Wednesday, August 31, 2011

John Adams in Tennessee

Stopped in at the Walker Library yesterday, at Middle Tennessee State University, to check out the visiting "John Adams Unbound" exhibition. Don't miss it if you're in Murfreesboro, it'll only be there through September. Adams used to be a relatively unsung revolutionary hero, but David McCullough, HBO, and PBS have chipped away at his obscurity.

Another side of Adams was a bit misrepresented by the religion panel, though, which played up his Unitarianism and portrayed him as a more-or-less conventionally pious pilgrim. In fact, as Jennifer Hecht points out in Doubt: A History, he was a doubter and a skeptic both before and after his affiliation with the Unitarians. Just like me.

As President he declared: "The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation." And as for those who would ban questioning the Bible's allegedly divine origins? "I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind."

You hear that, Rick & Michelle? Probably not.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Listening is an act

And it's a good one. Dave Isay is on campus this afternoon, talking about his StoryCorps project to get more of us listening attentively and respectfully to one another. His book Listening in an Act of Love was the summer Freshman Read. (It sure beats the Vanderbilt offering my friend from there was telling me about yesterday at the Sounds game, the late Peter Gomes' preciously self-important Good Life.

We'll talk about Listening soon, classes begin tomorrow. Time always begins on opening day. Play ball!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Confessions of an Ex-Moralist -

Joel Marks is wrong, but in interesting and provocative ways. I wonder if he's read "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" by William James. There the view is ably defended that although (as Marks suggests) the full set of competing human desires is socially unsustainable, our objective aspirations in morality and ethics remain wholly tenable.

Confessions of an Ex-Moralist -

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Science Friday Archives: Weaving ‘Charlotte’s Web’

Was excited to tune in to NPR's "Science Friday" yesterday and hear old friend Michael Sims discussing his Story of Charlotte's Web... even more excited to learn that he's working on a book about Thoreau and Walden. It'll be great. Can't wait.
Science Friday Archives: Weaving ‘Charlotte’s Web’

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Poetry And Philosophy Of Troubled Times | On Point with Tom Ashbrook

You don't often hear a poet and a philosopher on the radio. And at the same time? A first.

Billy Collins can make even a bleak future (past, present) sound inviting.
 How does he do that?

When I finally arrive there—
and it will take many days and nights—
I would like to believe others will be waiting
and might even want to know how it was.

So I will reminisce about a particular sky
or a woman in a white bathrobe
or the time I visited a narrow strait
where a famous naval battle had taken place.

Then I will spread out on a table
a large map of my world
and explain to the people of the future
in their pale garments what it was like—

how mountains rose between the valleys
and this was called geography,
how boats loaded with cargo plied the rivers
and this was known as commerce,

how the people from this pink area
crossed over into this light-green area
and set fires and killed whoever they found
and this was called history—

and they will listen, mild-eyed and silent,
as more of them arrive to join the circle
like ripples moving toward,
not away from, a stone tossed into a pond
New Yorker
The Poetry And Philosophy Of Troubled Times | On Point with Tom Ashbrook

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Transformation of Michele Bachmann : The New Yorker

A profile of the goofball candidate from Anoka.

This would be laughably, parodically entertaining, if only so many "serious" pundits weren't calling her a serious candidate. And now comes the goofball candidate from Texas. Maybe they'll split the goofball vote. But wait, what about the goofball candidate from Wasilla?

The Transformation of Michele Bachmann : The New Yorker

Secularism and Its Discontents : The New Yorker

Terrific piece by James Wood, including Philip Kitcher on the message Plato's "Euthyphro" should convey to those who think you can't be good without God (this "turns morality into God's plaything") and Tom Nagel counseling that we should "approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair." Wood's comment on Nagel: that's "cold comfort in the middle of the night."

Secularism and Its Discontents : The New Yorker

Monday, August 8, 2011

Evolution on the radio

Dan Dennett was on the radio ("What Does Evolution Want?"), rejecting Simon Conway Morris's claim that human-type intelligence is inevitable and insisting on the limits of science, in a rebroadcast of  "To the Best of Our Knowledge" yesterday. (Also on TTBOOK, "Waiting for the Apocalypse": send it to anyone who seriously proposes your serious consideration of "Revelations.")
What are some important questions that are beyond the scope of science?
What should we do?  All the ethical questions are outside of science.  They’re the province of philosophy and particularly the province of a political process, where we try to get everybody to sit down and talk about what we ought to do.  Science isn’t about what we ought to do.  Science can tell you how we got to where we are in our moral thinking - how our moral attitudes evolved, both biologically and culturally.  But once science has done that, we have to sit down and figure out what we ought to do.  
He's clearly rejecting the Moral Landscape position Sam Harris has been defending, embracing a position associated with his old rival Stephen Jay Gould.

Did the tape of evolution play an utterly contingent tune when it played us? Hard to believe there's anything inevitable about our species, but it would be nice to think that intelligence in the universe is more than a fluke. And nicer to think that more of it is likely.

Listen, too, for Ken Miller's invocation of Carl Sagan in defense of  varieties of evolutionary possibility. Good show.

Another good rebroadcast yesterday: Anthony Appiah, the cosmopolitan ethicist and experimental philosopher, on Krista Tippett's On Being. He's a pluralist's pluralist, such a sane voice in these crazy times.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

More Sunday cycling

Another pleasant Sunday morning bike ride from birds'-eye perspective through the neighborhood, this time looping the Richland Creek greenway & McCabe golf course, the girls' old tee-ball fields, Nashville State (where I taught briefly many years ago), Hillwood High School... 12 miles in an hour, threading the rain. Didn't realize so many of my neighbors had pools. We need more common ground.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

On Reverie

In his Gallic way, Raphael Enthoven's "Stone" essay echoes Julian Treasure: pay attention, listen up. "The world before concepts... Reverie is how one arrives at immediacy." Or is it the other way around?

The Baudelaire quote is terrific.
In the trembling of a leaf, in the color of a blade of grass, in the shape of clover, in the buzzing of a bee, in the sparkle of a drop of dew, in the sighing wind, in the vague fragrance coming out of the woods, an entire world of inspirations is produced, a magnificent and colorful parade of disorganized and rhapsodic thoughts.
Glad to see a French philosopher embracing perceptual immediacy as a counterweight to too much cerebral intellectualism. That was the spirit of Henri Bergson, so much applauded by William James.
On Reverie -

Thursday, August 4, 2011

walk and enjoy

Speaking of enjoying life and being happy...

"Keep your health, it's better than all the truths in the firmament." William James

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Happiness 101* impends. Can't wait!

*Officially Philosophy 4800-001, "Readings in Philosophy: Happiness and the Secret of Life"

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rethinking Moral Relativism -

Stanley Fish's "Stone" essay yesterday asked if philosophy matters. Some of us wonder if Fish matters, and why he's been granted such a bully pulpit. The casual bandying of muddy claims (pro and con) about "moral absolutes" is a common undergraduate error, but it usually doesn't enjoy so prominent and prestigious a public forum.

But, I do agree with him that the term "absolute" generally sheds little light.
“[W]hen we are in a muddle about what the answer to a hard moral question is, we are in a muddle about what the absolutely correct answer is.”   [Fish asks:] Why “absolutely”? Isn’t “correct” good enough?
It is. Some philosophers don't get that, and lots of dogmatic non-philosophers don't get it.  But that's no reason to tar "philosophy" per se, regarded as an activity, as an orientation to the world, or even as a profession, with the charge of irrelevance. Nothing could possibly be more relevant to the search for "correct" answers and questions.

Monday, August 1, 2011

lifestyle biking

I'm shopping for a new bike. Too bad this one's not on the market yet. Recreation is important but utility and green living are too.
Bet it'll be a hit in the Netherlands, where Russell Shorto says biking really is integrated into every facet of daily life. Where our dedicated bike lanes 
seem to be used more for recreation than transport — cyclists in Amsterdam are dressed in everything from jeans to cocktail dresses, while those in Manhattan often look like spandex cyborgs...
But while many Americans see their cars as an extension of their individual freedom, to some of us owning a car is a burden, and in a city a double burden. I find the recrafting of the city in order to lessen — or eliminate — the need for cars to be not just grudgingly acceptable, but, yes, an expansion of my individual freedom.
I'd love to eliminate my need for a car to run 80+ miles a day between home and school and school and back again, but alas. A colleague does it on a motorcycle but he lives just down the street from school and carries no passengers.

I still want my bullet train. Accelerating Intelligence News