Delight Springs

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Force

"We'll figure it out. We'll use the Force."
-Han Solo: "That's not how the Force works!"

So, how does it work?
The Force is an energy field that suffuses reality. For those whose will is strong enough, an exertion of will can manipulate that field. Using the Force is less like using your arm, and more like navigating in a watercraft: there are currents and eddies to consider, which you can either manipulate to achieve your goals or (with sufficient strength) overpower and work against.
Still a few unanswered questions here.  May have to ask a philosopher or two.
Obi-Wan thus makes it sound as if the Force depends on living things for its existence, while causing the galaxy itself to cohere. Indeed, this latter feature of it makes it sounds like one of the fundamental causal laws of the universe, akin to gravity or electromagnetism...
What makes this distressing is that most accounts of what makes science scientific is its ability to identify and explain true causes and distinguish them from pseudocauses such as magic or mystical powers.  Star Wars and Philosophy
Philosophers shouldn't be so distressed. It's only a movie.

Both Older and Younger Daughter said, on our way back from the Hollywood 27 last night, that they had another unanswered question: what makes the Resistance better than the Dark Side? They just don't see it. They say they see the appeal of the cloaked heavy-breathers.

I find that attitude disquieting, in the wake of a climactic scene featuring heartless patricide.  But it's only a movie. Right?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Concentrated sunshine

My new favorite dead naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt:
After an early breakfast of black coffee – 'concentrated sunshine', as Humboldt called it – he worked all day and in the evening went on his usual tour of salons until 2 a.m. He visited scientists across town – prodding and poking to learn about their latest discoveries... The Invention of Nature
This book is full of fascinating facts and curious revelations, not only about its subject but also those who admired him. Humboldt inspired his pal Goethe, for instance, to adopt a new style of walking:
It was during this period that Goethe began to fling both his arms around whenever he went for a walk – provoking alarmed glances from his neighbours. He had discovered, he finally explained to a friend, that this exaggerated swinging of one's arms was a remnant from the four-legged animal – and therefore one of the proofs that animals and humans had a common ancestor. 'That's how I walk more naturally,' he said, and couldn't have cared less if Weimar society regarded this rather strange behavior as unrefined.
The line between genius and nonconformist eccentricity is very fine.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


"I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I hope we've learnt something from the most barbaric century in history — the 20th. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalization ..." Arthur C. Clarke (on his b'day)
Is it cause for optimism, or a further sign of apocalypse, that the Donald actually said something sensible at last night's Vegas "debate"? (Could it be both?)
Mr. Trump, are Americans safer with dictators running the world in the Middle East?
TRUMP: In my opinion, we've spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could've spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we've had, we would've been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.
We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to Middle East, we've done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have wiped away, and for what? It's not like we had victory.
It's a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.
FIORINA: That is exactly what President Obama said. I'm amazed to hear that from a republican presidential candidate...
Me too!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hitch & Hume against nihilism

Four years ago today, the most relentless Horseman rode away. Christopher Hitchens was a fierce opponent of that version of nihilism that denigrates the multiform meaningfulness of life.
"A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so."
In other words, as David Hume said, "Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man." Live out the meanings of your life, and - like Hitch and Hume - face its inevitable end with unflinching dignity and good humor. “To the dumb question "Why me?" the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”

Monday, December 14, 2015

Nihilism and David Hume

Grades are in, now I can circle back to reflect on one of the more interesting final report submissions I've received in a long time. The topic is nihilism and, at least implicitly, David Hume.

Our semester-long readings course on Hume concluded with an impassioned discussion in which one of us (not me!) defended what he and Alex Rosenberg call nihilism. Is that view consistent with Humean principles? To try and find out, and in the dialogical spirit of Le Bon David, I suggested that my students work up a dialogue. And they did.

Dialogues Concerning Moral Nihilism is fun and breezy, provocative, and well worth thinking about. Also, it entirely fails to persuade me of the rectitude of nihilism by any definition I've yet encountered. 

Rosenberg's definition, from his Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, is circumscribed. 
Nihilism tells us … [that] moral judgments are … all wrong. More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.” That, too, is untenable nonsense. Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value. … Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself. 
Nietzschean nihilism is whatever an aspirant Ubermensch would consider restrictive of his power to fashion new values and re-value the  old.

A more commonplace definition:
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. IEP
Also widely shared:
"...a belief in the pointlessness of existence. the absence of truth. the absence of reason... those who see it as a self-defeating argument are people who still have something to believe in." (Urban Dictionary)
So, even granting that my students reject these popular definitions in favor of something more Rosenbergian, you automatically saddle yourself with a branding (or sales and marketing, or PR) problem if you insist on calling yourself a Nihilist. You will be widely misunderstood, and reviled; or understood and reviled; or just reviled; and you'll be widely dismissed as irrelevant to the wider philosophical conversation.

That last consequence goes beyond branding, if you think there's more to philosophizing than simply satisfying yourself that your own views are credible in your own estimation. If you think philosophy should also engage the hearts and minds of others, and occasionally change them or be changed by them, then you'll want to stay out of that saddle.

But okay. Call a rose whatever you will, is it true that all values are baseless, etc?

The wider conversation cannot admit that all values are baseless. William James's "Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" attempts to explain why not:
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.
Where there are persons sharing space and resources there must be an ethical discrimination of values, all cannot be baseless, at least some value-based desires must be addressed and if possible - if com-possible - must be satisfied. "In the first place we will not be sceptics; we hold to it that there is a truth to be ascertained." We may fail to ascertain it, but we owe it to one another to seek it.

James's essay strikingly echoes Hume's commitment to the "conservative" communal resolution of value disputes.
The presumption in cases of conflict must always be in favor of the conventionally recognized good. The philosopher must be a conservative, and in the construction of his casuistic scale must put the things most in accordance with the customs of the community on top.
(To be continued)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Brighter worlds

Today's devotional readings, before grading: fortifying reminders of one's privileged charge as an educator, and of the ancient nobility of philosophy before its retreat to the academy; and another dose of courage from the sage of Konigsberg.
For Jefferson, William and Mary was largely about what university life is supposed to be about: reading books, enjoying the company of the like~minded. and savoring teachers who seem to be ambassadors from other, richer. brighter worlds. Jon Meacham
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. HDT
Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. this immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenmentKant
5:50 am/6:44, 29/55

Thursday, December 3, 2015


It's that time again, the time I used to call "grading" but now euphemize as collaborating and CoPhilosophizing.  It won't kill me, or at least it hasn't yet. Re-framing helps. With the right attitude and a sense of humor, it might even make me stronger. If I didn't laugh I think I just might die crying, when (for example) I read:

  • Who said "existence precedes essence"? -Alan [Turing?]
  • Who is considered the father of psychoanalysis? Albert [Einstein?]
  • Who illustrated his philosophical method with a squirrel? -Simone [de Beauvoir?]
  • Who said we should give everyone "space to develop as they saw fit" so long as they do no harm in the process? -Fredrick [Nietzsche?]
  • Who was the "melancholy Dane" who retold the Abraham/Isaac story? -Hannah Arendt [should this get partial credit, for finally including a surname?]
Other responses to that last one, easily the most amusing Q/A (from a grader's standpoint): Daniel Dennett... C.S. Peirce... William James... Henry James... Peter Singer... 

The correct answers, of course, once considered staples of cultural literacy whether one was technically a collegian or not: Sartre, Freud, Wm James, JS Mill, Kierkegaard.

How does a college student miss every single question on an exam with a glossary containing all the answers drawn from quizzes we've already discussed in class and posted on our site?! 

Looking forward to my Honors classes next Fall.

6 am/6:43, 34/48

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Don't stop

Speaking of the stream of life, a nice Ann Patchett tribute (on her birthday) to her teacher Grace Paley:
"She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don't step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can't teach you how to have something to say."
We teachers are forever prompting students to say something, and to listen. But Ann's right, I can't teach them "how to have something to say." I can only offer my own meager example, shine my dim light, and point out some of the brighter lights who've led us to where we are.

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."
Image result for william james
"There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.--Farewell!"
5:20/6:42, 48/53

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Fresh air

Once more with Russell's Conquest today, and then it's no more Happiness 'til 2017. All good things must pass, etc. But I agree with Russell,
“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”  What I Believe
His final words in Conquest proclaim a happy transcendence (trans-end-dance, in Peter Ackroyd's clever dissection) of death, "an ability to move beyond the end." A happy person
feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.
The stream of life, the continuous human community, the river out of Eden... whatever you call it, it's bigger than self, it's life-affirming, and it's immanent - all around us, our happy medium.

And so, our season ends but our show's not yet been cancelled. Long live the show. Life goes on. Afterlife? It's here and now. (And next semester in A&P)

"There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.--Farewell!"

5:30/6:41, 64/64

Monday, November 30, 2015

Thinking's for doing

We return from Thanksgiving break to lower the curtain on this Fall semester. Our closing questions: Can machines think? What is thinking for?

Alan Turing thought they could, in theory, and eventually would in fact. John Searle thinks there's more to thinking than processing and reporting information.

And Peter Singer, asking if we're programmed to think and act precisely as we do or if "reason plays a crucial role in how we live," thinks thinking is ultimately for "doing the most good we can."

Can they all be right? I think so.

Nigel Warburton says Singer is Socratic, in his eagerness to pose difficult challenges to our most comfortable ways of thinking and living, to apply ethics and not just talk about it. He presents the possibility of altering our consumerist ethos and embracing a way of life far less self-interested.

Bertrand Russell said the value of philosophy resides in bringing neglected possibilities to the fore, for our reflective and active consideration. He also said, we've noted in Happiness, that the happiest people think more about the world than themselves.

What a joy to the world it might be, as shopping season escalates, if we all thought a little more about that and acted accordingly. “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”  All lives matter.

5:50/6:40, 51/59

Monday, November 23, 2015

Completely normal

"Evil comes from a failure to think." Eichmann in Jerusalem

That's the flip-side of the James coin noted in my last two posts, "the intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception." There's no contradiction here. The non-thinking level of existence is an emotional respite that recharges intellect and broadens perspective. It actually expands empathy and mental space, as it displaces our default tendency only to see things from our own self-interested point of view.

But the healthy kind of non-thinking is necessarily occasional and temporary. People who never think, never try to imagine the world through another's gaze, are a danger to us all. And as Hannah Arendt reported from Jerusalem, they're all too common, ordinary, banal.

Failed vacuum oil salesman Adolf Eichmann's "incapacity to think, or to think from another person's point of view," made him insensitive to the harm he'd done, and makes us cringe to realize the depth of ordinary, unremarked thoughtlessness that surrounds us still. “The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a 'completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.'”

The feckless American politicians atop the current polls, indiscriminately demonizing immigrants and others, are a pretty banal bunch too. Their partisans don't read much, or think. They're almost completely normal.

5:50/6:33, 24/54

Friday, November 20, 2015


I used to complain about the conspicuous excess of American automotive consumption as mirrored in the humongous multi-multi-vehice garages attached to most new homes. I still complain about too many gas guzzling SUVs and too much traffic congestion. We wonder about the deep and shallow sources of unhappiness, but we needn't wonder about the misery of commuter gridlock. It's real. It takes me 50 minutes to get to school, most days. If I were traveling in the other direction it'd take twice as long. What's the plural of Sisyphus? I see so many of them behind the wheel, in the other lanes, daily. They don't look happy.

Still complaining, but not (starting today) about my vehicle's abode or the sap, grime, frost, and avian excrescence it will no longer greet me with each morning. Yesterday we added a third port, to the carport, and (now that we're a four-driver household) I feel fine.

I feel even better about the prospect of eventually replacing its tenant, the dented but undaunted old Corollla, with a new Leaf. The 2016 model purportedly has a range of 100+ miles, which if true is enough to get me to school and back on a single charge.

This is the kind of thing my younger self wouldn't have wanted to believe my older self would ever get excited about. Zest looks different, at different stages of life.

We had a good discussion about zest and related themes yesterday in Happiness, including Russell's "malady of introversion." A few of us took issue with that formulation, and spoke up for the maligned introvert. Introversion is not self-absorption, it's not hyper-intellectualism. It's the quest for a quiet mind.

Russell said, a few chapters back, that a quiet life is essential for happiness. That's a virtue many extroverts never know. TED has been all over it, especially Susan Cain and Pico Iyer. "In an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still." Sitting still and reflecting can be hard work, but sitting still and not reflecting is an unexamined life.

Once again, I say: sit a bit, but then stand and move. Solvitur ambulando. "Sturdy legs could mean healthy brains." First finish your coffee. Then, for an hour, turn your attention away from the headlines and the noisy terrorizing world (which after all is still not all-consuming).

You can walk and think at the same time, and you can walk and not think. "The intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception," is something else the extrovert is liable to miss. You have to be quiet long enough to catch it.

5:50/6:30, 35/58

Thursday, November 19, 2015


The Fair was fun, we garnered lots of interest and gathered a list of names and email addresses. The big takeaway is a longing to be twenty years old again, and on the other side of the table. After hearing his spiel for four hours I'd happily follow my Italian colleague (whose table adjoined ours) home to Rome and Florence next summer. But my role now is to lead, not follow. Alas.

The balancing act we all must perform, in discharging our roles and authentically appropriating our lives, is one of the big themes in Existentialism. Play the waiter, the obedient son (or impassioned patriot), the socially-constructed man/woman, the student, the professor too proficiently, and you raise the specter of bad faith, self-objectification, and a denial of freedom. But play your role poorly and life loses interest.

Bertrand Russell does double duty today in my classes. In CoPhi we'll note his progression from a youthful preoccupation with mathematical logic to the statesmanlike public intellectual who did not falter when asked what he'd most like to say to people in a thousand years: "If we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and tolerance that are vital to the continuation of life." We'd better hear that now, or there won't be anyone left to hear it in the next millennium.

In Happiness we're up to the chapters on zest and affection, two of his favorite things. He was a fan of the great Baker Street detective. Who knew?
The forms of zest are innumerable. Sherlock Holmes, it may be remembered, picked up a hat which he happened to find lying in the street. After looking at it for a moment he remarked that its owner had come down in the world as the result of drink, and that his wife was no longer so fond of him as she used to be. Life could never be boring to a man to whom casual objects offered such a wealth of interest.
And then there's the zesty thrill of a country walk.
One man may be interested in the birds, another in the vegetation, another in the geology, yet another in the agriculture, and so on. Any one of these things is interesting if it interests you, and, other things being equal, the man who is interested in any one of them is a man better adapted to the world than the man who is not interested.
Russell also notices the intrinsic interest some take in others, as for instance on a train. This reminds me of Whitman on his ferry. The whole discussion reminds me of James's "Blindness" and "the intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception." It's an impressive insight, for such a bright mind. Sadly, I don't meet enough zesty scholars.

5:40/6:29, 45/63

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Existential advice

It's the big Study Abroad fair at our school today, and it's raining hard. How am I going to keep my tri-fold poster dry and get it into the Student Union? Let's ask today's CoPhi subjects.

Jean-Paul Sartre would remind me that I don't HAVE to. I don't even have to go. Things don't have to be the way they are. Thanks, J-P. Not helpful.

Albert Camus would say it's a trivial and absurd concern, compared to the great question whether life is worth living. Again, not helpful.

Bertrand Russell would tell me to turn my attention to other things, for now. Slightly more helpful.

A.J. Ayer would suggest that we reason together like civilized men, to solve the problem. (As he proposed to Mike Tyson.)

Simone de Beauvoir might say that dry posters are a social construct, but being a woman (if that's sexist I'm sorry, but in my experience it's true) I'll bet she'd actually offer a helpful, practical suggestion like wrapping it in a plastic bag.

Or, after learning about computers and the Internet, she might suggest just doing it digitally.

UPDATE, 10 a.m. Made it.

Lotsa competition: Harry Potter's England, The British Roots of Rock & Roll, Astronomy at Stonehenge...

And if I keep staring from my table at Dunkin Donuts across the way, I'm gonna get hungry.

5:45/6:28, 67/67

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sin, paranoia, and public opinion

Older Daughter has an Internet Radio show. I tuned in during my evening commute last night, to hear that although her parents would deny it "until the day they die," we'd given bad instruction in her childhood when she asked how to tell left from right. "Your right is closest to the shed," one of us is alleged to have explained. I have no memory of that, but I'm sure it wouldn't have occurred to me to worry that such a reply might saddle her with a shameful shed-dependence she'd one day confess to strangers. "Do you know how many sides it's possible to place near the shed? TWO!!" Sorry. There are so many ways a parent can sidetrack a kid, no wonder so many of my students say they're not going to do it.

I also know, now, how Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson must have felt: sheds are irrelevant, let's talk about something else!

Okay, how about Russell on sin, paranoia, and public opinion?

In chapter 7 he rightly notes the variability of conscience, which "enjoins different acts in different parts of the world" and shows that local customs, not universal commandments, account for the sense of "sin" and guilt. We fear the enmity of the "herd" but call it the wrath of God.

But there are real sins too, Russell says: ruthlessness and "harshness" in business, and cruelty at home, spread real misery and chip away at civilization.

Russell would have been a helpful participant in our Beer Pale session Saturday, when we were wrestling with Hume's "reason is the slave of the passions" maxim. 
It is not the business of reason to generate emotions, though it may be part of its function to discover ways of preventing such emotions as are an obstacle to well-being. To find ways of minimizing hatred and envy is no doubt part of the function of a rational psychology. But it is a mistake to suppose that in minimizing these passions we shall at the same time diminish the strength of those passions which reason does not condemn. In passionate love, in parental affecttion, in friendship, in benevolence, in devotion to science or art, there is nothing that reason should wish to diminish.
Isn't that what Hume really meant to say?

The chapter on paranoia, "persecution mania," is my least favorite. Russell comes off like Ayn Rand, bashing altruism, saying things like "No person should be expected to distort the main lines of his life for the sake of another individual" and "Very often the conduct that people complain of in others is not more than the healthy reaction of natural egoism." But to his credit, he tempers the selfish sound of those remarks with a Jamesian caution: "remember that they see life from their own angle and as it touches their own ego, not from your angle and as it touches yours." Right. Mutual blindness requires ego-correction, not more ego-assertion.

Chapter 9, on the stultifying constriction of public opinion, revisits the theme of tribal miseducation. 
A young man or young woman somehow catches ideas that are in the air, but finds that these ideas are anathema in the particular milieu in which he or she lives. It easily seems to the young as if the only milieu with which they are acquainted were representative of the whole world. They can scarcely believe that in another place or another set the views which they dare not avow for fear of being thought utterly perverse would be accepted as the ordinary commonplaces of the age. Thus through ignorance of the world a great deal of unnecessary misery is endured...
...what was good enough for his father ought to be good enough for him. If he shows any tendency to criticise his parents' religious tenets or political affiliations, he is likely to find himself in serious trouble. For all these reasons, to most young men and young women of exceptional merit adolescence is a time of great unhappiness.  
The straight-jacketing of youthful imagination can crush the "freedom of spirit in which true happiness consists... our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbours, or even our relations." 

So, parents and neighbors, be careful what you say about sheds.

5:40/6:27, 57/71

Monday, November 16, 2015

Inside Out

We saw "Inside Out" over the weekend. It offers an interesting perspective on happiness and the healthy ego, and will be much on my mind when we talk about Nietzsche and Freud today in CoPhi.

I wasn't quite as dazzled as A.O. Scott, but for a cartoon movie "almost entirely populated by abstract concepts moving through theoretical space" it's impressively entertaining.
This world is both radically new — you’ve never seen anything like it — and instantly recognizable, as familiar aspects of consciousness are given shape and voice. Remember your imaginary childhood friend? Your earliest phobias? Your strangest dreams? You will, and you will also have a newly inspired understanding of how and why you remember those things. You will look at the screen and know yourself.
Well, it didn't pack so heavily Socratic a punch for me. But I did look at the screen and think about myself, and other selves, and briefly reconsidered my usual peremptory dismissal of the homunculus idea. It's literally false, but imaginatively useful. And again, hugely entertaining.

"Have you ever wondered what's going on inside someone else's head?" Or your own? The whimsical answer from Pixar is: an ongoing collaborative conversation and unfolding drama with a bunch of little homunculi emotions questing for control and an integrated personality for their person, within each of us.
As a manager, Joy is focused above all on controlling and containing Sadness. She thinks she needs to keep her gloomy co-worker’s hands off Riley’s core memories. These golden, shiny orbs will be ruined if they turn blue. At one point, Joy draws a small chalk circle on the floor and instructs Sadness to stand inside it, not touching anything lest she wreck the upbeat mood.
That’s a pretty powerful metaphor for repression, of course, and “Inside Out” turns a critical eye on the way the duty to be cheerful is imposed on children, by well-intentioned adults and by the psychological mechanisms those grown-up authorities help to install. “Where’s my happy girl?” Riley’s parents are fond of saying when she seems down, and the forced smile that results is quietly heartbreaking.
The palette of players was a bit limited (even the richest film studio must answer to its accountants) but I thought it did a nice job of illustrating the emotional/rational balance without which real happiness cannot be had. Joy and Sadness, in particular, learn how much they need each other. Or rather, we do. Anger, disgust, and fear round out the cast working to integrate young Riley's psyche.

Joy is Riley's inner crew chief (Sadness, surprisingly - or perhaps not - is her Mom's). Who is Nietzsche's? Anger, I'd say, with fear (social and metaphysical) constantly provoking an overcompensating bluster. Freud's? Disgust?

But there are so many other emotions and emotion hybrids the movie didn't bring to life. Not just contempt and surprise but, also in my Basic List, pity, hope, and resolve - the kinds of shaded, mutually-in-tension feelings that bubbled to the surface Friday after the latest terror in Paris. I felt so much more than sadness when I saw the viral video of the piano man on Saturday morning. Add imagination to the list.

I hope someone's thinking of a sequel. The point still needs making: happiness is more about balance than control.

Joy: All these facts and opinions look the same. I can't tell them apart.
Bing Bong: Happens to me all the time. Don't worry about it.
Fear: All right! We did not die today, I call that an unqualified success.
Sadness: I'm too sad to walk. Just give me a few... hours. imdb
So sad, Sadness.

5:45/6:26, 45/60

Friday, November 13, 2015

No worries

Russell's "midnight madness" thoughts on the futility of worrying after hours, losing sleep when you should be regenerating, caught our attention yesterday in Happiness. The sleep-happiness connection is no small thing. Chronic sleep deprivation is epidemic, taking a huge toll on memory, concentration, safety, health, and happiness.
People who get fewer than eight hours of sleep per night show pronounced cognitive and physiological deficits, including memory impairments, a reduced ability to make decisions and dramatic lapses in attention... two weeks of limited sleep — about four hours per night — created brain deficits just as severe as those seen in people who hadn't slept at all for three nights. As sleep deprivation continues over time, attention, memory and other cognitive functions suffer. APA
When attention suffers, everything goes south.

But, the Sleep Foundation cautions, don't worry about it. "Worrying about your sleep can make it worse. This may create a vicious cycle of poor sleep and worrying."

Don't worry, be happy. Hakuna matata. Sure. And next time on How to Do It we'll show you how to rid the world of all known diseases. ("Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvelous cure for something...")

As Bertie keeps telling us, "The essentials of human happiness are simple."

So don't just lie there not sleeping...

5:30/6:23, 45/60

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Freedom of the universe

Russell's chapters on boredom, fatigue, and envy are full of insight, once you get past his annoying repeated references to the generic "man" whose happiness is at issue, past his unwitting sexism, and past the revealing class attitudes that reflect an enlightened patrician's self-congratulatory patronage.  
He follows up on "parental feeling" in chapter 5: one of the sources of envy, which sabotages happiness, is "to have parents without much parental feeling... Some kinds of happiness are everyone's natural birthright, and to be deprived of them is almost inevitably to become warped and embittered." No doubt. People without an almost organic urge to nurture and guide the next generation really ought not to do it, the potential harm is practically limitless.

He has interesting things to say about the "separation from the life of Earth" of most everyone living the urban life, and of most children. The thesis of Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods" was already on Russell's mind, eight decades ago.

"A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live." Speaking for myself, it certainly must be quiet at dawn. And did you see Colbert last night, sticking his head out the window in mid-day Manhattan, going mildly insane from the noise?

"Most moderns lead a nerve-racking life, and are continually too tired to be capable of enjoyment without the help of alcohol." Maybe that's why so many were and still are always losing sleep, suffering "midnight madness" and "worrying topics at times when no action can be taken."

Russell sounds Jamesian, explaining how he conquered stagefright. He realized, finally, "it did not matter whether I spoke well or ill, the universe would remain much the same in either case. I found that the less I cared whether I spoke well or badly, the less badly I spoke... Our doings are not so important as we naturally suppose; our successes and failures do not after all matter very much... One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important." An important reminder for everyone, but especially so for scholars. We need not to take ourselves quite so seriously, "settling the universe's hash" as James joked. Joke's on us, if we really think we can do that. We must instead "enlarge [our] heart, learn to transcend self, and in so doing acquire the freedom of the Universe." 

5:30/6:22, 61/62

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Russell on parental feeling

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

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

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

In other words, the kids are alright. "Cannot we let people be themselves and enjoy life in their own way?" So, maybe two, maybe one, maybe none: there are enough of us, we can afford a few happily childless adults. I'm just glad I'm not one of them.

5:45/6:21, 43/71

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Conquering AT&T

Wifi's down again (!), my thumbs will be brief. (We're unhappy with you, AT&T, & about ready to quit you once & for all. Not that you'll notice or care. "Mediation" strikes again.)

Today we turn to Bertrand Russell's bright, breezy, borderline-sexist "Conquest of Happiness." What would Bertie say about the ordinary everyday sort of unhappiness a broken Internet connection can cause? "Turn your attention to other things," probably: 

"The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful on one point he will contemplate something else instead." Right.

Good advice, for now. Dumping our provider may have its satisfactions too. 

5:45/6:20, 53/63

Monday, November 9, 2015

Immediacy & humanity

Weekend highlights: the eggplant parmesan at Finezza, the first Earth Stove session of the season, the Martian, being interviewed by Younger Daughter for her podcast, on her passion for softball... John Lachs's plenary address at the Southwestern Philosophical Society in my old stomping grounds, Sarratt Student Center at Vandy...
Embedded image permalink

My first arts & crafts project in decades, a tri-fold publicity poster for our Study Abroad summer course which I'll unveil at our booth in the Student Union on the 18th...

When wifi went down last night we broke routine and watched Into Darkness on dvd instead of our usual Sunday fare (Madame Secretary, The Good Wife), to celebrate Trek's announced return to TV. Boldly go somewhere different, for a change!

The great thing about the Martian is his indomitable will to come home, with a lot of help from his friends.

The great thing about Lachs is his commitment to "transparency and immediacy" as the solution to our great modern affliction, which is also the great extender of our communicative reach: he calls it mediation, in preference to Marxist alienation.
Through computers and satellites and fax machines, mediation opens the distant world. Instant access to all manner of information promises knowledge without limits. The exploits of strangers on the other side of the globe so fill our minds, however, that we fail to examine the meaning of our own acts. Disconnected facts and secondhand reports close our eyes to to direct experience and we lose appreciation for the richness of the immediate. Growing knowledge thus begets ignorance
And rudeness. While dining on that exemplary eggplant we couldn't help noticing instances of another symptom Lachs had cited, at adjoining tables all around us: couples more engaged in silence with their screens than in conversation with their partners.

So to immediacy and transparency add presence, as necessary correctives to the collective cost of our mediated comfort. And of course, education. One of the commentators, Eric Weber - also one of Lachs's many old students in attendance - noted that teachers have an opportunity to loosen our mediating chains. The Lachs lecture experience, and especially the post-lecture Q-&-A when this ebullient octogenerian bounds from the lectern into the audience to engage his interlocutors, is a model of immediacy in the vast sea of academic conference banality. Aikin & Talisse are right, presenters who just read their papers, usually without feeling or conviction, need to liven up. That's always been John Lachs's great lesson.

5:45/6:19, 50/52

Friday, November 6, 2015

Leaping the abyss

Reflecting on yesterday's Happiness discussion I'm even more irritated by "How to Live a Lie," William Irwin's new contribution to the Times Stone series. The headline is bad, the blurb is worse: "We can act as if God, morality and free will exist, even when we are certain they don’t."

Whether "certain" means dogmatically insistent on, logically convinced by, or temperamentally predisposed towards a given conclusion about god, freedom, or morality (etc.), acting as if only works in the pragmatic sense when belief and action are in accord, not when they contradict one another. And acting on beliefs rooted in one's temperamant and sensibility but inconclusively supported by coercive evidence is not dishonest, unless the evidence for a competing conclusion is compelling.

 Consider James's climber:
Suppose, for example, that I am climbing in the Alps, and have had the ill-luck to work myself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Being without similar experience, I have no evidence of my ability to perform it successfully; but hope and confidence in myself make me sure I shall not miss my aim, and nerve my feet to execute what without those subjective emotions would perhaps have been impossible. But suppose that, on the contrary, the emotions of fear and mistrust preponderate; or suppose that, having just read the Ethics of Belief, I feel it would be sinful to act upon an assumption unverified by previous experience,--why, then I shall hesitate so long that at last, exhausted and trembling, and launching myself in a moment of despair, I miss my foothold and roll into the abyss. In this case (and it is one of an immense class) the part of wisdom clearly is to believe what one desires; for the belief is one of the indispensable preliminary conditions of the realization of its object. _There are then cases where faith creates its own verification_. Believe, and you shall be right, for you shall save yourself; doubt, and you shall again be right, for you shall perish. The only difference is that to believe is greatly to your advantage.
The mountain abyss is no impenetrable brick wall, or at least the climber is not compelled to think so.  It is a daunting challenge, which our climber will meet only on condition that he muster his most vital "subjective energies." Unless he's a fatalist with a death wish, he'll regard the outcome of his plight as indeterminate, but possibly responsive to his best effort. Sometimes, as Icelanders know, "being stuck is a state of mind."

Irwin's final paragraph acknowledges the disingenuity of asserting religious and ethical "fictions" and violating one's own convictions, but treats free will as a special case. "I cannot believe in free will, but I can accept it." No. When you face your terminal leap - as we all do, much more frequently than we know - you'll be a believer.

And that's a nice (unpremeditated) segue to Kierkegaard on Monday... though possibly not to Russell on Tuesday.

5:45/6:16, 66/72

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mill & Darwin

“Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.”

Not so, Herr Nietzsche. It's a good rhetorical shot across the utilitarian bow, but it's a misfire.

If the Nietzschean critique aims to mock an implied conformism in the "greatest happiness" principle, it misses its mark with the two Englishmen on our CoPhi agenda today. Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill both had breakout hits in 1859, both struck serious blows for individualism, both suffered, both struggled, both held themselves to rigorous standards of achievement, both stand out from Nietzsche's "herd."

True, Darwin said "the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply." But they do so precisely because their vigor, health, and happiness distinguish them from the quotidian crowd and introduce an innovative, adaptive advantage for future replication.

And John Stuart Mill strove for happiness because (as we noted in Happiness recently) he despised the Dickensian-Gradgrindian conformism that imposes specific expectations on young people and denies them their mental freedom. He had learned about that at first hand, sadly, as a home-schooled prodigy whose happiness was not on the curriculum. He broke down, recovering - really, discovering - himself with music and poetry that spoke uniquely to his specific personal subjectivity and sensibility. We were just talking about that yesterday, with William James's "rainbow work of fancy" that every active imagination can spin when it takes itself seriously and singularly.

Some of Mill's best lines in On Liberty skewer mediocrity and conformism and praise the pursuit of excellence. The very best is still his clarion call for personal freedom, anticipating the "Hands off" warning of William James (noted yesterday) against meddling in the lives of others to make them conform to our preferences.
Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else.  On Liberty
That's the spirit of James's pragmatic pluralism - he dedicated Pragmatism to Mill and imagined him "our leader were he alive today" - and of my mentor John Lachs's stoic pragmatism, which will again be on public display here later this week.
John Lachs will deliver a Plenary talk at the Southwestern Philosophical Society on "The Cost of Comfort." Nov. 6 (3:30pm, Sarratt 220)
And this very evening, another of my old Vandy mentors will be just down the hall.
Michael P. Hodges, Vanderbilt: "The God I Do Not Believe In" Nov.4 5:30pm BAS-S274
5:45/6:15, 60/74

Monday, November 2, 2015

Endure and prevail

That's what the boys from KC did last night.

It's Hegel and Schopenhauer Day in CoPhi, and for baseball fans it's a day to celebrate the qualities of resiliency, endurance, confidence, and (Schopenhauer notwithstanding) will.

Those are the traits that carried the Kansas City Royals to yet another come-from-behind win lat night and dashed the comeback dreams of Mets fans. (Plus, they practically never strike out.) Congrats to my KC friends and colleagues. The rest of us can admire their achievement and begin counting the days to Spring Training.

Last time KC wore the crown, in 1985, I was unhappy about it: they beat my Cardinals in seven games, after a blown call at first base in the sixth that turned the tide and skewed the outcome. This time, it was a pleasure to root for the Royals. Too bad the Mets' pitcher, their Dark Knight, had to lose after eight nearly flawless innings. But that's baseball. Every dark night is the start of someone's bright celebration.

I saw one of my old KC friends over the weekend, as I frequently do this time of year, at the Tennessee Philosophical Association's annual meeting at Vanderbilt. Friday's keynote by Susan Wolf of UNC-Chapel Hill, on the aesthetic (not same as moral) responsibility of artists, was thought-provoking. That's all I ever hope for, at these conference events, and usually it's more than is delivered.

I agree with Wolf that it's perfectly normal but often a mistake to conflate a writer's (poet's, musician's, painter's) work with his or her own qualities of character. When it's a mistake, though, it's one that enhances the pleasure of appreciation. And so, we don't want to know that the author of a treasured novel was actually a scoundrel, if we've constructed an illusion of the author's virtue.

But I was puzzled by Wolf's reply during Q-&-A, when someone wondered why an artist should wish to claim aesthetic responsibility for the personal impact of her work, and I'm challenged to understand why Wolf so sharply distinguishes aesthetic from moral responsibility. I kept thinking about William Faulkner's Nobel acceptance back in 1950:
The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
It's all about history and endurance. Ask Hegel. Ask Hosmer (@TheRealHos35).

I thought also of John Gardner.
In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue--by reason and by banging the table--for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be. Not that I want joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least an evasion of too fashionable simplifications. On Moral Fiction
At one of the Saturday sessions, a presenter argued that Charles Sanders Peirce was not as anti-Cartesian as most of us who care think he was. Interesting, but I say there's still an unbridgeable gulf between contrived Cartesian doubt and "real and living" Peircean inquiry. I suppose I should write that up. Should be plenty of time, now that the Hot Stove League's season is suddenly here: 109 days, 16 hours, 19 minutes...

5:45/6:12, 61/73

Friday, October 30, 2015

Meaning's up to us

Our Camus class yesterday prompted a student to say:
Life inherently has no meaning. We are all Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill. You must create your own meaning. Life has no meaning so you are free to give it whatever meaning you want to. So don't let the futility of existence get you down. Embrace futility dance with the absurdity and see that through the absurdity and meaningless of your existence comes with the infinity of existence.
And it prompted me to recall what Hitch said about that:
A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities…” Christopher Hitchens
And what Sagan said:
The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us. Carl Sagan
And Dawkins:
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?” ― Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder... RD Explains the MoL (vid)
And Bertrand Russell:
The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need -- of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy as ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed. A Free Man's Worship
And finally again, Camus:
Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Keep on pushing.

Happy Halloween.

Almost forgot the Pythons:
Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. Monty Python's Meaning of Life
"Nothing very special"? But it can be: and that's what means the most.

5:45/7:09, 37/64

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Our friendly regional Peace Corps rep visited my classes yesterday, seeking possible future recruits for one of the better options available to young people in transition, in uncertain times. (Aren't they always?) We recently noted Voltaire's counsel to "cultivate our garden," a call to service the Corps answers better than anyone. They've come in from the Cold War, and applications are spiking since they streamlined the process. Oh to be twenty again, with a world to save!

Immanuel Kant, who I bashed a bit yesterday for his deontological cold-hearted refusal to admit our universal worthiness to be happy, deserves kudos for his "perpetual peace" campaign. "To pay men to kill or to be killed seems to entail using them as mere machines and tools in the hand of the state, and this is hardly compatible with the rights of mankind." He'd support the Corps, to pay for peace and pay it forward. Its success is one great measure of our worthiness. War and the perpetual threat of war have been our species' norm, at least as far back as the hypothetical state of nature. We have to initiate and establish a state of peace, and continually work to sustain it. If we're unwilling to do that, maybe we don't deserve happiness.

That "debate" in Boulder last night was anything but peaceful. Or worthy, or real, or generous.

Still thinking about Camus, whose Nietzschean roots I now finally grasp. In Richard Powers' Generosity: An EnhancementRussell Stone (get it?) is Sisyphus, striving to overcome his own inertia. As noted in Happiness last time, we're not very good at assessing the extent of our own flourishing. But if we've faced down the absurd, and the threat of self-annihilation, maybe it's true: we must imagine ourselves happy, or at least push ourselves in that direction. “Maybe happiness is like a virus," Stone thinks. "Maybe it's one of those bugs that sits for a long time, so we don't even know that we are infected.” It would be nice to know.

5:39/7:08, 53/66

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Brave new world

In Happiness yesterday we belayed Sisyphus and caught up with Nietzsche, considering his "gifts" of adversity, hardship, and total recurrence - thanks, but no - the formula of his happiness ("a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal"), and his dream of a stark new "dawn of day" for
the mountain climber, who, although he sees his goal far above him, nevertheless falls asleep on the way from utter exhaustion, and dreams of the happiness of the contrast this effortless rolling down hill.
So we did sort of get to Sisyphus, with that image of strenuous ascent relieved by a revery of hope for the other side of the mountain. It looks like a deluded revery, for the condemned man. But Nietzsche's point is also Camus's: in just such moments we may seek our happiness. We must. Or we imagine we must.

Or as Daniel Haybron puts it in The Pursuit of Unhappiness, reported by Crystal, Jesse, and Dilyse, “Even when things don't go very well, even when life is hard, it still tends to be a pretty wonderful thing to be alive.” 

Yes, it's a wonderful life. But no, I can't write a blank check to the demon for every "this," when he asks: "Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?" I'm not that well disposed to suffering, which does not always offer a saving grace. I refuse to reduce it all to a single thumbs up or down. On this this, I'm with the meliorists, the utilitarians, and the Buddhists.

Still, we need our contrarians. Haybron concludes with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World "Savage":
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” “In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.” “All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the nght to be unhappy.” “Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to- morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence. “I claim them all,” said the Savage at last. Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.
The Savage is welcome to have it all, all over again, eternally, in a world without end and with few comforts (no soma, no beer), with pain, suffering, "real danger," and self-overcoming - the right to engineer one's own nonconformity. It's not what most of us mean by happiness, but it's a perspective that needs representing in a course on happiness. It takes all kinds.

5:55/7:07, 63/67

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


"One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Really? Why?

Those are our Happiness questions today. But first I have to say: Happy Birthday, Older Daughter! The day of your birth back in the halcyon '90s was the least Sisyphean, the least routine or repetitive, the most inimitably joyous, I'd ever experienced. 

Did Sisyphus have kids? 

If all the days of your life, save one or two, were filled with unpleasant drudgery, but those one or two were as ecstatic as the birth of a child, would you call yourself happy? I think I would. Fortunately I've had many more than one or two great days, and relatively few days of dread. Thanks to my walking habit, even most of those were salvaged by a happy hour away from the rock of pointless routine. And because I find my teaching vocation mostly gratifying, most of my routine feels purposive, not pointless (except when pushing paper and filling out forms for our administrative overlords).

If Sisyphus had no children, no down-time to himself, and no hope for early retirement, I really can't imagine him happy. (Maybe he was a secret Buddhist, meditating on the transience of existence and willing the good of all sentient beings, behind his rock.) Nor can I really imagine Samuel Beckett's "Unnamable" happiness: "I can't go on, I'll go on." But apparently, happily, some can.

5:30/7:06, 61/61

Monday, October 26, 2015

Supremely happy

It's been a Humean autumn: we did David Hume on happiness a couple of weeks ago, in Happiness, I've been enjoying our independent readings course on Hume, and today it's Hume in CoPhi. “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness... Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness."

After a few youthful bumps in the road, Hume seems to arrived and stayed in a lifelong condition of supreme happiness. He learned both to practice and to sporadically suspend "abstruse" scholarship, in order that he might "be still a man" amidst his philosophizing.

Hume is commonly misunderstood as a firebrand atheist. He was an atheist, in the strictest sense: he did not affirm the existence of a supernatural creator god, and found much fault with the standard reasons people give for doing so. But Simon Blackburn points out that his practical bent focused his main interest on the natural implications and consequences of belief. So, for instance,
if you find a religious text telling you that homosexuality is a bad thing, well that text is written by someone and he brought to it his ethics, and he takes out of it his ethics. So, in a nutshell, as I like to put it, Hume’s position is you can’t check out of Hotel Supernatural with any more baggage than you took into it. That’s a very important discovery. It means that arguing about the existence of God becomes kind of pointless. What you should argue about is the implications people think they can draw from it.
Whether there is a god or not, in other words, Hume's point was that nobody can ever prove He/She/It shares, sanctions, or will reward our prejudices. We have to work it out for ourselves.

James Boswell, who we've already consulted for a first-hand account of Dr. Johnson's rocky refutation of Berkeleyan idealism, was also present to refute the legend of Hume's unmanly demise.
On Sunday forenoon the 7 of July 1776, being too late for church, I went to see Mr David Hume, who was returned from London and Bath, just adying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He had before him Dr. Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end. I think these were his words. I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced. He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke... He then said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and, I really thought, was not jocular when he said that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious. This was just an extravagant reverse of the common remark as to infidels.
I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever...
I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes...
He had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright, that he did not wish to be immortal. This was a most wonderful thought. The reason he gave was that he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state...
...Mr. Hume's pleasantry was such that there was no solemnity in the scene; and death for the time did not seem dismal. It surprised me to find him talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time...
Le Bon David had, by this account, as good a death as he had a life. Thus he refuted his critics, no craven foxhole conversion, no rocks needing to be kicked. He'd smile to know we'll next be talking Sisyphus.

5:45/7:05, 57/65

Friday, October 23, 2015

A conversation with Nietzsche

We never even got to Nietzschean happiness yesterday - did he? - when, at a reporter's request, we flipped our usual process and did reports first. And that was the ballgame, so positively provocative were our reporters' questions. But it's ok, Nietzsche recurs.

I wonder: what would Nietzsche say, in reply to the questions that pre-empted him?

  1. Are you interested in illusory happiness?
  2. Can you be happy in an unhappy environment?
  3. Would you allow or regulate genetic engineering intended to make people happier?

I suspect he'd evade the first question, with talk of masks, perspectives, and rhetorical shots at the very concept of "real" happiness as a pleasure-seeking convention of weakness .

To the second, he'd disingenuously boast of his own icy and superior state of flourishing amidst the warm-hearted herd.

To the third, he'd insist - perhaps rightly - that to truly enjoy and appreciate one's ascent and arrival at the peak, one must have endured the arduous climb. So, no to Happy designer-genes.

And what would Fritz have said about one of the more heated peripheral topics to arise in our free-flowing response to #3, on GMOs? "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger," maybe?

5:40/7:03, 54/82

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cultivating our classroom garden

Voltaire and Leibniz are up, today in CoPhi.

Yesterday in Happiness we had a constructive, positive conversation about J.S. Mill's recovery after a pressure-cooker childhood of experimental education, thanks to his belated discovery of the indispensable importance of cultivating an inner life. Identifying one's own peculiar sources of joy, one's wellsprings of personal delight, is crucial. Saving the world while sacrificing yourself may sound noble, but it's literally self-defeating. Fortunately young JSM rallied in time.

And then, a report purportedly on happiness ("the happiest people we know" was the original proposal) that instead featured a YouTube video of Christian apologist William Lane Craig bashing evolution and an attack on Richard Dawkins for not debating him. It didn't make me happy, having just read Dawkins' rationale in Brief Candle in the Dark. (He views Craig as a scripted science-denier and defender of genocidal scripture, not an honest debater.)

But it did remind me of my resolve to do the Atheism course next semester in a different spirit, to foster a climate of mutual affirmation, to make sure we all spend our classtime articulating views positively, not engaging in paltry polemics. Our theme will be Atheism & the Afterlife, exploring the reasons why godless people happily affirm mortality.

Today will be good practice. Voltaire was a master of parodic satire, which can be executed in a positive way but is more often construed by its targets as hostility. If I were a Leibnizian, I'd have a hard time not responding defensively to Dr. Pangloss. But I might find it easier to engage a discussion of what Voltaire meant when he urged us all to "cultivate our garden." We'll focus on that, on Voltaire's garden and on ours. The classroom will be our garden, our crop will be civility. The best of possible worlds surely must be, as J.S. Mill also discovered, a world of happy, productive cultivators.

5:30/7:01, 48/78

Monday, October 19, 2015

Bridging identity

My weekend was highlighted by a ceremonial event on Saturday for a man who never stood on ceremony, and who probably wouldn't have approved all the pomp and fuss of the occasion. My late father-in-law, Freddie William Roth, was honored with the dedication of a bridge named in his memory.

It was, in fact, the last of more than a thousand such bridges he built in middle Tennessee over the span of a decades-long career. Several of his old coworkers commented on his intelligence and memory, his uncanny ability quickly to calculate the complex mathematics involved in supporting weight and defying gravity, and his absolute refusal to cheat or cut corners. "When you crossed one of Freddie's bridges you knew you were safe." "If you wanted a job done right, you called Freddie."

He had a year of college, but mostly taught himself his craft and code of honor. "School of life," indeed. And he knew exactly who he was.

He's who I think of first, whenever my philosophy classes address topics like today's -  personal identity. How do you know you're the same person you were yesterday, or last year, or last decade? I think Freddie would just shake his head and chuckle, and remember why he became impatient with school back in the day. If you built a thousand bridges, you'd know. You wouldn't have to ask.

In fairness to my discipline, I think most of us have little use for extreme versions of the identity question. We realize that if we ever really don't know who we are, we probably need to consult psychiatric specialists. Urgently. Most of us accept the continuity of life as we encounter it in our own individuated experience, and in our accreted memory, as bedrock common sense.

And yet, it's worth wondering how the experience of memory secures that sense of self, worth pondering how tenuous our identities are when memories fade, are forgotten, or are falsely resurrected. Thomas Reid, of the Scottish "common sense" school, said we just need enough overlapping memories to hang our stories on, to know we're who we think we are. That does make sense, more at least than the unrealistic Lockean demand for total recall; but it doesn't eliminate the worry that at least some of our overlaps may be more fabricated or reconstructed than accurately recollected.

So, the practical common sense solution is to take good notes and archive them. Notch experience on your stick, as you go. Build a lifetime of solid recorded memories, and they'll be a bridge to the past you won't fear to cross, a legacy to attach your name to.

5:25/6:59, 35/70