Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


October 8, 2015

We finish Lenoir’s Philosopher’s Guide in Happiness today. He’s given us a Gallic perspective on our subject, and a refreshingly happier one than we’re accustomed to getting from the likes of Sartre and Camus. We must imagine Sisyphus happy, with his rock? But the Algerian was onto something crucial when he said “real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.” The cultural stereotype says French people don’t want to be happy, not in the American way at least, but Lenoir delightfully defies it.

Lenoir exits the page with Spinoza, who breathed his last request… for beer. Something about that strikes me as deeply reverential for life (if you like beer). I intend to follow suit.

But I still can’t embrace a “Spinozism of freedom,” or agree that free will is a cruel illusion. It may be a happy one, or none at all. If he’s right, though, we can’t actually choose either to renounce or affirm it – can we? Or reconstruct our conative wills, at will? “We can do what we want, but cannot want what we want,” if we take this line. Or so Schopenhauer, another determined fatalist, supposed.

And: a truly pantheistic universe, perfectly and integrally stitched by rational necessity, really ought to yield universals and absolutes. But Spinoza rejects this. Why?

Why do Spinozists allow themselves to entertain and applaud even delusional sources of bliss? Einstein’s endorsement of “Spinoza’s God” seems the better model, admitting our relative ignorance of all the cosmic laws but still wonder-struck by their consistency and compelled by intellectual curiosity (aka “love of god”) to seek their accurate articulation.

Lenoir cites a Bengali Swami, Anandamayi, as having expressed the core of Spinoza’s bliss in these terms: “There isn’t an inch of earth where God is not.” The world in its totality (as distinct from its parts, in all their unreconciled plurality) would be a lot easier to accept, if you believed this. 

But, seriously: how can you?
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Matthieu Ricard

October 7, 2015
Took advantage of Indian Summer yesterday with a long lunch-hour walkabout at the old civil war fortress. How do other academics, granted the glorious freedom to get away from their desks at mid-day, allow themselves not to, on days like these? 
And, how do they allow themselves and their classes not to spill out into any of our many seductive campus courtyards? We did that in my classes yesterday again, in the morning for a CoPhi report on The Simpsons & Philosophy (Sophia was right, it’s much easier to think out there) and then late in the day in Happiness to learn why Matthieu Ricard is such a happy guy. Damon, Caroline, and Jessica assumed appropriate meditative postures on the ground and gave us a great introduction to the “happiest man in the world.”

Ricard repeatedly writes that happiness takes work, but promises that it’s work we’re all fitted for if we’re willing. We don’t have to toss our western careers and lifestyles and move to Tibet, we can detach from the toxins of our culture, from our habitual acquisitiveness and busy-ness, at will.

This is an eastern message whose “astonishing” western echo Frederic Lenoir finds finds in Stoicism and Montaigne’s skepticism. 

This wisdom can be summed up in a few words: nothing is more precious than life, and in order to be happy we just need to learn to love life and enjoy it in the proper, adaptable way, in accordance with our own natures.

And also like Chuang Tzu, and the current Dalai Lama, Montaigne has a happy sense of humor. He laughs at himself and invites us all to lighten up in a spirit of gentle self-mockery: On the highest thrones we’re still seated on our asses, etc. What fun he would have had with TV’s viagra and cialis spots.

But, just learn to love life really seems more promissory than practical – kind of like the Pythons’ “How to Do It.”

Here’s Jackie to tell you how to rid the world of all known diseases… Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvelous cure for something, and then, when the medical world really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there’ll never be diseases any more.

Tune in next time, sure, but don’t expect anyone to teach you how to love life. That’s the self-help each of us has to manage for ourselves if we can. The happy example of a radiant French-Tibetan scientist/monk, and a TED Talk or two (or two dozen) is more than encouraging, but ultimately the pursuit of happiness is personal.

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Tupac, Donald, and the Prince on means and ends

October 6, 2015

OK, I get it now. Machiavelli is better-known to my students than Hobbes because Tupac Shakur made him “gangsta” (“Makavelli“), having discovered his hero in prison; and youth loves to epater le bourgeois. Go Rimbaud.

Yesterday was Machiavelli & Hobbes Day in CoPhi, and at last I understand. First a student in section 12 asked if I was familiar with Tupac and whether his Machiavelli was the same.

Then, an older student in section 11 explained to the younger cohort that Tupac was probably more familiar to their parents’ generation. Then she proceeded to endorse the Florentine’s ruthless “whatever it takes, end justifies means” murderous modus operandi. “It makes a lot of sense.”

Maybe it does, in The Donald’s America. (“Trump is also a student of Machiavelli.”) Is that what we’ve come to? Hail to the Gangsta in Chief? No, Machiavelli and Tupac both lost in the end, and Trump will be a loser too. Already is, in his own sense of the word.

Our relation to means and ends, and the reciprocal relation between them, is much more complicated than any of those losers can apparently appreciate. “The point of inquiring into means, and into ends considered as means or causes of further consequences, is not merely to determine how to achieve an end, but to appraise the value of the end itself.” As Calvin learned the hard way from Hobbes.

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Hobbes “walked much and contemplated”

October 5, 2015

Machiavelli and Hobbes are on tap in CoPhi today. Students often come to them already intrigued with the former but unaware of the latter, though both their names have become adjectival terms of notoriety. Beware Machiavellian politicos and their ends-justify-the-means mentality, we all seem to have been forewarned, and beware Machiaveliian schemers generally. But while the last century spawned chilling examples of totalitarianism and its murderous toll, fewer of us have been alerted to the dangers of the Hobbesian superstate.

The explanation could have something to do with the evident sweetness of temper of “Tommy” Hobbes (as my old poli-sci prof at UMSL called him), who envisioned Leviathan but exemplified something more like the lamb in his personal conduct and bearing. Simon Critchley’s Book of Dead Philosophers offers an endearing glimpse of a true English eccentric. He “avoided excess ‘as to wine and women’ and stopped drinking at age sixty,” he “walked vigorously every day to work up a sweat… and expel any excessive moisture,” he sang “prick-songs” late at night to stimulate his lungs and lengthen his life.

My favorite thing about Hobbes remains, naturally, his peripatetic nature. He walked to work up a sweat but also to stimulate ideas, which he’d interrupt himself long enough to record by disengaging the quill from his walking stick. “He walked much and contemplated,” says Aubrey’s Life, “and he had in the head of his cane a pen and ink-horn, carried always a note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entered it into his book, or otherwise he might perhaps have lost it.”

Another explanation of the failure of “Hobbesian” to convey the menace it might is, of course, a certain sweet-natured cartoonish tiger-cat who resisted his namesake’s “war of all against all.”

Image result for hobbes

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Magic music

October 2, 2015

Fine report yesterday from Alex, Kodi, & Blake in Happiness, on music: on how its engagement with the brain’s neurochemistry delivers such pleasing doses of dopamine and makes learning fun, how musical improvisation flows like a good conversation and vice versa, how the discordant strains of a Stravinsky can shock, how the enthusiastic energy of “Na Nach Nachma” can heal, how the frenzy of “Crash Worship” can induce a trance of awakening. We agreed that people who deliberately resist exposure to all kinds of music are missing the point. Our closing note was to supplement the “ten happiest songs according to Science”:

–Don’t Stop Me Now- Queen
–Dancing Queen- ABBA
–Good Vibrations- Beach Boys
–Uptown Girl- Billy Joel
–Eye of the Tiger- Survivor
–I’m a Believer- The Monkees
–Girls Just Wanna Have Fun- Cyndi Lauper
–Livin’ on a Prayer- Bon Jovi
–I Will Survive- Gloria Gaynor
–walking on Sunshine- Katrina and The Waves

My top ten has to include some Beatles & Stones (“In My Life,” “Happy”), just about any Steely Dan (Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier,” about early-60s bomb shelter vigor and optimism, is my go-to song whenever I need a quick hit of happy), John Prine (“Spanish Pipedream“)… Bottom line: all brains may be more-or-less the same, when it comes to the neurophysiology of music, but minds differ. And that’s good!

In CoPhi Blake and Axle did a nice Harry Potter report, though they didn’t mention my favorite Dumbledore quote: “Happiness can always be found, if we just remember to turn on the light.” And maybe they’d agree with this one too:  Ah, music. A magic beyond all we do here!”

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Big Bangs, First Causes, Bullshit, Pythagoras

October 1, 2015

Yesterday’s CoPhi discussionsof Anselm’s Ontology and Aquinas’s First Cause were bracketed by a report on Bullshit (and Philosophy) in section 12, and on Pythagoras in 11. So, when a student in 11 (not having encountered the bullshit in 12) said his theory opposed “that Big Bang bullshit,” he wasn’t trying to be funny. What created our universe, then, if not a singular primordial blow-up? “The creator created it!” Duh!!

And that was his theory, an unvarnished version of Aquinas’s… not quite so involved as Ann Elk’s theory of the brontosaurus. But what’s to insure the godliness, the omni-qualities of power, knowledge, and goodness, of the seminal creation? He didn’t have a theory on that yet, he’ll get back to us. Also, on how an unexplained and incomprehensible divinity is an explanatory improvement on the as-yet unexplained and incomprehensible universe as such.

The bullshit session in 12 was good. Someone asked if I’d ever bullshitted. My bullshit answer: I got through grad school, didn’t I? And prelims? Everybody does it to an extent, but Harry Frankfurt’s opening line – “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit” – has never wrung truer than at this very moment in what can only ironically be called our cultural and political evolution. The presidential campaign has only just begun, it’s gonna get thick.

Then Pythagoras, who was such a strange combination of superstitious mystic and ordered rationalist. Beyond the numbers astrology and the music of the spheres, though, he’s credited with saying as many sensible things as Socrates and the rest of his successors.

  • “As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.” [A pre-Singer animal liberationist]
  • “In anger we should refrain both from speech and action.” [A conciliator]
  • “Educate the children and it won’t be necessary to punish the men.” [A prison reformer]
  • “A man is never as big as when he is on his knees to help a child.” [A nurturer]
  • “All is Number.” [An over-quantifier] 
  • “Do not say a little in many words, but a great deal in few!” [A born tweeter]
  • “Silence is better than unmeaning words.” [A Wittgensteinian]
  • “Declining from the public ways, walk in unfrequented paths.” [A road-less-traveled nonconformist]
Just before class I was pleased to note that my little motivational message, aimed at certain squabblers who know who they are, was picked up and amplified (“favorited”) by one of my favorite Plato scholars, @mmmccabe1.
Enjoy: To all who’ve been stressing about exams or reports: please stop. Enjoy your education.
It’s another exam day today. Should be fun. 

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Stay human

September 30, 2015

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation found its way into the conversation yesterday, both in CoPhi and Happiness. What’s special about face-to-face encounters? Why didn’t Boethius just write up his Consolation as a soliloquy? Isn’t texting and tweeting a lot more like talking to yourself than to another, even another you’ve invented or hallucinated? Is all this screen-time really making us happier?

Jonathan Franzen (whose Purity I can already recommend, four chapters in) features lots of conversation. He reviews Turkle:

When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins… And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed… children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.

I knew that. We’ve been carving away all semester, and I’ve begun calling out students when I notice them checking out of our conversations in class. It makes us all uncomfortable. Good.


We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

That’s the nub of it. Empathy, fellow-feeling, openness, spontaneity, depth seem threatened by our newfound excess of mediated distraction. It’s a big price to pay for an end to boredom.

And the threat to happiness is bigger still. Those Alan Watts tweets about washing this dish, taking this step, are on target. (Ironically, yes.)  “Unitasking,” Turkle calls it. It might just be the medicine we need.

One start toward reclaiming conversation is to reclaim solitude. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself. Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time. Think of unitasking as the next big thing. In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.

But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.

A human way. As Colbert keeps saying: stay human.

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ontinue reading the main story

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If you’re happy and you know it

September 29, 2015

In Happiness today we’ll note Frederic Lenoir’s sensible concession, countering an earlier invitation to be “happy every moment,” that that no one is happy all the time. That’s more reasonable. But, maybe a zen form of the broader ambition can be salvaged with just a bit of attentive adjustment. Alan Watts, who lives timelessly on in cyberspace as insinuated by the film Her, puts it smartly:

Dispelling dread isn’t a matter of trying to forget about washing dishes.

 9h9 hours ago9 hours ago It is realizing that in actual fact you only have one dish to wash, ever: this one; only one step to take, ever: this one. And that is Zen. 

And is that happiness?

It might be interesting to funnel all of our discussion questions today through the “one dish” filter, and ask what would Alan say?

  • Can you confirm the claim that we always recur to our happiness set-point? Have you experienced unsustained highs or lows? Do you think you’ve raised your personal set-point, over the course of your life? Are you working to do so?
  • Do you anticipate a “mellow” future? Do you dread the prospect of senescence?
  • Are we really “visceral egoists”? And isn’t it an error to include Adam Smith (as opposed to some free-marketeers who think they’re following him) as one of these? (“There is nothing is Adam Smith to support a ‘greed is good’ mentality,”write Solomon & Higgins.) Are you an altruist?
  • Have you personally experienced the phenomenon of (un-)happy contagion?
  • If schaudenfreude can be explained in evolutionary terms, can cooperation and the spirit of mutual support be similarly explained?

In actual fact we only have one question to answer, the one Lenoir finds frequently annoying: “Are you happy?”

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September 28, 2015

The most interesting thing to me about today’s CoPhi subject, Boethius, is that he could find any “consolation” at all in “Philosophy’s” theodicy. His Comfort Woman convinced him of the divine necessity of his own brutal sacrifice, for the greater good – or Good, in the Platonic perfectionist sense. He had to accept the notion that some must give all, in an unjust and irreparable cause, and moreover that this is part of a perfect plan. I don’t think I could do that, though it surely would make those last hours pass more peaceably. (Of course there’s also the objection that it probably isn’t true.)

It’s difficult not to take Boethius more as a late Stoic (his anti-Stoical protestations notwithstanding) than an early Christian. He doesn’t brandish the latter identity at all in his final testament, as might have been expected of one whose time on earth is nearly up. If he anticipated waking, post-torture, in a personal heaven, he didn’t let on. “Consolation of Philosophy makes references solely to ancient Greeks and Romans – not a single Christian author or figure appears in it, not even Jesus.” (The Cave and the Light)

Bertrand Russell could not “think of any European man of learning so free from superstition and fanaticism… He would have been remarkable in any age; in the age in which he lived, he is utterly amazing.”

The other thing especially noteworthy about Boethius is his focus, right to the end, on human happiness as the point of existence, a form of divinity in which all may participate. As Russell notes, that almost sounds pantheistic. Lots of things had to be glozed over, about Boethius, to turn him into a Christian martyr.

But he’s still an admirable figure, more admirable even than his big fan Ignatius J. Reilly realized.

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“My first act”

September 25, 2015

Yesterday’s CoPhi topic, free will, blended pretty seamlessly into the “molecules of emotion” in Happiness. I posed a question as to whether our ease and familiarity with the language of chemical contentment – dopamine, serotonin, oxytociun, re-uptake inhibitors and the like – didn’t signal some sort of surrender to a model of mind that wouldn’t sustain belief in free will.

Does it bother you to think of your happiness being governed by the “molecules of emotion”? Is this an objectionably reductive way of understanding subjectivity and the mind, or merely a strategically useful handle on one’s state of well-being? Does it over-objectify experience, or imply a deterministic worldview at odds with your notion of free will?

I couldn’t find anyone who admitted to any unease of this sort, or who really even understood the question. That might indicate excessive and misplaced concern on my part. Or, it might just be a feather in the cap of neuroscience, and more evidence of its success in planting a paradigm of inhospitality to indeterminism.

Turning to a less abstract approach, I solicited practical advice for how to trip those happy-making molecules at will, as it were. We must believe that, at least, to be a reasonable aspiration. Why else study the conditions of happiness, if not to learn their application in everyday life? What other “inner work” could we be talking about, when we talk about choosing happiness?

No one really came up with anything much beyond pharmacology, which again reinforces the model of mind I find problematically reductive. So we moved on to discuss “rumination” and how it differs from healthy reflection. We chewed on that, most of us, while ambling about campus in the rays of late afternoon: always the best medicine.

The key, it seems to me, remains the old concept of attention. When William James “just about touched bottom,” then pulled himself up by his and Charles Renouvier’s bootstraps, he was at full attention.

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” 

Is free will an illusion? I too assume it need not be. But let’s assume the choice is yours.

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