Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle’

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Savalescu

January 24, 2013

Now then, what’s up with those old Greeks? Some of their transgressive behavior might elicit a “yuk” from some of us. And by the way, isn’t it funny how a “yuk” can be either a laugh or a groan? Julian Savulescu* has some thoughts about the latter sense of the word, the instinctive revulsion we all feel for something or other.  Where does that come from? What’s it good for? When can’t we trust it? (Well, that hemlock can’t have been too appetizing.) But first,

In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories

And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.

Socrates asked a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey. (Just kidding, that was a dated SNL reference my students probably won’t get.) Socrates was in fact from the deme Alopece, near Athens.  He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go.  He was an impious and relentless corrupter of youth, said the court that convicted him of those charges in 399 B.C. and made him a perpetual role-model to western philosophers like me forever after. Woody Allen is a fan, too.

Plato, they say, could stick it away-they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.

Aristotle‘s in the song as well, but never mind. He rejected his teacher Plato’s metaphysics, returned to the cave of the phenomenal world to take a closer look, avoided CAPS and abstractions, and inspired the name for our annual Spring speaker series in the philosophy department at MTSU, the Lyceum.

(Our first Lyceum lecture of the season is coming right up, btw, a week from Friday. Richard Shusterman‘s  our distinguished visiting philosopher. He believes ” improved body consciousness can enhance one’s knowledge, performance, and pleasure.” Come if you can, locals & regionals (& Vandy friends) for the talk and food & drink at a colleague’s home afterwards.)

The best quick & graphic way of illustrating the difference between Plato and his student Aristotle, I’ve found, is by pondering Raphael’s famous painting School of Athens [annotated]. Pay close attention to the hands.

*Julian Savulescu, an Oxford bioethicist, is our first Philosophy Bites interviewee. Did Nigel just want to get the topic of revulsion out of the way? No, I think LH begins with this because we usually recoil too quickly from the things that disgust, revolt, repel, and appall us. A good philosopher tries to understand these reactions, examine and sometimes challenge them, rather than rely strictly on the “yuk” feeling  to guide all our choices and attitudes. The message is clear: in philosophy it’s not enough to emote, we’ve also got to think.

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September 7, 2012

It was High School Parents Night last night. This was tacked to the locker of a kid for & from whom I predict great things:

Why 33, and why these items precisely? Not important. What’s important is this youngster’s public intention (shared by many many others, a quick web scan reveals) to pursue what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls a “graceful-life philosophy.” Such seekers “don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” They’re the ones who have the most fun, finish the most somethings, and learn to enjoy not just arriving at a destination but getting there. They write, they move, they laugh, they learn, they collaborate (#15). They find the nectar in the journey. Aristotle would say they’re happy.

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, “yuk”

September 4, 2012

Labor Day was nice. Now then, what’s up with those old Greeks? Some of their transgressive behavior might elicit a “yuk” from some of us. And by the way, isn’t it funny how a “yuk” can be either a laugh or a groan? Julian Savulescu has some thoughts about the latter sense of the word, the instinctive revulsion we all feel for something or other.  Where does that come from? What’s it good for? When can’t we trust it? (Well, that hemlock can’t have been too appetizing.) But first,

In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories

And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.

Socrates asked a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey. (Just kidding, that was a dated SNL reference my students probably won’t get.) Socrates was in fact from the deme Alopece, near Athens.  He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go.  He was an impious and relentless corrupter of youth, said the court that convicted him of those charges in 399 B.C. and made him a perpetual role-model to western philosophers like me forever after. Woody Allen is a fan, too.

Plato, they say, could stick it away-they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.

Aristotle‘s in the song as well, but never mind. He rejected his teacher Plato’s metaphysics, returned to the cave of the phenomenal world to take a closer look, avoided CAPS and abstractions, and inspired the name for our annual Spring speaker series in the philosophy department at MTSU, the Lyceum.

The best quick & graphic way of illustrating the difference between Plato and his student Aristotle, I’ve found, is by pondering Raphael’s famous painting School of Athens [annotated]. Pay close attention to the hands.

Julian Savulescu, an Oxford bioethicist, is our first Philosophy Bites interviewee. Did Warburton and Edmonds just want to get the topic of revulsion out of the way? No, I think they begin with this because we usually recoil too quickly from the things that disgust us. A good philosopher tries to understand these reactions, examine and sometimes challenge them, rather than rely strictly on the “yuk” feeling  to guide all our choices and attitudes. The message is clear: in philosophy it’s not enough to emote, we’ve also got to think.

Aristotle, skeptics, & stoics

February 15, 2011

We have about 600 years of new philosophy to cover today, from Aristotle to Aurelius. But we’re going to have to take some time, first, to process the absurdity of yesterday’s campus lockdown, prompted by yet another gun incident. We went ahead with class, pretending to a semblance of normalcy while with one eye monitoring email updates from President McPhee. Eventually we learned that the ricochet shooter had been apprehended and we could go about business as usual. Fat chance.  Strange Valentine Day, memorable birthday. [DNJChronicle]

I’d just been musing poetically about the improbable details of my personal end, in grudging recognition of time’s arrow and where it’s dragging us all eventually. But that wasn’t quite serious, until the helicopters started to circle our building. Now, inevitably, some benighted state legislator likely will attempt to resuscitate last year’s stupid proposal to place firearms in my hands and those of my colleagues. Sure, that would have made us all feel better yesterday.

The passage of time itself is what will really make us feel better. Maybe that’s the problem. But it does feel good to vent.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: continue to disregard the printed syllabus until further notice. Today we’re reading O 16-26, next time it’ll be PW 40-49. Also next time, let me know your plans for the midterm: your general topic, as much summary as you can give me in a sentence or two, and whether it’ll be a presentation or an essay.

Main point about Aristotle: if Plato’s the urrationalist, he’s the primordial empiricist. His Lyceum would have been a perfect choice for me (better even than Vandy), with all that peripatetic walking-about.  His syllogism is a powerful instrument, but maybe we don’t want to assume that everything meaningful fits its pattern. That’d be a terrifically informative conclusion, though.

He opposed Plato’s view that Forms (Ideas, Universals, Essences) are transcendent, contending instead that forms are in particular objects, in the very things Plato called shadows. They’re articulated and exhausted by formal, efficient, material, and final causes. The final cause behind everything, the ultimate purpose, goal, or telos, is the notorious philosophers’ god, aka the Unmoved Mover.  Scientists nowadays don’t have much use for that, but they do still invoke efficient causation.

He came close to facing the same charges that did Socrates in, but chose to leave Athens. Do we think the less of him for that? I don’t.

Through no fault of his own, he became the Unquestioned Authority of medieval philosophy. We shouldn’t hold that against him either.

His “metaphysics” is simply “after physics,” just a rung up the abstraction ladder. Nothing too “woo-woo,” in fact it mirrors his body language in “School of Athens“: pace Plato, forms (lower case “f”) are not transcendent and outside our terrestrial “cave,” they’re as particularized and individuated as we are.

His logic is basic and comprehensive. (But is it exhaustive of reality? A meta-metaphysical question, perhaps.)

His emphasis on potentiality also distinguishes him from his teacher Plato: Becoming is more important, certainly more formative, than Being. An acorn is a potential oak. A student is a potential teacher. But it’s important, too, not to see development of this sort as more teleological or purposive than it is. “Goals” are typically the possessions of individuals or cohesive, intelligently-directed groups, not of nature per se.

His Unmoved Mover is an unmoving “Philosopher’s God.” (No wonder so many of us are irreligious. Blame Aristotle, among others.)

His ethics is a constant quest for the middle ground, the mean, splitting the difference between extremes. This works, arguably, for courage, and charity and pleasure-seeking (etc.), but what about honesty?

His politics makes a strong case for the middle class. But why didn’t he challenge slavery? (Does this show that even the most sophisticated philosophy is trapped in its time & place?)

Our text today includes a nice graphic of the library of Alexandria (founded by Aristotle’s most ambitious, but possibly least ethically-reflective student), the sacking of which remains one of the great unwashed stains on our species. It was a great cosmopolitan mecca, and its destruction remains one of our species’ lowest moments.

“Eureka!” That must have been a wonderful moment for Archimedes…

Aristotle’s Lyceum successors were sceptics (our author’s a Brit, hence the “c” in place of my “k”) who renounced the quest for truth. Pyrrho was their most salient and extreme spokesman. (But we’ve just about forgotten his predecessor Chrysippus, thanks to the aforementioned legions of Caesar who burned the library that housed his works.)

Then, the contemptible/contemptuous Diogenes, a dog-like “cynic. (My pooches are insulted by the comparison.)

Rome was grand but mostly not too reflective. They did sponsor some impressive public works, though.

Then came the ill-fated Seneca. [“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“] You can read all about him in de Botton’s Consolations. And, watch this:

Not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

And don’t forget the pleasure-seeking Epicurus [“Back to the Garden“], or the slave Epictetus. We have much still to learn from them both, about freedom from ignorance and superstition, and the free will such freedom makes valuable.

And don’t forget Hecht’s Doubt, full of insight on the Greeks in ch.2 and the Romans in ch.4. Cicero in particular deserves a lot more respect than he’s gotten from other sources.

cave philosophy

February 8, 2010

Today’s Passion for Wisdom sections jet us from Plato’s and Aristotle’s Athens past Greek and Roman Stoics and Skeptics to African animists and Meso-American Incas and Aztecs. All pose big imponderable questions: What is real? How real is experience, compared with ideas? What does “reality” mean? Where to begin?

Perhaps with Plato and Aristotle, and the messages implicit in their body language in the famous Raphael painting “School of Athens.” Plato’s gesture bespeaks his two-worlds philosophy, according to which our everyday experience is less real than “Ideas” and “Essences” (or “Forms”) in contrast with Aristotle’s more grounded view that ideas and forms are in the things at our feet.

Then there’s Plato’s cave with its image of some very strange prisoners, on his view much “like ourselves.” On Plato’s telling, Socrates was a cave-dweller who was  willling to return to the cave, to “descend to human affairs,” and was persecuted for doing it. This is an allegory about the search for wisdom, the willingness to be unpopular in its pursuit, and the dangers that befall persons who – like Socrates – personify courage and intellectual integrity. It’s a plea to tolerate and even encourage dissenting voices and different ways of thinking and living. It’s also, as noted, a symbol of Plato’s “two world” metaphysics, about which Socrates typically was agnostic.

And – in modern terms – it’s a warning to resist the allure of the cave and its reassuring but shadowy unreality. Many of our caves, and the flickering images on their walls, are warm and dry and wired. But would Plato think they were an improvement?
Aristotle might not think  much better of our pastimes, but he did not distrust the senses; he used them to observe, collect, and experiment. There is no place and no need for a theory of Forms, a theory of another world.

Stoics had an almost fanatic faith in reason.

They regarded emotions as irrational judgments  that make us frustrated and unhappy. Like Buddha they urged: minimize your desires and you will minimize your suffering. 

Anger is pointless and  can only be self-destructive. Love and friendship can be dangerous.

The wise form only limited attachments. Stoics and skeptics value the feeling of at-homeness above all, and (like Buddhists?) perceive “attachment” as that feeling’s greatest threat. More on this from Simon Critchley next time.

Halfway ’round the world, while the Greeks and Romans were getting themselves memorialized in our cultural histories, reflected in our classic architecture, and inspiring generations of Vulcans et al, the Aztecs and Olmec (who seem to come up in class at every sports season transition… how ’bout ‘dem Saints!) and Navaho and other native Americans were creating their own rich– but because mainly oral, now obscure– traditions. Like their contemporaries on the African continent they became animists and sought soul and spirit everywhere. The voodoo supernaturalism of this perspective can be off-putting to a logically-minded Stoic or Skeptic, but there are other chords in the Meso-American and African worldviews that speak directly to some of our most pressing planetary concerns. We are a part of the Earth, we are dependent on it, and it is dependent on us. We have ecological responsibilities; the world around us, “nature,” is not just a resource… we are nature… nature is essentially spiritual.

Postscript: Thoreau had some thoughts about this reality stuff…

specious happiness

November 10, 2009

[NOTE to Happiness students who missed the email memo: we’re not meeting today (I’m “in studio”). Your assignment: read Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, & Seneca* in Part One, & Part Two on pleasure and satisfaction.]

Heading into our course’s last laps with the Cahn/Vitrano anthology Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings

The editors pass along an important reminder in their brief introduction: “there is no single thing that it feels like to achieve eudaimonia [in the Aristotelian sense of happiness-as-flourishing], since everyone’s potential is different… it is not clear who is to be the judge of what one’s full potential is.”

This observation echoes Jennifer Hecht’s myth-busting and reinforces both her and  Sonja Lyubomirsky’s customized approach to “happiness activity”-seeking. If it’s not clear who should judge one’s potential, surely the onus of doing the work of self-discovery and self-realization devolves upon, who else, oneself.

But whether that work is fundamentally, Platonically rational is still an open question. This question came up in discussion Monday: can a “bad” person be happy? Plato wants to say no: undetected bad behavior reinforces the brutish, vicious element in human nature that is at war with the “whole soul”… and its “best nature.”

Plato_Seneca_Aristotle_medievalAristotle harmonizes with Plato to a greater extent with regard to this question than to most others, going so far– too far, if my own experience of philosophers and their temperamental dispositions is any guide– as to to conclude that the reason-intoxicated philosopher will be happier than anyone. Not the most amused, but the most fulfilled.  “Everything that we choose we chose for the sake of something else– except happiness, which is an end.”

Then there’s Epicurus’s famous overstatement: “Death is nothing to us…” Hecht, again, dealt deftly with that one.Epicurus LXXVIIIr

Then Seneca* goes too far: when you adjust your attitude, refine it to a freeze-dried state of Stoic indifference, you lift yourself  to a new high, “not yet free, but still as good as.” Sounds more like freedom as nothing left to lose. Good song, disappointing lifestyle. I’m not buying it.

(Alain de Botton has written many books, all of them about happiness in one form or another. His latest is on work, and success.)

Wayne Davis offers a  “definition of epistemic happification” according to which you need not be happy every time you think a thought that typically makes you happy, so long as you still have a tendency to be happy when you think it.  Not sure I see the profundity here, but it’s clear enough. Is it true? Or non-trivial?

Daniel Haybron addresses another question that came up in class yesterday: “Why Hedonism is False.” He says it’s because hedonism fails to distinguish psychologically deep and (typically) lasting events that impinge on our happiness (the death of a child, for example) from shallow events that can ruin your afternoon (like a flat tire). It reduces happiness to claims about the pleasantness of  experiences. “That my experience is now [un]pleasant says next to nothing about my propensities for the future.”

John Kekes is thinking about tomorrow too. You’re not really happy now unless it’s “reasonable to believe and unreasonable to doubt that this judgement will continue to hold in the future.”

(What would Matthieu Ricard say? Or Wendell Berry?: “We can do nothing for the human future that we will not do for the human present… [he] who works and behaves well today need take no thought for the morrow.”)

Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz is also preoccupied with our relation to the future, and to the past. Most of us “are indifferent to the remote past” and “unconcerned about the distant future, but the importance of tomorrow is equal, if not greater for them, than that of the present day.” He’s right about this, no? The present moment may be specious and impossible to spread out and live in, but give me 48 hours. There’s nothing spurious about the transitory pleasures and momentary satisfactions of a great weekend. Today was hectic, but tomorrow… let’s go to the dog park!

dog park

Money

October 29, 2009

“Everybody knows that money doesn’t buy happiness.”

The Series has begun, please indulge my pet metaphor: Jennifer Hecht’s next pitch rides up and in, crowding “Everybody” with the retort that smart philosophers “really don’t all say this.”

Aristotle, for instance, acknowledged that happiness “requires a degree of comfort.” But only a small degree, “abundance does not correlate with happiness” to anywhere near the degree that poverty correlates with unhappiness.

It’s commonly, winkingly noted that the roots of our material culture in America run from Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” back to John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property (estate).” The insinuation is that Jefferson was importing a crass idea under cover of a pretty, idealized euphemism.

Less often acknowledged, and much more intriguing, is Jefferson’s Epicureanism. He admired its naturalism– he so despised supernaturalism that he snipped those parts out of his Bible— its  secularism, and its happy vision of simple, virtuous pleasure. “Epicurus ran a coed, hedonistic philosopher’s retreat called the Garden,” encouraged serious reflection for its own sake, and valued personal freedom and independence above institutions, congregations, and confederations.

For his part, Jefferson valued his own “garden” at Monticello— a commune-like compound, staffed by slaves who we now know were as good as family, if not quite accorded the status and dignity of friendly equals in the Epicurean sense. But we also now know that money was a problem for him, too. He sold his books to create the library of congress, not only as a public-spirited act of generosity but because he really needed the dough.

Hecht: “There are obvious happiness advantages to having some money,” and not only for those with little. “The difference between a phenomenal wheelchair and one that is just good enough is not trivial.” Nor, during the Series, is the difference between an ordinary TV and a crisp-&-pretty hi-def model.

But let’s not get carried away. The road to hell is paved with obsessive, self-righteous  monomania.

good life

October 26, 2009

michelangelo_moses_264pxCurtain call for the law-giver, exodus-leader, and alleged miracle-worker Moses. He anchors the morality chapter because he purveyed the commandments to his people, and was thus esteemed an agent of righteousness. But like others to come down a mountain with prophetic and unsparing words– Zoroaster and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra come immediately to mind– that burning look in his eyes raises eyebrows. Has he really brought good news? Does he in fact know the way to freedom and the good life in a land of milk and honey, or will he lead his followers astray?

Alleged miracles, prophecy, and goodness, I say, because it’s not enough merely to receive and memorize the rules, one must grasp and absorb the virtue they purport to defend before they can be credited with allowing the dutiful rule-follower to commence and keep a good and moral life.

Yesterday’s post implied a criticism of most childhood religious education as a form of indoctrination: it seems to be all about mastering and memorizing the rules, much as we learn to mumble our allegiance to a flag before we’ve learned the meaning of most of the words, recited by rote, supposed to impress a tradition’s gatekeepers.

The title of this chapter needs some explaining, in an American context, and Moses symbolizes part of the problem. Those of us raised in a religious environment because our elders thought that was the best, perhaps the only, way to instill a sense of values and virtue, may still be accustomed to thinking of morality mainly in terms of rules, commandments, and “thou shalt nots.” We may or may not, then, get around to asking for the rationale behind those rules in particular. It can’t just be that they’re “in the book,” or on the stone tablets, or from the horse’s (or even Moses’) mouth. That may seem to be authoritative, but it’s not conclusive or reasonable. It is, in fact, a fallacy to settle a question by invoking an authority.

We were just talking about the Holocaust, and freedom. William James called free will “the moral business.” Clearly there’s a crucial connection between morality, goodness, and the freedom to actually pursue and possibly attain the good life. This is one game you can’t win through intimidation, Adolf.

There’s much to be said for Immanuel Kant’s reason-and-duty-bound approach to the moral business. But there’s also the historical reality of Kant’s heirs, who thought it their duty to defend the Reich and its Fuhrer. What were they missing?

Epicurus thought the good life was about pleasure. But don’t be fooled: “The pleasant life is not the product of one drinking party after another or of (sex or food)” or other sensual delights. “On the contrary, it is the result of sober thinking.” Hmmm.

Kant was no Epicurean or hedonist, but you don’t have to be a hedonist to reject deontology– a fancy name for duty that disregards consequences. They matter.

Aristotle was closer to right in saying that pleasure is the happy residua of activities worth doing for their own sake, not something you can hope to plug into without effort or risk of disappointment. Life in a happiness box would not be intrinsically rewarding, in Aristotle’s sense.

What about “success” as the core of the good life? Depends on what you mean by that. Too many of us have slipped into the error of meaning something shallow, with a price tag but possibly little real value. “The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success is our national disease.” That was true over a century ago. Isn’t it still?

Asceticism, the life of simplicity and self-denial, carries connotations of deprivation and poverty from which most of us have been carefully taught, in this consumer paradise, to recoil. Cynicism has a better, hipper rep. But Diogenes the Cynic had simple needs. “Move over, you’re blocking my sun,” he told the Emperor. Who needs glory, fame, riches, or power?

Aristotle on happiness. What we all do need, according to Aristotle, is an integrated and balanced life of virtue in community. “Happiness is nothing less than an entirely good life,” a life of sustained excellence that is transparently good and nourishing in every respect, not just because it conforms to an inherited tablet of invariable moral rules. Genuine happiness, eudaimonia, living well and doing well, flourishing… that’s the highest good, desired for its own sake.

swallow“The Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue…Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.”
Nicomachean Ethics

After reading a flock of midterm essays in Happiness 101, I can confirm our text’s observation that most of us nowadays have drifted far from the old Greek notion of happiness as a public and shared social experience towards a more insular and interior sense of personal satisfaction. If we’re content with ourselves and our own situation, we tend to think, that’s as happy as we can ever hope to be. There’s a hard-bitten stoicism in the modern view, mixed strangely with elements of hedonism and fatalism and resignation. What can I do? What, me worry? But Aristotle’s Greeks would have considered someone who felt contentment amidst public misfortune “insane, not happy.”

Reality

September 28, 2009

EinsteinPrinceton

“The fons et origo of all reality is subjective, is ourselves.”

-William James

Reality is a concept we may find easier to glimpse through the back door, by noticing the innumerable daily examples of people being out of touch with it. We may not be able to say precisely what it is, but we know when someone’s missing it. The “reality based community” has room to grow.

The invocation of Einstein to grace a chapter on Reality implies some preference for  inquiries into the far-flung cosmos and its abstract underlying principles.  No doubt, much light is to be shed on the real nature of things by looking “out there.”

But we shouldn’t overlook our more intimate acquaintance with reality at first hand, in our own immediate perceptions and observations. The late great literary critic Alfred Kazin graced us, shortly before his death, with sharp insight into William James’s passionate respect for each person’s “own sense of the exceptionality of his existence” as part of  “the axis of reality,” what he called the deep and insistent “throb of our actual experience.”

On this view, our own original thinking and feeling present our most concrete encounters with “fact in the making.” We are ourselves pieces of natural reality. “The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience,” so we should “take reality bodily and integrally up into philosophy in exactly the perceptual shape in which it comes.”

There is a long tradition of dispute among philosophers as to whether we can directly know reality, or must filter it through the presumably-distortive lenses of our words and concepts.  The radical empiricist’s position on this is unambiguous: use concepts in the same way a carpenter uses his tools, to get the job done; but choose the right tools,  remember their instrumental (not essential) nature, and when the time comes lay them down. Sometimes, too, you have to fashion a new tool.

The “job” here  means respecting (and accurately characterizing) reality when it jumps up to greet (or bite) us… as it did James in Palo Alto in 1906, for instance. Or, as Garrison Keillor says of his recent medical adventure, as it “bit [him] in the butt.”

There aren’t always words for our most primal and immediate and delightful experiences, but that shouldn’t shut us off from them. We just need to remember to holster the “conceptual shotgun” we all use to excess, and that philosophers more than anyone ought to be wary of:

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy...

The thrill of a crisp autumn sunrise, a new idea, a sharp feeling of love, a subtle feeling of separation, an empty feeling of loss atautumn sunrise the death of a loved one, a rollicking earthquake, a brush with your mortality… all such experiences may give rise to feelings you can’t articulate but also can’t ignore. “There are occasional moments,” wrote James’s student and biographer R.B. Perry, “when experience is most fully tasted—in the exhilaration of a fresh morning, in moments of suffering, or in times of triumphant effort, when the tang is strong, when every nuance or overtone is present. James would arrest us at such moments, and say, “There, that is it. Reality is like that.” There’s no formula, no E=mc2, to encapsulate those moments. But they’re very real.

Our chapter begins with a list of items we’re to rate on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being “most real”:

___The person sitting next to you. ___The chair you’re sitting in. ___God. ___Last night’s headache. ___The wo(man) of your dreams. ___Electrons. ___Love. ___Truth. ___Beauty. ___Einstein’s brain. ___Your mind. ___The color red. ___The NFL. ___Your body. ___Your soul. ___Time. ___Dreams. ___[          ]…

Strange list. Everything on it is real, right? So what does it mean to be more or less so? Maybe the question is really asking you to prioritize your sense of reality. Are particulars more real than abstractions? Are things less real than experiences, events, and processes? How can you even compare unseen, unproven things (souls, Deities) to tangible objects? Is reality itself even real, or is it just a concept? But wait. Why aren’t concepts real, since real people invent and entertain them?

The pre-Socratic materialists wanted desperately to summarize and simplify reality (“It’s all air/water/fire/number…”) but, most moderns would say, were too reductive in their analyses. It’s not all any one thing.

school of athensPlato had some wild ideas about reality. Aristotle was more grounded. (Recall your art history.) Two worlds or one? Are essences (Forms, Ideas) here or there? Are we in a cave, or in the light? Myth of the Cave, Republic Bk VII… cave

“A strange image, and they are strange prisoners.”

Like ourselves?

What would Socrates say?

tv

The great critic Alfred Kazin graced us, shortly
before his death, with sharp insight into James’s passionate
respect for each person’s “own sense of the exceptionality of his
existence” as part of “the axis of reality.” His deepest
commitment was to “the throb of our actual experience.” His
spiritual sensibility was not that of a true believer but of a
“fellow soul.”

different strokes

September 8, 2009

(Not “up at dawn” for three days running.  Now that’s what I call a Labor Day weekend. )

“Different men seek after happiness in different ways and by different means, and so make for themselves different modes of life…” Aristotle

So commences Sonja Lyubomirsky’s 3d chapter in How of Happiness. It’s not at all a trivial point: we each need to figure out which activities make each of us happy in particular. My bliss is probably not yours, and vice versa. This is the form of self-knowledge that more than half secures the battle. Then the secret of happiness simply becomes: be yourself.

One potential challenge to Lyuobomirsky’s approach: it seems reductively instrumental.  She writes, for instance: “If you’re not spiritual or religious, then you can pass on the religion strategy.” Yes, but…

Are we so sure that foreswearing religon and spirituality is without deleterious consequences for one’s happiness quest? Of course this will vary, person to person; but maybe the project of being happily human is more involved with questions of ultimate meaning, purpose, and value than the discard (“pass”) option implies. Maybe S.L. (like most) is placing religion and spirituality in a box much too small to contain them. (Here’s my cue to plug “Atheism and Spirituality,” the new course I’ll be offering in January.)

S.L. repeatedly anticipates the “c0rny” objection: activities like counting one’s blessings (or expressing gratitude) strike some as corny, cliche, mawkish, naive, etc. But in class the other day we looked at Dawkins’ expression of gratitude for being “one of the lucky ones who get to die… most will never get to live.” Nothing mawkish or corny in that, is there?

As for S.L.’s diagnostic quiz: I cheated, selecting the five (not four) “happiness activities” that on their face strike me as most congenial to me personally: cultivating optimism, avoiding overthinking and social comparison, doing more truly engaging (“flow”) activities, committing to goals, taking care of my body. (Other possible happiness activities: expressing gratitude, practicing acts of kindness, nurturing relationships, developing coping strategies, forgiving, savoring joys, practicing religon/spirituality.)

I didn’t tally my numerical score, and probably wouldn’t trust it if it contradicted my intuitive preferences anyway. But the key point is: this is the short list I should commence to work on (as opposed to merely commending or approving in others)… picking at least one or two activities, for starters, and methodically finding opportunities and occasions to practice their execution. Success may be equivocal, but starting is crucial, and imperative.

Another diagnostic assessment is the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, asking us to rate our intensity of agreement or disagreement with propositions like:

__ “I don’t feel particularly pleased with the way I am.”

__ “Life is good.”

__ “I don’t think the world is a good place.”

___ “I often experience joy and elation.”

I agree, it’s important to monitor one’s attitudes toward such questions with some specificity.  In Chattanooga this past weekend I noted a ubiquitous tee-shirt/bumper sticker logo in shop windows and on the streets: “Life is crap.” Now, really, that’s too sweeping a generalization. Bits of life surely are crap. Some bits concerned with aspects of human animality are crap (especially those literally so concerned). Others, though, are a joy. Monitoring might just prevent such uncircumspect over-statement.