Posts Tagged ‘MTSU’

John Lachs and the mystique of teaching

April 12, 2013

John Lachs was charming as always, and as spontaneous, mirthful, elegant-& earthy…

Above all he was fully present with us, for three solid classroom hours on either side of lunch yesterday. And still, he apologized for having to leave for an alumni meeting back at Vandy before our last class.

Refused his honorarium too, insisting on picking up the lunch tab himself. Add generous to the “as always” list.

So many memorable moments of wisdom and insight, discussing consciousness, rectitude, stoicism, pragmatism, music, writing, “progress,” happiness, life and death. “All of life is an experiment.” And, “I’m not a libertarian but I am a friend of liberty.” In the spirit of James, he counsels a “hands off” attitude towards every soul’s birthright and privilege, to be left alone, each to discover their own bliss in their own ways. “One of the great joys of my life is to think…”

The whole scene just really epitomized for me the magic and mystery (and mystique) of my profession, bringing together the wisest and the freshest, spanning seasoned experience and youthful possibility across the generations in potentially life-altering philosophical dialogue. The man who witnessed horrible carnage in the streets of his Hungarian childhood and grew up to become an affirming philosopher of liberty and light, offering his own story to millennial children of the ‘nineties who must learn the lessons of history to avoid repeating its atrocities.

John Dewey’s “continuous human community” was right there on full display in my classrooms yesterday, asking and answering and wondering across the years. The opportunity for such occasions is why we do what we do, we teachers who know ourselves and our charges as links in a chain of indeterminate (but possibly glorious) portent.

On days like yesterday the question is not Why study philosophy?, it’s Why doesn’t everyone?

And for me, personally, it was very special to profess in public the hold on my heart of that wonderful little book with its dual inscriptions: one penned by my late father in the twilight of his days, the other by  my forever-young father figure. This morning I’m inspired and renewed, all over again.

Welcome, John Lachs!

April 11, 2013

JLinLove“There is something devastatingly hollow about the demonstration that thought without action is hollow, when we find the philosopher only thinking it.” John Lachs also said, in Intermediate Man:

“Once attention is shifted from the future and we begin to enjoy activities at the time we do them and for what they are, we have transcended the mentality that views life as a process of mediation toward distant ends.”

And so, “normally it is quite within our power to regard our doings as so many ends. This could render each of our acts self-validating and joyous.”

Dr. L has graciously agreed to drive down from Nashville this morning and help us validate our classes. We’ve begun reading his Stoic Pragmatism  (Indiana, 2012) and have some questions, we MTSU CoPhilosophers:

  • In your book you cite Alfred North Whitehead’s statement that “all of philosophy may well be a series of footnotes to Plato.” Do you agree with this opinion? Why or why not? 
  • Is there a particular philosopher who has influenced the writing of Stoic Pragmatism or any of your other books?
  • Under the section of Ethics, there are three philosophers with different aspects of ethics. Those philosophers are Mill, Kant, and Butler. Do you agree with one of the philosophers over the others? Or do you have a different opinion on the topic?
  • Would you consider Plato and Aristotle the backbone of philosophy since the disagreement between them on the method of philosophy is still with us today? (Evan, H1/4)
  • How can stoic pragmatism be practically applied? (Matthew, H1/3)
  • What is his/your view on happiness?
  • How is the synthesis and analysis of something not considered “producing new knowledge”?
  • What is the relationship between philosophy and religion, and what is your religious stance? (Mason, H1/2)
  • In SP you say “The APA needs to establish a commission to study the full range and effectiveness of philosophy,” do you think this would help start the change in different departments realizing the importance of philosophers and including them on their team and faculty? 
  • You said in your book “Thinkers maintain that philosophy can do everything while others insist it can do nothing… philosophy is a result of other fields,” philosophy is a department that focus is on a variety of different specialties that add a new dimension of analysis on a variety of matters. Why do you think other specialists are not embracing philosophers for their input? (Yusra)
  • How do you think philosophers’ sometimes vastly different opinions from each other will affect the way different professions are guided, as well as the government, if a Council of Ethics is formed? Who will determine what ideas are better than others? 
  • Can you expound on what you mean when you say “philosophy is receptive to religious considerations”? (Keaton)
  • Which Philosopher(s) most impacted your Philosophical career path? 
  • Did you ever believe in something other than Stoic Pragmatism?
  • Would you suggest the younger generation be exposed to more Philosophical studies and concepts? (Katy, 14/1)
  • Where do you think Philosophy is going in the future? Will it  evolve, or stay as it is through time? Does it have a future beyond the university? Alternative jobs in philosophy? (Skye, 14/2)
  • How would you structure the “ideal philosophy distribution” in a university if you had the chance? 
  • Do you consider Philosophy more of a subject or a way of thinking?
  • Do you think that we need to learn by imitation or by experience at our college age? Would the outcomes of our lives be better if we chose one over the other? (H1/4, Evan)
  • How prevalent would you say pragmatism is in American philosophy today?
  • How does pragmatism relate to postmodernism?
  • Where most people find materialism in the US, you describe it somewhat differently: “The truth is that we are in love with the future, worshipping its promise and answering all its demands.” How does this relate to materialistic decisions not based upon the future? You cite the example of people saving for retirement or preparing for the next promotion, but what about people over their heads in credit card debt or drop out of high school?
  • After describing the benefits of pragmatism in one paragraph, you write: “These are the reasons that pragmatism takes the place of lame versions of Marxism and religious thought as the philosophy of hope and effort.” Do religion and pragmatism have similar goals? If so, are they held to the same standards? Do you see pragmatism becoming (or already become) the philosophical basis of American culture, similar to Stoicism in ancient Rome?
  • An essential idea in pragmatism is the possibility of progress. How do we recognize true progress, and how do we then foster it? (Nathan, H1/4)
  • Do you think Stoics would agree that an ‘ugly’ man could be happy (keeping in mind that Aristotle would say no)? How are things like beauty and intelligence and their role in being happy perceived by the Stoics?
  • How would you say that western philosophies deal with social problems differently than more traditional or eastern philosophies?
  • Do you think the Greek Stoics are harder to bring into a modern context?
  • Doesn’t it seem contradictory to believe that every thing that happens is a determined event but then also believe we are capable of having control over the way we react?
  • What is your favorite course to teach at Vandy and why? (Sean, 16)
  • Can philosophy produce public intellectuals today? (Matt G., 16/1)
  • You say you arrived at the position of being a Stoic Pragmatist somewhat recently at the time of your books publication, but how do you know that you won’t change your mind, or clarify your viewpoint further in the future. What makes this instance in your life different than previous times you may have thought you had it figured out? 
  • I forget, but Dr. Oliver, I saw you write our next question down on your notepad so if you could remind me what it was, that would be great haha. Thanks (H1/1, Logan)

Hmmm. I’m not sure I can decipher my own scrawl. Was it the question about epiphenomenalism? Or about philosophizing with children? Or maybe we can just ask Dr. L if he can set me up with his publisher?

Thanks for coming, Dr. L! Most Vandy philosophers must leave there, to discover that I-24 runs  in both directions. But you’ve always been one to meet people where they are.

Postscript, 4.14.13. “Many thanks for the invitation to speak with your students.  I found them smart and inquisitive, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  No honorarium needed; it was an end in itself.”

Execrable, inexorable, indefeasible rules

April 5, 2013

Presented at the 18th Annual Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro TN-

[Postscript: the errors on slides 15, 26 & 27? Purely illustrative. Meant to do that. Sure I did.]

This side of eternity

February 27, 2013

I like to complain about staff meetings, for all the good it does. But something worth pondering came of yesterday’s, right at the end.

Our department has just hired a second full-time, tenure track Religious Studies prof. (We hired our first last year.)  This is sure to be good news for our department, our students, and for me and my Atheism course.

Once again we succeeded in securing the services of the candidate who had emerged as our first choice, though the process was made bumpier this time by unanticipated late-hour administrative input from above. But we’re pleased and relieved, and were taking a few moments yesterday to review what went wrong and right, “for next time.”

Someone pointed out that “next time” may be a long time coming. Two hires in two years is unprecedented for us. We’ll push (per the urging of our recent external reviewer) to add another philosopher, possibly a three-year postdoc if not another permanent full-timer, but the likelihood is that we’ll be “encouraged” to make due at our present level of staffing for some time.

On the other hand, noted our cheerful chairman as we adjourned and dispersed quietly  into the good night, “some of us are not getting younger.” It’s good to think about the passage of time, he said. It’s good to think about your own funeral, and your final rest.

And on that happy note I must now finish the Bioethics exam. Time’s a-wasting.


Got walls?

January 15, 2013

There’s nothing like the first faculty meeting of the semester to disturb one’s peaceful slumbers and steal that most precious time, the final hours just before classes resume. Unless it’s a morning faculty meeting. “Wake up!” hollers so-called Reality. “To be awake is to be alive.” But Thoreau was not in attendance.

And hours later, yesterday morning, we were all clear as a bell on just how little power and influence we faculty members really possess when it comes to the whim and whimsy of our administrative masters.

Even more troubling: an administrator wielding (but not disclosing) “data” alleged to support moves we oppose, and insinuating that a Higher Power (i.e., the Provost) may be “perturbed” with our intransigence.

Self-knowledge is ingredient to wisdom, of course. We tell our students that all the time. So if there was any doubt: we know there’s nothing further we can do to resist the will of the administrative tsar who wants to rob us of our favorite classroom in order to make space (literally) for our newest colleagues.

I think we already knew that, and could have spent the morning more productively than banging our heads on the figurative wall. But it was nice to sit in that room again with old friends, as another term begins, admitting our collective powerlessness and trying to remind ourselves of the real sphere of our actual influence.

“That room,” that grungy old classroom across the hall where the heart of our curriculum has been beating for decades. And where we hold our staff meetings.  So many memories, so many classes and students and conversations and lyceum talks. If the Decider has her way, it’ll be walled and subdivided and reassigned next year. A shiny new “office suite,” perhaps? We’re told we should be grateful, in our impotence. Resistance is futile. All in all its just another brick in the wall, right?

But, what is “power” for an academic, an educator? Surely not the misguided prerogative to defy reasonable requests and impose authority arbitrarily. Our power resides, if anywhere, in our privilege and opportunity to try another semester to influence the thought and lives and fortunes of bright inquisitive young people.  Administrators may tell us where to build physical partitions, but we’re the lucky ones who sometimes get to break down the more divisive walls between people and peoples and their ideas and prejudices. We get to open the space that matters most, the space between their ears.

Can’t resist dedicating this to our friends in Cope Hall:

“Every morning he gets up quite early”

January 10, 2013

There’s a historical plaque on our campus, near the Business  and Aerospace Building across from the library and Starbucks, commemorating 1986 Nobel economist James Buchanan. It’s there because he was a 1940 graduate of our school, known then as Middle Tennessee State Teachers College. Our top Honors students are now called Buchanan scholars.

He wrote many books reflecting a broadly libertarian. contractarian, individualist point of view. Turns out he was a much more interesting thinker than I’d imagined, seeking a reconciliation of his temperamental anarchism with an equally insistent Hobbesian realism in (for instance)  The Limits of Liberty. Must read more of him, someday. Somehow.

I mention him now because I’ve walked past his plaque hundreds of times with barely a flicker of interest, and because yesterday Buchanan died.

So now that’s two consecutive mornings devoted to the subjects of Times obits. As I was just saying: all this must pass.

But I have no time to reflect on that right now, my very lively spouse has a 7:40 flight out of here and I am of course her cabbie. But here’s Prof. Buchanan’s story.

“Every morning he gets up quite early and works quite early,” reported his George Mason colleague. He was committed to addressing “how to work, how to think, how to live.” Gotta admire his work habits, if not his economic philosophy. I’ll never pass that plaque indifferently again.

Ralph, Bart, & Jesus

December 14, 2012

I thought it was pretty much all over but the grading, except for one last exam yesterday. But we also had one last report presentation: Jesus!

Jacob, standing by his man and citing C.S. Lewis’s weird and cryptic statement about prophets who claim to be poached eggs etc., said we finally have just three basic belief options:

  • Jesus was not who he claimed to be, God (the, not just a… like Phil Connors) and he knew it. Or,
  • He was sincere but deluded. Or,
  • He was the real deal.

Well, I told the class, at least two more options leap instantly to mind: he was misrepresented, and he was misunderstood. Call them the Ehrman* and Emerson options, respectively.

Ehrman contends that the New Testament is riddled with contradictions about the life of Jesus and his significance. He has provided compelling evidence that early Christianity was a collection of competing schools of thought and that the central doctrines we know today were the inventions of theologians living several centuries after Christ.  Commonwealth Club

Ehrman has lived those contradictions. He was “born again” at 15 in Kansas (where he was a pal of my colleague Mike Hinz, btw, which is why Bart spoke on our campus February before last), a religion student at arch-conservative Moody Bible College (where all his teachers were required to sign an oath to represent only one perspective on the question of Biblical literalism and “inerrancy”), Wheaton College, and Princeton, and a devout Christian well into his career at Chapel Hill. The problem of suffering ultimately disabused him of his faith and made him a “heretic.” He came to understand that we shouldn’t follow anyone or anything with unwavering, unquestioning obeisance. We’re all individuals. We all have to think for ourselves.

rweJesus Christ estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …`This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man’ …He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain. Emerson, “Divinity School Address

We could do a course on this Emersonian sort of naturalized religious sensibility. Throw in the Jefferson Bible, along with some other ways of moving naturalism forward. Some Jamesian pluralism, some Deweyan natural piety, some humanistic science.

Maybe we will.

*Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed  the Bible and Why

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible

Forged: Writing in the Name of God-Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer

Stoic pragmatism

November 26, 2012

It’s an exciting day: John Lachs, my old mentor at Vandy, will put in a virtual appearance in CoPhi to kick off our reading of his new book Stoic PragmatismAnd Sidney McPhee, President of our school, will appear  for real in EEA [JUB 202, 2:20 pm] [works by JLwikiJL@dawn/DS]

I hope Dr. M heeds Dr. L’s  main message: “Stoic pragmatists are committed to making life better…” We can’t green the planet or save life on earth all by ourselves, but we can do a lot more than we’ve done to make life in our small corner of it better. And greener. There’s a lot we can do to exemplify sustainable forms of life.

Leading by example is what John Lachs is all about.

That’s the public Berry Lecture Lachs delivered at Vanderbilt last February, drawn from chapter three and described in this space as characteristically crisp, elegant, and insightful. “The limits of human capacity and the vagueness of the ideal make attainment of perfection impossible, yet its lure ruins our satisfaction with what is clearly excellent and therefore good enough.” He’s not calling for mediocrity or laziness, but he is calling us to pursue our happiness and our ideals with a measure of stoically-informed common sense. Our standards of excellence must be ours, and thus must be imperfect. Plato would object, but he was of course an unrealistic metaphysician. Perfection was always an illusion, in Forms and Gods alike. [“An Imperfect God,” nyt] Some Christian fundamentalists even imagine God will wreck our economy, for our own good.  Or (as Van Jones tweets) that the “end times” are nigh “and we’ll all be forced to become Muslims.” That’s definintely not good enough, I’d say.

I first met Lachs as a “green” (in this context meaning inexperienced, not environmentally attuned)  grad student back when we both were young. Long story short: his interest in the American pragmatists James and Dewey, like his general joie de vivre,  was infectious. I committed to working under his tutelage on a Dewey-centered dissertation that ultimately transmuted into a celebration of James’s philosophy (with just a side of Dewey). I gave up on my project more than once. He never did. He’s a prince, a model, an inspiration, and a continuing fount of wisdom. That’s what somebody says at amazon, anyway.

Lachs writes:

Age clarifies… the arrival of self-recognition warrants celebration… only recently [have] I managed to characterize my attitude to life as that of a stoic pragmatist… The great question we face again and again is how long to pursue our goals with all our energy and when to pack it in… pragmatists are unlikely ever to give up, while stoics may acquiesce too soon.

I’m really glad I caught Lachs in a pragmatic mood, back in grad school. I was an accidental stoic before my time, when I really needed to be engaged with discovering what I could still do, not complacently settling for what I’d already done. Thanks to his strong shot of pragmatic encouragement– I fondly recall his cheerleading emails, as I labored over the final lines of my final chapter, imploring me to “go go go!!!“– I’m where I am today, not looking to pack anything in just yet, looking for others (like President M) to encourage in turn.

And like my teacher I’m happy, in all my delighted finitude, to be here.

Ironies abounding freely

November 2, 2012

I shoulda stood in bed, with the girls being out of school today and Younger Daughter sleeping over at a friend’s. That was the plan, until her alarm sounded. So here I am. Post, or grade? Not a hard call.

But I was all set to jump right in to my grading pile, so I don’t really have any particular line of reflection bubbling just beneath the surface of semi-wakefulness, don’t have anything much in mind.

Well, though… It was interesting yesterday to pick up a news item in which I was quoted urging my fellow campus citizens to go ride a bike. Ironic, too, since this was the first week in months when I didn’t ride my own. It was just a bit too cold, by my standards, to ride into a self-inflicted breeze. It’s never too cold to walk, of course, nor was it even too cold to hold office hours out by Saturn.

It was also interesting to take a phone call from someone who said my office number was listed as the contact for a campus organization I’d not heard of, the Students for Environmental Action. Sure enough. And here I am, teaching a course this semester called “Environmental Ethics and Activism.” Irony compounded.

I continue to reflect on, and chuckle at, the amusingly ironic spectacle of my old grad school pal’s upcoming annual appearance at the Tennessee Philosophical Association. His latest technical paper on the Regress Problem (which he’s produced a near-infinite series of papers on, through the years) found no one “stupid enough,” as he put it (in all humility, I’m sure), to volunteer as commentator. So he’s doing it himself. Solipsism never stopped an epistemologist. Or  the epistemologist. Anyway, I might have volunteered (or appeared to) if Older Daughter didn’t require a ride to Memphis next Saturday. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

And then there were our final two report presentations in CoPhi yesterday. Natalie’s on St. Augustine, and Edrell’s on managing money. Was there anything ironic about either of them? Probably. Auggie said time is subjective, but also God’s gift to save us from the chaotic confusion of everything’s seeming to happen at once. From His perspective it does, though. He’s timelessly omniscient. So I still don’t get how we can be as “free” as religiously-imbued students keep telling me we are. Have you ever thought there might be a logical contradiction?

Nor, as I said in class, do I yet understand Original Sin. But I’ll keep asking, every time I’m told I’ve inherited it.

If time is subjective, I guess we might as well say that time is money too. I’d never had a student conclude a report presentation by passing out his business card to everyone in the class, though I’m sure it happens all the time in biz school.

Anyway, it’s probably ironic that Edrell changed his report topic to something less controversial than religion, his original intent. The old folk wisdom was that politics, money, and religion should never be discussed in polite company.

“Ironic” may just be the word for those who say they expect politeness of philosophers.

Clarify, clarify

August 28, 2012

Every Opening Day every semester,  it seems, I follow my colleague Mary into James Union Building Room 304 and find this on the board:

That’s Charles Sanders Peirce, the “pragmaticist” (“ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers”). In case you find either Mary or CSP (or both) difficult to decipher, here’s what he said… followed by what I think of what he said:

Philosophy is that branch of positive science (i.e., an investigating theoretical science which inquires what is the fact, in contradistinction to pure mathematics which merely seeks to know what follows from certain hypotheses) which makes no observations but contents itself with so much of experience as pours in upon every man during every hour of his waking life.  CSP

I think Charles & Mary are on the right track, to call attention to everyday experience as the raw material of philosophy. Quotidian, commonplace, ordinary experiences and exceptional, rare, out-of-the-ordinary experiences happen to people. What has existence must have its reflective moment.

But, must philosophy aspire to the status of a science? I say no. (Think of Emerson, or for that matter Emily Dickinson.) This may just be a semantic hairsplitting, depending on how much of the vast range of possible-plus-actual experience the “scientific philosopher” is prepared to reflect on, and how much she is prepared to jettison in the name of positivity.

My view: there are many diverse and legitimate forms of philosophical reflection. Some look less like science than like poetry. They all have their place.

And maybe Peirce thought so too. He definitely had his poetic/metaphysical flights: agapism, cosmic love, firstness and secondness and thirdness, his metaphorical likening of philosophy to an impassioned marriage (“The genuis of a man’s logical method should be loved and reverenced as his bride”-Fixation of Belief 1877).

“It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauung but is a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear.” As James said: philosophy and metaphysics are just an “unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly.”

The consensus here is kind of Thoreauvian, isn’t it? “Simplify, simplify.” And how do you do that, in our discipline? Clarify, clarify. Science can help, and so can the poet.