Delight Springs

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Are we experienced?

It was a restful and playful-yet-productive Labor Day here. Made some headway on next semester's Atheism & Philosophy  reading list. I love when work is indistinguishable from play, as it so often was back when I was learning my chops in Peter Markie's classes at Mizzou. Let's do it just that way today, kids.

In CoPhi we'll start getting acquainted with America the Philosophical. Carlin Romano (who's coming to campus to inaugurate our new Fall Lyceum on November 8, with the chance of an early appearance in our classes on the 7th ) says everybody who thinks America is un- or a- or even anti-philosophical has just not dug deep and wide enough. Especially wide. As the poet said, we are vast and contain contradictory multitudes. We're philosophical at the roots, where we're not weedy.  But of course, he concedes, we're also vain and superficial and unconscious all across the landscape too. We're in the weeds with Jersey Shore and American Idol and Honey Boo-Boo et al. So it's easy, too easy, to overlook all the philosophizing that's all around us.

Carlin's thesis will strike many, especially your entrenched working class of paid professional philosophers, as itself radical. He's breaking their rules. defying what Richard Rorty called their "scholastic little definitions of philosophy."  But as James says in the opening epigraph, "between us and the universe, there are no 'rules of the game.'" America, Romano insists and tries to document in his book, "America in the early twenty-first century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world." Wow. Can he back that up? We'll see.

One point of immediate concern is the claim that in America there exists a "widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone." Hmmm. That's not exactly been my experience, confronting prejudice in the classroom. Wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard "that's just the way I was raised" or some variant thereof, in declining the invitation to think or even listen. And I don't just get this from Braves and Sox fans.

As I said the other day,
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. 
Carlin's AtP introduction goes on to mention the source of one big embarrassment in the profession of philosophy in America, Professor Colin McGinn (formerly of the U. of Miami, also mentioned in the recent NYTimes philosophy blog The Stone as signifying a positive watershed moment for women in the field), and several of my own influences: John Rawls ("widely touted as the greatest American political philosopher"), Alain de Botton (a popularizer and twitter star), several popular philosophy mags, Harry Frankfurt (On Bullshit), philosophical novelists Iris Murdoch and Rebecca (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) Goldstein, Sophie's World (a great read for Intro students, my colleague Bombardi says), Monty Python ("Socrates himself was permanently pissed..."), Matthew Lipman, Hannah Arendt, Mooney & Kirshenbaum (Unscientific America), Susan Jacoby (Age of American Unreason), NPR and BookTV (the new middlebrow standard-bearers), Chris Phillips (Socrates Cafe, Socrates in Love), Open Court and Blackwell publishers (The Simpsons, The Matrix, Facebook...& Philosophy... and don't forget Jimmy Buffett), X-phi, cyber-phi, Richard Rorty, Oliver Sacks, Robert Fulghum, Cornel West, Obama-the-pragmatist, Isocrates... (Wait: Isocrates? Where'd the "I" come from?)

Notice how many of those names and works have emerged not from academia but from the wider world. That's Romano's point: philosophy in America's way bigger than we (and the APA) thought. I'm not sure I'd include The Playboy Philosophy in that list, as Carlin does, but we'll see.

In HAP 101 we'll continue exploring happiness with Sissela Bok's chapter on Experience. 

It's a happy convergence. The roots of American philosophy are planted not only in British soil (though they surely are, as we'll see with our intrepid summer Study Abroad adventure just over the horizon), but in the immigrants' commitment of our forebears to find, enjoy, and consume fresh uncharted experience in a new land. This philosophical Americanism is more a state of mind than of geography. "New lands" can always be found, in an inner landscape unchained to old prejudices and tradition for its own sake. 

And that's why William James called his and our philosophy of experience Radical Empiricism.

My view is that James's radical homegrown version improves significantly on classic old-world British Empiricism. It was just not radical enough about the sources and deliverances of personal, perceptual experience. 

The back-to-the-roots, self-affirming spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson is the quintessential spirit of radical empiricism (nothwithstanding his having called himself a Kantian transcendentalist):
Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books.
In other words, young American Scholars: look always to your own experience when reading those books and having those conversations with other experiencers, be they living cophilosophers or dead old legends. "Life is our dictionary ... This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it ... Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds."

And yet, Bok reminds us, as always the trick here is to balance one's own experience with that of others, and with the accumulated experience-based practical wisdom of humanity at large. Common sense isn't always "common" in the low sense.
Staying only with one's subjective perspective on happiness as on anything else shackles understanding; but so does leaving that personal perspective aside in the name of objectivity... It matters to learn to shift between the two, considering experience as seen both from within and from without.
 The point is not to exalt egoism and the private heart, to the exclusion of all others; but to be happily engaged in one's life alongside others similarly occupied. Like injustice, we must learn to see unhappiness anywhere as our concern. Meaningful happiness is all the happier, experience all the richer, the more widely and freely it's shared.

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