Delight Springs

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Opening Day!

It's Opening Day of the Spring 2018 semester at our school. [UPDATE: Opening Day has been postponed by weather.]

I'm glad we call it Spring and not Winter, though I do try to appreciate George Santayana's observation that "to be interested in the changing seasons is, in this middling zone, a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring." But spring and summer are still what will pull me through, following Thoreau: "A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart."

I'll meet two sections of CoPhilosophy today, commencing once again to try and explain what philosophy is for: it's for getting better at asking questions and entertaining alternative possible answers, for coexisting with those who answer differently, for learning to love thinking for ourselves, for learning how to be happy, for learning how to live and die.... among other things.

Alain de Botton's School of Life has its critics, but it sure performs a valuable service when it comes to opening a philosophical conversation. That's what our classes are, extended conversations with one another but also with philosophers long past and, we may hope, into a far future.

Our quest is for clarity, in William James's sense when he defined philosophy as an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly, and for sweep:

"...explanation of the universe at large, not description of its details, is what philosophy must aim at; and so it happens that a view of anything is termed philosophic just in proportion as it is broad and connected with other views... any very sweeping view of the world is a philosphy in this sense." Some Problems of Philosophy

We're also in search of mutual understanding and respect, in Spinoza's sense when he said "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them."

And we're also after kindness, in Kurt Vonnegut's sense when he welcomed babies to planet Earth and informed them of its one indispensable rule:

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."

Ultimately of course, in philosophy - philo-sophia - we're searching for wisdom.

"It’s one of the grandest and oddest words out there, so lofty, it doesn’t sound like something one could ever consciously strive to be – unlike say, being cultured, or kind. Others could perhaps compliment you on being it, but it wouldn’t be something you could yourself ever announce you had become..." SoL

This semester we acknowledge the particular duress lately suffered by our grand old standby philosophical abstractions "truth, reality, fact," et al, by taking up Kurt Anderson's Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. This moment may have blindsided many, but we might have seen it coming. Maybe, with the right vision, we can see how to get past it.

And so we begin. Put on your philosophy goggles, everyone. You don't want to look directly at the Form of the Good (aka the sun) without 'em. No one's exempt from the laws of nature.

Image result for trump eclipse

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


A lovely Christmas gift from Sean Kelly in the Stone, acknowledging his gift from his late mentor and collaborator Hubert Dreyfus.
Think of the way that life really can become lifeless. You know what it’s like: rise, commute, work, lunch, work some more, maybe have a beer or go to the gym, watch TV. For a while the routine is nurturing and stabilizing; it is comfortable in its predictability. But soon the days seem to stretch out in an infinite line behind and before you. And eventually you are withering away inside them. They are not just devoid of meaning but ruthless in their insistence that they are that way. The life you are living announces it is no longer alive.
He goes on to suggest strategies for re-capturing vitality that do and do not work. Casanovan self-indulgence and Kantian dutifulness do not. Engaged presence does, by knitting time and  omitting distraction. "When you really feel alive, your past, your present and your future somehow make sense together as the unity they have always promised to be. I sometimes feel truly alive, for instance, when I am teaching my students..."

Me too, sometimes. Resolution for the New Year: many times more.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Luck is good, goals are too

Time's about up, today and tomorrow are our last regular classes before final exam week. I don't have a lot more to say, but I do want to reiterate the importance of having goals in life. Always. Right up to the end.
Image result for "end is near" cartoons

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."
Image result for william james
"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!"
Well, except for the advice to "not stop questioning." And also don't stress about tests. I'd say good luck, but as Mr. Rickey said: "luck is the residue of design."

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Russell's delight

Near the end of chapter 3 in Conquest of Happiness Bertrand Russell writes: "They do not , on the average, have so much as  two children per marriage; they do not enjoy life enough to wish to beget children... Those whose outlook on life causes them to feel so little happiness that they do not care to beget children are biologically doomed."

That struck a nerve, in class. Several students said they do not intend to have children, though none admitted to not enjoying life.

I'm trying to recall my own feelings about the prospect of parenting when I was a 20-year old undergraduate. I think I had every intention then of doing it eventually, someday, but certainly not anytime soon. And that's how it happened: late marriage, later family, and yet all too soon now the nest will be empty again. I can't imagine what those years would have been like without our girls, and don't want to. I share Russell's attitude about the complexity, the delights, and the deep gratification of "parental feeling":
There is, first and foremost, sheer animal affection, and delight in watching what is charming in the ways of the young. Next, there is the sense of inescapable responsibility, providing a purpose for daily activities which skepticism does not easily question. Then there is an egoistic element, which is very dangerous: the hope that one's children may succeed where one has failed, that they may carry on one's work when death or senility puts an end to one's own efforts, and, in any case, that they will supply a biological escape from death, making one's own life part of the whole stream, and not a mere stagnant puddle without any overflow into the future. All this I experienced, and for some years it filled my life with happiness and peace. Autobiography
I was trying to talk in class about that dangerous "egoistic element," about the value of that feeling of being tangibly invested in our children's future, hoping to make a constructive contribution to their flourishing and caring about it in more personal terms than I imagine the childless do... but at the same time resisting the selfish impulse to (as Emerson put it) "make another you. One's enough." 

In other words, the kids are alright. "Cannot we let people be themselves and enjoy life in their own way?" So, maybe two, maybe one, maybe none: there are enough of us, we can afford a few happily childless adults. I'm just glad I'm not one of them.
Our concluding Russellian topics today, in Happiness, as we near the end of Conquest: family, work, and what he oddly calls "impersonal interests" - I call them personal delights or enthusiasms, "those minor interests which fill [our] leisure and afford relaxation from the tenseness of more serious preoccupations."

Our avocational interests may seem minor, but they can have a major impact on the quality of our lives and the extent of our happiness, and not just our own. Noticing how others embrace the sources of their own delight is an important step on the road to a deeper empathy, a step away from mutual blindness, hostility, and aggression. Or so I have long contended.
What objects of enthusiasm can imaginably promise so much?
Any we can imagine, and then someóbaseball, say, or the Beatles,
beer, Great Britain, literature, science, science fiction, Monet,
Mozart, Kentucky whiskey, Tennessee walking horses, walking,
running, tilling the soil, raising kids, healing, praying,
meditating, thinking, teaching, learning, and on and on. Whatever
disparate items may show up on anyone's list (these are a few
that crop up in my own family circle), their crucial essence is
to point at, but not to replicate or make transparent to others'
grasp, the depths of experience and personal significance they
attempt to name. I can tell you that I love baseball, but I
cannot begin to convey precisely why or how or the extent to
which baseball is important for my peculiar ways of experiencing
and living in the world. By the same token your account of the
joys of macramÈ, soccer, or cat-dancing will leave me in the
dark. But it is a darkness rimmed by the glow of a phenomenon we
should all recognize and treasure. "Springs of Delight"
"Raising kids" is on my list, and Russell said it was on his. But he paints a bleak picture of family life, c.1930. Were relations between parents and children really as unhappy (99%!) as he says they were, with so many demanding and despotically possessive parents, so many rude, disrespectful and churlish children? Expectations must have been very different on both ends, and tough economic times (though they probably wouldn't have noticed this in the Russell manor) tend to breed generational tension. But still.

Russell's remarks on women again give some discomfort, especially the claim that women in general have a harder time cultivating "impersonl interests." But his point that for lots of women the choice to pursue a vocation imposes spousally-unmatched domestic compromises is still relevant, even after the choice for most has become no choice at all. As for the quality of domestic life, and speaking as a former Dad-at-home, the charge that it can make you "fussy and small-minded" may be true to an extent, but it's definitely not gender-specific. And  "spinsterhood"? Is that still a thing?

I agree with Russell, feeling "part of the stream of life" is for many of us inseparable from family. I don't agree, though, that "death ends all" for the childless. We can invest ourselves emotionally and tangibly in the future of our species, whether or not our own "germ-plasm" is afloat downstream.

"The production of satisfactory children is a difficult constructive work capable of affording profound satisfaction." Yes, but don't take too much credit for the production process - especially if you employ a nurse and nanny. And consider Uncle Albert's observation: "Being both a father and a teacher I know we can teach our children nothing."

As for work: I do feel sorry for those whose work does not challenge, who must "prostitute" themselves to corporate "Philistines," or who simply find themselves devoting long hours to labor that seems Sisyphean at best. But as we've noted, he coped and found happiness. We shouldn't quit either. (But maybe some of us should quit one rock and seek another, they're not all the same.)

Speaking of Einstein and his "cosmic religious feeling" (and Spinoza's "bliss".. though for me it immediately conjures neither of them, but Sagan instead): Russell is again at his best when he evokes the cosmic perspective [NdT], with its appreciation of the calendrical brevity of life and its mind-opening, soul-expanding promise that "if you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you." With this outlook, when I can manage to muster it, I too am in church and in the spirit of A Free Man's Worship.
On this day in 1835 Mark Twain [Samuel Clemens], American author (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn), born in Florida, Missouri (d. 1910)...

And just like that, the Writers Almanac itself is history (WaPo). I don't know if Garrison Keillor is guilty as charged, but I'm grateful for all his good work over the years, and for instilling in me the poem-a-day habit. I hope he'll be well.
I am deeply grateful for all the years I had doing "A Prairie Home Companion" and "The Writer's Almanac", the summer tours, the outdoor shows at Tanglewood and Wolf Trap, the friendships of musicians and actors, the saga of Lake Wobegon, the songs and sketches, Guy Noir, Dusty & Lefty, the sheer pleasure of standing in the warmth of that audience. A person could not hope for more than what I was given. I've been fired over a story that I think is more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard. Most stories are. It's some sort of poetic irony to be knocked off the air by a story, having told so many of them myself, but I'm 75 and don't have any interest in arguing about this. And I cannot in conscience bring danger to a great organization I've worked hard for since 1969. I am sorry for all the poets whose work I won't be reading on the radio and sorry for the people who will lose work on account of this. But my profound feeling is that of gratitude, especially to my wife Jenny, and for this painful experience that has brought us even closer together.— Garrison Keillor 
11.__.15. 5:40/6:34, 31/59

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wittgenstein, Arendt, Rawls, Turing, Searle, Singer

It's our penultimate semester class date, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, Alan Turing, John Searle, and Peter Singer 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.”

 John RawlsAlan TuringJohn Searle (who's lately joined an ignoble list of alleged philosopher/harassers, but that's another topic), and Peter Singer round out our introductory tour of western philosophy.

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]

Since it's our last regular class date prior to next week's exam, this is a good time to echo what  Professor James said about conclusions.  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.
On this day in 1864, the Battle of Spring Hill, TN (Thomason's Station)...1877 US inventor Thomas Edison demonstrates his hand-cranked phonograph for the first time... 1935 Physicist Erwin Schrödinger publishes his famous thought experiment 'Schrödinger's cat', a paradox that illustrates the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics... 1944 John Hopkins hospital performs 1st open heart surgery1972 Co-founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell releases Pong, first commercially successful video game... 1927 Vin Scully, American sportscaster (Los Angeles Dodgers), born in The Bronx, New York

Today is the birthday of Amos Bronson Alcott (1799) (books by this author), born in Wolcott, Connecticut, and also the birthday of his daughter, Louisa May Alcott (1832) (books by this author), born in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The father was a transcendentalist philosopher, abolitionist, and teacher; the daughter was the author of many books, most notably Little Women (1868)... Bronson Alcott died on March 4, 1888; a few days earlier, bedridden, he had told his visiting daughter Louisa, "I am going up. Come with me." She replied, "I wish I could." As it turned out, she followed him just two days later, dying of a stroke at age 55... It's the birthday of novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (books by this author), born Clive Staples Lewis in Belfast, Ireland (1898). WA
4.25.17. 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

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Foggy morning. Visibility is limited. But that's always so, until we notice and correct for our condition so that we may begin to appreciate "the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves." What stops us? Abstraction. Artifice. Education of the wrong sort.

"We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys."

William James said "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," which we're looking at in Happiness, was one of his own most important and personally gratifying essays. It calls out our self-inflicted and obtuse "ancestral blindness" in failing to grasp or even acknowledge the interior lives of others.

It celebrates the often-inexpressible delight of being human and having a human interior. It pleads for mutual respect and toleration, in recognizing that each of us possesses a singular station and perspective. It says my pursuit of happiness must empathize with yours, or else it becomes as egoistic and dumb as it is blind.

It anticipates Carl Sagan's cosmic wonder at our uniqueness. “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

It shares Richard Dawkins's deep biologically-informed gratitude for life. "The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia." We're so lucky to have the opportunity to open our eyes on this sumptuous planet, so tragically short-sighted not to.

It celebrates the self, every self, all selves,
celebratory of the self as a locus of intrinsically valuable experiences... he appreciates the marvelous diversity of ways in which human beings find the world interesting and important, ways that "make life worth living." The fact that one person's very reason for being leaves another cold and uninterested is at the heart of what he considers the enduring mystery of happiness and is part of the larger mystery of life. William James's "Springs of Delight"
It recognizes and revels in "the intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception," as documented by a writer (W.H. Hudson) who discovered in the wilds of Patagonia a liberating solitude and harmony with nature beyond adequate description.

The antidote to too much refined abstraction, too much distance between direct experience and mediated reflection, is to give too thinking a rest. Take a moral holiday, as James elsewhere puts the point, open to the mysterious sensorial life that's all around us, and discover "supreme felicity." 

The pleasures of sensorial life aren't always so deeply mysterious. Tolstoy's hero in War and Peace learns "that man is meant for happiness, and that this happiness is in him, in the satisfaction of the daily needs of existence." Keep it simple.

Some (though not the author of "Sentiment of Rationality") might call a deliberate daily intermission of thought, of "thinking of nothing and doing nothing," irrational. James, like Hudson, like Wordsworth, like Whitman ("rapt with satisfied attention... to the mere spectacle of the world's presence) might rather call it coming home. Safe at home.

Blindness concludes with a stern "Hands off" warning: "neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands."

Failure to respect a multiplicity of interpretive insights is an instance of the deplorable but natural "blindness" by which we so frequently misconstrue one another. James did advance a striking vision; but one great fact about him, and the most arresting thing about it, is that his vision (like Emerson's "thousand-eyed present") defies every conceivable attempt to reduce it to a single point of view, including his own. It is "self-reliant" only to a point. I read it as an ultimately optimistic vision. We're blind, but we can (if we will) see that we are, and therein lies our hope.

"Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world..." This passage resonates more for me today than it might, having just said a sorrowful farewell to our constant canine companion of the past dozen years. How often old Angel sat at my feet, doubtless rehearsing (in her way) something like James's fox-terrier's lament: "To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking [her] to walk and throwing sticks for [her] to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?" Sorry, old girl. You tolerated so much, asked for so little, provided so much joy.

Joy's the word, as Stevenson said, "the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy" we miss if we objectify and neutralize things by reducing them to their surface externality. Our springs of delight lie beneath the surface, our inner lives are out of sight but not out of nature. There is a "limitless significance in natural things," when we view them through the prism of personality and imagination. There is the promise of "all the happiness destined for man."

"Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But, wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is 'importance' in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be." If recurrent zest, tingle, and excitement don't make you happy, what will?

We're each tasked to "find out where the joy resides" and honor it. In the case of departed friends, it resides in pleasant precious memory. Pixar's Coco gets it right: remember.
Today is the birthday of novelist, biographer, and essayist Nancy Mitford (1904) (books by this author), born in London. She was unapologetically aristocratic, but that didn't stop her from satirizing her own class... She wrote to a friend, "If one can't be happy, one must be amused, don't you agree?" ...The Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting from Nashville on this date in 1925... It's the birthday of poet and artist William Blake (books by this author), born in London (1757). He was four years old when he had a vision that God was at his window. A few years later, he went for a walk and saw a tree filled with angels... WA ["What do you mean 'William Blake'?"]
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.”
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
On this day in 1932, Groucho Marx performs on radio for the first time... He said

  • “Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.”
  • “While money can't buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.”
  • “If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.” 
  • “I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it.” 

11.3.15. 6 am/6:13, 59/75

Monday, November 27, 2017

Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus

Said so long to an old friend over Thanksgiving Break. So grateful for the time we had with Angel, so presciently named by Younger Daughter. As they sing in Coco, we will remember....

Today in CoPhi we begin with a closer look at the quotable 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 Café: 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?
Should laptops be banned from the classroom?

"... students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture. Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not.

The researchers hypothesized that, because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer’s words flowed right to the students’ typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing...."
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.
11.27.17. On this day in 1870 The New York Times dubs baseball "The National Game"... in 1895 Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel's will establishes the Nobel Prize... in 1896 "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (Thus Spake Zarathustra) by Richard Strauss, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel, debuts in Frankfurt... 1924 In New York City, the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is held... 2001 A hydrogen atmosphere is discovered on the extrasolar planet Osiris by the Hubble Space Telescope, the first atmosphere detected on an extrasolar planet.
4.18.17. 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