Wednesday, October 22, 2014


The almanac celebrates Thomas Edison today, and his indefatigable perseverence.
When asked how he persisted despite 10,000 failures, Edison reportedly answered; "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work."
He was a Popperian falsificationist before his time. 

And a freethinker, as Jennifer Hecht has documented in Doubt: A History and here:
In 1910 Thomas Edison was asked by the New York Times if he thought it possible to communicate with the dead. “No,” he responded, “all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life—our desire to go on living—our dread of coming to an end as individuals. I do not dread it though. Personally, I cannot see any use of a future life.”

A public figure in 1910, she notes, could still speak in public of a "rationalist, naturalist understanding of humanity and the universe." When's the last time you heard someone of Edison's stature (but who would that be, now?) say anything like this? 

Hecht blames the Cold War and its aftermath. That's a big part of it. So is the stultifying tendency of tradition, almost every tradition, to discourage intellectual honesty. But the tradition of doubt itself stands as a shining exception. You should read the book, it's good.

And read her latest, a heroic response to the epidemic of suicide called Stay. It too is a testament to perseverence.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Peripatetic words and wisdom

I've jotted so many walking quotes in so many notebooks for so long, the next step clearly is to gather them. Or to begin, at least. 

"Walking has the best value as gymnastics of the mind... no pursuit has more breath of immortality to it... 'Tis the best of humanity that goes out to walk." Emerson

“I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements... If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life.. I have met but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks-who had a genius so to speak for sauntering." Thoreau

"Solvitur Ambulando. It is solved by walking." Diogenes

"My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it." Montaigne

“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.”  John Muir

“It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.” Anatole France

“I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Kierkegaard

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Nietzsche

“Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away. You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.” Annie Dillard

On average, the total walking of an American these days - that's walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls - adds up to 1.4 miles a week...That's ridiculous.” Bill Bryson
"Walking articulates both physical and mental freedom... Home is everything you can walk to." 

“Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors...disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it..."

"Walking articulates both physical and mental freedom..."

“Home is everything you can walk to...

"When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”

“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society, and doing nothing is hard to do. It's best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”  

"I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.” Rebecca Solnit
"Modern literary theory sees a similarity between walking and writing that I find persuasive: words inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space... writing is one way of making the world our own, and that walking is another.” 

"Walking isn't much good as a theoretical experience. You can dress it up any way you like, but walking remains resolutely simple, basic, analog. That's why I love it and love doing it." Geoff Nicholson

"Walking has something in it which animates and heightens my ideas..." Rousseau, America on Foot

When a traveler asked Wordsworth's servant to show him the writer's study she replied "here is his library, but his study is out of doors." America on Foot

"Walk and be happy, walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose."

(to be continued)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

John J. Compton, "searcher after truth"

What a delight, the gathering at Vanderbilt yesterday of some of John J. Compton's old students and colleagues to honor the memory of the man one of us named "the most admirable person I've ever known." All recalled his generosity, kindness, optimism, exuberant high spirits, unflagging support, frequent smile and peeling punctuating laughter.

He was for many of us a role-model, professionally and temperamentally. He wrestled with the legacy of his famous Nobel laureate father Arthur Compton [papers... Wiki], a key participant in the Manhattan Project. He was unusually sensitive to moral complexity, a philosopher genuinely committed to asking all the hard questions and to really hearing discordant answers. As one colleague from Psychology put it, he defied the stereotype of philosophers who like argument merely for its own sake alone: he was an "illuminating" interlocutor, a searcher after truth.

My old mentor and John's colleague John Lachs was among those in attendance. He gave me an inscribed copy of his new book, a perfect reminder of just how grateful I and generations of Vandy philosophy students should be, for our generous allotment of search guides. Accelerating Intelligence News