Posts Tagged ‘Nashville’

Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Fricker, & Poore Richard

February 7, 2013

MachiavelliHobbesDescartes, and Fricker are on tap today, in CoPhi. Some of them sound like cricketers, but they all have a sharp point of view worth considering. But first…

modfamOsophyWhat a night of televiewing! The girls were time-shifting Modern Family when I got home, and there was the very book I need to send our senior off to college with: Phil’s Osophy. “The most amazing things that can happen to a human being will happen to you if you just lower your expectations.” Priceless wisdom for the ages.

Then, my favorite brewpub and brunch venues got their fifteen seconds of glorious hi-def prime time exposure on “Nashville“: the mayor and his new fling strolling up and down in front of Fido’s, across from Bosco’s.  Too cool.

As Walker Percy might have said, my familiar places suddenly felt “validated.”

And second…

I almost always show my CoPhi collaborators a particular “Jesus and Mo” cartoon, to introduce the free will/divine foreknowledge problem. Usually it elicits a few snickers, but only rarely an overt complaint, and almost never an articulate one.

Yesterday was different. This time, a couple of students indicated extreme umbrage and suggested that the mere act of acknowledging the existence of that strip and those images was contrary to the spirit of cosmopolitan “citizen of the cosmos” acceptance of difference we’d been discussing in connection with Anthony Appiah’s PB interview.

Well,  I respectfully disagree. As Appiah says, being cosmopolitan doesn’t mean submerging or ignoring or fuzzing the differences between us. It means registering, appreciating, and finally celebrating them. It means giving ourselves permission to talk about them openly, to explore our different ways of being human, and to engage criticism without feeling threatened by it.

I’ll continue to use “Free Willy” in my classes. But I’m going to have to work on polishing my provocation “disclaimer,”* it doesn’t seem to have done the job this time.

*As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed. They’re just a couple of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless fun, zealots, not blasphemy. But if it provokes a little thought, it’s useful.

Anyway, I do appreciate the spirited exchange those images provoked. We may all have actually learned something from it.

But back to our regularly-scheduled program.

Fricker’s probably the one you’ve not heard of. She’s our contemporary, and she has possibly the most constructive observation of any of our philosophers du jour: we too frequently fail to listen to one another, for entirely unexamined and indefensible reasons. We write one another off, for falling into one or another stereotyped identity. We don’t take one another seriously, just because we think we’ve found the right pigeon-holes to place one another into. Whites and blacks, theists and atheists, Republicans and Democrats… we all commit “testimonial injustice.”

This is a new term, a new way of indicting our ancient ancestral blindness. I’ll admit, the topic doesn’t quite spring to life in Fricker’s accounting. But read William James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” then give her another listen. She’s definitely onto something, a perennial weakness in our species. We need to open our eyes to these prejudices, and close our minds to them.

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli and Hobbes knew it. Maybe if they’d heard Fricker’s podcast they’d have written different books and articulated kinder, gentler philosophies.

And maybe if she’d lived in 16th century Italy or 17th century England, she’d have committed more  ”testimonial injustice” too.

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says.

A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of Fortune.

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, hehobbes-walking-stick lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say humans were once “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel, why do you lock your doors? Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it?

I for one do not agree that it’s better to be feared than loved. And as I place an even greater premium on being listened to, and understood, I owe it to others to really listen to what they’re saying too. It’s when we write one another off, isn’t it, that suspicions arise and conflict ensues?

Rene Descartes, not at all a drunken fart, simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?

Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.

I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me. I do try to write things worth reading, do things worth writing, and not lie down with dogs more often than I have to.

All this must pass

January 9, 2013

Two news items from yesterday hold my attention this rainy morning: the death of journalist Richard Ben Cramer, and the rising star status of my city (“Nashville Takes Its Turn in the Spotlight”).

What has one to do with the other? Just the obvious Stoic point, I guess: all this shall pass soon enough, and sooner if you’re imprudent and reckless. That goes for people and places alike.

Nashville’s alleged imprudence is neglecting education, giving outsized tax breaks to health care giants,  catering to tourists and the music biz while slighting the basic needs of ordinary citizens.

True or not, I’ll agree that this is a fun place to be right now… even for those of us who fall outside the Venn diagram overlap of conservative Christians and hipsters. This city is indeed “more progressive on social issues than Tennessee as a whole.” That’s a pretty low bar to clear.

And I’ll agree in spirit with Teddy Ballgame. Ted Williams told the 35 year-old Cramer that “smokin’s the WORST goddamn thing you could do!” Mr. Cramer died at 62, apparently a victim of lung cancer.


On common ground

November 10, 2012

How nice, to walk into the lecture hall last night for Robert Kane‘s TPA keynote and be greeted unexpectedly by an old friend I’d thought was lost to sunny southern California! Professor C. was my teaching colleague when we were both part-timing Vandy’s computer ethics course a few years ago, before Pepperdine hired him and his Cornel West-variety of pragmatic theism away from us. But turns out he left his heart in the mid-south, and now he’s back teaching at David Lipscomb University and (he told me at the “spirited reception”) about to release a new book.  Welcome home, buddy!

And then my old Vandy mentors Tlumak and Hodges and my old cohort and roomie (now Dr. Epistemology, aka Mr. Infinite Regress, lately also wearing an Associate Dean’s cap in Huntsville) materialized. Suddenly it was Old Home Night in Furman Hall, our old common ground. Speaking of which…

Professor Kane’s keynote did not disappoint. Drawing heavily on his latest book Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom, he developed the thesis that “openness” is the key to “common ethical ground in a pluralist world.” In the process he addressed the very issue we were tussling about the other day in EEA: how to admit and embody the pluralist’s insight that there’s no one right way to live, while skirting free of the relativist’s trap of abandoning the quest for truthful wisdom.

We lift from ourselves the burden of proving our view right and all others wrong and place the burden of proof on everyone equally to prove their ways of life right or wrong by how they live and act and not merely by abstract argument.

This sounds pragmatic to the core, to me. But Kane didn’t mention James or his “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) last night, the seminal essay that begins:

The main purpose of this paper is to show that there is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance.  We all help to determine the content of ethical philosophy so far as we contribute to the race’s moral life. In other words, there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say. In the one case as in the other, however, the hypotheses which we now make while waiting, and the acts to which they prompt us, are among the indispensable conditions which determine what that “say” shall be.

Must ask Kane about that, as the TPA’s concurrent sessions kick off in just a couple of hours. If you happen to be reading this in middle Tennessee, you have time to get there. Y’all come!


Postscript. Nice note from Prof. Kane:

I  enjoyed reading your blog and am stimulated by it and the quote from James to reread his “Moral Phil and Moral Life” paper again, having not done so for a long time. I had in fact noted the connection between the ethical and value theory of my talk and the tradition of American pragmatism generally, including James, in my book, Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom from which the talk was drawn, and I include the relevant passage in the attachment added to this message. But I did not cite that specific essay by James or the quote you give from it. Though I will do so in future and will mention you alerted it to me when I do so.
I have also referenced pragmatism, and James in particular, in my work on free will over the years. And I also include in the attachment the longer passage from my book The Significance of Free Will, which is cited in the other quote from my Ethics and Quest book, in which I relate these value notions and pragmatism to free will. I was surprised to see that I had added a footnote in the SFW passage that specifically cites James and his collection of essays that includes “The Moral Phil…” essay.
Thanks again for the kind words and references.


“Bike #11”

September 22, 2012

So I took my borrowed cycle, “Bike #11,” out for an urban morning commute, down Demonbreun past the new convention center (impressively huge, evidently tailored by Mayor Dean for a robust growth economy and a future major party convention), the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, over the Shelby Street Bridge, past the Titans stadium, then all around the new  Cumberland Park, and finally up and around Fort Negley and the Cumberland Science Museum, which apparently runs all on solar.

Nice ride, new views, good cause for optimism as more and more of us get out of the car and onto the bike. Can’t wait to try Nashville’s new green bikes too. Old Raleigh’s suddenly got competition.


loafing on the grass

October 18, 2011

Even the least religious of men must have felt with Walt Whitman, when loafing on the grass on some transparent summer morning… the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth. William James

Bells Bend (Nashville), October 17 2011

’tis a gift to be free

August 5, 2011

Went and did my civic duty yesterday, voting in the metro mayor and council election. Got to wear my boastful “I voted” sticker on the way out, feeling briefly and cheaply more democratic than at least 60% of my peers. That’s not the best reason for voting, but it’s not the worst either.

I hadn’t planned to vote in this election, there weren’t any closely-contested races and I really don’t have strong views about the Nashville Fairgrounds. But then my morning walk brought me past my precinct polling station, and that old plebiscitary  pull had me again.

So I came home, googled the candidates and issues, did my research. There were a few goofballs in the running. One “J. Wooten” (I was hoping he might be the same Wooten I knew from the girls’ elementary school gym class, but no) ran on this platform:

1. End property taxes. Put your money back into your pockets instead of government.

2. Separate state from school. Education is too important to be left to politicians and bureaucrats.

3. Legalize the “Lap Dance.” Government should not be regulating adult behavior behind closed doors.

I don’t expect he won, but keeping the goofballs on the sidelines (no matter how well they “represent” the general public)  is one very good reason to make the effort to cast an informed vote in these ho-hum elections. When sensible people don’t participate, tea partiers (speaking generically here) still will.

Concluding my electoral research, the inertia of the day then took over and I kinda forgot about it. Late in the afternoon, though, Younger Daughter and I were driving home and there they still were, all those enthusiastic campaigners with their signs and flags waving, keeping their constitutional distance from the ballot box. Their enthusiasm was infectious. So I went in, but the line was longer than expected so I ran her home, then hopped on my bike (I’ve embraced the Pedaling Revolution manifesto: short trips and errands really don’t require tons of steel) and went back to exercise my democratic birthright.

Our politics are still as screwed up as ever, but if I had stayed home I wouldn’t feel quite as entitled to complain about it. Or as invested in fixing it. Chris Stevens understands.

And so too, perhaps, does J. Wooten, the lap dance candidate whose platform also included this unconventional plank: Freedom is the answer. What’s the question? Congratulations, Mayor.


a ship that’s seen better days

July 23, 2011

Had a day-&-night out with Older Daughter yesterday, beginning with the Indian veggie lunch buffet (delicious, but they were too slow restocking the cauliflower fritters) and proceeding eventually to McKay’s Bookstore (she found me a compendious celebration of Northern Exposure  for just 75 cents) and the Sounds game (free tee-shirts).

Along the way she requested a stroll in Centennial Park, undeterred by 95 degree discomfort. (“Sweltering,” she explained, is when you’re in full catcher’s gear and it’s 110.) We ambled upon this familiar old relic, which for some reason I’ve often noticed but never investigated. As I guessed, it’s a remnant of the fabled 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

Another unusual relic from the exposition is the bow of the dreadnought Tennessee. It’s a large cement monument on the 25th Avenue side of the park, and it looks exactly like what it is – the tip of a ship. There’s even a ladder attached to the back of the monument to enable visitors to “board” the ship, although nowhere onboard or near the monument is there any identifying plaque. The bronze decorations on the ship’s prow are stunning, and they’re actually from the Tennessee. If they’re any indication, late nineteenth century battleships were as beautiful as they were functional. Sadly, this ship has seen better days. The outer layer of concrete is cracked in many places, with chunks missing here and there. At 112 years old, it’s obviously too delicate to pressure wash, but it’s a shame to see such a stately monument deteriorating. Nashville Landmarks Examiner

Our conversation indicated that in matters sartorial and stylistic, I also qualify as a relic in need of restoration. Like Tennessee I’ve seen better days too.

Challenge accepted! More days like yesterday will surely postpone my own inevitable deterioration, or at least dignify it with pleasure and purpose.


May 23, 2010

We were out late last night, S & I, with James Taylor and Carole King.

I was going to pull the blog-plug on myself this morning and begin taking Sundays off, but their fantastic reunion performance– first one in the Bridgestone Arena (they call it now) since the flood– is too much on my mind this morning. I’d gag, not to mention it.

We never miss JT when he comes to town, and we both used to wear out our Tapestry LPs, on our respective monaural phonograph players. What a show. What a treat.

And, btw, reports of downtown Nashville’s demise are greatly exaggerated. The old town was hoppin’, with locals and tourists alike. Too bad about Opryland, but it was great to see the Ryman back in business across the street with its original  Grand Ole’ Opry franchise. Tootsie’s and the other joints on lower Broad were spilling into the streets too.

JT commented, after Carole sang about getting up every morning with a smile on your face and before he did “Shower the People,” that those two numbers are “hymns for the agnostic.” Pass the plate, brother.

They did a triple encore, closing finally (just like last week in Hollywood) with the wonderful and, from the vantage of years, elegiac “Close Your Eyes.” You can sing this song, when I’m gone… But they’re definitely not gone yet.

council of Dads

May 22, 2010

The girls’ school-year is winding down. Yesterday Older Daughter had only to go in for a late math exam at around noon, and Younger Daughter had an early band recital before dismissal.

That gave me, their driver, a couple of hours to spend as wisely as I could, so naturally I hoofed it downtown. Wanted to check out the flood‘s aftermath, which of course was distressing.

The Schermerhorn Symphony Hall was ringed by crates and large tubes presumably connected to dehumidifiers, there were piles of trash and debris in all the places that had been so abruptly overtaken by the Cumberland River. Normalcy is returning, but slowly.

Then, to my favorite downtown locale: the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge, with its spectacular skyline views and now in the shadow of Nashville’s newest skyscraper, the rising Pinnacle building (video). This day, there was also a strange vintage hot rod competition happening under the bridge on the east bank. A tricked-out ’49 GMC pickup peeled around a temporary track, as an obnoxious announcer filled the air with commentary that I suppose would have made sense if I were a little more in touch with my inner NASCAR fanatic.

But the really serendipitous angle on this amble was the radio segment I tuned in to, while making my bridge transit. It was an interview with author Bruce Feiler, who responded to a cancer diagnosis appropriately by thinking about his twin girls and what he could do for them after he’s gone. He hit upon the inspired idea of convening a “council of Dads,” from among his own circle of friends and associates: men who agreed they’d attempt to fill bits of the paternal role for his girls, to help them become young women.

So should we all. We’re all terminal, after all, and long-term thinking begins at home.

Happy birthday, Mom.