Posts Tagged ‘PW’

Free attention

May 16, 2013

The Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, Japan commemorates the Japanese Jamesian Kitaro Nishida.

File:Path of philosophy.jpg

And so does San Francisco’s Philosopher’s Way, in McLaren Park.

A virtual walk engages the imagination but not the senses, and not that vital sense of the ever-fleeting “nick of time” that Thoreau toed. So, it’s no substitute for the real thing. But this is still terrific. I’m going to SF, as soon as I can. It’s been too many years since my last Giants game anyway.

Meanwhile, I’m adding Nishida and his philosophy of attention to my stable of pedestrian philosophers. His “musing” plaque in the park, if you missed it:

Thinking has its own laws. It functions of its own accord and does not follow our will. To merge with the act of thought – that is, to direct one’s attention to it – is voluntary, but I think perception is the same in this respect: we are able to see what we want to see by freely turning our attention towards it.

Increasingly I am persuaded that controlled attention may be as close to the secret of life as we’ll ever come.

Thales wet and dry

May 15, 2013

Thales, widely though somewhat arbitrarily designated the first western philosopher, was a walker.

And notorioiusly, a plunger. So caught up was he one day, lost in his ruminations about water being the font et origo of things, that he tripped and dipped.  “Drowning in the act of speculation,” John Lachs dryly notes.

The other side of the story, we always hasten to add, is that he was also sufficiently worldly-wise to corner the olive market when he wanted to.

Plato’s version had it that Thales fell into the drink because his gaze was fixed on the starry heavens. What exactly he was thinking is anyone’s guess.

What else do we know of Thales’ perambulations? Not much. But I think that’s enough, for my purposes. It’s good to contemplate the stars and the material nature of existence. It’s also good to keep our feet on terra firma.

“The nectar is in the journey”

May 14, 2013

That’s John McDermott‘s slogan. It’s also a walker’s.

A walker, by my definition, is one who makes a habit of setting aside at least 30-60 minutes a day for ritual perambulation.Thoughts trivial or profound may or may not be entertained during this daily transit. The point is to move, eventually to return to one’s starting place refreshed, renewed, buoyed, lightened of heart, enlightened of mind. A good walk returns us to the place we started but with an advantage, possibly with a bit more understanding and perspective and a bit less weltschmerz… like T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Some eminent walking philosophers: Thales, Aristotle’s Peripatetics, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Emerson & Thoreau, James, Nishida… and then there are all those poets and writers: Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Whitman, Dickens, Stevens, Frost, Abbey, Berry…

Walkers typically conclude by coming home (or back to the office, hotel, camp, whatever). We don’t call our accomplishment a “run,” as ballplayers do when they come home. Nor do we think we’ve merely circled the bases. We notch each walk on our figurative (and in Thoreau‘s case literal) sticks. It’s not that we’re keeping score, exactly. We’re keeping time.

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.

My Philosophy Walks project is to assemble a stable of walkers, highlight their journeys, and plug in a few of my own. I’ll meander some, but with a purpose. I do have a destination in mind, and a soundtrack beginning with Dire Straits’ Walk of Life.

It should be fun. It should. 


Congrats to Older Daughter, last night awarded the “Golden Bat” and named again to the All-Region team… joining Younger Daughter, last week a “Golden Glove” recipient. It’s hard to be humble when you’re golden. To the journey! And, to coming home. Don’t forget, a walk’s as good as a hit.

“A professor has two functions”

May 13, 2013

Grades reported!

I hate issuing grades, except well-earned A’s. Had more than a few of those this term, so I’m in relatively good spirits this a.m.

But, I’m also in that typical post-semester, tired-of-professing state of mind displayed by William James when he complained about his vocation,

…paid to talk talk talk. It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words words words.

I feel a touch of what he must have felt on retiring from Harvard in 1907:

I thank you for your congratulations on my retirement. It makes me very happy. A professor has two functions: (1) to be learned and distribute bibliographical information; (2) to communicate truth. The 1st function is the essential one, officially considered. The 2nd is the only one I care for. Hitherto I have always felt like a humbug as a professor, for I am weak in the first requirement. Now I can live for the second with a free conscience.

For a few weeks, anyway, my posts to this and other venues will be entirely in service of “communicating truth,” specifically in the form of a work-in-progress I’m calling Philosophy Walks. I’m going to resist the habitual urge to reflect overtly on whatever crosses pre- and semi-caffeinated consciousness, and stick to the business of philosophers who’ve walked and philosophy that’s emerged from walks of my own (with occasional “Happiness” and “Humanist” posts thrown in, just because my self-control is only human).

I’m guessing that might mean fewer pre-dawn posts in the days and weeks ahead. We’ll see.

unspent passion

April 5, 2010

First, I have to say: some of you thought Good Friday should have been a university holiday. I think today should be. It’s Opening Day! (Opening Night in Boston last night didn’t really count, though it was a terrific game– 9-7 Sox.) But, barring viral relapse, I’ll see you in class.

Today we officially finish reading– though probably not talking about– the philosophers and ideas canvassed in Passion for Wisdom. Bertrand Russell, for one. Jennifer Hecht* notes that when Russell read Mill, the scales fell. [Value of PhilosophyNot-good Fridayaction herobday]

(*NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: check out Hecht’s Doubt and give me your feedback. Would this be a useful supplementary text in future Intro courses?)

And Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?)Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world semantically and structurally. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

And too many others to discuss adequately in a single class, including

Freud, who questioned our ability to fulfill the Socratic challenge (“Know Thyself”) without significant help from psychoanalysis and (by implication) neuroscience with his belief that the mind (brain) is analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and the language of physics (along with lots of couch-time and therapeuic delving into personal history).

Bergson, who said concepts and language are static and one-sided… we distort and deform the world when we use them to try and arrest its inexorable movement.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patterns instead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Heidegger, linguistic innovator (Dasein, Being-in-the-World, das Man) and (it turns out) Nazi fellow-traveler who nonetheless spoke truly when he defined personal authenticity in terms of the acknowledgement not only that people die but that I will. Nothing shameful in that.

Sartre, who said it’s “bad faith” to shirk your freedom… and his friend de Beauvoir, who led a procession of feminist thinkers appalled by philosophy’s (and everyone else’s) neglect of the so-called “second sex.” Feminism raises the question: are there masculine and feminine styles and concerns? In any case, shouldn’t we all be paying more attention to family and interpersonal issues?

Camus, who said we must consider Sisyphus happy…

Finally we come to Postmodernism‘s strange claim that there is no truth, only discourse; and to New Age philosophy’s various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. [What the [bleep’]The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And, today: play ball!

Postscript: Mom‘s been gone for two whole years today. We miss her terribly, but no longer so painfully. Her memory glows and warms.

Where do you want to go today?

March 29, 2010

That was Bill Gates’s old question, not unlike ours in Intro today (as posed by Bob Solomon & Kathy Higgins): “Where to, Humanity? Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche”… and not unlike the instigating question in next Fall’s new “Future of Life” course.

I worked up a slideshow on this, after discovering the Slideshare tool over the weekend and having no trouble at all putting up my baseball shows. This morning it’s balking. I’ll keep working on it. Meanwhile, the story can be summarized thusly:

J.S. Mill (of his own free will) articulated a vision of human good as a progressive, perpetual  historical expansion of human rights and individual liberties. The only reason for limiting any person’s freedom is in order to protect the freedom of others. His “harm principle” says do your thing, just don’t interfere with anyone else’s right and opportunity to do the same. (And he meant anyone’s, women included. His friend Harriet helped him see the light on that.)

Charles Darwin‘s revolutionary account of evolution by natural selection cast that enterprise in a new light. As Dan Dennett would put it much later, freedom evolves and so do we.  That ought to bode well for Mill’s project and ours. But this suggests a momentous question: Could humans still be evolving? If so, into what? Could we be living some brief, intermediary existence between the “lower” animals and some higher, mightier, or more adaptive creature than ourselves? [Charles & EmmaDawkins & Dennett on D…his birthday and Abe‘s…ScopesBBCPBS]

Enter Fritz Nietzsche, offering the incredible suggestion that human beings were nothing but a bridge between the ape and the Ubermensch. The future of human nature was now called into question. What will we make ourselves, what will humanity become? [Drunk on the ground]

Good question. Is the suggestion really so incredible? Some have found it inspiring, others terrifying. We’ll see if we find it instigating in class.

And we’ll wonder if, in the immortal words of CSNY, we have all been here before. Deja vu all over again, Yogi? Or do we only go around once, and need to grab the gusto while we can? Or was that precisely the point of Fritz’s gift to his shrink? Isn’t it also, btw, what “Phil” learned in Groundhog Day? (Woody in Manhattan, too…)

Kant to Marx

March 22, 2010

Immanuel Kant, jostled out of his Leibnizian dreamscape by David Hume’s wake-up call, but equally  frightened by the latter’s skepticism, proposed to limit knowledge to make room for faith, distinguishing experience from things beyond experience, the “things in themselves” we can never know because we know them only by applying our human concepts to the raw stuff of life.

Here’s a handy mnemonic: Kant says we constitute (kant-stitute) the world as we know it, and so should feel fine about knowledge. And here is Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism. We do not in any sense have to infer or prove its existence, we’re the  suppliers of its very warp and woof. We ourselves, as “transcendental ego.” But this is a “thinking thing” much more spread out and amorphous and no less problematic than the “res cogitans” of Descartes.

But, it gives rise to a moral philosophy  that– if it succeeds– puts a bandage on that Humean pricked finger, in the form of Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Because we all have the same faculty of reason within us, Kant was convinced that we [should] all reach the same conclusions regarding morality. You should always be able to universalize any rational rule (“maxim”), and if you can’t: don’t do it. (That’s imperative.)

Here’s the “making way for faith” part: without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality. We need to believe that, ultimately, moral behavior converges with happiness. Ergo: God, immortality, and an eternal afterlife. This can’t (kant) be experienced on the phenomenal plane (where we empirical egos live) , but is on the Kantian view a rational postulate nonetheless.

Kant was also interested in the concept of the aesthetic “sublime,” when the starry skies and other large natural phenomena put us in mind of an infinity our imaginations still boggle at.  We gain a further sense of our dignity as rational beings in this way, while at the same time experiencing our relative insignificance in the natural scheme of things. For Kant, this too points to the possibility of a rational faith. To me it points to itself: the wonder of nature, and us a part of it all. Nothing “insignificant” about it.

Hegel. In a squashed nutshell: history matters, opposites can be rationally, “synthetically” reconciled in the great perpetual dialectical processes of time and “geist” (spirit).  Michael Prowse: “What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good.” We are all in this together.

At the far end of his own dialectical journey, Hegel got owly and cryptic. “The owl of Minerva flies only at twilight,” he solemnly pronounced, apparently taking back some of  his earlier confidence in the power of philosophy (and a philosophy of history) to make history happen.

But, if there is a point to human history, you could do worse than to agree with Friend Hegel (as one of my old profs called him) that it is the realization of human freedom. But now the interesting debate begins: how much of freedom is strictly an individual concern? How much concerns the public interest, the common good, the weal of the collective?

That’s where Marx will come in, soon. (btw: there really is a Hegel Society. Don’t know if they meet for drinks like we did…)

Then comes Schopenhauer, aka ScroogeSourpussHis antipathy toward Hegel was profound. What Schopenhauer most despised in Hegel was his optimism, his sense that humanity was improving. And though he followed Kant in emphasizing the importance of human volition, he departed from Kant by denying the rationality of the will. Will is ultimately without purpose. An  animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cucle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all of this? Use your imagination, Artur! (We’ll see, with Alain de Botton’s chapter, that actually he did. He found refuge from a world he claimed was otherwise unredeemable, in art.)

Kierkegaard.  Existence is not just “being there” but living passionately. Good. But to my taste his emphasais on “subjective truth” is not so good, as a thesis about truth (as opposed to a commitment to seeking your passion).  His skewering of Hegel for ignoring “the existing, ethical individual” is often entertainining and funny, though.  The 19th century rationalists took themselves pretty seriously. Kierkegaard told ’em to take a “leap of faith.”

Feuerbach. Unlike many other Germans of his day, this one was a down-to-earth materialist who punned that “Man ist was Man isst.” You are what you eat. Practically speaking, the dialectical upshot of this view combined with Hegel’s yielded the new Marxian synthesis.

Karl Marx turned to converting Hegel’s dialectic of ideas into a theory about the power of economics. In place of Hegel’s World Spirit were the forces of production. In place of ideas in confrontation were competing socioeconomic classes. The goal of a classless society sounds good.  It doesn’t seem near. Would Marx have consoled himself with a beautiful lounge suite?

cave philosophy

February 8, 2010

Today’s Passion for Wisdom sections jet us from Plato’s and Aristotle’s Athens past Greek and Roman Stoics and Skeptics to African animists and Meso-American Incas and Aztecs. All pose big imponderable questions: What is real? How real is experience, compared with ideas? What does “reality” mean? Where to begin?

Perhaps with Plato and Aristotle, and the messages implicit in their body language in the famous Raphael painting “School of Athens.” Plato’s gesture bespeaks his two-worlds philosophy, according to which our everyday experience is less real than “Ideas” and “Essences” (or “Forms”) in contrast with Aristotle’s more grounded view that ideas and forms are in the things at our feet.

Then there’s Plato’s cave with its image of some very strange prisoners, on his view much “like ourselves.” On Plato’s telling, Socrates was a cave-dweller who was  willling to return to the cave, to “descend to human affairs,” and was persecuted for doing it. This is an allegory about the search for wisdom, the willingness to be unpopular in its pursuit, and the dangers that befall persons who – like Socrates – personify courage and intellectual integrity. It’s a plea to tolerate and even encourage dissenting voices and different ways of thinking and living. It’s also, as noted, a symbol of Plato’s “two world” metaphysics, about which Socrates typically was agnostic.

And – in modern terms – it’s a warning to resist the allure of the cave and its reassuring but shadowy unreality. Many of our caves, and the flickering images on their walls, are warm and dry and wired. But would Plato think they were an improvement?
Aristotle might not think  much better of our pastimes, but he did not distrust the senses; he used them to observe, collect, and experiment. There is no place and no need for a theory of Forms, a theory of another world.

Stoics had an almost fanatic faith in reason.

They regarded emotions as irrational judgments  that make us frustrated and unhappy. Like Buddha they urged: minimize your desires and you will minimize your suffering. 

Anger is pointless and  can only be self-destructive. Love and friendship can be dangerous.

The wise form only limited attachments. Stoics and skeptics value the feeling of at-homeness above all, and (like Buddhists?) perceive “attachment” as that feeling’s greatest threat. More on this from Simon Critchley next time.

Halfway ’round the world, while the Greeks and Romans were getting themselves memorialized in our cultural histories, reflected in our classic architecture, and inspiring generations of Vulcans et al, the Aztecs and Olmec (who seem to come up in class at every sports season transition… how ’bout ‘dem Saints!) and Navaho and other native Americans were creating their own rich– but because mainly oral, now obscure– traditions. Like their contemporaries on the African continent they became animists and sought soul and spirit everywhere. The voodoo supernaturalism of this perspective can be off-putting to a logically-minded Stoic or Skeptic, but there are other chords in the Meso-American and African worldviews that speak directly to some of our most pressing planetary concerns. We are a part of the Earth, we are dependent on it, and it is dependent on us. We have ecological responsibilities; the world around us, “nature,” is not just a resource… we are nature… nature is essentially spiritual.

Postscript: Thoreau had some thoughts about this reality stuff…