Delight Springs

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Perpetual morning


Didn't really go anywhere, since that last post in April, except into the grading burrow, then to lots of Younger Daughter's last softball games, and then finally up to Illinois for Older Daughter's college graduation. Her commencement speaker, retired Air Force General Larry O. Spencer, had choice words about civility and its absence in our current politics, and about privacy and its absence in the lives of young people. Refreshing, inspiring words. Hope the kids were listening.

Younger Daughter graduated too, from High School. Lots of commencing going on around here, the milestones are piling up.

Image result for toy story slinky dogI'm still faithfully rising each day, early enough to look for catchable and occasionally postable reflections. But since Older Daughter returned with her canine companion Scooter (a Dachs-Beagle, like Sheriff Woody's pal Slinky), I'm finding it necessary - she's not an early riser under this roof, but he is - and now actually preferable, to head straight out into the pre-dawn and a 10-legged perambulation with the pooches. We were out there well before 6 this morning, enjoying the mild morning.

So, henceforth these dawn reflections may not be posted 'til the day is well under way. But that's no matter, as Henry said: "To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me."

Today's simple reflection, then, is that I can be Up@dawn whenever I like.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Hope for the flowers (2)

John Lachs, in his most recent Berry Lecture, said "What horrifies is that we may disappear without having made a difference, like the butterfly that hovered over a flower for a minute a thousand years ago."

But here we still are, a thousand years on, talking about that butterfly. Butterflies have their effects (though not always as popularly conceived). Oh, the horror? Or the hope? The latter, surely, for glass-half-full butterfly people who believe even the slightest constructive efforts may ripple down the years in ever-wider waves.

That was my intended insinuation in lasts week's post-lecture reflections Hope for the flowers, a title swiped from the classic graphic allegory of life, revolution, and hope "for adults and others (including caterpillars who can read)" by Trina Paulus.

I once received that book as a parting gift from coworkers at the old independent bookstore (the big one on Hillsboro Pike behind the clocktower that's now a bank). They meant to inspire my own confident hope in tackling the final phase of my formal education, on the way to transmogrifying into a settled academic.

Academia's not everyone's idea of a butterfly haven, but it was then mine. I don't guess I was wrong, as the transformation occurred a few short years later and now here I've lit, tenured and privileged with the opportunity to try and give encouragement and hope to successive waves of students seeking to shuck their own chrysalises.

I've always known John to be of the butterfly tribe, the sort of pragmatic stoic who indulges the hopeful mood and infects others with it. A generous man, in the way of Camus when he said "real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present," John always made his caterpillarish students believe they had an inner butterfly just waiting to burst forth.

That's one of the ways of hope, to breed confidence and embolden growth in timid or tentative souls. Social hope for life's eventual denouement, for the millennial butterflies we'll never know, is like that too. It should breed confidence in our species' long-term prospects, reflected in a growing sense of urgency to give all to the present.

Our highest hope was never entirely for ourselves in a personal sense, but for those on whose metamorphosed good fortune we'd be honored and gratified to have some small effect - whether we lived to see it or not.

6 am/5:57, 73/89/70

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Rawls, Turing & Searle, Singer

It's our last class of the semester in CoPhi, wrapping up with John Rawls, Alan Turing, John Searle (who's lately joined an ignoble list of alleged philosopher/harassers, but that's another topic), and Peter Singer.

Rawls' "stroke of genius" was his Original Position thought experiment, seeking fairness and justice (for Rawls justice is fairness) via the imaginative contrivance of a "veil of ignorance." The idea is to acknowledge and lessen the undue influence of special interest pleading in our politics, allowing only those inequalities of wealth, status, privilege, opportunity, and resources that benefit all. The least well-off must be better off, when the veil is lifted, than otherwise. [SoL video]

Alan Turing's Imitation Game, "proposing the practical test of whether or not we would attribute intelligence to a system whose performance is indistinguishible from that of a human agent," says if it walks and talks like a smart duck it practically is one. John Searle countered with the Chinese Room, which "purports to show that even effective computer simulations do not embody genuine intelligence, since rule-governed processes need not rely upon understanding by those who perform them."

But some philosophers remain convinced that  we might someday use computers to achieve virtual immortality. That didn't work out so well for Johnny Depp in Transcendence. "I can't feel anything," says the uploaded semblance of his former self. If that's the singularity I hope it's nowhere near, Ray Kurzweil. "Transcending biology" might strip us of our humanity and not replace it with anything better.

Peter Singer says we should always be prepared to sacrifice "one or two of the luxuries that we don't really need" to help strangers. When you put it that way it doesn't really sound like "a hard philosophy to live up to," much as we love our branded shoes and suits, our cars and college funds, and our carnivorous ways. "But that doesn't mean Singer is wrong about what we ought to do." We ought to do a great deal more good for those in need than we do, most of us. Maybe we ought to stop eating sentient animals. Certainly we ought to stop inflicting gratuitous pain on all who can feel it. We ought to be less selfish and more cooperative.

Singer "represents the very best tradition in philosophy," if you agree that "constantly challenging widely held assumptions" like Socrates is the very best tradition. Kwame Anthony Appiah basically agrees, but would modify Singer's principle to something like: “if you are the best person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and it won’t cost you much to do so, do it.” [Singer slides]

We could say more, but there's a little exam we're itching to get on with. Suffice for now to say what Professor James always says on the last day of every class, as he said the last time he said anything at all. In the words of his favorite pluralistic mystic, “there is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!”

Actually there is one important bit of advice all philosophers will endorse:
Albert Einstein
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. #Einstein

And then there's some good advice about how to prepare for an exam.

And since it's poet Ted Kooser's birthday I'll add one more thing. Like Anthony Trollope, who said “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules,” Kooser had a habit of "rising early every morning so he could write for an hour and a half before going to the office." He wrote seven books that way, and became poet laureate. So the advice (which James also gave, notwithstanding his parting reluctance to say so) is: form good daily work habits and stick to 'em. "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives." -Annie Dillard

Good luck!

5:30/6:02, 53/80, 7:27

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rough road ahead

"Blackberry winter," my wife calls this late (for these parts) cold snap and deluge. But it's just weather, towards which (as Mr. Twain said) we're characteristically all talk and no action. These days, though, we have to wonder if weather is also climate change, and whether other things must now change as well. James Lovelock, the Gaia guru, has said we'll have to migrate northward before long to cope with it all. Hope he's wrong.

Human Migration (the course) concludes tomorrow evening, with an interdisciplinary roundtable featuring all of us content-providers: the philosopher, the political scientist, the sociologist, the dance instructor... As cosmopolitan a tableau as you'll ever see in the modern classroom, and an appropriate final punctuation mark for my block contribution,  "The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism." My message has been simple: science supports our better ethical instincts, those that trust rather than fear the "stranger" among us. We are the stranger. We are stronger together.

That's what the Marchers for Science were saying too, on Earth Day Saturday. They had some great signs, including this one:
The Vulcans were always on board with cosmopolitanism, with their ethos of IDIC - infinite diversity from infinite combinations. Will humans join them? Will we become a Federation? Or will we devolve?

A recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education worries that Colleges Are Rejecting Our Common Humanity and the Science That Reveals It. That trend, if continued, would be devolution.

Anthony Appiah's latest moralizing in The Ethicist urges instead the moral high ground. To the woman whose husband criticizes her "moral superiority" for refraining from saying demeaning things about people in private she wouldn't say in public he observes: "We let ourselves off the hook when we reflexively use “morally superior” as disparagement, as a synonym for toxic condescension. News flash: It’s morally superior to be morally superior." We can do better.

We clearly have a long journey ahead of us. Cassini is a good role model, already imposing the Prime Directive. "One reason scientists want to make sure Cassini is incinerated at the end of its journey is to ensure that any of its earthborn microbes do not contaminate the biotic or prebiotic worlds out there. Just in case..."

Its grand finale began yesterday, while only last week it discovered "possible life-supporting hydrothermal vents" on the moon Enceladus." Will we discover unexpected sources of life-support, before we begin our descent? Per ardua ad astra, a rough road leads to the stars.
Happy birthday Anthony Trollope. "He would write 1,000 words an hour before breakfast; he said, 'A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.'”

6 am/6:03, 55/68/52, 7:26

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Hope for the flowers

Our annual Spring Lyceum featured Ron Aronson, author of We:Reviving Social Hope and 
Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided
Aronson proposes contemporary answers to *Immanuel Kant’s three great questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What can I hope? Grounded in the sense that we are deeply dependent and interconnected beings who are rooted in the universe, nature, history, society, and the global economy, Living Without God explores the experience and issues of 21st-century secularists, especially in America. Reflecting on such perplexing questions as why we are grateful for life’s gifts, who or what is responsible for inequalities, and how to live in the face of aging and dying... Grds
I asked him about the intersection of secularism and social hope. He said the connection was very clear: we are on our own, help is not on the way, hope is ours for the making. Yes we can.

Night before last, John Lachs delivered this year's Berry Lecture at Vanderbilt: "Death and Self-Importance." Same premise, tone a little less hopeful. 
"Sad as it may sound to say it, probability favors the view that death is final. Our delights are like the joys of the butterfly that hovered over a flower for a precious minute a thousand years ago. And then it is over in a moment of grace.
Of course we can hope for more..."
On Earth Day, "the world’s largest secular holiday," we can and we must, to do less is to surrender to misanthropy and despair. Make Earth great again!

Lachs prefaced his talk by remarking on the lovely flowers near the Divinity School on Vandy's campus, and on the delight he ("on all fours") and we can take in their fleeting loveliness. If my talk seems too dark, he said, "remember the flowers."

And that's what Robert Frost said.
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year... (A Prayer in Spring)
But I'm still thinking far away too, as Cassini plunges, with hope for the flowers and all who delight in them. And all who follow. Speaking with my former student at the reception last night about our now-common joy of raising precocious children (and feeling envious of his time now spent in the daily company of a smart seven-year old, and nostalgic for mine long gone), I was reminded of Michael Chabon's plea for hope both near and far away.
If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly... then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that... they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free.
"The really vital question for us all" is still, for me, full of hope. “We can fly! “We can become butterflies! “There’s nothing at the top and it doesn’t matter!” Hope for the Flowers

Happy birthday *Immanuel Kant. “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe [...] the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

7 am/6:06, 55/65/48, 7:25, rain

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, Foot & Thomson

It's our penultimate semester class date, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Philippa Foot, and Judith Jarvis Thomson today in CoPhi.

Wittgenstein was one odd duck. Or rabbit. Or duckrabbit. What do you see, and how do you see it? Why do you see it that way? He thought these were questions worth investigating, in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations. I'm more inclined to follow the instruction of proposition 7 in his pre-humous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Famous premature last words.

"Raised in a prominent Viennese family, Ludwig Wittgenstein studied engineering in Germany and England, but became interested in the foundations of mathematics and pursued philosophical studies with Moore at Cambridge before entering the Austrian army during World War I. The notebooks he kept as a soldier became the basis for his Tractatus, which later earned him a doctorate and exerted a lasting influence on the philosophers of the Vienna circle. After giving away his inherited fortune, working as a village schoolteacher in Austria, and designing his sister's Vienna home, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, where he developed a new conception of the philosophical task. His impassioned teaching during this period influenced a new generation of philosophers..."

The Tractatus said we can't speak meaningfully about our most important questions in ethics and religion (and maybe language), and so should hold our tongues. That may sound like Freddy Ayer's "nonsense," but Wittgenstein was not being dismissive, he was courting mysticism. He presumed that language fails to mirror reality because we cannot verify their correspondence, cannot faithfully and flawlessly replicate in words the facts and meanings that lie beyond them.

The Philosophical Investigations takes a linguistic turn. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” not its relation to something non-linguistic in the world. The uses of words are discovered and decreed in our "language games," which include but crucially are not limited to the games philosophers play about truth. Those games can get us stuck like a fly in a bottle, and he wanted to pop the cork. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

How do you avoid linguistic captivity in the first place? Not by inventing your own private language. Language is intrinsically public, and only other users of our language can call us out for the  language errors we don't catch. A private language is too much like Leibniz' private monadic theaters of mind, too much like a game of solitaire played with improvised rules.

But rules presuppose other rule-followers, and language games presuppose other players. So the question is how do we break the spell of language, when it bewitches and confuses us? It's tempting to say "it's only a game," we can always play a different one. Can we?  “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Won't language always hold us captive in this sense?

The Investigations thus seem to bring Wittgenstein full circle, back to the concluding counsel of the Tractatus. “So in the end, when one is doing philosophy, one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.” I know what he means, I often feel that way when doing philosophy, and especially when watching others do philosophy. But now and then someone will say or write something that provokes an "ah-ha!" moment, and language seems less captor than liberator. Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had that effect on many of my peers in grad school, with its proposal that the pictures holding us captive in philosophy are optional. We can just decide to give up the picture of words as mirrors? That's a game-changer.

“Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” And vice versa. Peripatetics know this. You aren't necessarily lost, in language, you're exploring. Try another path. Start another conversation. Read another book. Write another sentence.
  Hannah Arendt covered Adolf Eichmann's war crimes trial for The New Yorker in 1963 ("Eichmann in Jerusalem"), finding him the very epitome of banality, "an ordinary man who chose not to think too hard about what he was doing." The banality of evil resides in the hearts and minds of heartless, thoughtless functionaries. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal." And they pay that "normality" forward, to catastrophic and tragic result. “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism has suddenly again become must-reading. "The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.... The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists...  one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” 

Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemeies is must-reading too. "Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them... We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Popper said science progresses when we find reasons to falsify, rather than confirm, a favored hypothesis. Science proceeds not by proving things but by pruning falsehoods. It skirts the problem of induction, the problem of our never having enough particular experiences of a phenomenon to support a generalized knowledge claim, by looking instead for falsifying counterexamples.

Thomas Kuhn said shift happens. Paradigm shifts are revolutions in though, when "normal science" fails to make sense of new observations and ways of thinking. “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like... Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.” When the puzzles seem insoluble, researchers become receptive to new paradigms. The Copernican Revolution was a paradigm shift. Einstein's E=mc2 was another. Aren't we about due for a new one?

Thought experiments don't require a lab, just an experimental cast of mind and the integrity to report one's results honestly when they disconfirm one's prejudices. Philippa Foot (R.I.P./Guardian) and Judith Jarvis Thomson gave us runaway train and trolley thought experiments (YouT, toolkit).

"Critics of the trolley problem say it is too unrealistic to reveal anything important about real-life morality. But the rise of drones and self-driving cars makes the dilemma perhaps more relevant than ever before. For example, should a self-driving car protect the life of its passengers, even at the expense of a greater number of pedestrians? Here too, our intuitions are inconsistent: we want other people’s cars to maximize the number of lives saved – but think our own car should protect us at all costs. As our technologies become increasingly capable of making moral decisions, understanding our own moral intuitions becomes all the more crucial." Guardian

Thomson topped herself in "A Defense of Abortion" with an unsolicited surgically attached violinist. Not everyone think this bizarre scenario supports Thomson's fetal intentions, but it's certainly got people talking.
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous...
And therefore...?
?? Should we be silent about things we can't prove? Should philosophy concern itself with more than understanding the logic of language? Do you use language as a pictorial medium, a tool for managing social relationships and expressing our thoughts and feelings, or what? Are ordinary people capable of great evil? Are you? How can we be sure that a Holocaust will never happen again? What will you teach your children about that? If the government attempted to round up, detain, and deport millions of Latinos and Muslims, how would you respond? Is "the banality of evil" relevant to our time?
"It's the birthday of one of the founders of psychiatry, Philippe Pinel, born in Saint-AndrĂ©, France (1745). He studied mathematics, theology, and internal medicine before becoming the chief physician at a Paris insane asylum in 1792. Before Pinel arrived, conditions at the asylum were horrible: Among other things, patients were chained to the walls, and people could pay a fee to come in and watch them..."  It's the anniversary of Columbine (1999) and Deepwater Horizon (2010)...

5:30/6:08, 63/87, 7:23

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, AND Cosmopolitanism

Today in CoPhi we begin with a closer look at Bertrand Russell, whose historical opinions we've been noting all semester. But we've outrun his his 1945 History, which gives generous but unsympathetic late chapters to William James ("almost universally beloved") and John Dewey ("leading living philosopher in America") before concluding with a few cursory words on the logical analysis of Cantor and Frege. He says nothing of the Existentialists or then-young A.J. Ayer.

Russell's youthful encounter with J.S. Mill led him to a pivotal liberating insight.
I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day at the age of eighteen I read Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. Why I Am Not a Christian
We  should resolve, he decided, "to understand the actual world as it is, not as we should wish it to be... Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”  Mature wisdom then comes when we apply ourselves to building on that understanding, and seeing if we can either construct steps to reach our castles in the sky (in Thoreau's metaphor) or build new castles where we stand. Why else was old Russell in the streets protesting nuclear proliferatrion and Vietnam?

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it... The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty..." That's the state of mind that best stimulates curiosity and creativity, and opens us to consider new possibilities. "Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom."

Russell also said “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” And, “In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” And, “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so... It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

Russell's china teapot is one of his more improbable enduring images. "If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion..." You can probably guess where he's going with that teapot.

Russell's paradoxical barber, fascinated with language and its self-referential confusions, was less obviously engaged in constructive world-making. But he inspired A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists, convinced that progress in philosophy and in life required the dismantling of philosophy's unverifiable traditional ambitions as so much literal nonsense. Language, Truth and Logic was a young man's book. Old Ayer had to nearly choke to death on his salmon to acquire mature wisdom. He also courted a near death  experience with the ear-nibbling prizefighter Mike Tyson. ("Wickedest Man in Oxford")

The Existentialists, rallying under Jean Paul Sartre's anti-essentialist banner, warned against "bad faith" but didn't explain precisely how people who love their work - philosophers included - can avoid being defined or inauthenticated by it. Sartre's advice to the student who didn't know whether to join the Resistance, to just choose, was frustrating. But he'd say that's life.

Simone de Beauvoir was a bit more helpful. She said women are made, not born, but have been too accepting of the constructed gender constraints imposed by men. “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” They can make a different plan. The present generation is testing the limits of reconstruction, as women and men explore the possibilities of self-discovery. We can all learn to persist and persevere against arbitrary silencing and suppression. “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” So, is it existentially inauthentic to hire a housekeeper? I can't imagine my wife happy without her.

Albert Camus said there's no final escape from the absurdities of life, but we can learn to live with them. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. Camus and his generation successfully pushed back against the rock that was the Reich. He was awarded a Nobel. And then he died behind the wheel.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” I don't agree, but if he felt that way why did he search for happiness and meaning? Or maybe it just came to him. “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” 

“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion were absurd, but they too persisted and learned something from Sartre about the roads to freedom. “If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company... Do you think that I count the days? There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk... Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning... Freedom is what we do with what is done to us... We are our choices... Hell is—other people!"

Best accessible recent account of Existentialism: At the Existentialist CafĂ©: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell. "Paris, near the turn of 1933. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking. Pointing to his drink, he says, 'You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!'"

And so we'll ask: Have you ever read a book that changed your mind about something important to you? What would you say to Bertrand Russell and J.S. Mill about the First Cause Argument? Are linguistic paradoxes a deep philosophical/conceptual problem, or an amusing quirk of language reflecting our freedom of expression and self-discovery? Can you give an example of an unverifiable statement that you consider meaningful? If biology and the social sciences don't shed light on a shared species essence, what is the status of our common genetic and memetic inheritance? Can you construct a personal essence, it that's always subject to deconstruction and replacement? Could that be our essence? Where is gender headed, in this and coming generations? What's your Sisyphean rock?
Cosmopolitans like Kwame Anthony Appiah push against the rock of nationalist chauvinism, and push for greater human solidarity. Anthony Appiah pushes alongside Adam Smith, the old free marketeer who insisted on recognizing what he called "reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct" as our greatest source of conscience. Like his friend David Hume, he found wisdom in thinking about his little finger. Hume's lexicon was different, in A Treatise of Human Nature, but the enlightened Scots agreed: we have it in ourselves to become more generous and less selfish. "It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger," but it is definitely contrary to our better sentiments and sympathies, and contrary to our humanity.
Happy birthday Clarence Darrow, defender of Tennessean John Scopes in the 1925 Monkey Trial (which surprisingly many Tennesseans in my classrooms haven't heard of-they should read Trials of the Monkey and watch Inherit the Wind)... and Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The War Against Women and Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. "She received criticism from the feminist movement for focusing on men, but she shrugged it off, saying: 'I don’t see how you can be a feminist and not think about men. In order for women to live freely, men have to live freely, too. Being a feminist opens your eyes to the ways men, like women, are imprisoned in cultural stereotypes.'”

5:30/6:11, 63/79/62, 7:21