Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rousseau's other dog

A Great Dane gave Rousseau a rare moment of selfless "wonderful calm." Then he died.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A positive thought about J-JR

Podcast. It's a rare summer's afternoon when I find myself in my office at school, behind my desk, simulating work. (I don't teach summer school, my home is nearly an hour from campus.) Today I'm here, though, running errands, waiting for the IT people to finish updating my old laptop, and playing with my new office desktop. So here's a small inaugural post from a new machine.

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I've been trying to find positive things to say about J-J Rousseau, beyond appreciating and plotting to swipe the structural layout of his walking "reveries." I found something, in this short notice of the 2011 edition: he inspired Wordsworth's Prelude.
When Rousseau died in July 1778, the unfinished manuscript of Reveries was discovered along with the 27 playing cards on which Rousseau had jotted down his thoughts while walking. He had been working on the 10 "Walks" that comprise Reveries until three months before he died. "I am devoting my last days to studying myself," he wrote. The result is remarkable, the work of a man who felt himself rejected by society and who turned in on himself. His random walks spark brilliant "flights of thought" on life, nature and the falsity of society. Although not intended for publication, Reveries has been hugely influential, as Russell Goulbourne's excellent introduction to his new translation makes clear. The Reveries inspired Wordsworth's ambulatory poem The Prelude and Baudelaire considered naming a collection of poems about Paris The Solitary Walker. Rousseau's walks are not urban, but there are also clear parallels with the Parisian flâneurs and the dérive of the Situationists. A powerful meditation on the quest for self-understanding.
The dogs and I ambled through our neighborhood version of the Sandwalk this morning, over on the grounds of the nearby Baptist Church that we almost always have exclusively to ourselves. This time, though, we encountered something I'll bet Mr. Darwin and Bob never did: screeching Vacation Bible Schoolers, and firefighters on break. A good reminder that solitary walking always happens against a social backdrop, whether we're explicitly aware of that during the walk or not. Today we were definitely aware.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Podcast. Still trying to appreciate Rousseau's reveries, I was slightly diverted from my intended path this morning when the Almanac reminded me of Huxley and pointed me back to Darwin's Sandwalk.

I love this sequence in Jay Hosler's Sandwalk Adventures, with its graphic rendering of what's appealing but misleading in the familiar notion of an evolutionary parade. Every step of a walk entails literal forward progress, and it's hard not to transpose that into "a nice, neat progressive march" of natural history. But we must resist the impulse to impute directed progress where the evidence is only for adaptive change.

However, just four pages later we find Darwin declaring  that "passing ideas onto a new generation can be just as important as passing along some physical adaptation." Why is that, if not because we think ideas make a difference in that corner of nature where the parade of human history unfolds? And why wouldn't we call the difference ideas make progress

And so Hosler's strange and wonderful tale concludes with Darwin musing about his legacy, hoping someone might succeed him with a better idea of how natural selection works with heredity. "I've spent a lot of time on this Sandwalk trying to answer [that] question..."

And lo, it did fall to subsequent generations to discover the double helix, and propose memetics, and perpetuate Darwin's legacy. "Who knows? Maybe we already have the answer and don't recognize it for what it is." Maybe we just need to have a little faith in progress.

And maybe someone needs to write a graphic novel about Rousseau.
Search for "progress" in William James's "Springs of Delight"...
Up@dawn the podcast is now on iTunes.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Rousseau's paranoia

Podcast. Before the plug was so abruptly pulled on this morning's dawn post, I was saying Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "reveries" were too solitary, his humanity too self-centered. His "first walk" begins with a blast of paranoia.
Behold me, then, as  if alone upon the earth, having neither brother, relative, friend, or society, but my  own thoughts; the most social and affectionate of men, proscribed, as it were, by unanimous consent.
Of course it's true that, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't follow that everyone might not be plotting against you. But Rousseau really seems to have had serious difficulty latching and hanging onto interpersonal and social reality. He did make some real enemies, as you might have guessed, and David Hume tried to offer sanctuary and friendship. It didn't last. (See Rousseau's Dog.)

I'm always surprised and disappointed by dog-lovers who abuse humans. Rousseau was one of those. And he was a walker, so I'm doubly disappointed in him. But I must come to terms with him, he wrote that book about solitary walkers.

I think "solitary" is key: Rousseau may have walked in company with a canine, but he did not expand his mental universe sufficiently to include or empathize with others of his own kind. He stands as clear evidence that walking as such does not necessarily improve a person's capacity for humility, fellow-feeling, or even baseline sanity.

Another key: in this translation he's the solitary walker. The gifted edition from my old friend JM, years ago, called him a solitary walker. Or at least I'm pretty sure that's true, and the presumption of ego in that deceptively small grammatical shift might be telling.

(More on this to come...)
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Friday, June 26, 2015

A pleasing confidence

Podcast. One of the wisest things young William James ever said, before age thirty and not long after hurdling the crisis of confidence that had him "about touch[ing] bottom" in his diary and contemplating suicide:
It is a pleasing confidence that... by working our stint day by day on the one line we have chosen, without looking ahead or thinking much of the final result, we are sure of waking some fine morning, experts in our particular branch, with a tact, so to speak for truth therein: a judgment, and ideas and intuitions of our own - all there without our knowing exactly how they came. (April 8, 1871, cited in Robert Richardson's bio)
Put in the hours and days, and the years and career will take care of themselves. Lay down the right habits of work and routine, and eventually you may expect to soar like those skimming Amazon gulls. Or at least you'll figure a few things out, maybe even publish a book or a few. As Annie Dillard said (and as Maria Popova never tires of repeating), how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. A step at a time.

Notice, James didn't claim to know this. It's a "pleasing confidence," an article of faith, a repository of hope, a bootstrap to pull up on. It worked for him.

Where was James's Thinking Place? In Cambridge, MA, there was Emerson Hall where he taught his classes.

There was his longtime home at 95 Irving St.

And there was the half-mile between them that he trod daily.

His favorite Thinking Place was surely in Chocorua, N.H., to which he escaped when classes ended each summer, and where he sat on a wall and chided his Cambridge colleague, metaphysical rival, and neighbor Josiah Royce. "Damn the Absolute!" (I sat on that wall myself, in 2010.)
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And his favorite spot in Chocorua had to be the mountain across the road. 

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Followed him there, too, a step at a time. Confidence rewarded.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thinking Places

Podcast. Digital dependency sneaks up on you, as it did me this morning.

Cable system and wifi down, I considered not even going to my Thinking Place - the back porch of my Little House across the yard - worried I'd possibly not be able to come up with any words at all if I couldn't immediately transmit them via QWERTY. Then I remembered that I could go ahead and do a dawn podcast on my phone (could do a blog post that way too, of course, but I hate thumb-typing); and only then did it occur to me to begin the day with pen and notebook.

That's not as bad as maybe it sounds, my recently-adopted new routine of heading straight to the keyboard each day was by deliberate design. I'm not giving that up, it gets me going a little quicker and lets me tap into my drowsy subconscious before the caffeine kicks in. I choose to depend on the digits I type with, and probably would even if I were still pounding the Smith-Corona.

But, and it's a big but...

It's imperative not to lose the older habit of reaching reflexively and repeatedly throughout the day for the trusty Moleskine. Make new friends, keep the old. Silver and gold. Open chromebook and notebook simultaneously.

Digital dependency won't be a problem-addiction for me, so long as that notebook continues to feel like a reliable friend and not a last-ditch alternative, in an emergency, to failed electronic media. And it will continue to feel that way so long as I keep scribbling, at all hours.

That doesn't settle the issue, many of us are still feeling our way for a healthy balance between old ways and new. I know, for instance, that I simply have to resist the daily seductions of social media at least until I've composed something new each morning and then thought about it while pacing and pedaling. I know I must not check email until I've done that and come up with my next line of reflection.

And I know I must then put my butt in the chair and leave it there, with periodic mini-breaks on the hour to relieve the sore arthritic numbness I'm determined to call an annoyance and not a "pain" (if you call it a pain, they'll ask you to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 and I just don't know how to do that).

While in the chair, I also know I need to pour more words into the keyboard or Moleskine than I pull from the screen or page. Up to a point, at least. Later in the afternoon and evening I can and should give myself over to reading. An issue closely related to digital dependency is the decline of reading for pleasure and guidance, as opposed to the social "reading" people do to report and monitor "status" and "likes" etc.

Consistently connecting the knowing to the doing, though, is always the challenge. How to do it? I don't know any shortcuts, just gotta keep plugging. There's only one way to get to Carnegie Hall.

Well, I did make it to my Thinking Place this morning, pulled out the Moleskine, wrote some notes, uploaded a podcast, and remembered how good it feels to be at least modestly self-reliant in the processing of words and sentences.

It's not my back porch so much as the aura and mental associations I've created around it, I think, that makes my Thinking Place a good place for me to begin thinking each morning. But it's not anchored, it's mobile. It walks and rides with me, that aura. It relates the porch to all the places I go, somehow. I am not dependent on the porch as such. It moves.

And so, we arrive at the zen of all this: the best Thinking Places are one with the universe.
Classrooms are supposed to be Thinking Places too. Maybe that's why I was so put-off by the décor of my classroom in Forrest Hall, with its militant orders and slogans. "Follow Me," etc.


I had to contradict that. In Philosophy you DON'T have to follow me, you don't HAVE TO follow anybody.

But of course, Brian ("You're all individuals, you're all different") Cohen was not ROTC.

Good news: we're "revisiting" the name of that building.
University officials said it dedicated the ROTC building as Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall in 1958 because of Forrest's military record with the Confederate Army and his Middle Tennessee ties. The Confederate cavalry leader was known for his tactical battlefield skills and for leading a successful 1862 raid that captured more than 1,000 Union troops and freed local residents in Murfreesboro. He also reportedly served as the first grand wizard for the Ku Klux Klan after the war...Phil Oliver, a 12-year philosophy professor at MTSU, said it's past time to rename the building for someone who isn't a "symbol of racism.
"I'm embarrassed every time I teach there," Oliver said.
And pass by. Or even just think of it. Dropping bad symbols doesn't solve racism but it's not (contrary to the opinion of a "Smyrna resident") a mere "laughing matter" either. If we're ruthlessly enforcing high standards of humanity, that name's got to go.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Faces of Existence

Podcast. Added a late post-podcast insertion to this morning's post on Bierce and epiphenomenalism:
The word "epiphenomenon" is missing from Bierce's dictionary, but its flavor is there.
EFFECT, n. The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other—which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in the pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of a dog.
The post hoc fallacy does not necessarily lead to epiphenomenalism and the impotence of consciousness, but the latter inclines us to commit a reverse fallacy: detecting no cause where there might in fact be one.

That's what I was thinking about during this morning's walk-and-ride, when I looked up and found myself spinning down old grad school prof John Post's street and revisiting happy memories from many years past. He was the first Vandy prof I met after moving to Tennessee, at the very home I pedaled past this morning. He gave me my first book citation* and over-generous credit for pointing some small thing out to him, I forget what. (I'll look it up when I get back to the office.) It was from him that I first heard the phrase "distinction without a difference," which I've had innumerable occasions to use when describing the verbose public behavior of my fellow philosophers ever since.

Post was no epiphenomenalist, though he was a materialist (he preferred "non-reductive physicalist") and an exceptionally kind man who had an undeniable material effect on my own philosophical pilgrim's progress. Might even say he impacted my consciousness, gave me cause to reconsider some of my beliefs, and led me to act differently than I might otherwise have done... thus effectively and practically refuting epiphenomenalism.

The *book in question is The Faces of Existence: An Essay in Nonreductive Metaphysics. Again, it's at the office (and not on Google Books) so I can't offer a quote from John. But I'm happy to pass along this slightly-hyperbolic reader review, the reader being "Schopenhauer," no less!
John Post's THE FACES OF EXISTENCE (1986) is not among the most widely read or commented upon books in philosophy. This is due to a deficiency in the philosophical profession, not to a deficiency in Post's book, which may well be one of the two or three best books published in the second half of the 20th century... John Post may well be one of the last genuine philosophers.
You're too pessimistic, "Schopenhauer." But Post's definitely a good guy, and I'm delighted to be in his book. Whenever I think of it, and him, I'm reminded to resist the reductive aspirations of my more ideological peers. And I'm reminded that philosophy is supposed to make a difference.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Shoeless Georg

Of course Hegel walked. "If he were walking with one, he would stop every moment, speak, gesticulate, or let ring out a hearty laugh."
Hegel was charmed with the beauty of nature about Heidelberg. He writes home that his wife, when she joins him, will then first know what walks can be. Hegel lived at almost the outskirts of the town. He was often* seen at his windows, looking out, in Socratic meditation, toward the forest stretches and the haze-softened hills beyond...
We are told that, during the summer of 18 17, he was often so lost in thought that he was quite oblivious to outer happenings. Once, it is said, he was walking to  the university building over a miry piece of ground. One shoe remained sticking in the mud. Hegel went on his way without noticing the loss.
One more difference between Hegel & me. I'd notice.

But like Georg, I also loved my old Heidelberg; and like him I believe "a freer relation to the outer world is attained by man through his power of  walking. By this he does away with the limitations of space, finding the place he  wants." Shod or not.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Darwin's dog Bob
Didn't have to look far, to find an answer (implicitly at least) to the modest query in this morning's dawn post: did Darwin walk with dogs, on his daily Sandwalks? According to Darwin's Dogs by Emma Townshend, "dogs were the animals Darwin observed the most closely and for the longest." He may never have spent a day absent their company, except possibly during his Beagle expedition. There were Shelah, Spark, Czar, Sappho, Dash, Pincher, Nina, Bran, Quiz, Tartar, Pepper, Butterton, Tony, Polly... and the big black and white retriever called Bob, a beloved member of the household in the 1860s.
"When Darwin left the house by the lawn door, Bob always believed they were both heading off down the garden for the morning's constitutional. He was excited."
I too am very familiar with the face of canine ambulatory-anticipatory excitement, and with the "hothouse" face of dejection. I have no doubt, Bob was a daily Sandwalker too. He helped his friend think, and like my dogs helped him not overthink.

Also like my dogs, Bob (front and center in this rare photo of the Darwin clan c.1863, sans Charles) knew how to chill between walks. Gotta conserve that second wind.


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