Delight Springs

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The versatile holiday

 I habitually pull Richard Ford's third Frank Bascombe novel from the shelf on Thanksgiving, which "ought to be the versatile, easy-to-like holiday, suitable to the secular and religious, adaptable to weddings, christenings, funerals, first-date anniversaries, early-season ski trips and new romantic interludes. It often doesn't work out that way." 

But today the lay of the land here looks fine. I fetched ("carried") Brother-in-law up the Trace yesterday, Younger Daughter will arrive shortly to help cook the comestibles and join in the general spirit of festive gratitude for all good things.  It'll be a small gathering, no tension or contention in sight.

An old Thanksgiving post notes Frank's gratitude for "The Hawk," who I look forward to finally meeting at the Baseball in Literature and Culture conference in Ottawa (KS) next March:


...Here's one of Frank's ruminations on happiness, recalling a "shining moment of glory that was instantly gone" when he caught a foul ball and impressed his kid. I can almost totally relate... but can't agree that "happy is a lot of hooey." (Though of course the way a lot of us talk about it is.)

“The kind of happy I was that day at the Vet when "Hawk" Dawson actually doffed his red "C" cap to me, and everyone cheered and practically convulsed into tears - you can't patent that. It was one shining moment of glory that was instantly gone. Whereas life, real life, is different and can't even be appraised as simply "happy", but only in terms of "Yes, I'll take it all, thanks" or "No, I believe I won't." Happy, as my poor father used to say, is a lot of hooey. Happy is a circus clown, a sitcom, a greeting card. Life, though, life's about something sterner. But also something better. A lot better. Believe me.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Matter of gratitude

A holiday devoted to gratitude is gratifying, even if you're not always grateful to be in the company of every member of your extended family. The old Stoic Emperor reminds me every morning to "think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." Or even just to tolerate, for a day or so.

It might sound like an odd thought at first, but shouldn't we be grateful for matter? 

“Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.” 
And as William James said,
"To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter COULD have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the PRINCIPLE of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life's purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter's possibilities." Pragmatism, Lecture III
And as Loyal Rue says, "it is appropriate that we feel grateful to matter..."


 Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Eager for zest

Today's poem ("...I begin to wonder about people—I wonder/if they also wonder about how strange it is that we/are here on the earth...") reminds me of this:

“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others —above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.” Living Philosophies (via Chris StevensNorthern Exposure)
Teachers are here for the sake of those others we call students, which makes it so gratifying to hear that one of them has mentioned to a colleague that I've made a memorable impression. We can't all be Einstein, but we can try to contribute in some small way to others' happiness while pursuing our own.

Today in Happiness CoPhi it's chapter five of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds and glances at "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth" (Pragmatism Lecture VI) and "The Gospel of Relaxation." (See also Ed Craig...) 

John Kaag says James's attention to determinism and free will, habit, and consciousness were among the "vectors of meaning" that saved his life. We should also notice that they were vectors of happiness. Meaning and happiness do converge in James's cosmos, and you really can't have one without the other. Nor can you have truth in pristine epistemic isolation. "To embrace the pragmatic theory of truth is at once a commitment to become more, much more, than a formal epistemologist." 

James had little use for 
the "bald-headed young Ph.D.'s" (ouch!) and their "desiccating and pedantifying" ways. His evident objection was not to their baldness, their youth, nor even their Ph.D.'s but to their cocksure belief in the exclusive primacy of an approach to philosophy that begins and ends in questions about the establishment of "certain knowledge" and insists on technicality and jargon at the expense of clarity for all except a very few specialists. James always declared himself on the side of experience, against "philosophy," wherever the latter had been shrunk to fit the limited dimensions or stylistic exclusivity of a "school" or discipline. He scorned some epistemologists' implicit view of reality as something necessarily twinned and correlated to whatever questions we happen at the moment to be asking about what and how we can know, as though abstract knowing were the highest purpose of life rather than one among many. Springs
Kaag shares James's discomfort with narrow academic professionalism/pedantry, and the sense that being a "student of life's value and worth" is a larger mission than that of many students (read professors) of philosophy. "Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation." We're often encouraged to forget that, we profs, and to get on with the production of ever more verbalities and verbosities. In the process, as we were saying last time, we grow (in yet another colorful Jamesian phrase) "stone-blind and insensible" to life's simple joys and pleasures. (We'll read that soon in context, in "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.")

James's hallway (corridor) metaphor, treating pragmatism primarily as a method of negotiation and navigation among disparate interests and ends in philosophy and in life, reminds Kaag of James's beloved summer place in Chocorua with its fourteen doors "all opening outward." Pragmatism is a portal, not a sanctuary, "a place to dwell and meet the world" and maybe transcend it.

The distinction between truth and facts is crucial, for grasping the point of the pragmatic proposal that we reconstruct our conception of truth and our attitude toward it. "The facts may be out there, waiting for us to find them"--some of them--but the truth is our story about the facts"... and as we were saying in class yesterday, telling and acting from better stories about ourselves and the facts is an indispensable condition for creating a better society. 

The free will story is prerequisite to the kind of optimism (meliorism) we need to face our most daunting challenges. "It holds up improvement as at least possible," it gives us a chance. 

"The Gospel of Relaxation" has so impressed a friend that he now referes to it simply as "The Gospel," and I know instantly what he means. It's there that James speaks of the "buried life" or "inner atmosphere" of so many up-tight unhappy souls. Their Binnenleben has them too tightly wound. They need to let it go. Students need to relax before the big exam and trust their prior preparation, teachers need to relax in preparation for class and learn to "trust their spontaneity."

Back when I was still a struggling grad student, trying to figure out what I wanted to say about the philosophy of William James, I memorized this passage in Talks to Students ("On a Certain Blindness"):
Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But, wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is 'importance' in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be.
I didn't know what exactly to say about that, then. Now I know he was talking about our respective "springs of delight," possibly the most propitious happiness insight any philosopher has ever articulated. Zest is what we want, and what we can have if we just learn to attend to our eagerness. 

For James, says Kaag, pragmatism was James's lifelong protest against resignation in the teeth of a Divine plan--of a Plan of any provenance, really--that might short-circuit our opportunity to seek salvation each in our own way, through our own effort and intellect and force of will.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Start talking?

Things have been a little quiet in the William James cyber-verse lately, as represented by, So I've sent out a little message in a bottle, we'll see if it washes up on shore somewhere.
 As an inaugural At-Large member of the WJS board, veep-elect, and recent semi-self-exile from Twitter, I invite all friends of Wm James to follow me to Mastodon

There must be a lot of pent-up James talk just looking for an outlet. But of course, as WJ himself  said, "What an awful trade that of professor is—paid to talk, talk, talk! . . . It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words."

And as John Lachs said, "There is something devastatingly hollow about the demonstration that thought without action is hollow, when we find the philosopher only thinking it." Or talking about it. 

But talk is a place to start. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Beyond the end

Today in Happiness CoPhi we consider John Kaag's fourth chapter in Sick Souls, Healthy Minds. "Consciousness and Transcendence" are big topics which I've considered before. I think Peter Ackroyd was onto something when he proposed to define transcendence in hyphenated fashion: "trans-end-dance: the ability to move beyond the end, otherwise called the dance of death." The Plato Papers

This particular dance of transcendence should not be confused with Johnnny Depp's in that film...

Consciousness is complicated.

Naturalized and pluralistic transcendence in the Jamesian vein, as I see it, takes us beyond our personal end and links us to life's great trans-generational chain, not by transmuting or "uploading" consciousness but by raising it, and introducing a wider sense of identity with John Dewey's continuous human community. "A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain," James said in Varieties of Religious Experience

And in Pragmatism James said our really vital question is: "What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?"

For those questions and that vision of life to vitalize ours, we must have moved beyond our mortal end. We must have come to see our own consciousness as in some important sense continuous with that of trans-temporal humanity. We move beyond our finite span of years when we begin deeply to care about the life-world beyond them. 

Can we begin to do that by connecting with our own internal streams of thought? It may sound paradoxical, but that's the view James seems to defend in Principles of Psychology's Stream of Thought chapter IX. By acknowledging and embracing our unique first-person subjectivity we begin to build bridges "beyond the end," towards the other links in our vast human chain. We come to realize that, just as our own consciousness delivers the world whole and not "chopped into bits," so it is for others. The continuity and vivacity of their internal lives are as real to them as ours to us. We're in the stream together, sinking or swimming together, and though we don't know precisely what their subjective streams entail for them we know enough to recognize our shared humanity. 

James lost his father and a son, in his forties. The death of precious others often propels us towards transcendence and a reckoning with death that can carry us past our grief and loss. The father's death was quite poignant, as James learned too late and from too far away that he'd not have an opportunity to say a proper good-bye in person. So he wrote a remarkable trans-Atlantic letter in December 1882.
...We have been so long accustomed to the hypothesis of your being taken away from us, especially during the past ten months, that the thought that this may be your last illness conveys no very sudden shock. You are old enough, you've given your message to the world in many ways and will not be forgotten; you are here left alone, and on the other side, let us hope and pray, dear, dear old Mother is waiting for you to join her. If you go, it will not be an in harmonious thing. Only, if you are still in possession of your normal consciousness, I should like to see you once again before we part... 
As for the other side, and Mother, and our all possibly meeting, I cant say anything. More than ever at this moment do I feel that if that were true, all would be solved and justified. And it comes strangely over me in bidding you good-bye how a life is but a day and ex presses mainly but a single note. It is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary good-night. Good-night, my sacred old Father! If I don t see you again Farewell! a blessed farewell! Your WILLIAM.

I read that letter to my own dad, in his terminal summer following a diagnosis of leukemia. He got the message Henry may have missed, really so very simple: a message of gratitude and love, and an assurance that his message and presence would not by his children be forgotten. Not ever.

But "the taste of the intolerable mysteriousness" of existence returned, intensified, when young Herman James passed in 1885. Is consciousness really "a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel"?  It does seem likely that even a complete comprehension of how the brain gives rise to self-awareness would  leave the why and the wherefore unresolved. The mystery of consciousness as a generic phenomenon  is hard enough, particular consciousnesses must be harder still to crack. "The continuous flow of the mental stream" is subjective. Looking at its physical correlates does not promise deep insight.

We read also today of Thoreau and his marvelous conclusion in Walden. "Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star." As a morning person, and a saunterer in the Thoreauvian spirit, and a dreamer of human intrepidity, I find in those lines great inspiration. I'm thinking of getting them inscribed in a visible and lasting way. Ask me about that next week.

James the "nitrous oxide philosopher" would have been intrigued by Michael Pollan's (and others') advocacy of research into the therapeutic potential of appropriately-prescribed hallucinogens.
HE has short hair and a long brown beard. He is wearing a three-piece suit. One imagines him slumped over his desk, giggling helplessly. Pushed to one side is an apparatus out of a junior-high science experiment: a beaker containing some ammonium nitrate, a few inches of tubing, a cloth bag. Under one hand is a piece of paper, on which he has written, "That sounds like nonsense but it is pure on sense!" He giggles a little more. The writing trails away. He holds his forehead in both hands. He is stoned. He is William James, the American psychologist and philosopher. And for the first time he feels that he is understanding religious mysticism.
Mind-altering drugs may not afford deep metaphysical insight after all, but it's becoming increasingly clear that they can help PTSD sufferers (like war vets) and others whose pain is not amenable to mainstream pharmacology. James the humanist would agree.

James's summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire was a wonderful getaway for him, and an apt metaphor for his philosophy and its anchoring temperament: "fourteen doors, all opening outwards."  Like a transcendent consciousness, and (though the metaphors are mixed) like a flowing stream. James loved "the open air and possibilities of nature." Fling open the doors. Get out there. Even, or especially, in November.


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

John Muir, poetico-trampo hippie poet

LISTEN. I'll bet he'd enjoy Artemis.

Went out for a brisk dogwalk through the neighborhood this morning, listening to Kim Stanley Robinson's latest book The High Sierra: A Love Story. It includes a nice chapter-length appreciation of the Sierra Club founder and "'self-styled poetico=trampo-geologist-bot. and ornith-natural, etc.!-!-!' A hippie poet, in other words; a psychogeologist."

Muir wrote, "Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away.… Through all the eventful centuries since Christ's time, and long before that, God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand storms; but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools; this is left to the American people." 

Muir died thinking his political project had failed. But in fact the fight for the biosphere had just begun, and he is remembered as a founding inspiration for it. Some quality in him, not just his gift for writing, but some kind of charisma, kept him in the culture's memory, as an ideal for those who followed. Now his childhood home in Scotland is a museum devoted to him. The site of his family's Wisconsin farm is a national historic landmark. His adult home in Martinez is a national monument. In Indianapolis, on the street where his factory was located, there is a sign commemorating his eye injury. There's even a sign at the ruins of his rake handle factory, put up by the Canadian Friends of John Muir. He remains the most famous environmentalist in world history. 

Charisma is mysterious. Perhaps it's created by a passion for some cause outside the person expressing it. Muir was a passionate scientist, which in our time sounds somewhat oxymoronic, but that's wrong, as he serves to show; one can work passionately and scientifically on a project at the same time, and scientists very often do this. For Muir, the project was the Sierra. Athlete philosopher—psychogeologist—wilderness advocate—passionate scientist—these were all manifestations of his Sierra love. 

I'll end this quick ramble through Muir's life with a photo of one of the trailhead signs that the US Forest Service places at every trailhead on the high Sierra's east flank, an area now administered by the Inyo National Forest, and called the John Muir Wilderness. Copies of this sign are posted at every trailhead, and they all include the well-known quotation from Muir that you see. The US Forest Service is not a notably philosophical agency, I think it's safe to say, and I'm pretty sure most USFS workers would agree. But someone in the agency caught the Muir spirit, it seems, when it came to designing these signs. Now every hike on the Sierra's east side begins with this little existentialist blessing from our government, a reminder to pay attention and be thankful. And this is what Muir's story can do more generally. 

They even chose the right photo of him, which people seldom do, tending to go for the old-man-with-a-beard profiles. This one captures him best. I always touch it with my finger at the start of every backpacking trip, for good luck. And I've been lucky!

 Touch the photo and take off!*

The sign's inscription next to the Muir thumbnail says “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

There's a trailhead sign at Percy Warner Park in Nashville with a Muir quote, too: “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

There must also, at some other trailhead somewhere be a sign that says “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”


“The world's big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.”

Which it will, sooner or later. But meanwhile, as Muir's soulmate HDT says, there's more day to dawn. The sun's still a morning star, and there are other suns. And moons. We're about to revisit the closest one, finally.  

Nice place to visit, but pretty barren next to Yosemite and the high Sierra. The launch of the journey's pretty spectacular though. The spirit of exploration may begin in the forest but it doesn't end there. I'm glad we're going back. And beyond. *Take off!

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Delete your accounts?

 Today in CoPhi, we read of James on habit. Here's an old post...and one from Maria Popova concluding with James's encouraging words for anxious students:

Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation...

I'm not sure how many of us can honestly claim to "keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day," but anyway maybe that was always a bit of preening Victorian overstatement. The odd hour of slacking shouldn't permanently sabotage anyone's quest for eventual and enlightened grown-up competence. Do your homework and show up, that's at least 90% of success in most endeavors. A little time out for recreation and renewal isn't "slacking," it's r&r. It's a moral holiday, when you "let the world wag in its own way"-not that any of us could ever entirely wag the world our own way.

In Environmental Ethics we get a timely reminder from KSR's Ministry: "Simply talking was the strongest social media of all..." That's what I was talking about yesterday, what Jaron Lanier was talking about Sunday. In Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now he says "what might once have been called advertizing must now be understood as continuous behavior modification" that's stripping us of free will and turning us into trained dogs, lab rats, robots... 

I like dogs and I like the idea of robots, but am even more partial to the idea of retaining our humanity. When that's irretrievably gone there'll be for us "no civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth."  That sounds not far removed from our present state of dysfunction, on this day of the anticipated announcement of another dreary Trump campaign. 

"The more important question now is whether anyone's criticism will matter." So long as we think we might still possess a modicum of free will, we have to think it can. Well, if we really are free we don't have to. But it would be defeatist and fatalistic to think otherwise. 

Will I delete my accounts? Not yet. Thinking about it. Maybe there's an algorithm to help me decide. Maybe I'll take a moral holiday and see which way the robot dog's mechanical tail wags.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Twitter poisoning

LISTEN. Proving again that the best social medium by far is in-person conversation over good food with people you actually know and care about, we had a fine time brunching at the 51st St Taproom yesterday. I recommend the loaded fries topped with eggs and queso and jalapenos et al. And (although I probably shouldn't publicize it), unlike all the other brunch sites we might have picked this one didn't have a long waiting list. Didn't hurt that Younger Daughter grabbed the check either. Raised her right.

Then we came home and I read Jaron Lanier's smart essay in the Times, Trump, Musk and Kanye Are Twitter Poisoned
I have observed a change, or really a narrowing, in the public behavior of people who use Twitter or other social media a lot. (“Other social media” sometimes coming into play after ejection from Twitter.)

Ejection, or disgusted self-exile. Is there any reason to think the "narrowing" won't transfer to Mastodon or any other Elon-less platform? So the caution is clear: don't use any social media a lot, except maybe brunch. Let the "bratty little boys in [the SocMed] schoolyard" torment one other. They're made for each other.

What do I think are the symptoms of Twitter poisoning? There is a childish insecurity, where before there was pride. Instead of being above it all, like traditional strongmen throughout history, the modern social media-poisoned alpha male whines and frets. This works because his followers are similarly poisoned and can relate so well...
When we were children, we all had to negotiate our way through the jungle of human power relationships at the playground. When we feel those old humiliations, anxieties and sadisms again as adults — over and over, because the algorithm has settled on that pattern as a powerful way to engage us — habit formation restimulates old patterns that had been dormant. We become children again, not in a positive, imaginative sense, but in a pathetic way...

Twitter poisoning is a little like alcoholism or gambling addiction, in that the afflicted lose all sense of proportion about their own powers. They can come to believe they have almost supernatural abilities. Little boys fantasize about energy beams shooting from their fingertips...

It's tempting to quip here about Elon's rockets, but I still think a mission to Mars is a good long-term ambition. I just don't want it to be led by a pathetic little boy. 

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Moral equivalence redux

 In CoPhi today we press on with reports while reading chapter two of Sick Souls Healthy Minds and considering "The Moral Equivalent of War," the latter having prompted this beginning in an old post from last year:

LISTEN. "The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party," begins James's "Moral Equivalent of War." This is no idle metaphysical dispute about squirrels and trees, it's ultimately about our collective decision as to what sort of species we intend to become. It's predicated on the very possibility of deciding anything, of choosing and enacting one identity and way of being in the world over another. Can we be more pacifistic and mutually supportive, less belligerent and violent? Can we pull together and work cooperatively in some grand common cause that dwarfs our differences? Go to Mars and beyond with Elon, maybe?

I was still ready to ride with Elon less than a year ago. How things have changed. 

The next paragraph observed Carl Sagan's birthday, which this year came yesterday. We miss his perspective, profoundly. 

And then,

In light of our long human history of mutual- and self-destruction, the substitution for war of constructive and non-rapacious energies directed to the public good ought to be an easier sell. Those who love the Peace Corps and its cousin public service organizations are legion, and I'm always happy to welcome their representatives to my classroom. Did that just last year.

But the idea of sacrificing personal financial gain for the opportunity of a lifetime to immerse in another culture and lend tangible life-support for our fellow human beings is not immediately enticing to most of those who've been raised to value personal acquisition over almost all else. Have we lost our appetite for peace? Have we become inured to war? Do we just want to score an early Black Friday deal?

James didn't think so. Or wouldn't have, re: Black Friday, though he did already cringe (in that '06 letter to H.G. Wells, who he cites in Moral Equivalence) at the commercial Bitch-goddess "values" of our cash-besotted society. He "devoutly believes" in a pacifistic future for humanity, or maybe really just believed in believing in it. That's a start.

A non-military conscription of our "gilded youth" would be good for them and for us all, so many of the great non-gilded majority already effectively "conscripted" by circumstance to enlist not in a noble cause but for a crummy paycheck. You don't really get to be all you can be, in today's Army. But tomorrow's could be mustered to fight not "against Nature" but (for once) for it, and for our continued place in it. We could choose to battle the consumer lifestyle that has fueled anthropogenic climate change.

Yuval Noah Harari seems to me to be on James's wavelength when he says "the story in which you believe shapes the society that you create." If we believe we can successfully battle our own worst "Onceler" impulses, that "fiction" stands a fighting chance of becoming fact. If we don't, it doesn't. Apocalyptic fatalism is not constructive.
James's old student Morris Raphael Cohen once attempted to persuade James that baseball could be the sort of moral equivalent he was looking for, a way of channeling our martial impulses into benign forms of expression on playing fields, in harmless competition. James wasn't having it. "All great men have their limitations," Cohen sighed. ("Baseball as a National Religion")

But it may well be that sports mania of the sort we see in stadia and on the streets of championship teams actually intensifies and exacerbates the aggressive side of human nature rather than diverting and deconstructing it...

Interesting that I was already thinking then about our Lyceum speaker of just this past September, Tadd Ruetenik, and his thesis that in the U.S. the "symbiotic relationship between sports culture and war culture" is especially salient.

In conclusion,

As for the imagined pacifistic future of the race? Not holding my breath. But I do still invite my friends in the Peace Corps to come make their pitch.

And as friend Ed says, "effective public service benefits from the martial virtues. As James said, 'we must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings.' Onward civic soldiers, marching on as if to war."
Let's drop James's dated "manliness" rhetoric, though. Humane-ness will suffice. Or so we may freely suppose.
The essence of humanism, recall, is that the totality of our human experience leans on nothing but itself. We have to lean on each other, we humans. As Carl said, there's still no hint that help will come to save us from ourselves. 

Or, therefore, as we'll consider in Environmental Ethics today, to save future generations from being "discounted" by ours.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The multiverse

LISTEN. Happy Carl Sagan Day. He did something important, he got many of us (including Neil deGrasse Tyson) to internalize a cosmic sense of scale and possibility that puts things in proper perspective. “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us-a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” 

(PBD... Tyson's tribute to Sagan... Cosmic Connection)

Whenever we forget that we live in a pluralistic, open, unfinished universe of possibilities we lose that sense of perspective.

It was always possible there wouldn't be a sweeping midterm red wave, even though some pundits suggested otherwise. William James would have said so. That's what he meant by "multiverse" when he introduced the term in Dilemma of Determinism: "Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference,—a moral multiverse, as one might call it, and not a moral universe." 

Betti gave us a nice report on that essay in CoPhi yesterday, and then I came home and decided not to spend the evening watching the pundits pontificate and prognosticate about inconclusive electoral results. Instead I picked up The New Yorker and read The Never-Ending Story: Can the multiverse keep expanding forever? by Stephanie Burt.  

It's mostly about how Hollywood and Marvel Studios have appropriated the concept. She says "the term' multiverse' seems to have assumed its modern meaning in the sixties," though (she acknowledges) James used it much earlier, "but in a different way." I'm not sure it was so different.

Burt's essay begins with a discussion of Jorge Luis Borges's 1941 "Garden of the Forking Paths," which "invites the reader to imagine what else, other than the world we know, might be possible. But... ultimately wonders whether, if everything that can happen does happen, any choice is really worth making." That's precisely what we were talking about in class. 

James's multiverse, as I understand it, is a singular universe possessed of a teeming multiplicity of possibilities, branch points, or "forking paths" which describe alternative possible worlds. Each of us contributes our bit to the determination of which possibilities get actualized. We each have an opportunity to influence what does happen. A multiverse is a universe of possibility, what James also called a pluralistic universe or (following his weird friend B.P. Blood) a pluriverse. The point: it's an open, unfinished universe. We're making and remaking it, to an indeterminate extent, as we go.

James would agree with the core implication of Burt's conclusion, I think: 

The garden of forking paths cannot continue to fork forever, if we are to find meaning there. Multiverses speak to the part of us that wants every option to be open, that wants the journey to go on and on. Of course, no journey really does—and at the end of many multiversal stories the tangle of time lines resolves into one, or a traveller finally arrives at the right version of history and decides to stay. Such endings seem to invite us to return to our one life, on our one planet, with some added spark of hope or curiosity or resolve.

As I said in class: whatever the physicists, the comics, and the sci-fi writers say, we have to--get to-- live in one universe. One at a time, anyway. That's what lends weight and import and meaning to the choices we make and the choices we shirk.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The aspirational we

LISTEN. Don't forget to vote, unless you're planning to vote for democracy-denying fascists (in which case you're probably pretty good at forgetting the hard-won lessons of history).

Today in CoPhi it's the first chapter of Sick Souls Healthy Minds and WJ's "Dilemma of Determinism"-

The dilemma of this determinism is one whose left horn is pessimism and whose right horn is subjectivism. In other words, if determinism is to escape pessimism, it must leave off looking at the goods and ills of life in a simple objective way, and regard them as materials, indifferent in themselves, for the production of consciousness, scientific and ethical, in us.

Determinists are pessimists if they think all our natural regrets are futile, for--after all--the fascists were always going to behave fascistically, no matter what we thought or said about them. But they're subjectivists if they think we can learn important moral lessons from the passing spectacle of futility, and thus produce an enlightened "consciousness"... for whatever that might be worth. Finally, as I read James, we must resist the dilemma and be neither pessimists nor subjectivists. But we can still embrace subjectivity. Just don't think all is lost, or (what comes to the same thing) that all is rigidly and irresistibly determined.  

But the most delightfully provocative reference in the chapter is to WJ's 1906 letter to H.G. Wells on the American definition of "success," and its indictment of "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."

That diagnosis stands up. What's the cure?

I committed to a new text selection for CoPhi next semester today, Kieran Setiya's Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way. It may be a good choice for the Happiness course next Fall, too. Setiya thinks we should strive less for happiness and more for meaning and a feeling of gladness to be alive in spite of everything, and for the courage to "cope with grace when life is hard." 

Had a preliminary conversation with a colleague about doing a "sidecar" or collaborative version of Happiness. That might be worth trying, in these trying times. 

Today in Environmental Ethics we're up to chapter 37 in Ministry for the Future. Along the way we ponder whether there really are Tzadikim Nistarium in our midst, anonymous ordinary heroes who "keep the world from falling apart." It would be nice to think so, when the evidence points so strongly towards the prevalence of their opposite number. What's a fancier way of saying "Chaos Agents"? And how, anyway, do we distinguish the righteous and just from the self-righteous and perfidious?

Also interesting, the thought that our habit of slapping period labels on chunks of our history (geological, technological, bronze, agricultural, industrial, anthropocentric et al) might be to the good. "Perhaps periodization makes it easier to remember that...the order of things" is in constant flux. 

But perhaps instead it seduces us into thinking there's something locked in and inexorable about our particular moment in time. What we really need (don't we?) is the will to transcend (imaginatively) this and that and every particular period and to acknowledge the unity and interconnectedness of all history. But we don't need to leap from that into a Hegelian sort of historicist essentialism. Our very survival, and that of the human community in its entirety, comes without guarantees.

Are we wrong to discount future generations? KSR offers a strong indictment of the homo economicus mindset and its distortions of value. So does William MacAskill, who's said at TED and elsewhere and now lately in What We Owe the Future that "preserving the future of humanity is among the most important problems that we currently face." 

That's an aspirational we, rooted in fundamentally the same hopeful impulse that impels us red-state gerrymandered voters to go to the polls election after election although our voting districts and voting rights have been diced and quartered and discounted too. It's the least we can do for the future, but we still must hope it's not the most. As Jules Verne said (according to the postcard I just sent to Older Daughter), "the future is but the present a little further on." Uh-oh.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Lean away from Elon

LISTEN. I can relate to Margaret Renkl's vertiginous heart-in-throat trepidation on election eve, and like her I am not an optimist. But I am still a Jamesian and a meliorist, ever hopeful that things will come out better in the longer run if we can somehow manage to forestall despair and ruin in the short run. No guarantees. But it's not easy being a meliorist these days, or a humanist who thinks the totality of our experience is "self-containing and leans on nothing." Who're we gonna lean on, then, and who's gonna catch us when we start to fall?  
People often think I’m an optimist because I believe that human beings are mostly good, because I know that reasons for hope are everywhere if you look for them.

The good people of Kansas voted to preserve abortion rights, for instance, and polls indicate that they would be far from alone if other red-state voters were given the chance to choose. The chaos agent formerly known as Kanye West has discovered the cost of antisemitism in the wide world, even if it mostly goes unchallenged in his squalid corner of the political sphere. The chaos agent known as Elon Musk may be on track to kill the hellsite known as Twitter. Best of all, a new report suggests that we haven’t yet lost the chance to prevent this verdant and teeming planet from becoming completely uninhabitable.

Even so, I am not an optimist. I spend much of my life with my heart in my throat, and at this moment I am terrified. What has happened to my country that 20 percent of Americans believe political violence is justified? That an entire political party increasingly relies on lying and cheating to win elections? That Vladimir Putin, of all people, has become a Republican hero?

...If only American voters will stand up for democracy and vote to restore the equilibrium of our fragile body politic.

Right. If only. I just know that I'm with WJ and Potus 44. Despair is not an option. We've got to do better, and (as Henry said) it is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

I also know I've about had enough of Elon Musk and the other agents of gratuitous chaos. Constructive disgust is an option. I've set up my Mastodon [nyt]. He can get his $7.99 somewhere else. 

I will, however, let IFTTT continue to auto-tweet my blogposts, and I'll redirect my other tweets to the tooting new elephant in the room. My new Mastodon address: 

Follow me, if you want.  You don't need to. You don't need to follow anybody. But it's still a free country. Right?

Thursday, November 3, 2022


LISTEN. In CoPhi today we turn to John Kaag's Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life.

Audacious title, but if a life can be saved by philosophical intervention I think James is as plausible a lifesaver as any old dead philosopher. He intervened successfully on his own behalf, in one of the great shifts of vision in the annals of self-recovery.

Young William James felt "pulled in too many directions" and worried that we might be nothing but cogs in the machine of natural necessity. He wanted to find a single direction he could commit to, and a resolute will with which to do it.

His age, like ours, was distinctively obsessed with the quest for meaning and beset by anxiety, depression, and fear. He found a new way, Renouvier's, to think about things, decided to try it, and the rest is the historical founding myth of pragmatism I like to purvey.

In his late 20s he "just about touched bottom." He'd lost his dearest friend, possibly the love of his life. He couldn't commit to anything. He couldn't envision his own future. He needed something solid and reliable to hold onto, something to embolden his will and get him up and doing.

On the last day of April, 1870, he recorded a new diary entry: " I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. [He'd been having a lot of those!] I finished the first part of Renouvier's 2nd Essay and saw no reason why his definition of free will-- the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts-- need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present-- until next year-- that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will."

And: "Today has furnished the exceptionally passionate initiative... needful for the acquisition of habits."

We are what we repeatedly do, as Artistotle had long since noted. Funny how we have to keep rediscovering the most basic things, we humans. And sad how we don't learn the hardest lessons by attending to the hard-earned wisdom of those who've gone before us.

On Feb. 6, 2014 John Kaag, a young post-doc scholar at Harvard who'd been languishing in his own sea of despond, happened on the scene of a horrific tragedy. A young man named Steven Rose, about the age James had been when he confided his own crisis in that diary entry, leapt to his death from the observation deck of William James Hall.

I've been there, in 2010, for the William James Society's centenary celebration of WJ's life and thought. The view is bracing. In a glance you take in Harvard, James's home at Irving Street, and everything else for miles around. It's vivifying, if you're in a mind to receive an infusion of liveliness. Tragically, Mr. Rose was not.

He may have been one of those given to "too much questioning and too little active responsibility," resulting in deep pessimism and a hopeless view of life. Who knows?

We do know, though, that identifying and fighting actual problems and challenges to lives worth living is itself a source of "cheerfulness" and self-strengthening resolve.

And we know there's reason to suspect far more in heaven and earth than is typically dreamt in our normal waking consciousness. The dog on my lap hasn't a clue about such things, and yet we share a life-world. Of what wonders may we be similarly clueless?

James doesn't know, nor do we. The point is to remain in touch with the "deepest thing in our nature," which deals with possibilities rather than finished facts. That "dumb region of the heart" is smarter than we know.

So we'll discuss that feeling of being "pulled in too many directions" and why, for those who feel that way, philosophy can't just be a "detached intellectual exercise." Philosophical arguments (such as free will vs. determinism) must "vivify" and point away from darkness and stasis, to matter at all.

Can belief that life is worth living become self-fulfilling? James said it could. But as Tim McGraw's dad Tug's old rallying slogan said, you gotta believe. You gotta believe.

"Is life worth living?" Maybe. But that implies maybe not. Can we, should we ever say that? Ask your doctor, the cartoon on my door advises, if a longer life is right for you. But no: ask yourself.

Ask yourself what your hypothetical future self, after you've made an irreversibly-terminal decision, would wish to tell you. In a word, I think it would be: Stay.

“None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.” ― Jennifer Michael Hecht, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

Staying alive is not just a matter of personal fortitude, it's the challenge of civilization. That's why a ministry for the future can't come too soon. In today's Environmental Ethics assignment, that so-far-fictional institution's leader confronts a direct threat both to her person and to her charge. Are we doing all we can to keep the human project alive?

If life is worth living, the threat of mass extinction human civilization has brought upon so many life-forms (not least our own) is a mass abomination. Kim Stanley Robinson's "utopian hope [is] "to dodge a mass extinction event" and (like Wendell Berry, remember him?) reinvigorate our love for this place, this planet where we must make our stand. Maybe it's not yet too late to learn that living "at adequacy" is healthier, happier, and more sustainable than the perpetual pursuit of endless growth. That's worth staying and trying for. Just maybe.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Joe Bien

LISTEN. Kharis finally got to deliver his Existentialism report in CoPhi yesterday. It was worth waiting for. He's a native French speaker, and what I liked most about his presentation was the way he rendered the pronunciation of "Sartre": just like my old Existentialism professor and department chair at Mizzou, Joe Bien

Professor Bien earned his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris and sounded authentic, at least to my untutored midwestern ear. I thought he looked like Clark Kent. 

He retired in 2015. I was sorry to learn just this past weekend of his death in August. "He loved opera, classical music, collecting movies and records. He served as the Course Director of the International Society of Philosophy of Dubrovnik, Croatia." I didn't know that.

He used to chain-smoke unfiltered Pall-Malls in class while expatiating breathily on bad faith and being and nothingness and nausea et al. The fact that he made it to his mid-80s is about as surprising to me as the fact that Keith Richards* is still rocking. He had a wry sense of humor and an inviting manner. He's one of the teachers who made me want to study philosophy. 

I was lucky to have had several of those as an undergrad, including Don Sievert (who chugged away on a cigar and quoted Woody Allen while explaining the arcana of Locke and Hume) and Alex von Schoenborn (who spoke cryptically of Husserl and Heidegger and Reinhold?) and Peter Markie, almost as young as we were. There wasn't a pragmatist in the bunch, but they got me more than ready for Willy James.

My Huntsville professor pal was a peer back then, seeing him at the TPA over the weekend is probably why I'm recovering these nostalgic memories this morning. We were speaking in class yesterday about some of the happier things about growing older. Fond memories of special people are at the top of that list.


*I see Keith trending this afternoon on Twitter, but it’s another false alarm…

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Some 'isms worth keeping

 T.S. Eliot was weird, April is not the cruellest month. November is a far better candidate, except for its association with the spirit of gratitude. 

I'm a lot more grateful for it, now that we've started hosting our own modest Thanksgiving repast and inviting only those family members we're sure won't offer prayerful thanks for "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" (but I do like some of his nicknames).

I'm grateful too that the MLB season now spills into November. Go Phils!

And I'm grateful that the TPA event, in the past usually held the first weekend in November, was back this year on the loveliest of late October weekends. The Vandy campus was gorgeous, the sessions were good, conversation with old friends was gratifying. 

As for the upshot of my own session on secularity/'ism, I come away with a desire to dive deeper into Charles Taylor's Secular Age and the Oxford Handbook thereof; and with a strengthened conviction that the best way to avoid absolutism and dogmatism is by courting and claiming all the better 'isms, not fixating on just one or jettisoning them all. 

The worst snares of ideological rigidity and intolerance are not, I say, an automatic feature of belief in the immanence of our experience in the pervasively (ubiquitously, globally) natural world.  That experience is, as WJ said, "self-containing and leans on nothing." That in brief is the essence of humanism, and it's anything but dogmatic or absolutist or destructive of humane values and purposes.

Thus, I still agree with Barack Obama (as quoted on p.137 of Copson's Very Short Intro) that it's fine to defend our religious and irreligious beliefs in the public square but it's not acceptable to  invoke them coercively and illiberally. We must translate them into a more universal language, we must hash them out on the state side of the wall of separation. 

So for me, I'm still a proud secularist, humanist, pluralist, pragmatist, natural transcendentalist, and anti-absolutist/dogmatist. I'm not giving up my favored 'isms until I can find a grammatical way of dispensing with them without clouding my philosophical commitments and humanistic identity beyond accurate conveyance. 

Still, they're just labels. A rose is a rose, after all.

Speaking of Shakespeare, in CoPhi we'll officially close Why Grow Up with a message that often gets missed: growing up and growing older does not have to be a steady and inexorable downhill plummet. The Bard was not saying, in As You Like It, that Life sucks, then you die. You'll slow down and smell the roses, if you do it right. You don't have to end up infirm and grumpy. If you do end up infirm, cheer up. Life is still terminal for us all, but as the great Yogi said: it ain't over yet, while you've still got some marbles to play with.

In Environmental Ethics we turn to Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future. It's a work of cli-fi, and may not be a brilliant piece of literature. [More cli-fi... and more... A Weird Wonderful Conversation w/KSR & Ezra Klein includes a very Wendell Berry-esque moment when KSR acknowledges the power of place... In another conversation, KSR says he no longer thinks our destiny is the stars but in 10,000 years it could be a terraformed Mars...]

That's the opinion my pal from Huntsville expressed this weekend, while conceding that it's nonetheless full of great ideas; I'm reserving literary judgment. But KSR is indeed a fount of great and hopeful ideas, and he's really good at taking the long view. With Election '22 just ahead, I think we're all gonna want to remember to do that. It ain't over yet.

So, let's retrieve some more worthy 'isms from absolutist/dogmatist misappropriation: Survivalism (Avasthana in Sanskrit, KSR advises). Longtermism (see  What We Owe the Future). And then, especially, Eudaimonism. The promise of effective action in the face of climate change now is nothing less than the prospect of a perpetually flourishing humanity far into the future. 

But in light of a pair of this morning's ominous headlines-- The Pandemic Generation Goes to College. It Has Not Been Easy and What Do America’s Middle Schools Teach About Climate Change? Not Much--  we're going to have to do a much better job of instilling that vision in the generation now coming up. 

Monday, October 31, 2022

Legacy door

(Extended version...)

LISTEN. Not only wouldn't He get tenure, He'd not even get hired. Or pass his oral exam, or even prelims probably. The Ph.D. Octopus wouldn't allow it. (And in fairness He would have a lot of explaining to do.)

So glad JL was in my corner when I wrestled the octopus

Friday, October 28, 2022

While we're here

LISTEN. If a secularist criticizes secular discourse, must we then distinguish secular(ity) from secularism?

I'd have thought it might be more to the point simply to question and critique the particular instances of discourse that prompted the criticism. But maybe that's as pedantic as the seeming scholasticism it aims to skirt. Philosophers love to draw distinctions in any event, so let's let a hundred distinctions bloom. 

The political philosopher William Connolly rejects what he sees as the stridency of Bertrand Russell's atheism, and announces his rejection in Why I Am Not a Secularist. Perhaps he should have announced instead that he's not a Russellian secularist. But a rose is still a rose, etc.

I've indicated my concerns about denying secular spirituality and transcendence. Here I want mostly to indicate points of assent with Bill Meyer's analysis, which I think generally coheres with my own sense that pragmatists in the tradition of William James, John Dewey, and perhaps Richard Rorty can simultaneously stump for their own preferred visions of the secular/spiritual while also making space on the pragmatist corridor for other visions.

I do have to say, though,  that I don't see a lot of daylight between Bill's initial characterization of the difference between "secular" and "secularism," except (as I've explained) for the repudiation of "any form of transcendence." To find the ground of existence wholly within the world seems to me a sensible secular view, with or without an 'ist attached.

...“secular” (and its cognate secularity) is defined by two main characteristics: (i) an affirmation of life in the world, and (ii) a modern commitment to using reason and common experience rather than appeals to authority as the basis for validating claims within public discourse. In contrast, the term secularism (and its cognate secularistic) denotes a specific type of substantive worldview, namely one that affirms the meaning of existence as being wholly immanent within the world. Secularism denies any metaphysical form of transcendence, including any form of theism. The ground of existence, it insists, lies wholly within the world itself.

Perhaps my failure to detect a significant difference attests to my own form of affirmation. Life in the world, guided by reason and common experience, is the very immanence of what William James called "the earth of things" I seek and value most. I do not "deny theism" for others, I simply reject it for myself. I do not deny metaphysical transcendence, but for myself I affirm naturalized transcendence. My friends across the corridor affirm differently. I accept that. We'll all still roam the same corridor, we'll discuss our differences, we'll agree to disagree. We may even agree that we're each right to affirm what we respectively and differently affirm. 

Has modern secular discourse tilted too far towards reason, to the neglect of "the visceral register" of religious forms of experience (among others)?  Might "An Ethos of Engagement" right the balance and "foster a generous pluralism"? That all sounds fine. "Existential yoga" sounds a little less familiar, though  "stretching and reimagining [ourselves]" can't hurt. But I for one am unprepared to stretch in the direction of pathological liars, election deniers, and fascists. That's the world some of us are trying hard not to live in right now, the "post-fact, post-truth world of the 21st century." I agree with Bill, "what is needed is a broader rational tent, not a retreat from reason to the realm of the visceral..." 

Returning to the theme of transcendence, I appreciate Connolly's "Deweyan-like" openness to novelty and everyday experience (etc.); but Dewey himself would not agree that this is un-metaphysical in a worrisome way. His "continuous human community" [U@dis "an evolving all-inclusive whole" that approximates a reconstructed conception of the divine as it closes the gap between the actual and the ideal. The "passing ephemeral experience of value" is our locus of continuity with the doings and sufferings of that vast human community. It is not a small or trivial thing.

Should it concern us to imagine that the universe as a whole lacks meaning and value? Why should it, if we ourselves are generators of meaning and value? That's a big question. But though it's a big universe, we're continuous with it. If we possess meaning and value, it does too.

Should it bother us, that our "forms of agency and value" are radically immanent and thus will leave "no lasting trace"? Freud was not the only one to greet such complaints by imploring us to "grow up and face the indifferent universe..." Kant did too, to name another. That's the meaning of enlightenment, after all, to take courage and throw off our self-incurred immaturity.  

Charles Hartshorne wondered what it matters that we're definitely here now, "if the universe has no way to retain the definiteness?" That's a strange question. I prefer to turn it around. What does it matter that the universe may not contain our definiteness, if we're definitely here now?

In billions of years we almost certainly will all have long since been "melted down and washed away," but Bertrand Russell was surely right:

Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out—at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation—it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. --"Why I Am Not a Christian"

And Annie Hall's Dr. Flicker was right too, when he told young Alvy Singer that the universe "won't be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we've gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we're here."

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Secular, spiritual, AND transcendent

Anticipating the TPA this weekend, I went walking with an old BBC podcast episode from the Free Thinking program called Culture Wars: Secularism vs. Religion. Parts were illuminating and entertaining, notwithstanding the annoying habit of British intellectuals of talking rudely over each other and making it difficult for listeners who want to be edified by spirited dialogue to hear all of what was actually said. Do they teach that at Eton and Oxford? Seems like the radio presenter/moderators would know better. What's the point of an audio conversation that can't actually be adequately audited?

The lone American in the conversation, Dan Dennett, more than held his own. I share his view that commitment to secularism in a pluralistic democracy entails robust public dialogue but does not allow any "trump cards" to end or resolve discussion. Faith cards don't take the hand. Neither do No Faith cards. Matters of state and of public policy, though not of public dialogue, are rightly walled and separated from private and personal convictions. All can speak their views, none can properly impose or insist on them in a coercive way. President Obama was making this point when he said "the religiously motivated must translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. Their proposals must be subject to argument and reason, and should not be accorded any undue automatic respect." (Copson, 87) Same goes in reverse, of course. The irreligiously motivated must also translate their concerns.

Dennett affirms the non-oxymoronic reality of secular spirituality...

"People make a mistake in thinking that spirituality [necessarily] 
has anything to do with religion, immateriality, or the supernatural."

Bill Meyer, the author of the paper I'll be commenting on Saturday morning, evidently does not.
[T]o affirm the secular is to affirm the value of life in the world and to affirm a public discourse rooted in reason and experience rather than authority...[T]he term secularism (and its cognate secularistic) denotes a specific type of substantive worldview, namely one that affirms the meaning of existence as being wholly immanent within the world. Just as all 'isms tend to absolutize what they affirm, so too secularism absolutizes the secular’s affirmation of the value of life in the world into a full-blown philosophical absolute—one that posits that life in the world is its own ground of meaning and value. Differently stated, secularism denies any form of transcendence, including any form of theism; the ground of existence, it insists, lies wholly within the world itself. Consequently, secularism likewise has no place in public discourse for any theistic or metaphysical claims—as if the ground of existence could be anything other than the given world itself. As William Connolly puts it, “secularism strains metaphysics out of politics” (see, for example, Richard Rorty’s essay: “Religion as Conversation-stopper”). So, secularism seeks to affirm the value of life in the world by attempting to make life in the world its own basis and ground. By denying any notion of transcendence, one is inclined to say that secularism assumes that all existence is contingent—that there neither is nor can be any form of necessary existence.

That's from Meyer's TPA presentation last year, to which the session at hand will stand as sequel. The bold emphasis is mine, because I wish to challenge the claims that all 'isms necessarily "absolutize" and that secularism necessarily renounces transcendence. 

Transcendence is a slippery term. Like James's tree-hugging squirrel, it eludes us until we pin it with a working definition. Mine begins with Peter Ackroyd's clever line in The Plato Papers: "transcendence or trans-end-dance: the ability to move beyond the end, otherwise called the dance of death." There's nothing more natural in the world than death, and nothing more restorative of life than the ability to come to terms with it.

My William James's "Springs of Delight": The Return to Life (VU Press, 2001) explicitly affirms the reality of a kind of naturalized transcendence that is available to the secular, pragmatic, naturalistic, and/or humanistic sensibility, and that enables the owners of such sensibilities to come to amicable terms with their mortality.

Transcendence may seem to be about God, or it may be sacredly secular and humanistic. Secular, humanistic, and sacred? Those who find "secular humanism" intrinsically profane will not grasp, as James did, the possibility of this triple yoking. Dewey also affirmed this possibility, as do many liberals, Unitarian Universalists, and other "progressive" minorities in our time. Habit and convention, not empirical perspicacity, decree that public-spirited and earth-centered secularists must disavow a spiritual life.

Transcendence may be cosmic or quotidian, reserved or refined, proselytizing or private. It may suggest supernaturalism, but it need not; indeed, one of my aims here is to strengthen the claims that, for a Jamesian, transcendence need not imply the supernatural and that strictly speaking, and in the spirit of James, it need not involve the transcendence of nature.

Transcendence may be strictly transient, momentary, and isolated, an experience discontinuous in each instance of its occurrence with the larger rhythms, patterns, and meanings of the lives it graces. Alternatively, it can compose the largest meaning in one's life, the pattern of a lifetime.

Transcendence may be a fruition, an experience of conclusion--"consummatory," in John Dewey's language--or it may be less punctuated and more persistently enduring. Dewey himself wrote a great deal about consummatory transcendence, but the latter sort, transcendence of a more stolid and stoical kind, suggests the consistent pattern and meaning of Dewey's long life's work (perhaps more than that of any other American philosopher). His gravestone paean to "the continuous human community in which we are a link" summarizes that pattern and meaning with simple but powerful eloquence.

Transcendence might strike like a bolt from the blue or be more like the almost imperceptibly accretive sands on a beach. It may be an event in life, small or staggering. It may be a dispositional attitude toward life that raises one's sea-level of happiness and the quality of experience in general, attuning the sensibilities to notice and appreciate a transcendent dimension of events that more somber natures miss. Or it may be the pessimist's prayer of salvation, his escape from an immanent existence he finds all too oppressively real.


And I could go on. I did go on. (One of my faculty committee advisors, the wonderful John J. Compton,  said I went on too long. He was the very epitome of my Platonic Idea of what a university professor should be. He was probably right.)  

But the point is that at least one variety of pragmatic pluralism is also an embrace of a non-exclusionary, non-absolutist variety of secularism. It's the sort of view James indicated with his metaphor of the pragmatic corridor:

Against rationalism as a pretension and a method, pragmatism is fully armed and militant. But, at the outset, at least, it stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees Praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body's properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown.

But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.

No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, 'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts. Pragmatism, lecture 2

As for Rorty's conversation-stopping metaphysical strainer: yes, Rorty also has a room on the corridor. Maybe even a suite. But it's a long corridor, and we all must share it. Absolutists are among us, but they're clearly the worst tenants. And after reading and discussing his Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism in the Atheism class last winter, I'm persuaded that Rorty was not himself an absolutist with respect to secularity/'ism. Nor are most secular academics. We're far more likely to encounter absolutists among some of our students and (especially) their parents.

[W]e do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank…The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people—black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children's throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like 'There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making steadily more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. You have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.'

Is that absolutism? Or is it simply an acknowledgement that no sane polity can sustain itself when it turns a blind eye to the intolerant racists (etc.) in its midst. Yes, they'll speak their piece in the public square and in the corridor. If we value a free and open society, we'll answer them vigorously. 

The corridor is here. It contains chambers whose occupants look to the heavens for transcendence, but just across the hall we find secular sinners and saints. Nature is global. In fact it's cosmic. Transcendent spirituality of every sort, including but not limited to the supernatural, is a natural expression of human aspiration.

We'll talk about it in the 2d floor corridor of Furman Hall (and room 217, at 10) Saturday morning. Like a good pragmatist, I am indeed looking forward.