Posts Tagged ‘IFTTT’

What it’s all about

January 23, 2018

We begin at the beginning in all four classes today, asking What is philosophy? What is atheism? What is bioethics? Or answering, to turn it around Jeopardy-style. The short affirmative prompts, then, to which these simple questions are each an appropriate respective response:

  • The stubborn commitment to thinking and speaking clearly, motivated by the love and pursuit of wisdom.
  • The belief that there are no gods or other supernatural agencies and forces guiding the fate and destiny of human beings.
  •  The study of life in light of the rules, conditions, and actions by which it may flourish.
I’ll solicit crowd-sourced alternative prompts and definitions from each class, as always. 
Not every philosopher is devoted to clarity, nor does every philosopher seem especially clear on the meaning of wisdom. When the Philosophy Bites inquisitors asked a sampling of contemporary philosophers to say what their profession is and does, the results varied widely. None of them came up with a better answer than William James’s “stubborness.”
There’s less variety among atheists, definitionally, but there’s a distinct spectrum of attitudes and temperaments within the godless community. Some atheists are “friendly” like Hemant Mehta and Julian Baggini, some are nasty like P. Zed Myers, many just want to understand what others mean by “God” and why, like Spinoza. I’m urging him as our role-model.
There’s plenty of difference among bioethicists, particularly when religious convictions concerning the god-granted sanctity of life are introduced, but none would deny that good living is the field’s focus. And good dying. That’ll be our capstone topic, as Atul Gawande leads us into the thicket of issues surrounding life’s final chapters. 
King Louis XVI was beheaded on this date in 1793 in Paris, btw. Lots of heads rolled in the French Revolution. Not a good last chapter for anyone, though the King’s gracious last words weren’t bad.
What does it mean to live a good life and anticipate a good death? If that’s our jeopardy answer, the affirmative prompt might just be: What all of our classes are ultimately about…

1.21.16-5:50/6:67, 31/41

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Opening Day, take 2

January 18, 2018

Let’s try that again…

After two snowdays we’ll finally kick off the “Spring” semester, with two sections of CoPhi, Atheism, & Bioethics on tap today and every Tuesday/Thursday ’til winter’s well behind us. An old new routine, up at 5 and straight into the shower, before coffee, before walking the dog, way before dawn.

So that’s a reality check, to commence a semester dedicated to the proposition that we who value philosophy must embrace facts, truth, and reality.

In the spirit of Heraclitus, who didn’t exactly say you can’t step twice into the same river – it was more like, the same river perpetually hosts new waters – I try to approach each rendition of these old courses with new eyes and fresh receptivity to what can and must be different.

For one thing, we’re now a full year into the benighted age of Drumpf’s reality-bending world of alt-facts. That’s the elephant in the room, whatever his physician says. (6’3/239 – really?)

So to address and tame the elephant we’ll be reading and discussing Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland in CoPhi, alongside Anthony Gottlieb’s Dreams (of Reason and Enlightenment) and Nigel Warburton’s Little History. It’s not enough to chart the history of (mostly-western) philosophers’ takes on truth, facts, and reality, we’ve got to think about where we’re taking those ideas/ideals… and how to take them back from the charlatans who’ve somehow seized the spotlight and, for the moment, the reins of political power.

As my sometime-namesake Philip Roth says, “No one [but Mencken, maybe] could have imagined that the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the U.S.A., the most debasing of disasters, would appear not, say, in the terrifying guise of an Orwellian Big Brother but in the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon.” But there we are. We must deal with it.

Again in the spirit of Heraclitus: my friend the new interim Dean to our south has a nice tagline on his emails, from the author of  A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, that seems worth noting on Opening Day: “The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do, with great artists; … with artists like these we do really fly from star to star.” And so we must do what we can to borrow other eyes, not only by accessing the perspectives of “great artists” and thinkers but by simply showing up and conversing, collaborating, co-philosophizing.

I’ll drop a couple more names in class, to kick us off: Immanuel Kant, not a real pissant, said (says the Muse) “science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.”

And the guy Kant said woke him from his dogmatic slumbers, David Hume, said “philosophical discussion unites the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life: study and society.”

Once more, then, into the breach. Let’s get organized, and let’s get to studying. It will be my  pleasure and I hope, fellow co-philosophers, yours.

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Opening Day!

January 16, 2018

It’s Opening Day of the Spring 2018 semester at our school. (I’m glad we call it Spring and not Winter, though I do try to appreciate George Santayana’s observation that “to be interested in the changing seasons is, in this middling zone, a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” But spring and summer are still what will pull me through, following Thoreau: “A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart.”

I’ll meet two sections of CoPhilosophy today, commencing once again to try and explain what philosophy is for: it’s for getting better at asking questions and entertaining alternative possible answers, for coexisting with those who answer differently, for learning to love thinking for ourselves, for learning how to be happy, for learning how to live and die…. among other things.

Alain de Botton’s School of Life has its critics, but it sure performs a valuable service when it comes to opening a philosophical conversation. That’s what our classes are, extended conversations with one another but also with philosophers long past and, we may hope, into a far future.

Our quest is for clarity, in William James’s sense when he defined philosophy as an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly, and for sweep:

“…explanation of the universe at large, not description of its details, is what philosophy must aim at; and so it happens that a view of anything is termed philosophic just in proportion as it is broad and connected with other views… any very sweeping view of the world is a philosphy in this sense.” Some Problems of Philosophy

We’re also in search of mutual understanding and respect, in Spinoza’s sense when he said “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

And we’re also after kindness, in Kurt Vonnegut‘s sense when he welcomed babies to planet Earth and informed them of its one indispensable rule:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”


Ultimately of course, in philosophy – philo-sophia – we’re searching for wisdom.
“It’s one of the grandest and oddest words out there, so lofty, it doesn’t sound like something one could ever consciously strive to be – unlike say, being cultured, or kind. Others could perhaps compliment you on being it, but it wouldn’t be something you could yourself ever announce you had become…” SoL

This semester we acknowledge the particular duress lately suffered by our grand old standby philosophical abstractions “truth, reality, fact,” et al, by taking up Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. This moment may have blindsided many, but we might have seen it coming. Maybe, with the right vision, we can see how to get past it.

And so we begin. Put on your philosophy goggles, everyone. You don’t want to look directly at the Form of the Good (aka the sun) without ’em. No one’s exempt from the laws of nature.
Image result for trump eclipse

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“Aliveness”

December 26, 2017

A lovely Christmas gift from Sean Kelly in the Stone, acknowledging his gift from his late mentor and collaborator Hubert Dreyfus.

Think of the way that life really can become lifeless. You know what it’s like: rise, commute, work, lunch, work some more, maybe have a beer or go to the gym, watch TV. For a while the routine is nurturing and stabilizing; it is comfortable in its predictability. But soon the days seem to stretch out in an infinite line behind and before you. And eventually you are withering away inside them. They are not just devoid of meaning but ruthless in their insistence that they are that way. The life you are living announces it is no longer alive.

He goes on to suggest strategies for re-capturing vitality that do and do not work. Casanovan self-indulgence and Kantian dutifulness do not. Engaged presence does, by knitting time and  omitting distraction. “When you really feel alive, your past, your present and your future somehow make sense together as the unity they have always promised to be. I sometimes feel truly alive, for instance, when I am teaching my students…”

Me too, sometimes. Resolution for the New Year: many times more.

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Luck is good, goals are too

December 4, 2017

Time’s about up, today and tomorrow are our last regular classes before final exam week. I don’t have a lot more to say, but I do want to reiterate the importance of having goals in life. Always. Right up to the end.

Image result for "end is near" cartoons

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Image result for william james

There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.–Farewell!”

Well, except for the advice to “not stop questioning.” And also don’t stress about tests. I’d say good luck, but as Mr. Rickey said: “luck is the residue of design.”

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Russell’s delight

November 30, 2017

Near the end of chapter 3 in Conquest of Happiness Bertrand Russell writes: “They do not , on the average, have so much as  two children per marriage; they do not enjoy life enough to wish to beget children… Those whose outlook on life causes them to feel so little happiness that they do not care to beget children are biologically doomed.”

That struck a nerve, in class. Several students said they do not intend to have children, though none admitted to not enjoying life.

I’m trying to recall my own feelings about the prospect of parenting when I was a 20-year old undergraduate. I think I had every intention then of doing it eventually, someday, but certainly not anytime soon. And that’s how it happened: late marriage, later family, and yet all too soon now the nest will be empty again. I can’t imagine what those years would have been like without our girls, and don’t want to. I share Russell’s attitude about the complexity, the delights, and the deep gratification of “parental feeling”:

There is, first and foremost, sheer animal affection, and delight in watching what is charming in the ways of the young. Next, there is the sense of inescapable responsibility, providing a purpose for daily activities which skepticism does not easily question. Then there is an egoistic element, which is very dangerous: the hope that one’s children may succeed where one has failed, that they may carry on one’s work when death or senility puts an end to one’s own efforts, and, in any case, that they will supply a biological escape from death, making one’s own life part of the whole stream, and not a mere stagnant puddle without any overflow into the future. All this I experienced, and for some years it filled my life with happiness and peace. Autobiography

I was trying to talk in class about that dangerous “egoistic element,” about the value of that feeling of being tangibly invested in our children’s future, hoping to make a constructive contribution to their flourishing and caring about it in more personal terms than I imagine the childless do… but at the same time resisting the selfish impulse to (as Emerson put it) “make another you. One’s enough.” 

In other words, the kids are alright. “Cannot we let people be themselves and enjoy life in their own way?” So, maybe two, maybe one, maybe none: there are enough of us, we can afford a few happily childless adults. I’m just glad I’m not one of them.
==
Our concluding Russellian topics today, in Happiness, as we near the end of Conquest: family, work, and what he oddly calls “impersonal interests” – I call them personal delights or enthusiasms, “those minor interests which fill [our] leisure and afford relaxation from the tenseness of more serious preoccupations.”

Our avocational interests may seem minor, but they can have a major impact on the quality of our lives and the extent of our happiness, and not just our own. Noticing how others embrace the sources of their own delight is an important step on the road to a deeper empathy, a step away from mutual blindness, hostility, and aggression. Or so I have long contended.

What objects of enthusiasm can imaginably promise so much?
Any we can imagine, and then someóbaseball, say, or the Beatles,
beer, Great Britain, literature, science, science fiction, Monet,
Mozart, Kentucky whiskey, Tennessee walking horses, walking,
running, tilling the soil, raising kids, healing, praying,
meditating, thinking, teaching, learning, and on and on. Whatever
disparate items may show up on anyone’s list (these are a few
that crop up in my own family circle), their crucial essence is
to point at, but not to replicate or make transparent to others’
grasp, the depths of experience and personal significance they
attempt to name. I can tell you that I love baseball, but I
cannot begin to convey precisely why or how or the extent to
which baseball is important for my peculiar ways of experiencing
and living in the world. By the same token your account of the
joys of macramÈ, soccer, or cat-dancing will leave me in the
dark. But it is a darkness rimmed by the glow of a phenomenon we
should all recognize and treasure. Springs of Delight

“Raising kids” is on my list, and Russell said it was on his. But he paints a bleak picture of family life, c.1930. Were relations between parents and children really as unhappy (99%!) as he says they were, with so many demanding and despotically possessive parents, so many rude, disrespectful and churlish children? Expectations must have been very different on both ends, and tough economic times (though they probably wouldn’t have noticed this in the Russell manor) tend to breed generational tension. But still.
Russell’s remarks on women again give some discomfort, especially the claim that women in general have a harder time cultivating “impersonl interests.” But his point that for lots of women the choice to pursue a vocation imposes spousally-unmatched domestic compromises is still relevant, even after the choice for most has become no choice at all. As for the quality of domestic life, and speaking as a former Dad-at-home, the charge that it can make you “fussy and small-minded” may be true to an extent, but it’s definitely not gender-specific. And  “spinsterhood”? Is that still a thing?

I agree with Russell, feeling “part of the stream of life” is for many of us inseparable from family. I don’t agree, though, that “death ends all” for the childless. We can invest ourselves emotionally and tangibly in the future of our species, whether or not our own “germ-plasm” is afloat downstream.

“The production of satisfactory children is a difficult constructive work capable of affording profound satisfaction.” Yes, but don’t take too much credit for the production process – especially if you employ a nurse and nanny. And consider Uncle Albert’s observation: “Being both a father and a teacher I know we can teach our children nothing.”

As for work: I do feel sorry for those whose work does not challenge, who must “prostitute” themselves to corporate “Philistines,” or who simply find themselves devoting long hours to labor that seems Sisyphean at best. But as we’ve noted, he coped and found happiness. We shouldn’t quit either. (But maybe some of us should quit one rock and seek another, they’re not all the same.)
Speaking of Einstein and his “cosmic religious feeling” (and Spinoza’s “bliss”.. though for me it immediately conjures neither of them, but Sagan instead): Russell is again at his best when he evokes the cosmic perspective [NdT], with its appreciation of the calendrical brevity of life and its mind-opening, soul-expanding promise that “if you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you.” With this outlook, when I can manage to muster it, I too am in church and in the spirit of A Free Man’s Worship.

Podcast
11.__.15. 5:40/6:34, 31/59

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Wittgenstein, Arendt, Rawls, Turing, Searle, Singer

November 29, 2017

It’s our penultimate semester class date, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Philippa Foot, and Judith Jarvis Thomson today in CoPhi.



Wittgenstein was one odd duck. Or rabbit. Or duckrabbit. What do you see, and how do you see it? Why do you see it that way? He thought these were questions worth investigating, in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations. I’m more inclined to follow the instruction of proposition 7 in his pre-humous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Famous premature last words.


“Raised in a prominent Viennese family, Ludwig Wittgenstein studied engineering in Germany and England, but became interested in the foundations of mathematics and pursued philosophical studies with Moore at Cambridge before entering the Austrian army during World War I. The notebooks he kept as a soldier became the basis for his Tractatus, which later earned him a doctorate and exerted a lasting influence on the philosophers of the Vienna circle. After giving away his inherited fortune, working as a village schoolteacher in Austria, and designing his sister’s Vienna home, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, where he developed a new conception of the philosophical task. His impassioned teaching during this period influenced a new generation of philosophers…”


The Tractatus said we can’t speak meaningfully about our most important questions in ethics and religion (and maybe language), and so should hold our tongues. That may sound like Freddy Ayer’s “nonsense,” but Wittgenstein was not being dismissive, he was courting mysticism. He presumed that language fails to mirror reality because we cannot verify their correspondence, cannot faithfully and flawlessly replicate in words the facts and meanings that lie beyond them.

The Philosophical Investigations takes a linguistic turn. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” not its relation to something non-linguistic in the world. The uses of words are discovered and decreed in our “language games,” which include but crucially are not limited to the games philosophers play about truth. Those games can get us stuck like a fly in a bottle, and he wanted to pop the cork. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

How do you avoid linguistic captivity in the first place? Not by inventing your own private language. Language is intrinsically public, and only other users of our language can call us out for the  language errors we don’t catch. A private language is too much like Leibniz’ private monadic theaters of mind, too much like a game of solitaire played with improvised rules.

But rules presuppose other rule-followers, and language games presuppose other players. So the question is how do we break the spell of language, when it bewitches and confuses us? It’s tempting to say “it’s only a game,” we can always play a different one. Can we?  “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Won’t language always hold us captive in this sense?

The Investigations thus seem to bring Wittgenstein full circle, back to the concluding counsel of the Tractatus. “So in the end, when one is doing philosophy, one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.” I know what he means, I often feel that way when doing philosophy, and especially when watching others do philosophy. But now and then someone will say or write something that provokes an “ah-ha!” moment, and language seems less captor than liberator. Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had that effect on many of my peers in grad school, with its proposal that the pictures holding us captive in philosophy are optional. We can just decide to give up the picture of words as mirrors? That’s a game-changer.

“Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” And vice versa. Peripatetics know this. You aren’t necessarily lost, in language, you’re exploring. Try another path. Start another conversation. Read another book. Write another sentence.

  Hannah Arendt covered Adolf Eichmann’s war crimes trial for The New Yorker in 1963 (“Eichmann in Jerusalem“), finding him the very epitome of banality, “an ordinary man who chose not to think too hard about what he was doing.” The banality of evil resides in the hearts and minds of heartless, thoughtless functionaries. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” And they pay that “normality” forward, to catastrophic and tragic result. “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism has suddenly again become must-reading. “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them…. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists…  one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”


 John RawlsAlan TuringJohn Searle (who’s lately joined an ignoble list of alleged philosopher/harassers, but that’s another topic), and Peter Singer round out our introductory tour of western philosophy.

Rawls’ “stroke of genius” was his Original Position thought experiment, seeking fairness and justice (for Rawls justice is fairness) via the imaginative contrivance of a “veil of ignorance.” The idea is to acknowledge and lessen the undue influence of special interest pleading in our politics, allowing only those inequalities of wealth, status, privilege, opportunity, and resources that benefit all. The least well-off must be better off, when the veil is lifted, than otherwise. [SoL video]

Alan Turing’s Imitation Game, “proposing the practical test of whether or not we would attribute intelligence to a system whose performance is indistinguishible from that of a human agent,” says if it walks and talks like a smart duck it practically is one. John Searle countered with the Chinese Room, which “purports to show that even effective computer simulations do not embody genuine intelligence, since rule-governed processes need not rely upon understanding by those who perform them.”

But some philosophers remain convinced that  we might someday use computers to achieve virtual immortality. That didn’t work out so well for Johnny Depp in Transcendence“I can’t feel anything,” says the uploaded semblance of his former self. If that’s the singularity I hope it’s nowhere near, Ray Kurzweil. “Transcending biology” might strip us of our humanity and not replace it with anything better.

Peter Singer says we should always be prepared to sacrifice “one or two of the luxuries that we don’t really need” to help strangers. When you put it that way it doesn’t really sound like “a hard philosophy to live up to,” much as we love our branded shoes and suits, our cars and college funds, and our carnivorous ways. “But that doesn’t mean Singer is wrong about what we ought to do.” We ought to do a great deal more good for those in need than we do, most of us. Maybe we ought to stop eating sentient animals. Certainly we ought to stop inflicting gratuitous pain on all who can feel it. We ought to be less selfish and more cooperative.

Singer “represents the very best tradition in philosophy,” if you agree that “constantly challenging widely held assumptions” like Socrates is the very best tradition. Kwame Anthony Appiah basically agrees, but would modify Singer’s principle to something like: “if you are the best person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and it won’t cost you much to do so, do it.” [Singer slides]

Since it’s our last regular class date prior to next week’s exam, this is a good time to echo what  Professor James said about conclusions.  In the words of his favorite pluralistic mystic, “there is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!”

Actually there is one important bit of advice all philosophers will endorse:

Albert Einstein
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. #Einstein

And then there’s some good advice about how to prepare for an exam.

[4.25.17] And since it’s poet Ted Kooser’s birthday I’ll add one more thing. Like Anthony Trollope, who said “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules,” Kooser had a habit of “rising early every morning so he could write for an hour and a half before going to the office.” He wrote seven books that way, and became poet laureate. So the advice (which James also gave, notwithstanding his parting reluctance to say so) is: form good daily work habits and stick to ’em. “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” -Annie Dillard

Good luck! 

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Blindness

November 28, 2017

Foggy morning. Visibility is limited. But that’s always so, until we notice and correct for our condition.

William James said “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” which we’re looking at in Happiness, was one of his own most important and gratifying essays. It calls out our self-inflicted and obtuse “ancestral blindness” in failing to grasp or even acknowledge the interior lives of others. It celebrates the often-inexpressible delight of being human and having a human interior. It pleads for mutual respect and toleration, in recognizing that each of us possesses a singular station and perspective. It says my pursuit of happiness must empathize with yours, or else it becomes as egoistic and dumb as it is blind.

It anticipates Carl Sagan’s cosmic wonder at our uniqueness. “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

It shares Richard Dawkins’s deep biologically-informed gratitude for life. “The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.” We’re so lucky to have the opportunity to open our eyes on this sumptuous planet, so tragically short-sighted not to.

It celebrates the self, every self, all selves,

celebratory of the self as a locus of intrinsically valuable experiences… he appreciates the marvelous diversity of ways in which human beings find the world interesting and important, ways that “make life worth living.” The fact that one person’s very reason for being leaves another cold and uninterested is at the heart of what he considers the enduring mystery of happiness and is part of the larger mystery of life. William James’s “Springs of Delight”

It concludes with a stern “Hands off” warning: “neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of
good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer
gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position
in which he stands.”

Failure to respect a multiplicity of
interpretive insights would be an instance of the deplorable but
natural “blindness” by which we so frequently misconstrue one
another. James did advance a striking vision; but one great fact
about him, and the most arresting thing about it, is that his
vision (like Emerson’s “thousand-eyed present”) defies every conceivable attempt to
reduce it to a single point of view, including his own. It is “self-reliant” only to a point. I read it as an ultimately optimistic vision. We’re blind, but we can (if we will) see that we are, and therein lies our hope.

“Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world…” This passage resonates more for me today than it might, having just said a sorrowful farewell to our constant canine companion of the past dozen years. How often old Angel sat at my feet, doubtless rehearsing (in her way) something like James’s fox-terrier’s lament:  “To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking [her] to walk and throwing sticks for [her] to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?” Sorry, old girl. You tolerated so much, asked for so little, provided so much joy.

Joy’s the word, as Stevenson said, “the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy” we miss if we objectify and neutralize things by reducing them to their surface externality. Our springs of delight lie beneath the surface, our inner lives are out of sight. We’re each tasked to “find out where the joy resides” and honor it. In the case of departed friends, it resides in pleasant precious memory. Pixar’s Coco gets it right: remember.

11.3.15. 6 am/6:13, 59/75
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Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus

November 27, 2017

Today in CoPhi we begin with a closer look at Bertrand Russell, whose historical opinions we’ve been noting all semester. But we’ve outrun his his 1945 History, which gives generous but unsympathetic late chapters to William James (“almost universally beloved”) and John Dewey (“leading living philosopher in America”) before concluding with a few cursory words on the logical analysis of Cantor and Frege. He says nothing of the Existentialists or then-young A.J. Ayer.

Russell’s youthful encounter with J.S. Mill led him to a pivotal liberating insight.

I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day at the age of eighteen I read Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that. Why I Am Not a Christian

We  should resolve, he decided, “to understand the actual world as it is, not as we should wish it to be… Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”  Mature wisdom then comes when we apply ourselves to building on that understanding, and seeing if we can either construct steps to reach our castles in the sky (in Thoreau’s metaphor) or build new castles where we stand. Why else was old Russell in the streets protesting nuclear proliferatrion and Vietnam?

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it… The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty…” That’s the state of mind that best stimulates curiosity and creativity, and opens us to consider new possibilities. “Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom.”

Russell also said “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” And, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” And, “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so… It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

Russell’s china teapot is one of his more improbable enduring images. “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion…” You can probably guess where he’s going with that teapot.

Russell’s paradoxical barber, fascinated with language and its self-referential confusions, was less obviously engaged in constructive world-making. But he inspired A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists, convinced that progress in philosophy and in life required the dismantling of philosophy’s unverifiable traditional ambitions as so much literal nonsense. Language, Truth and Logic was a young man’s book. Old Ayer had to nearly choke to death on his salmon to acquire mature wisdom. He also courted a near death  experience with the ear-nibbling prizefighter Mike Tyson. (“Wickedest Man in Oxford“)

The Existentialists, rallying under Jean Paul Sartre‘s anti-essentialist banner, warned against “bad faith” but didn’t explain precisely how people who love their work – philosophers included – can avoid being defined or inauthenticated by it. Sartre’s advice to the student who didn’t know whether to join the Resistance, to just choose, was frustrating. But he’d say that’s life.

Simone de Beauvoir was a bit more helpful. She said women are made, not born, but have been too accepting of the constructed gender constraints imposed by men. “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” They can make a different plan. The present generation is testing the limits of reconstruction, as women and men explore the possibilities of self-discovery. We can all learn to persist and persevere against arbitrary silencing and suppression. “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” So, is it existentially inauthentic to hire a housekeeper? I can’t imagine my wife happy without her.


Albert Camus said there’s no final escape from the absurdities of life, but we can learn to live with them. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. Camus and his generation successfully pushed back against the rock that was the Reich. He was awarded a Nobel. And then he died behind the wheel.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” I don’t agree, but if he felt that way why did he search for happiness and meaning? Or maybe it just came to him. “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” 
“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion were absurd, but they too persisted and learned something from Sartre about the roads to freedom. “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company… Do you think that I count the days? There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk… Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning… Freedom is what we do with what is done to us… We are our choices… Hell is—other people!”

Best accessible recent account of Existentialism: At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell. “Paris, near the turn of 1933. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking. Pointing to his drink, he says, ‘You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!'”

And so we’ll ask: Have you ever read a book that changed your mind about something important to you? What would you say to Bertrand Russell and J.S. Mill about the First Cause Argument? Are linguistic paradoxes a deep philosophical/conceptual problem, or an amusing quirk of language reflecting our freedom of expression and self-discovery? Can you give an example of an unverifiable statement that you consider meaningful? If biology and the social sciences don’t shed light on a shared species essence, what is the status of our common genetic and memetic inheritance? Can you construct a personal essence, it that’s always subject to deconstruction and replacement? Could that be our essence? Where is gender headed, in this and coming generations? What’s your Sisyphean rock?

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Cosmopolitans like Kwame Anthony Appiah push against the rock of nationalist chauvinism, and push for greater human solidarity. Anthony Appiah pushes alongside Adam Smith, the old free marketeer who insisted on recognizing what he called “reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct” as our greatest source of conscience. Like his friend David Hume, he found wisdom in thinking about his little finger. Hume’s lexicon was different, in A Treatise of Human Nature, but the enlightened Scots agreed: we have it in ourselves to become more generous and less selfish. “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,” but it is definitely contrary to our better sentiments and sympathies, and contrary to our humanity.
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4.18.17. Happy birthday Clarence Darrow, defender of Tennessean John Scopes in the 1925 Monkey Trial (which surprisingly many Tennesseans in my classrooms haven’t heard of-they should read Trials of the Monkey and watch Inherit the Wind)… and Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The War Against Women and Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. “She received criticism from the feminist movement for focusing on men, but she shrugged it off, saying: ‘I don’t see how you can be a feminist and not think about men. In order for women to live freely, men have to live freely, too. Being a feminist opens your eyes to the ways men, like women, are imprisoned in cultural stereotypes.’”

5:30/6:11, 63/79/62, 7:21

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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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