Delight Springs

Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Brave thinking about truth is the secret to happiness"

Younger Daughter returned yesterday afternoon after two nights away in the woods with her High School freshman class. With Older Daughter now firmly planted in college  (she sent a proud pic of herself hauling out the garbage from her dorm room: "see, I am learning something here") it was a foretaste of the empty nest. What was it like? Very quiet.

The 9th graders were supposed to be "bonding," building a body of intense communal experience and mutual trust to solidify their shared sense of themselves as uniquely in a class of their own. The classy class of '17.

Didn't work, she says. "There was no 'bonding,' there were just tics and bee stings and all the girls were getting their periods and all the boys were weird..." Reality can be harsh. But I'll bet more bonding went on than she yet realizes.

Reality. What a concept. Her movie night request, to break the media-starvation retreat diet, was The Great Gatsby (Leo & Jay-z version). Pretty unreal. But I think I get it. "Born back ceaselessly into the past we beat on..." Look for the green light. Go, man. Hope springs eternal, even if your're funding it with gangsta capital.

But what is real? The philosophers I like most are the ones who say reality begins with experience. That's why WJ called the defense of experience against philosophy (what a thing for a paid professional philosopher  to say!) "my religious act." But sometimes it takes a thief to catch a thief, right? And dogmatic philosophers, no less than dogmatic religionists and ideologues in every domain, steal the meaning of personal experience. Good philosophers defend the meaning of personal experience, in fact consider it constitutive of its own tiny part of the big total picture. Part of reality.

The opposite of experience in this context is not "reality," then. It's dogmatism, a priorism, ideology, close-minded self-certainty, "blindness," refusal to listen or hear...

These reflections may be useful in addressing some students' overt and conspicuous religiosity in the philosophy classroom, which I sometimes suspect has been coached from home or church or even some other corner of the university. ("Take philosophy, but stand up and witness to it.")

My quarrel with personal professions of religious faith in philosophy class is the same as my rejection of appeals to authority generally. If you believe X because dad or preacher or bible or teacher or tradition or a little voice told you so, that's unphilosophical. If you believe it because you experienced something that you think supports it, and are prepared to discuss that experience and that belief, then we can reason amicably together. 

As Socrates said to Euthyphro
The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy [or good] is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.
And as "Mo" said to "Jesus,"
If something is good because God commands it, then morality is totally arbitrary-God could make anything good just by saying so.
“Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality,” whichever of the nine billion or so names of god you invoke. 

[full textLast Days of Socrates... Woody's Apology]

The only condition for the successful conduct of the kind of co-philosophizing we try to do in my classes is not to check your religion entirely at the door, or your irreligion, or any other heart-felt markers of who you think you are. It's just that you agree patiently to listen to others when they describe different experiences, different lines of thought and belief from yours. Listen. Then speak. Ask questions. Then listen again. Take some notes. Give it all some quiet attention. Give yourself permission to think. Consider. Be prepared to draw a different conclusion than you drew yesterday. At least be prepared to think better of those who don't see the world the way you do. Philosophize, don't dogmatize.

Sound easy? No, not really. But it can be fun. It can open your eyes like nothing else. As Jennifer Hecht says, we philosophers are "convinced that thinking about these big ideas, just the pure process of mulling them over, does a person a world of good."

And, "brave thinking about truth is the secret to happiness."

Friday, August 30, 2013

Choosing to like it

Still puzzling over Gretchen Rubin's assertion: "You can choose what you do, but you can't choose what you LIKE to do." 

True? I'm still not convinced. Oh sure, whenever I exercise impulse control and (for instance) refrain from clobbering the lip-smacking gum-popper seated next to me on the commuter train, I've chosen to suppress an overt expression of what I'd like to do about one of the trifling annoyances of social existence that I despise beyond reason.

And sure, it feels like my preference for chocolate over vanilla is a given and not a choice. Or for baseball over football. Philosophy over concrete management studies.

Obama over Bush? I suppose I can believe that our politics partly reflect predispositions and attitudes that run deeper than reflective intelligence. But we stand to lose a lot, if we start thinking of the ballot box as just a collective mirror of antecedent and extraneous factors and not the great locus of our unforced freedom.

Joy over suffering? Happiness over misery?

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Why? No sane, sensible non-masochist would choose to push that accursed rock endlessly, nor like it. But as someone pointed out in HAP 101 yesterday, you learn to like doing the things you've come to understand as prerequisite to the satisfaction of other things you do like. (Like feeding your kids and watching them grow.) You cultivate the like attitude, because if the rock (the job, the marriage, the health challenge,...) is onerous and heavy enough the alternative is to hate your life and possibly end it. Sisyphus didn't end it.

Amor fati? No, this isn't about fate or recurrence or embracing your pain and suffering. It's about loving your lucky life. We're the lucky ones, one day we're going to die takes on a different aspect, in this light. We're even luckier if today is not that day.

But it's always useful to remember, whether you're Sisyphus or someone luckier, that the death clock is ticking down. It's not stopping, while we're killing time. Our search for meaning is now or never.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Happy go lucky

Sissela Bok commences her exploration of happiness with a nod to luck and gratitude.
one of us had of being born, able to relish even the slightest glimmer of 
happiness... Were it not for my young mother's newfangled ideas about happiness, I would never have seen the light of day.
She goes on to describe the extreme contingency of her own existence, predicated on her mother's decision (supported by her father) to risk a dangerous pregnancy and trust "magical luck." (They were the famed economist and sociologist Myrdals.)

I think we could all tell a similar story about the improbable odds against us. My own family lore notes the undesired ten year delay in my arrival on the planet. They almost gave up waiting on me.

Happiness is a HAP, subject to happenstance. You have to luck out, to get happy. In the largest sense, since we're here, we all did. It's cliche to say our happiness is a choice, and I don't disagree that in many respects it is. But who really chooses to be born? Our real choices comes later, when trying to decide how we feel about being here. "You can choose what you do, but you can't choose what you LIKE to do," said pop-HAP guru Gretchen Rubin. I'm not sure that's not exactly backwards.

Nobody tells the story of our existential good fortune better than Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow:

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?
I know I do. Well, maybe "spring" is not quite the word. But shouldn't we open our eyes to the light of day and the pitch of midnight, and all be happy just to be here? Happy for the opportunity to experience happiness, unhappiness, and all points in between?

Well, if ought really implies can we need to turn our gaze back the other way. What happens to happiness for those whose experiential machinery goes haywire? That's the big question in our novel (that I remind students to jump on early).

"No free lunch?" asks Richard Powers' Happiest Girl in Generosity. It's all a free lunch. We shouldn't even be here. But Thassadit Amswar is not by birth or upbringing a first-worlder, she's from Camus' Algeria. That doesn't stop her from beaming, until she falls into the clutches of American biotech profiteers. (I'd better stop right there. Read the novel please.)

Still, it's too easy for we complacent children of western privilege to say life's a gift and a joy on even the worst days. If every day were a struggle of survival and a battle against disease and oppression, one might think oneself happier not to have landed on this orb. This is an illusion of course. Oblivion enjoys no state of mind or soul whatsoever. Gratitude does not arise for the unliving, at either end of life's brief span.

That's been called a comfort, by philosophers from Epicurus to Montaigne to Twain to Hitchens. I wasn't perturbed about not living before, why should I fret about the prospect of it after?

And there are many more good questions previewed in Bok's opening chapter on luck.
What are the wisest steps to take in the pursuit of happiness? What moral considerations should set limits to such pursuits? What else should matter in human lives aside from happiness? How should we weigh our own happiness against that of others in a world where we are aware, as never before, of extremes of misery and opulence? How might we best take into account what we are learning about the effects of our individual and collective choices on the prospects for the well-being of future generations? And how should we respond to individuals and groups advocating intolerant or outright inhumane conceptions of happiness or well-being?
Tip of the ice-berg.

Here's Sissela and her husband the former Harvard president, eagerly discovering and understanding the universe of human flourishing.

HAP 101: our first class was a near-model in civil exchange, despite evidently sharp differences of perspective amongst some of us. There was just the hint of a little dust-up after class, which prompted my light comment here (2d paragraph).  Remember: a good argument isn't just saying "no it isn't," and it's not an ad hominem questioning of others' motives or credentials (or an appeal to the special authority of one's own). Let's all continue to do what almost all of us did last time: play nice, be respectful, disagree agreeably. Have fun. Be happy. Speaking of which, I have Happy news! Carlin Romano's coming to visit our department, on November 8, as the inaugural Fall Lyceum speaker! Watch for details. Now,

ready for our first Happy Hour, HAP 101? Look for the Dean of HH at Boulevard B&G shortly after class. I'll join you soon as I return my MTBike to the Rec Center.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Who's your favourite philosopher?"

That's the Philosophy Bites question we take up today in CoPhi. If you think it puts Descartes before the horse you can revisit What is Philosophy? first, as we did last year. (That was the first bad phil-pun I heard, first day of Grad School. Not the last. Blame it on Cogan.)

We don't all agree on what philosophy is. Not even we "Americanists," amongst ourselves. But we try to disagree agreeably. A little post-HAP 101 exchange between a pair of students threatened for a moment to become disagreeable (unlike the class itself, which was thrilling in its impassioned civility). May have to make them watch the Argument Clinic. "An argument isn't just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes," etc. etc.  But I don't want to argue about that.

I don't have a "favourite"... but my favorite (as I've already told my classes, on Day #1) is of course William James.

It's no surprise that David Hume outpolls everyone on the podcast, given its Anglo-centric tilt, or that Mill and Locke pick up several votes. They're all on my short list too, as is Bertrand Russell. (I notice that my Vandy friend Talisse is one of the handful of Americans here, and he, like Martha Nussbaum, picks Mill. Sandel picks Hegel.) Other big votegetters: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.

No surprise either that James, Dewey, Peirce, Santayana, Rawls, and other prominent Yanks don't win wide favor across the pond.

I did hear a British philosopher praising James once, on the BBC's excellent "In Our Time." But generally they prefer William's "younger, shallower, vainer" brother Henry, who lived most of his adult life in Sussex.

The British roots of American thought do run deep. Stay tuned for info on our Study Aboard course, as it moves from drawing board to future reality.

Why do I find WJ so compelling? Hard to put my finger on a single reason, there are so many. I was first drawn to him through his marvelous personal letters. Then, his essays ("On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," "What Makes a Life Significant") and lectures-cum-books (Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe). His warm, charming, playful, disarming, sympathetic personality shone through all. He was so great at tossing off wit, profundity, and practical wisdom with seeming effortlessness and concision. A born tweeter. But his health, physical and emotional, was a lifelong challenge. He expended vast effort to become William James.

The thing James said that's stuck with me longest and made the most lasting impression, I think, is the little piece of youthful advice he once wrote to a despondent friend. I mentioned this in HAP 101 yesterday. I'm not quite sure why, but it lifts my mood every time I think of it:
Remember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the cosmos.
Is this true? Maybe. Is it useful? Definitely.

Happy days are here again!

So happy to be teaching HAP 101 again, as of this afternoon!

Each time's different. (Well, duh! someone's thinking.) But I mean that each time has a different hook, and a mostly-different set of texts. (Only Jennifer Hecht keeps recurring, she's just so smart + funny and multi-thematic that I can't give her up.)

The hook this time is meaning: to what extent, if any, is genuine happiness and flourishing possible in the absence of a correlatively-robust sense of meaning, purpose, telos,  or goal-directedness? If we agree with Aristotle that happiness is the one great intrinsic good in life, are we also committed to his view that happily-meaningful lives must be assessed in toto and post facto?

Can a meaningless life be happy in any meaningful sense? Can a profoundly meaningful life ever be truly unhappy? And were Woody Allen and Bertrand Russell and Douglas Adams right, that the meaning of things is forever so elusive that we should just "hang the sense of it" and get on with finding personally-meaningful "distractions" to divert our attention from the truly terrifying nullity at the base of existence?

We'll think of a great many more questions, related and tangential. Some of us might even answer a few of them, if only to our own provisional and fleeting satisfaction.

I think our Happy Hour Chairman-by-acclamation (let's just call him Dean of Happy Hour) has given us a good taco-inspired slogan: Live mas!

Isn't that precisely what the pursuit of happiness aims to corral? Life, the more the better? I keep coming back (as some of you know all too well) to William James's perspective on all this. He was talking about religion, but more broadly he was speaking of our compulsive human thirst for happiness. "Not God but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is... the end of religion." 

It is in fact its own end, it's as natural for humans as anything, and its pursuit is the fountain of youth. I don't really think of it as "religious" in the familiar Sunday School sense, but like John Dewey I'm prepared to tolerate that word if we agree to recur to its Latin meaning: religare, that which binds us to one another and to nature (and does not waste futile efforts to transcend our natural condition). "The religion of humanity affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does," and for some of us does so far more meaningfully.

That's why I repeatedly bend so far against my own personal sense of life's greatest meanings, which are invariably evolutionary and progressive, to try and accommodate varieties of religious experience I can never share (nor want to). "The pluralist form takes for me a stronger hold on reality..." 

And on happiness, life, the universe... well, everything.

Monday, August 26, 2013

You don't have to follow me

It's Opening Day!

Not only that, it's also my first time in Forrest Hall, the ROTC Building on our campus. (They turned the classroom across the hall in our building into three new offices and a conference room. Must keep reminding myself: Growth and change are good!)

Above the door in FH 203 it says high standards are "ruthlessly enforced." And on the rear wall it says "Follow Me!"
Perfect excuse to pull out one of my favorite Opening Day routines, from the Pythons:

And, perfect excuse to bring my own "terrible swift sword" prop to class. I'll brandish it pseudo-savagely, to reinforce Brian's point that in fact "you don't have to follow me, you don't have to follow anybody!" We're all leaders here, in voicing our own views and giving a respectful hearing to others' in turn.

And we're here to wonder, with the whale, what's next.

But lest anyone get the idea that it's all just fun and games, we can consider this reality check from my favorite filmmaker:
It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.
But seriously, our convocation speaker yesterday was right: now's the time to dream big about whatever unseen future might await us.

And my favorite English prof is right, too: four years can and should transform you. Three and a half months, a semester, can too. Let the journey begin!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Our chief weapons

The annual Fall Faculty Meeting in Tucker auditorium yesterday felt to some of my colleagues less like the falsely flattering pep talk it usually is, and more like a public scolding by our university president for the benefit of those tight-fisted GOP state legislators sitting just before him in the front row. They must've loved seeing Bill Ford, proud adviser to the Young Republicans and past scourge of our philosophy department, receive his lifetime achievement award. Graciously too, I must admit.

"If students interrupt your day you're in the wrong profession!" True enough. Teaching at every level should always be "student-centered." So should research, at least in the sense that it (like the best teaching) is ultimately auto-didactic.

But the new public university mantra "retention and graduation" began after awhile to remind me of MLK's alliterative allusion to George Wallace, "lips dripping with nullification and interposition." Of course we want to keep our students for four good years and then send them into the work-world with minds made full and curious and compassionate (as described in that wonderful Rhodes vision statement).

We also want to be sure our students are not just racing through a curriculum modeled on the industrial assembly line. I'm uncomfortable when my president speaks of the library, for instance, as a mere source of "input" not to be allowed to interfere with churning out our "product" (a degree-holding and employable new worker for the 21st century) on deadline.

"We can philosophize all we want" about this results-oriented  approach, President McPhee allowed, but the "reality" is that public higher education now must deliver the goods. And to underscore the point, he held up the morning's newspaper with its headline about the Tennessee approach being applauded by President Obama as a possible model for the nation. He looked just a bit like Harry Truman in 1948.

And he's right, there's nothing more important in education than student success properly defined. And yes, again, the cost of higher ed is shameful. It can't be lowered soon enough (especially for those of us with kids in college.) We can't fix a broken system or insure student success, though, guys in the front row, without taxpayer support.

But OK, I'm ready. After lunch in the shiny new grand ballroom of the shiny new Student Center (speaking of student-centered learning at all costs) with grousing colleagues from other disciplines (those from mine bailed, but I never skip a free lunch) I stuck my head into the bookstore and confirmed that all my books are indeed on the shelves, waiting to be whisked up by knowledge-hungry young minds.

(So students, please do your jobs: acquire and read them: HAP 101 top right, CoPhi bottom left.) One distressing feature of the new student-centered paradigm has been a greater administrative tolerance for those students who report that they just don't like to read. Despite current trends, though, I'm not an administrator.)

Then, I popped over to Forrest Hall. It's the ROTC building on campus, and (since we lost our old classroom across the hall) the venue for my first class of the new semester Monday.  The walls of my new classroom are a little scolding, too.
Yes, our chief weapons include a ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the, umm, Provost? Gotta love this new era of accountability.  Don't forget fear and surprise.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The best prescription

"What else?" That was Dr. S's repeated prompt, at my annual physical exam. What used to be a quick formality to appease the insurance overlords has become an extended exercise in complaint. Mostly hypochondriacal, I suppose. But I don't make fun of hypochondriacs anymore.

The doc didn't say my complaints were misplaced. He did say he had no magic bullets to address any of them. The blood work results will tell the rest of the story. The good news, meanwhile, is that BP's low, BMI's above average, the prognosis is generally positive. "Keep your health, your Splendid health..."

I went straight from my exam to the Opening Day event sponsored by the local chapter of Older Daughter's new school's alumni association, and there met a parent approximately my age who also talks for a living, and who's just come through the nightmare of tongue and throat cancer. His speech was obviously altered, and so was he: evidently for the better. Surviving a mortal scare can be uplifting and inspiring. Congenitally healthy people may lack a proper appreciation for the simple ability to draw one breath and then another.

The perceptive Richard Ford has written that there eventually comes a time in every long life when you can easily spot the very thing that's going to get you, on the distant horizon. It keeps coming closer and closer, and there's nothing much you can do about it. Oh, you can waive a flag and worry and complain, but it's coming. Better not to worry, just look for ways to enjoy and optimize the day before you.

Isaac Asimov said if he received a death sentence he'd just type faster.

George Santayana said there's no cure for birth and death except to enjoy the interval.

And Dr. S finally said the best medicine he could prescribe for my aching joints, tired muscles, chaotic colon, eccentric alimentary  system, and all, was just to keep on doing what I do: walk daily, swim, hike, and bike frequently, and stop in for a friendly chat with my GP annually.

What else?

Don't worry too much about what else might be coming. Type faster.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Keeping in touch

When Older Daughter was still toddling I introduced her to the big rollerball computer mouse, the one designed for tiny undexterous hands, and set her up with a bunch of CD-ROMSs like JumpStart Toddler, Freddy Fish, & Little Critter. That's probably why she says I'm the guy who made her the way she is today, and that a lot of people have a bone to pick with me over that. But I think she's turned out pretty well.

One of her first CDs was "Get Ready for School, Charlie Brown!"

Why am I thinking about that this morning? Well, because yesterday was her first day of college. I've already been mildly upbraided for texting at inopportune moments, over-monitoring her status as I suppose a parent's expected to do. We didn't have to deal with texts or emails or skypes or facetimes or facebooks or tweets or whatever,  from our parents. Mine barely called or wrote at all day-to-day in '75, as I recall... though Mom did come racing up the highway with her nurses' kit early in my freshman year, when I complained on the phone of an upset stomach.

And Dad was a fairly frequent visitor too, come to think of it. He liked to drop in on Wednesdays, his day off, with tools. (I was living in an old house off-campus, he was honing his landlord fix-it skills.)

Well, Older Daughter, don't worry. You're twice as far from home as I was, I won't be turning up on your doorstep unannounced. But, when's Parents' Weekend again? (Just kidding. I know exactly when it is. Better get started tidying that dorm.)

I will however be thinking of you, and dropping the random "Forever"-franked postcard in the mail. Like the one in my pocket...
THUR, AUG 22, 5:30 AM. This is quiter & less obtrusive, & more fun, than a text. No? Went to the Nashville chapter alumni event at Bosco's last night, met some nice parents of other frosh like yourself... & a young woman, class of '08, who lived in the dorm room across from yours. An English major, then (without premeditation) a law student at Ole Miss, then hired to work in D.C. Had said she'd be done with Tennessee, when she got her degree. Her friend & classmate made roughly the same circuit, via Chicago. And here they (happily) are. So, as the old Cards' pitcher Joacquin Andujar once said (employing his "favorite English word"): Youneverknow. 
Sure is quiet over on the other side of that wall behind me. Hope your 1st day was great. Love, Dad
I also hope she'll save these postcards, I have enough to get us through four years and a nice collectors' box to return 'em to, in what only feels like the far future of 2017.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The art of looking

“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” And that's why you need a liberal education. You don't just want a job and a paycheck, you want a meaningful and rewarding vocation. You want a good life.

Andrew Delbanco was quoting a colleague in his book about what college was, is, and should be. I'm stealing the line, it'll be useful in recruiting travelers for our Study Abroad course in Oxford and environs.

We had another very encouraging meeting about that yesterday with representatives of ISA, who say they'll be happy to help us build and customize our course. We're on track to go over and scout locations next summer, before rolling out the course in the summer following. 

It's going to be a walking course, in the noblest peripatetic tradition. And so it was more than fitting that my colleague and I had a productive brainstorming conversation about how we'll do it as we ambled back from the Student Center to our building on the other edge of campus. 

We're thinking the way to go, at least part of the time on the ground in Britain, will be to break ourselves and our students into a pair of smaller herds. We'll walk-and-talk independently, in the process "customizing" our general theme (how British "roots" influenced the development of American philosophy, and reciprocally how American ideas have subsequently "branched" into the Anglo/European environment) in our own ways.

By the way, English majors and other humanities types: we're not taking a narrow path here. The literary, cultural, and historical (as well as philosophic and scientific) "milieus" will matter deeply, in our course. We'll plan an outing to William James's "younger, shallower" brother Henry's home in Rye (Sussex), we'll look for the trail of Dickens (who famously perambulated in London after midnight)...

 In short, we'll take to heart William's familiar observation that our experience is what we agree to attend to. We'll attend to as much as we can, and will have a richer learning experience for it. We'll really look at, and into, and behind, our surroundings.

That's the message in a recently celebrated book called The Art of Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz.
Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you... A better way of thinking about attention is to consider the problems that evolution might have designed “attention” to solve. The first problem emerges from the nature of the world. The world is wildly distracting. It is full of brightly colored things, large things casting shadows, quickly moving things, approaching things, loud things, irregular things, smelly things.
Right. Henry James said his challenge as a writer was to be one on whom nothing was lost. That's impossible, but it's a worthy aspiration for our course and our trip. And our lives.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Getting ready for school

@OnPointRadio asks if it makes sense to major in the humanities anymore. I wonder if it makes sense not to.

The Vandy students have just moved back in, so the place was more poppin' yesterday than it's been in a while. Good day for a campus wander.

Had to mosey through the Sarratt Student Center, where I worked as Night Manager during Grad School. It's fundamentally the same welcoming place it ever was, though the Main Desk and adjoining offices have been reconstructed and reoriented from back in "my day" (during the first Bush's presidency). The exhibit space was taken up by the annual poster (etc.) sale, by which students adorn their dormitories and place a personal stamp & statement on their new homes. Snapped this just before the overly-officious desk attendant insisted "No browsing 'til 10!"

 I made a particular point of laying eyes on Gillette Hall, scene of a rape allegedly perpetrated last June by several footballers. It looks the same as ever too, and Vandy in general looks as ready to support its students' academic and life aspirations as it ever did.

Likewise the lovely faux cathedral to wisdom and learning (and Athena-sponsored peace) across the street.
Then reversing direction, I couldn't resist a stroll through Barnes & Noble to see what my Vandy colleagues are reading and teaching this Fall. Noticed that JT is working the free will problem with Robert Kane. Also noticed that incoming freshmen are supposed to have read this, this summer:
Good! I read it last summer, finding it a more-than-adequate answer to the implied criticism of humanities education in challenging economic times I later heard on the car radio. They're still chewing on that this morning, apparently, with Mark Edmundson. Maybe I'll tune in. But maybe I'll be busy with something more important: getting ready for college.

Monday, August 19, 2013

True happiness

Shelby Foote was right about "true happiness in this world": it's all about finishing each day's work and already looking forward in eager anticipation to the next. I'd rather not be anchored to a single desk, myself. I have several, at home and at school; and I try to think of every walkable spot of ground as part of a big rolling unbounded work station. I even regard my hammocks (which are also mobile) that way, when I want to. But then I've not published 3 million words between covers yet, so maybe I'm not quite the authority on this topic that he is.

In any case, I really love the way Shelby perked up near the end of that 3-hour C-SPAN session with the stony-faced and humorless Mr. Lamb to offer his vibrant observation about the connection between happiness and meaningful work. He'd clearly given the matter some thought, it's exactly what he told the Paris Review in 1999:
"People say, My God, I can’t believe that you really worked that hard for twenty years. How in God’s name did you do it? Well, obviously I did it because I enjoyed it. I don’t deserve any credit for working hard. I was doing what I wanted to do. Shakespeare said it best: “The labor we delight in physics pain.” There’s no better feeling in the world than to lay your head on the pillow at night looking forward to getting up in the morning and returning to that desk. That’s real happiness."
Just put figurative wheels on that desk and I'll be right there with him.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


We're home from #Rhodescollege, 3/4 of us.  Older Daughter's a collegian now, matriculated, relocated, moved in, convocated, and launched on a whirlwind of pre-class meet-&-greets and other activities designed to implant a sense of belonging to a community of service-oriented young scholars. Rhodes scholars, though not that Rhodes. Not yet anyway.

Music prof Thomas Bryant gave the convocation address, wandering between lectern and piano, challenging the class of '17 to "make your mark" as Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert did. Wish I could do that, punctuate words with chords. But I can wander, at least.

While moms and sisters unpacked and organized the dorm Thursday morning, we dads were sent away to supervise the house lounge. But it was too nice outdoors to hold me there. And in fact I would have wandered the campus in any weather. It's just what I do.

And so it was that I came upon the impressive Rhodes "vision":
"Rhodes aspires to graduate students with a lifelong passion for learning, a compassion for others, the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world."
That's marvelously Deweyan. If they mean it, Older Daughter has come to the right place.

They sent me wandering again later, and that's when I found Shelby Foote's old place on East Parkway, down and across from Overton Park. More on his "lifelong passion for learning" later, right now I'm going for another wander. Then I'm going to finish watching Shelby's 3 hour C-Span marathon from 2001.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Unsolicited advice

What's some good unsolicited wisdom, to send off a college freshman and aspiring writer? Well, there's this.

“Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended... 
That's George Saunders's Advice to Graduates. Works for matriculating freshpersons too, with so many big questions just before them.

And there's this:
What makes a writer great? The same thing that makes a human great: Curiosity without ego, and generosity of spirit. No amount of talent is worth anything without kindness. Maria Popova
Kurt Vonnegut said the same thing: be kind. Saw it on a bumper sticker yesterday too. Then saw (via the Friendly Atheist) that some benighted Christians actually oppose kindness, on the very grounds that recommend it to me: "To make kindness into an ultimate virtue is to insist that our most important moral obligations are those we owe to our fellow human beings." Yes, that's it exactly.  

Or as William James put it,
Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist, in yon blue heaven above us bent, we form at any rate an ethical republic here below. And the first reflection which this leads to is that ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well. "The religion of humanity" affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does.
As well as? No, better than. By far, and without confusion as to where our most urgent obligations lie. So again, this time with Vonnegut's emphatic (yet still smiling) punctuation: "you've got to be kind, dammit!"

And, does it also not go without saying? Do your best. Call/text/write/visit when you can. Learn. Grow. Live. Be happy.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Packing for school

Images of change, long in coming but still hard to assimilate.

Walked here yesterday. It punctuated the sharp feeling of transition, on Younger Daughter’s first day of High School.

For most of the 20th century this was the site of Mills Bookstore in Hillsboro Village, Nashville. A local icon and cultural bellwether, and for me a part-time employer during grad school. I remember being alone behind the ancient cash register one Sunday afternoon in the ’80s when Senator Al Gore walked in, looking for a Vietnam memoir. Wonder what the archaeologists might find there now. They’d better dig soon, somebody’s probably itching to put up a new lamp or box store or something.

And here’s the more urgent scene: a portion of the stuff that’s colonized my library and will soon fill up Older Daughter’s dorm. At least we’ll be able to see the floor again.

Change is good. Right, Mom?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Really should get back to school

It's Younger Daughter's High School orientation day. The Dad shuttle's back on line, leaving the station momentarily.  Endless summer's over.

My old bedside bell, out of service these past 3+ months while I rose to the bidding of daily personal impulse and not "the mechanical nudgings of some servitor," still works well. Too well in fact, today. But I'll get used to it again. Coffee timer helps.

I've been revisiting William James's wonderful letters. They're what first hooked me on his pragmatism, years ago. Their author's delightful epistolary persona is still my model of civilized interpersonal communication. It's why I can't allow myself to write a sloppy or unpunctuated email, and why I bend over backward to defend a philosophical view through whose gaps too much daylight shines. The temperament of the man dwarfs the deficiencies of his doctrine. One day maybe I'll publish a collection of the letters I'd like to have exchanged with WJ in a possible universe, were "specious" time not such a spurious impediment to the meeting of minds.

 James was anticipating retirement in 1907. What a more civilized academic calendar it was at Harvard then, when the Fall term still began only in late September. (Ah, now I get that Rod Stewart "Maggie May" line!) James told a correspondent,
I confess that the thought is sweet to me of being able to hear the College bell ring without any tendency to "move" in consequence, and of seeing the last Thursday in September go by, and remaining in the country careless of what becomes of its youth. It's the harness and the hours that are so galling! I expect to shed truths in dazzling profusion on the world for many years.
Alas, he had only about three years left to shed his truths. He really knew, and often admitted, that what needs shedding more is the philosopher's compulsive urge to spout Truth, pin Reality, and "settle the universe's hash" forever. Nothing ever concludes, until (unless?) everything does.

But new school years? There's the bell. I'm coming. We won't be late.

Friday, August 9, 2013

What could I possibly need?

But, I must continually remember to ask myself,what if you couldn't walk?

You'd need to go with another metaphor, and another mindset. Matthieu Ricard relates the situation of
a man I have known for twenty years who lives in Bumthang province at the heart of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. He was born without arms or legs, and he lives on the outskirts of a village in a little bamboo hut of just a few square yards. He never goes out and barely moves from his mattress on the floor. He came from Tibet forty years ago,  carried by fellow refugees, and has lived in this hut ever since. The mere fact that he is still alive is extraordinary in itself, but even more striking is the joy that radiates from him. Every time I see him, he is in the same serene, simple, gentle, and unaffected frame of mind. When we bring him small gifts of food, blankets, a portable radio, he says that there was no need to bring him anything. “What could I possibly need?
It's so cliche to say that happiness comes from within. But what else is there to say about this?

Well, lots. For one, the central organizing metaphor of American life must be more closely examined. This little story, and in these brutal days of interminable war and DIY IEDs there are increasingly many like it, challenges the notion of happiness as an outer pursuit and adventure. Is it not really more a state of  mind, of the mind at peace and at rest? Is it not less an experience of going, and more one of being?

I'm going to need more time, and maybe better coffee. I'd like the rain to stop and the clouds to withdraw, too.  I'd like High School not to start on Monday, and College on Wednesday.

Hmm. Guess I'm a lttile needy, compared to that man in Bumthang.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Stepping out

Sat for a couple of hours yesterday with Younger Daughter at the Orthodontist's, for the last time!

The braces finally came off, after two and a half years. More cause for celebration, thankfully not at the multiplex this time but at Chipotle. Nothing very symbolic about a Burrito Bowl, but losing the braces is certainly a symbolic milestone. Thinking about symbols and milestones at Dr. Gluck's led me back to a couple of images, profound in their juxtaposition..

Cosmopolitans are optimists because they're acutely aware not only of how far we still must go, to cover the ground between here and sustainability & social justice, but also of how far we've come. They enjoy the present, as the philosophers of happiness all agree we must. But they take past and future seriously too.

Walking symbolizes this attitude so well. Every step of a journey stands alone, every moment of a good walk is absorbing and sufficient unto the hour. Yet in their totality, our footprints lead from primitive beginnings to the unimaginably exciting adventure of discoveries ahead.

An old post captures this graphically.

The present. What else do we have? The past is dead, the future’s not yet living. Right? Not quite. Past and future are virtually alive in us, for those of us who think there’s something in them we can use. Something we must respond to, and connect with.Like ancient footprints.  When we walk a mile in their ash we extend their range and deepen our connection to cosmic time, “ancient and vast.” We speak for the earth of things. 
We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps three and one-half million years old are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa. We have walked far.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Superman the cosmopolitan

Half my household was involved in a multi-vehicular collision on wet West End Avenue yesterday, apparently precipitated by a texting driver. Everybody was fine, though shaken and annoyed. And the Freestyle's out of commission.

My "new philosophy," in the spirit of Sally Brown and Lake Wobegon, plugged right into the situation: "could be worse."

So, feeling the need to celebrate survival, they hauled me to the multiplex for Man of Steel. My new philosophy applied there too, though it could also have been a lot better. Easily an hour of noisome inconsequential violence could have been lopped, the morality play could have been played up more, the humorous irony of Christopher Reeve's '70s version could have been echoed. 

But Younger Daughter loved it, and her demographic is the one they're pitching to. As my friend G points out, there's always classic cable. 

I guess I haven't been to enough movies lately. I kept wondering who the old guy playing Clark's Dad, who looked so much like an over-the-hill Kevin Costner, was. Oh. Kevin Costner.

Didn't like the way young Clark was bullied while reading Plato,  later turning to a Priest to hear (surprise) that sometimes you just have to leap in faith.

Hated the way the invaders from Krypton rationalized their rapacity in Social Darwinist terms, conflating evolution with vicious parochial tribalism and speciesism. (And modeling their social organization on Plato's "republic").

But anyway, I had to love the whole "bridge between worlds" and "force for good" theme. Made Kal-el seem comparatively cosmopolitan, next to the Kryptonites and native Earthlings. A pioneer citizen of the cosmos, cum mild-mannered reporter.

Love that he was a Royals fan, too. Maybe the "S" does mean hope.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sticking around

I wonder if anyone's written a history of philosophers' walking sticks? I suspect the field is open. Here's one you can go and look at, if you don't mind looking as well at its famed mottled motionless owner.

What I love most about my teaching job is that it keeps teaching me new things about our subjects. Utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham is another example. Had the strange experience of sitting on my Little House porch last night and hearing myself on the radio, harshing on Bentham as a proponent of a too-crude philosophy of happiness. I think I was too harsh.

It should come as no surprise that the philosopher who had his body preserved and housed for public display in University College London had other charms and quirks, but I only just learned of them since swinging by our campus library after class one day not long ago. We tend to reduce philosophers' charms and quirks to just the arguments. That's a mistake. Argument is important, in philosophy, but it's not all there is.

The first volume of Parekh’s Critical Assessments reports that (like Kant and Rousseau) he too was a walker and an eccentric, an understatedly-”amusing” man.
Bentham was an extremely amusing man, and in many respects rather boyish. Most of his life he retained an instinctive horror of being left alone… He had a large black tom cat of an ‘uncommonly serious temperament’ which he nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ and ‘The Reverend Doctor Langborn’… He had amusing names for his daily activities and favourite objects. His favourite walking stick was called Dapple, after Sancho Panza’s mule, and his ‘sacred tea-pot’ was called Dick. His daily routine included ‘antejentacular circumgyration’ or a walk before breakfast, an ‘anteprandial circumgyration’ before dinner, and an ‘ignominious expulsion’ at midnight accompanied by the ‘putter-to-bed’, the ‘asportation of the candle’ and the ‘transportation of the window.’
So yes, he was weird. But also “basically a warm, generous, and kind” man. He wanted to reform the misery-inducing industrial culture of his time and place, and to improve the basic quality of life of his fellow human beings.
Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own…
Sorry, Mr. Mill, that’s just not what I’d call a “pig philosophy.” It’s humane and compassionate, and it deserves a hearing too.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hobbes was fond of his what?

"Dram," sang the Pythons. But he was fonder of his stick. His walking stick. (See below.)

I was amused when my old friend said he'd just spent five weeks in Britain and came away with nothing more philosophical than a visit to a castle where Hobbes had tutored. My colleague answered rightly by noting that an ancient English castle's more likely to stimulate the philosophical imagination than is a dusty library in Tennessee. But in any event, Hobbes is a fascinating and over-maligned figure whose steps I look forward to tracking. As I wrote for students awhile back,

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, hehobbes-walking-stick lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say pre-social contract humans were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel Warburton in his Little History, why do you lock your doors? 

Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it? How much have you? How secure do you feel? Still relevant questions in our time, and Hobbes's answers were extreme indeed. But he was no monster, he was a peace-seeker and a civilizer. Most walkers are.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A frightening appendage

Here's why a walker must turn off his phone while walking to work.
"I had become an avid iPhone user while researching “Super Sad True Love Story.” The device became a frightening appendage to a life of already sizable anxiety. My phone became a reproving parent that constantly bade me to work harder, a needy lover that beeped and clanged and marimba’d her demands through the left-hand pocket of my jeans, a sadistic life coach constantly reminding me that, whatever I was doing, there were more fascinating things to be done. Returning to the novel five years after its completion, I had the general sense that I had allowed technology to run me over. Now I was more Eunice than Lenny, an occasional rather than a voracious reader, a curator of my life rather than a participant, a man who could walk through a stunning national park while looking up stunning national parks..."
O.K., Glass, record a video...
Gary Shteyngart: Confessions of a Google Glass Explorer : The New Yorker

Friday, August 2, 2013

To the trails!

A note from Vandy Prof David Wood (who thinks out of boxes) has pointed me back to his excellent Stone piece from last December on writer's cabins [huts, Little Houses, shacks], and that in turn to John Llewelyn's "endorsement."

Llewelyn, who writes mostly in Edinburgh, notices the real point of the writing retreat: it's supposed to be a place, even more an atmosphere, in which the writer is freed from distraction and can turn more attentively to the deployment of thoughts and feelings via words.

Then, he correctly extends the impulse to get away and get into a space of solitude to readers. "A reader with any chance of penetrating below the surface of things needs ' of distraction.'"

And he asks:
Did DW write his piece about the cabin in the cabin in question...? Or did he write it in his study at home? Or did he write it in his office at the University? Or did he write different pieces of the piece in more than one of these places?
And I ask: where do any of us really write? That is, not where do we sit or stand or recline as the words tumble from brain to pencil or pen or keyboard or digital recorder, but where are we when the pre-verbal, pre-coalescent half-thoughts and affective twinges first knock on consciousness's door? Where  we transcribe is less interesting than where we begin to think.

What I call my thinking begins in motion, on foot or pedaled wheels. Almost without exception, and increasingly with pocketed iPhone off. Freedom from distraction is not a place, it's a process. An intention. A habit. A state of mind. No path is long enough to reach it, so we walkers-from-distraction keep on walking every day.

So I too offer an endorsement, of both David Wood's hut appreciation and John Llewelyn's closing nod at the long and winding trail. "The writer’s study at home and his office at the university and the remote cabin in the wilderness confer with each other. They do this by deferring to each other and to the trails between them..."

Yes: to the trails!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Substance and focus

One of my old mentors is supportive but skeptical of our prospective British summer sojourn, which we fully intend will be merely the first in a series of  perennial pilgrimages across the pond. There are so many pragmatic roots and branches to ponder, beneath and amongst the English ivy, we can't possibly plumb them all at once.

Yet he writes:  "just came back from 5 weeks in England—visited Oxford and Cambridge as well as Wales, Lake District etc.  Loved it but about all I got philosophically was to visit a castle where Hobbes was the tutor."

Challenge accepted. The substance and focus of our course, so evident to us in the early stages of planning and development, may need a little framing and "selling" if we're to win over the skeptics. 

Our pedagogic challenge as I see it is to walk ourselves and our charges along the path from empiricism to its "radical" American successor, in the process laying bare the spirit and mutual influence of each on the other. We also intend to resuscitate a peripatetic style of teaching and learning usually only associated nowadays, to our hurried so-called civilization's detriment, with long-dead ancients in togas.

My colleague adds,
 as we work out the themes, and tie them to both readings and locations, i think we'll have plenty of "substance" on offer.  Among the possibilities we've discussed already, I'm thinking maybe we could work up either: (a) something that fits under an overarching question, like: How did Darwin's theories of evolution (common descent, evolution per se, gradualism, etc.) transform the problems of American philosophy (giving rise to James' radical empiricism, pragmatism per se, theory consciousness, and speculations about the varieties of religious experience)?  or (b) something that lines up the likes of, say, Hobbes (materialism) Hume (empiricism), Darwin (evolution), Schiller (pragmatism), as James' intellectual progenitors.  

That said, I do think your point about the value of "resuscitating a peripatetic style of teaching and learning we usually only associate with long-dead ancients in togas" is good enough to stand on its own--that is to say, another way we might structure the class could be around the question: How to philosophize in our times.  See, that would fit the idea of each student beginning the day with a question of their own, based on their readings of texts we select, then walking, ruminating, and conversing through the day, and then writing up the fruits of those labors at day's end.

I gather X's reservations over "substance" amount to the same sort of concern one has to address when seeking a Fulbright: why is it vital actually to visit foreign countries to carry out the project?  My first thought in response is something like: actually to walk the earth where Hume thought, or Hobbes tutored is more likely to stimulate thinking about roots and branches than sitting in a library in Nashville.  One's sense of history is enormously enriched when one is actually on the ground where the events and lives in view occurred and were lived.
Yes, that's it exactly. My colleague has spoken of his Roman epiphany.
 There's something special about just being in place where big ideas were hatched (I recall with minute precision looking out of Dante's windows in Florence and seeing the same sky, the same rooftops, and hearing the same din of pedestrian traffic that filled his senses, what, seven-hundred years ago ... not soon to be forgotten!).  
And I've had my Jamesian mystical moments in New Hampshire and MA.
 That's the frisson I got at James's places in Chocorua & Cambridge. Standing in the very space where he lived and died, sitting on the stone wall where he wagged his finger in Royce's face and damned the Absolute, climbing his little mountain... I have no problem pitching such moments as pedagogically valuable.
That's what we'll tell the skeptics. And as I told my old friend, in the spirit of full disclosure:  

"And then of course there's the unique British "focus" one finds only with a pint in a pub (or two)... let's be frank, that's no small part of the draw (pun unintended) for my colleague and me. I'll bet you sampled that form of focus yourself a bit, on your recent trip. Hope you did, anyway!"

Knowing him, I knew that last expression of hope was purely gratuitous. I had him at pint.

"I think it is great, and that it provides a focus of interest for students who are phil majors or thinking about become majors etc.  It is something fun to do if you are in philosophy and we need plenty of that and if it focuses students on some ideas that is great too."

Not sure if "it" means our course, or English pub culture, or both. But we're taking it as a provisional endorsement. Cheers!