Posts Tagged ‘pragmatism’

A pragmatic approach to bioethics

January 28, 2013

We’re just about to get down to cases in Bioethics. Today we’ll sort ourselves into discussion groups, each of which will be getting its own new case to unwrap and explore every class for the next several weeks. Topics will typically reflect the sprawling quality of this relatively-new field. Next time, for instance, we’ll be looking at synthetic biology, intelligent design, psychopharmacolgy, and robot ethics.

Speaking of ‘bots: Did you catch Ray Kurzweil’s interview in the Times Magazine yesterday, touching on one of our many topics-to-come (from Case 25)?

This idea of creating a whole virtual body with nanobots, that’s more like a 2050 scenario. But by the 2030s we’ll be putting millions of nanobots inside our bodies to augment our immune system, to basically wipe out disease. One scientist cured Type I diabetes in rats with a blood-cell-size device already.

Ray goes on to say he’d shift his focus to cancer research, if he felt the need personally. Hmmm.

Our tour guide across the varied bioethical landscape is the controversial but astute Glenn McGee, founding editor of The American Journal of Bioethics and fellow Vandy alum. Seems I’ve been following Glenn for awhile now, out of grad school, in and out of Belmont University (just a cameo there, in my case), and now I’ll be following his lead in structuring our course according to his design in a breezy, enlightening, informative, provocative, and (I’m sorry to report) less than meticulously copy-edited new volume that should still suit our purposes to a tee: Bioethics for Beginners: 60 Cases and Cautions From the Moral Frontier of Healthcare.

Here’s Glenn discussing the old muddled dream of human perfectibility through eugenics.

Like the good pragmatist he is, and anticipating Michael Sandel later in the semester, he’ll reject the case for perfection in general. But he’ll also make a strong pragmatic case for ameliorating life to the extent of our powers, ethically and (so far as we can manage it) progressively. This is right up my own pragmatic alley. Introducing Pragmatic Bioethics a few years ago, McGee noted that

John Dewey and William James, the latter a physician, are but two of the figures in classical American philosophy who devoted quite a bit of attention to the role of their philosophy in reconstructing the social meaning of health care… Scholars of classical American philosophy… were among those who created what is today called bioethics.

And that makes this a “perfect” class for us to tackle.

One more thing, Downton fans: isn’t it sad about Lady Sibyl!? Do you think the specialist ob-gyn (“Sir Philip Tapsell”) violated any ethical rules last night? Could or should “Dr. Clarkson” have done anything more? Are there rules for resolving discordant medical opinions? Let the chauffeur decide?

Philosophy, trivial and sublime

August 31, 2012

I feel like Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo, trying to move beyond our opening “What is Philosophy?” query in CoPhi. “One more thing…” Or two.

The one thing I awoke this morning wanting to be sure to have said to my philosophy neophytes, especially all those who told me during this first week that they don’t think they have a personal philosophy or even a rudimentary grasp of what it would mean to have one, is: Yes, you have. You just haven’t tried to say it yet. Or think it. So you’ve come to the right place, we’re all about throwing new seeds into the discussion in my classes.

We’re also all about acknowledging that not every seed will sprout. Not every word is helpful. Frequently we “solve” our problems in philosophy by moving beyond them and framing others.

That said, here are some helpful words from James’s first seminal lecture introducing his philosophy of Pragmatism – A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1906):

I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. And yet I confess to a certain tremor at the audacity of the enterprise which I am about to begin. For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos…

Believing in philosophy myself devoutly, and believing also that a kind of new dawn is breaking upon us philosophers…

Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ‘bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage; and repugnant as its manners, its doubting and challenging, its quibbling and dialectics, often are to common people, no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives…

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments…

So one thing we can anticipate on our CoPhi expedition is temperamental weather, the unpredictable play of personality and preference in setting and sharing our respective agendas of interest and advocacy. Won’t always be easy, but should often be illuminating. Some of us will be surprised to learn that we’d already begun the journey before we ever arrived at school. Others will echo Mr. Twain: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

And so a new dawn breaks upon us CoPhilosophers.

“One more word”… no, never mind. It’ll keep. Happy Labor Day.

A conversation for all ages

June 1, 2012

It’s a gloomy cool morning but that’s more than offset by the compensating brilliance of the occasion here: it’s  Younger Daughter’s birthday. She treated me to breakfast at IHOP yesterday, now it’s my turn to flip the flapjacks for her and her sleepover party pals. Oh, to be so young and free again.

“Age clarifies,” begins John Lachs in his just-published Stoic PragmatismClarity is a wonderful gift, but so is youthful indeterminacy. So many still-untested hypotheses, so many experiments yet to try, so much fun on the horizon.

The spirit of youth is indefatigable “can do” energy and enthusiasm. Age is more realistic, having tried and succeeded and failed at so much more. The two, age and youth, have things to tell one another. Too bad each tends to think it already knows it all. “I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors,” snarled young Henry Thoreau. Kids  these days, they rejoined. We rejoin. Why don’t you pick up your room?! (And then, as Ron Padgett reminds, then save the world.)

I certainly don’t dispute the practical wisdom of stoic pragmatists who know, with Lachs, that “there’s nothing infinite about us.” But I still envy the young their intrepdity, from which I daily draw practically-infinite encouragement and inspiration. They remind me of my own misplaced sense of sky-high possibility.

Henry’s whole statement on this matter, so delightfully and so youthfully over the top:

What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new… Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

Yes, it’s way over the top. I began hearing valuable, earnest advice from my mentor John Lachs before I was thirty and I’m still hearing it. Some of it has finally registered. I’ll pass it along to my Intro students in the Fall. If they read carefully, they’ll hear much more than a cautionary  warning not to repeat the hubris of Ozymandias.

True enough, from dust we arose and to dust we’ll return. But within those natural boundaries there’s plenty of room to roam, and so many ways to find our personal, familial, communal, and social delights, to be good (or “good enough,” as Lachs likes to say) and to be happy. How to do it, and how to allow others the respectful autonomy to do it too, is a conversation for all ages.

There’s always some Fish

August 9, 2011

There’s always some fish, some solitary fish who’s only one wish is to threaten the fun! Dr. Seuss

Last thing I read last night was Stanley Fish’s latest public metamusings in The Stone, previously discussed here. That was a mistake, because it’s what I awoke thinking about and it’s really not worth the trouble.

Fish is a literary intellectual-cum administrator whose shallow philosophical roots are in deconstruction, and whose grasp of the discipline appears to have been badly misinformed by the anti-philosophical  pseudo-pragmatism of Richard Rorty.

He writes:

I’m just denying to philosophy one of the claims made for it —that its conclusions  dictate or generate non-philosophical behavior — and there is no reason that my denial of philosophy’s practical utility should not take a philosophical form.

If you begin by defining philosophy as impractical, it won’t be hard to exemplify your own definition. Deconstructive anti-philosophical mission accomplished. So what? Fish’s “philosophical form” never really engages the question of utility or acknowledges the need for relevance and meaning in our lives.

But I don’t want to waste another precious auroral moment thinking about all that just now, on a lovely overcast morning– that’s no way to return to consciousness– so I’ll peremptoriloy dismiss the topic from present consideration by noting that Fish never really addresses his own question “Does Philosophy Matter?”

Instead he dances around the metaphilosophical maypole, safely insinuating that the pretensions of a relative handful of realist epistemologists do not matter to nonphilosophers. He can have it, the pole and the point. They’re no fun. They don’t matter.

level best

September 10, 2010
Very interesting, yesterday’s discussions of the problem of evil (or suffering, if the e-word connotes too much woo-woo for you).
Some of us clearly didn’t want to consider, at all, any challenge to comfortable conservative Sunday School orthodoxy. At least one of us was moved to leave her Professor a note, to the effect that the whole class period had been a big waste of time.
But others were quite open to the obvious question: shouldn’t an omnipotent and omniscient moral exemplar, knowing all, capable of anything, be expected to spurn all the horrible child-abusing mother-raping violence and mayhem so sadly familiar in our mixed-bag world of woe and wonder? Or at least some of it? And how far does free will take us, really, towards an accepting comprehension of all this? Not very.
It seems quite clear: a transcendent and benevolent Deity will need all the help we mortals can give, in pursuit of a better— not the best, by a long shot– world. That’s what William James meant, in inviting us to consider ourselves co-creators with a less-than-omnipotent God.
Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ’level best.’ I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”
Count me in, sign me up, start the procession.  Whether God is your co-pilot or not, metaphysical perfection is way over-rated,  and our level best may have to be good enough. Best possible? How ’bout let’s start with the best available, and then see where we can take it from there.
That’s become the view of Bible scholar and former committed Christian Bart Ehrman, for whom the problem of suffering was instrumental in helping him lose his religion and gain his newfound Ecclesiastical spirit. He’ll be our guest at MTSU next semester, on February 18. Stay tuned for details.
Here he is with Terry Gross:


September 1, 2010

Downloaded my free kindle sample of Jonathan Franzen‘s eagerly-awaited, critically-acclaimed new novel Freedom last night. (excerpt) (reviews) Couldn’t wait any longer for my Amazon pre-order to arrive. Dove right in, ’til I got to the part where a character is “complaining about the length of his attention span” and realized my own was drifting towards sleep. But so far, so great. (Not everyone thinks so, btw: a few female writers have been heard to grumble that Franzen’s being unduly lionized, there must be an interesting and possibly Oprah-centered back-story there. But never mind.)

I bring it up in part just because it’s a huge literary event, when a writer of Franzen’s stature weighs in with much-needed perspective on the strange form of life we’ve been living lately. (His Corrections nine years ago was brilliant in that regard.)

But I also find the theme pertinent to what we’re doing today in the Future of Life class: further discussing William James’s claim that what life eventually makes of itself, in the long run, is a “vital question for us all.” Do we live as though we really felt that? Or have we shrunk our “freedom” to a mere series of consumer product-and-lifestyle choices that have no real regard for the ultimate disposition of our species?

One early review contends that

In America what passes for freedom, or so Jonathan Franzen implies, is a refusal to accept limits, to shoulder the burdens of an inheritance… more

“The burden of an inheritance” is also the opportunity of a legacy, and that’s what Dan Dennett was getting at when he talked about what makes us a unique species, with regard to our forebears’ solicitude for our destiny… and ours for that of our progeny.

We’re free to care about the future, or not. If we care, the present expands and deepens. If we don’t, it shrinks and shallows. That’s my claim, anyway. The fundamental message here is anti-deterministic and melioristic: The future is an open country, in an open and pluralistic universe. It’s ours for the filling. The way things are is not the way they have to be. We can make it better.*

What would Edward Bellamy say? What would you?


*Some other pertinent James quotes from Pragmatism, lecture #3:

To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter COULD have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the PRINCIPLE of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the PAST of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.

Thus if no future detail of experience or conduct is to be deduced from our hypothesis, the debate between materialism and theism becomes quite idle and insignificant. Matter and God in that event mean exactly the same thing—the power, namely, neither more nor less, that could make just this completed world—and the wise man is he who in such a case would turn his back on such a supererogatory discussion. Accordingly, most men instinctively, and positivists and scientists deliberately, do turn their backs on philosophical disputes from which nothing in the line of definite future consequences can be seen to follow. The verbal and empty character of philosophy is surely a reproach with which we are, but too familiar. If pragmatism be true, it is a perfectly sound reproach…

But philosophy is prospective also, and, after finding what the world has been and done and yielded, still asks the further question ‘what does the world PROMISE?’

Theism and materialism, so indifferent when taken retrospectively, point, when we take them prospectively, to wholly different outlooks of experience.

Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth ‘fit’ results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness.

Free-will pragmatically means NOVELTIES IN THE WORLD, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past.

‘Freedom’ in a world already perfect could only mean freedom to BE WORSE, and who could be so insane as to wish that? To be necessarily what it is, to be impossibly aught else, would put the last touch of perfection upon optimism’s universe. Surely the only POSSIBILITY that one can rationally claim is the possibility that things may be BETTER.

squiffy narrative

June 28, 2010

Ian McEwan’s unappealing but misunderstood narcissist/Nobel scientist/energy pioneer Michael Beard responds in Solar to someone’s stated “interest in the forms of narrative that climate science has generated”:

People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value.

He means the kind of people who also go on about “hegemonic” power structures and the social construction of reality to benefit a narrow (white male) elite, as well as the kind of people who prefer to de-construct reality and the very concept of same, who consider no textual narratives reliable enough to merit consistent action and belief, who prefer a stance of ironic detachment from the “so-called facts” etc. Postmodernist feminist relativist subjectivists. Neo-pragmatists.

Some of my best friends are those kinds of people, but I  have to side with Prof. Beard on this one.

The basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop [pumping excess amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere], or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Beard’s troubled personal reality, though, is that he has no grandchildren and does not care deeply enough about anyone else’s. He gives a nice (and oddly controversial) speech about sustaining civilization and ending poverty, but he lives for his own day-to-day gratification.

Fortunately for the rest of us, his self-gratification entails seeking professional success, and that drives him to seek the literal power of light. That means spinning and enacting a narrative about himself that impels work which, if successful, will help sustain civilization and end poverty.

Whatever works, we pragmatists say. Telling a good story and doing good work go together. Self-knowledge of the Socratic kind, though, might be more elusive.

the way

January 27, 2010

We’re talking about classic Chinese philosophers in Intro today, Confucius (the sage, not the biopic that bumped Avatar), Lao Tzu and many others whose names  can be harder than Greeks’ to keep straight.

But The Tao of Pooh should be simple enough

Owl of course is the opposite of Pooh, the Knowledge for the sake of Appearing Wise, the one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or to his own small group, rather than working for the enlightenment of others. That way, the scholars can appear Superior, and will not likely be suspected of Not Knowing Something. After all, from the scholarly point of view, it’s practically a crime not to know everything. But sometimes the knowledge of the scholar is a bit hard to understand because it doesn’t seem to match up with our own experience of things. Isn’t the knowledge that comes from experience more valuable than the knowledge that doesn’t?

Oh, yes. Ask any pragmatist. Or ask Bob Solomon: For the Confucian, the personal is the social. For the Taoist, the personal is the relation to nature. For both, the goal is harmony in human life and a larger sense of the “person” than the mere individual. Experience preferred.

Or ask Simon Critchley, who reports this Socratic jab from Confucius (aka Kongzi): “You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?” His rival Lao Tzu thought he understood his body to be the source of all his suffering. That’s blaming the victim, if you ask me. Both are now asteroids, nominally at least. Presumably their suffering (and understanding) is no more. Same for Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), who– like Freddie the Leaf— saw death as “just like the progression of the four seasons.”

“We all fear what we don’t know, Freddie. It’s natural,” Daniel reassured him. “Yet, you were not afraid when Summer became Fall. They were natural changes. Why should you be afraid of the season of death?”

“Does the tree die, too?” Freddie asked.

“Someday. But there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That lasts forever and we are all a part of Life.”

“Where will we go when we die?”

“No one knows for sure. That’s the great mystery!”

“Will we return in the Spring?”

“We may not, but Life will.”

“Then what has been the reason for all of this?” Freddie continued to question. “Why were we here at all if we only have to fall and die?”

Daniel answered in his matter-of-fact way, “It’s been about the sun and the moon. It’s been about happy times together. It’s been about the shade and the old people and the children. It’s been about colors in Fall. It’s been about seasons. Isn’t that enough?

The Japanese Zen  monk haiku masters (like Mabutsu) would say it is, if they said anything propositional at all. You never know just when the bottom will fall out. So true.

It was enough for Walt Whitman, too, who sang of “the beautiful uncut hair of graves” and would not be “contain’d between my hat and boots.”

Pooh, for a bear of very little brain, has sure made his mark amongst academics and intellectuals. In Pooh and the Philosophers John Williams says Whitehead got it wrong: all those post-Platonists were really annotating our ursine hero. In Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews discovers a humanist role-model and skewers the pretensions of literary critics in the process: two acts of public service we can all be grateful for.


May 16, 2009

Word comes of plans to commemorate the centenary of William James’s death, on the very site of his terminal breath in Chocorua, New Hampshire.  Chocorua was James’s refuge, just a couple hours from Cambridge on the train. He enthused over its fourteen exterior doors (prompting sister Alice to compare brother to house, both being so open and receptive etc.), loved its gorgeous setting beside the eponymous lake and mountain, and spent as much time there as he could. He died there on August 30, 1910, having overexerted his 68-year old body on ironically life-giving hiking trips that I’ll bet he’d not have traded years for.

I broke away from a philosophy conference in Portland, Maine a few years ago and drove my rental car over to Chocorua. Not much about it seemed likely to have changed, still rustic and remote and picture postcard pretty. I didn’t expect anyone there to know anything about William James or his house, but the first native I asked  directed me straight to the place. I pulled into the driveway, spied the house, and was cordially greeted by the present owner who proudly confirmed its authenticity.

If all goes well, I’ll be joining fellow friends of “Billy James” (a grad school prof called him that) on another pilgrimage to Pragmatist Mecca next August. It won’t be solemn, James’s ghost wouldn’t stand for that.