Monday, November 25, 2013

"Incoherent Rambling"

It was a pleasure recording a radio interview with the "Incoherent Rambler" (& part-time Cynic) this afternoon. We'd done a dry run on paper earlier, but then let fly with a more spontaneous exchange when the tape began to run. Not sure which was better, but here's what I can document today:

Now, Dr. Oliver, you’ve evolved on many many things even in the short time I’ve known you.  One such topic, and one that I’ve really wanted to introduce to my audience, is the classic Mill/Bentham debate.  Could you briefly outline the Mill/Bentham debate, and where you come down on it? -Mill and Bentham were 19th century Happiness philosophers . Bentham urged the greatest happiness for the greatest number, without further qualification. “Pushpin [whatever that is] is as good as poetry,” he said. Mill objected that indiscriminate, lowest-common-denominator pleasure is unfit for human beings. Ask those who’ve tried both pushpin and poetry, he said, and they’ll likely prefer poetry. And what if they don't? What if they don't even prefer baseball to football? Well, Mill and I may not like it but if we're going to be advocates of liberty (as Mill, the author of "On Liberty," purports to be) then that's that. I come down on both Mill's side and Bentham's: I want everyone to try poetry and their preferred version of pushpin, and then I want them to exercise their freedom without my or others' interference. I happen to think, with Mill, that it's better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, but in our democracy the "pigs" have a vote too.  I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to say their lives were not worth living. 

Pluralism-What is it, and how do we reconcile (the "socrates dissatisfied" paradigm) with it, or anything really? -Philosophical pluralism, at least as the pragmatists I favor typically deploy the term, means a commitment to supporting and encouraging varieties of ways of being, thinking, speaking, writing, philosophizing & living... it's multiplicity and diversity, for its own sake, for the sake of individual happiness and flourishing, AND for the sake of a more vibrant, creative,honest, self-critical and self-correcting culture. This is J.S. Mill's better legacy, and it's why William James (author of  "Pragmatism" and "A Pluralistic Universe") said Mill would be the Pragmatist-in-Chief if he were still around.

Melting Pot/Salad metaphor -A melting pot to some extent loses the sharp distinctiveness of its ingredients, to create something fresh and new and sui generis. But so does a good salad. And yet, a tomato or a carrot or a shard of lettuce remain distinctively themselves. Maybe we'd rather be a crazy salad than a gumbo. But that's a hard call.

“Cherry-Picking”-tell us about it -This is the approach Duke philosopher Owen Flanagan calls "hybridism," wherein (for instance) a non-Buddhist like himself (or a pragmatist like me) can find much in Buddhism to appreciate and even emulate. The point of picking cherries is that we don't just want cherries. We like apples and oranges and other things too. I prefer empiricism to rationalism (and radical empiricism to classic empiricism), but that doesn't prevent me from appreciating Descartes' quest for clarity or Spinoza's natural piety

How far does this go? -As a pragmatist I'm inclined to go as far with it as I can. So long as the hybrid position "pays its way" by leading to positive experiences and apparent insight, there's no good reason to revert to an ideologically exclusive 'ism instead of seeking the best of many worlds of discourse

Reconciling cognitive dissonance (do you have to?) -I do try to avoid cognitive dissonance, and logical confusion generally... but I also resonate to the Jamesian concession that words and formal discourse are no substitute for pre-cognitive experience and its delightful immediacies. When philosophical problems make your head hurt, I say, you should get out of your study and take a hike

Is this a way of “having your cake and eating it, too?” -It's a way of having a smorgasboard sampler... of having your cake and pie and ice cream and... The trick is not being such a glutton that the whole thing becomes unpalatable

Define pragmatism -"A new name for an old way of thinking," a method of solving otherwise-intractable metaphysical disputes, a commitment to finding the practicality and relevance of philosophy as applicable to as much of experience as possible.

Who was James, why was he important? -He called himself Henry James's older, wiser brother. (Henry is considered the founding "Master of the modern literary novel.) William was a delightful human being who I discovered as an undergrad via his letters, and wish I could treat to a beer at the Boulevard. Unfortunately, one of the James's other brothers was an alcoholic and that seems to have turned William away from that particular form of conviviality. He was the gracious founder of pragmatism who tried to deflect credit to his friend Peirce, a defender of "experience against philosophy," whenever the two seemd to conflict... hence, a Radical Empiricist who took personal experience seriously as the real meaning of life (in all its variety).

Universal application of Pragmatism (is there/could there be such a thing?) -In a global and political sense that would mean the end of ideology, and a commitment to learning and re-learning the lessons of experience, changing plans and policies and beliefs accordingly. I don't guess we'll get everyone on board with that anytime soon, but I do think we're seeing the decline of the more rigid and oppressive forms of ideology and may hope to see that trend continue.

How far would James take it? -His professional focus was on showing the incoherence of pragmatism's main intellectual opponent in his day, Absolute Idealism. He'd be pleased to see it no longer in vogue. Today, I picture him gathering our worst partisan politicians around that squirrel-tree he spoke of, in "Pragmatism," and lecturing them to specify their practical differences more transparently. (Then, he'd probably throw up his hands in frustration at their unreflective intransigence... the way most of  us do.)

What are the important things to do in Philosophy? -I actually think there's a place for "narrow" epistemology, alongside aesthetics and ethics and metaphysics and all. I just wish that place were more proportionate to the relevance and general interest of most of its problems. I have a brilliantly intelligent philosopher friend who's been tormenting himself over the so-called "problem of the criterion" for decades, while aspects of his personal life have been more prominently and genuinely problematic in his life. (I don't think he'd deny it.) That, to me, is unphilosophic

The big question: What’s the secret to happiness? -As we just read, in Jennifer Michael Hecht's "Happiness Myth," there's no Big Secret. But there are many paths and strategies to happiness. The (lower-case) "secret" is that we all have to make our own happiness "lists" and work it out for ourselves. In my own case, "mens sana in corpore sano" (healthy mind in a healthy body) has been a constant goal. I walk every day, and that purchases at least several hours a day of perceived happiness. So I intend to keep moving, one way or another. Other happiness "secrets" I've tried to act on include those mentioned at the end of Monty Python's "Meaning of Life": Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.
P.S. But here's what I actually said...

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