Delight Springs

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Looking on the bright side

I don't teach in summer, so it takes a good reason to get me out onto I-24 for the 50 minute commute from Nashville to Murfreesboro in July. Yesterday I had three.

First, an encouraging meeting with our Education Abroad staff. They're as excited as we are, my colleague and me, about our proposed 3-week course on the British Roots of American Philosophy. I'm ready to pack. Almost. Just need to sign on a few more enthusiastic travelers first.
Program Description
Program Name:     “American Philosophy in Britain”
Program Site(s):   Oxford University, Oxford U.K. and environs
Term to be offered: Summer 2014 (2015?)
Anticipated dates of the Program:     July 2014 (2015?)
Approximate duration (in weeks): 3
Proposed Course Title and Description: (Academic Content, briefly describe the academic content of your course):      “American Philosophy: British Roots” - American philosophy in general, Classic American Philosophy more particularly, and Pragmatism precisely (especially in the writings and the person of philosopher/psychologist William James) was heavily influenced by Darwin's theory of natural selection, John Locke's, David Hume's, and J.S. Mill's empiricism, and F.C.S. Schiller's pragmatic humanism. This course proposes to highlight their significance and contributions as the British “roots” of American thought, and also to explore some of the more salient “branches” of that thought amongst contemporaneous and subsequent philosophers in Britain including Oxford’s more prominent post-Shiller “enfant terrible” A.J. Ayer.
Additional rationale: I'm now completing the draft of a book I'm calling Philosophy Walks. It's about the interplay of walking, landscape, and ideas. The landscape of Darwin's, Locke's, Hume's, Mill's, & Schiller's Britain is the perfect backdrop for exploring pragmatism's genealogy. The course will be based at Oxford, possibly at Schiller’s Corpus Christi College or Locke’s Christ Church, or at the Merton College home of James’s and Schiller’s Oxford bete noire F.H. Bradley. In addition to exploring the immediate environs of Oxford and Oxfordshire, we will make day-trip excursions by train to Darwin’s Down House in Kent, to Cambridge (home of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein), and possibly for an overnight to David Hume’s Edinburgh (also home of the famous Gifford Lectures and site of James’s 1901-1902 “Varieties of Religious Experience” lectures. Also possible, depending upon logistics and feasibility: trips to Anjou in France, where Hume wrote his Treatise of Human Nature, and to the site of John Locke’s exile in Holland. And back in Oxford we will attempt to connect with Professor Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading Darwinist.
 The good news is, you don't have to be enrolled and seeking a degree from MTSU to join us. Don't even have to be a student. So come on along!

Stopped by the department after our meeting. Oh, what they're doing to my old classroom. But it's going to be ok.

Then, recorded another fun session On the Record with Gina Logue. We talked happiness, mostly, and Gina asked about the Python wisdom of always looking on the bright side. She let me pitch the Study Abroad course too. It'll air soon, stay tuned.
‘MTSU On the Record’ delves into philosophy of happiness Host Gina Logue’s interview with Dr. Phil Oliver, an MTSU philosophy professor, is scheduled to air from 5:30 to 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 5, and from 8 to 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 11, on WMOT-FM (89.5 and 
And finally, met my student at the library Starbucks to talk philosophy and his prospective career therein. A woman in line ahead of us couldn't help overhearing, and declaring,  you must be philosophers. She then regaled us with her story of meeting a famous philosopher of science on a web-dating site. She doesn't think things are going to work out between them, but apparently he talks like us.

First time I've ever closed a Starbucks, at 4 in the afternoon no less. But I think my student was reassured that his new major, and the philosophy in  his future, look so bright he'll have to wear shades.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Happy to see the light of day

Philosophers of happiness, no less than any of us, experience their own weal and woe variably and moodily.

There are moments and days of stoic gratitude when our respective Sisyphean rocks feel lighter and we think, this is good. This may be as good as it gets. William James was having such a day when he wrote:
Happiness, I have lately discovered, is no positive feeling, but a negative condition of freedom from a number of restrictive sensations of which our organism usually seems to be the seat. When they are wiped out, the clearness and cleanness of the contrast is happiness. Letters
I have more and more of those days myself, lately, when the small nagging annoyances and aches and pains of everyday are in temporary abeyance. I'm much more sympathetic to them than I used to be. "Negative?" Not at all. "Freedom!" I think that's what some call "aging." Or nothing left to lose.

There are other occasions when the dominant mood is more robust, strenuous, and euphoric. Sometimes even ecstatic. That's the kind of day James must have been having, only weeks before he died in 1910, when he answered Henry Adams' dark ruminations on entropy and cosmic death.
Though the ultimate state of the universe may be its vital and psychical extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the penultimate state might be the millennium — in other words a state in which a... maximum of happy and virtuous consciousness would be the only result. In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe's life might be, "I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer." You don't believe this and I don't say I do . But I can find nothing in "Energetik" to conflict with its possibility. 
I'm likeliest to be in that mood during and just after my morning walk, when all is positive possibility.

And then there are the quieter, more reflective times, when the larger and longer meanings of life give happiness a depth and satisfaction it misses on those lower and higher days. That's the feeling I get from "What Makes a Life Significant":
The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man's or woman 's pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place.
The reflective mood yokes happiness and meaning most effectively. It's Sissela Bok's starting place in Exploring Happiness, when she marvels at her mother's decision to risk the pregnancy that became her life.
THE MIND REELS AT THE THOUGHT OF THE INFINITESIMAL chances that any 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.
In whatever mood, we can be happy to see the light of day.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A peripatetic prophet

It's 58 degrees, and (says the BBC) the Pope has apparently asked who he is to judge gay people. Are the end times at hand? I hope not, I've got travel plans and a Cause to carry.

Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (let's just call him FCSS), I've confirmed, was both a prophet and a peripatetic. I want to take some students and a colleague and go track his steps. And his missteps. The author of the parody journal Mind! (with "I Cant's Critique of Pure Rot") made plenty of both.

FCSS (1864-1937) was a British pragmatist and humanist at Oxford (and later USC). He influenced and inspired William James ("I leave the 'Cause' in your hands..."), and fell into a deep unwarranted obscurity after his death. Before, really. He was a clever and too-eager polemicist and enfant terrible. He made James smile and cringe.

But his obscurity's beginning to recede, thanks to recent scholarship by John Shook and Mark Porrovecchio and others. Porrovecchio says Schiller's a "tonic" for our times. We need that!

I intend to do my part for the Schiller revival too, with a future Study Abroad course devoted to American philosophy's British roots (and branches). Going for a meeting about that tomorrow.

Last night I came across a delightful account of the then-still-heralded Prophet, from 1917. Edwin Slosser tracked Schiller down "at the gate of Corpus Christi College," dismounting his bicycle.
...he is alert and agile physically as he is mentally. He usually spends his summers mountain climbing in the Alps... Mr. Schiller wears the pointed beard that was the distinguishing mark of the radical of the nineties. He has a Shakespearean-shaped forehead, but wears un-Shakespearean glasses. He is as interesting to converse with as he is to read, which is more than you can say of many authors. He talks best while in motion, a real peripatetic philosopher.

Slosser continues, deliciously,
I wondered why he did not take his students out of the old gloomy lecture room and walk with them as he did with me, up and down the lawn between the trees and the ivy-clad walls of the college garden. Curious turf it was, close-cut and springy; I never felt anything like it under my feet... 
And that's all the encouragement I need to take my students out on the springy turf of middle Tennessee, when we get going again in a few weeks. Nor can I wait to feel the grass of Corpus Christi.

Just a few forms to fill out, and a few more students to snare.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

More light, more light

Finally got over to see the Bruce Munro light show at Cheekwood last night. Luminous indeed.

If you squint just right, the "Field of Light" symbolizes "the good things in life." Like light itself. As a wise wizard said, we just have to remember to turn it on.

Montaigne was a wise wizard too. "There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity..."

And Wallace Stegner. "The truest vision of life I know is that bird... that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark..."

And, whoever said it first, Carl Sagan. It's better to light a candle than curse the night, and "far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”  

More light, more light. More "light"...

Friday, July 26, 2013

Standing your ground, gazing at clouds

Home, one of my perennial themes and the subject of that impressive, inclusive portrait one week ago today, was also Pico Iyer's recent TED topic. I tried to share it yesterday but it gave Blogger and Twitter the hiccups. I'm holding my breath and trying again, because this world traveler's thoughts about home are so congenial to a walker's sensibility. "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights but in looking with new eyes," which then make the old sights new again.

Iyer's cosmopolitanism hits, you could say, close to home. And home, you could also say, is the ground you stand without fear, threat, malice, or harm. "Movement is a fantastic privilege," but coming home puts it all in perspective.

And because one good TED Talk leads to another, here's an idle occupation you can enjoy on the road, with attentive care for your safety. But it's really best at home, in the hammock or on the pool float. Look up!

"It's such an aimless activity, you're not going to change the world by lying on your back and gazing off at the sky are you? It's a pointless activity. Which, is precisely why it's so important."
So much of what we do amounts to nothing. "Cloudspotting legitimizes doing nothing." This "nothing" is a delight, and a reminder that a house is not a home. Some of us are more at home with our heads in the clouds.

Aristophanes thought he was mocking Socrates. He didn't realize what he was missing.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Happiness is a choice

Mill also said “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” 

I'm ambivalent about that. Of course the Stoic knows what he knows, the world spins on its own axis (not yours or mine), and the satisfaction of desire is often enough out of reach to make this sound like simple good sense. The Sisyphean laborer only compounds his injury with unrealistic desires. The prisoner only magnifies his captivity by pining for immediate release.

But where's the joy in this conception of happiness-as-compromise? Why merely settle?

I prefer the position James starts from in "Moral Philosopher and Moral Life":
The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all. Some desires, truly enough, are small desires; they are put forward by insignificant persons, and we customarily make light of the obligations which they bring.  But the fact that such personal demands as these impose small obligations does not keep the largest obligations from being personal demands.
In other words, don't trim your desires until you have to. Begin with great expectations. Go out and conquer happiness. Realize too that one person's small desire is someone else's joy. "Hands off!"

But recognize that you're not the only seeker out there, not the only castaway on the island. You must be prepared to compromise. Our happiness sometimes consists in the strategic limitation of some of your desires, and mine, in order that the greatest number and quality of them may eventually be met.
Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire. Shall a man drink and smoke, or keep his nerves in condition?‑-he cannot do both. Shall he follow his fancy for Amelia, or for Henrietta?‑-both cannot be the choice of his heart.
Well, that last may be the Age of Victoria speaking. (And it's probably true.) But we do get James's point, don't we? Happiness is always a choice. But it's also always a stimulant, not an anaesthetic.  It's an expansion of the heart's desires, or more precisely the hearts'...  not their constriction. We don't have to settle.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The meaning of happiness

Happiness and meaning belong together: we want our happiness to count for something, to have a point, to mean and (after we're gone) have meant that our lives are worth living. And we want the meanings of our lives to make us happy.

That's my hypothesis. It's why I'm partial to J.S. Mill's supplemental extension of Jeremy Bentham's greatest happiness principle: the point is not for the greatest number of us merely to wallow happily, contentedly, and filthily in our respective sties, ingloriously thoughtless and complacent in dull porcine mediocrity.The point is to be lifted in our happiness, to become better human beings for it. It's not to sink back in it, in our mudholes and on our couches and (ahem) our hammocks.

And it's why the next rendition of my Philosophy of Happiness course, HAP 101 as I call it (PHIL 3160 in the MTSU course catalogue), is devoted to the question of meaning. Should we settle for the lowest common denominator of our happiness, the path of least resistance, the quantifiably greatest hedonic calculation?

Anti-elitist democratism might argue that we should.  Pluralistic toleration and humane simplicity, not to mention simple opportunity, support Benthamism. Life is short, pleasure can be sporadic: get it while you can. "There is no why," Kurt Vonnegut once said, we're just all here "trapped in the amber of the moment." We should just do our best to enjoy our captivity, and (he often added, to his great credit) be kind.

Yes, but... Kurt also spent a lifetime trying to work out the personal trauma of the insanity of war, the firebombing of Dresden, the repeated failure of human beings to learn from their errors and treat one another kindly. He spent a lifetime searching for, and to a greater extent than he probably realized, creating meaning for his happy readers.

And Kurt also said, meaningfully, “being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.” No reason why decency can't be squared with happiness, is there?

Well, that's some of what our course will be about. I considered adopting Lisa Bortolotti's anthology Philosophy and Happiness (Palgrave '09) as one of our texts, since Part I is all about "Happiness and the Meaningful Life."

But they want $105 for it! One more sign, in the age of digital information, that expensive textbooks are doomed. Fortunately a proof version of Thaddeus Metz's opening essay is here. I don't like his conclusion that happiness and meaning "are distinct not only conceptually but also substantially," but at Internet prices I'll invite our class to discuss it. (Isn't it just like a  certain sort of philosopher, though, to devote great energies to defending a counter-intuitive conclusion whose truth would leave us more confused and less satisfied with our lives than we began?)

Anyway, the best words on this subject are free, in the public domain, and in public libraries. Words like J.S. Mill's...
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
 Looking forward to considering all sides of this question in class, in (yikes) just a few weeks. "Endless summer," where art thou?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

When the volcano blows

Enjoy ourselves while we can sounds so simple, and so it should. Over-thinking everything, happiness included, is the philosopher's biggest occupational hazard. Why not just let everyone discover what makes them smile, and get out of their way so they can do it? So long as we and they are doing no harm, what's the problem?

People find all kinds of ways to complicate the pursuit of happiness, of course. Philosophers tend to get hung up on questions of meaning. We want to be meaningfully happy. Or sad. Or indifferent. We want there to be a point, an enduring purpose and resonance to our acts and our days.

Call it the Alvy Singer problem. I've been calling it that for a long time, in fact. Last night I discovered that Samuel Scheffler has too. He's the latest Philosophy Bites interviewee, and it was surprising to hear him mention Alvy on the podcast right after I'd written of Woody's young alter ego yesterday morning. Scheffler asks: If all sentient life were to end a few minutes after my death, how would that affect the meaning of what I'm doing now?

Young Alvy's problem was less hypothetically urgent. Having become aware of our universe's finitude, he now saw no point in doing anything. Especially homework. It didn't matter to him that billions of years would elapse before the End. The sudden winding down of our ticking clock does seem to alter the scenario in important ways.

But either way, the solution proposed by Dr. Flicker, is to put annihilation and oblivion out of mind and get on with today. That was Bertrand Russell's solution too.
Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out -- at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation -- it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. 
 They're right, right? Get on with living and doing and making and being. Stop fretting and worrying and philosophizing. Try and  enjoy your life. Sound and satisfactory advice, for most of us most of the time.

But Scheffler makes a point about the long historical context of attending to the day at hand that's not easily shrugged away. We can enjoy ourselves today because today is presumably not doomsday, nor will the final curtain fall tomorrow, or tomorrow. That day will eventually, inevitably come for us all, one by one and, in the long run, collectively.

But meantime, we can try to build happy lives whose meaning may endure and resonate. Or not. But the bare possibility of meaningful happiness counts for a lot. The withdrawal of that possibility would be devastating, for all except those who really do live entirely in the moment. The thought that our personal expiration date will coincide with the extinction of all life on Earth seems to suck the meaning right out of the marrow of existence.

Happy days set against a backdrop of an enduring species and planet make reassuring sense. This is the meaningful happiness of John Dewey's "continuous human community."

Dancing on the rim of the volcano just before it blows, or even millions or billions of years before, seems (to continue speaking Dewey's language) too precarious and unstable. "Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!" How'd that work out for you, Nietzsche? Or you, "Carlos Danger"?

On the other hand... remember how Arthur and Ford prepared for Earth's immanent demise? They headed for the pub, for a couple of last-minute rounds of "muscle relaxant." Made the barkeep happy with a fat tip, too. Sounds like a plan.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Meaningful distraction

Older Daughter's trip to Coney Island yesterday put me in mind of Alvy Singer's monologue at the beginning of "Annie Hall," when he reminisced (admittedly in slight exaggeration) about his ancestral home under the coaster tracks.

Memory's a tricky thing. That's a euphemistic way of saying it's often unreliable. But we also know that it is capable of storehousing the images, incidents, attitudes, and emotions that can make a life seem worth living. It fuels our nostalgia, which research shows to be therapeutic when taken in small doses. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death."

Concerns about death, of course, are central to just about all of Woody Allen's films. They're also what the brilliant Maira Kalman tries to reconcile with a cultivated, unpretentious optimism. Maria Popova rightly keeps coming back to her.
The day contains many ups and downs. But the point is that you are alive. So you might as well do something that brings pleasure, joy, humour. Also, I walk a lot and listen to a lot of music. Always good things to do[Kalman @dawn]
That's the answer to young Alvy's protest that, given the universe's inevitable expansion and ultimate doom, there's no point in doing homework. For one thing, homework provides what Kalman calls "meaningful distraction." What's meaningful? "It's love and work. What else could it be?" 

What else? How about memory? Kalman may have forgotten, she's also reading Proust.

As Dr. Flicker told Alvy, and as Arlo knows too: we've got to enjoy ourselves while we can. Whatever else Mr. Ferlinghetti may have meant, that's the true Coney Island of the Mind.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Smile, we're on candid camera

The day some of us have been waiting for is here: picture day! Between 4:27 and 4:42 pm this afternoon my time, here in Tennessee (that's between 21:27 and 21:42 UTC, counting down), we're getting our photo snapped. Astronomer Carolyn Porco wants us all to smile and wave at Saturn. This one's for the yearbook.

The point is not to make anyone feel small, but to remind us all that we're  in the same vulnerable, beautiful little lifeboat. Consider again that dot...

Last time, the photographer caught us candidly. Picture turned out fine, but perhaps a little primping wouldn't have hurt.

This time, if we give the moment a little forethought, maybe the lingering afterglow will lift our collective consciousness just enough to secure the planet's continued congeniality for our form of life. It is still, after all, the only home we've ever known.

Postscript, Jy 22:
YES! Cassini's images of us, our world & our moon, on a very special day in the life of Planet Earth

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Happy flight

Took the long route to my writing porch this morning, via the airport. Put Older Daughter on a very symbolic solo flight, for a visit with friends in Gotham. She's thinking of it as her transitional flight from childhood, with college move-in day just around the corner. "She's leaving home after living alone for so many years... bye-bye..."

But I'm trying not to think of it that way, yet. Better save the sentiment for next month, when I'll really need it.

So she's in the air as I write, and will shortly be a walker in the city like Alfred Kazin. Kazin wrote, rightly,

The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax.

One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time and in others' minds. 
She won't be a solitary walker like J-J Rousseau, though I wish her many urban reveries beyond the freeborn people in chains she'll see on the streets, inevitably, when she looks around there. He wondered,
Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?
Good question. As Dumbledore said, we must simply remember to switch on that inner light.

Kazin and Rousseau each gets a nod in PW, so I must go now and do my rambling research.

Bite the Big Apple, Older Daughter, but remember that Thomas Wolfe was wrong. See you next week. Happy flight.
Postscript. She landed safely, ate a "real" bagel, and sent back pics of Freedom Tower and Belvedere Castle...

Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Friday night: 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

John Locke can walk

John Locke has become a more difficult figure to research, ever since the Lost  television series pushed his namesake to the forefront of popular consciousness and search results. The fictional John Locke can walk, not back in civilization but on his freaky island. (But I can't listen to this song.)

The real John Locke apparently had trouble walking  too.
He was naturally very active, and employed himself as much as his health would permit. Sometimes he diverted himself with working in the garden, which he well understood. He loved walking, but not being able to walk much, through the disorder of his lungs, he used to ride out after dinner...
[I have to keep reminding myself that these "riding" philosophers were on horseback, not bikes. Philosophy Rides, the sequel, will not be a historical survey.]
His bad health was a disturbance to none but himself... his usual drink was nothing but water...
Good for him, I guess. He's not the philosopher I'd most like to spend time in a pub with, though I admire his most pragmatic statement that "the actions of men [are] the best interpreters of their thought."

His near-dying words were that we should regard this world and life as nothing but a vanity and "a state of preparation for a better." Repugnant words, to a humanist. And yet, other words of his ("all mankind being equal and independent, none ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty") inspired some of our greatest social and political experiments.

And some of our strangest television. Don't tell me what I can't do.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rambling freely with Mill

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, was a committed walker. His journal conveys extensive, detailed accounts of nearly his every step (it seems) in the British Isles from 1827-1832. They must have been thrilling walks, though I must confess they're less than thrilling merely to read about.
To the right there were rich meadows and gentlemen’s houses between the river and the hills. This continued for some time, with the exception that the hills on the left approached the river, and then receded when the hills on the right approached it, forming a fine line of beech wood, to which the last gleams of the setting sun gave a rich yellow colour. We here left the punt in which we had ascended thus far, and took the towing path on the Oxfordshire side. The hills on the right now receded and appeared gradually to drop down, while on the left they grew high and steep, and came close to the river, leaving scarcely room for a pretty house and small pleasure ground between the river and the steep part of the ascent. Near the end of these hills are the villages of Goring and Streatley, the former on the north, the latter on the south side of the river: we crossed by a ferry, and took up our abode at the upper extremity of Streatley, which is a very neat village, and the main street of which, by a gentle declivity, ascends the chalk hill.
We might have wished for something a little racier from the guy who declared, among other things,
I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.
This is surely an example of how much better a single image of natural and civilized beauty can be, than a few thousand of even the most accurately measured words. 
He was a crusader for social justice and the rights of minorities and women. (What do you suppose he'd say about Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law?) He was Bertrand Russell's godfather and William James's hero. Must walk his walk.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hume's Edinburgh

I've been working on the Study Abroad course I hope to ride to Oxford, UK & environs next summer with a colleague and students: "American Philosophy: British Roots & Branches" (or something like that).

We'll set up camp at (say) Merton College, Corpus Christi, or Christ Church (home, respectively, of pragmatic provocateurs Bradley, Schiller, & Locke). When we're not scouting Oxford for traces of those roots and branches, we'll hop the train to Russell's & Wittgenstein's Cambridge, to Darwin's Down House in Kent, to Bentham's and Mill's London, maybe even through the chunnel to Holland and France.

And of course there's Hume's Edinburgh, site of the still-thriving Gifford Lectures. (James's presaged the Varieties of Religious Experience.)
In 1775, the philosopher, David Hume, petitioned the Town Council to provide a walkway for the benefit of the population and the first public walk was duly opened. When Hume died the following year his remains were laid to rest in Old Calton Burying Ground on Waterloo Place at the foot of Carlton Hill - it can be visited on the return part of this route. Hume's epitaph reads, "Born 1711, Died 1776. Leaving it to posterity to add the rest."
Wrote Hume to his physician:
I was very regular in my diet and way of life from the beginning, and all that winter made it a constant rule to ride twice or thrice-a-week, and walk every day. 
Here's where he did it...

...and where we'll do it too, God or posterity willing.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


This would have been a fine way to preface Philosophy Walks, but Robert MacFarlane has already used it for The Old Ways:
This book could not have been written by sitting still. The relationship between paths, walking and the imagination is its subject, and much of its thinking was therefore done -- was only possible -- while on foot...
Above all, this is a book about people and place: about walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move. 
So I'll be writing a different preface to a different book, though one that also cannot be conceived or executed at anchorage. His foot journey was geographically extended, mine tend to circle familiar ground, but we're both members in good standing of the peripatetics club.

Isn't reconnoitre a great word! It's le bon mot for a big part of what I walk for.  I'd be truly lost without my daily morning internal reconnaissance, which can only happen after moving to "higher" ground on shank's mare. The elevation sought is not necessarily to be measured in feet or meters, or even in words. But the bookish medium defiantly imposes that particular yardstick, so I'd better go reconnoitre for some more of those. Words, I mean.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Vonnegut and Zinn

I just listened to a 92d Street Y event from 2003 celebrating dissent in America, and documenting its necessity. The occasion was an evening devoted to the writings of the late and controversial historian Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. It was captured in a fun and moving recording called "The People Speak," featuring several prominent participants including Kurt Vonnegut. He died in 2007. I wrote about him then:
"With his curly hair askew, deep pouches under his eyes and rumpled clothes, he often looked like an out-of-work philosophy professor..." (New York Times, 4.12.07)

Just as I prefer literary existentialism to the philosophical kind, the passing this week of Kurt Vonnegut reminds me that my disdain for philosophic pessimism does not extend to the sensibility behind "Slaughterhouse Five," "Breakfasts of Champions," "Cat's Cradle," et al. Philosophically I could never endorse Vonnegut's disgusted remark that "evolution can go to hell" if we're its product; but I know what he was saying, and it makes me smile. So does his next observation in A Man Without a Country, which leavens contempt for Mark Twain's "damned human race" with the acknowledgement that on evolution's time-scale we did just get here. (See Carl Sagan's "cosmic calendar".) We can cut ourselves just a little slack, and a little hope.

Verlyn Klinkenborg: "The time to read Vonnegut is just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be... No one nourishes the skepticism of the young like Vonnegut. In his world, decency is likelier to be rooted in skepticism than it is in the ardor of faith." DS 4.14.07 
In mine too.

There's a longer later version of "The People Speak"...

It's a timely reminder to include activist walking in Philosophy Walks. There's no pretending the world's a garden. But trying to make it more like one? That's the direction we need to move in.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Friend Hegel

Another colorful oldie:
In my bygone undergraduate years in the seventies I had a teacher who spoke familiarly of "friend Hegel," and my pals and I convened our little Friday afternoon beer-and-conviviality club under the banner of what we pretentiously called "The Hegel Society." (Maybe we meant to emulate the St. Louis Hegelians, I forget.) That was a club destined for dissolution, when one of our group attempted a demonstration of his free will by bashing himself with a mug of beer. In any case, I never really cottoned to Hegelian philosophy – especially after discovering William James’s send-up in "Some Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide." There James notes a parade of contradictory candidates for Hegelian reconciliation and rational synthesis, such as "God and devil, good and evil, life and death, I and thou, sober and drunk, matter and form, black and white, quantity and quality, shiver of ecstasy and shudder of horror, vomiting and swallowing, inspiration and expiration, fate and reason, great and small, extent and intent, joke and earnest, tragic and comic, and fifty other contrasts... "

Tongue deeply lodged in cheek, James then proceeds to report a series of his own "deep" musings allegedly recorded while under the influence of Hegel and laughing gas, including:

What's mistake but a kind of take?
What's nausea but a kind of -usea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism --
How criticise without something to criticise?
Agreement -- disagreement!!
Emotion -- motion!!!!
By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn't hurt!
Reconciliation of two extremes.
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it is pure on sense!

(Michael Pollan undertakes a similar "experiment" in Botany of Desirereading The Selfish Gene while smoking marijuana. His results were more enlightening.) But James finally tips his hand, venting a fiercely anti-Hegelian temperament:

the identification of contradictories, so far from being the self-developing process which Hegel supposes, is really a self-consuming process, passing from the less to the more abstract, and terminating either in a laugh at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood of vertiginous amazement at a meaningless infinity.

And there my own negative appraisal of Hegel rested for a long time, until eventually I came across an essay a couple of years back fetchingly titled (in coincident echo of my old prof) "My New Friend Hegel," by Michael Prowse:

"To the degree that we are thinking beings, Hegel says, we have to consider ourselves as part of a larger whole and not as neatly individuated। He calls this mental whole Geist, or Spirit, and tries to work out the rules by which it develops through time... Hegel didn't regard Geist as something that stands apart from, or above, human individuals. He saw it rather as the forms of thought that are realised in human minds... What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good."

This gloss anticipates the criticisms of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, two virulently anti-Hegelian pessimists whose philosophies were contemptuous of communitarian values and the public interest. Arthur Schopenhauer asserted the ubiquity of blind, striving, impersonal, purposeless Will. Soren Kierkegaard affirmed the propriety of "leaps of faith." The harm done in each case, I believe, is to reinforce the irrationalist impulses of modern life; and to extend to them an unearned respectability. We must not believe "because it is absurd"... and must not embrace despair until we’ve really given meliorism a fair shot. DS 4.3.07
These guys were all walkers. Not sitters, not standers, not treaders. They sought inspiration in motion, in nature. More anon.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Talking and living

This would be a good post to reprise in the early Spring, but now's when I happen to be grubbing down in the dusty vault. One more from March '07:
My building at ESU yesterday was host to two noteworthy academic occasions:

1. Our department sponsored an address by a charming visitor from Chicago, who explained at length (and diagrammed) the structure of racial and sexual oppression in America. He used many words to say that black women have it worse than black men and whites generally. His thesis was almost too true to be good, too obvious to profit from theoretical elaboration. The ensuing trans-gender, poly-ethnic Q-&-A discussion was constructive, but on the whole I was reminded of what Richard Ford said (noted in Tuesday's post) about the futility of exhaustive explanations. The post-talk reception in our department chair's back yard, though, under a gorgeous moon on a perfect early spring evening with terrific food and drink and uninhibited conversation among good people, was more than worthwhile. I enjoy my friends and colleagues (and, btw, am pleased to report that they will continue to be my colleagues for the foreseeable future).
2. The English department sponsored a conference on Baseball in Literature and Culture. The luncheon speaker was the infamous old Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who was villainous when I was 11 years old because he helped defeat my Cards in the '68 World Series... and villainous later too, accused of racketeering, extortion, conspiracy, theft, money laundering, and mail fraud. He spent six years in prison. But his talk was all baseball. McLain had disturbing things to say about Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin (Martin "killed" Mantle) and Boog Powell (he broke Powell's hand with a "purpose pitch") and my hero Bob Gibson (he "hates America" but was a great pitcher).
I attended a session in the afternoon on the incredible old Negro Leagues star Satchel Paige (who was finally given an opportunity to pitch in the major leagues, and pitched well, at age 59). Paige said: "Age is a case of mind over matter, if you don't mind it don't matter." And: "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" Well, he was 75 (though his birth certificate apparently cannot be located to confirm this) when felled by emphysema. Smoking is not a good idea if you want to pitch forever, as Satch once proposed to do.
I spoke a few years ago at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, saying in part: "I suppose we are all here because we love to talk about baseball. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, those of us who are most enthusiastic about baseball know that talk about it is ultimately incapable of bearing its own weight... personal enthusiasms run deep, to a place beyond talk and the objectifying intellect." It was fun to visit the Hall of Fame and meet fellow enthusiasts, but in the end I'm still with Ford: we need to "leave off explaining" and get on with living. "What an awful trade that of professor is," William James complained at term's end in 1892, "paid to talk, talk, talk! . . . It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words." And yet, he came back to teach again in the Fall. As will I.
So, in the name of leaving off explaining and getting on with living: our daughter's little league season opener is tonight (she's the only girl on her team of "Diamondbacks") and I intend to enjoy it, not explain it. Happy Opening Day!
DS 3.31.07
We'll be packing that little girl off to college soon, to become a Lynx and just possibly a humane and sophisticated adult too. No explanation required, it's just time passing. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

All teachers should be required to stop teaching

Thus spake Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe. I'm still raiding the vault. From March 2007:
My old friend at ESU in Alabama (we go way back, to before the Sellars-Quine Kitchen Debate mentioned a couple of posts ago) and I recently were discussing a mutual favorite, novelist Richard Ford. Ford, A. noted, is a masterful chronicler of the often-riveting varieties of ways in which his Everyman heroes (and we) try and fail to lose ourselves in the everydayness of quotidian life. (Like me, I think, A. prefers the Existentialism of fiction to that of philosophy.)
Ford's Frank Bascombe has now taken the stage in three outstanding novels, with the publication last fall of Lay of the Land. He is an older, wiser, more secular Binx Bolling (Walker Percy's "seeker" in The Moviegoer), who comes at last to understand that "a practical acceptance of what's what, in real time and down-to-earth, is as good as spiritual if you can finagle it." And: "Here is necessity... to live it out."
Bascombe, now more-than-slightly past mid-life and momentarily weary of becoming, hungers for necessity ("something solid, the thing ‘character’ stands in for") and Permanence. The trouble is, "Permanence can be scary. Even though it solves the problem of tiresome becoming, it can also erode optimism, render possibility small and remote... down deep inside [to] become just an organism... This you need to save yourself from, or else the slide off the transom of life’s pleasure boat becomes irresistible and probably a good idea."
I met Ford about ten years ago, and expressed to him my admiration for a particular passage in the first Bascombe tale The Sportswriter (1986)--
"Real mystery—the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book—was to them [his teaching colleagues] a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves, in other words. In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they're sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away—live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can't do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble. . . "Some things can't be explained. They just are. . . . It is better not even to look so hard, to leave off explaining. Nothing makes me more queasy than to spend time with people who don't know that . . . for whom such knowledge isn't a cornerstone of life." 
Such a stance is easier to sustain, of course, if you are a former teacher who has achieved subsequent success in other endeavors (fiction writing, for instance). But its wisdom occurs to me in the classroom just about every day, usually smack in the middle of an explanation.
In a future post I'll discuss the middle Bascombe book Independence Day (1995) and its striking parental wisdom -- striking in part because Ford is not a parent himself. DS 3.27.07
 I reposted this just because I like it so much, and because it's July and I'm as far removed from the classroom as I'll ever be, 'til they shove me out the door for good.

And, because that deluded but seductive quest for "permanence," that Platonic perfectionism Frank finds alluring but morbid, is an attitude we walkers implicitly reject. Nothing in this world is forever, nothing is fixed and final and at rest; and again, this is the only home we've ever known.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Consummatory experience

Some of my earliest blog posts narrated a Spring Break trek in March 2007, when I drove from Murfreesboro TN to a philosophy conference in Columbia SC, via the Florida Grapefruit League. I forget if the conference was an excuse to take in some baseball, or if it was the other way around. I enjoyed both.

I do recall that I was feeling my oats, after finally kicking a long winter's illness. I had just a couple of simple points to make, at the conference and in the post, about life's priorities. I stand by them still. 

From the vault, 3.9.07:

Anhedonia & consummatory experience

I commented in public on two philosophy papers this morning, one concerned with John Dewey's notion of "consummatory experience" and the other with the phenomenon of "anhedonia" -- the loss of zest, spring, joy, delight -- and what French philosopher Gabriel Marcel might have to teach William James about it. I was concerned to make just a couple of points: 
1. Consummatory experiences are better had & enjoyed than talked about & analyzed.
2. The more consummatory experiences you have, the less likely you are to experience anhedonia.
I made those points, but not (of course) so concisely. This being an academic philosophy conference, and philosophy being a discipline that trades chiefly in words, I was expected to talk at much greater length about those two points and others besides. I did not disappoint.
But I hope my confreres will do what I did yesterday: go outside, breathe the fresh air, take in some new sights, walk around... even if you don't have a consummatory moment, you'll still feel better and will be far less vulnerable to the dreaded anhedonia (which, btw, our French speaker pronounced not as rhyming with "Caledonia" but instead with the greater stress on the penultimate syllable -- so I learned at least one thing this morning). 
I also related my experiences of the past week, which to my mind show that it is indeed possible to chase down your consummations (or at least become open to them) if you want to.
Next stop: the mountainous environs of Asheville, NC. Then, to invoke the inevitable baseball metaphor, I'll round 3d and head for home.
That was a fun trip. The next and final stops were indeed consummations. My friend in the mountains is doing great and at long last, last I heard, is planning a December wedding. And home's still a prime destination.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Slow & steady

Thanks to my friend Dean for reminding me of a quote I can use in Philosophy Walks:
A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Mark Twain is commonly credited with this, though it has “never been verified.” Like Yogi Berra, he probably never said half the things he said.

But no matter, the point for my purposes is: philosophy must lace its shoes with care, while careless popular opinion, dogmatic religion, and sloppy ideology race ahead. Falsehood moves faster, but philosophy wins in the long run. It gets the benefit of a good walk.
Don’t know if this one’s been verified, but Nietzsche (whose own view of truth is complicated) may have said:
“If I feel well, I will walk, sometimes for hours. I scribble as I walk and often do my best work, have my finest thoughts, while walking “

U@d 7.26.12 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Glorious freedom

Independence is always relative to circumstance, conditioned by prior choice, properly expressed with an eye to the totality of one's largest life commitments. For instance, consider the way I spent my July 4 holiday.

Left to my own devices, in an alternate universe of personal solitude, I'd have expressed my independence on our rainy Nashville Independence Day by spending my time the way I do most summer days when others have no claim to stake on my time and attention: wake, drink coffee and write, walk, eat, read, swim, write, eat, bike, read etc., most of it outdoors, much of it in hammocks and in the company of dogs, too much of it online. The gas grill would at some point have been deployed. Late in the day I'd have tagged someone to accompany me to dinner and a ballgame, were the Sounds in town. Then there would have been ballpark fireworks. I'd have called that a good day.

But by dint of circumstance and prior choice and existential commitment, my holidays are family days. The family had plans.

We joined huddled masses of thousands of strangers at Opry Mills, the local version of Mall of America reclaimed from the big flood of 2010. We ate lunch in a demoralizing food court (Panda Express, without an express lane) full of the rotund slow folk my old friend at the defunct bookstore called Waddlers. We ambled precariously through the maze of heavy foot traffic of heavy people. We shopped, for shoes and dresses and dorm furnishings. We saw Despicable Me. The rain finally abated, for just a bit. We drove downtown and  parked for $20. We watched the riverfront rockets' red glare. We gloried in our freedom. "Look at y'all! Where'd y'all come from?!"

And it was a very good day.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Every July 4 I take a free moment to think determinedly about self-reliance.

Best book ever on the general theme of independence: Richard Ford's Independence Day(Ford himself prefers Emerson's Self-reliance for "its implicit goal of leaving us as it found us: free.")

It's a great road book, too. The action centers on Cooperstown and the baseball hall of fame. It reflects wisely on just how much, and how little, any of us can help anyone else (our own kids included) be free.

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion;…The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self Reliance,"
Essays, First Series, 1841.

DS 7.4.09