Delight Springs

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Family, work, delight

Our Russellian topics today, in Happiness, as we near the end of Conquest: family, work, and what he oddly calls "impersonal interests" - I call them personal delights or enthusiasms, "those minor interests which fill [our] leisure and afford relaxation from the tenseness of more serious preoccupations."

Our avocational interests may seem minor, but they can have a major impact on the quality of our lives and the extent of our happiness, and not just our own. Noticing how others embrace the sources of their own delight is an important step on the road to a deeper empathy, a step away from mutual blindness, hostility, and aggression. Or so I have long contended.
What objects of enthusiasm can imaginably promise so much?
Any we can imagine, and then someóbaseball, say, or the Beatles,
beer, Great Britain, literature, science, science fiction, Monet,
Mozart, Kentucky whiskey, Tennessee walking horses, walking,
running, tilling the soil, raising kids, healing, praying,
meditating, thinking, teaching, learning, and on and on. Whatever
disparate items may show up on anyone's list (these are a few
that crop up in my own family circle), their crucial essence is
to point at, but not to replicate or make transparent to others'
grasp, the depths of experience and personal significance they
attempt to name. I can tell you that I love baseball, but I
cannot begin to convey precisely why or how or the extent to
which baseball is important for my peculiar ways of experiencing
and living in the world. By the same token your account of the
joys of macramÈ, soccer, or cat-dancing will leave me in the
dark. But it is a darkness rimmed by the glow of a phenomenon we
should all recognize and treasure. "Springs of Delight"
"Raising kids" is on my list, and Russell said it was on his. But he paints a bleak picture of family life, c.1930. Were relations between parents and children really as unhappy (99%!) as he says they were, with so many demanding and despotically possessive parents, so many rude, disrespectful and churlish children? Expectations must have been very different on both ends, and tough economic times (though they probably wouldn't have noticed this in the Russell manor) tend to breed generational tension. But still.

Russell's remarks on women again give some discomfort, especially the claim that women in general have a harder time cultivating "impersonl interests." But his point that for lots of women the choice to pursue a vocation imposes spousally-unmatched domestic compromises is still relevant, even after the choice for most has become no choice at all. As for the quality of domestic life, and speaking as a former Dad-at-home, the charge that it can make you "fussy and small-minded" may be true to an extent, but it's definitely not gender-specific. And  "spinsterhood"? Is that still a thing?

I agree with Russell, feeling "part of the stream of life" is for many of us inseparable from family. I don't agree, though, that "death ends all" for the childless. We can invest ourselves emotionally and tangibly in the future of our species, whether or not our own "germ-plasm" is afloat downstream.

"The production of satisfactory children is a difficult constructive work capable of affording profound satisfaction." Yes, but don't take too much credit for the production process - especially if you employ a nurse and nanny. And consider Uncle Albert's observation: "Being both a father and a teacher I know we can teach our children nothing."

As for work: I do feel sorry for those whose work does not challenge, who must "prostitute" themselves to corporate "Philistines," or who simply find themselves devoting long hours to labor that seems Sisyphean at best. But as we've noted, he coped and found happiness. We shouldn't quit either. (But maybe some of us should quit one rock and seek another, they're not all the same.)

Speaking of Einstein and his "cosmic religious feeling" (and Spinoza's "bliss".. though for me it immediately conjures neither of them, but Sagan instead): Russell is again at his best when he evokes the cosmic perspective [NdT], with its appreciation of the calendrical brevity of life and its mind-opening, soul-expanding promise that "if you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you." With this outlook, when I can manage to muster it, I too am in church and in the spirit of A Free Man's Worship.

5:40/6:34, 31/59

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

How to Live an Experiment

More Jamesian happiness today. On a Certain Blindness (1899) sounds a fundamentally altruistic note, as interested in (though necessarily less comprehending of) others' "springs of delight" as in one's own. I've just finished Matthieu Ricard's Altruism, and am struck by the consanguinity of Ricard's Buddhism with James's pragmatic pluralism. The latter celebrates individuality, subjectivity, and selfhood, sure; but it equally extols empathy and compassion.

Those virtues were on impressive display, I noted out in the courtyard as we flipped our routine and squeezed out a little more late-afternoon daylight walkabout discussion time ("it gets late real early" now, to borrow a Yogi-ism), when young William James advised a friend - and himself - to counter what we'd nowadays call SAD (seasonal affective disorder) with a fictive inner shift of attention:
Image result for skimming gullsRemember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the cosmos.
Today, we turn back to two of his earlier essays: The Sentiment of Rationality (1879) and The Dilemma of Determinism (1884).

They convey the themes most central to James's perpetual interest in personal flourishing: enthusiastic acceptance of one's own and others' distinctive individuality as the pre-eminent condition of feeling oneself "at home" in the world, at peace and at liberty to enjoy "the sufficiency of the present moment"; and, a sense of one's own free agency as pragmatically vindicated by those who act on it ("my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will"). For James, to be happy is fully to inhabit the present and confidently anticipate your fitness to meet the future freely.

The latest "Stone" essay, "How to Live a Lie," proposes that James was a "free will fictionalist" who willfully accepted propositions that defy rational belief. I don't think much of the Times headline-writer's decision to label that a "Lie," fiction at its best is a vehicle of truth. Better to call it living an experiment, in the Millian sense: each of us, insofar as our lives become for us projects in pursuit of well-being, are experimentalists seeking the right personal fit between our beliefs, statements, actions, and experience. James was a life-long free will experimentalist, who found that believing in free will conduced to the best version of himself, made the most "rational" sense of his experience, made him a better philosopher and a better human being, made him happy in the fullest sense of the term. No lie.

5:30/6:15, 66/75

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Foggy morning. Visibility is limited. But that's always so, until we notice and correct for our condition.

William James said "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," which we're looking at in Happiness, was one of his own most important and gratifying essays. It calls out our self-inflicted and obtuse "ancestral blindness" in failing to grasp or even acknowledge the interior lives of others. It celebrates the often-inexpressible delight of being human and having a human interior. It pleads for mutual respect and toleration, in recognizing that each of us possesses a singular station and perspective. It says my pursuit of happiness must empathize with yours, or else it becomes as egoistic and dumb as it is blind.

It anticipates Carl Sagan's cosmic wonder at our uniqueness. “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

It shares Richard Dawkins's deep biologically-informed gratitude for life. "The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia." We're so lucky to have the opportunity to open our eyes on this sumptuous planet, so tragically short-sighted not to.

It celebrates the self, every self, all selves,
celebratory of the self as a locus of intrinsically valuable experiences... he appreciates the marvelous diversity of ways in which human beings find the world interesting and important, ways that "make life worth living." The fact that one person's very reason for being leaves another cold and uninterested is at the heart of what he considers the enduring mystery of happiness and is part of the larger mystery of life. William James's "Springs of Delight"
It concludes with a stern "Hands off" warning: "neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands."

Failure to respect a multiplicity of interpretive insights would be an instance of the deplorable but natural "blindness" by which we so frequently misconstrue one another. James did advance a striking vision; but one great fact about him, and the most arresting thing about it, is that his vision (like Emerson's "thousand-eyed present") defies every conceivable attempt to reduce it to a single point of view, including his own. It is "self-reliant" only to a point. I read it as an ultimately optimistic vision.

6 am/6:13, 59/75

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