Delight Springs

Monday, November 20, 2017

Peirce & James, Nietzsche, Freud

Image result for softballOrig. publ. 4.13.17.

Attended my second High School softball game in three days, on another lovely late afternoon in April. "Cruelest month" - ? No, happy days! Next year's going to be weird, with no players under our roof left to cheer for. Dr. Seuss may not have said it but we'll need to remember it: "Don't be sad it's over, be glad it happened." Actually, a little sadness will be ok too. And the game will go on. Ain't over 'til it's over.

Today in CoPhi it's the American Pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James (and John Dewey, R.I.P., and George Santayana, both neglected by Nigel), the godless post-nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the psychoanalytic therapeutics of Sigmund Freud.

We begin with a squirrel, whose circumnavigation of a tree was the improbable occasion for James's account of the pragmatic method. (That's the view from his summer place in New Hampshire atop my masthead, btw.) His camping companions couldn't decide whether a scampering, circling squirrel was itself circled by the human observers who tried and failed to keep the frenetic rodent constantly in their sights or not.
...Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: "Which party is right," I said, "depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by 'going round' the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb 'to go round' in one practical fashion or the other." Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English 'round,' the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute. What Pragmatism Means
A silly and trivial dispute, perhaps, but helpfully illustrative of how pragmatists think. Define your terms, say what practical difference the competing answers would make, and get on with more pressing concerns. It all depends on "why you want to know and what difference it will actually make," if any. If none, forget about it.

Another way to illustrate the method: what's your current velocity, right now?

Charles Peirce, not related to Benjamin Franklin Pierce, said the final truth is what we would end up with if we could run all the experiments and investigations we'd like to. We'll never run them all, so the truth at any given time is always provisional, always tied to the present state of inquiry and always subject to revision or rejection in the light of further experience. 

Bertrand Russell didn't think much of this approach, and didn't make much of an effort to grasp its intent. Pragmatists are often accused of denying the facts, when they explicitly acknowledge facts but propose that we understand truth (or falsehood) about the facts as what we say about them but never, in media res, entirely convergent with them. What we say is subject to the present stage of inquiry, the inconclusiveness of which requires an admission that what we would say at the ideal end of inquiry will surely differ. Hence the perpetual gap between facts and truths, and the pragmatists' commitment to narrowing the gap in the long run while resisting unwarranted absolute claims in the interim.

So it's not true, contrary to Russell's derisive criticism, that pragmatists have to admit the truth of Santa's existence. It may "work" for a four-year-old to think so, but toddlers don't get the last word. 

This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is "expedient" in a situation James's critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It's more like Richard Rorty's neo-pragmatic and (later) Wittgensteinian invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a "Santa Claus" philosophy of truth.  Rorty said words are our tools and not symbolic snapshots corresponding to timeless propositional statements.  Our task is to "cope" with the world, not just copy it.

James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling's comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.

Besides, he's the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he's the one I'd most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn't drink. (Too bad they don't serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters and correspondence, they humanize his philosophy and place his "radical" views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.

James's interest in religion was rooted in the lives and experience of individuals, not particularly in God, heaven, the afterlife and so on. He psychologizes and naturalizes religion. It's mostly about life on earth, for Jamesians, not (again) old St. Nick.

Let me know if you'd like to buy a good bargain-priced book about him. About us all, really.

Friedrich Nietzsche said "God is dead" and seemed at turns dismayed and liberated to think so. Is a godless world one in which "everything is permitted" or one in which objective and authoritative permission is no longer available, in which the old rules have been mooted and "free spirits" are unleashed to create new rules for themselves?  But is God dead, in Nietzsche's terms? Maybe in old Europe, and maybe in more of the formerly sacred halls of worship in our own backyard than most of us will admit. Zarathustra may have come a century too soon in some quarters, and it may still be too soon in others, but it's hard to deny that ours is an increasingly secular age. I don't know many secularists who think everything is permitted.

Nor do I know many secularists who think compassion, kindness, and consideration are dead, dependent on a religious pedigree, or reflective of slavish resentment. That genealogy may explain the psychology behind some Christians' worldview, but most people in my experience still want to be good for goodness' sake. If your only motivation for being good, though, is to get to heaven, that's not good. And it's not goodness.

We're hosting a talk by a representative godless secular humanist who thinks you can be good without a god next Friday, at our annual Spring Lyceum: Ronald Aronson, author of Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.

If an Ubermensch is "not held back by conventional moral codes," he'd better be held back by law and communal disfavor. There are other, better names for people who "want to have their way without consideration of other people's interests": selfish egoists. Spoiled brats. NPDs. Mr. President. Not Superman.

Nietzsche's un-Kantian exaltation of unreason found partial alliance with Sigmund Freud, but is also placed on the shrink's couch as a classic textbook case of subterranean wish-fulfillment and unresolved, unconsious discontent with modernity. The Freudian Unconscious may not quite rise to the revolutionary status of Copernicus and Darwin, Frood may not have figured it all out, Deputy, but it would explain a lot. As "talking cures" go, though, I think I'd usually rather talk to a philosophical analyst than a psycho-...

Nietzsche himself was an early-adopter of psychoanalysis, and needed to be. He had a gift for his analyst, as documented in the film When Nietzsche Wept: eternal recurrence, the gift that keeps on giving. Or doesn't. Its up to you to affirm or negate, to receive the gift as a great liberation or the greatest weight.

Freud's reductive account of religion rivals Marx's, and like Marx's probably captures a significant but not comprehensive segment of believers. Much of Freud's universe is unfalsifiable, as Sir Karl said, but it's not hard to find a devout person who wants and finds more in religion than a protective paterfamilias in the sky. On the other hand, he wasn't entirely off base when he said “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” And, "man's judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness-accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments."

?s Does it really "work" to believe in Santa? Didn't you continue to receive presents after you stopped believing? Is believing in Santa analogous to believing in God? When James said truth is what works, did he mean what works for me, now? Or for us, on the whole and in the long run? Are words tools, or more like pictures? Is it possible that God is dead for some but not others, in some places and times more and in others less? Are compassion and kindness distinctively religious values? Do you know any kind and compassionate atheists? Should we embrace the irrational and emotional aspects of human nature, or try to overcome them? Is Freudian dream symbolism (snakes and caves etc.) profound or silly?
11.20.17. It’s the birthday of astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble, born in Marshfield, Missouri (1889)... At his high school graduation in 1906, the principal said, “Edwin Hubble, I have watched you for four years and I have never seen you study for 10 minutes.” He paused, and then said, “Here is a scholarship for the University of Chicago.”

...He was one of Oxford University’s first Rhodes Scholars, but he didn’t study astronomy there — he studied law, to please his father. He came home in 1913 and passed the bar, but his heart wasn’t in the law practice and he quit after a year. He taught high school Spanish, math, and physics, and coached the basketball team, and the students loved him. But when the term ended, Hubble went back to school himself: this time to earn his Ph.D. in astronomy at Chicago University.

After World War I, Hubble joined the staff of the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he studied nebulae. During his work, he discovered that the Andromeda Nebula was actually another galaxy, far away from our own Milky Way, which scientists had long believed was the only galaxy in the universe. He discovered 22 more galaxies, and he also proved that the universe was actually expanding, which supported the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Stephen Hawking called Hubble’s discovery “one of the great intellectual revolutions of the 20th century.” WA
60 Minutes last night did a nice tribute to Voyagers 1 & 2, the little spacecraft that could-

"That's home. That's us," Carl Sagan once wrote. "A mote of dust suspended in a sun beam." Voyager 1 is now three times farther from earth than when that photograph was taken. Scientists believe Voyager 1 is now traveling in what's called "interstellar space" -- the space between the stars of our galaxy. Voyager 2 is expected to get there in a few years.

In about 10 years, when the Voyagers' nuclear power runs out, Stone says they'll continue zipping through the vacuum-like conditions in interstellar space. It's very empty out there and they're unlikely to crash into anything. Long after all of us are gone, Voyager 1 and 2 will just keep going and going.

Ed Stone: Think of that. We have actually sent a message, which will be in orbit in the Milky Way galaxy essentially forever, even after the sun and the earth no longer exist in their current state.

Anderson Cooper: Wait. This is, my little mind can't process some of this. Even after the sun and the Earth.

Ed Stone: The sun will become a red giant and envelop the earth and that will happen maybe five billion years from now. These two little emissaries will be out there in their independent orbit basically for billions of years.
On this day in 1948 US balloon reaches height of 42.7 km (record)... in 1984 SETI Institute (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is founded... 1998 First module of the International Space Station, Zarya, is launched.==
And It’s the birthday of American novelist Don DeLillo (books by this author), born in New York City (1936), best known for his intense explorations of politics, assassination, culture, and anxiety in books like White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), and Underworld (1997)... About writing, DeLillo says: “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them.” WA
4.13.17. It's the birthday of Samuel Beckett, who waited for Godot but didn't know what he waiting for... and of Thomas Jefferson, who couldn't wait to declare our independence... and of Eudora Welty, who lived her whole life in the same house in Jackson, MS and said “the dullest man I ever saw in my life (Henry Miller) wasn’t interested in anything outside himself.” Emily Dickinson's poem about madness in spring was about people like him.

5:30/6:17, 52/85, 7:17

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Gravity, repetition, and fantasyland

We'll finish our stroll with Gros's Philosophy of Walking today. He says the distance walker experiences "an immense renunciation," or resignation to being earthbound, that issues ultimately and paradoxically in "the joy of being" and an "utter bliss." He's probably exaggerating at both ends of that statement, hikers typically begin not in a spirit of resignation but rather of eager anticipation, and end at the bliss end of the scale for sure, but possibly not utterly  - but I haven't hiked the AT yet, so I'll suspend judgment. Bryson ended his hike all aglow, sure enough, but didn't soft-pedal the challenges and indignities of the abortive journey either.

Daily walkers, or this one anyway, do not set out in the expectation of slipping the surly bonds of earth, nor do the typically mild and reassuring rewards of transit for its own sake generally rise to transcendent levels of ecstasy. We keep our feet on the ground and our heads out of the clouds, or short at least of Cloud Nine. Slow and steady is our mantra, we're not racing anyone or renouncing anything. But we do indeed understand and accept that our place is here, on this earth and in this skin, as every step reinforces the point. We're down to earth.

And yet, we also feel a pleasant lightness of being as we realize and celebrate the ease of traveling without encumbrance. Gros had to ditch his rucksack at the foot of a mountain to feel that. I ditch my figurative rucksack every morning as I step out the door and also find "nothing between me and the sky, me and the ground" but a leash and a friend.

Reflecting on Gandhi's disciplined, principled marches for justice, Gros says you can better "hold yourself to account" through "meticulous self-examination" measured a step at a time. You can, but you can also - as he's already told us - slip away from hyper-self-examination. A walk is a canvas, and each can be different.

Does walking cure apathy ("acedia")? Some monks have said so, owing somehow to the rhythm and regularity of a steady gait. I know I find it harder not to care about things, during and after a walk. I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure I need to know why. Some gift horses just must be ridden and not riddled out.

I don't know if Wordsworth was really the first poet of walking, but he was surely its poet laureate. "I calculate," said De Quincy, "that... Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles—a mode of exertion which, to him, stood in the stead of alcohol and other stimulants whatsoever to animal spirits; to which, indeed, he was indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings."

Wordsworth achieved in his wanderings what the Tibetan masters devised breathing and gymnastic exercises (lung-gom) to attain, the ability "of walking very fast over enormous distances without fatigue." He and they may be our peripatetic role models, if we need them. For me, it's enough simply to echo Montaigne's observation:  "My thoughts sleep if I sit still." I don't necessarily have to go long and far, to shake off somnolence. I just have to go. And go. And go. It's not for nothing that our last chapter is Repetition. Once more into the breach. Let's go.
And once again, tonight, I get to repeat the happy experience of teaching the first of a two-class block in our school's Master of Liberal Arts (MALA) program. Last semester it was Human Migration (and cosmopolitanism), this time it's Cheating. My contribution: Cheating Truth (which, to be clear, I'm against). We'll begin with a look at Princeton Professsor Harry Frankfurt's classic "On Bullshit," originally a mid-'80s essay in Raritan, revived in teeny pocket-book format in the mid-'00s, and on target now more than ever. As the author told Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, it just keeps "piling."

I've been instructed not to require introductions from our students, since they've already had a half-dozen opening nights with different teachers all semester long and should know one another well enough by now. I get that, but it's still hard for me not to begin my opening night, as I begin all my opening days each semester, with two questions: Who are you? and Why are you here? So, folks, I won't ask. If any of you would care to volunteer that information, however...

And if anyone would care to volunteer a synopsis of what's gone on in the cheating class so far, I'd love to be caught up. (So far the class has heard from my colleagues in Theater and Dance, Global Studies and Human Geography, Music, Political Science, and Sociology and Anthropology.)

Why "bullshit"? Isn't it obvious? As Kurt Andersen says in his timely, troubling, yet vastly entertaining new alt-history of our land, it's not a new phenomenon but lately it's really coming to a head.
When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things," the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: "our wishes, our inclinations" and 'the dictates of our passions' now apparently do 'alter the state of facts and evidence,' because extrteme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule...
...mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire - a 500-Year History
We've fostered "a promiscuous devotion to the untrue," one nation under Twitter with liberty for disinterest in truth and facts for all.

Well, fortunately not all. Wits like Andersen and Frankfurt, and before them sages like Carl Sagan with his euphemistic baloney-detection kit, have done their best to call out and rein in our promiscuous magical thinking. May the force be with them, and with us all.
It was on this day in 1913 that the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was published. He’d begun work on it in 1909, after taking a nibble of a French pastry cookie dipped in tea...WA

LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) is first synthesized by Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland on this day in 1938... in 1835 Charles Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" published in Cambridge Philosophical Society... in 1965 Walt Disney launches Epcot Center: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow... in 1974 John Lennon's only solo #1 "Whatever Gets You Through the Night"... in 1982 Space Shuttle Columbia completes its 1st operational flight

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mill, Darwin, Kierkegaard, & Marx

Busy days ahead! MillDarwinKierkegaardMarx

Then tomorrow tonight, it's the first of my two classes in the MALA course on "Cheating"... my contribution: "Cheating Truth"... 

 Last time this quartet of philosophers came up I was doing my bit for the Spring MALA course on Human Migration, worth a look back. My block contribution then was "The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism," first retracing the genetic trail of Y-chromosome crumbs that prove we have indeed walked far, then wondering if we'll ever complete the mission summarized by that ambitious (if premature) plaque on the moon.

Image result for "we came in peace" moon flag

"Premature," I say, as evidenced by that other marker we left in the lunar dust.

Image result for "we came in peace" moon flag

Also premature perhaps in its implication that humans at this stage of their evolutionary development have in fact become a peaceable, or even reliably civil, species. I ventured out to the airport last night and was met with several instances of gratuitous incivility. Lots of us seem like powder kegs waiting to blow, these days. Oh well. At least I didn't get beat up or kicked off a plane. I'd rather walk than fly any day.

We might check in tonight with Frederic Gros's Philosophy of Walking, and Christopher Orlet's Gymnasiums of the Mind, and "Walking to the stars": Some of us fervently believe, with Nietzsche, Rousseau, and so many others, that the best ideas first come while walking. Some of us also believe we should expand our range to include more distant turf, over the Terran horizon. I'm a believer.

But first, those 19th century stars.

Mill, we've noted, disagree with Bentham about pleasure. He had nothing against "pushpin," just impatience with humans who wouldn't bother to explore more. His great passion was of course for liberty, so his insistence on qualitative pleasure-standards sets up a taut challenge: how to prescribe but not impose those standards, and still respect the rights of all to seek their own good in their own ways without (as John Lachs puts it) meddling. Open discussion in a free society, especially about our differences, forces invaluable self-critique. "If you don't have your views challenged by people with opposing views, then you will probably end up holding them as 'dead dogmas'..." But of course we rarely call out our own dogmas, it's other people's prejudices we detest. So we need to hear out other people.

The great Huxley-Wilberforce debate has probably grown in legend beyond its moment, but what wouldn't I give to have been there! I think Dan Dennett is probably right, evolution by natural selection is probably the single best idea anyone ever had. Huxley was probably right too, when he upbraided himself for not having thought of it first. The best ideas are often right under our noses, out of sight.

Since Darwin's day genetics, tonight's topic, "has given a detailed explanation of how inheritance works." It's not just a theory, it's a hypothesis with "a very substantial weight of evidence in support."

The Danish Socrates said evidence/schmevidence, what's that to me if my "subjective truth" says I should take a flying leap into the darkness. Some of us think Kierkegaard committed intellectual suicide, but we're glad somebody stepped up to defend the irrationalist position. It gives us more to talk about. And it's clear enough why some Existentialists (though not the atheists like Sartre) look back to the Melancholy Dane as their early prototype. Kierkegaard was all about "choosing how to live and the difficulty of knowing that your decision is the right one." My view is that you only make that more difficult, when you renounce reason. And, you do contradict yourself in the broadest sense of reason when you write tracts attempting to vindicate your irrationalism. Nigel's unvarnished judgment: "Faith involves risk. But it is also irrational: not based on reason."

But, give Kierkegaard credit for defending "the subjective point of view" against the pure objectifiers in philosophy who leave themselves no place to stand, pretending to occupy Professor Nagel's "view from nowhere." That really is a Nowhere Land, Nowhere Man.

Karl Marx always looks angry. The "grim conditions" of industrial capitalism and its assault on the poor and powerless dispossessed sent him to the British Library and into collaboration with Engels to crank out their Manifesto. The political struggle of class demanded and predicted revolution, they said. They took Hegel's history and said it's all coming to a head much sooner than his intellectualistic analysis allowed, given its manifest material contradictions. Theye didn't predict the Soviet Union, though.

"From each according to ability, to each according to need": a beautiful vision, which American students seem conditioned to reject as impossible. Seems to work pretty well in places like Denmark and Switzerland, though.

Finally, Marx famously called religion "the opium of the people." He didn't think that was an insult, but a sympathetic explanation. "In the new world after the revolution human beings would achieve their humanity." Sounds so naive, from the perspective of 2017. But humanity isan achievement, not just a genetic fact. We've got to reclaim it constantly.

Lotsa questions: Name two or three of your favorite pleasures. Are any of them higher or better than the others? In what way? Are any of yours higher or better than those of a friend whose list includes none of yours? Why or why not? Is state paternalism ever warranted? Why don't we ever talk about state maternalism? What are the appropriate legal limits on speech and expression in a free society, if any? How would you reply to Wilberforce's debate question? What do you think was the best idea ever? Do you want a map of your own genome? Why or why not? Do you agree with Darwin that the subject of God is "too profound for human intellect"? Does it mean we should all be agnostic? What would you have done, in Abraham's position? Would you have doubted the "message" or challenged the messenger? Does it damage the parent-child relationship if Mom or Dad make it clear to the child that they'll always defer to the perceived instructions of a "heavenly father," even including murderous instructions? Does anything "trump the duty to be a good [parent]"? Would you ever do something you considered morally wrong, in the name of faith? Does taking a "leap of faith" make you irrational? How do you balance your subjective point of view with objectivity, and with the subjectivity of others? What role should inter-subjectivity play, in forming that balance? If you ever own a business will you pay your workers as little as possible and extract as much "surplus value" from them as you can? Is anything in history "inevitable"? Does religion ...make people more reconciled to oppression and exploitation, and less likely to revolt?
On this day in 1835 Charles Darwin reaches Tahiti on board HMS Beagle...
On this date in 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee staged one of the biggest anti-war protests in American history. It followed a month after a massive demonstration and teach-in dubbed the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. As many as half a million people gathered for this day’s event, the Moratorium March on Washington. Protesters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument, where they listened to speeches by anti-war politicians and sang John Lennon’s new anthem “Give Peace a Chance,” led by Pete Seeger (lyrics). Arlo Guthrie; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and the cast of the musical Hair also performed. The Moratorium March followed immediately after the three-day March Against Death, in which 40,000 silent protestors walked in single file down Pennsylvania Avenue, each carrying a sign bearing the name of a dead soldier.

“The predominant event of the day was that of a great and peaceful army of dissent moving through the city,” the New York Times reported. The Times also described the crowd as “predominantly youthful” and a “mass gathering of the moderate and radical Left … old-style liberals; Communists and pacifists and a sprinkling of the violent New Left.”

Other protests were held around the world in support of the Washington moratorium. A quarter of a million people gathered in San Francisco. Future U.S. president Bill Clinton organized an anti-war event in Oxford, England, where he was a Rhodes scholar.

President Nixon had promised during his 1968 presidential campaign to withdraw from Vietnam, but —10 months into his term — had so far failed to deliver. He was not swayed by the protests, and said, “As far as this kind of activity is concerned, we expect it; however under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it.” He watched sports on TV in the White House while the demonstration was taking place. WA

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thoreau, Cynics, Kant

More Thoreau in Happiness today, along with the Cynics and Kant. Wouldn't that be an interesting walking party?

Thoreau, wishing "to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness," wrote "Walking":
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks... We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return... I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
Nice work if you can afford it, though most of our peers would rather die than spend so much time on shanks' mare. For Henry it was the very condition of living. His "new economics" measured every cost by the currency of life, a currency you'd think to be harder to devalue than a dollar. A strictly sedentary and interior life does exact quite a cost, whether we're aware of it or not, in terms of health and happiness.

A long forest walk produces nothing "saleable," says Gros, but isn't Gros's book saleable? Isn't Thoreau's? Sadly the bourgeoisie does not much buy or read such books. How much life they're missing. "Living is something no one else can do for us," though of course the vicarious experience of other lives may add depth and value to our own. The missed-opportunity cost of those who don't read, finally indistinguishable (as Twain said) from those who can't, is immeasurable.

"Ah! To be able to get drunk on the air we breathe" and salt away "vivid feelings and sunny memories" for winter. Simplicity of that sort costs nothing in nominal terms, repaying an interest that never stops accruing.

The real, for Thoreau, is truly priceless. It can't be commodified, packaged, and re-sold like virtual reality. (What would he say about our preoccupation with that?) So he went to Walden, looking for the hard rock-bottom "which we can call Reality... no mistake." No phony happiness Experience Machine for him.

More hymns to aurora, and pity for "those who have lost their subscription ticket to morningtime in this world." But Henry is generous, "morning is when i am awake and there is a dawn in me." But the air just is sweeter when the rooster crows. That was true even before the internal combustion engine invaded our lives.

Thoreau's response to whether he'd made his peace with God is often quoted - "I didn't know we'd quarreled" - but less remarked is his decisively grounded humanst commitment when presented with the specter of the afterlife: "one world at a time." 

It's cold-walking season here, or (as we get more than our share of unseasonable warmth in late autumn and early winter) anyway colder. Thoreau pointed out that we're all equipped with handy portable furnaces. I used to recoil from winter, but with Henry's encouragement now I lean in and speak no more of that self-inflicted malady called seasonal affective disorder. So easy to turn SAD to well-being, so few though actually do it. Sad.

Earth and landscape are themselves at once energizing and comforting, making the walker at home. Safe.

Socrates not a great walker, Plato? Once again, I suspect you've foisted your own view onto the mute canvas of your mentor. Nature has plenty to say to us all, though her message does not conduce to your dialogue format. She speaks more directly. To walk and to converse, peripatein, is wonderful but is necessarily mediated by symbolic language. Nature speaks in a tongue we've always knows, but don't always choose to hear (as our Lyceum speaker was saying during Q-&-A the other day).

The old Cynics tried to get closer to nature, thinking "Truth is the elements" whose "primitive energy" mocks the verbal sophistication of more refined reflection. If you can really be free wherever you can walk, you can be at home almost everywhere - if they'll have you.

Kant didn't share much with Nietzsche, philosophically, but both were obsessive about their walks and their meals. The latter, in particular, suffered a delicate gastrointestinal constitution and held his beer-loving countrymen in contempt for what he considered their self-indulgent weakness. He could not allow himself to appreciate and enjoy the "aesthetic moment" a well-crafted ale might afford, nor the camaraderie and human connection. "Nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya," except that. It wouldn't have killed him. Might even have made him stronger.
It was on this day in 1851 that Moby-Dick was published in New York, as one long, 635-page book. About a month earlier, a censored version of the novel had been published in three separate volumes in London. It was called The Whale.

Moby-Dick begins with the famous lines:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
And Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick: “Meditation and water are wedded for ever.” WA

Was Ishmael happy? Happily obsessed? What's your happy obsession?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Kant keep up

We're running a day late in CoPhi, today catching up with Kant et al...

Schopenhauer & Nietzsche slides... & others:, search "Osopher"

Hegel's philosophy of history made the Sunday Times yesterday-
Like many top intellectuals the world over, I’ve been thinking about the shape of history itself. Spurred on by the emergence of unexpected events and personalities onto the world stage, I have been cogitating deeply on the questions of where we’ve been and where we’re heading... (continues)

It’s the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia, a part of North Africa that is now Algeria (354). He converted to Christianity as an adult and wanted nothing more than to settle down to a quiet life of thinking about theology and writing books. But when he moved to the port town of Hippo to set up a monastery, he was forced to take over the duties of the local bishop, and he regretted for the rest of his life that he had to spend so much of his time delivering sermons and running a parish, when he could have devoted all that time to writing...

It’s the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850)... Around the same time that Treasure Island was published, Stevenson woke up one morning and told his family that he did not want to be disturbed until he had finished writing a story that had come to him in a dream. It took him three days to write it, but when he read the story aloud to his wife, she said it was too sensationalistic. So he sat down and rewrote the whole thing. By the end of the week, he was fairly happy with the result, which he called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885)... He said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” And, “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.” WA

And the great Buck O'Neil was born on this day in 1911. He stole the show at my Baseball in Literature and Culture conference presentation, time before last... 
"How can a you hit and think at the same time?"
"I always thought that record would stand until it
was broken."
"In baseba...

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Homo viator

Frederic Gros is humming my tune in today's Happiness assignment, with his paean to the sacred silence of early morning walks, "dim light slanting through red and gold leaves" in autumn, "muffled footsteps under a white sky" in winter's snow (a rare occasion in these parts), and in every season an invitation to peaceable coexistence in and with the antique world. Silence is the golden muting of deafening nonsensical noisy chatter. People used to say, ironically or moronically, "Thanks, Obama"... I say Thanks, Drumpf... 

Thanks for pushing chatter beyond the tipping-point and breaking my morning addiction to NPR and all the other news-speaky organs of idle talk and breathless speculation driven by our benighted CEO's latest tweet-storm. (That's "idle," said the late Robert Solomon, as in "the engine is idling" or "idle hands are the devil's playground"...) Now the only information I require before leaving the house and hitting the pavement is a brief weather update, so I'll know whether to to lay down the base layer, grab the rain gear, or just go.

Then, I check Keillor's Almanac (oh won't you come back to Saturdays, Mr. K!) for a little historical and literary context and poetry, and a reminder that all things must pass. In a dark time that's actually lighten-ing.

I do think Gros overstates the extent to which walkers lose the use of language, even when "doing nothing but walk" (and even if they emulate their canine companions' version of "nothing"-the aforementioned sniffing, squirreling, circling, meandering etc.)... and the Nietzsche/Rousseau/Wallace Stevens style of peripatetic composition obviously intends the opposite. ("Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant...BP)

But I do get the point of appreciating those moments when words are seen to be mere innocent bystanders to the silence in which "you hear better" because you're finally really seeing, really noticing things and not just issuing a running commentary.

The sight of desk or chair does not suffice to sicken me, as Rousseau said it did him, but too much direct seat-of-the-pants acquaintance definitely can. Some (like Susan Orlean) see standing and treadmill desks as the solution, but unless it's 20 below I'll pass on that. Walking while working sounds great, working while walking even better.

For a while I tried setting an hourly alarm, to make sure those sedentary sessions didn't exceed safe limits. ("People who got up and moved around for at least two minutes every hour had a 33 percent lower risk of dying") Better to just train ourselves to know what sick-desk syndrome feels like. You don't have to set an alarm to let you know your nasal passages need clearing, after all, why should blocked mental and emotional passages be any harder to diagnose?

"The doggish man of the Enlightenment" was through, like his cynical forerunner, with the proprieties and conventions of polite society. That's fine, to a point. But untrained dogs are less than impolite, they're a sanitation and safety hazard. Get up and show a little respect, Diogenes.

Image result for school of athens diogenes

The aspiration to identify and personify homo viator, "walking man," is one I certainly relate to. "Sitting man" is normal, sadly, but definitely not natural. We're designed, naturally selected, to move. But the romantic notion of a natural man who loves but does not favor or prefer himself, who does not wage even a cold war against all others, is still strictly aspirational at the species level. The Hobbes-Rousseau debate continues. But I've known healthily-altruistic non-egoists who nonetheless suffered no noticeable self-loathing.

In Rousseau's final walking reveries, recounted in Reveries of the Solitary Walker, he may have experienced "marvelous contentment" - it's hard enough to recognize that state in oneself, never mind an old dead philosopher. And, we may still wonder about the gap between contentment and true happiness. But if in my own future final reveries I can manage to "walk at my ease... without being obliged to hurry, and with a pleasant prospect at the end," you can call me happy. If I then also  manage to "rediscover the simple joy of existing... that permeates the whole of childhood," well, I don't guess there's a word for that. Or needs to be.

Image result for emerson transparent eyeball

I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all...'
It’s the birthday of the man that Smithsonian Magazine called “truly irreplaceable”: that’s astronomer Carl Sagan (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1934)... Sagan was involved in the “Golden Record” project associated with the Voyager missions. The record was imprinted with images and recordings from Earth, in case it should be discovered by a form of intelligent life. It was on this project that Sagan met Ann Druyan. She was the creative director of the project, and eventually Sagan’s wife. Druyan later said: “Carl and I knew we were the beneficiaries of chance, that pure chance could be so kind that we could find one another in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We knew that every moment should be cherished as the precious and unlikely coincidence that it was.”

Most people know him best as the co-creator and host of the hugely popular PBS show Cosmos... [Seth] MacFarlane donated money to the Library of Congress, so that the library could purchase Sagan’s papers from Druyan. And there were a lot of papers: almost 800 boxes.

...Sagan died in 1996, of complications from a rare bone marrow disease. He was 62. He didn’t believe in life after death, and once told his daughter, Sasha, that it was dangerous to believe in something just because you want very badly for it to be true. But he also told her, “We are star stuff,” and made her feel the wonder of being alive.

From Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (1994), the title of which refers to a photo of Earth taken from billions of miles away: 

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” WA