habit.
I was amused when my old friend said he’d just spent five weeks in Britain and came away with nothing more philosophical than a visit to a castle where Hobbes had tutored. My colleague answered rightly by noting that an ancient English castle’s more likely to stimulate the philosophical imagination than is a dusty library in Tennessee. But in any event, Hobbes is a fascinating and over-maligned figure whose steps I look forward to tracking with our Study Abroad course in Britain.
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