Posts Tagged ‘relativism’

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.

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 Happiness Hypothesis

September 15, 2009

We commence our examination of Jonathan Haidt’s book, previewed a few weeks ago here. (Note to class: bring your volubility with you again, rain or shine; mine’s still under the weather.)

Interesting that our class discussion the other day got into questions of moral philosophy and cultural relativism, both large concerns of Haidt’s and a topic of concern in that previous post. He is a forceful opponent of moral absolutism, and a proponent of live-and-let-live pluralism. He thinks we’re too prone to seeing the world “through a distorting lens of good and evil” that leads us into futile attempts to make the world and other people conform to our wills.

No doubt, our judgments too often do project prejudice and self-righteousness onto the world canvas, which in itself (he thinks) is amenable to varieties of happiness-seeking strategies. Three of his favorites: meditation, cognitive therapy, & Prozac.  Why does he not include the psycho-active benefits of physical exercise on this list, as does Lyubomirsky (also previewed last month here)? He does cite her work, though, in explicating the distinction between two kinds of “externals”: conditions and voluntary activities. More about this next time when we turn to ch.5.

Haidt is very fond of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” line: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I call myself a pluralist too, but I’m a little uneasy with this equation. In the spirit of the book, though,  I’ll try to restrain my impulse to pursue the argument about relativism at the outset. Let’s see where this line takes us.

But to declare my prejudice: good thinking discovers the correct referent of “good” and “bad,” it does not make it so. And– though it’s not yet clear if he’s going to dispute this in the end– syncing the world and other people to our (personal or collective) will is sometimes the right thing to try to do. We just need to train ourselves to be happy doing it, whether or not we’re finally successful. I can’t prevent a campaign of genocide or lower our collective carbon footprint all by myself, but what would I be if I didn’t try?

There are many “‘happiness hypotheses” to kick around, many proposals for where we can most promisingly seek it. Haidt, who teaches at Mr. Jefferson’s university in Virginia, seems especially drawn to the hypothesis that the greatest happiness is to be found in forms of social connection and communal engagement. He also expresses a natural piety (John Dewey’s phrase) when he writes that “people simply do perceive sacredness, holiness, or some ineffable goodness in others, and in nature.” He’s right, some people do. Dewey did. I try to; but it does indeed seem ineffably hard to convey to those who don’t perceive it for themselves.

The first chapter is all about how the mind works, i.e., how the brain– in commerce with its worlds– produces the streams of experience we call mind. It’s important to be reminded that happiness as we’ve come to think of it is an evolved state of central nervous systems, ergo a state of mind.

But does that imply that my dogs are less happy than me? Not behaviorally, at feeding and walking time– and I love to eat and walk! I could definitely learn a lot from them about present-time enjoyment, if we could swap skins for awhile. But I’ve probably derived lots more satisfaction recalling and anticipating walks and meals.  I don’t want to be a dog.

riderHaidt’s recurrent metaphor is the elephant and rider. (Sorry if this image offends, it’s just so much more, um, illustrative than any of the others Google retrieved.) Related imagery: Plato’s charioteer, Freud’s horse and buggy (with ego the struggling driver and superego Dad in back), Montaigne and his disobedient member (“thrusting itself forward so inopportunely”). We’re tempted to think of them all as representing external challenges to our rational wills, but Haidt wants us to grasp our intimate relation to the runaway parts of our elephantine, sprawling selves, even the “taboo” parts.

His point: Conscious, controlling thought– reason— tries to be the authoritarian rider. The elephant, though, is a lot bigger not only than rational mind; it’s bigger than the rational self. It’s got a mind of its own. You can coax, lure, and entice it… but  you can’t control it. Want to be happy? Work with your elephant, don’t try to compel him. “When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him” (so I might as well join him).  We become miserable moralists when we try too hard to direct the elephant.

Lots of interesting discussion in Ch.2, about split brains, “the imp of the perverse,” and ways in which the non-rational mind outsmarts the rider and her strategies. “Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion… does most of the work.” Again, work with your elephant. But also remember: “We are the rider, and we are the elephant.”

Ch.3 brings Boethius and Lady Philosophy to the discussion. “Boethius is finally prepared to absorb the greatest lesson of all, the lesson Buddha and Marcus Aurelius had taught centuries earlier: ‘Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.'” And, a nice Ben Franklin aphorism: “We are not sensible of the greatest Health as of the least Sickness.” Amen, Ben.

And, an important Aurelius amendment: “…thinking makes it so,” but negative emotions can make your thinking make it so.

And Haidt’s own experience with Paxil makes me feel guilty: it’s more important to him to remember colleagues’ and students’ names on site than to “be a person who worries less, and who sees the world as being full of possibilities, not threats.” I hope he’s found another way to be that person. Should I drive to Charlottesville and take him hiking?

Ch.3 is about the golden rule, “reciprocity” and sociality. We should live in groups of 150. Time to revive the sixties commune concept?

Ch.4 reminds us how good we are at spotting others’ faults while ignoring our own. We’re naive realists:  “Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is, [and] that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us.”  And when they don’t?

How hard it is to say “I was wrong.” But we have to say something like that, sometimes, if we want to be happy in our relationships. Don’t I know it. Don’t you wish everybody did?

naturally happy

August 19, 2009

One of the crucial points to make about happiness, easy to say but very hard to live, is that it’s not to be found in “things” – not even new cars or homes or even iPods. But fleeting snatches of what passes for the semblance of happiness can definitely be triggered by the way we open ourselves to them, and those snatches tend to be idiosyncratic. For instance: I don’t imagine most new iPodders are as excited as I was last night to discover the ease by which “Stanza” can place the whole catalog of Gutenberg e-texts in your pocket. Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, Mysticism and Logic, Walden… got ’em, in mere seconds. The surprise is just how pleasant a reading experience it turns out to be. Happiness is not necessarily a warm and loaded iPod, but neither is it a small fact about our condition that we can be delighted by such relative trifles.

But let’s not get carried away. Idiosyncratic happiness is only part of the picture.

The American Humanist Association has issued several formal manifestos through the years. I’m struck by the confluence of two key tenets:

*Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.

*Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

We’re evolved and evolving bits of nature, personally and collectively. Our happiness is “integral” to our identity. It’s a point easily lost by pursuers of happiness in the western individualist style, who’ve been encouraged by genius and tradition to think of that pursuit as personal and private.

And that suggests the next spot in the road of our impending Happiness class quest. The journey will continue, afterThe How of H’ness, with Jonathan Haidt’s H’ness Hypothesis.

Haidt had interesting things to say to the TEDsters, suggesting that we righteous liberals are trapped in a moral matrix (just like Neo’s) because, ironically, in identifying ourselves by our openness to experience, our celebration of diversity, our questioning of authority (etc.) we somehow exclude other values that are also important: stability, preservation, conservation. If we want to break out we must study moral psychology.

Interesting, but flirting with relativism. That was evident in another exchange, at the “Beyond Belief” conference in 2008 with Sam Harris: