Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Pulling the Plug" (again)

Nice piece recently in Orion by Robert Michael Pyle -

He pulled his own plug, more or less. He still goes online a couple times a week, but not at home:

I know I am missing out on some wonderful exchanges and capabilities. But I already weep over all the indoor hours when I could actually be out, combing the moss for waterbears or contemplating the profound mystery of where people get the time to read blogs, for gods’ sakes—is it at the complete expense of books?

When we read the blogs, how much do we misread? And how much do we misrepresent ourselves when we write them? I recently had an unpleasant exchange with a friend in reaction to one of his blog posts, in part because the medium does not lend itself to nuance and in part because, it seemed to me, my friend was engaged in a sort of performance - not a genuine and sincere communication. He was busy constructing a persona, not engaging in a real conversation. It pissed me off, but in an instructive way. I blog, therefore I bloviate. We must all take care not to damage human relationships in the course of framing ourselves as clever and sophisticated cultural observers - an unintended but not unforeseeable consequence of this form of discourse. The electronic-human interface does not necessarily have to make us shallow persons. Blogging doesn't have to be superficial. But it sure can be.

Bill McKibben was prophetic about this, as about so much else. Our vaunted Information Age truly is an "Age of Missing Information." But rather than pull the plug in a literal way, I'm going to continue tasking myself each day to pull away from the keyboard and the email and the blogs in responsible moderation. Our evolutionary health and day-to-day sanity and civility really depend on our learning to do this.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Thanksgiving is one of my two favorite holidays, the other being Independence Day.

Richard Ford's wonderful novel The Lay of the Land (Knopf, '06) expresses much of my feeling about this day, and about the hard-won "acceptance" that comes with loving life while still deploring loss. I love and accept a lot, but not everything: so, on some accounts, I thus lack the deepest form of gratitude and spirituality. But I agree with Ford: "a practical acceptance of what's what, in real time and down-to-earth, is as good as spiritual if you can finagle it..."

Another of my favorite sources on this topic is the philosopher Loyal Rue, who has written:

By the grace of these improbable [cosmic] events we inherit the opportunity of a lifetime. Even if we cannot imagine some One to give thanks to, we are nonetheless rendered thankful by the bountiful conditions of our existence. And in the measure of our gratitude we acquire a sense of obligation. The more we learn about the Epic of Evolution the more we are motivated to repay the generosity of the past by seeding hope for the future.

In other words: pay it forward.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

John Lachs: Symposium and Retrospective

I've not dropped any coins into this bottomless well lately, but over the past two days I participated in a public event that merits blog-space if anything does.

Five good friends and I gathered as a panel symposium this afternoon to discuss a very special teacher, John Lachs, who has been educating Vanderbilt philosophy students since 1967. Last night he delivered a keynote address to the 39th annual meeting of the Tennessee Philosophical Association. Here's how I introduced him, followed by my contribution to the panel discussion:

Welcome to the 39th annual meeting of the TPA. We invite all of you who came out this evening for what promises to be an engaging, provocative keynote address by John Lachs, and those who came for the "spirited" reception to follow, to pick up a conference program near the entrance behind you. We’ll be at it all day tomorrow, starting at 9 am. We have sessions scheduled on a variety of topics. I’m particularly pleased that so many presenters heeded our suggestion and selected themes consonant with those of tonight’s speaker, and only regret that it won’t be possible to be everywhere at once tomorrow.

But tonight we’re all here, and I am delighted to introduce my mentor and friend John Lachs, one of the preeminent philosophers of his generation. Born in Hungary, educated at McGill and Yale Universities, he is Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt, where he has been for four decades now. He is the author of a great many articles and books including Intermediate Man, The Relevance of Philosophy for Life, In Love With Life, A Community of Individuals, and the forthcoming Leaving People Alone. He founded the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP). He is a respected public intellectual, enjoying lustrous name and reputation in this community and far beyond. Above all, he is an inspirational teacher who has shared the spark of his enthusiasm for learning and living with generations of grateful students – some of whom, I am pleased to note, have journeyed further than they otherwise would have for the opportunity to be here with him at this conference. Others, including a university president, have sent warmest regards and regrets.

It is unusual for the TPA keynote speaker to be met on his own turf. But this is a delightfully unusual evening. Join me in welcoming to the lectern, on his home field, Professor John Lachs. (10.26.07)

Welcome to our symposium on John Lachs, last night’s distinguished keynote speaker and – for each of us on this panel - an esteemed teacher, whose influence on our respective lives and careers in academia makes this opportunity to exchange reflections and reminisce about our mentor particularly gratifying.

The program notes that we were all graduate students here at Vanderbilt in the early ‘80s. We studied in Lachs’s seminars, were TAs in his ever-popular Intro to Ethics course, and worked closely with him in our respective paper chases. I’ll leave it to my colleagues each to express the specific nature and extent of Lachs’s impact on themselves, if they wish. (I don’t know what they’re going to say, they all preferred to approach this gathering in what I think we could call a Lachsian spirit of spontaneity.)

But I can tell you that his tutelage, and now his friendship, have profoundly marked me. I simply would not have succeeded without his patient sufferance and, when at last I got serious, his intense commitment to my success. But long before that, Lachs kindled the interest in American philosophy that is the core of my professional and philosophic identity. Gratitude alone seems insufficient as repayment. But, "from each according to ability..."

I'm also very grateful to my former classmates, now far-flung colleagues, for joining me here today. Some have traveled significant distances, and none missed a beat in accepting the invitation to do it. We’re all here because we want to profess in public our regard for a man whose instruction and example helped bring us to our calling.

For teaching is a calling, and of all my teachers it was Lachs whose enthusiastic practice of the academic philosopher’s vocation best exhibited what that can mean. He was (and is, and will continue to be) the opposite of the stereotypical university "free rider" he so deliciously pans in A Community of Individuals: the shirking recycler of the same old stale lecture material who knows only four good reasons to teach: May, June, July, and August. Lachs knows that "the aim of teaching is the creation of human beings," and that "its essential condition is inter-generational faith." Older people genuinely caring about younger people, generation after generation, sounds like a small achievement. It is not. It is how our species evolves, and – come to think of it – it is how people like us can best repay our gratitude to people like John Lachs: we can "pay it forward."

When I first started thinking about my remarks today I compiled a laundry list of categories into which I began sorting all the ways John Lachs’s style of caring has been important to me. There were at least a half dozen. But I’ve asked my peers to hold their opening remarks to about five minutes, so to set the right example for them I’m just going to mention one now myself: immediacy.

Lachs was always talking about immediacy. I didn’t really get it until one day in about 1986, at a SAAP meeting in Lexington, KY. Lachs had generously allowed some of us penurious grad students to share his hotel room. Before going down to Saturday morning’s opening session, Lachs caught me in the act of shamelessly enjoying a cartoon on television. He was amused, and I started to feel a bit embarrassed about this inadvertent display of what I thought must have looked like ripened immaturity on my part. But he simply affirmed my delight – another distinctive Lachsian word – in this particular form of immediacy. I got it; I finally began to understand what Lachs meant by saying that we have it in our power to regard our acts as so many ends, not just intermediate steps on the way to some perpetually-postponed future fulfillment. That moment nourished several themes that eventually coalesced in my work.

Others wanted to join this panel. One older Lachs alumnus who wanted to be here today was his colleague John Stuhr, whose son is a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta. It's Parent's Weekend there, and so this time the son won out.

Another who could not be here, owing to the especially-insistent demands of his own academic vocation, sent along some remarks that he requested we share. Here they are:

"In my intellectual development and professional choices, no one has been more instrumental and instructive than John Lachs. A masterful teacher and remarkable scholar who in rigor of thought and analysis maintains the essential human quality of sympathy and understanding. His scholarly work ranges through many fields of inquiry: naturalism, ethics, American philosophy, George Santayana, contemporary philosophical issues, many social and philosophical inquiries into the condition of human society, to name a few. He has a publication record that is hard to surpass, a teaching record that is unparalleled in my experience, and the ability to draw the interests of both graduate and undergraduate students.
He spoke at my inauguration as President of Richard Stockton College, and to this day, his remarks are the most requested from that occasion. He captured the essence of being a president in a few short remarks that will be found on the Stockton website for as long as I am president.
On a professional note, he is the model teacher/scholar we all hope to become. On a personal note, he is that faculty member who makes the unusual progression from being a mentor and advisor to being a friend and colleague who not only respects your independence and difference but also encourages it. No better friend and colleague can I imagine. And my sentiments are shared by all of his students, past and present. We are ever grateful." --Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr. President The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

My time has expired. Up next...


There followed a parade of pals, who were in turns funny, perceptive, profound, and gracious. All expressed gratitutde for Lachs's example and instruction.

Lachs was in the room. Invited to comment on these proceedings, he averred that he now knows how it feels to attend one's own funeral. But we came not to bury. As another friend is fond of saying, we were simply saying some things that "needed to be brung out." I'm very glad we did.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Do humans possess an immortal soul? The corporate board depicted in Monty Python's Meaning of Life discussed this: "...soul does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia."

I say: we should enjoy our distractions, should also attend to spiritual matters (which on my view may often coincide with those distractions), and -- as we learn from the pitiable Mr. Creosote -- should resist gluttony.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

"Yes, we're all individuals"

The Fall semester has about found its legs now, two weeks in. I'm doing something a little different in my Intro classes: on Fridays we're using Open Court's Monty Python and Philosophy, to supplement the week's more conventional approach. This week we read about "The Life of Brian" and took a look at a few clips, most pointedly the one in which Brian Cohen -- the mistaken Messiah -- insists to the multitude at his window that "you're all individuals" who don't need to follow anyone. I usually trot that clip out when explicating Emerson's Self-reliance, but it turns out to be a perfect comment on Plato's Euthyphro too.

The logic & critical thinking class has been fun, stocked as it is with lots of pre-law students who love to argue. And, as Monty Python reminds us, an argument isn't just saying "no it isn't!" (Yes it is!) (No, it ISN'T!!)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Summer's end

I'm back, this time from my formerly remote-and-off-the-grid Little House. It was, I suppose, a Luddite summer fantasy to imagine remaining unplugged -- though I'm still not sure I yet have anything vital to communicate to Maine, Texas, and the wider world. But classes are about to resume so I'll be expected to think at least a bit, and so long as I'm obliged to communicate in public I may as well keep this spot warm. The signal out here is low, though, so now I can blame failures to communicate (or communicate well) on the state of wireless technology. My new whine: it's the router.

Anyway: summer was great, we loved Manhattan -- Broadway, the Yankees, the museums -- but it's time to get on with a milder and busier season. (Easier said than done, though this is forecast to be our first sub-100 degree day in a couple of weeks.)

And what would Thoreau say about my air-conditioned, web-connected, cellular-accessible redoubt? Sorry, Henry. Guess I've been seduced by the dark side.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

19th century communications technology had already outpaced the human capacity to generate content worth communicating when Thoreau wrote that. Imagine what he'd make of the blogosphere.

Every year about this time, coincident with the end of the school year and the beginning of summer travel, I feel an irresistible urge to unplug from the grid. (It has something, too, to do with the incomparable allure of gorgeous May mornings when there are no school bells to beat, no urgent emails to open, no kids to rouse from bed and compel to eat soggy oatmeal.)

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Atlanta (the Chattanooga aquarium is better, btw). I resolutely left the laptop behind, and steered entirely clear of the hotel's "Business Center" computers. That's not exactly a retreat into the Walden woods but I still find it restorative of something vital and personal, and preservative of what I like to think of as my sanity.

And so, I'm happy to report that my primitive, unwired Little House office is working out quite nicely for me so far. I'm not going to boost my signal just yet.

My unsolicited advice to all who daily spend their freshest hour(s) immobilized behind a small screen: unplug. Check the email when you have absolutely nothing better to do. Don't be in such haste to publish your every thought to an inattentive world. (When David Brooks writes something stupid about Al Gore, for instance, someone else will be sure to call him on it. To wit:
(and also see:

In other words: notch the hours on your stick instead of your keyboard, at least now and then.

The days will be growing longer for just a few more weeks, and I don't want to miss them. I'll be back, but -- for now -- I'll catch you later.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Little Houses (postscript)

It would be a serious omission to speak of Little Houses (as I did in the previous post) but not to mention Thoreau's cabin at Walden. So, consider it duly mentioned.

Thoreau's only regret, Michael Pollan noted in A Place of My Own, was not putting a taller roof on it: "you want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim... Our sentences want room to unfold."

And that's all the hook I need for this pic:

This was pre-new roof, of course. But for just a few minutes at least, my thoughts did have plenty of room to unfold, to follow the "centrifugal impulse... reaching out into the surrounding landscape." The trick is to do that with the roof on.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"A Place of My Own"

Michael Pollan's place may be better or more thoughtfully crafted to its purpose than mine, deliberately designed as a writer's retreat into the landscape of the imagination (and in his case, of Connecticut). It seems not to waste a single corner or to miss any vista. He conceived it himself (prodded by an architect's vision) and participated materially in its creation.

My Little House, on the other hand, was already on the ground -- in the back yard -- when we moved here a dozen years ago. My only contribution has been a new roof, a couple of new windows, an Earth Stove salvaged from the tear-down next door, and a cheap air conditioner.

The realtor passed along what turned out to be a tall tale about its antiquarian inception as slave quarters, but the truth is more prosaic: the daughter of its builder showed up unannounced one morning and corrected the record. It's older than Pollan's but by mere years, not epochally. No matter, though. It's still (to paraphrase CS&N) a very very very fine little house.

And anyway, Pollan and I share the very same wish for a slightly altered perspective that a small detached structure can afford. "Not just a room, it was a building of my own I wanted, an outpost of solitude pitched somewhere in the landscape rather than in the house."

I've done significant work in my "outpost," and idled on its porches and in the hammock strung nearby. Our kids and their friends and I have played there, too. Mostly I've gazed at it across the yard and pined for the leisure just to hang out there, to inhabit its rustic space and let its primitive pace pull me back to a more measured rhythm of living. Maybe it's silly to wax romantic about a shack, but I do. And Pollan does, about the "hut" he says is built for dreaming.

He details the construction, purpose, and meaning of his elegant little house in A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (Random House, '97). It inspired me to ruminate on and in my own ramshackle retreat, and now to be there more often in body as well as spirit. The anchor of my working life for many years has been an old roll-top desk that comes equipped with its own probably-tall tale about a 19th century pedigree and a former life in a Missouri fire-house. Whatever. I'm moving it one more time, a couple hundred feet, to take up residence in my home not far away from home.

One problem, at this point: it's out of wireless Internet range. Will that be a hidden blessing? I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Precarious and stable

Our lives are both "precarious and stable," John Dewey often observed. We strive for stability, and too readily take it for granted -- until the unforeseen and the unthinkable happen.

Public events like 9/11 can disrupt our stability, and shake the complacency out of us for a brief while. For a time we think we understand the precarious nature of existence. And then, invariably and until the next shock, we forget. It's probably a good thing that we do. There must be an evolutionary advantage in the capacity to overlook all the impending possibilities of chaos and get on with humdrum daily living.

But, disruptive and disorienting as a public calamity can be, personal tragedy may be even more searing. We nearly lost a little girl we love this week, one of our younger daughter's closest friends. It was her custom, on returning from school each afternoon, to hop out of the car and grab the mail. This time she impulsively detoured from the mailbox, scrambling under the idling car to retrieve a ball. She never imagined -- as the driver, her babysitter, never imagined -- the nightmare to follow. The babysitter thought C. had already run up the hill to the house, not seeing her duck under the car.

It's painful to picture what happened next. I'll simply say that C. survived what could so easily have been her last impulsive act on earth. She is at home this morning, bruised and battered but expected to recover completely. Her condition is stable, and rapidly improving. But I hope she never forgets that every moment of life is precarious. And precious.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Swing the bat!

My daughter the Diamondback had been slumping, taking a lot of called strikes and beginning to doubt herself.

Slumps happen in baseball, of course, and are largely responsible for making ballplayers among the most weirdly superstitious people on the planet: Wade Boggs, for instance, fearing to jinx his hitting streak, once ate nothing but chicken for several weeks on end. And speaking of the Red Sox, the biggest superstition of all is (or was) The Curse of the Bambino.

So what did my daughter do to break out of her slump? Nothing weird -- she just started swinging the bat, piqued perhaps by Dad's challenge to get the ball out of the infield (or at least put it in play). The other night she cracked a pair of solid hits and scored three of her team's six runs, on the way to a 6-3 victory and the game ball.

The life lesson here is clear enough to her, I hope: be aggressive, take some risks, and if you have to strike out occasionally at least make sure you go down swinging. You'll almost certainly be more productive, and you'll definitely have more fun. I have to keep re-learning that too.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Ben Franklin

I've been enjoying Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin. (Einstein is on deck). I didn't know that David Hume had acknowledged Franklin as America's first world-class philosopher, but old Ben -- or Poor Richard -- was a first-rate aphorist for sure. Some of my favorites:

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.

Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.

Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Wish not so much to live long as to live well.

Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.

Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.

And of course:
Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Brainwashing children

Stephen Law (The War for Children's Minds, Routledge 2006) cites Oxford physiology researcher Kathleen Taylor on brainwashing: "One striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation."

Law thinks religious teachers and those who try to instill "faith"-based values in children are distinctively guilty of brainwashing them, of attempting to "inject beliefs into the child's mind directly, without engaging the child's rational, critical faculties." But what about parents and other teachers generally?

Teachers, parents, and authorities of all stripes who deliberately bypass children's "rational, critical faculties" aren't teaching, they're indoctrinating. Emerson reprimanded such people: "You're trying to create another you. One is enough!"

Saturday, May 5, 2007


It's Spring Commencement day at ESU, and I get to participate as our department's representative. It's regarded as a necessary but unwelcome chore by many of my colleagues, and -- considering how many bad Commencement speeches have been inflicted, through the ages, on captive audiences -- with good reason. But I recall the elation of that day, the pride of goals achieved, the satisfaction of accomplishment, and the pleasure of public recognition by one's mentors, friends, and family. As chores go, it's one of the better ones. If I ever get to deliver a Commencement address myself, I'll try to be as succinct as John Dewey in delivering this simple message:

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

If we've done our job as educators, and if they've done theirs, our students will commence "real" life with humble curiosity about themselves and the world, and with confidence in their abilities to feed it. But they'll never think they know enough. They'll cultivate a noble, Socratic ignorance. They'll reject what Dewey called the "conceit of learning," the shallow and pretentious display of facts for their own sake, the repitition of cant and convention, the resistance to new thoughts and fresh perceptions.

In other words, grads: don't stop learning. Have a great life.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Mormons

"It’s great to hear people who believe in something and can articulate it without sounding crazy or defensive," fawned the Times reviewer of the new PBS documentary on Mormonism. Sorry, but if it's not crazy to affirm young Joseph Smith's hallucinations (he was just 21) as revealed truth then what is?

After last night's first installment (the conclusion airs tonight) I came away shaking my head in renewed astonishment, that so many sober and serious-sounding people could believe something so preposterous. If people will believe that, what won't they believe? It does not bode well for the democratic prospect. I remembered Mark Twain's sarcasm in Roughing It:

"Some people have to have a world of evidence before they can come anywhere in the neighborhood of believing anything, but for me when a man tells me that he has seen the engravings which are upon the plates and not only that, but an angel was there at the time and saw them see him and probably took his receipt for it, I am very far on the road to conviction no matter whether I have ever heard of that man before or not, and even if I do not know the name of the angel or his nationality either."

(The angel's name was Moroni, by the way.)

Then I remembered Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God," which begins by recounting a visit from a pair of eager young Mormon missionaries whose tale was so absurd that she started rethinking her own "mainstream" (Roman Catholic) credulities -- and realized that Virgin Births, trans-substantiation, redemptive crucifixion et al aren't so different, the stories have just been around longer.

My instinct in religion is to be tolerant even when I can't be open to the alleged revelation, but I'm coming around to the Dawkins-Harris hardline that we need to stop giving a free pass to incredible superstition and calling it, respectfully, religion when what it is is nonsense. (On this topic, watch for a future post on E.O. Wilson's recent overtures to Southern Baptists.)

For a refreshing perspective on the "latter-day Saints" take a look at Unless you've already drunk the Kool-Aid yourself, you'll feel better about your species.

Addendum. Just watched part II, which on the whole took a more critically-independent stance and (for instance) acknowledged that Mormon "niceness" can mask a kind of spiritual violence. The spectacle of very young children being indoctrinated into the faith, singing about wanting to become missionaries and so forth, emphatically makes Dawkins' point that this is a form of child abuse. They are not "Mormon children" -- they are children of Mormon parents whose birthright to think for themselves has been unconscionably violated.

But, for the record: I too have found Mormons (and other religionists) to be good neighbors.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Guns and lunatics

Only a lunatic could seriously believe that more guns in more homes is good for America’s children.

So concludes Thursday's Bob Herbert column in the Times. Two of my recent posts have separately discussed violence and children. Herbert forces our attention to their tragic, inevitable confluence in today's gun-addled America.

Herbert: Only motor vehicle accidents and cancer kill more children in the U.S. than firearms... Children in the states with the highest rates of gun ownership [are] 16 times as likely to die from an accidental gunshot wound, nearly seven times as likely to commit suicide with a gun, and more than three times as likely to be murdered with a firearm.

I'm sorry to report that more than a few of my students endorsed the lunatic position, and some even thought Newt Gingrich was onto something when he suggested giving concealed weapons to all the profs -- people like me. Way to go, NRA. The lunatics really are in charge now, aren't they?

There is no reason that any private citizen in a democracy should own a handgun. At some point, that simple truth will register. Until it does, phones will ring for dead children, and parents will be told not to ask why. (Adam Gopnik, New Yorker 4.30)

I'm asking.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


David Halberstam died yesterday in an automobile accident in California. He was a first-rate journalist and author, best known for The Best and the Brightest. My favorite Halberstam work is The Children, an account of the courageous college students who organized protests in Nashville and elsewhere in the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. I also like his baseball books, especially his account of the 1964 season that culminated in a Cards-Yanks World Series. I'm grateful for Halberstam's life and contribution,.

Halberstam's death seems an appropriate occasion to express my gratitude for another personal hero who left us too soon, Robert Solomon.

I'm on record as being generally unimpressed by the the academic/philosophical/Continental expression of Existentialism, much preferring literary versions like Walker Percy's and Richard Ford's. But I make an exception for Solomon, the University of Texas philosopher who collapsed and died in a Swiss airport in January.

Gratitude was one of Solomon's recurrent themes:
Gratitude, I want to suggest, is not only the best answer to the tragedies of life. It is the best approach to life itself. This is not to say, as I keep insisting, an excuse for quietism or resignation. It is no reason to see ourselves simply as passive recipients and not as active participants full of responsibilities. On the contrary, as Kant and Nietzsche among many others insisted, being born with talents and having opportunities imposes a heavy duty on us, to exercise those talents and make good use of those opportunities. It is also odd and unfortunate that we take the blessings of life for granted -- or insist that we deserve them -- but then take special offense at the bad things in life, as if we could not possibly deserve those. The proper recognition of tragedy and the tragic sense of life is not shaking one's fist at the gods or the universe "in scorn and defiance" but rather, as Kierkegaard writes in a religious context, "going down one one's knees" and giving thanks. Whether or not there is a God or there are gods to be thanked, however, seems not the issue to me. It is the importance and the significance of being thankful, to whomever or whatever, for life itself.
-Robert C. Solomon, "Spirituality for the Skeptic" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Carlin Romano wrote last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Above all, Solomon exuded appetite, endless appetite, for philosophy that matters, problems, in the Jamesian sense, that make a difference for real people.

Halberstam and Solomon, thankfully, left us a legacy of words and ideas by which we can continue to be instructed and inspired, and for which I am profoundly grateful.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Children and nature

I spoke to a class of Health & Recreation Management students the other evening. They share my alarm at the growing gap between children and nature, as kids increasingly mirror an attitude noted by Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods, 2005) in a recent Orion Magazine essay: "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are."

Louv: Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience their neighborhoods and the natural world has changed radically. Even as children and teenagers become more aware of global threats to the environment, their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading... In a typical week, only 6 percent of children ages nine to thirteen play outside on their own... Even bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995. In San Diego 90 percent of inner-city kids do not know how to swim; 34 percent have never been to the beach. In suburban Fort Collins, Colorado, teachers shake their heads in dismay when they describe the many students who have never been to the mountains visible year-round on the western horizon.

We're raising unhealthy kids who don't consider themselves a part of the natural world. That's suicidal. Tempting as it is to blame video games et al, the responsibility for this state of affairs rests finally with the adults who don't take the time to play, swim, bike, hike etc. with their children; and with those who cancel recess in the misbegotten crusade to "leave no children behind."

Kurt Vonnegut wanted our newest humans to learn one rule: be kind. I'd add a second: be active.

It's the weekend, and it's spring: turn off your computer, confiscate the nintendos, "throw away your TV," go outside and play!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Violence in America

Today's post was supposed to just be an upbeat appreciation of Jackie Robinson, the barrier-breaking ballplayer who transcended sports and epitomized courage in the face of racist hostility and hatred. Sixty years (and two days) ago he stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in the Dodger uniform, and changed America. Defying threats of violence against himself and his family, he paved the way for integration not only in baseball but in American life generally. Martin Luther King, Jr. said the successes of the civil rights movement would not have been possible without Jackie Robinson. He was a splendid athlete, but far more importantly he was a man of resolute and fearless grace who made our country a better place.

But Jackie Robinson's America was murderously violent, and it still is. The massacre at Virginia Tech yesterday is just the latest illustration. Firearms proliferate here, along with the disturbed assailants who use them. It was especially shocking for those of us who live and work at similar large institutions of higher learning, but we can't really be surprised when such atrocities happen in America anymore.

"Life is not a spectator sport," Jackie Robinson said. It's time for us to decide, as a nation, that we're not any longer going to tolerate the level of violence we've become inured to. It's time to revoke the misconstrued personal "right to bear arms" once and for all. Guns do kill people. A truly civilized nation would impose sane restraints on their prevalence and accessibility.

We have to stop feeding the monster. One source of its sustenance is the culture of verbal brutality so much on exhibit in the popular music culture. A student played a snippet of rap music by a musician called "Nas" in class yesterday, contending that it exemplified an acute contemporary philosophical sensibility. But what it instead exemplified to me was an alarming level of insensitivity to violence and verbal aggression: a rap imploring "N--gers" to live intensely, in anticipation of an early and violent death. This is the insight and inspiration of a generation? It's appalling.

Why do so many young people now venerate vulgar thugs and punks and misogynists, while ignoring genuine heroes like Jack Roosevelt Robinson? How can we help them reclaim his legacy? This is a practical challenge for parents, educators, musicians, producers of popular entertainment, and everyone who cares about our future and would nurture the spirit of the children who must become its stewards.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


"With his curly hair askew, deep pouches under his eyes and rumpled clothes, he often looked like an out-of-work philosophy professor..." (New York Times, 4.12.07)

Just as I prefer literary existentialism to the philosophical kind, the passing this week of Kurt Vonnegut reminds me that my disdain for philosophic pessimism does not extend to the sensibility behind "Slaughterhouse Five," "Breakfasts of Champions," "Cat's Cradle," et al. Philosophically I could never endorse Vonnegut's disgusted remark that "evolution can go to hell" if we're its product; but I know what he was saying, and it makes me smile. So does his next observation in A Man Without a Country, which leavens contempt for Mark Twain's "damned human race" with the acknowledgement that on evolution's time-scale we did just get here. (See Carl Sagan's "cosmic calendar".) We can cut ourselves a little slack, and a little hope.

Verlyn Klinkenborg: "The time to read Vonnegut is just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be... No one nourishes the skepticism of the young like Vonnegut. In his world, decency is likelier to be rooted in skepticism than it is in the ardor of faith." In mine too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Rejecting evolution

Newsweek's latest appalling poll results indicate that "nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution." --

Nine in 10 (91 percent) of American adults say they believe in God and almost as many (87 percent) say they identify with a specific religion. Christians far outnumber members of any other faith in the country, with 82 percent of the poll’s respondents identifying themselves as such. Another 5 percent say they follow a non-Christian faith, such as Judaism or Islam. Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. Seventy-three percent of Evangelical Protestants say they believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics agree with that view.

Although one in ten (10 percent) of Americans identify themselves as having "no religion," only six percent said they don’t believe in a God at all. Just 3 percent of the public self-identifies as atheist, suggesting that the term may carry some stigma. Still, the poll suggests that the public’s tolerance of this small minority has increased in recent years.

Here's the good news, such as it is:

Nearly half (47 percent) of the respondents felt the country is more accepting of atheists today that it used to be and slightly more (49 percent) reported personally knowing an atheist. Those numbers are higher among respondents under 30 years old, 62 percent of whom report knowing an atheist (compared to just 43 percent of those 50 and older). Sixty-one percent of the under-30 cohort view society as more accepting of atheists (compared to 40 percent of the Americans 50 and older).

So younger respondents are marginally more "accepting." Too bad so few of them encountered even a little philosophy in the earliest stages of their religious indoctrination, so that they might go beyond acceptance and actually gain a little understanding. We must get serious about philosophizing with our children, about teaching them to think critically and fearlessly, if we're to hope for anything remotely resembling a thoughtful democratic citizenry in our future... if we're to hope for a future worth owning at all. More on this soon.

Saturday, April 7, 2007


Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays. "Resurrection" resonates symbolically for me, especially this time of year -- opening day, the darling buds of (April and) May, and all, are a genuine "return to life" that I try to mirror all through the year but feel most deeply only in the Spring.

Saying this sort of thing opens secularists like me to ridicule and resentment from mainstream religionists who think we're poaching on their territory, or blaspheming it. Garrison Keillor loves to poke fun at Unitarians in this regard, even though it doesn't seem to me that he's really an "average" Lutheran. But I side with John Dewey's Common Faith view: religious experience (call it "spirituality" if you prefer) is too widely shared and too important to cede to the supernaturalists. I felt yesterday (with Frank Bascombe): "Good Friday is a special day for me... as though a change were on its way..." Transformation and renewal are part of nature too.

And so I'll continue to celebrate the season of renewal tomorrow in a not-wholly-heathen spirit. "There's new grass on the field. Put me in, coach, I'm ready to play."

Happy Easter.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"Friend Hegel"

In my bygone undergraduate years in the seventies I had a teacher who spoke familiarly of "friend Hegel," and my pals and I convened our little Friday afternoon beer-and-conviviality club under the banner of what we pretentiously called "The Hegel Society." (Maybe we meant to emulate the St. Louis Hegelians, I forget.) That was a club destined for dissolution, when one of our group attempted a demonstration of his free will by bashing himself with a mug of beer. In any case, I never really cottoned to Hegelian philosophy – especially after discovering William James’s send-up in "Some Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide." There James notes a parade of contradictory candidates for Hegelian reconciliation and rational synthesis, such as "God and devil, good and evil, life and death, I and thou, sober and drunk, matter and form, black and white, quantity and quality, shiver of ecstasy and shudder of horror, vomiting and swallowing, inspiration and expiration, fate and reason, great and small, extent and intent, joke and earnest, tragic and comic, and fifty other contrasts... "

Tongue deeply lodged in cheek, James then proceeds to report a series of his own "deep" musings allegedly recorded while under the influence of Hegel and laughing gas, including:

What's mistake but a kind of take?
What's nausea but a kind of -usea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism --
How criticise without something to criticise?
Agreement -- disagreement!!
Emotion -- motion!!!!
By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn't hurt!
Reconciliation of two extremes.
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it is pure on sense!

(Michael Pollan undertakes a similar "experiment" in Botany of Desire, reading The Selfish Gene while smoking marijuana. His results were more enlightening.) But James finally tips his hand, venting a fiercely anti-Hegelian temperament:

the identification of contradictories, so far from being the self-developing process which Hegel supposes, is really a self-consuming process, passing from the less to the more abstract, and terminating either in a laugh at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood of vertiginous amazement at a meaningless infinity.

And there my own negative appraisal of Hegel rested for a long time, until eventually I came across an essay a couple of years back fetchingly titled (in coincident echo of my old prof) "My New Friend Hegel," by Michael Prowse:

"To the degree that we are thinking beings, Hegel says, we have to consider ourselves as part of a larger whole and not as neatly individuated। He calls this mental whole Geist, or Spirit, and tries to work out the rules by which it develops through time... Hegel didn't regard Geist as something that stands apart from, or above, human individuals. He saw it rather as the forms of thought that are realised in human minds... What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good."

This gloss anticipates the criticisms of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, two virulently anti-Hegelian pessimists whose philosophies were contemptuous of communitarian values and the public interest. Arthur Schopenhauer asserted the ubiquity of blind, striving, impersonal, purposeless Will. Soren Kierkegaard affirmed the propriety of "leaps of faith." The harm done in each case, I believe, is to reinforce the irrationalist impulses of modern life; and to extend to them an unearned respectability. We must not believe "because it is absurd"... and must not embrace despair until we’ve really given meliorism a fair shot.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

“New Atheism”

Harvard’s “humanist chaplain” Greg Epstein disapproves of the atheist “fundamentalism” of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, according to the Associated Press:

Epstein and other humanists feel their movement is on the verge of explosive growth, but they are concerned that it will be dragged down by what they see as the militancy of New Atheism. "Humanism is not about erasing religion,” he said. It’s an embracing philosophy."

Yes, but humanists should not uncritically embrace any belief anyone cares to entertain under the guise of religion, or automatically extend benign respect and deference. Steven Pinker is right: “It’s only the sense that religion deserves special respect – the exact taboo that Dawkins and Harris are arguing against – that makes people feel that those guys are being meanies when applying ordinary standards of evaluation to religion.”

On the other hand, Epstein is right to worry about tarnishing humanism as mean-spirited. (Remember Madalyn Murray O’Hare?) The times we live in will be far better served by friendly atheists like E.O. Wilson, reaching out to religionists for common ground in hopes of preserving the earth (The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth -- Norton '06; scroll to the bottom of this page to see YouTube video of Pinker, Dawkins, Harris, and Wilson)

But on the other other hand, I’m with Dawkins when he bemoans the abuse of children in the name of religious education. Children have a right to their native agnosticism, free of indoctrination. Philosophy can help with this, I am convinced. We need to be philosophizing with all our children from the beginning, arming them with the critical tools to think freely and creatively about their world and its future. More on this in future posts.

Talking and Living

My building at ESU yesterday was host to two noteworthy academic occasions:

1. Our department sponsored an address by a charming visitor from Chicago, who explained at length (and diagrammed) the structure of racial and sexual oppression in America. He used many words to say that black women have it worse than black men and whites generally. His thesis was almost too true to be good, too obvious to profit from theoretical elaboration. The ensuing trans-gender, poly-ethnic Q-&-A discussion was constructive, but on the whole I was reminded of what Richard Ford said (noted in Tuesday's post) about the futility of exhaustive explanations. The post-talk reception in our department chair's back yard, though, under a gorgeous moon on a perfect early spring evening with terrific food and drink and uninhibited conversation among good people, was more than worthwhile. I enjoy my friends and colleagues (and, btw, am pleased to report that they will continue to be my colleagues for the foreseeable future).

2. The English department sponsored a conference on Baseball in Literature and Culture. The luncheon speaker was the infamous old Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who was villainous when I was 11 years old because he helped defeat my Cards in the '68 World Series... and villainous later too, accused of racketeering, extortion, conspiracy, theft, money laundering, and mail fraud. He spent six years in prison. But his talk was all baseball. McLain had disturbing things to say about Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin (Martin "killed" Mantle) and Boog Powell (he broke Powell's hand with a "purpose pitch") and my hero Bob Gibson (he "hates America" but was a great pitcher).

I attended a session in the afternoon on the incredible old Negro Leagues star Satchel Paige (who was finally given an opportunity to pitch in the major leagues, and pitched well, at age 59). Paige said: "Age is a case of mind over matter, if you don't mind it don't matter." And: "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" Well, he was 75 (though his birth certificate apparently cannot be located to confirm this) when felled by emphysema. Smoking is not a good idea if you want to pitch forever, as Satch once proposed to do.

I spoke a few years ago at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, saying in part: "I suppose we are all here because we love to talk about baseball. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, those of us who are most enthusiastic about baseball know that talk about it is ultimately incapable of bearing its own weight... personal enthusiasms run deep, to a place beyond talk and the objectifying intellect." It was fun to visit the Hall of Fame and meet fellow enthusiasts, but in the end I'm still with Ford: we need to "leave off explaining" and get on with living. "What an awful trade that of professor is," William James complained at term's end in 1892, "paid to talk, talk, talk! . . . It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words." And yet, he came back to teach again in the Fall. As will I.

So, in the name of leaving off explaining and getting on with living: our daughter's little league season opener is tonight (she's the only girl on her team of "Diamondbacks") and I intend to enjoy it, not explain it. Happy Opening Day!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Richard Ford

My old friend at ESU in Alabama (we go way back, to before the Sellars-Quine Kitchen Debate mentioned a couple of posts ago) and I recently were discussing a mutual favorite, novelist Richard Ford. Ford, A. noted, is a masterful chronicler of the often-riveting varieties of ways in which his Everyman heroes (and we) try and fail to lose ourselves in the everydayness of quotidian life. (Like me, I think, A. prefers the Existentialism of fiction to that of philosophy.)

Ford's Frank Bascombe has now taken the stage in three outstanding novels, with the publication last fall of Lay of the Land. He is an older, wiser, more secular Binx Bolling (Walker Percy's "seeker" in The Moviegoer), who comes at last to understand that "a practical acceptance of what's what, in real time and down-to-earth, is as good as spiritual if you can finagle it." And: "Here is necessity... to live it out."

Bascombe, now more-than-slightly past mid-life and momentarily weary of becoming, hungers for necessity ("something solid, the thing ‘character’ stands in for") and Permanence. The trouble is, "Permanence can be scary. Even though it solves the problem of tiresome becoming, it can also erode optimism, render possibility small and remote... down deep inside [to] become just an organism... This you need to save yourself from, or else the slide off the transom of life’s pleasure boat becomes irresistible and probably a good idea."

I met Ford about ten years ago, and expressed to him my admiration for a particular passage in the first Bascombe tale The Sportswriter (1986)--

"Real mystery—the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book—was to them [his teaching colleagues] a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves, in other words. 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, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away—live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can't do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble. . . "Some things can't be explained. They just are. . . . It is better not even to look so hard, to leave off explaining. Nothing makes me more queasy than to spend time with people who don't know that . . . for whom such knowledge isn't a cornerstone of life."

Such a stance is easier to sustain, of course, if you are a former teacher who has achieved subsequent success in other endeavors (fiction writing, for instance). But its wisdom occurs to me in the classroom just about every day, usually smack in the middle of an explanation.

In a future post I'll discuss the middle Bascombe book Independence Day (1995) and its striking parental wisdom -- striking in part because Ford is not a parent himself.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


We've been reading James Lovelock in the environmental ethics class. He first introduced "Gaia," the Earth Goddess metaphor of a living and self-regulating planet that so many of the "scientifically correct" hastily rejected as mystical and New Agey, decades ago. Now, in Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock has gone apocalyptic: humans have plundered the planet and must consequently receive Mother Earth's harsh version of Tough Love. He predicts an 80% "culling" of the population in the next century, followed by a period of adjustment when the human survivors -- like those Irish monks -- will once more have to reinvent civilization.

Lovelock may be right, but I don't like his tone. I much prefer the perspective of Michael Pollan, whose Botany of Desire is our next read. Pollan, too, affirms that we are a part of nature; but his version of the relation between humans and non-human nature also acknowledges its "co-evolutionary" character. Our interests and desires have not just injured Gaia, in important ways they have defined her. We don't have to think of ourselves as forever harboring a toxic threat to the arc of our planet’s evolutionary destiny; we are one of its adaptations, and the only one capable of articulating a planetary point of view that recognizes planetary health as inseparable from human self-interest.

Al Gore made clever use of the Gaia metaphor in his testimony before Congress this week, noting that when your child is sick you don't ignore her condition because a scif-fi author [Michael Crichton, of course] said it wasn't a problem; you treat it.

I like Gore's tone more than Lovelock's, too. As Senator Gore wrote, way back when:

"For civilization as a whole, the faith that is so essential to restore the balance now missing in our relationship to the earth is the faith that we do have a future. We can believe in that future and work to achieve it and preserve it, or we can whirl blindly on, behaving as if one day there will be no children to inherit our legacy. The choice is ours; the earth is in the balance."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

In the kitchen with Quine and Sellars

Professor K. is retiring from my midwestern alma mater (ESU), I've just learned. I never took a course with him, but one of my treasured and enduring school memories involves a reception in his home for two distinguished visitors in the late '70s: Willard van Orman Quine (1908-2000) and Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989), probably the most famous philosophers in America at that time. I vividly recall being in Dr. K.'s kitchen on Westmount Avenue (a personally significant address, for reasons I'll discuss in a future post) with Quine and Sellars, and thinking how delightfully improbable the memory would seem, decades later. And so it does. Both of them have had their influence, though I don't remember either of them saying anything profound in K.'s kitchen that evening. (Would a callow undergraduate have recognized profundity if it bit him, back then?)

Some say this Sellars statement was savvy: "The aim of philosophy is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." Sellars wanted to reconcile the scientific and "manifest" images of life, and to preserve the philosophically worthy elements of everyday common sense.

Quine was considered a reductionist and revisionist sort of empiricist, saying things like: "Physical objects and the (Homeric) gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits". And: "Philosophy of science is philosophy enough". That's definitely not common sense. But is it wrong?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cheers to the Irish, and to Carl Sagan

A short history lesson on St. Pat's Day (Happy Birthday Sis!) -- Thomas Cahill says there'd be no Internet, blogosphere, or literate culture of any kind if the Irish hadn't "saved civilization":

Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment--in some ways, a Third World country... had one moment of unblemished glory. For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature--everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one--a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be. (How the Irish Saved Civilization, Random House 1996).

I raise my Guinness to those scribbling monks!

Meanwhile, Sam Harris continues his crusade to save civilization from religion. In a new LA Times op-ed he writes: Every one of the world's "great" religions utterly trivializes the immensity and beauty of the cosmos. Books like the Bible and the Koran get almost every significant fact about us and our world wrong. Every scientific domain — from cosmology to psychology to economics — has superseded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture.,0,5899452.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail
Trivializing the immensity of the cosmos: that's Carl Sagan's charge in his newly-exhumed 1985 Gifford Lectures, just published by his widow Ann Druyan as The Varieties of Scientific Experience. The echo of William James is deliberate; Druyan says Sagan admired James's description of the feeling one can get from religion or science of being "at home in the universe." The point Harris borrows is that a God of earth and its heaven, the "iron age" God, is simply too small. The point he misses, though, is Sagan's genuine agnosticism about the varieties of ways in which people do in fact make themselves at home. Sagan really is a Jamesian in this regard, while Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett are not. Is such agnosticism an "enabling" view, opening the door to religious perfidy?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"The Meaning of Life"

I once taught a course called "The Meaning of Life" -- lots of fun, if ultimately inconclusive. But on the last day of class we looked at a clip from my all-time-favorite TV show "Northern Exposure" which implied that the M.o.L. is "that old-time rock-&-roll" (music and lyrics by Bob Seger). The point was less literal, of course: we all need to find the particular music of our lives and "dance" to it. Anyway, Terry Eagleton has a new book on the subject. Here's a review excerpt.

Eagleton finally plumps for happiness, currently enjoying a revival among economists, philosophers and even politicians. But he points out with Aristotle that happiness comes in many and devious forms. . . Happiness disengaged from selfishness and allied to the Greek love for humanity (agape) passes muster, at times almost lyrically so.
The meaning of life is thus not "what you make of it". It is not a passing pleasure, which humans share with animals. Indeed it is not even an answer to a question, but rather "a matter of living life in a certain way". It is an ethical construct and involves treating others as you want them to treat you, caring for those close to you, helping strangers, thinking long term.
The meaning of life to Eagleton is like a jazz band, individuals engaged on a collective endeavour in pursuit of happiness through the mutuality of love.

--Simon Jenkins, in The Guardian --,,2030253,00.html

NOTE to the invisible (hypothetical?) readers of this blog: With the end of Spring Break and my return to reality (and a very large stack of ungraded essays), Delight Springs shifts to a slower pace of publication. New posts will now appear on Tuesdays and Saturdays. But as always, feel free to comment on any of these bottled messages whenever they find you.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Safe at home!

The odyssey concludes...

A 3-hour drive from Columbia, SC brought me to the mountainside doorstep of my old friend and former grad school roomie D., who led me to an excellent little bistro in Sylva, NC called "Guadalupe" (the beer selection was outstanding, I can particularly recommend the "Duck-Rabbit" and "Highland" Porters). Then we took in a gorey movie I might rather have missed, "The 300." In this version of ancient Greek history, centering on the battle of Thermopolae, the blood-lusty, death-dealing Spartans never retreat, never surrender, commit collective suicide in the name of warrior "honor," and all the while are portrayed as exponents of reason and freedom. Times reviewer A.O. Scott said it was as violent as "Apocalypto" and twice as stupid. But it was nice to pay just $5 for a movie, even if I lost count of decapitations, eviscerations, and variations on the declaration that freedom isn't free. I'm betting this film is popular in the Bush White House.

A restful night's sleep, capacious breakfast, and much engaging conversation followed, and then I was on the road again, arriving safely home in mid-afternoon to a welcome greeting that confirmed the truism about absence and the heart. Before I had a chance to unpack a thing I was whisked off by my elder daughter to her baseball practice. It's good to be useful again.

My march through Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas topped 2,000 miles; the restorative value of it all was priceless. And it's great to be home.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Anhedonia & consummatory experience

I commented in public on two philosophy papers this morning, one concerned with John Dewey's notion of "consummatory experience" and the other with the phenomenon of "anhedonia" -- the loss of zest, spring, joy, delight -- and what French philosopher Gabriel Marcel might have to teach William James about it. I was concerned to make just a couple of points:

1. Consummatory experiences are better had & enjoyed than talked about & analyzed.

2. The more consummatory experiences you have, the less likely you are to experience anhedonia.

I made those points, but not (of course) so concisely. This being an academic philosophy conference, and philosophy being a discipline that trades chiefly in words, I was expected to talk at much greater length about those two points and others besides. I did not disappoint.

But I hope my confreres will do what I did yesterday: go outside, breath the fresh air, take in some new sights, walk around... even if you don't have a consummatory moment, you'll still feel better and will be far less vulnerable to the dreaded anhedonia (which, btw, our French speaker pronounced not as rhyming with "Caledonia" but instead with the greater stress on the penultimate syllable -- so I learned at least one thing this morning).

I also related my experiences of the past week, which to my mind show that it is indeed possible to chase down your consummations (or at least become open to them) if you want to.

Next stop: the mountainous environs of Asheville, NC. Then, to invoke the inevitable baseball metaphor, I'll round 3d and head for home.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


Wow! Lakeland is a perfect baseball venue. I'd never attended a "real" game there before, just an informal intrasquad game years ago at which I recall Sparky Anderson being vocally managerial. This time I paid for admission to Joker Marchant Stadium and opted for a spot on the left-field "berm," the angled hillock just behind the fences. It was a lovely vantage from which to see a game (not to mention batting practice, during which I came oh-so-close to snagging a HR ball more than once). The Tigers hosted the Braves, into extra innings ( I confess to leaving before the resolution of the 4-4 tie, with concerns about Orlando gridlock -- not unreasonable concerns, as it happens.) Detroit looks good this year, with the addition of Gary Sheffield. BTW: Lakeland offers the best selection of non-Budweiser products of any place I've been in the Grapefruit League (or in the majors, come to think of it). First time I've ever been able to tell a Brit fan at a baseball game where he could find some Boddington's.

Leaving 2007 Spring Training behind, I'm in a reminiscent mood. My 1st-ever Spring Training was the last time the Cards were reigning champs, '83. I remember an upstart rookie outfielder named Andy van Slyke pounding a long home run against Joacquin Andujar, the '82 Series star, in one of those serendipitously-discovered free intrasquad games at the Cards' old St. Pete facility. (Andujar, who once said his favorite word in English is "youneverknow," responded with a mock finger-wag at van Slyke).

Time to join my philosophy colleagues and talk shop. In preparation I spent some quality time out of the conference hall today, wandering our host city -- Columbia SC. What a beautiful old town, with the 200+ year-old University campus nestled in the middle of things and a short stroll from the new River Greenway. I went to school in a different Columbia, not without its own sense of history -- but this one's unique in its own way. (How else could it be?)

When I leave here I'm looking forward to encountering another old friend -- a fellow academic who shares my ironic regard for our common profession, and (like Groucho & me) wonders what kind of club would have someone like us for members -- on the trek home, in the other Carolina. What a terrific week it's been -- but I miss my family. Just about time to go.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"Darwin's God"

From Sunday's NYT Magazine, "Darwin's God" (I'm just catching up, having been precoccupied with my own transcendental pursuits here in Florida)--

Call it God; call it superstition; call it... “belief in hope beyond reason” — whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science...

Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists [meaning Dawkins, Dennett, & Sam Harris -- though none of them is "neo" in this regard] is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.
Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident?

I'm not sure that's 's quite the right question, but I incline to James's observation as the beginning of an answer: the impulse to transcendence is not about God, it's about life. People reach for religious and other magic because they want a more intense and satisfying experience of mortal life (and the quest for immortality is satisfying for them). Transcendence is a natural phenomenon, and the invocation of transcendent entities, powers, potentialities, etc., is natural too. This is what I've called "global naturalism."

More on this later, I have miles to go and one more stop on my baseball junket.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Delight in Bradenton, Venice

6:50 pm E.T. My last full day of Spring Training, reluctantly concluded (but happily consummated). Pirate City remains charming and little-known (you can stand in the middle of an array of four diamonds, a few steps behind each home plate, as b.p., infield practice, and intra-squad games are going on). Phils beat Bucs in Bradenton, another gorgeous day-game (they announced the weather back in PA: 20 degrees, more snow expected), Ryan Howard smashed a double off the centerfield wall. Then, another rejuvenating beach walk (Venice Beach this time). It'll be hard to leave in the morning, but I need to reach Jacksonville by nightfall -- unfortunately my old friend near J'ville will be heading out of town in the a.m. But there should be just enough time to spare for a stop at the Tigers' place in Lakeland -- and I'll try to resist the impulse to stay for the game at 1. It sure was nice -- symmetrically so -- when my Cards avenged 1968 last October (thanks to the incredible lack of throwing-to-1st prowess on the part of the Tigers' pitching staff) and at the same time softened the blow of 2004 -- and did it with a team that probably couldn't have bested the '68 Cards once in ten tries. Just goes to show that baseball is indeed a funny game. As Casey Stengel said, there comes a time in everyone's life, and I've had plenty of 'em...

More delight in Sarasota

Is there a better setting for catching up with an old friend than in the left-field grandstand of Ed Smith Stadium on a 75-degree afternoon in Sarasota? Not in my experience. It was nice to see the home team rally for a 9-8 win against the Phils, too... though again, this is not about winning and losing -- it's about being, and (in the language of John Dewey) consummating, or fulfilling, or delighting in the possibilities of experience inherent in the nature of a live creature who also has language.

The post-game walk on Siesta Beach was pretty fulfilling too, timed to end just as the sun dipped into the Gulf.

And the hot tub before bed was more than delightful.

It's off to Pirate City now. My home-town AAA team is no longer a Pirate affiliate, as they were when I last visited this region three years ago. But I do know some of the players, sort of -- they were checking in ahead of me at the Days Inn when I first hit Bradenton the other day. (That's a Days Inn to avoid, btw.) The great thing about Pirate City is its accessibility. People have been bemoaning the impending departure of the Dodgers from their Vero Beach home, because it affords greater fan access than any other Spring facility. But the Bucs' place -- while no Dodger Town -- is plenty accessible too.

Time to get out there.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Greetings from sunny Florida!

Venice, FL. It's another lovely day in baseball paradise, at my friend's home south of Sarasota (where I'm meeting another friend at noon for the Reds' game at Ed Smith Stadium). Made my way here after yesterday's game at old McKechnie Field in Bradenton -- Reds whupped the Bucs, but Spring Training isn't about who wins & loses, it's about delighting in the atmospherics, the sun, the possibilities and the hope springing eternal... And here's the sort of thing that can only happen at a Spring Training game: on entering McKechnie Field I was greeted by a retiree renting seat cushions, who abandoned his spiel when he noticed my tee-shirt from "Chocorua, New Hampshire" -- he not only knew the place well, he also knew of William James and the fact that WJ had a summer home there (the place James loved because it had so many windows and doors, "all opening out"). We talked about James, Chocorua, philosophy, etc. for several minutes while his rental business took a holiday. That has never happened to me in a big league ballpark.

The roadtrip through Georgia was uneventful (if you don't count my purchase of pecan brittle made in Plains, GA and sold in Cordele) but not unpleasant. This was the trip when I finally fell in love with XM satellite radio, and (when at last I had to stop the music) was reminded of what a magnificent service is provided by (If you haven't heard Richard Dawkins and his wife Lala Ward reading The God Delusion you have something to look forward to).

Lest I forget, I have three more days here and then it's back to the real world (or my version of it), specifically Columbia, S.C., where I am expected to have responsible things to say about John Dewey's notion of "consummatory experience" and William James's projected view of what French philosopher Gabriel Marcel said about the difference between problems and mysteries. More on that later, right now I have beaches and baseballs to attend to.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Cat's 50... & some baseball chatter

Dr. Seuss's wonderful, horrible, subversive, playful, delightful "Cat in the Hat" is celebrating his 50th birthday today -- (not that there's anything especially meaningful or important about that particular number, from my perspective!) -- and that calls for a tip of the stripey hat to a character who taught more kids to love reading than anyone else I know. We read that and many other Seuss stories (my favorite was The Lorax: "I speak for the trees!) in our household just a few years back. I miss those years, and treasure them. I thank Mr. Geisel for helping to subvert my children, and teach them that it's ok to have fun on a rainy day even, or especially, if the adults don't get it.

In the Cat's honor I'm hittin' the road this afternoon, headed eventually to a philosophy gig in South Carolina... but it's Spring Break, so pleasure precedes business: I'm taking the long way, via St. Pete, Bradenton, Sarasota, Ft. Myers, Kissimmee...

It's been too long since last I heard the crack of the bat up close. My best Spring Training moment ever, by the way, is not the lone foul ball I ever caught in my bare hands while juggling dog & beer (in March '91 at St. Pete's Al Lang Field, when the Cards' still played there and not on Jupiter; it was shanked by Dale Sveum of the Philadelphia Phillies, and I plucked it in the right field grandstand where the Bay view is rivaled only by San Francisco's PacBell Park (or whatever their corporate masters are making them call it now).

Nope, the best moment was in March 2000, in Jupiter (got the preposition right that time): Ray Lankford made up for Mark McGwire's snub of my then-5 year old daughter's request for an autograph by walking behind the batting cage where he'd just cracked his Louisville Slugger... and handing it to her. Nice guy, Ray.

By the way, have you seen the doctored Derek Jeter baseball card? Someone digitally implanted the president and Mickey Mantle in the front row while Derek swings. Thanks to computers you just can't trust your own eyes anymore, can you?

Coming to this space soon, news from the Grapefruit league. (Still haven't ever done the Cactus, maybe next year.) The gravitational pull of the Volvo parked outside is palpable, with Jim Morrison ready to sing me out of town with "Roadhouse Blues" just as soon as I can finish inflicting two more midterm exams. Too bad everyone can't enjoy a Spring Break.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Stewart Brand's new shade of green

Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog publisher (and instigator of Earth's first full-frontal photo portrait), online pioneer, former Merry Prankster, and free-thinking '60s icon, wants to know "where are the green biotech hackers?" He says we should -- and predicts that environmentalists soon will -- embrace nuclear power, genetic engineering, and biotech. He says population is not going to be a problem, nor will urban sprawl. ("An Early Environmentalist, Embracing New 'Heresies'," NYTimes, 2.27.07)

Is he nuts? I don't know, but after re-reading Bill McKibben's classic End of Nature in our environmental ethics class I'm struck by this Brand observation:

"My trend has been toward more rational and less romantic as the decades go by. I keep seeing the harm done by religious romanticism, the terrible conservatism of romanticism, the ingrained pessimism... It builds in a certain immunity to the scientific frame of mind."

I have a lot of respect for McKibben, but I can't warm to his Deep Ecology version of romanticism according to which nature's meaning is her independence of all things human. When he urges that we remain God's creatures rather than aspiring to godhood ourselves, I wonder if there isn't a saner intermediate position: we don't have to be gods, to be responsible global citizens and effective caretakers of the planet (for a change). We are the part of nature that can -- but too rarely does -- think about how to clean up after itself. McKibben makes clear, in this book, in Enough, and probably in his forthcoming Deep Economy -- that he thinks we must rein ourselves in, stop growing, stop re-engineering the planet and ourselves, declare "halt!"

I'm with Stewart Brand on this: "you have to keep trying new things," like biotech, and sometimes you have to rehabilitate old ones -- maybe even nukes.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Spring Training!

The first "real" spring training games of the season (there's an oxymoron for you, I guess) commence today in Florida and Arizona. Unless the sky falls between now and Friday, I'm goin'! Spring Break begins Friday afternoon, and I'm taking the long way to a philosophy conference in South Carolina -- via St. Pete, Bradenton, & Sarasota. Stay tuned for dispatches from baseball heaven (apologies to "Bull Durham's" Iowa).

Baseball has inspired more good writing than any other game, hands down; and New Yorker editor & contributor Roger Angell is the best of the best. Powell's Books did a nice interview with him concerning his memoir Let Me Finish -- And see New York's profile,, and The New Yorker's Q-&-A

Angell once wrote of the pre-2004 Red Sox,

"Glooming in print about the dire fate of the Sox and their oppressed devotees has become such a popular art form that it verges on a new Hellenistic age of mannered excess. Everyone east of the Hudson with a Selectric or a word processor has had his or her say, it seems (the Globe actually published a special twenty-four-page section entitled "Literati on the Red Sox" before the Series, with essays by George Will, John Updike, Bart Giamatti—the new National League president, but for all that a Boston fan through and through —Stephen King, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and other worthies), and one begins to see at last that the true function of the Red Sox may not be to win but to provide New England authors with a theme, now that guilt and whaling have gone out of style."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Evil, & Free Will

As anticipated, there were lots of interesting conversations in class today. No new insights on the problem of evil, and surprisingly little evident reaction to the Simon Blackburn analogy I like to relate when first introducing this topic to undergrads: suppose, Blackburn proposes, you live in a dorm that's falling apart, where the food is awful (people sometimes die from it), and where the "management" (though rumored to exist) never actually appears. Would you infer from this state of affairs that the management nonetheless exists, is aware of your predicament, cares deeply about you, and possesses infinite resources for fixing things? No? Not even if one of your fellow students aggressively insists that she is privy to the mind and heart of the management, and can assure you that you are loved and cared for by management and that all is for the best in the dorm just as it is? No -- no more than you'd buy the claim that the "infirmities of Windows" ever persuaded anyone that Bill Gates is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent.

Interesting discussion this evening on free will and determinism, the latter being an example of a "weird" belief that my adult student found irrefutable, though unpopular. I remain unpersuaded, being a Jamesian on this issue ("my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will"). I recall the undergraduate demonstration of free will I was treated to many years ago, when my classmate destroyed a perfectly fine glass of beer by violently dashing it against his own cranium. "I'm free, Q.E.D." Nope, just crazy -- and, I came to realize as I got to know him, predictably crazy. This randomly weird demonstration was just the sort of thing he might have been expected to do, hence more a demonstration of determinism than anything else.

Dawkins, Dennett, & James on religion

Is religion one of our species' most valuable "springs of delight," even when it veers (as so often it does) into absurdity and unreasoning dogma? (I don't share Richard Dawkins' view that it pretty much lives there permanently, though he scores plenty of points in that direction in The God Delusion).

William James thought religion to be one of our most important cultural achievements, even while admitting the absurdity of its many and contradictory doctrinal intransigences. In Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) he defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." Elsewhere James wrote that religion is not about God, it's about life and our quest for a richer, more meaningful experience thereof.

By sharp contrast with James's neutrality about supernaturalism in religious persons' designation of their own sense of "the divine," Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell proposes to define religions as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought... a religion without God or gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone."

I confess some ambivalence about all this. I like the open-endedness of James's receptivity to all kinds of religions, which for him really was just a way of saying "hands off" other people's personal enthusiasms. But I also find myself cheering many of Dawkins' and Dennett's acid repudiations of casual supernaturalism and mysticism, their "Bright"-ness (see

I plan to discuss some of this tonight, when I teach the second and last installment of an adult evening (fundraiser) course at my kids' school. It'll probably come up in class this afternoon, too, at ESU (my particular Enormous State University) -- today's topic is "the problem of evil." That always provokes students' religious reflexes, and often instigates discord, not a bad thing in a philosophy classroom if it can be constructively harnessed. I look forward to good conversations today.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Welcome to "Delight Springs"

"Delight Springs" is a blog about ideas, culture, philosophy, baseball, personal enthusiasms of all sorts, and we'll see what else. The name borrows and inverts a phrase from William James (1842-1910), who wrote of our "springs of delight," the habitual and idiosyncratic sources of light and life that quicken the pulse, excite the imagination, and bring down barriers to sympathy and respect between people. I will attempt to cultivate, or at least acknowledge, some of those sources here. If I can elicit an occasional responsive echo from the other side of my keyboard, so much the better.

More prosaically, the name "Delight Springs" aims also to suggest a quasi-geographic, cyberspace sense of place -- analogous to real-world places like Colorado Springs, Warm Springs, Hot Springs, or (my favorite) Red Boiling Springs, the little Tennessee town that a century ago was a mineral bath mecca for the likes of Woodrow Wilson. Is it too much to hope that visitors here will go away reinvigorated, and will wish to return for more? Yeah, probably. So I'll just wish instead that you find enough here to sustain your interest, sometimes provoke your constructive comments, and occasionally bring you back.

Thanks for reading. Accelerating Intelligence News