Delight Springs

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Rain delay

First morning in recent memory when weather's kept the dogs and me from our appointed rounds through the neighborhood, and it's kinda nice sitting out here under our tin roof enjoying the gentle clatter. Habit and routine may be the enormous flywheel of society and sanity, but it's good too, periodically, to break routine and look at things aslant. Like climbing up on Mr. Keating's desk, reminded there's more than one way to seize the day.

   Image result for dead poets society desk scene

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

McEwan's thinking machine

Ian McEwan, reflecting on the experience of writing pre- and post-computing, reminds me of those primitive grad school days and nights when they chained us to typewriters and ordered us to churn out proof of our worthiness every three days, for nearly two weeks. The idea was either to kill us (i.e., cull us from the program) or make us stronger for the next hurdle, the Ph.D. I still like writing longhand, and sometimes feel nostalgic for my old Selectric. But McEwan is right, this is more like thinking... less pressure to get it right the first time, more opportunity to play with possibilities.
When asked how his writing process has changed with the onset of technology, McEwan answered: “In the seventies I used to work in the bedroom of my flat at a little table. I worked in longhand with a fountain pen. I’d type out a draft, mark up the typescript, type it out again. Once I paid a professional to type a final draft, but I felt I was missing things I would have changed if I had done it myself. In the mid-eighties I was a grateful convert to computers. Word processing is more intimate, more like thinking itself. In retrospect, the typewriter seems a gross mechanical obstruction. I like the provisional nature of unprinted material held in the computer’s memory — like an unspoken thought. I like the way sentences or passages can be endlessly reworked, and the way this faithful machine remembers all your little jottings and messages to yourself. Until, of course, it sulks and crashes.” WA
Right. Sometimes the machine sulks and crashes, but more often it's the operator.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Morning air & communion

Speaking of air, which was again lovely and chill this morning - actually had to don a jacket for our dawn stroll - Henry had it just right: "...let me have a draught of undiluted morning air. Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world." We inebriates of air can't stop feeling a bit superior to those who sleep away their only shot at the fountainhead.

The other lingering feeling I continued to enjoy this morning, in the backwash of another pleasant Fathers' Day, is that of paternal pride and sentiment. On that holiday in 2001, our girls  presented me with a shirt upon which they had imprinted their hand- and footprints. Sixteen years later, an update (with supplemental pawprints):


The sentiment is gratitude, for their persistence (this being the year they each graduated, from college and high school, respectively) and their grace. I was an @home dad when that first shirt arrived, and I will always look back on those charmed days in the company of our joyous and inquisitive children as the very best of times. As I've noted before, in echo of one of my favorite essayists, "daily companionship with a questioning child is a reminder of what intelligence is for--not, ultimately, for dominion, but for communion." 

Yes, that form of communion I'll always happily take. Why do I dote on my dogs? Practice, for the next time I'm graced with the steady company of a questioning child. 

In the spirit of communion, then, this slightly-tardy recognition of Fathers Day in the form of an 1895 letter from William James to his little girl Peggy. It reminds me of the picture book-inspired conversations I used to have with my little girls.
El Paso, Colo.Aug. 8, 1895.
Image result for william james and his daughter peggySweetest of Living Pegs,—Your letter made glad my heart the day before yesterday, and I marveled to see what an improvement had come over your handwriting in the short space of six weeks. "Orphly" and "ofly" are good ways to spell "awfully," too. I went up a high mountain yesterday and saw all the kingdoms of the world spread out before me, on the illimitable prairie which looked like a map. The sky glowed and made the earth look like a stained-glass window. The mountains are bright red. All the flowers and plants are different from those at home. There is an immense mastiff in my house here. I think that even you would like him, he is so tender and gentle and mild, although fully as big as a calf. His ears and face are black, his eyes are yellow, his paws are magnificent, his tail keeps wagging all the time, and he makes on me the impression of an angel hid in a cloud. He longs to do good.
I must now go and hear two other men lecture. Many kisses, also to Tweedy, from your ever loving,
Dad.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Inebriates of air

Here's an antidote to radical pessimism: reaffirmation of the will, as articulated by Robert Richardson in his 2010 talk at the William James Society's gathering in Chocorua, New Hampshire.


"Will You or Won't You Have It So?" is our "most probing question," James said. "We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words." Consent isn't just talk, it's volitional action drawn by the vision of something better than the status quo, by refusal to surrender to fate. Richardson finds great inspiration in James's imploring challenge to teachers, as urgent now as ever:
Spinoza long ago wrote in his Ethics that anything that a man can avoid under the notion that it is bad he may also avoid under the notion that something else is good. He who habitually acts sub specie mali, under the negative notion, the notion of the bad, is called a slave by Spinoza. To him who acts habitually under the notion of good he gives the name of freeman. See to it now, I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good. Get them habitually to tell the truth, not so much through showing them the wickedness of lying as by arousing their enthusiasm for honor and veracity. Wean them from their native cruelty by imparting to them some of your own positive sympathy with an animal's inner springs of joy. And, in the lessons which you may be legally obliged to conduct upon the bad effects of alcohol, lay less stress than the books do on the drunkard's stomach, kidneys, nerves, and social miseries, and more on the blessings of having an organism kept in lifelong possession of its full youthful elasticity by a sweet, sound blood, to which stimulants and narcotics are unknown, and to which the morning sun and air and dew will daily come as sufficiently powerful intoxicants.
And then, to illustrate, Richardson tosses off an allusion to Emily Dickinson that speaks directly to the peripatetic soul. The aspect of good that draws us walkers and cyclers out into the open and rejuvenating air of morning, day after day, is an intoxicant without painful residue. It leaves us better than we were, un-hungover, moving forward. An "inebriate of air" is positively addicted, happily dependent, and free. There's nothing wrong with leaning on the sun.
I taste a liquor never brewed
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol! Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue – When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more! Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!
Emily Dickinson, 1830 - 1886
Related posts. Chocorua... Stonewall... More footsteps... 95 Irving St... A pleasing confidence... R.I.P. WJ... last stand... flickers & twinkles... in transition... James bio 8... WJ 8.1... John Kaag, The philosopher and the thief (Harper's)... Summers and semesters (Harvard Magazine)

podcast

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Radical pessimism at the door

Back from a satisfyingly heat-beating bikeride-and-walk to and through the Richland Creek Greenway. Reflected a bit on the British view of the American experience during the revolutionary period, through the lens of the BBC's This Sceptred Isle . There's always another side to every story.

I wonder if I'd have been a Loyalist or a Patriot? In the present context, I'm neither - the present context being the borderline dystopia lately surveyed in Jill Lepore's New Yorker essay on the new literature of radical pessimism. “We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power,” indeed. I'm not surrendering to pessimism yet, but these are challenging days for a melioristic pragmatist. That's probably why I find myself drawn to the bigger picture, and to history. This too shall pass. And meanwhile?

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's ride-and-walk through the Warner Parks.
==
My Vandy pals who argue that pluralists can't be pragmatists are spotlighted in the new Vanderbilt Magazine, arguing in the spirit of J.S. Mill for a vigorous civil discourse. I will continue to argue the point with them, civilly and vigorously - as soon as I figure out exactly what's flawed in their argument... maybe their new book will shed needed light. They'll have to send me a copy for review, I sure can't afford it (must be a hell of an argument)!
Pragmatism, Pluralism, and the Nature of Philosophy (Routledge Studies in American Philosophy) by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Hardcover $ 133 08  $140.00PrimeAvailable for Pre-order
Dec 31, 2017


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Anglo-American Minds

John Lachs makes his usual good pluralistic sense with a warning, a couple minutes into Phillip McReynolds' brisk film American Philosopher, to beware talk of the American philosopher or mind or character or, really, the pretty-much-anything. It's too late for a formal rechristening of our summer class The Anglo-American Mind, but henceforth we'll just be AAM to ourselves - M is for minds, and what Anglos and Americans do with them.


It's great to see so many of my old friends featured here, saying mostly sensible things. Not one of them "hates America," but like William James they're all immunized against what he called, in that wonderful letter to H.G. Wells, "our national disease." (“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That - with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word 'success' - is our national disease.")

Patrick Allitt, a Brit at Emory University whose "Great Course" on The American Identity, admits the danger of oversimplifying our pan-American distinctions and differences but also insists on the rootedness of cultural stereotypes in some degree of reality. Not all Brits carry on with stiff upper lips, not all Americans have an optimistic can-do, cash-value commitment to problem-solving. But those are good tropes to test. As our first week's short essays and comments begin to appear, let the happy testing begin!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Worms at core and root

The dogs were at the door too early again this morning, we were out and roaming the neighborhood in the unseasonably chilly pre-dawn. I'm forcibly re-learning the lesson Richard Powers' character Peter Els learned "way too late in life":
Els learned that the time to concentrate yourself was right before sunrise. His greatest art now was to walk two hours before the neighborhood woke. Moving his legs left him blissful. Had he discovered the routine in young adulthood, he might have long ago amassed a portfolio of playful, exuberant creations that pleased him and gave delight to others.
So, I concentrated myself this morning on another Mill-James connection: William James, I've often noted, bemoaned "the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight..." Can it be a coincidence that his hero Mill had also tracked, in his Autobiography, a nefarious nematode? 

Noting that a too-intent fixation on habits of intellectual analysis can impair our spontaneity and delight in feeling, Mill wrote that such habits feed "a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues; and, above all, fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures..."

James and Mill could have learned from Els. Walk away from the worms every morning, habitually, and feel better. Save the melancholy metaphysics for sundown.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Poetic cultivation

Still exploring the Wordsworth connection between Mill and James, both having claimed to find salvation in the former's poetic Excursion. Mill in his Autobiography recounts,

In the first place, these poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression. In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth's poetry; the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. But Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. Scott does this still better than Wordsworth, and a very second-rate landscape does it more effectually than any poet. What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling... a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.
Wordsworth gave young Mill, so intensely cultivated as both student and object of study in his father's pedagogical hothouse experiment, his subjectivity back, along with needed reassurance that it did not dilute but actually enhanced his humanistic commitment to social progress.
I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis. 
"Analysis" here means intellect, not the Freudian sort of mytho-biographic rumination and speculation the next century would discover. "The result was that I gradually, but completely, emerged from my habitual depression, and was never again subject to it...unpoetical natures are precisely those which require poetic cultivation."

And that observation immediately recalls James's "Walpurgisnacht" on the mountain, when he said he now finally understood what a poet was...
==
It's Louise Erdrich's birthday. She sees life itself, every human life, as a poetic construction: “When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.”

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A new dawn

Our first "Anglo-American Mind" (AAM) class dismissed just in time last night for some of us to see the opening Preds-Penguins face-off at the packed Boulevard Bar & Grill. What a charged, heightened, frenetic atmosphere! 

One of our Pragmatism discussion questions asks if it matters whether the world is "one or many." Last night in middle Tennessee it was definitely a unity-we were all together, one for all and all for one. I'm no friend of hockey's brutal culture of mayhem, but I'll happily take my respites from Drumpfworld where I find them.

Back when I first came to Nashville the only pro hockey in town featured the minor-league "South Stars" (affiliated with the now-defunct Minnesota North Stars) playing in the Municipal Auditorium. It was always a fun night out, and a much cheaper ticket. But it lacked that frenzied Dionysian aspect that draws people together across every divide and turns us into a collective. Fortunately it's only a game. Unfortunately, Drumpfworld persists. But the Preds won again, and for a few more days we'll give ourselves permission to divert our gaze from the polarizing, debilitating alt-reality of our present politics.

AAM offers another welcome diversion. Before we even got started one of us passed around copies of C.S. Peirce's "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." ("Too much information," said another.) He said it was a muddle to him. But so it was to William James, who was talking about Peirce when he said
The founder of pragmatism himself recently gave a course of lectures at the Lowell Institute with that very word in its title-flashes of brilliant light relieved against Cimmerian darkness! None of us, I fancy, understood ALL that he said—yet here I stand, making a very similar venture.
I risk it because the very lectures I speak of DREW—they brought good audiences. There is, it must be confessed, a curious fascination in hearing deep things talked about, even tho neither we nor the disputants understand them. We get the problematic thrill, we feel the presence of the vastness. Let a controversy begin in a smoking-room anywhere, about free-will or God's omniscience, or good and evil, and see how everyone in the place pricks up his ears. Philosophy's results concern us all most vitally, and philosophy's queerest arguments tickle agreeably our sense of subtlety and ingenuity.
Believing in philosophy myself devoutly, and believing also that a kind of new dawn is breaking upon us philosophers, I feel impelled, per fas aut nefas, to try to impart to you some news of the situation.
A new dawn is always breaking, for the suitably-devout student of philosophy and of life. Onward through the fog!

Peirce had a sense of humor. "I don't remember that any one has advocated a system of teaching by practical jokes, mostly cruel. That, however, describes the method of our great teacher, Experience.” And, no joke: “There is a kink in my damned brain that prevents me from thinking as other people think.”
==
It's poet Maxine Kumin's birthday (she'd be 91). "She often asked her students to memorize 30 to 40 lines of poetry a week so that they grew familiar with the sound of poetry. She said: "The other reason, as I tell their often stunned faces, is to give them an internal library to draw on when they are taken political prisoner. For many, this is an unthinkable concept; they simply do not believe in anything fervently enough to go to jail for it."

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Monday, June 5, 2017

The Wordsworth Connection

I’m excited for the start this afternoon of our summer “focused study” of The Anglo-American Mind, wherein we’ll tack and attempt to navigate various “cross-currents in British and American thought, exploring ways in which classic thinkers on both sides of the pond have mutually influenced and reacted to each other.”

And, continues the official and possibly over-ambitious course description, “we’ll also read and discuss the likes of William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, David Hume, Anthony Trollope….” Well, maybe. Never hurts to build your metaphorical castles in the air.

The English wit Oscar Wilde once said “we have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” I wish I’d said that, Oscar, but I will. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but in service of the defensible premise we set out from: Americans and Brits do have a special relationship, culturally and philosophically, and a motivated study of its various lines of mutual relatedness promises amusement, clarity, and light. It’ll be fun.

Our main texts: Pragmatism by William James, On Liberty by J.S. Mill, English Hours by Henry James, and Jay Hosler’s whimsical, graphical look at Charles Darwin’s peripatetic style of reflection, The Sandwalk Adventures.

We begin with the first four lectures of Pragmatism, starting with this question:
  • Why do you think James dedicated Pragmatism to the memory of J.S. Mill (“from whom I first learned the pragmatic openness of mind and whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today”)?
There’s no short and simple answer to that, but one intriguing thread connects them: both suffered bouts of emotional despondency, and both turned to the poetry of William Wordsworth to pull them out of it.

The Mill-Wordsworth connection is familiar, having been prominently featured in the fifth chapter of his Autobiography.
For though my dejection, honestly looked at, could not be called other than egotistical, produced by the ruin, as I thought, of my fabric of happiness, yet the destiny of mankind in general was ever in my thoughts, and could not be separated from my own. I felt that the flaw in my life, must be a flaw in life itself…
This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event of my life. I took up the collection of his poems from curiosity, with no expectation of mental relief from it, though I had before resorted to poetry with that hope… But while Byron was exactly what did not suit my condition, Wordsworth was exactly what did…
What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence… I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis… The result was that I gradually, but completely, emerged from my habitual depression, and was never again subject to it. J.S. Mill, Autobiography
Less familiarly known is the James-Wordsworth connection, newly spotlighted in William James Studies (Spring 2017, vol.13, no.1) by David Leary in “Authentic Tidings: What Wordsworth Gave to William James” (PDF):
As regards James’s later psychological and philosophical work, the critical insights that distinguished his way of thinking revolved around the Wordsworthian convictions that the human mind is active; that it has its own interests; and that its feelings are as significant – perhaps even more significant – than its thoughts…
James gave expression to “the mind’s excursive power,” as Wordsworth put it. Wordsworth’s use of this phrase underscored that his poetically described excursion through countryside and mountains was an allegory for the mind’s ability to wander, in imagination, around objects, assuming different perspectives, seeing reality now from this and now from that point of view.
“The mind’s excursive power” – that’s what we’ll be tracking, and tracking with, in our course. There’s even been talk of field trips into the rolling middle Tennessee countryside, as we wander in search of Anglo-American minds (which really ought to be pluralized in the course title as well).

Also noteworthy, in the vein, is the appreciative WJ Studies note by biographer Robert Richardson (Emerson, Thoreau, James), on John Kaag’s wonderful American Philosophy: A Love Story:
Kaag leaves us with what Goethe, Emerson, and William James all agreed on. In the beginning was not the word, but the deed, the act. The way forward is not twelve steps, or ten or three. It’s just one. Don’t sleep on it, sit on it, stand on it, or take it for a trial spin. Take the step, You have to do what you can, and you have to do it right now.
Well alright then, let’s get moving!

 philosophy wittgenstein critical theory archimedes plato GIF


(This Anglo-American mind clearly was warped by early exposure to Monty Python.)

It's the birthday of Alfred Kazin, who wrote On Native Grounds and A Walker in the City. “The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax... One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time and in others' minds.”

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