Posts Tagged ‘Blogger’

How to Live an Experiment

November 21, 2017

More Jamesian happiness today. We’ve briefly considered On a Certain Blindness (1899), which sounds a fundamentally altruistic note. It’s as interested in (though necessarily less comprehending of) others’ “springs of delight” as in one’s own. (We’ll take a closer look at Blindness next time.)

I’ve just finished Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism, and am struck by the consanguinity of Ricard’s Buddhism with James’s pragmatic pluralism. The latter celebrates individuality, subjectivity, and selfhood, sure; but it equally extols empathy and compassion.

Those virtues were on impressive display when young William James advised a friend – and himself – to counter what we’d nowadays call SAD (seasonal affective disorder) with a fictive inner shift of attention:

Image result for skimming gullsRemember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Today, we turn back to two of his earlier essays: The Sentiment of Rationality (1879) and The Dilemma of Determinism (1884).

They convey the themes most central to James’s perpetual interest in personal flourishing: enthusiastic acceptance of one’s own and others’ distinctive individuality as the pre-eminent condition of feeling oneself “at home” in the world, at peace and at liberty to enjoy “the sufficiency of the present moment”; and, a sense of one’s own free agency as pragmatically vindicated by those who act on it (“my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”). For James, to be happy is fully to inhabit the present and confidently anticipate your fitness to meet the future freely.

Why do we philosophize? James says we seek a more rational “frame of things,” marked by “a strong feeling of ease, peace, & rest” affording transition from confusion and perplexity to pleasure in rational comprehension. That’s a subjective definition of rationality, concerned not simply with the degree of objective fit between our ideas and the world but with the palpable and personal perception therof.

The poet Walt Whitman celebrated the feeling of sufficiency just “as I am,” and James says that “fluent” feeling is rationality’s sine qua non. “Whatever modes of conceiving the cosmos facilitate this fluency, produce the sentiment of rationality.” The very coupling of sentiment and rationality was already a clue, of course, that James’s approach would defy rational convention. Not many epistemologists are interested in how rationality feels. That didn’t deter James, who was given to mocking “our bald-headed young PhDs, boring one another at conferences” with their erkentnisstheories etc.

“Every one knows how when a painful thing has to be undergone in the near future, the vague feeling that it is impending penetrates all our thought with uneasiness and subtly vitiates our mood even when it does not control our attention; it keeps us from being at rest, at home in the given present. The same is true when a great happiness awaits us.” Anticipation is making me wait, is keeping me waiting, sang Carly Simon in a song made silly by association with ketchup. The waiting is the hardest part, sang Tom Petty. Fluency and sufficiency are hard to have and hold, but when you finally get there it’s the greatest deliverance and homecoming. Indeed, “coming to feel at home” is the great prize in life for the human animal.

“It is of the utmost practical importance to an animal that he should have prevision of the qualities of the objects that surround him, and especially that he should not come to rest in presence of circumstances that might be fraught either with peril or advantage.” Evolution wants us (so to speak) to feel at home in secure surroundings, and spurs our curiosity to interrogate our surroundings and insure their homeliness. 
Must we wait and hope for the fluent feeling of homey sufficiency to descend and grace us? No, we must muster our subjective energies and go after it. 

in every fact into which there enters an element of personal contribution on my part, as soon as this personal contribution demands a certain degree of subjective energy which, in its turn, calls for a certain amount of faith in the result,–so that, after all, the future fact is conditioned by my present faith in it,–how trebly asinine would it be for me to deny myself the use of the subjective method, the method of belief based on desire!

If you’re climbing in the Alps and must face either certain death or a death-defying leap, you’d better believe in yourself. “The part of wisdom clearly is to believe what one desires; for the belief is one of the indispensable preliminary conditions of the realization of its object. There are then cases where faith creates its own verification.” That’s the view Bertrand Russell derided as the will to make-believe. But Russell was no climber, though like us all he was a chooser and a decider.

Are our choices and decisions freely willed? It so, we can’t allow ourselves to be compelled to believe. “Our first act of freedom, if we are free, ought in all inward propriety to be to affirm that we are free.” That was James’s own decision, when he “just about touched bottom” and then fortuitously discovered Renouvier’s definition of free will as the directed control of one’s own attentive mind and decided to experiment with it. To attend to one thing and not another is to court a specific range of possibilities. James was forever battling the Rationalist/Idealist Hegelians and Positivist Necessitarians  of his day, whose doctrines seemed to deny possibility as a real feature of our world. 

“A world with a chance in it of being altogether good, even if the chance never come to pass, is better than a world with no such chance at all… the chance that in moral respects the future may be other and better than the past has been” is more rational if it frees us to entertain and experiment with more possibilities, and occasionally to summon our personal energy, to sustain a promising but insecure leap of belief and action towards something better. That’s taking a chance, and not surrendering to fate.
As we’ve noted, some of us are more at home in a personal world of chance and risk. Those who are, studies seem to show, are happier.

The “Stone” essay “How to Live a Lie” proposes that James was a “free will fictionalist” who willfully accepted propositions that defy rational belief. I don’t think much of the Times headline-writer’s decision to label that a “Lie,” fiction at its best is a vehicle of truth. Better to call it living an experiment, in the Millian sense: each of us, insofar as our lives become for us projects in pursuit of well-being, are experimentalists seeking the right personal fit between our beliefs, statements, actions, and experience. James was a life-long free will experimentalist, who found that believing in free will conduced to the best version of himself, made the most “rational” sense of his experience, made him a better philosopher and a better human being, made him happy in the fullest sense of the term. No lie.

5:30/6:15, 66/75

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Peirce & James, Nietzsche, Freud

November 20, 2017

Image result for softballOrig. publ. 4.13.17.

Attended my second High School softball game in three days, on another lovely late afternoon in April. “Cruelest month” – ? No, happy days! Next year’s going to be weird, with no players under our roof left to cheer for. Dr. Seuss may not have said it but we’ll need to remember it: “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened.” Actually, a little sadness will be ok too. And the game will go on. Ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Today in CoPhi it’s the American Pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James (and John Dewey, R.I.P., and George Santayana, both neglected by Nigel), the godless post-nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the psychoanalytic therapeutics of Sigmund Freud.

We begin with a squirrel, whose circumnavigation of a tree was the improbable occasion for James’s account of the pragmatic method. (That’s the view from his summer place in New Hampshire atop my masthead, btw.) His camping companions couldn’t decide whether a scampering, circling squirrel was itself circled by the human observers who tried and failed to keep the frenetic rodent constantly in their sights or not.

...Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.” Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute. What Pragmatism Means

A silly and trivial dispute, perhaps, but helpfully illustrative of how pragmatists think. Define your terms, say what practical difference the competing answers would make, and get on with more pressing concerns. It all depends on “why you want to know and what difference it will actually make,” if any. If none, forget about it.

Another way to illustrate the method: what’s your current velocity, right now?

Charles Peirce, not related to Benjamin Franklin Pierce, said the final truth is what we would end up with if we could run all the experiments and investigations we’d like to. We’ll never run them all, so the truth at any given time is always provisional, always tied to the present state of inquiry and always subject to revision or rejection in the light of further experience. 
Bertrand Russell didn’t think much of this approach, and didn’t make much of an effort to grasp its intent. Pragmatists are often accused of denying the facts, when they explicitly acknowledge facts but propose that we understand truth (or falsehood) about the facts as what we say about them but never, in media res, entirely convergent with them. What we say is subject to the present stage of inquiry, the inconclusiveness of which requires an admission that what we would say at the ideal end of inquiry will surely differ. Hence the perpetual gap between facts and truths, and the pragmatists’ commitment to narrowing the gap in the long run while resisting unwarranted absolute claims in the interim.
So it’s not true, contrary to Russell’s derisive criticism, that pragmatists have to admit the truth of Santa’s existence. It may “work” for a four-year-old to think so, but toddlers don’t get the last word. 
This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is “expedient” in a situation James’s critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It’s more like Richard Rorty‘s neo-pragmatic and (later) Wittgensteinian invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a “Santa Claus” philosophy of truth.  Rorty said words are our tools and not symbolic snapshots corresponding to timeless propositional statements.  Our task is to “cope” with the world, not just copy it.

James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling’s comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.
Besides, he’s the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he’s the one I’d most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn’t drink. (Too bad they don’t serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters and correspondence, they humanize his philosophy and place his “radical” views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.
James’s interest in religion was rooted in the lives and experience of individuals, not particularly in God, heaven, the afterlife and so on. He psychologizes and naturalizes religion. It’s mostly about life on earth, for Jamesians, not (again) old St. Nick.

Let me know if you’d like to buy a good bargain-priced book about him. About us all, really.

Friedrich Nietzsche said “God is dead” and seemed at turns dismayed and liberated to think so. Is a godless world one in which “everything is permitted” or one in which objective and authoritative permission is no longer available, in which the old rules have been mooted and “free spirits” are unleashed to create new rules for themselves?  But is God dead, in Nietzsche’s terms? Maybe in old Europe, and maybe in more of the formerly sacred halls of worship in our own backyard than most of us will admit. Zarathustra may have come a century too soon in some quarters, and it may still be too soon in others, but it’s hard to deny that ours is an increasingly secular age. I don’t know many secularists who think everything is permitted.

Nor do I know many secularists who think compassion, kindness, and consideration are dead, dependent on a religious pedigree, or reflective of slavish resentment. That genealogy may explain the psychology behind some Christians’ worldview, but most people in my experience still want to be good for goodness’ sake. If your only motivation for being good, though, is to get to heaven, that’s not good. And it’s not goodness.

We’re hosting a talk by a representative godless secular humanist who thinks you can be good without a god next Friday, at our annual Spring Lyceum: Ronald Aronson, author of Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.

If an Ubermensch is “not held back by conventional moral codes,” he’d better be held back by law and communal disfavor. There are other, better names for people who “want to have their way without consideration of other people’s interests”: selfish egoists. Spoiled brats. NPDs. Mr. President. Not Superman.

Nietzsche’s un-Kantian exaltation of unreason found partial alliance with Sigmund Freud, but is also placed on the shrink’s couch as a classic textbook case of subterranean wish-fulfillment and unresolved, unconsious discontent with modernity. The Freudian Unconscious may not quite rise to the revolutionary status of Copernicus and Darwin, Frood may not have figured it all out, Deputy, but it would explain a lot. As “talking cures” go, though, I think I’d usually rather talk to a philosophical analyst than a psycho-…

Nietzsche himself was an early-adopter of psychoanalysis, and needed to be. He had a gift for his analyst, as documented in the film When Nietzsche Wept: eternal recurrence, the gift that keeps on giving. Or doesn’t. Its up to you to affirm or negate, to receive the gift as a great liberation or the greatest weight.

Freud’s reductive account of religion rivals Marx’s, and like Marx’s probably captures a significant but not comprehensive segment of believers. Much of Freud’s universe is unfalsifiable, as Sir Karl said, but it’s not hard to find a devout person who wants and finds more in religion than a protective paterfamilias in the sky. On the other hand, he wasn’t entirely off base when he said “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” And, “man’s judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness-accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.”

?s Does it really “work” to believe in Santa? Didn’t you continue to receive presents after you stopped believing? Is believing in Santa analogous to believing in God? When James said truth is what works, did he mean what works for me, now? Or for us, on the whole and in the long run? Are words tools, or more like pictures? Is it possible that God is dead for some but not others, in some places and times more and in others less? Are compassion and kindness distinctively religious values? Do you know any kind and compassionate atheists? Should we embrace the irrational and emotional aspects of human nature, or try to overcome them? Is Freudian dream symbolism (snakes and caves etc.) profound or silly?
4.13.17. It’s the birthday of Samuel Beckett, who waited for Godot but didn’t know what he waiting for… and of Thomas Jefferson, who couldn’t wait to declare our independence… and of Eudora Welty, who lived her whole life in the same house in Jackson, MS and said “the dullest man I ever saw in my life (Henry Miller) wasn’t interested in anything outside himself.” Emily Dickinson’s poem about madness in spring was about people like him.

5:30/6:17, 52/85, 7:17

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Gravity, repetition, and fantasyland

November 16, 2017

We’ll finish our stroll with Gros’s Philosophy of Walking today. He says the distance walker experiences “an immense renunciation,” or resignation to being earthbound, that issues ultimately and paradoxically in “the joy of being” and an “utter bliss.” He’s probably exaggerating at both ends of that statement, hikers typically begin not in a spirit of resignation but rather of eager anticipation, and end at the bliss end of the scale for sure, but possibly not utterly  – but I haven’t hiked the AT yet, so I’ll suspend judgment. Bryson ended his hike all aglow, sure enough, but didn’t soft-pedal the challenges and indignities of the abortive journey either.

Daily walkers, or this one anyway, do not set out in the expectation of slipping the surly bonds of earth, nor do the typically mild and reassuring rewards of transit for its own sake generally rise to transcendent levels of ecstasy. We keep our feet on the ground and our heads out of the clouds, or short at least of Cloud Nine. Slow and steady is our mantra, we’re not racing anyone or renouncing anything. But we do indeed understand and accept that our place is here, on this earth and in this skin, as every step reinforces the point. We’re down to earth.

And yet, we also feel a pleasant lightness of being as we realize and celebrate the ease of traveling without encumbrance. Gros had to ditch his rucksack at the foot of a mountain to feel that. I ditch my figurative rucksack every morning as I step out the door and also find “nothing between me and the sky, me and the ground” but a leash and a friend.

Reflecting on Gandhi’s disciplined, principled marches for justice, Gros says you can better “hold yourself to account” through “meticulous self-examination” measured a step at a time. You can, but you can also – as he’s already told us – slip away from hyper-self-examination. A walk is a canvas, and each can be different.

Does walking cure apathy (“acedia”)? Some monks have said so, owing somehow to the rhythm and regularity of a steady gait. I know I find it harder not to care about things, during and after a walk. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure I need to know why. Some gift horses just must be ridden and not riddled out.

I don’t know if Wordsworth was really the first poet of walking, but he was surely its poet laureate. “I calculate,” said De Quincy, “that… Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles—a mode of exertion which, to him, stood in the stead of alcohol and other stimulants whatsoever to animal spirits; to which, indeed, he was indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings.”

Wordsworth achieved in his wanderings what the Tibetan masters devised breathing and gymnastic exercises (lung-gom) to attain, the ability “of walking very fast over enormous distances without fatigue.” He and they may be our peripatetic role models, if we need them. For me, it’s enough simply to echo Montaigne’s observation:  “My thoughts sleep if I sit still.” I don’t necessarily have to go long and far, to shake off somnolence. I just have to go. And go. And go. It’s not for nothing that our last chapter is Repetition. Once more into the breach. Let’s go.
And once again, tonight, I get to repeat the happy experience of teaching the first of a two-class block in our school’s Master of Liberal Arts (MALA) program. Last semester it was Human Migration, this time it’s Cheating. My contribution: Cheating Truth (which, to be clear, I’m against). We’ll begin with a look at Princeton Professsor Harry Frankfurt’s classic “On Bullshit,” originally a mid-’80s essay in Raritan, revived in teeny pocket-book format in the mid-’00s, and on target now more than ever. As the author told Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, it just keeps “piling.”

I’ve been instructed not to require introductions from our students, since they’ve already had a half-dozen opening nights with different teachers all semester long and should know one another well enough by now. I get that, but it’s still hard for me not to begin my opening night, as I begin all my opening days each semester, with two questions: Who are you? and Why are you here? So, folks, I won’t ask. If any of you would care to volunteer that information, however…

And if anyone would care to volunteer a synopsis of what’s gone on in the cheating class so far, I’d love to be caught up. (So far the class has heard from my colleagues in Theater and Dance, Global Studies and Human Geography, Music, Political Science, and Sociology and Anthropology.)

Why “bullshit”? Isn’t it obvious? As Kurt Andersen says in his timely, troubling, yet vastly entertaining new alt-history of our land, it’s not a new phenomenon but lately it’s really coming to a head.

When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things,” the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: “our wishes, our inclinations” and ‘the dictates of our passions’ now apparently do ‘alter the state of facts and evidence,’ because extrteme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule…

…mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – a 500-Year History

We’ve fostered “a promiscuous devotion to the untrue,” one nation under Twitter with liberty for disinterest in truth and facts for all.

Well, fortunately not all. Wits like Andersen and Frankfurt, and before them sages like Carl Sagan with his euphemistic baloney-detection kit, have done their best to call out and rein in our promiscuous magic thinking. May the force be with them, and with us all.

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Mill, Darwin, Kierkegaard, & Marx

November 15, 2017
Busy days ahead! MillDarwinKierkegaardMarx
Then tomorrow tonight, it’s the first of my two classes in the MALA course on “Cheating”… my contribution: “Cheating Truth”…
 Last time this quartet of philosophers came up I was doing my bit for the Spring MALA course on Human Migration, worth a look back. Then, I called my block contribution “The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism,” first retracing the genetic trail of Y-chromosome crumbs that prove we have indeed walked far, then wondering if we’ll ever complete the mission summarized by that ambitious (if premature) plaque on the moon.
Image result for "we came in peace" moon flag
“Premature,” I say, as evidenced by that other marker we left in the lunar dust.
Image result for "we came in peace" moon flag

Also premature perhaps in its implication that humans at this stage of their evolutionary development have in fact become a peaceable, or even reliably civil, species. I ventured out to the airport last night and was met with several instances of gratuitous incivility. Lots of us seem like powder kegs waiting to blow, these days. Oh well. At least I didn’t get beat up or kicked off a plane. I’d rather walk than fly any day.
We might check in tonight with Frederic Gros’s Philosophy of Walking, and Christopher Orlet’s Gymnasiums of the Mind, and “Walking to the stars“: Some of us fervently believe, with Nietzsche, Rousseau, and so many others, that the best ideas first come while walking. Some of us also believe we should expand our range to include more distant turf, over the Terran horizon. I’m a believer.

But first, those 19th century stars.

Mill, we’ve noted, disagree with Bentham about pleasure. He had nothing against “pushpin,” just impatience with humans who wouldn’t bother to explore more. His great passion was of course for liberty, so his insistence on qualitative pleasure-standards sets up a taut challenge: how to prescribe but not impose those standards, and still respect the rights of all to seek their own good in their own ways without (as John Lachs puts it) meddling. Open discussion in a free society, especially about our differences, forces invaluable self-critique. “If you don’t have your views challenged by people with opposing views, then you will probably end up holding them as ‘dead dogmas’…” But of course we rarely call out our own dogmas, it’s other people’s prejudices we detest. So we need to hear out other people.

The great Huxley-Wilberforce debate has probably grown in legend beyond its moment, but what wouldn’t I give to have been there! I think Dan Dennett is probably right, evolution by natural selection is probably the single best idea anyone ever had. Huxley was probably right too, when he upbraided himself for not having thought of it first. The best ideas are often right under our noses, out of sight.

Since Darwin’s day genetics, tonight’s topic, “has given a detailed explanation of how inheritance works.” It’s not just a theory, it’s a hypothesis with “a very substantial weight of evidence in support.”

The Danish Socrates said evidence/schmevidence, what’s that to me if my “subjective truth” says I should take a flying leap into the darkness. Some of us think Kierkegaard committed intellectual suicide, but we’re glad somebody stepped up to defend the irrationalist position. It gives us more to talk about. And it’s clear enough why some Existentialists (though not the atheists like Sartre) look back to the Melancholy Dane as their early prototype. Kierkegaard was all about “choosing how to live and the difficulty of knowing that your decision is the right one.” My view is that you only make that more difficult, when you renounce reason. And, you do contradict yourself in the broadest sense of reason when you write tracts attempting to vindicate your irrationalism. Nigel’s unvarnished judgment: “Faith involves risk. But it is also irrational: not based on reason.”

But, give Kierkegaard credit for defending “the subjective point of view” against the pure objectifiers in philosophy who leave themselves no place to stand, pretending to occupy Professor Nagel’s “view from nowhere.” That really is a Nowhere Land, Nowhere Man.

Karl Marx always looks angry. The “grim conditions” of industrial capitalism and its assault on the poor and powerless dispossessed sent him to the British Library and into collaboration with Engels to crank out their Manifesto. The political struggle of class demanded and predicted revolution, they said. They took Hegel’s history and said it’s all coming to a head much sooner than his intellectualistic analysis allowed, given its manifest material contradictions. Theye didn’t predict the Soviet Union, though.

“From each according to ability, to each according to need”: a beautiful vision, which American students seem conditioned to reject as impossible. Seems to work pretty well in places like Denmark and Switzerland, though.

Finally, Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people.” He didn’t think that was an insult, but a sympathetic explanation. “In the new world after the revolution human beings would achieve their humanity.” Sounds so naive, from the perspective of 2017. But humanity isan achievement, not just a genetic fact. We’ve got to reclaim it constantly.

Lotsa questions: Name two or three of your favorite pleasures. Are any of them higher or better than the others? In what way? Are any of yours higher or better than those of a friend whose list includes none of yours? Why or why not? Is state paternalism ever warranted? Why don’t we ever talk about state maternalism? What are the appropriate legal limits on speech and expression in a free society, if any? How would you reply to Wilberforce’s debate question? What do you think was the best idea ever? Do you want a map of your own genome? Why or why not? Do you agree with Darwin that the subject of God is “too profound for human intellect”? Does it mean we should all be agnostic? What would you have done, in Abraham’s position? Would you have doubted the “message” or challenged the messenger? Does it damage the parent-child relationship if Mom or Dad make it clear to the child that they’ll always defer to the perceived instructions of a “heavenly father,” even including murderous instructions? Does anything “trump the duty to be a good [parent]”? Would you ever do something you considered morally wrong, in the name of faith? Does taking a “leap of faith” make you irrational? How do you balance your subjective point of view with objectivity, and with the subjectivity of others? What role should inter-subjectivity play, in forming that balance? If you ever own a business will you pay your workers as little as possible and extract as much “surplus value” from them as you can? Is anything in history “inevitable”? Does religion make people more reconciled to oppression and exploitation, and less likely to revolt?

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Thoreau, Cynics, Kant

November 14, 2017

More Thoreau in Happiness today, along with the Cynics and Kant. Wouldn’t that be an interesting walking party?

Thoreau, wishing “to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness,” wrote “Walking“:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks… We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return… I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

Nice work if you can afford it, though most of our peers would rather die than spend so much time on shanks’ mare. For Henry it was the very condition of living. His “new economics” measured every cost by the currency of life, a currency you’d think to be harder to devalue than a dollar. A strictly sedentary and interior life does exact quite a cost, whether we’re aware of it or not, in terms of health and happiness.

A long forest walk produces nothing “saleable,” says Gros, but isn’t Gros’s book saleable? Isn’t Thoreau’s? Sadly the bourgeoisie does not much buy or read such books. How much life they’re missing. “Living is something no one else can do for us,” though of course the vicarious experience of other lives may add depth and value to our own. The missed-opportunity cost of those who don’t read, finally indistinguishable (as Twain said) from those who can’t, is immeasurable.

“Ah! To be able to get drunk on the air we breathe” and salt away “vivid feelings and sunny memories” for winter. Simplicity of that sort costs nothing in nominal terms, repaying an interest that never stops accruing.

The real, for Thoreau, is truly priceless. It can’t be commodified, packaged, and re-sold like virtual reality. (What would he say about our preoccupation with that?) So he went to Walden, looking for the hard rock-bottom “which we can call Reality… no mistake.” No phony happiness Experience Machine for him.

More hymns to aurora, and pity for “those who have lost their subscription ticket to morningtime in this world.” But Henry is generous, “morning is when i am awake and there is a dawn in me.” But the air just is sweeter when the rooster crows. That was true even before the internal combustion engine invaded our lives.

Thoreau’s response to whether he’d made his peace with God is often quoted – “I didn’t know we’d quarreled” – but less remarked is his decisively grounded humanst commitment when presented with the specter of the afterlife: “one world at a time.” 

It’s cold-walking season here, or (as we get more than our share of unseasonable warmth in late autumn and early winter) anyway colder. Thoreau pointed out that we’re all equipped with handy portable furnaces. I used to recoil from winter, but with Henry’s encouragement now I lean in and speak no more of that self-inflicted malady called seasonal affective disorder. So easy to turn SAD to well-being, so few though actually do it. Sad.

Earth and landscape are themselves at once energizing and comforting, making the walker at home. Safe.

Socrates not a great walker, Plato? Once again, I suspect you’ve foisted your own view onto the mute canvas of your mentor. Nature has plenty to say to us all, though her message does not conduce to your dialogue format. She speaks more directly. To walk and to converse, peripatein, is wonderful but is necessarily mediated by symbolic language. Nature speaks in a tongue we’ve always knows, but don’t always choose to hear (as our Lyceum speaker was saying during Q-&-A the other day).

The old Cynics tried to get closer to nature, thinking “Truth is the elements” whose “primitive energy” mocks the verbal sophistication of more refined reflection. If you can really be free wherever you can walk, you can be at home almost everywhere – if they’ll have you.

Kant didn’t share much with Nietzsche, philosophically, but both were obsessive about their walks and their meals. The latter, in particular, suffered a delicate gastrointestinal constitution and held his beer-loving countrymen in contempt for what he considered their self-indulgent weakness. He could not allow himself to appreciate and enjoy the “aesthetic moment” a well-crafted ale might afford, nor the camaraderie and human connection. “Nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya,” except that. It wouldn’t have killed him. Might even have made him stronger. 

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Kant keep up

November 13, 2017

We’re running a day late in CoPhi, today catching up with Kant et al…

It’s the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia, a part of North Africa that is now Algeria (354). He converted to Christianity as an adult and wanted nothing more than to settle down to a quiet life of thinking about theology and writing books. But when he moved to the port town of Hippo to set up a monastery, he was forced to take over the duties of the local bishop, and he regretted for the rest of his life that he had to spend so much of his time delivering sermons and running a parish, when he could have devoted all that time to writing…

It’s the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850)… Around the same time that Treasure Island was published, Stevenson woke up one morning and told his family that he did not want to be disturbed until he had finished writing a story that had come to him in a dream. It took him three days to write it, but when he read the story aloud to his wife, she said it was too sensationalistic. So he sat down and rewrote the whole thing. By the end of the week, he was fairly happy with the result, which he called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885)… He said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” And, “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.” WA

And the great Buck O’Neil was born on this day in 1911. He stole the show at my Baseball in Literature and Culture conference presentation time before lasty… 
"How can a you hit and think at the same time?"
"I always thought that record would stand until it
was broken."
"In baseba...

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Homo viator

November 9, 2017

Frederic Gros is humming my tune in today’s Happiness assignment, with his paean to the sacred silence of early morning walks, “dim light slanting through red and gold leaves” in autumn, “muffled footsteps under a white sky” in winter’s snow (a rare occasion in these parts), and in every season an invitation to peaceable coexistence in and with the antique world. Silence is the golden muting of deafening nonsensical noisy chatter. People used to say, ironically or moronically, “Thanks, Obama”… I say Thanks, Drumpf… 

Thanks for pushing chatter beyond the tipping-point and breaking my morning addiction to NPR and all the other news-speaky organs of idle talk and breathless speculation driven by our benighted CEO’s latest tweet-storm. Now the only information I require before leaving the house and hitting the pavement is a brief weather update, so I’ll know whether to to lay down the base layer, grab the rain gear, or just go.

Then, I check the Writers Almanac for a little historical and literary context, a little poetry and a reminder that all things must pass. In a dark time that’s lightening.

I think Gros overstates the extent to which walkers lose the use of language, even when “doing nothing but walk” (and even if they emulate their canine companions’ version of “nothing”-the aforementioned sniffing, squirreling, circling, meandering etc.)… and the Wallace Stevens/Nietzsche/Rousseau style of peripatetic composition obviously intends the opposite. But I do get the point of appreciating those moments when words are seen to be mere innocent bystanders to the silence in which “you hear better” because you’re finally really seeing, really noticing things and not just issuing a running commentary.

The sight of desk or chair does not suffice to sicken me, as Rousseau said it did him, but too much direct seat-of-the-pants acquaintance definitely can. Some see standing and treadmill desks as the solution, but unless it’s 20 below I’ll pass on that. For a while I tried setting an hourly alarm, to make sure those sedentary sessions didn’t exceed safe limits. Better to just train ourselves to know what sick-desk syndrome feels like. You don’t have to set an alarm to let you know your nasal passages need clearing, after all, why should blocked mental and emotional passages be any harder to diagnose?

“The doggish man of the Enlightenment” was through, like his cynical forerunner, with the proprieties and conventions of polite society. That’s fine, to a point. But untrained dogs are less than impolite, they’re a sanitation and safety hazard. Get up and show a little respect, Diogenes.
Image result for school of athens diogenes

The aspiration to identify and personify homo viator, “walking man,” is one I certainly relate to. “Sitting man” is normal, sadly, but definitely not natural. We’re designed, naturally selected, to move. But the romantic notion of a natural man who loves but does not favor or prefer himself, who does not wage even a cold war against all others, is still strictly aspirational at the species level. The Hobbes-Rousseau debate continues. But I’ve known healthily-altruistic non-egoists who nonetheless suffered no noticeable self-loathing. 

In Rousseau’s final walking reveries, recounted in Reveries of the Solitary Walker, he may have experienced “marvelous contentment” – it’s hard enough to recognize that state in oneself, never mind an old dead philosopher. And, we may still wonder about the gap between contentment and true happiness. But if in my own future final reveries I can manage to “walk at my ease… without being obliged to hurry, and with a pleasant prospect at the end,” you can call me happy. If I then also  manage to “rediscover the simple joy of existing… that permeates the whole of childhood,” well, I don’t guess there’s a word for that. Or needs to be.

Image result for emerson transparent eyeball
 ‘I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all…’

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Kant, Bentham, Hegel, Schopenhauer

November 8, 2017

It’s three Germans and an Englishman today in CoPhi, a reflection of my own heritage – or so family legend has it. I haven’t checked with 23 and me. (Everyone I know who has, has been surprised or disappointed. Maybe it’d be best simply to claim the broadly and inclusively human heritage.)

But whatever the DNA says, I’ve tilted to the Anglo side of my lineage. I find quirky Jeremy Bentham more to my philosophical taste than any of the Teutons. “Greatest happiness for the greatest number” sounds like a worthy plan, so long as the rights of the lesser number are also respected. Plus, he named his walking sticks! (Dapple & Dobbin). Things in Themselves, Categorical Imperatives, historical zeitgeists, and pervasive pointless Wills hold less appeal, but seem to occupy a greater chunk of our curriculum.

Immanuel Kant‘s noumenal/phenomenal distinction appears sensible, but doesn’t it also take the appearances down a notch by implicit comparison? His analytic/synthetic & a priori/a posteriori distinctions are inescapable, in the philosophy curriculum, but in the real world it’s not always clear where to draw the lines. His “great insight,” that reason reveals the relevance of our own minds in structuring the world of our experience and knowledge, may or may not be correct. But his ringing exhortation to sapere aude, to have the courage to think, has to be. If we did, maybe we’d finally give peace a chance.

Kant’s moral philosophy requires either courage or insensitivity, declaring the normal range of human sympathy – the source of David Hume’s morality – irrelevant. If you do the right thing for any reason other than dutiful reason, he says, you’re wrong. That can’t be right, can it?

Never lie. Ever. In any circumstances. That advisory marks Kant as the un-Trumpiest ethicist of all. No general principle can rationally endorse behavior that, universalized, would destroy the very practice it purports to govern. If we lie, we destroy the possibility of credibly telling the truth.  But our duty to truth is absolute, our imperative is categorical. Consequences be damned. What evildoers do with the truth is no concern of ours. Really?

Which brings us to friend Bentham, for whom positive consequences are to be treasured more than anything. His Greatest Happiness principle has its heart in the right place, the place where happy consequences ensue for as many of us as we can manage. Calculate everyone’s felicity. But to do that, you can’t also say that individual rights are “nonsense on stilts.”

Another apparently-false legend is that it made Jeremy so happy to contemplate an eternity of staff meetings that his will stipulated the presence of his auto-icon at council meetings of the University College of London. Too bad. I’ve been present in the mode of absence at a few academic confabs too, without the excuse of being an immobilized ex-utilitarian.

Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine, thought the late libertarian Harvard professor, challenges Bentham’s view of the ubiquity of pleasure as a source of human motivation. (And reminds some of The Matrix.) But is that fair? Was Bentham talking about the greatest simulated experience of happiness for the greatest number? The greatest illusion of happiness? The greatest simulacrum of pleasure? “All ways of bringing about pleasure are equally valuable” is not a principle he ever articulated, or would likely affirm. This is an ungenerous solecism, surely, propelled by a narrative committed to polishing J.S. Mill’s comparatively-superior progressive pedigree. Mill was great, but there’s no need to purchase his greatness at the cost of Bentham’s.

Hegel‘s twilight “owl of Minerva” seems to carry a white flag, surrendering on philosophy’s behalf to history’s disappointments and vicissitudes. We know what that feels like, at this historical moment. Don’t we? Maybe it was a concession that the hubris of youth, if it lives long enough, must always give way to the resignation of years. Young Hegel imagined he’d caught Geist by the tail and pinned it into his Phenomenology of Spirit. Old Hegel was more circumspect.

Think of young Wordsworth and his rapturous ode to life at the crossroads of revolution and history. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” And then think of old Wordsworth, turned Tory. The spirit of youth is intoxicating, that of maturity sobering. You don’t have to choose, if you can manage to stick around.

Politics aside though, as today’s poem reminds, you can always strive to be young at heart. “My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die!

Hegel always rejected Kant’s vanishing noumenal realm, but his confidence in history’s march to self-revelation and total freedom may finally have struck him as historically suspect, not born out by the actual course of events. The whole notion of geist, though, rendered as the progressive awakening of nature as spirit through us, is a heady one. Maybe it’s just the right mindset for a philosopher who deeply values his own words. It’s long-view optimism.

I can never mention Hegel without recalling James’s half-serious reflections on some Hegelisms. The nitrous oxide philosopher thought Hegel could be clearer, and undertook an experiment to see if clarity could be ingested through laughing gas. “Let me transcribe a few sentences: What’s mistake but a kind of take? What’s nausea but a kind of -ausea? Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism—how criticise without something to criticise? Agreement—disagreement!! Emotion—motion!!!”

And so it goes on, until sobriety returns to erase the perception of deep Hegelian insight. But at least he gave long-view optimism a try.

And the opposite of that? The “blind driving force” of Schopenhauer‘s voracious, insatiable, ubiquitous Will. Reality was for him best symbolized by a yapping hound, yapping perennially and pointlessly, magnifying our cycles of striving and desire and despair, making subtle spirits like Arthur wish for it all to just stop.

But on the other hand, he loved art and music and fine restaurants and little poodle dogs like his Atman. (His series of Atmans.)  And there’s much to be said for his thought that “other people aren’t external to me,” though it seems that if you really believed that you might be less inclined to push an old lady down the stairs and then make puns about her demise.

Some questions: Do we all wear conceptual “spectacles” of some kind? If so, does that present a problem for the possibility of mutual understanding between ourselves and/or other kinds of knowers? Does the spectacles analogy really even work, given the impossibility of actually removing our conceptual spectacles or changing prescriptions? Is knowing the appearances enough? If you help someone because you feel sorry for them, have you behaved morally? Does history mean anything, either in advance or in retrospect? Or is it, as Henry Ford said, “bunk”? Was George Santayana right, that if we don’t learn from history’s mistakes we’re doomed to repeat them? Is the world becoming more conscious, somehow, even as many individuals seem to become less so? Does nature come to know itself through us? If we could somehow know that the world had no ultimate purpose, would pessimism and despair be an appropriate response? Do art, literature, and music offer some kind of redemption?
Good news: “by learning and regularly practicing skills that promote positive emotions, you can become a happier and healthier person… as little as two weeks’ training in compassion and kindness meditation generate(s) changes in brain circuitry linked to an increase in positive social behaviors like generosity…”

College admissions advice: be kind. “Colleges should foster the growth of individuals who show promise not just in leadership and academics, but also in generosity of spirit.”

Six Myths About Choosing A College Major

4.6.17. Today in 1748, excavations began to unearth the doomed city of Pompeii, where nearly 11,000 people were killed in place and buried under 80 feet of ash by the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79… It’s the birthday of biophysicist James Dewey Watson, who with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin discovered the structure of DNA to be a double helix. “To succeed in science, you have to avoid dumb people […] you must always turn to people who are brighter than yourself.” And, he should have added, kinder. WA

5:30/6:27, 44/61/39, 7:11

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Inside out

November 7, 2017

More on peripatetic happiness today, after a follow-up on risk-taking and a consideration of Ellen Langer‘s western/secular version of mindfulness, “the simple act of actively noticing things.” We notice too much, we don’t notice enough.

William James might have said our noticing problem has to do with our tendency to take flight  from our various perches, giving neither flights nor perchings their attentive due. But the “transitive” parts of experience, conveying us from place to place, are especially neglected.

The flights and perchings metaphor fits Frederic Gros’s analysis, according to which outside is generally regarded as a transition between insides. Transitions are obstacles, hurdles, preliminaries. Not on the long trail, though. Take a hike and the tables are turned, outside is now the stable core of life and interiors are merely conduits to more core, “milestones… to help keep you outside for longer: transitions.” The “open air and possibilities of nature” (as James put it) quickly recover their ancestral status as our native element. “I live in a landscape… my home all day long…”

There’s a “good slowness” that walking engenders and that our hurry-up culture disparages, a “slow-and-steady wins the race” pace (but it’s not a race), a deliberation that takes its time and in the process opens time up. It exposes “the illusion of speed” as it cleaves to time and stretches it, and thus “deepens space.” I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s arresting statement in For the Time Being: “While we breathe we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.”

And of Henry Thoreau‘s “time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is… The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things.” Does it, afoot? Or does it just seem that way, amidst the surge of endorphic feel-good brain chemistry catalyzed by our good and steady slowness? Either way, it’s a happy feeling. When does a happy feeling announce a happy life? Well, repeatedly. Daily, for a committed walker. The days are gods, as Emerson said.

See also Henry’s walk to work

Go Rimbaud, Patti Smith sang in an encomium to her virtual “boyfriend.” And go he did, his steps generating a happy “poetry of well-being” and a self-effacing protestation that “I’m a pedestrian, nothing more.” Well, a bit more: he described himself, in the afterglow of a long walk, as”blissfully happy.”

Flights and perchings again. “I find in Rimbaud that sense of walking as flight,” not the distracted flight of mere transition but the deeply joyous flight of departure and possibility.

“Ought one really to walk alone?” Sometimes. Rousseau at least had a dog. I have a little Snoopy figurine on my desk that reminds me, “you’ll never walk alone… if you have a dog.” Well, I do leave the older slower pooch behind on the longer walks. There are times when utter solitude beckons. But day in and day out, it’s the three of us. Tres amigos felices, Angel & Scooter & me. We three never “become two…”

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Leibniz & Voltaire, Hume & Rousseau

November 6, 2017
The poet Pope, like the Panglossian metaphysician Leibniz, said Being can’t be improved on. What a demoralizing thought. “Superficiality incarnate,” James called it. “Leibniz’s feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind…”

François-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire, agreed acerbically and hilariously with James. But there was nothing funny about the Lisbon quake, or any natural cataclysm. If we have grounds for optimism it’s not in the fact of such events, but in the constructive and ameliorative human response to them. Rebecca Solnit points this out effectively in her book A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in DisasterShe cites James’s firsthand account of the great San Francisco quake of ’06, wherein he details the sense of “social uplift” he took away from the willingness of people to pitch in and help one another through disaster. Hope springs eternal, for those who can keep their heads in a crisis.

Brains, John Campbell says in his Berkeley Philosophy Bites interview, are a big asset. “It’s very important that we have brains. Their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk.”

Voltaire, dubbed by Russell “the chief transmitter of English influence to France,” was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment 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 [V&L, u@d]

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

Plenty of people believe in a “pre-established harmony,” and seem to find comfort in it. I’ve never understood the mindset of feeling blessed by the hurricane that obliterates the other side of the street, but that reflexive response seems always on tap for people in hurricane alley. It’s hard to cultivate your garden if you and your garden have been blown away.

David Hume was a cheerful and clear-headed freethinker, prudently advised by friends not to say everything he thought in so many words. The dialogue form gave him just enough cover to keep people guessing as to the full extent of his heresies. But he was plenty clear that miracles, if by the term we mean anything other than an exceedingly improbable (though perfectly possible) event, do not happen. “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.” Hume also said

  • “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.” 
  • “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” 
  • “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”
  • “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” 
  • “He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper, but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to his circumstance.”
  • “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” 

He was also clear that he thought Epicurus had the right attitude towards life and death, annoying Johnson and Boswell with the calm he brought to his final hours.

And he thought Epicurus asked good questions. “Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?”

Hume tried to be a friend to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but they became “enlightenend enemies.” The bumptious Swiss was a peripatetic but also a bit of narcissist and rogue, and an advocate for the public interest (the General Will) as deserving priority over personal self-interest. He was right, if we’re going to go to the trouble of creating civil institutions we really need to fund them. We all need to pay our share. But we all need to have a voice in identifying the public interest, too. We’re finding out, aren’t we, if that model will work in our time.
4.4.17. On this day in 1832, Charles Darwin (books by this author) traveling aboard the HMS Beagle landed on the shores of Rio de Janeiro as part of a five-year trip. “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.” But he remained hopeful that “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”
Hope is the subject of another terrific book by Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark… and of today’s eponymous poem by Lisel Mueller. “It is the singular gift/we cannot destroy in ourselves, the argument that refutes death, the genius that invents the future, all we know of God.”

Solnit: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” And, “To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” And, “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

And, someone concluded his book on William James with:

Hope-the need for it, the possibility of it, the sense of it as the only reputable alternative to inadmissible despair-is the center of his vision as I see it. The prime requisite of hope is confidence that what we do matters and may make all the difference further along the chain of life… “Hope” is that thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tunes without the words/And never stops at all.

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