Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Hope is the subject of another terrific book by Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark... and of today's eponymous poem by Lisel Mueller. "It is the singular gift/we cannot destroy in ourselves, the argument that refutes death, the genius that invents the future, all we know of God."

Solnit: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” And, "To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” And, “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

And, someone concluded his book on William James with:
Hope-the need for it, the possibility of it, the sense of it as the only reputable alternative to inadmissible despair-is the center of his vision as I see it. The prime requisite of hope is confidence that what we do matters and may make all the difference further along the chain of life. Meanwhile, conscience and hope command our respect for the immediately contiguous links who are our contemporaries, and sometimes command as well our intervention to secure their hold (which is also ours) on the communal life of our species. A chain really is no stronger than its weakest link, and James shared the Emersonian sense of life (expressed in the epigraph to "Nature") as a "subtle chain of countless rings." We are all vulnerable, fragile creatures, our luminous time here is brief, and we owe one another support and sympathy. "The truest vision of life I know," wrote Wallace Stegner, "is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark." But the hall's retention of light after our departure, for the use and enjoyment of later migratory transients whose way we have marked, can be our purpose and their deliverance. Meanwhile our human vulnerabilities will always exceed our personal "fortifications," says Anne Lamott, "so the only choice is whether you are most going to resemble Richard Nixon with his neck jammed down into his shoulders, trying to figure out who to blame, or the sea anemone, tentative and brave, trying to connect. . . ." James is with the anemones, and the larks. "What I like best about William James after all," Henry James scholar Sheldon Novick once told an online community of Jamesians, "is the relentless effort to express experience in ordinary language, as rigorous and coherent in its way as Emily Dickinson's poetry," and, in its way, as cheerfully restorative of life: "Hope" is that thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tunes without the words/And never stops at all." 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Spring Lyceum: Social Hope in the Time of Drumpf

Friday, April 21 at 5 PM, COE (College of Education Bldg) 164. The MTSU Department of Philosophy is pleased to host Ronald Aronson (Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Ideas, Wayne State University) for a Spring Semester lecture and discussion.

In his MTSU lecture, he will examine the current social/political moment, viewing the election of Donald Drumpf against the background of a generation of shrinking hope—deindustrialization, rising inequality, attacks on public education, and shredding of the social safety net. For Aronson, Drumpf’s tumultuous first months as president have set the stage for a stunning insurgency of resistance. Drawing on generations of political struggle as well as philosophy, especially the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Aronson will argue for a unique conception of social hope. Hope, for Aronson, is not a religious attitude but a secular one, and it is far more than a mood or feeling. The very basis of social will and political action, it entails acting collectively to make the world more equal, more democratic, more peaceful, and more just. Even at a time when false hopes are rife, Aronson argues social hope still persists. Always underlying our experience—even if we completely ignore it—is the fact of our social belonging, which can be reactivated into a powerful collective force, an active WE which can still create a better future for everyone.

Ronald Aronson grew up in Detroit and earned a Ph.D. in the History of Ideas at Brandeis University where he studied with William Barrett, Page Smith, and Herbert Marcuse. A long time professor at Wayne State, he has also been a guest lecturer at several South African universities.

The story of his first experience in South Africa, at the height of the struggle to end apartheid, is told in STAY OUT OF POLITICS: A PHILOSOPHER VIEWS SOUTH AFRICA. In recognition of his scholarly career and political contributions to South Africa, the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Aronson is an internationally recognized authority on Jean-Paul Sartre. He has focused on Sartre’s transformation to a political thinker and activist. A past Chair of the Sartre Society of North America and founding editor of the journal SARTRE STUDIES INTERNATIONAL, he is the author of JEAN-PAUL SARTRE-PHILOSOPHY IN THE WORLD (Verso), SARTRE'S SECOND CRITIQUE (University of Chicago Press), and CAMUS AND SARTRE: THE STORY OF A FRIENDSHIP AND THE QUARREL THAT ENDED IT (University of Chicago Press) which has been translated into eight languages.


Professor Aronson is also co-producer of the feature-length documentary film PROFESSIONAL REVOLUTIONARY about legendary Detroit social and political activist Saul Wellman and, most recently, 1ST AMENDMENT ON TRIAL: THE CASE OF THE DETROIT SIX, focused on the Federal government's trial of Michigan Communist Party leaders in the '50s.

His newest book, WE: REVIVING SOCIAL HOPE (University of Chicago Press) is scheduled for publication the week of his MTSU lecture.

An informal reception will follow the lecture at the home of Professor Michael Principe.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

John Lachs podcast

"The greatest insight: quit telling people how they're gonna be happy. You don't really know..."
"Having just recently lost my wife I know death is real and not something we can remedy..."
This fifth episode of the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast features an interview with Dr. John Lachs of Vanderbilt University on the topic of stoic pragmatism. John teaches us about how to balance the need to cope with our limitations in life, while nevertheless making some progress every week or every day in ways large and small for making our lives better. Balance is the key.
 (1 hr 7 mins)... Transcript

...I was born in Hungary, as you said, and grew up there. Grew right at the time that the
world was getting ready for the Second World War. And there was a tremendous amount of mayhem that was being committed, bombing in Hungary, bombings. I don’t mean the kind of bombings that we’re facing now from “Isis”, I mean the kind of bombing where airplanes fly above and drop a lot of bombs on you. And, I saw people die... Which naturally raises the question of what is this all about? What is life all about, what is a worthy life? Particularly given the fact that it might be ended at any time right then and there. So, my interest in philosophy did rise from that... There is, there is no question in my mind, but that there is meaning to life. But, it’s very difficult to discern what that meaning is. There’s no question in my mind that, that there’s the possibility of happiness in life. But then there’s also the reality of death. The nature of which we know, and the implications of which we don’t really understand. So, when I went to college, I knew that I wanted to deal with the problems of life and death, mainly death. And, I went around, went to the chemists. Were they interested in these? They weren’t interested at all. I went to the sociologists, no they weren’t interested. Eventually, I found the philosophers and they say “yeah, you sound like a philosopher”. So, I took that seriously and, started acting like a philosopher and thinking like a philosopher and being a philosopher. That’s the brief version of how I got to where I am. It’s been a wonderful journey, with full of frustration and full of significance. The frustration comes from the fact that after a while, as a philosopher, you realize that really we don’t have clear answers. That we, the one thing we know, the one thing we know is we really don’t know all that much. That leads us back of course to Socrates and Plato, and I’m a great admirer of those folks. Although the problem with many philosophers is that they begin by saying, “oh, we don’t know”, but if you don’t watch out, in a matter of no time at all, they’ll be telling you all the things they do know. So, you have to be pretty careful, and you have to be pretty skeptical. And, if you’re careful and you’re skeptical, you may actually get some answers that are not certain, but probable. How probable? Not very, but that’s okay because so long as there’s another day, we’ll keep on thinking about it...

Dr. Weber: Well, you know, John you know when I met you, my sense was that you were one of the happiest people I think I’d ever seen. And, I think a lot of people have the sense that you’re an optimistic guy, that you think well about, you know the long, big picture history, and you have often talked about how there’s a lot of progress. Is this something that philosophy taught you or is this something you think you found in thinking philosophically about the world?

And, if I’m misinterpreting you, tell me, or do you think that you think differently from then or how would you think about happiness today for you?

Dr. Lachs: I continue to believe that life is such that it’s worth living, and that good things will be made available or can be made available by one’s self and one’s loved ones. Day by day, I’m not optimistic about the ultimate outcome on a personal level, because having just recently lost my wife, I know that death is very real and not something that we can remedy easily or at all. So, one can be, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that one can be optimistic and happy in a short-run and quite glum about the ultimate outcome in the long-run...

Dr. Weber: Well what would say is the greatest insight from philosophy that you found for trying to be happy?

Dr. Lachs: The greatest insight didn’t relate to my happiness, I am by nature somebody who is rather happy. The greatest insight is how immensely different people are, and how amazingly different the things that make them happy. I’ll give you one example which is my favorite example. I am so happy teaching students. It’s wonderful, they are full of energy, full of life. So many people can’t wait to get out of the classroom and get into the administration. Now, if you ever wanted to find something that would make my life not worth living, it would be to make me dean. [Laughter]. At the same time, I readily admit that some people find it absolutely wonderful, and power to them! May they go ahead and pursue their happiness. But, that ain’t mine. [Laughter]. So, you know there are people who take the weirdest things, the strangest things, the most incredibly different kinds of things and convert them into the patterns of a life. And, they’re happy! And that’s really all there is to be said about it, if you, have to step back, and that’s what Meddling is all about, you have to step back and quite telling people how they’re going to be happy because you don’t really know.

Dr. Weber: So, John was talking about one of his latest books, On Meddling as a critique of people meddling in others affairs, right?

Dr. Lachs: Yeah, and they do that with so much pleasure... (continues)
  1. John Lachs, Stoic Pragmatism (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012).
  2. Epictetus, Handbook, or Enchiridion (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1983).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bibliophile in chief

From our most literate and reflective president to the least. Sad.
Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.
Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.
During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”
...during his last two years in college, he spent a focused period of deep self-reflection and study, methodically reading philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr, to strip down and test his own beliefs.
To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Golden Notebook” and “The Woman Warrior”). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night... 
Continue reading the main story

Celebrating two centuries of Thoreau

For someone generally associated with serenity, Henry David Thoreau can get people riled up. In a 2015 essay in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote that the transcendentalist and his work had become “simplified and inspirational,” and that our beatific vision of him “cannot survive any serious reading of ‘Walden,’ ” which reveals a writer “in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Donovan Hohn counterargued at length in The New Republic, saying that Schulz simply replaced “the distortions of hagiography with those of caricature, and the caricature has been drawn before.”

Many political observers have recently noted the renewed relevance of the essay “Civil Disobedience” with Donald Drumpf moving into the White House, but that’s not the only reason the 19th-century thinker is on our minds. In 2017, if the air at Walden had been really, really health-giving, Thoreau would have turned 200. With the bicentennial arrive several books about the naturalist. (Kevin Dann’s “Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau” is reviewed on Page 13 this week by John Kaag.) This spring will see a focus on narrow slices of his work, like Richard Higgins’s “Thoreau and the Language of Trees,” and “Thoreau’s Animals,” edited by Geoff Wisner. Robert M. Thorson’s “The Boatman,” about Thoreau’s relationship to the Concord River and alterations made to it during his lifetime, promises what the publisher, Harvard University, calls, “the most complete account to date of this ‘flowage controversy.’ ”

An ambitious new full biography by Laura Dassow Walls, an English professor at Notre Dame, will be published in July — the month when Thoreau officially turns the big 2-0-0. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Buchanan's scholarship

Jane Mayer's Dark Money confirms that our school's most distinguished and celebrated alum was cozy with the dark side, "lambasted for reducing 'all human behavior to simple self-interest.'"

Friday, December 16, 2016


Interesting musings on free will from "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang - the novella upon which the film "Arrival" was based.

 Was it actually possible to know the future? Not simply to guess at it; was it possible to know what was going to happen, with absolute certainty and in specific detail? Gary once told me that the fundamental laws of physics were time-symmetric, that there was no physical difference between past and future. Given that, some might say, “yes, theoretically.” But speaking more concretely, most would answer “no,” because of free will.
I liked to imagine the objection as a Borgesian fabulation: consider a person standing before the Book of Ages, the chronicle that records every event, past and future. Even though the text has been photoreduced from the full-sized edition, the volume is enormous. With magnifier in hand, she flips through the tissue-thin leaves until she locates the story of her life. She finds the passage that describes her flipping through the Book of Ages, and she skips to the next column, where it details what she'll be doing later in the day: acting on information she's read in the Book, she'll bet one hundred dollars on the racehorse Devil May Care and win twenty times that much.
The thought of doing just that had crossed her mind, but being a contrary sort, she now resolves to refrain from betting on the ponies altogether.
There's the rub. The Book of Ages cannot be wrong; this scenario is based on the premise that a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future. If this were Greek myth, circumstances would conspire to make her enact her fate despite her best efforts, but prophecies in myth are notoriously vague; the Book of Ages, is quite specific, and there's no way she can be forced to bet on a racehorse in the manner specified. The result is a contradiction: the Book of Ages must be right, by definition; yet no matter what the Book says she'll do, she can choose to do otherwise. How can these two facts be reconciled?
They can't be, was the common answer. A volume like the Book of Ages is a logical impossibility, for the precise reason that its existence would result in the above contradiction. Or, to be generous, some might say that the Book of Ages could exist, as long as it wasn't accessible to readers: that volume is housed in a special collection, and no one has viewing privileges.
The existence of free will meant that we couldn't know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.
Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?

...perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the world-views that ultimately across were the end result of that divergence. Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.

...The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don't act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods' mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history's events; it is also that their motives coincide with history's purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.
Freedom isn't an illusion; it's perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it's simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It's like that famous optical illusion, the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There's no “correct” interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can't see both at the same time.
Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don't talk about it. Those who've read the Book of Ages never admit to it.

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