Tuesday, August 31, 2010

welcome to philosophy

We had a little fun in the Future class yesterday, with a useful quote from the Kung-fu Panda about history and mysteries and the gift of the present. (I know, it's not that funny. But Older Daughter loves it.)

Today it'll be Intro to Philosophy's turn for howls of derisive laughter. Or not. But in case you miss any of the Bruces' scintillating dialogue, here are a few of the less objectionable words:
Second BruceI'd like to welcome the pommy bastard to God's own earth, and I'd like to remind him that we don't like stuck-up sticky-beaks here.
AllHear, hear! Well spoken, Bruce!
Fourth BruceNow, Bruce teaches classical philosophy, Bruce teaches Haegelian philosophy, and Bruce here teaches logical positivism, and is also in charge of the sheepdip.
Third BruceWhat's does new Bruce teach?
Fourth BruceNew Bruce will be teaching political science - Machiavelli, Bentham, Locke, Hobbes, Sutcliffe, Bradman, Lindwall, Miller, Hassett, and Benet.
Second BruceThose are cricketers, Bruce!
Fourth BruceOh, spit!
Third BruceHowls of derisive laughter, Bruce!
Fourth BruceIn addition, as he's going to be teaching politics, I've told him he's welcome to teach any of the great socialist thinkers, provided he makes it clear that they werewrong.
They all stand up.
AllAustralia, Australia, Australia, Australia, we love you. Amen!
They sit down.
Fourth BruceAny questions?
Second BruceNew Bruce - are you a pooftah?
Fourth BruceAre you a pooftah?
Fourth BruceNo right, well gentlemen, I'll just remind you of the faculty rules: Rule one - no pooftahs. Rule two, no member of the faculty is to maltreat the Abbos in any way whatsoever - if there's anybody watching. Rule three - no pooftahs. Rule four - I don't want to catch anyone not drinking in their room after lights out. Rule five - no pooftahs. Rule six - there is no rule six! Rule seven - no pooftahs. That concludes the reading of the rules, Bruce.
First BruceThis here's the wattle - the emblem of our land. You can stick it in a bottle or you can hold it in your hand.
Fourth BruceGentlemen, at six o'clock I want every man-Bruce of you in the Sydney Harbour Bridge room to take a glass of sherry with the flying philosopher, Bruce, and I call upon you, padre, to close the meeting with a prayer.
First BruceOh Lord, we beseech thee etc. etc. etc., Amen.
And here's the argument clinic.

I was looking forward to projecting all this onto the impressive new 25-foot screen in our formerly low-tech classroom, but-- and isn't this funny?!-- the installers didn't hang it correctly. It fell over the weekend and crushed our lectern. Ha. Ha.Ha.

I'd complain... but if you complain it does no good, you might as well not bother. (etc.)

And several butchers' aprons.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"one thing that makes us unique"

A seminal quotation in my own thinking about the future, from Dan Dennett. We are descended from remote ancestors for whom we were-- are-- the future they worked to secure. We're all links in the same chain. Will someone look back to us, someday, in gratitude?

Saturday, August 28, 2010


"This" is why theists and atheists will never finally resolve their differences, based on the appearances of things, and ought to resolve to let them stand. "Respect one another's mental freedom," as WJ would say.

Friday, August 27, 2010


This is the time of year when our late Dean, John McDaniel, would send around the latest Beloit College "Mindset List" to remind us all just how dated our own references have become, relative to our incoming students' stock of living memories. 

Had to look it up myself this year. A few items I'll bet the Dean would've noticed:
2. Email is just too slow, and they seldom if ever use snail mail.

4. Al Gore has always been animated.

9. Had it remained operational, the villainous computer HAL could be their college classmate this fall, but they have a better chance of running into Miley Cyrus’s folks on Parents’ Weekend.

13. Parents and teachers feared that Beavis and Butt-head might be the voice of a lost generation.
14. Doctor Kevorkian has never been licensed to practice medicine.
15. Colorful lapel ribbons have always been worn to indicate support for a cause.
16. Korean cars have always been a staple on American highways.

20. DNA fingerprinting and maps of the human genome have always existed.
21. Woody Allen, whose heart has wanted what it wanted, has always been with Soon-Yi Previn.

27. Computers have never lacked a CD-ROM disk drive.
28. They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day.
29. Reggie Jackson has always been enshrined in Cooperstown.

31. The first home computer they probably touched was an Apple II or Mac II; they are now in a museum.
32. Czechoslovakia has never existed.

35. Once they got through security, going to the airport has always resembled going to the mall.

38. Bud Selig has always been the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

46. Nirvana is on the classic oldies station.
65. They first met Michelangelo when he was just a computer virus.
66. Galileo is forgiven and welcomed back into the Roman Catholic Church.
67. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always sat on the Supreme Court.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

R.I.P., WJ

On August 26, 1910 [in Chocorua, N.H.] at two-thirty in the afternoon, with Alice holding his head, William James died. At the end there had been, Alice noted, “no pain and no consciousness.” (Robert Richardson, William James)

But, Mr. Blood, remind us again:
There is no conclusion. What has been concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!

A century later, William James’s death was not his end. He remains vitally related to the wider life of the ages.

And what a terrific party we had in his honor in Chocorua (and Cambridge) week before last. He– his “wider self”– was there. (As were his great-grandsons Robertson and Henry.) 

His brother Henry was correct: William James “is a possession,” and not a few of us are “still living upon him.”

golden age

Another fondly-recalled summer read: Edward Bellamy's 19th century utopian dream, Looking Backward, in which a Bostonian goes to sleep in 1887 and awakes in 2000 to a socialist paradise. I read this one on my iPod too, at the beach. (A free Stanza download.)

The author said it was "written in the belief that the Golden Age lies before us and not behind us."  A very pleasant summer dream indeed, and arguably a more "rational" optimism-- or at least, more flattering of human virtues-- than that portrayed in another of my beach reads, Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist...

Should we be optimists because the golden age awaits our species-evolution beyond commerce and acquisitiveness, as Bellamy proposed? Or because, as Ridley has it, self-interest places us all in the employ of one another and perpetually grows the pie-trough from which we all sup?

I know this : it's easier to be an optimist at the beach than at the Senate retreat. But this morning, I'm optimistic about school too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Zinn history

One of my summer reading pleasures this year was Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Zinn was a controversial figure among professional historians. I can't speak to the question of his alleged improprieties as a scholar, but it was terrific and enlightening hammock entertainment. 

He passed away earlier this year. Yesterday was his birthday.

Howard Zinn, (books by this author) was born in Brooklyn, New York (1922). He's the author of A People's History of the United States (1980). It has sold more than a million copies and continues to sell about 100,000 copies each year.
Zinn wrote more than 20 books, including the memoir You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994). Last year, he said: "I think it's very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion to where it was at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union gave it a bad name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman. It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the country. Socialism basically said, hey, let's have a kinder, gentler society. Let's share things. Let's have an economic system that produces things not because they're profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need. People should not be retreating from the word socialism because you have to go beyond capitalism." Writer's Almanac

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

just imagine

Interesting reflections on the philosophical uses of imagination, from Oxford don Timothy Williamson last week in The Stone. Like Williamson, and unlike some of my colleagues, I have great respect for the novelistic imagination as a vehicle for ideas and critical thinking. 

In New Hampshire, for instance, I mentioned Rebecca Goldstein's novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, about an "atheist with a soul" who strikes me as a Jamesian who's read his "Will to Believe." What so impresses me about that essay, and about James in general, is his vast well of sympathy for beliefs not necessarily his own. That's the power of the philosophic mind attuned to possibilities, only a fraction of which will ever be actualized or validated in our own personal experience.

Williamson, though, says something near the end of his essay I think a Jamesian could quarrel with:
Today, if someone claims that science is by nature a human activity, we can refute them by imaginatively appreciating the possibility of extra-terrestrial scientists.
Umm, no. We can extend and deepen their claim, not refute it, by noting that human activities bear the potential to open us up imaginatively to worlds we've barely begun to dream of.

How did Emily Dickinson put it? "The brain is wider than the sky..."


Monday, August 23, 2010

faith, truth, & evidence

Just read a tweet that reminds me how much I enjoyed presenting the "Will to Believe" essay it fell to me (as session chair) to read last Sunday in Chocorua, NH for the "Footsteps" Symposium. Its author Mark Franklin was unable to attend, so I got to collect by proxy the many expressions of admiration directed his way for his excellent work. The spotlight was all his, but I lucked into basking in it. 

The re-tweet from @DJGrothe asserted, in the dogmatic form imposed by 140 characters (if not in fact by a dogmatic frame of mind, on this issue), 
that faith, belief without evidence, is something to be admired is probably the most dangerous idea in the world today.
Mark's paper, to the contrary, pointed out very persuasively that sometimes,
by deciding not to commit ourselves until sufficient evidence arises, we might actually end up working at cross purposes with our own truth-seeking aspirations... 
Waiting for conclusive evidence that you can scale the heights, defeat the enemy, win the Presidency, or meet the deadline (to pick a few random cases) is liable to be self-defeating. Truth isn't out there waiting to be found, it's waiting to be made. Or not. Truth happens

Yes, we can. Well, maybe we can. Who knows? -In advance, nobody does. That's why James wrote that
 a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.
It's just not always as simple or black and white as "faith versus evidence." So many of the contentious squabbles surrounding so-called New Atheism  would benefit from a deliberate and reflective reading of "Will to Believe," and an appreciation that many "faith-heads" (Dawkins' term of opprobrium) value truth too.

But few of the more prominent contenders seem to have bothered reading it at all.

Mark's excellent essay, along with audio of the entire Symposium on MP3 CD-ROM (and video of much of it), is available for purchase at www.conferencerecording.com. 

Tell your local librarian.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


In light of my recent infatuation with certain houses-- 95 Irving Street in Cambridge, and the "14 doors opening out" summer home they now call "Stonewall," in Chocorua, New Hampshire, specifically-- Alain de Botton's Architecture of Happiness offers some interesting insights.
John Ruskin proposed that we seek two things of our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us - to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.
What a load of expectation to place on any mere human construction. But those two buildings in New England reminded me how important it is to have a place to hang not just your hat, but your head too.

I toured Stonewall a week ago this afternoon, with a group of Jamesian pilgrims. The stone wall in this image is not the wall, where James and his metaphysical idealist bete noire Josiah Royce perched for their staged debate-it's out back, just to the right.

Friday, August 20, 2010

more footsteps

Hiked this mountain a week ago today in New Hampshire, up the Piper Trail near Route 16. Signed the security register when setting out, then noted on returning that the next signature after mine was simply "Thug"... happily, I met no thugs on the trail. Just a few other winded geezers and their impatient young companions.

I'm in a climbing mood again today, guess I'll have to settle for Lea's summit at Percy Warner Park. The elevation pales by comparison, of course, but on a good day inspiration can still be found there. Plus, it's just minutes away.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

on time

Randy Pausch knew something about managing time-- "the only commodity that matters"-- when it is short. (When is it ever not?)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

95 Irving St

This is the house in Cambridge, Massachusetts where William James resided with his family from 1889 until his death in 1910. He met and entertained colleagues (including neighbor Josiah Royce) and students here. Harvard declined an opportunity to purchase the property in 1999. The interior has not been preserved.

Recorded on August 15, 2010 using a Flip Video camcorder.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

telling stories

The next annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP) is scheduled for next March in Spokane, Washington. The announced conference theme is "narrative and identity."

How ironic, then, to note that Spokane native and former SNL cast member Julia Sweeney, one of the world's great storytellers (God Said Ha!, Letting Go of God), has declared her intention to begin a new chapter in her own personal narrative. Her blog announcement, posted this past March:
I plan to stop being a public, personal, storyteller.
Her new story begins with an old one, the one she'd recently told at a TED conference involving her 10-year old daughter Mulan's introduction to the sex lives of frogs. 
It got big laughs and even a partial standing ovation at the end.  People really loved it and I was so high and happy afterwards. 
I'm proud that I have the skill to tell a good story and make people laugh. I have a million happy memories of being onstage and making people laugh.  

But, she went home and thought about the embarrassment potential, of that and other of her stories-- their potential to embarrass the people she loves, mostly, but also their subversion of her own privacy and dignity. She was 
mortified and could not believe that I hadn’t considered this before.  Mulan looks good in the story – a curious, smart nine year old.  But the whole topic is embarrassing to a girl her age. 
As for herself, 
I no longer wish to be so naked and bare.  I am surprised I ever did want to do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did.  I am proud that I learned to craft my experiences into a story and I am proud that I learned the craft of being on-stage.  But now, I need to stop doing it.  I am happily married, for one thing, and it’s boring and inappropriate to talk about.  My daughter is ten and she reads my blog, (OMG!) she goes to my shows.   In fact we have spoken at length about the stories I tell about her.   Not that, at ten, she is really capable of understanding the ramifications.  Still, she says it’s okay to tell the Mulan-frog story.  But ugh.   I don’t think she really understands.  I feel the need to protect her from myself!
The posted reactions of Julia's fans have ranged from supportive and  sad to hurt and angry. I consider myself a fan, and my own reaction is a combination of understanding and discomfort.  I blog, I have kids, and while I tend not to tell personal stories I consider overly revealing or invasive of their or my privacy, I still have to wonder if I am contributing (along with millions of others) to a phenomenon of public disclosure and transparency whose implications are not entirely sunny. 

Julia Sweeney is-- was?-- a professional "public, personal storyteller." Countless more of us are amateurs. What do we stand to gain and lose, specifically in terms of our personal and collective "identity," through the incessant spinning of all these public "narratives"?

Nick Carr, Clay Shirky, Jaron Lanier and others have begun to address these issues. What should a public philosopher steeped in the spirit of James and Dewey say about them?

Don't know yet. I'll ask around. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Happy b'day MO

Missourians are supposed to be modest and self-effacing midwesterners. I used to be one myself. 

The state of Missouri was admitted to the Union on Aug.10, 1821. Missouri is called the "Show Me State," a motto dating back to the 1890s and a speech where Congressman Willard Vandiver declared: "I come from a country that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I'm from Missouri, and you have got to show me."
For the past several decades, the mean center of the population of the United States has been in Missouri.
Missouri is the center of America in other ways, too: St. Louis, Missouri, is considered the farthest west of America's Eastern cities, and Kansas City, Missouri, is thought of as the farthest east of America's Cities of the West. In the past, Missouri was a Southern state; now it's generally thought of as a Midwestern state.
It's what's called a "bellwether state" in politics. Missouri has voted for every winning U.S. presidential candidate since 1904, with just two exceptions: the 1956 election and the 2008 election.
Missouri was settled by German brewers and has always had among the most lenient drinking laws in the nation. When Prohibition fever swept the rest of the nation, Missouri never enacted statewide prohibition. State law specifically bans arrests for public intoxication. Open containers of alcohol are permitted in moving vehicles (passengers can drink).
Missourians count among their ranks: Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot, Sara Teasdale, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, William Least Heat Moon, Joseph Pulitzer, J. William Fulbright, Walt Disney, Walter Cronkite, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Jesse James.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What is philosophy?

The Philosophy Bites podcasters are sponsoring a twitter contest to find the best 100-character definition of philosophy. Lots of interesting and preposterous proposals are turning up at #philbitescomp

My entry, exapted from William James and melded with linguistic skepticism:

Philosophy: an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly about what can & can't be clearly stated. 

And then there's Ambrose Bierce's:

PHILOSOPHYn. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

He must have had a bad class. Existentialism was after his time.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Nice to see fellow Nashvillian and journeyman pitcher R.A. Dickey getting good notices for both his knuckleball and his vocabulary.
"If he's not the most thoughtful and well-spoken person in that clubhouse, he's near the top of the list," said Mike Sielski, Mets beat writer for TheWall Street Journal.
"In the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, R.A.'s locker was next to Jason Bay's. Within a five-minute span, Jason used the word kerfuffle (disorder) and R.A. used the word surmised (infer). The reporters were joking, 'Who uses words like this in a baseball clubhouse?' I made the comment that there's more intelligence concentrated in these two lockers than just about any clubhouse in professional sports in the United States."
But... for "surmise" he's an intellectual? Really? And he's underpaid at $600K?

On the other hand, he's an old man at 35. Kudos to him for persevering.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

less strident

"Strident, and for that reason easy to ignore." Slightly ironic, no? But I'm finding Hitch's graceful and humbled bout with cancer anything but strident. Experience is the great teacher of us all, if we pay attention long enough.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Hitch on CNN: don't expect a death-bed conversion, and don't pray for him unless it makes you feel better - it won't do anything for him. (Unlike Dan Dennett*, though, he won't ask if you've sacrificed a goat.)

*Dennett:  I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were PRAYING for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond "Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?" I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said "I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health." What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don't expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Christopher Hitchens has many faults, but sentimentality and self-pity are not among them. He's writing about his recently-diagnosed esophageal cancer now, interestingly confessing that he'd been deathly ill the morning of his appearance on The Daily Show earlier this summer when he so charmingly acknowledged-- while inwardly in denial about-- his mortality.

 To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
Right. The universe really could not care less.  

He says he'll have something to say about the "astonishing number of prayer groups" who've been trying to intercede on his behalf, if he is "spared." I do hope he is.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

future of life

Sir Martin Rees, thinking deep and long at a Long Now Foundation seminar [video]:
We tend to get a distorted view of history as a long, boring past during which nothing much happened, and then a very short period of rapidly accelerating change leading up to the present. In reality, however, the Sun isn’t yet even halfway through its life cycle.
Despite that, people who predict things “a million years from now” are considered to be talking about the unimaginably distant future, but a million years is only a few dozen clock ticks of cosmological time. We as humanity are responsible for the future of not just the next few thousand years (the timescale on which civilization has so far existed) but for “spans of time six or more orders of magnitude greater than that.”
Over the truly long term, our posthuman descendants will become — not just second-generation intelligences — but thousand-generation or million-generation intelligences. He quoted Darwin on how no species can pass its likeness into the distant future unaltered; in a billion years of biological evolution, we’ve gone from bugs to humans, and technological evolution is a lot faster than biological. Our distant descendants will be not just strange, but completely alien to us.
During this century, we not only have unprecedented opportunity, but unprecedented responsibility. If the new technologies we build have a high chance of causing civilization-wide catastrophe (and Rees thinks they do) for the first time in history, then we are, all of us, are responsible for actively preventing that from happening, not just trying to predict it or understand it. The key thing here is the commitment to taking action to alter the future instead of just trying to predict it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

deep reading

It's a bit ironic to find Nick Carr's The Shallows, which complains-- among other things-- about a Rhodes Scholar (& philosophy major!) from Florida who never reads entire books but relies instead on the far more "efficient" surface reading facilitated by Google Books...in Google Books.

But wherever you find it, in whatever medium or format, this deserves to be read deeply end to end. Carr has read his William James on "attention."

Monday, August 2, 2010


At the beach I'm not a shell-gatherer. But I do stoop to punctuate the end of each day's walks, finding some small token to stick in my pocket before reversing direction.

Like tweets, posts, moleskine journal entries, and sands through the hourglass, shells at the seashore serve nicely to notch the days in tangible form.

And like footprints in the sand, they're a good reminder: we're all destined for fossil-hood of one sort or another. This too shall pass.

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