Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Richard Ford-"I'm here"

Heading out shortly to see Richard Ford at the Parnassus-co-sponsored event at the Nashville public library downtown. Here he was recently in Washington.

He just drove down from a similar event in St. Louis. Tomorrow night he'll be at Square Books in Oxford MS. Authors complain about author tours, but I'm excited about this one. I last saw Ford at the old Davis-Kidd in Nashville in June '96, when he inscribed a congratulatory response to my announcement that I'd heeded the wisdom of The Sportswriter: "In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they're sixty-five..."


UPDATE, 8:30 pm-

This grace note followed my admission that shortly after meeting him in '96 I'd gone and got myself right back into academia, where I've been ever since. Nice man.

Feels like closing a circuit. Or, as he says this new book is all about, "bearing witness." One of the attendees last night asked if Ford thought happiness is "relevant." Yes, but... there are satisfactions in a long and constructive life that exceed mere happiness. I think that's also what his books are about.

But beware this and every other explanation. "Explaining is where we all get into trouble." Don't I know it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Know Thy Self - Really

"Most people wonder at some point in their lives how well they know themselves. Self-knowledge seems a good thing to have, but hard to attain. To know yourself would be to know such things as your deepest thoughts, desires and emotions, your character traits, your values, what makes you happy and why you think and do the things you think and do. These are all examples of what might be called “substantial” self-knowledge, and there was a time when it would have been safe to assume that philosophy had plenty to say about the sources, extent and importance of self-knowledge in this sense.
Not any more. With few exceptions, philosophers of self-knowledge nowadays have other concerns. Here’s an example of the sort of thing philosophers worry about: suppose you are wearing socks and believe you are wearing socks. How do you know that that’s what you believe? Notice that the question isn’t: “How do you know you are wearing socks?” but rather “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” Knowledge of such beliefs is seen as a form of self-knowledge. Other popular examples of self-knowledge in the philosophical literature include knowing that you are in pain and knowing that you are thinking that water is wet. For many philosophers the challenge is explain how these types of self-knowledge are possible..." Quassim Cassam in The Stone

Professor Cassam is right, too many epistemologists have effectively renounced the classic historical quarry of their discipline, self-knowledge. But it's false to insinuate that the majority of us, on the front lines of large public teaching institutions like mine, have stopped posing the Big Questions. Far from it. William James long ago skewered the "gray-plaster temperament of our bald-headed young PhDs, boring one another at conferences with their talk of Erkenntnistheorie" etc. etc. Most of my peers, and I, don't bother with those conferences. We know ourselves better than that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Good people

Author and bookseller Ann Patchett has a nice Almanac quote on her birthday, in reply to critics who call her Pollyanna:  "I think there are plenty of people dealing with the darker side of human nature, and if I am going to write about people who are kind and generous and loving and thoughtful, so what? In my life I have met astonishingly good people."  Good for her. The jerks get too much attention.

Ann's first published novel came after several rejections, a bad case of writer's block, and a stint waiting tables at T.G.I. Friday's in Nashville. "Everybody believed that they were special, that they weren't really a waiter, that they were the one who was getting out. ... I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just like everybody else, a girl with a dream and a plate of hot fajitas. You get out not so much because you're special but because you've got enough steel in your soul to crawl up."

Her biblio-perseverance reminds me of my reaction at the multiplex the other night, watching Matthew McConaughey in "Interstellar" trying literally to reach his daughter through the bookcase. I've been trying to do that my entire adult life. Nice metaphor. Great medium. Good people.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Scheffler's Afterlife, naturalized

Samuel Scheffler, mentioned in David's CoPhi presentation yesterday, wrote a short piece for the Times philosophy blog.
I believe in life after death.
No, I don’t think that I will live on as a conscious being after my earthly demise. I’m firmly convinced that death marks the unqualified and irreversible end of our lives.
My belief in life after death is more mundane. What I believe is that other people will continue to live after I myself have died. You probably make the same assumption in your own case. Although we know that humanity won’t exist forever, most of us take it for granted that the human race will survive, at least for a while, after we ourselves are gone.
Because we take this belief for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones. (Continues here)
Scheffler's book, echoing John Dewey's "continuous human community," is Death and the Afterlife. I'm considering it for the next offering of PHIL 3310, Atheism & Philosophy. Here's Scheffler's Philosophy Bites podcast interview.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Marx for dogs

The Marx we're not reading for class said:

“Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.” 

(You could look it up on the Internet.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


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 -


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