Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Edison

The almanac celebrates Thomas Edison today, and his indefatigable perseverence.
When asked how he persisted despite 10,000 failures, Edison reportedly answered; "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work."
He was a Popperian falsificationist before his time. 

And a freethinker, as Jennifer Hecht has documented in Doubt: A History and here:
In 1910 Thomas Edison was asked by the New York Times if he thought it possible to communicate with the dead. “No,” he responded, “all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life—our desire to go on living—our dread of coming to an end as individuals. I do not dread it though. Personally, I cannot see any use of a future life.”

A public figure in 1910, she notes, could still speak in public of a "rationalist, naturalist understanding of humanity and the universe." When's the last time you heard someone of Edison's stature (but who would that be, now?) say anything like this? 

Hecht blames the Cold War and its aftermath. That's a big part of it. So is the stultifying tendency of tradition, almost every tradition, to discourage intellectual honesty. But the tradition of doubt itself stands as a shining exception. You should read the book, it's good.

And read her latest, a heroic response to the epidemic of suicide called Stay. It too is a testament to perseverence.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Peripatetic words and wisdom

I've jotted so many walking quotes in so many notebooks for so long, the next step clearly is to gather them. Or to begin, at least. 

"Solvitur Ambulando. It is solved by walking." Diogenes

"My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it." Montaigne

“If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Charles Dickens

“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.”  John Muir

“It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.” Anatole France

“I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Kierkegaard

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Nietzsche

“Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away. You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.” Annie Dillard

On average, the total walking of an American these days - that's walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls - adds up to 1.4 miles a week...That's ridiculous.” Bill Bryson
==
"Walking articulates both physical and mental freedom... Home is everything you can walk to." 

“Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors...disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it..."

"Walking articulates both physical and mental freedom..."

“Home is everything you can walk to...

"When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”

“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society, and doing nothing is hard to do. It's best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”  

"I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.” Rebecca Solnit
==
"Modern literary theory sees a similarity between walking and writing that I find persuasive: words inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space... writing is one way of making the world our own, and that walking is another.” 

"Walking isn't much good as a theoretical experience. You can dress it up any way you like, but walking remains resolutely simple, basic, analog. That's why I love it and love doing it." Geoff Nicholson

(to be continued)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

John J. Compton, "searcher after truth"

What a delight, the gathering at Vanderbilt yesterday of some of John J. Compton's old students and colleagues to honor the memory of the man one of us named "the most admirable person I've ever known." All recalled his generosity, kindness, optimism, exuberant high spirits, unflagging support, frequent smile and peeling punctuating laughter.

He was for many of us a role-model, professionally and temperamentally. He wrestled with the legacy of his famous Nobel laureate father Arthur Compton [papers... Wiki], a key participant in the Manhattan Project. He was unusually sensitive to moral complexity, a philosopher genuinely committed to asking all the hard questions and to really hearing discordant answers. As one colleague from Psychology put it, he defied the stereotype of philosophers who like argument merely for its own sake alone: he was an "illuminating" interlocutor, a searcher after truth.

My old mentor and John's colleague John Lachs was among those in attendance. He gave me an inscribed copy of his new book, a perfect reminder of just how grateful I and generations of Vandy philosophy students should be, for our generous allotment of search guides.




Tuesday, September 30, 2014

God, Darwin and My Philosophy Class

I don't take quite the same tack in my Philosophy classes as David Barash takes in his Biology, but he's right that Design has been discredited. And yet, Paley's Watch keeps on ticking. It just won't go away.
"As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.
The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon..."
God, Darwin and My College Biology Class - NYTimes.com

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why We Walk

no one reason, but...
Walking is the Western form of meditation: “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.” There’s a reason... that a dominant school of philosophy in the ancient world, revived in the medieval, was called the “peripatetic.” In Raphael’s great fresco of assembled ancient philosophers, conventionally called “The School of Athens,” Plato and Aristotle are shown upright and in movement, peripatetic even when fixed in place by paint, advancing toward the other philosophers rather than enthroned above them. Movement and mind are linked in Western thought. The Cynic philosophers of antiquity, in contrast, were often merely “circumambulant”—walking around and around the same few blocks in order to annoy other people..." 'Why We Walk

Toast! (And the climate crisis)

One good comic deserves another...

Frazz

and another.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

Walking to work

I usually begin my school day, the moment I step out of the car after my daily driving commute down I-24, with a stroll around campus. Like D.B. Johnson's Henry, I prefer walking to work.


Unlike Henry, I'm not usually hyper-observant of detail during my morning ramble. I tend to be focused on whatever subject awaits classroom discussion, or unfocused and wool-gathering.

But yesterday, for whatever reason (or none), I found myself attending closely to the words at my feet in front of the Student Union. Decade by decade, they record chiseled highlights of the history of our university. I didn't slow long enough to take them all in, but I've decided from now on I'll register a bit more of them each day. Eventually I'll ingest it all, and I'll be just a bit smarter about the institution that butters my bread.

You never step in the same river twice, and there's no reason why you have to cross the same campus twice either. Attention is its own reward: behold, our esteemed president's John Hancock etched in stone. "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" And smile, Ozymandias.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

This I Believe


I'm a big fan of This I Believe, in all its incarnations going back to Edward R. Murrow in '51 and up to its most recent run on NPR. Jay Allison, the radio journalist who brought it to NPR as host, curator, and book editor, is this afternoon's convocation speaker at my school. Incoming freshmen were to read the first of Allison's book installments gathering some of those short broadcast essays through the years, from the famous and the obscure alike.

A colleague announced yesterday, during our perspirant cross-campus stroll to theannual Fall Faculty gathering in Tucker Auditorium, that he despises the franchise, and turns off the radio whenever TIB comes on. Same for Story Corps, which I also adore.

I was initially shocked, but on reflection not so surprised. Our sensibilities are radically different. I go for earnest expressions of secular spirituality and humanity. Suffice to say, he doesn't. "This I Believe invites citizens to share beliefs." Maybe he thinks we get more than enough of that in our classrooms. I think we need to work harder at understanding the minds and hearts of our classmates and neighbors and especially our antagonists.
"As in the 1950s, this is a time when belief is dividing the nation and the world," says Allison about life today. "We are not listening well, not understanding each other -- we are simply disagreeing, or worse. Working in broadcast communication, there's a responsibility to change that, to cross borders, to encourage some empathy. That possibility is what inspires me about this series."
In reviving This I Believe, Allison and [his TIB partner Dan] Gediman say their goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, they hope to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.
For my part, it's not "respect for beliefs" so much as respect for other persons and recognition of the humanity of those who hold beliefs different from my own, that makes TIB so valuable.

I've believed many things at different times, and have even posted some of them for the TIB archive. I believe the exercise of summarizing and sharing core convictions is a life-affirming act.

One more thing: I believe my colleague should submit a TIB essay explaining why he dislikes TIB. Then he should turn his radio back on.

Monday, August 18, 2014

James, Wells, and pragmatic seduction

William James scandalized his brother Henry during a visit with the latter in England, by mounting  a ladder and peering into the garden next door in hopes of spotting G.K. Chesterton. The story is well-known among Jamesians, but David Lodge's fictionalized version in A Man of Parts adds a delightful layer of (presumably) invented but entirely plausible detail, bringing H.G. Wells and his young mistress (whose favorite philosopher was F.C.S. Schiller) into the scene.



A few pages earlier we're treated to Wells' seductive explication of Pragmatism.



I've related roughly the same account many times, to many young people, but without Wells' results.  Or intentions.

Happiness

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