Monday, August 28, 2017

"The True American"

This year America celebrates the bicentennial birthday of Henry David Thoreau with many excellent publications about his life, legacy, and love of the natural world. Only his fellow citizens are likely to lend an ear to them. Unlike his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau hardly makes it onto the list of notable American authors outside his home country. His peculiar brand of American nativism has little international appeal, for as Emerson wrote in his funeral eulogy of May 9, 1862:

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt.

These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty... 

What he found is that “we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing it.” Paradise exists all around us, in America’s “wildness,” the natural environment of the continent. In the contact between his own body and America’s forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, mountains, and animals, Thoreau discovered what he called “hard matter in its home.” That home was the “hard bottom” or “reality” that we crave. “I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound,” he wrote in his journal. “Daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!… Contact! Contact!

The tactile transcendence of America’s wildness opens its prospects to those who would wake up to it. One need not travel to sublime mountain ranges or remote wilderness areas to access it. It lies before us, in what Thoreau called the day’s dawning. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” Only such expectation brings forth that heightening of the senses that allows America to appear in its dawning ecstasies; and lest we take the notion of dawn too literally, Thoreau declares: “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”  ...NYRB
Henry Thoreau

Monday, August 14, 2017

As if

Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book about "strategic untruth," not to be confused with Harry Frankfurt's (or Donald Drumpf's) "bullshit"...
Idealization is a fundamental feature of human thought. We build simplified models in our scientific research and utopias in our political imaginations. Concepts like belief, desire, reason, and justice are bound up with idealizations and ideals. Life is a constant adjustment between the models we make and the realities we encounter. In idealizing, we proceed “as if” our representations were true, while knowing they are not. This is not a dangerous or distracting occupation, Kwame Anthony Appiah shows. Our best chance of understanding nature, society, and ourselves is to open our minds to a plurality of imperfect depictions that together allow us to manage and interpret our world.
The philosopher Hans Vaihinger first delineated the “as if” impulse at the turn of the twentieth century, drawing on Kant, who argued that rational agency required us to act as if we were free. Appiah extends this strategy to examples across philosophy and the human and natural sciences. In a broad range of activities, we have some notion of the truth yet continue with theories that we recognize are, strictly speaking, false. From this vantage point, Appiah demonstrates that a picture one knows to be unreal can be a vehicle for accessing reality.
As If explores how strategic untruth plays a critical role in far-flung areas of inquiry: decision theory, psychology, natural science, and political philosophy. A polymath who writes with mainstream clarity, Appiah defends the centrality of the imagination not just in the arts but in science, morality, and everyday life. HUP

Eclipse



Thursday, August 10, 2017

Norms & Cliffs

I've been prodded to finalize my plans for the "Cheating" course this Fall, to which I'll contribute a block of two sessions. I already knew I'd call my contribution "Cheating truth," and that we'd read Harry Frankfurt's classic "On Bullshit"... but what else? This, I think:

Norms and Cliffs in Trump's America
...deflecting the discourse into one about norms, when we are really talking about premises and principles, is one more way of, well, normalizing Drumpf’s assault on democratic government. It turns what is really subversion into mere behavior. It’s one form of the frightened levelling-off that Drumpf has intimidated too many pundits and reporters into accepting.
Suddenly, all we hear about is “norms”—norms are here, norms are there, norms are everywhere: norms violated, norms overthrown, norms thrown back in the faces of their normalcy. Not since “Cheers” went off the air, back in the nineties, have we heard so much about Norms. “Cheers”—surely the best television comedy between “The Honeymooners” and “Seinfeld”—featured, you may recall, its own Norm, the saturnine barfly played by George Wendt, a good example of a man whose life consisted of nothing but norms. Putting a beer out for Norm was a norm of the bar: you did it because it was expected, though not written down anywhere. (“Beer? Have I become that predictable?” Norm occasionally asked, in feigned surprise.) An outsider once arrived at the bar and took his stool. “What do you do?” he politely asked an obviously enraged Norm. “Do? I sit there!” was the answer. These were Norm’s norms.

Norms are social conventions; they’re normative because they’re useful, and they’re not codified because they don’t have to be. One might say that every social game in which we participate has three elements: premises, rules, and norms. The premises state the concept; the rules regiment the play; and the norms inflect the action. Life is full of norms. A norm is a barstool reserved for a habituĂ©. A norm is the rule that you tip the bartender when his shift ends even if you are carrying over the tab. In Monopoly, the rules are written down, but it would be a dull game indeed if it were not played with norms that have developed over time—putting fine money on “Free Parking,” say, or getting double one’s salary for landing directly on “Go.” It may be a dull game anyway—as countless families are now remembering, on rainy days in summer cabins—but it would be a lifeless game without evolved and unwritten norms.

Donald Drumpf and his minions have been engaged, we are told, every day, in violations of what are being called norms—the expectation, say, that the President will not engage in an open war with his own Attorney General, or make reckless accusations of illegality on the part of former Presidents. Google “Drumpf” and “norms,” and you find a huge, alarmed journalistic literature, enumerating the norms of political discourse that Drumpf has overturned that week or day—but those same pieces will also, more often than not, point out that, after all, overturning norms is what he was elected to do. When people accuse Drumpf of violating norms, there is a near immediate concession that they are, after all, only norms. One man’s favorite barstool is the next man’s barrier to bar-service entry. Emily Bazelon, writing in the Times Magazine, summed up the problem this way: “Though some of our core democratic values are wrapped up in norms, it’s still easy to ask: If no laws have been broken, what’s the problem?” Bazelon (who, it should be noted, is well aware that these questions are hard ones) observed that it was “natural enough for his supporters to dismiss talk of ‘norms’ as the useless hand-wringing of a worse-than-useless establishment.”

But respecting the rule of law is not a norm. Telling the truth about matters of state—or apologizing when you haven’t been able to tell it—are not “norms.” They are premises. They aren’t enumerated or listed in advance in a legal document, not because they’re merely conventional but because they make all the other conventions possible. They’re not the way we wear our hats; they’re the ground beneath our feet. Call them—well, call them Cliffs, after Norm’s beloved mailman drinking partner, inasmuch as we fall right off the moral mountain to our obliteration without them. We take them for granted because without them there would be no way of standing up at all. We don’t list them not because they are mere manners and conventions but because they are the unstated absolutes that let everything else go on.

Nowhere on the Monopoly box does it say, “It is forbidden for the players to use guns to force a trade.” It doesn’t have to; sitting down to play Monopoly implies that you have already understood that. The Constitution does not say, in its preamble, “it is important to respect laws,” because it assumes that no one would, or could, seek power who did not share that assumption. Standing up to play the game of government implies good faith in it. Values and premises and principles are not codified because if you had to codify them you couldn’t have a code at all.

This difference is neither merely verbal nor philosophical; it is vital. For deflecting the discourse into one about norms, when we are really talking about premises and principles, is one more way of, well, normalizing Drumpf’s assault on democratic government. It turns what is really subversion into mere behavior. It’s one form of the frightened levelling-off that Drumpf has intimidated too many pundits and reporters into accepting. Every totalitarian country has a constitution—the Soviet constitution was a mockery not because its “norms” were not respected but because the ruling party had complete contempt for the premises it was based on. What mattered were not the norms of its enforcement but the social compact that was understood to underlie it and the mutual respect people showed for it. That Drumpf’s hard-core followers delight in his transgressions—even if such followers were a majority, which they are not—does not make them normative. It is exactly the point of a democratic government to say that, though norms may change, the premises aren’t directly or easily subject to a majority vote, even by the gleefully vengeful. Some of the rules are unwritten because if you had to write them down it would be an admission that there were people not ready to play.

So let us hear no more of norms. Do not let anyone convince you that Drumpf’s evils are matters of performance or personality or affect—that they can be overlooked, or that there is a mere violation of decorum underway. For that is exactly how tyrants have always engaged in the moral degradation of their followers. “I just have to look past the tweets” or “He has a problem with his tone” is the new moral equivalent of “Well, the trains run on time,” or, “At least the emperor has built a lot of marble temples.” Norms come and go, no matter how hardily they stick to their bar stools. The principles and premises of social contracts, which make both bars and republics possible, don’t.

-Adam Gopnik

Cheers!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Don't fear the reaper



(4:20)...the Reaper was invented during the Plague to cope with the horrors of mortality, and really not much has changed despite our effort to cheat death by running on treadmills or eating kale. The Grim Reaper is always on his way, and while we wait for time to come all we can do is laugh. It may not be
much, but it's a brief respite from the existential grip that death holds after all when death comes knocking at the door he could just be a sore throat.

There are more than 100 of these. Still my favorite:

Image result for new yorker grim reaper cartoon

Thursday, June 22, 2017

America the Philosophical

"America is philosophical not because of the A.P.A. but in spite of it..." Harsh, but not entirely unfair. Past MTSU Lyceum speaker Carlin Romano* meets critics in the lion's den.



This Author meets Critics session on "America the Philosophical" was organized by the Karl Jaspers Society of North America in conjunction with the 90th Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division in San Francisco, California, April 2, 2016.
*Romano at MTSU-

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bertrand Russell Now

The current edition of Philosophy Now has been commandeered by Russellians:

The following articles by members of the Bertrand Russell Society aim to show why, almost fifty years after his death, he remains both an important figure in the history of philosophy and a role model for those who – in the spirit of Philosophy Now – want to make philosophical inquiry accessible to all.To what extent does Russell continue to have a significant influence on modern times? A generation has passed since Russell’s death, and the number of people who knew him by direct acquaintance is dwindling. Recently, in my capacity as President of the Bertrand Russell Society, I received a call from a woman who had seen a listing for the Society in which my phone number was given. “Are you Bertrand Russell?” she asked me. I was rather taken aback (albeit flattered) that someone could even ask such a question. While I can’t in good faith claim to be Bertrand Russell, I can honestly say I’ve shaken the hand of people who shook his hand. Two degrees of separation!
Tim Madigan is the President of the Bertrand Russell Society and has been known to shave those who do not shave themselves, including himself. For information on the Bertrand Russell Society please see bertrandrussell.org.

Peter Stone reveals the deep and varied passions of the analytic philosopher.
John R. Lenz tells us why Russell thought philosophy worthwhile.
Tim Delaney finds joy in Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness.
Tony Simpson tells us how the Russell-Einstein manifesto led to Pugwash.
John Ongley investigates what Bertrand Russell thought about human reason.
Landon D.C. Elkind explains why Russell believed logic can set thought free.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tolstoy's blisters

Note to spiritual pilgrims: wear comfortable shoes.
On this day in 1881, Leo Tolstoy (books by this author) set off on a pilgrimage to the Optina-Pustyn monastery.
He was 52 years old, and his two greatest novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), were behind him. He had found himself in a crisis—he was famous, had a family and land and money, but it all seemed empty. He was unable to write, had trouble sleeping, contemplated suicide. He read the great philosophers, but found holes in all of their arguments. He was amazed that the majority of ordinary Russians managed to keep themselves going every day, and he finally decided that it must be their faith. From there, it was a short time until Tolstoy took a walk in the woods and found God. He wrote: "At the thought of God, happy waves of life welled up inside me. Everything came alive, took on meaning. The moment I thought I knew God, I lived. But the moment I forgot him, the moment I stopped believing, I also stopped living."
His wife Sophia was not so thrilled with his conversion. He renounced meat, sex, alcohol, fiction, tobacco, and the temptations of a family. He dressed like a peasant. He wanted to give all of his money away, but Sophia wanted to live what she considered a normal life, not to mention raise their 10 children.
Tolstoy made his first visit to Optina-Pustyn in 1877, a visit in which he apparently exhausted the chief starets—or community elder—with his questions. On this day in 1881 he set off on a second visit, and this time he decided that to be more like the common people, he would walk all the way there, dressed in his peasant coat and wearing shoes made out of bark. He was pleased with his spiritual guidance, but he wasn't used to walking in bark shoes, so by the time he made it to Optina his feet were so covered in blisters that he had to take the train back home. WA
Spiritual transcendence in bad footwear is just about impossible.

Friday, June 2, 2017

American Philosophy: A Love Story

Robert Richardson on John Kaag's American Philosophy: A Love Story.
There is a strange daylight magic in this book. It is part memoir and part flyover of American philosophy, which, says Kaag, “from Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century . . . to Cornel West in this one, is about the possibilities of rebirth and renewal” (66). The book is also clearly and beautifully written. I picked it up for a quick look and couldn’t put it down. Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought. A young philosophy professor dangling at the end of a failed marriage, depressed and not at all sure life is worth living, stumbles upon a magnificent abandoned stone library deep in the New Hampshire woods. The lost library is crammed with old rare incredibly valuable books — all the classics of American philosophy and its German, English, and French antecedents. As the narrator struggles with his life (and with the problem of what to do about this hidden treasure) so he struggles with the main lines of American thought from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism and beyond. A female colleague, a Kantian, joins him in his strange mission and in the string of personal experiences that follow, the narrator takes us back and forth from learning to love until he can answer the question is life worth living with a sly “it depends on the liver” (8) and a modestly rapturous “maybe” (235). Kaag’s notion of philosophy is not technical or academic in the usual ways. Heidegger once started a class on Aristotle with a disdainful dismissal of the biographical. Of Aristotle’s life he said “He was born. He thought. He died.” 1 Heidegger had more reason than most to avoid biographical illumination, but his low view of the subject is fairly common in some quarters. Not, however, with John Kaag, who writes “Royce’s lectures on German Idealism began where all philosophy does, in biography” (166). That is to say, in life. And if philosophy couldn’t help us lead better lives, most of us wouldn’t care two pins for it. American Philosophy: A Love Story is saturated with William James’s thought and life. Even so, Kaag is, I think it fair to say, a Roycean; he is drawn more to a life with others — to community — than to individualism, however splendid. But he gives equal time to Emerson, Thoreau, James, Hocking, and so many others (Descartes, Hobbes, T.H Huxley, etc., etc.) that I would advise a beginning student to read this book rather than those of Father Copleston or Will[iam James] Durant for an overview of American thought. And beyond overview, Kaag has many new things for us, the relationship between Emerson and Henry Lee, that between William James and Pauline Goldmark, and that between Ernest Hocking and Pearl Buck. There is a fresh bit on Royce’s last words, another on the origins of Shady Hill School, a reappraisal of Jane Addams and much, much more. American Philosophy: a Love Story is then a brightly written, thoroughly accessible, sometimes moving account of a young life in philosophy. (It is also an adventure story about the discovery of the lost library of Ernest Hocking.) Kaag teaches courage, risk-taking and above all reading. He would, I think, agree with the comment attributed to Borges that “you are not what you write, but what you have read.” And his book goes on my shelf with other books in which philosophy lives, with Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, Margaret Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children, Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and Simone de Beavoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Kaag leaves us with what Goethe, Emerson, and William James all agreed on. In the beginning was not the word, but the deed, the act. The way forward is not twelve steps, or ten or three. It’s just one. Don’t sleep on it, sit on it, stand on it, or take it for a trial spin. Take the step, You have to do what you can, and you have to do it right now.
Robert D. Richardson
WILLIAM JAMES STUDIES VOL. 13 • NO. 1 • SPRING 2017 

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