Posts Tagged ‘love’

Berkeley & Locke, Voltaire & Leibniz, Hume, Kymlicka

February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine’s Day! Gotta love a holiday about love. Philosophers haven’t really nailed the topic yet, though Plato tried. [Plato loves play-doughSocrates in LoveSchopenhauer on love] But it’s a good excuse to let us all consume unhealthily and recall how lucky we are to be here. Every day’s a birthday that might easily not have been.


“Where there is love there is life.” Gandhi

“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” Dr. Seuss

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” Lao-tzu

“Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.” Bertrand Russell

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” R. Heinlein

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Paul McCartney

Today in CoPhi we take another pass at John Locke, this time contrasting him with Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) odd esse est percipi thesis. Also Voltaire vs. Leibniz,Hume vs. Design & miracles [SEP], and Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka‘s Philosophy Bites interview on rights. He asks if immigrants should be given rights that other citizens don’t have. Good luck finding Americans who’ll assent to that, Will. “The difficulty of reconciling apparently preferential treatment with a policy of equality is a central one for anyone committed to multiculturalism.”

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.

There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.

Well, the idea of him is now hung again at least.

Voltaire was one of those 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

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

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…”

David Hume (follow his little finger) agreed, attributing goodness and upstanding personal character to the positive reinforcement of social custom and collective experience. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place… JMH

Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. [Hume at 300… in 3 minutes… Belief in miracles subverts understanding]

On the question of Design, intelligent or otherwise, and before we forget entirely about Darwin Day

Open your eyes,” Richard Dawkins likes to say. They really are an incredible evolutionary design. Not “perfect” or previsioned, but naturally astounding.

Pindar in the dugout (?)

May 31, 2012

Nineteen years ago, back when it was still just the two of us, we lived out on the Davidson-Cheatham county line on River Road. Turn right out of the driveway to head back into (relative) civilization, or left to go deeper into the rustic rural hinterlands. It was a pretty place to be, but (we thought) no place to live with small children. So when Older Daughter arrived a couple years into our marriage we moved to town. No regrets, and yet…

We decided to head back that way last night for our anniversary dinner. Riverview may not look or sound like a romantic destination, but it was. So was the journey. And the catfish and hushpuppies were, as expected, superlative.

And also as predicted, the fish inspired interesting dreams: in one I encountered my old professor of Greek & classics. Frisbees (Olympian disks?) were being hurled. I overheard Professor T. tell someone that I “looked like Pindar in the dugout.”

Pindar? I don’t know Pindar. So I looked him up. Some said he was the greatest Greek lyric poet of antiquity,

in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich exuberance of his language and matter, and his rolling flood of eloquence, characteristics which, as Horace rightly held, make him inimitable.”His poems however can also seem difficult and even peculiar… much admired though largely unread

Hmmm. But what’s the dugout got to do with it?

Well, way ahead of Nietzsche Pindar said: “Become what you are.” Achieve your potential. Give 110%.

And he said: forget about immortality, “but enjoy to the full the resources that are within thy reach.” Stay within yourself. I’m trying, I’m trying! [More baseball cliches]

And especially fitting last night, out on the scenic deck at Riverview:

Youth is a blossom whose fruit is love, happy is he who plucks it after watching it slowly ripen.

He’s right about that. As Spinoza tweeted, love means “enjoyment of a thing and union therewith.” Heading into the twentieth year of a union that’s ripened nicely, I’d have to say we’re happy. Happy not in a merely Sisyphean way, but genuinely happy for the harvest of youthfulness reclaimed. Our trip down memory lane, aka River Road, was clarifying. And as noted, the fish was as good as it gets.

500 days

January 22, 2011

You never know what you’re gonna get, when Older Daughter picks the Friday night flick. But I liked 500 Days of Summer a lot. Roger Ebert did too:

…so rarely in the movies do we find characters arguing for their aesthetic values. What does your average character played by an A-list star believe about truth and beauty?

Here is a rare movie that begins by telling us how it will end and is about how the hero has no idea why.

It wasn’t as cynical about the redemptive possibilities of True Love as I thought it would be, and it featured one of my favorite Alain de Botton books too: The Architecture of Happiness. We do have to build it, don’t we? And most times we do take our original inspiration from one source, and end up living with another. It had a nice, happy, not-totally-Hollywood ending: the possibility of love and happiness suddenly appears, for the re/dejected hero who’s been busy making other plans. But there’s no promise of “happily ever after.” He and we can live for now on possibility, just like young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (cleverly evoked in this film).

It joins my short list of favorite stories featuring greeting card writers. (Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land is the other.)

But what about True Love, and the One Right Person? That still sounds too Platonic for me, in the way of the Symposium:

Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half…

And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell…

The “something else” Plato imagines is the eternal abstract essence of Beauty. Real love is more precise, particular, transient, and lower-case. Isn’t it? Tom loves what about Summer? “I love her smile, her hair, her knobby knees…” But also how she makes him feel like a better person, makes him happy enough to break into gleeful (Glee-full!) song and dance on the way to work. That feeling doesn’t last forever, but it’s a good one.

And that was a fun flick. “Ive just seen a face” is the beginning, and the end, and the beginning…

civil conversation

January 15, 2011

I was impressed by the colloquy between David Brooks and E.J Dionne yesterday on NPR. Usually their job is to squabble, albeit in a slightly tonier way than is typical of most other paired media pundits. Brooks in particular strove this time to hit a higher mark of reflection, in the moment of opportunity for a New Civility in our public discourse he thinks the Tucson aftermath affords:

…the most important thing [is] acknowledging your own weakness. I need E.J. because I don’t have 100 percent of the truth. I may have 60 percent, he may have 40, but, you know… we need each other to balance each other out and we need the conversation. Without that conversation, we really have nothing. And so that’s why we need civility because individually each of us are weak.

Dionne then cited the theologian/philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, from (improbably enough) Wright City, Missouri, just down the road from my own boyhood home. “We must see the error in our own truth and the truth in our opponent’s error.”

Brooks had earlier quoted Niebuhr in his Times column:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

It’s a fine sentiment, if overstated. (Surely there are many worthwhile things each of us can hope to achieve in our brief time on Earth.) It reminds me of John Dewey’s statement about the continuous human community.

[Interesting, btw, to see Brooks invoking a theologian/philosopher. In the current New Yorker (“Social Animal,” Jan. 17) he writes: “Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” But maybe his point is that the present generation is lacking in wise theologian/philosophers?]

The very next line from Niebuhr, not quoted by the pundits, deserves equal time. It’s from The Irony of American History, which one of my Intellectual History profs had us Mizzou undergrads read back in the ’70s.

The irony of America’s quest for happiness lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life “comfortable,” only finally to run into larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it escaped the smaller ones.

We have a higher destiny on Earth. Niebuhr and Dewey disagreed about whether we have one higher still, but never mind. The point to ponder here is that we’ve got to be kinder and more receptive to one another. We’ve got to have a civil conversation about how to do it.

just a thinker

December 23, 2010

“No limos, no bimbos…just a thinker”-Woody Allen’s Professor Levy:

It is only we, with our capacity to love, who give meaning to the indifferent universe… And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, & even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more. Crimes & Misdemeanors

Professor Levy, no Sisyphus, took his own life: a cautionary tale for all would-be “thinkers” and philosophy-documentarians. [The real Levy]

But what a terrific film.


peaches or onions?

October 14, 2009

Common onion - Allium cepaMan is an onion made up of a hundred layers… Herman Hesse

Man is a peach, with a solid, single pit in the center (the soul). BQpeach

Leaving the Produce dept:

No man is an island… John Donne

Man is by nature a social animal… Aristotle

Man is a network of relationships… Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… the paragon of animals.  Shakespeare

In other words, we’re a complicated species of critter. This big brain we all haul around can be a huge asset, or a huge liability. On a given day it’s apt to be both. It’s the organ of our freedom, and of self-imposed constraints.

Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about freedom is that if we’re ever free to choose then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. Darn! This is about commitment, not about results, as Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion learn. Double-darn!!

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I’m a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom.

But if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But let’s cut him some slack; his country was being over-run by Nazis when he came up with this stuff.

Head back across the Channel, though, and consult Adam Smith (1723-1790). The American ideology has always invoked the magical authority of fatcathis “invisible hand” in support of the proposition that individuals behaving selfishly in free markets would invariably result in “the overall good of society,” thus always and paradoxically  ratcheting up the spiral of freedom  for ambitious individuals on their respective missions of personal acquisition and self-aggrandizement.

Actually, though, Smith– a close pal of David Hume– agreed with the skeptic that free-market capitalism can only secure a rich and rewarding freedom in the largest sense when individuals seek to coordinate their respective entrepreneurial aspirations with the well-being of the community at large. Contrary to inherited convention, “Smith believed that people are not essentially selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society.” Passion for Wisdom

And what about love? It may not be all you need, or the whole meaning and purpose of existence, but it seems to have a lot to do with self-possession, self-discovery, self-overcoming… let’s just say real self-hood. If there is a wider self capable of surmounting narrow egoism and saving us from self-absorption, it’s surely predicated on love directed outward. (William James explores this “wider self” in Varieties of Religious Experience.)

“The presumption of a shared identity” based on relatedness and connection instead of insularity and isolation, the exchange of me for we, means we’re not all alone in the vast cosmic dark. Solipsism is wrong. The egocentric predicament is defeated. “We are not isolated individuals searching desperately for other people; we already have networks or relationships,” to lovers and friends and colleagues and the companionship of nature.

aristophanesAnother fable from Plato: once we were “double-creatures,” with two heads, four arms, four legs, and hubris to burn. The capricious Zeus decided to take us down a notch, lopping us in half, dooming us to wander the earth in search of our other “better” half. When, if you succeed in finding your soul-mate, the search is over. If you don’t, you’re incomplete and unfulfilled.

I don’t much like that story, I’ve seen versions of it make too many people– romantic types especially– too unhappy in solitude, and too expectant in relationships. Some people are as whole as they can be alone. Others are miserable in tandem harness. Our authors read the Symposium more broadly and positively: “the complete self is people together and, sometimes, in love.

John Prine is one of the wisest and wittiest song-writers ever, and his song about peaches is one itself.

But onions, without a hard and ineliminable core but with lots of interesting overlap and complexity, win this contest.


Pitch the pit, and with it the inviolable, unrelated, essential soul in the center of everything.

Still, you probably should go ahead and blow up your TV, and try to find Jesus on your own. Maybe you don’t have to go to the country, or across the pond, to do that.


October 2, 2009
“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of any major effort… no man is ever very far from [suicide]… Life has no genuine intrinsic worth… Human life must be a kind of error, [as is] the notion that we exist in order to be happy.”

“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of any major effort… no man is ever very far from [suicide]… Life has no genuine intrinsic worth… Human life must be a kind of error, [as is] the notion that we exist in order to be happy.” Thus spake Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a man of many antipathies and little affection for the world.

young SchopYoung Schopenhauer became a hero to the youthful “romantics” of his time who were so committed to feeling (as opposed to reason), championing “the whole person” against pure and abstract reason, emphasizing the importance of the irrational and thus foreshadowing Kierkegaard (1813-1855), “the melancholy Dane”. Nietzsche (1844-1900), not a contemporary or party pal, was briefly smitten with him. He was one of Wittgenstein‘s (1889-1951) favorite philosophers.

He fell in love but “had no wish to formalize the arrangement”– a classic case of reluctance to commit. Alain de Botton calls him “Dr. Love,” but “his refusal to marry his mistress and mother of his child at a time when this would deeply damage her social and economic status is hardly the behavior of a loving spirit.” It’s not a stretch, though, to imagine his metaphysics being very different if his early interpersonal encounters had gone differently.

Schopenhauer admired his countryman Goethe for turning so many of the pains of love into knowledge. But Goethe‘s weltanschauung was very different: “If you wish to draw pleasure out of life you must attach value to the world.”

Schopenhauer did attach some value to some parts of the world, such as his succession of dogs. He also (reports de Botton) loved Venetian salami, theatre, the opera, the concert hall, novels, philosophy, poetry, and at least one or two women.

So: why didn’t he have a more positive experience of life? Or did he, after all, enjoy living– and complaining about it? Would he have had a better life if he had learned to be more optimistic, more grateful, and less critical? Or is he one of those people whose temperament thrives, somehow, under conditions of self-imposed adversity?

Schopenhauer on love. “The conscious mind is a partially sighted servant of a dominant, child-obsessed will-to-life… we would not reliably assent to reproduce unless we first had lost our minds.” And we would not be sexually or romantically attracted to another person if we weren’t under the domination of that inexorable, insatiable Will… “Love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the will-to-life’s discovery of an ideal co-parent…”

In other words, nature’s willful agenda is all about biology and procreativity. Nothing more. What’s love got to do with it? Not much, it’s all just so much romantic window-dressing concealing the inexorable, impersonal, driving will of the universe and its progeny to self-replicate, ad nauseum. As Arthur saw it, this is a function that finds us on all fours with all the beasts of creation.  Our sentimental soft-core re-framing of sex in the language of love and affection does nothing to blunt its hard-core reality:  “An animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cycle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all this?” (Passion for Wisdom) Simply, says A.S., the continuation of the race. Period.

The spectacle of it all may be entertaining, for those who like to watch as well as participate. But it’s not ennobling or elevating or ultimately happy-making, just because we write songs and poems and Hallmark cards and dirty books about it. It’s merely, as Isabella Rossellini says, Green Porno. But what makes mechanistic sex between snails and whales and worms (et al) titillating here is the presence of Isabella in a cheesy snail/whale/worm costume. The human presence, specifically the participation in such acts of a consciousness we can relate to, raises the stakes and changes the game. Schopenhauer seems not to have appreciated that, reducing love, romance, and affection to impersonal fecundity. Sad. Stupid.

“The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects. We pursue love affairs, chat in cafes with prospective partners and have children with as much choice in the matter as moles and ants – and are rarely any happier.”

So: those of us who think our marriages and the subsequent births of our children were transcendently-joyous events are just deluded.

The World as Will and Idea (1819) contended that the sole essential reality in the universe is the will, and all visible and tangible phenomena are merely subjective representations of that ‘will which is the only thing-in-itself’ that actually exists. ( Squashed Ph’ers)

Like the Buddhists, he recommended asceticism and the blunting of desire. Like Nietzsche, he thought art and aesthetic

nietz head

experience were redemptive. “The essence of art is that its one case applies to thousands…no longer one man suffering  alone, he is part of the vast body of human beings who have throughout time fallen in love in the agonizing drive to propagate the species” and just maybe, in the process, find love and meaning and purpose.

schop dogHe may have been a grinch, a sourpuss, a misanthrope, and a misogynist, but as W.C. Fields said: no one who loves children or animals is all bad. Schopenhauer loved dogs and loathed the restriction of their freedom by man.

“You would think that a philosopher who named his pet poodle “Atman” would have the ability to see the Self in all beings; yet Arthur Schopenhauer’s love of wisdom did not seem to extend to a general love of humanity. In fact whenever the poodle misbehaved Schopenhauer would refer to it as “You Human”. -R.Udovicich, The Poodle Named Atman

“The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radially contrasting projects.” This from a life-long, childless bachelor.  He literally did not know whereof he spoke.

“An inborn error: the notion that we exist in order to be happy… the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer.” And yet… Schopenhauer finally transcends pessimism, at least on paper. By assigning the absurdities of existence to an implacable, impersonal force of will, he comes to look less at his own individual lot than at that of humanity as a whole. He conducts himself more as a knower than as a sufferer.

But of course we can’t really know that the world is nothing but will. That’s Schopenhauer’s peculiar interpretation and perspective. In an odd way, though, it reconciled him to a life he claimed to find intolerable – and seems even to have made it worth living, from that perspective.

If I could sit down with old Arthur I’d like to share a poem with him. Sometimesby David Budbill, begins:

Sometimes when day after day we have cloudless blue skies,

warm temperatures, colorful trees and brilliant sun, when

it seems like all this will go on forever…

And continues:

when I am so happy I am afraid I might explode or disappear

or somehow be taken away from all this,

at those times when I feel so happy, so good, so alive, so in love

with the world, with my own sensuous, beautiful life, suddenly

I think about all the suffering and pain in the world, the agony

and dying. I think about all those people being tortured, right now,

in my name.

And concludes:

But I still feel happy and good, alive and in love with

the world and with my lucky, guilty, sensuous, beautiful life because,

I know in the next minute or tomorrow all this may be

taken from me, and therefore I’ve got to say, right now,

what I feel and know and see, I’ve got to say, right now,

how beautiful and sweet this world can be.

Arthur would probably hate it. He’d love hating it, and he’d love writing big dense fat books about how much he hated it.

“Sweet,” indeed.