Delight Springs

Monday, August 19, 2019

Kipling, James, Woodstock

A line in a review in the Times yesterday caught my attention: "Kipling shaped the thought of William James, with whom he worked out the themes of 'Captains Courageous.'" (“If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, Penguin Press, Christopher Benfey)

Did he? It's not so simple. Charles McGrath:
The other great theme of the Jungle Books is that of personal growth through manly, stressful adventure in the wild. This idea found a ready enthusiast in Theodore Roosevelt, then a civil-service commissioner in Washington. He and Kipling became friends and would visit the zoo together (where Roosevelt liked watching the bears, while Kipling preferred the beavers). Kipling also discussed his philosophy with William James, who visited Naulakha in 1895, and who drew on Kipling’s thinking, Benfey says, to formulate his notion of a “moral equivalent of war”—a proposed regimen of adventure and challenge designed to rid American youth of their growing softness.
James may well have drawn on some lines of Kipling's thought, though it's not immediately obvious how the literature of empire could bolster the repudiation of warfare in favor of constructively channeled alternatives like (say) the Civilian Conservation Corps of FDR's New Deal. In an 1899 letter James made it clear that he did not approve of Kipling's more blustery talk of "white man's burden" etc. "I wish he would hearken a bit more to his deeper human self and a bit less to his shallower jingo self. If the Anglo-Saxon race would drop its sniveling cant it would have a good deal less of a 'burden' to carry."
James, in turn, partly inspired Kipling’s one truly American work, “Captains Courageous,” a 1897 novel about a bratty rich kid who falls off an ocean liner, is picked up by some fishermen sailing out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and learns from them the virtues of responsibility and hard work... And Kipling’s idea of the natural world as a testing ground, and of life itself as a sort of Darwinian struggle, greatly influenced later Americans writers such as Jack London, Stephen Crane, and Ernest Hemingway... Kipling’s jungle, one of those enchanted realms where so many great children’s books take place: a world with no parents and very few rules. NYker
Lots to unpack here, but - speaking of no parents and very few rules, I've been distracted by another New Yorker story. The Woodstock generation, turns out, is not mine after all. Louis Menand:
...it is almost impossible to name a single person born after 1945 who played any kind of role in the civil-rights movement, Students for a Democratic Society, the New Left, the antiwar movement, or the Black Panthers during the nineteen-sixties. Those movements were all started by older, usually much older, people... the peak year of the boom was 1957, when 4.3 million people were born, and those folks did not go to Woodstock. They were twelve years old... a lot of the people who went around saying “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” were over thirty... If you were born during the baby boom, you can call yourself a sixties person. You can even be a sixties person. Just don’t pretend that any of it was your idea.
No. I was twelve. But I did already like the Beatles. If you were talkin' about revolution, you could count me in (out)... I did have to register for the draft, just before it ended, but fortunately never actually had to say Hell no, I won't go. Would I have? Would I have lived a Canadian life instead? Guess I'll never know.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Zest

Taking an interest in things, events, ideas, interactions with others... making and sharing observations, perceptions, intuitions... connecting one's own experiences to the larger pageant of life... that's how a capacity for selective and focused attention gets honed and refined, so that we can begin to fashion a voluntary field of experience ("what I agree to attend to") and assemble a coherent pattern of living.

And, it's a requisite condition of a life of commitment, plurality, and intentional relation, or what Royce calls the philosophy of loyalty.

Further, it's a crucial step on the road to what James and Bertrand Russell call a life of "zest," and which most people nowadays just call happiness.

James: “wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness (etc.) there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is ‘importance’…”

Russell: "unhappiness is very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ‘ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends."

John Kaag also targets zest, in his American Philosophy: A Love Story, as inseparable from a life worth living. He connects it as well, through James and before him Emerson, all the way back to Socrates.

So... my current working hypothesis is that what I'm really tracking, in my inquiry into whatever it was Josiah Royce's Spirit communicated to me all those years ago about those elusive Germans, is the possibility and the necessity of zest, for a life well-lived.

By the way: my reconstructed habit of pounding the Chromebook along with the Seattle's Best first thing, well before sun-up, is proving zestful too. I was just treated to a lovely orange-pink predawn. Zest means not wanting to miss it.






Thursday, August 15, 2019

Attention

Attention, in William James's Principles of Psychology, is prominently featured in Jenny Odell's unfortunately-titled How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy 

It's not at all about doing nothing. It is all about reclaiming control over the deployment of our most liberating tool of mental direction and physical agency. That's doing something, against the inertial drift of so much of our media-mediated/-saturated virtual lives now.

Maria Popova has often sounded a similar theme in Brain Pickings. She and Odell understand that our contemporary experience is much diluted and distracted, by the Internet and by our passive feeding and consumption thereof. If we want a better experience, we must attend with greater acuity and sharper intention. We must take a directed interest. James:
Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive.
Color us gray, lately.

Odell says her book is a cross between activism and self-help, but that undersells it. Some of her insights:

Even with the problem of the filter bubble aside, the platforms that we use to communicate with each other do not encourage listening. Instead they reward shouting and oversimple reaction: of having a “take” after having read a single headline.” 

“I suggest that we reimagine #FOMO as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out,” 

I worry that if we let our real-life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed—never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege.” 

“In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on “nothing.” 

“Thinking about maintenance and care for one’s kin also brings me back to a favorite book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, in which Rebecca Solnit dispenses with the myth that people become desperate and selfish after disasters. From the 1906 San Franscisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina, she gives detailed accounts of the surprising resourcefulness, empathy, and sometimes even humor that arise in dark circumstances. Several of her interviewees report feeling a strange nostalgia for the purposefulness and the connection they felt with their neighbors immediately following a disaster. Solnit suggests that the real disaster is everyday life, which alienates us from each other and from the protective impulse that we harbor.” 

“What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return-and more time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are intended? If we have only so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we might want to think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve.” 

Things like the American obsession with individualism, customized filter bubbles, and personal branding - anything that insists on atomized, competing individuals striving in parallel, never touching - does the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed. 
We should refuse such dams first and foremost within ourselves.”

...the creek is a reminder that we do not live in a simulation—a streamlined world of products, results, experiences, reviews—but rather on a giant rock whose other life-forms operate according to an ancient, oozing, almost chthonic logic. Snaking through the midst of the banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments, of minerals reacting and things being eaten away—all just on the other side of the chain-link fence.”  (See nyt essay on living in a simulation...)

reviews-nyt...wapo...guardian...nation
...

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Relationalism

The aforementioned Brooks column anointing Royce as the philosopher for our moment was back in January, leading me to expect that his new book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, published in April, would feature Royce prominently.

It's a good book, but Royce's name pops up just once. He joins a list of "Relationalists" (= non-hyper-individualists and "isolated self-interested monads") that includes Edmund Burke, Martin Buber, Walt Whitman, Martha Nussbaum, Annie Dillard, Gandhi, and MLK.

Relationalists are less motivated than hyper-individualists by ego and the drive for personal self-centered success, more by "connection, fusion, service, and care." They're committed. They understand that "a person who does not commit to some loyalty outside the self leaves no deep mark on the world." Doesn't matter how many luxury hotels, for instance, such a person might brand with his name.

The key points of Brooks's "Relationalist Manifesto" include

  • Relationship. Life is not a solitary journey... It is a process of forming attachments... It is a great chain of generations...
  • Connection. Society is a web, a person is a node in a network, a personality is a movement toward others.
  • Nurture. Unconditional parental love instills a sense of we that precedes me.
  • Commitment. Vocation, family, philosophy or faith.
  • Selflessness. Surrender to something great creates strength.

This all sounds great. It doesn't sound much like the perspective of a William F. Buckley Jr. protege. Even a reformed one. I wonder what WFB would say about it? Would he, for instance, affirm the point about connection and commitment by pointing to his own crusading conservatism?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Royce's pluralism (AND James's, and Brooks's)

On my definition of the term (which I think is not the one that's been contested in the academic literature by some of my friends), Royce is a pluralist like his friend James. A pluralist by my reckoning is someone who recognizes, celebrates, and tries hard to accommodate all the teeming ways of being human.

Their differences are pronounced, but they're not to do with respect for human variety and diversity. David Brooks singles Royce out as a philosopher for our time, but if that's on account of his repudiation of hyper-individualism and his advocacy of communal loyalties and commitments then James is right there with him. Pretty sure I can document that, if anybody's skeptical of the claim. I might even be willing to go to Chicago in February with documentation in hand.

Brooks's recent column on pluralism names neither Royce nor James, but it reflects them both.
The struggle between pluralism and antipluralism is one of the great death struggles of our time...
We pluralists do not believe that human beings can be reduced to a single racial label. Each person is a symphony of identities. Our lives are rich because each of us contains multitudes.
Pluralists believe in integration, not separation... Pluralists are always expanding the definition of “us,” not constricting it... Pluralists believe that culture mixing has always been and should be the human condition. All cultures define and renew themselves through encounter. A pure culture is a dead culture while an amalgam culture is a creative culture. The very civilization the white separatists seek to preserve was itself a product of earlier immigration waves.
Finally, pluralism is the adventure of life. Pluralism is not just having diverse people coexist in one place. It’s going out and getting into each other’s lives. It’s a constant dialogue that has no end because there is no single answer to how we should live.
Life in a pluralistic society is an ever-moving spiral. There are the enemies of pluralism ripping it apart and the weavers of community binding it together. There is no resting spot. It’s change, fluidity and movement all the way down.
The terrorists dream of a pure, static world. But the only thing that’s static is death, which is why they are so pathologically drawn to death. Pluralism is about movement, interdependence and life. The struggle ahead is about competing values as much as it is about controlling guns and healing damaged psyches. Pluralism thrives when we name what the terrorists hate about us, and live it out.
The sticking point between William James and Josiah Royce and their latter-day defenders is NOT over these tenets of this version of pluralism. It's over the intransigent block-universe metaphysical monolith James detected behind Royce's good words about loyalty and community, and the insinuation that our wills might not be free enough to break the block and make a difference. A pluralistic universe can't be a static thing rooted in anything "Absolute"... so, said James, "Damn the Absolute." Royce's rejoinder: you've got it wrong, James, what you perceive as stasis is really a divine form of order we're free to join or not. So, damn-The Absolute! It's the very condition of our freedom, in a precisely stipulated and circumscribed sense that is itself not absolute.

Who's right? I once would have insisted on James, now I'm rooting for them both. We'll see.

Meanwhile, we can join the Vulcans in saluting the pluralism of Royce, James, and Brooks. Live long and prosper, humans. IDIC forever!

Image result for vulcan idic

Monday, August 12, 2019

Royce's spirit

Opening Day of the Fall semester is just two weeks away. Everlasting summer, fading fast. Same old August story. What's to grab that's gonna last?

Josiah Royce's answer: a cause, a commitment, an object of affection, devotion, exertion, and steadfast loyalty. Something valorous, noble, and challenging that's larger than your puny self. A stake, in a word, in the life of spirit - spiritus, breath, life, the force than animates the world and moves events forward. “Unless you can find some sort of loyalty, you cannot find unity and peace in your active living.”

I don't think that's necessarily what Walter and Donald had in mind, in Reelin' in the Years, nor can I picture Josiah Royce grooving to Steely Dan. And nothing's ultimately going to last forever, in the cosmic universe. (Granted, though, a few billion years is a practical eternity.) But still, it puts the shrinking summer in perspective.

In all my years of teaching, when on Opening Day I asked students to name an American philosopher, no one ever named Josiah Royce. For that matter, almost no one ever named his more famous friend, colleague, neighbor, and favorite bete noire William James.

Image result for royce and james on the wall

That's not their fault, it's a failing of our culture's educational priorities. But it's a failing comparable to the inconceivable scenario of Greek students entirely ignorant of Plato and Aristotle, French students of Sartre and Descartes, Germans of Kant and Hegel. Those cultures would consider that not just embarrassing and shameful but actually, in a word that meant much to Royce, disloyal. In ours it's just sadly and predictably disappointing. Philosophy's "cash value" (in James's misleading and misunderstood expression) has failed to impress the custodians of capitalist consumerism and commercialism.

Royce has been having a little moment, though. His thought features prominently in the pages of John Kaag's excellent American Philosophy: A Love Story. And David Brooks has endorsed the opinion that Roycean pluralism (or "relationalism," as he calls the cognate view he champions in The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life) may be the philosophy we need today. (He actually says the philosopher we need... but Professor Royce has not been available for direct consultation since 1916. Fortunately he left a voluminous bound body of work.)

Royce had an impact on my own early philosophical education, back in the late '70s when my mentors at the University of Missouri unexpectedly awarded me their undergraduate essay prize for my Royce-infused attempt to understand the abstruse idealistic metaphysical morass of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854). Royce had written The Spirit of Modern Philosophy back in the 1890s, and I'd randomly whisked it from its dusty perch in the stacks of the Ellis Library at Mizzou all those years later.

My winning essay is no longer in my possession, or probably anyone's, so I can't go back to it, precisely, for clues as to what real insight I may actually have gleaned from JR.

So, it's going to take some digging and extrapolating to begin to understand what it was about Royce's Spirit of Modern Philosophy that so captivated callow undergraduate me, circa 1978-9. What in that book emboldened me to write more confidently and knowingly about a metaphysically mystifying, abstruse, obscure set of variations on the philosophy I'd just learned to call Absolute Idealism than I can really have felt? Why did my capsule Roycean riff on the pre-Hegelian systematizers ("How's the system coming?" was apparently their common salutation) Schelling and Fichte persuade my teachers to think I deserved to win the undergraduate essay contest? I didn't know anything about Royce, or James yet either), or about their important mutual misalignment. Still don't know much about Royce, certainly compared to the Royce Society scholars I'll be addressing in a couple of months...

http://royce-edition.iupui.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Philosophy-of-Loyalty.pdf

Saturday, August 10, 2019

My habitual reformation

"William James offers three maxims to aid the successful formation of new habits," or the re-formation of old habits gone slack. [LISTEN]
  • The first is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible... take a public pledge...
  • The second Maxim is: Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up... abrupt acquisition of the new habit is the best way... whether in giving up a habit like that of opium, or in simply changing one’s hours of rising or of work. It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.
  • A third maxim... Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.
And that's why I'm posting herewith my renewed resolve to get back to rising and writing before dawn, rather than waiting for dawn's early light in the window to prompt the start of my day. 

Sleep is good, and not rising (as Thoreau said in Walden) to the prompting of a mere "mechanical servitor" is an old summer habit. But it's a bad habit for me, experience shows. 

Besides James and Thoreau, I'd like to thank some others for nudging me back to what worked.

Thanks, Anthony Trollope. "Trollope achieved his incredible productivity by writing in 15-minute intervals for three hours per day..."

Thanks, Garrison Keillor. "My reason for living is simply this: I am still working and my best work may be yet ahead of me."

Thanks, Margaret Renkl. "I gave myself permission to spend 15 minutes a day, in the midst of working and raising a family and tending to failing elders, to remember who I am."

Thanks, Maria Popova (and Aristotle). “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle famously proclaimed. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit...”

And...

Thanks, Obama!
You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. ‘You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,’ he said.'I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’ He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. 'You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.’ Michael Lewis, Obama's Way
Don't even think about it. Just do it. Habits are habit-forming.