Posts Tagged ‘Blogger’

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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November 2, 2017

We begin A Philosophy of Walking in Happiness today. Frederic Gros clearly derives great satisfaction from his perambulations, as I do from mine. If I’ve learned anything about happiness it’s that you have to keep doing the things that satisfy, if you want to get it and keep it.

Gros says mercantilism brought an invasive “sporting spirit” to the child’s play of walking, with all the gear-and-apparel fetishism. But walking was in fact a popular spectator sport, back in the day, and while we’ve thankfully moved past that inexplicable obsession (never mind Olympic racewalking, still a thing) the sporting spirit may be inescapable in any public endeavor involving physical exertion in this sport-manic culture.  The “only performance that counts” is sky and landscape. But do go ahead and count your steps, if that gets you out and going.

Is walking an escape? That implies a dissatisfaction with normal life that the well-adjusted walker has already left behind. But it’s good to get away from the web on a regular basis. I’m not so sure about personal identity (“the temptation to be someone”), which I feel I actually inhabit more intimately when walking than not.

But there is such a thing as too much self-awareness, as evidenced by Friedrich Nietzsche in his final Ecce Homo phase. “Why I Am Such a Good Walker” is an irresistible parody chapter title, but it’s also a cautionary reminder that walking should takes us out of ourselves and not just further into an egocentric hole.

Should we disbelieve any idea “not born in the open air and of free movement”? That’s a little harsh. I’d say we should take every idea for a walk and see how it holds up. But a few good ideas have come to some relatively less ambulatory folk – Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking for instance (says Chris Orlet)… but what more might they have achieved, we can ony wonder.

The Wanderer and His Shadow, in Human, All Too Human, was the product of Nietzsche’s great discovery: Sils-Maria, the Upper Engadine, and the ascendant peripatetic life. “All of it except a few lines was thought out en route,” scribbled in Moleskine-like notebooks. Are there any present-day wanderers dictating the next Zarathustra into their iPhone recorders?

Nietzsche’s walks differed from Immanuel Kant’s, whose clockwork boulevard strolls were more a “distraction from work” than its precondition. “It is our habit to think outdoors…” Thinking outdoors, unchained from the anchoring dead-weight of desk and domicile, frees us from the weighted “thought of others.” Sort of. No one who reads is ever entirely free from the thought of others. That’s not dependency, necessarily, but an asset and resource.

Why did Nietzsche preferred climbing to flatland perambulating? Because it (possibly) affords a more detached and independent outlook. “One needs to be unconstrained to think far.”

The experience of walking, particularly long repeated excursions on familiar paths, evokes for Gros Nietzsche’s startling version of Eternal Recurrence. Everything that has been, will be, again and again. I know the feeling, from my daily morning dog-walks in the neighborhood. We traverse the same ground, at the same time and pace, and we affirm every step. So many familiar and anticipated views deliver “a vibration of the landscape” that either resonates or wearies, depending on our choice. The dogs always clearly choose affirmation, and greet every walk with fresh anticipation and the excited expectation of novelty. Every morning is for them the first morning. I try to emulate their attitude.

When Nietzsche discovered Turin, Italy, in “the final act of his life,” he had little time left before megalomania would consume his remaining clarity and sanity. “Long walks on the banks of the Po enchanted him,” bringing “a renewal of joy… a sudden access of happiness,” and the wanderer’s resurgence. “My thoughts’, said the wanderer to his shadow, ‘should show me where I stand, but they should not betray to me where I am going. I love ignorance of the future and do not want to perish of impatience and premature tasting of things promised.”

Like his Prophet Zarathustra, Nietzsche came too soon. Then he left, impatiently. Will his promise be fulfilled? Should we want it to be? Something to ponder, as we wander.

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Spinoza, Locke, Reid

November 1, 2017

[Earlier version orig. publ. 4.4.17] Back from the conference in Ottawa and KC, where I’ve now comfortably rebooted my old tradition of resetting the season and preparing the return to life known as Opening Day (met the author of a book by that title in Ottawa, celebrating the heroic courage of Jack Roosevelt Robinson). It was easier to walk across the hall for the annual baseball conference, but as Baruch Spinoza would tell you if he could, easy is overrated.

Spinoza didn’t make it easy on himself by affirming pantheism, but perhaps he found the solace of solidarity with nature and the universe sufficiently off-setting and worth the cost in personal terms. He thought he’d touched all the bases: God, nature, freedom, emotion, everything. QED (Not quite easily done.)

He “claimed to demonstrate both the necessary existence and the unitary nature of the unique, single substance that comprises all of reality. Spinoza preferred the designation “Deus sive Natura” (“god or nature”) as the most fitting name for this being, and he argued that the its infinite attributes account for every feature of the universe.”

An infinite God leaves no remainder, but also leaves individuals without a personal savior. He didn’t think he needed one, with his rationalist’s intellectual love of God. Free will may be an illusion, but a Spinozism of freedom is supposed to free us from reactionary passions like anger and self-pity. He would have been pleased by Einstein’s endorsement. “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind…”

But, freedom? “It would be moral bondage if we were motivated only by causes of which we remain unaware, so genuine freedom comes only with knowledge of what it is that necessitates our actions. Recognizing the invariable influence of desire over our passionate natures, we then strive for the peace of mind that comes through an impartial attachment to reason.” Much easier said than done. But again, Spinoza wasn’t about easy.

Anthony Gottlieb’s Spinoza brought “a breeze of the future,” a foretaste of our present, with determinism and secularism in the ascendant in the most enlightenend quarters. Was he really “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers,” as Bertrand Russell averred? “Those who were acquainted with him,” said Bayle in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, called him “social, affable, honest, obliging, and of a well-ordered morality.” But they didn’t confirm his mythic identity as a humble lens grinder scrabbling to sustain himself for his philosophic labors. “[H]is lens-making was primarily a scientific pursuit rather than a commercial one.” 

If we “understood clearly the whole order of Nature,” according to Spinoza, we’d come to his  conclusion that “all things [are] just as necessary” as a true mathematical proposition. “Unfortunately, people did not come to see this at all.” Fortunately, I say, lest we stop trying to be the change we want to see in the world. He’d say not to sweat that, if we want change then we necessarily will do what we think we must to achieve it… but we can’t bank on making a difference that confounds the “whole order.” And I say, again, I’m banking on it.

This God-intoxicated man has many secular and atheistic intellectual descendants, who are tarred by “no stigma in economically developed countries except the United States.” Still, “he believed that he believed in God.” Maybe Einstein did too, Gottlieb’s judgment that he was “probably just being diplomatic” notwithstanding.

John Locke‘s empiricism overstated the blankness of our slates, and relied too heavily on memory as a guarantor of personal identity. Thomas Reid was not in his league, but may still have had a better idea with his overlapping memories thesis. Until we become cyborg, total recall will not be an option.
“Locke’s grand work,” said C.S. Peirce, “was substantially this: Men must think for themselves.” 
Thomas Jefferson may have overstated the case for Locke’s influence on the founding generation of the American republic, but if he influenced the sage of Monticello it would seem to follow that in fact his shadow has loomed large. A direct line can be drawn from his social contract to John Rawls’s, and from there to the current generation of progressive politics in America… to say nothing of his namesake on Lost. The authority of a rulers derives from the freely-contracted consent of the governed, or from nowhere. It doesn’t come down from heaven nor out of the barrel of a gun.

Locke “greatly admired the achievements that his friends in the Royal Society had made in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he sought to clear the ground for future developments by providing a theory of knowledge compatible with such carefully-conducted study of nature. The goal of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was to establish epistemological foundations for the new science by examining the reliability, scope, and limitations of human knowledge in contrast with with the pretensions of uncritical belief, borrowed opinion, and mere superstition. Since the sciences had already demonstrated their practical success, Locke tried to apply their Baconian methods to the pursuit of his own philosophical aims. In order to discover how the human understanding achieves knowledge, we must trace that knowledge to its origins in our experience.”

The Essay Concerning Human Understanding sounded the Enlightenment keynotes: think for yourself, question conventional and inherited wisdom, stop quibbling and splitting hairs about angels on pinheads (etc.)

Samuel Johnson‘s stone-kicking refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism is usually met with derision, but as a practical response I place it in the same category as Diogenes’ ambulatory refutation of Zeno’s paradoxes. Works for me.

Berkeley‘s idealistic immaterialism (“in which he employed strictly empiricist principles in defense of the view that only minds or spirits exist”) deserves some derision, though it also makes a perverse kind of sense if we don’t repudiate Locke’s representational realist assumption about ideas and their putative inferential sources. Better to repudiate, and admit that experience gives us the world – not just ideas of a world. But it gives us a world in need of elaboration and refinement, which was always the point of reflecting on experience in the first place.

Better also to repudiate the idea that being and perceiving are one. But, Berkeley’s Three Dialogoues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) is still an entertaining read. “Here Berkeley spoke through Philonous (“Mind-lover”), who tries to convince his reluctant friend Hylas (“Woody”) that it is only by rejecting the artificial philosophical concept of material substance that skepticism can be finally defeated and the truths of common-sense secured.”

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Sisyphus, paterfamilias?

October 31, 2017

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Really, Monsieur? Why?

That’s our big Happiness question today. Last time I pondered it publicly it happened to be Older Daughter’s birthday, prompting me then to wonder if Sisyphus had kids. If so, the existential urgency of pushing that rock might have been a little more salient. What he or we call his happiness would have been inseparable from his familial commitment. 

If all the days of your life, save one or two, were filled with unpleasant drudgery, but those one or two were as ecstatic as the birth of a child, would you call yourself happy? I think I would. Fortunately I’ve had many more than one or two great days, and relatively few days of dread. Thanks to my walking habit, even most of those were salvaged by a happy hour away from the rock of pointless routine. And because I find my teaching vocation mostly gratifying, most of my routine feels purposive, not pointless (except when pushing paper and filling out forms for our administrative overlords).

If Sisyphus had no children, no down-time to himself, and no hope for early retirement, I really can’t imagine him happy. (Maybe he was a secret Buddhist, meditating on the transience of existence and willing the good of all sentient beings, behind his rock.) Nor can I really imagine Samuel Beckett’s “Unnamable” happiness: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” But apparently, happily, some can.

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Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal

October 30, 2017

“I hate IB,” says Younger Daughter as she slaves over her art project at 5 am. What she really hates is having to deal with the fallout from chronic procrastination. As old Seneca said, we have plenty of time. We waste it. The International Baccalaureate program is about developing the “intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world” – and it’s about learning not to procrastinate.

On the other hand, we tend also to love, with the late Douglas Adams, that lovely whooshing noise deadlines make. I spent most of yesterday anticipating the whoosh, with my Baseball in Literature and Culture conference presentation in Kansas bearing down. It’s nominally about Vin Scully, but ultimately about gratitutde and finding meaning in a secular world. I’ll mention All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly, and their claim that “the most important things, the most real things..well up and take us over, hold us for a while, and then, finally, let us go.” They whoosh. 

And on the other other hand: it was supposed to be her Spring Break last week. I sympathize.

Three Frenchmen today, in CoPhi (after we wrap up all remaining group reports): Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal – a humanist skeptic, a rationalist/foundationalist, and a fideist gambler, respectively. The first and last were known for slogans in their native tongue: “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”) and “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” (“The heart has its reasons that reason does not know at all.”)

Descartes, of course, preferred his previously noted Latin cogito declaration. I can’t help repeating Kundera’s quip: that’s the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothache. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life, than of the body’s various aches and pains. I’m more certain of them every day. Fortunately, solvitur ambulando is still my working slogan.

Descartes wanted only good apples in his sack, by Nigel’s analogy. He was prepared to waste a lot of perfectly acceptable beliefs, in order to avoid potential errors. Unlike James he thought our errors are awfully solemn things, not necessary and instructive steps along the way of life and learning. He rejected what Pyrrho and Montaigne both  accepted, the inevitability of uncertainty. As Sarah Bakewell says of Montaigne, “Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it.” Pascal also hated not knowing, but decided the best route ultimately was not the Rationalist Road.

Might we be dreaming? Doubting Descartes, early in his Meditations, says what do you mean we? Ultimately he decides we’re all here, at least as awake as Gilbert Ryle’s ghost can be. If we can trust our clear and distinct perceptions we can rule out the evil demon hypothesis, and stop worrying that we might be brains in vats, or humans in matrix-like pods, or something.

Descartes’ “most practical critic” was the American C.S. Peirce, who said we shouldn’t pretend to doubt in philosophy what we don’t question in life. One of Descartes’s surprising contemporary admirers is A.C. Grayling. He thinks Descartes was wrong about consciousness and the mind-body problem, but wrong in wholly constructive ways that have benefited subsequent philosophy.

Montaigne, Bakewell points out, answered his own question about “How to live” with hard-won but much-treasured lesson that Epicurus was right, death per se is not one of our experiences. He learned that from his own “near death experience,” which he says taught him that nature drips a comforting anaesthetic into our veins when we need it most. “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

But, “as Seneca put it, life does not pause to remind you that it is running out.”

Many readers through the past half-millennium have been struck by the contemporaneity of Montaigne’s mind, his capacity for “living on through readers’ inner worlds over long periods of history” and speaking to them like a friend and neighbor despite the distance of centuries and the differences of culture. He achieved that authorly immortality so many have aspired to, but so few actually attained.

He achieved, in his own terms, freedom. “Be free from vanity and pride. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties. Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed. Be free from family and surroundings. Be free from fanaticism. Be free from fate; be master of your own life. Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.”

“Given the huge breadth of his readings, Montaigne could have been ranked among the most erudite humanists of the XVIth century. But in his Essays his aim is above all to exercise his own judgment properly. Readers who might want to convict him of ignorance would find nothing to hold against him, he said, for he was exerting his natural capacities, not borrowed ones. He thought that too much knowledge could prove a burden, preferring to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition.” SEP

And, as we’ve already apreciated about him, Montaigne was a peripatetic who said his mind wouln’t budge without a big assist from his legs.

Pascal’s best thoughts (and worst) are in his best-known book, Pensees.  His best invention was a rudimentary calculator called the Pascaline. His most noted argument was for a wager that asked “what have you got to lose” by believing? That depends on how you think about the integrity of belief, and on how much you value your Sundays. I’m betting there’s both more in heaven and earth (if you invert the terms) than Pascal dreamed.

Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.” (But, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”)   And “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.” (That’s what Mark Twain, and really all the wittiest wits, said too.) And “To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.” (But Nigel says he said he wasn’t one.)

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” But, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” That’s why Descartes took the Rationalist Road. Pascal sticks to Faith Street: “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the truth.”

So, how do you know you’re awake and not dreaming? Is it meaningful to say “life is but a dream”? Does “Inception” make any sense at all? Are you essentially identical with or distinct from your body (which includes your brain)? If distinct, who/what/where are you? How do you know? Can you prove it? Is there anything you know or believe that you could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? If so, what? How do you know it? If not, is that a problem for you?

Do you believe in immaterial spirits? Are you one, or hoping to be? Can you explain how it is possible for your (or anyone’s) material senses to perceive them?

At what age do you hope to retire? What will you do with yourself then? Will you plan to spend more time, like Montaigne, thinking and writing?

Have you had a near-death experience, or known someone who did? What did it teach you/them? How often does the thought occur to you that you’re always one misstep (or fall, or driving mistake) away from death?

What have you learned, so far, about “how to live”? Have you formulated any life-lessons based on personal experience, inscribed any slogans, written down any “rules”?

Do you agree that, contrary to Pascal, most nonreligious people would consider it a huge sacrifice to devote their lives to religion? Why? Is the choice between God and no-god 50/50, like a coin toss? How would you calculate the odds? At what point in the calculation do you think it becomes prudent to bet on God? Or do you reject this entire approach? Why?
[Orig. publ. 3.28.17] Happy birthday Cy Young, Sam Walton, & Lady Gaga. On This Day

At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry begins when a pressure valve in the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island fails to close. Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining buildings, and the core began to dangerously overheat. This Day

Aikin & Talisse on swamping and spitballing (YouT)

Priority registration begins Monday. The Philosophy of Happiness (PHIL 3160) returns, Fall 2017 – TTh 2:40, JUB 202. One more thought from Pascal: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

5:30/6:40, 58/70/50, 7:03

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October 26, 2017
[Originally published 10.22.15]
“We are Hyperboreans,” proclaimed poor hyper-driven Nietzsche in the opening lines of The Antichrist. He was truly a man out of time, never at home with his contemporaries or at ease with the (“all too”) human race. What did he mean? And what did he mean, “we“? Where is Hyperborea?
It’s nowhere yet. When, then? 
Nietzsche often wrote of the philosophers of the future, with whom he identified. His prophet Zarathustra, laughed out of town, said he’d come too soon. Hyperborea is his dreamworld of free spirited Ubermenschen who’ve shucked their mere humanity and crossed the abyss (“man is a rope over an abyss”), having made their transition to a post-human world free of resentment, envy, and legalistic constraint. Their creative revaluative power is unbounded, except by their own wills.
The rest of us, who don’t make the crossing, presumably will be the couch-potato left-behind leftovers whose liberal champions (in Nietzsche’s slanted estimation) were people like J.S. Mill. “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.” 
The preceding sentence in that Twilight of the Idols aphorism, by the way, profoundly inspired Viktor Frankl, in his Nazi captivity: “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how.”
Are Hyperboreans happy? You would think so:

HYPERBOREA was a fabulous realm of eternal spring located in the far north beyond the land of winter. Its people were a blessed, long-lived race free of war, hard toil, and the ravages of old age and disease.

But happiness in the “all-too-human” English sense, concerned to maximize the common flourishing of the greatest number, is not what Nietzschean Hyperboreans are seeking. Their happiness is a harder colder thing, something most of us might find difficult to distinguish from monomania, intolerance, and incivility.

Better to live among ice than among modern virtues and other south winds! … We were brave enough, we spared neither ourselves nor others: but for long we did not know where to apply our courage. We became gloomy, we were called fatalists. Our fatality — was the plenitude, the tension, the blocking-up of our forces. We thirsted for lightning and action, of all things we kept ourselves furthest from the happiness of the weaklings, from ‘resignation’…

Nietzsche never shakes fatalism, so far as I can tell, but combined with his stoicism it becomes for him a great “gift” of affirmation and the source of “our happiness.” Eternal recurrence in Hyperborea is not my idea of the good life, but Nietzsche’s popularity endures with a small but assertive few for whom “a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal” is the road from here to there. Perhaps we can tolerate them.

Podcast-Nietzsche’s HyperboreansCoPhi-Nietzschean happiness
5:40/7:02, 53/81

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