Friday, December 31, 2010

Thursday, December 30, 2010


"To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself..."

"Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


"I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."

He also said:

"All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What Christmas is all about

It's a pagan holiday, Charlie Brown...

Implausible as it may seem to J&M. It's still a great occasion for festivity and fun, peace on earth, good will etc.

Those are the roots, now let's look to the fruits. (Pass the nutty fruitcake.) Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Just remember...

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the 'Milky Way'.
Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth. 
-The Meaning of Life

Thursday, December 23, 2010

writing & thinking

More tips for writers. #6, from Jonathan Safran Foer, is very good. [More good advice]

"I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." But that's poetically-licensed hyperbole: Emerson collected & wrote about them in the little notebooks he quaintly called "Universe." That's how he came to think for himself and know his own mind: writing, walking, talking, thinking... Simple things. Joy. And endurance.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

wise words

Didn't order this for the upcoming Environmental Ethics & Native Wisdom course-- I need a short handle for that, how about EW?-- but maybe I should. There's something very calming, but also damning, in these wise words.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


How about that eclipse? On the solstice, no less! ("First time since 1638...")

“The moon, like a flower
In heaven's high bower,
With silent delight
Sits and smiles on the night.”

William Blake? Whattaya mean, William Blake

Garry Trudeau's Dan Asher put it nicely too, in MellowSpeak. "Oh, wow. Look at the moon."

"If you were on the moon during totality, you would look back at the Earth and see a ring of red light around the perimeter—the red light of all the sunsets and sunrises going on at Earth at that moment..." 

I want to go there!

Monday, December 20, 2010

wag more...

A very funny thing happened on our brisk Sunday stroll through the charming old Belle Meade Links neighborhood yesterday morning.

The dogs, sometimes spooked during Halloween season by yard ghosts & ghoulies, ignored the many inflatable Santas & Snoopys (et al) but went ballistic at the site of this guy.

I wasn't quick enough with the phone cam to capture them in his face, teeth bared and growling fiercely, but maybe you can imagine...

This is just the kind of trivial daily ephemera I find myself attending more closely to, during holiday break. Research shows: people who smile at absurdity live longer, and better. Dogs too, I think. A trip to the dog park may be in order. We'll all bark less.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

time's up

Marie was going to show us the rest of this yesterday, but the clock dinged too soon. We've got to make more intelligent use of our time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

tables turned

We were talking about the future of music the other day with Kevin, then Harrison 
asked if I had a turntable. Therein lies one more brief cautionary tale about the future in general.

My old console stereo, with built-in LP "changer" (called that, I think, because you could pile a stack on the spindle and another record would drop onto the platform in turn as the needle withdrew from each terminal circuit) died while I was still in High School in Missouri in the '70s.

I made do for a time, it was the 8-track era and that's what I listened to in the car. I loved  the chunka-chunka sound of the track switching every three songs. When I think of it I mostly imagine "Magical Mystery Tour" playing as I rolled down I-70 to or from my first college semester at UMSL (U of Mo - St. Louis), in the '72 Dart.

Eventually I bought a nice cheap Technics turntable, which carried me to grad school in Tennessee. I didn't buy many new records; cassettes and the Sony Walkman were big now. And then compact discs.

And then, at some point-- I'm hazy on (or traumatized by) the details, maybe it was in the fog of preliminary exams-- I became convinced that I no more needed that turntable and those LPs and 45s and tapes than I needed an Edsel. 

So I gave 'em away.

Dumb dumb dumb.

Now my music is on a large, neglected stack of CDs, on an iPod, and in the clouds of Sirius and Pandora. I miss my records!

The moral, of course: don't give away your rich, textured (ok, scratchy and hissy) and memory-laden past, in the present, for the unsecured promise of perfection in a shiny but hypothetical future. And don't assume that new and different is always necessarily better. 

But: keep aiming for the stars anyway. 

Postscript. Thank you, Harrison & class, for this wonderful parting gift. It was pressed by Third Man Records in Nashville, whose leader says "people are paying a couple hundred bucks each" on Ebay for this very rare item. Wow.  I'm now officially shopping for my next turntable.

That's the great thing about the future: you don't know what you're gonna get!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"program" or else

Parents who believed their kids would intuitively multitask their way to professional success are now concerned those same kids are losing the ability to focus on any one thing... 
Faced with a networked future that seems to favor the distracted over the focused, the automatic over the considered, and the contrary over the compassionate , it's time to press the pause button and ask what all this means to the future of our work, our lives, and even our species... Douglas Rushkoff

Monday, December 13, 2010


What a pretty snowfall we had yesterday. That doesn't happen in middle Tennessee in December very often.

But ours finals will go on, tomorrow thru Thursday.

Sec. #18 (2:40)  - Tuesday 14th, 3:30 pm
FoL (MW 2:20) - Wednesday 15th, 12:30 pm
Sec. #13 (9:40)  - Thursday 16th, 10 am
Sec. #17 (1:00)  - Thursday 16th, 1 pm
Now: please stop emailing me for this info, students. I have essays to grade. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010


My wife asked the other day if I wasn't glad they didn't hire me at Belmont U., all those years ago, after reading about the soccer coach they fired for being gay. [Nashville Scene] But they did, before they didn't.

My sin, back in December '98, was confessing my occasional attendance at services of the Unitarian church. The Belmont provost rescinded my hire the day after. A stir of publicity ensued, and students weighed in with letters to the editor of their campus paper offering moral support. But nobody's ever offered to bring me back. They needn't bother.

Yes, I said. I am glad. But I feel bad for my friends on the Belmont faculty, too. As I said back then, Belmont enjoys an undeserved reputation for being an open, accepting, ecumenical institution of higher learning. In the years since, that reputation has grown. It's still false, and my faculty brethren at Belmont deserve much better than to be saddled with the constant threat of meddling ideological intrusion and the violation of their academic freedom.

And there, but for the grace of God...
Post-script. This story has made the New York Times

Thursday, December 9, 2010

nihilism & happiness

“Nihilism stands at the door,” wrote Nietzsche.  “Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?” 

So begin Sean Kelly's "Stone" reflections in the Times the other day. He doesn't explain exactly what Nietzsche meant by "God is dead," and this statement suggests that he hasn't spent much time in the heartland:
Today’s religious believers feel strong social pressure to admit that someone who doesn’t share their religious belief might nevertheless be living a life worthy of their admiration. 
I meet many who don't seem to feel the pressure at all.

But Kelly makes a fascinating connection in this essay to Herman Melville, whose message he translates as encouragement to
 find happiness and meaning... not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived.  The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings.  They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events.  
Wish I'd had that interpretation of the whale-hunter's intent back when my undergrad profs had me reading Pierre and Moby Dick. (Douglas Adams' whale might have helped, too.)

"All writing is re-writing," and maybe the best reading is re-reading. Bear that in mind, students, as you prepare for next week's exams. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

the answers

Here are the answers. Now, what are the questions? And what do they mean? Happy studying!

(Beginning w/quiz 15)
nominalist; blank slate, sensation, reflection, Leibniz; primary & secondary, appearance & reality; "qualities" (or the idea that they represent non-ideas); "to be is to be perceived," God perceives them; kicking a stone, no; conjunctions, habits, knowledge; F; war, peace; rational, progressive, liberal, scientific, life, liberty, property; depravity, life itself; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; Mary Wollstonecraft; Adam Smith; Rousseau

opposed; Herder, control of nature; empiricism & rationalism, Hume; phenomenal & noumenal, phenomenal; stars, the moral law, categorical imperative; Schelling, Maddame de Stael; Hegel; dialectic, when we reach the Absolute Idea; zeitgeist, the march of reason, mind; Marx, Schopenhauer; will, denial of will; Kierkegaard; Feuerbach; abolition of private property, communism, capitalism (freedom, equality), no

Leibniz; knowledge, faith, God, Freedom and Immortality; constitute; as an impersonal "transcendental ego"; by acting in accordance with reason and the moral law; because the experience of injustice would otherwise discourage us away from morality; Napoleon, the all-embracing comprehension of history and humanity; Spirit or Geist; we're all in this together; atemporal knowledge and timeless categories, organic (biological) development, the self is socially constructed, excessive individuality, communitarianism; that it is retrospective and not prospective, coming after the  fact to describe what has already happened; romantic, optimism; adapted Kant's phenomenal world, no point; to live passionately, existentialism; "You are what you eat" (i.e., how you physically cope with the world is more important than ideas); converted it into an economic theory

F, nihilism; Wagner, Schopenhauer; F; Apollo & Dionysus; slave or herd-morality, life-denying-because if restrains strong individuals and denigrates the world, spider, blockhead, superior individual, sublimation & repression; the view that we should promote happiness or pleasure for the greatest number, u'sm is criticized for being impractical and ignoring motives, Mill proposed a quality distinction; freedom, restricted only by harm; Comte, positivism, theological/metaphysical/positive stages; Spencer; pragmatism, instrumentalism; Santayana, Rorty, Rawls, Nozick, Quine;  Bergson; Freud

Bentham & Mill; evolution by natural selection; ape, Ubermensch, the future of human nature, bourgeois "couch potatoes," utilitarianism; tragedy does not attribute misfortune to sin or blame the victims, N thought Christian redemption, Schopenhauer's pessimism, scientific optimism and technology were life-denying (nihilistic) & sought to make everything too comfortable, vitality=meaning of life; "eternal recurrence"implies that this life alone counts for anything; the St. Louis Hegelians, practical/pragmatic, Jefferson & Franklin, anti-intellectualism and ignorance; Thoreau, Emerson, Wm James, C.S. Peicre, John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois; legitimacy of different ways of experiencing and living in the world

linguistic turn; linguistic atoms and facts, logic, the world is an irreducible whole; Edmund Husserl, conscsiousness; facts, is; therapy, language game; Godel; SF identified mind w/brain, but said we don't understand our own minds well & are made unhappy by civilization; Protestantism; Bergson, events

phenomenologist, existentialism, Dasein; existence, essence, bad faith; feminism, The Second Sex; T; philosophy (as the search for Truth); New Age

epistemology, analytic philosophy, a branch of logic, propositions & truth-values; Russell & Whitehead, Kurt Godel; logical atomism, ordinary language philosophy, solved all problems, picturing, "silence"; syntax, Hegel, meaning=verification, falsifiability; "language games," no, therapist

America's entering WWII; F; geometry, mathematics; the moment when he realized there are unproven axioms in mathematical systems; Leibniz's dream of a complete language; no foundations; to model reality; "we shall not know"

self-reference; Principia Mathematica, Ockam's Razor, artificial stupidity;  no foundations; confusing maps w/reality; there are no certain facts & no independent mathematical reality; compassion & love, logic, language can be deceptive, meaning is not in the world, all the problems of philosophy; irrationalism, collapse of foundations; logical language & scientific worldview, Godel, unanswerable questions, the unverifiable or non-logical is not unimportant, Schlick's murder; Russell's journey has been from doubt to certainty and back to doubt, he says Leibniz's Dream of a "royal road to truth" was an error, his "cautionary tale" says beware of ready-made solutions, he eventually agrees with Wittgenstein that answers must be contemplated "beyond words," the Internet

Future of Life class-

people, share; quest, mystery, leap; lock-in; Internet coming to life; ascendant "tribe" of tech-utopians; you may get trapped in someone else's careless thoughts; empathy; algorithms & crowds; Updike; causal; F; insincerity

detached; F; creative people; sell something tangentially related to their work (like face-time or tee-shirts); hyperlinked connectivity; there's an "ocean of goodwill"; like lottery tickets, they give people a stake; moderately wild

"strange" (& maybe "pathetic"); "eating its own seed stock";  Internet coming to life; no; "retro retro retro" w/no distinct style; impossible to represent to completion; connecting w/people; cloud-crowd as superhuman intelligent entity; Douglas Adams; individual voice

F; subprocces, mystical communicators; meaning as verification, it's being pushed by the rapid growth of digital data; dull; encounter w/physical reality; facial tracking; olfactory parts of brain are ancient, widely shared, connected with emphatic speech; yes; sexual display; creates a vast meaningless store of symbols, like Borges' library

F; F; an evolutionary strategy aiding development, attention, social networks & blogs (etc.);  software devpt will stop by 2020, medical progress will accelerate; juvenilia, imagination, bullying & selfishness; F; children will shrink & alter (like the Magic School Bus) in order to learn, cephalopods; expansion of meaning, concreteness, escape from lock-in

less philosophical & more practical, resignation,; ice melting... coral reefs disappearing; it's happening now; 350 ppm; "irreversible" for 1,000+ yrs"; no; it'll be a less healthy post-human planet; 20:1, no, we'd never get back to 350; direct causal relation, "double & triple binds"; Colorado, Wyoming, British Columbia... trees dying

economic growth; F; more renewable power, electric cars, windmills; Exxon Mobil, disinformation, hydrocarbons; sea level rise etc., wind blows harder now, more rain falls etc.; coal, disappearing alternatives; wars over resources, dampen our expectations etc.; limits to growth, significant support, E.F. Schumacher, White House reception & solar panels, "fascination," no

Durable, Sturdy etc.; false euphoria in the "data inputted into the risk management models," ratio reversal between nature & society, bigness diminishes useful feedback; big wasn't in back then; F; yes & no; current pres wants to use centralized power for good ends, "When in the course...", functional; weakened, made us less happy, yes, local & neighborly; "do something that won't compute"; civil rights & wilderness etc.; more people take care than take advantage of each other

F; no more agriculture in California etc.; eat oil & spew greenhouse gases; F; 50%; F; T; staying home or "going out in the world", "no one needed to leave..."

it will benefit from our "giving all to the present," exuberance; blogs etc., feelings; biotech entrepreneur/scientist; "beautiful," yes; T; bi-polar condition; liver, [gens]; will turn humanity into fast food, fixes inheritable; immune to anxiety, in continuous "flow"; meaningful connection

"flawed"; no; humanity a massive parallel computer; becomes reality; less egocentric; human nature; not feeling at home in the world & the catastrophe of collective wisdom; living in the Now; be born happy; Thassa; epigenetics; public or private

we were born; hates it; be flexible, feel lucky, media hype will mold "collective wisdom"; single-author fiction is too personal & idiosyncratic, collaborative; evolution, "preside over the design of its own obsolescence"; ??? [a good extra credit question]

generosity 3

1.Why does Thassa think we should all feel lucky?

2. How does Stone feel about "national novel-writing month"?

3. What does the "witty pragmatist"/positive psychologist tell "Oona's" audience about happiness? What does Thassa tell them? What's the show got to do with the future?

4.What is Kurton's objection to fiction? What kind of "post-genomic" writing does he envision?

5. What does Kurton find more exhilarating and inspiring than happiness? What does he see as our destiny as a species?

6. "What kind of story would ever end with us?"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


It was an interesting day in my little corner of academia, yesterday.

First the good news:
On-campus Memo from Dean, College of Liberal Arts
"After careful consideration, I have recommended that you be promoted to the rank of Associate Professor..."
Then the reality check, at the Faculty Senate meeting. A review of the "2011-12 State Appropriations Distribution Recommendation" shows our campus being, as our Senate President put it, "reamed" by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's funding formula. No other school in our system comes close to suffering a $565,000+ "redistribution." UT-Knoxville, on the other hand, is a big winner. Our loss is their gain, almost precisely.

What a surprise.

I'm grateful for my personal promotion, but my institution could stand some more effective promoting too.


1. Heidegger said he was a ___________ like his teacher Husserl, but most consider him an ____________ like Sartre. His invented term for persons was _______, or "there-Being."

2. Jean-Paul Sartre said ______ precedes ________, leaving us free to invent ourselves. Those who deny their freedom are guilty of ___ _____.

3. Simone de Beauvoir opened up a new wave of ________ that questioned philosophy's commitment to women's freedom. She wrote __________, one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

4. (T/F) "One must consider Sisyphus happy," according to Albert Camus.

5. According to Postmodernists, _______ no longer exists.

6. ___ ___ philosophy shows a continuing need and hunger for philosophy.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Will we choose to stay human, to pursue our happiness in the old unscientific way, in this engineered age? Bill McKibben hopes so. His Enough remains one of the best statements of a kind of Russell Stone-like humanist rebellion against the science of happiness.

generosity 2

1. What does Powers seem to think of "collective wisdom"?

2. Does Stone hope to emulate Thassa's happiness?

3. What idea about "the entire human race" and its aggregated prognosticating powers has now become "commonplace"?

4. In the Julian Barnes epigraph for Part Three, what happens to myth?

5. How is Kurton not like Craig Venter?

6. What does the Australian novelist think genetic enhancement represents the end of?

7. What might Stone's hypothetical book be about?

8. To what are we "tuned by a billion years of natural engineering"?

9. What's "the secret of Happiness" (according to the popular press)?

10. What or who is Kurton's "design template for the future"?

11. The strongest critique of genetically-engineered happiness comes from _________.

12. Age 21 is young enough to know that there's no what?

generous wisdom

Maybe the smartest line in Generosity, so far:
...tomorrow will be there, as soon as you need it.
But also good is: "The secret of happiness is meaningful work." Or is it simply to fall into the orbit of someone who's already happy, and bask in their glow? Isn't that resignation?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

attn: USN

University School of Nashville (USN) has released its Evening Classes catalog for 2011. Course #601 looks good...
Description: Are you more likely to scan headlines, Facebook, or a blog than dig deep into a new novel? Have the simple pleasures of yesteryear been usurped by YouTube videos? Amidst the trills and beeps of the digital age, can we rediscover our attention span? Our world is overrun with distraction and the manic pace makes it increasingly difficult to connect with the natural world. If your psychic inbox is full, join author, MTSU philosophy professor and USN dad, PHIL OLIVER as he examines this information overload and considers how we might participate in our technologically-evolving world, while still retaining our attentive powers and our sanity.
It'll be on Feb. 15, 7 pm.

Freud & friends

1. Frege launched what "turn" in philosophy?

2. What "atoms" was Russell trying to reduce the world's complexity to? What did he and Whitehead try to reduce arithmetic to? What was their Hegelian peers' response?

3. Who was the founder of "Phenomenology," the study of ________?

4. Wittgenstein's Tractatus says sentences picture _____, and implies in its conclusion that there _____ (is, is no) meaningful experience beyond the bounds of philosophy, language, and reason.

5. In Wittgenstein's later philosophy, a form of _______, the fundamental unit is the __________.

6. Who showed there will always be unprovable sentences in any formal system?

7. How was Sigmund Freud both pro- and anti-Enlightenment? What, on his view, causes unhappiness?

8. To what did Max Weber attribute capitalism?

9. Whitehead and ________ were major figures in the development of "process philosophy," which rejected static metaphors of eternity and timelessness and emphasized ______ instead of objects.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

not afraid

It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Woody Allen, (books by this author) born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn (1935)...

As a teenager, he started reading classics by Faulkner and Nietzsche because he was embarrassed when he took girls on dates and they asked him about writers whom he'd never read. But he told them jokes. When he was 15, he started submitting his best jokes to gossip columnists. He went to NYU, but he got an F in English and a C-plus in film, and he was expelled because he never went to class...

Woody Allen said, "I hate reality. But where else can you get a good steak dinner?"

And, "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."


1. The Camus epigraph in Richard Powers' Generosity says what about the future? Kay Jamison says what is contagious?

2. How is our time characterized by a "runaway first person"? What are the "new facts"?

3. Who is "Thomas Kurton"? (Hint: he seems to have much in common with Craig Venter and Ray Kurzweil.)

4. What does Kurton think of "grandeur in this view of life" (etc.)? Does he want to live forever?

5. (T/F) "Drugs that eliminate the need for sleep" and "untraceable performance enhancers" are among the topics treated on "The Genie and the Genome."

6. What is hypomania?

7. What does Thassadit mean? What does "generosity" mean?

8. What's Tomkin's objection to germline engineering and "designer children"? Why does Kurton like it?

9. What are Thassadit's distinctive personal traits, or symptoms?

10. What does Kurton think people would pay $50,000 for? Accelerating Intelligence News