Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Podcast. Still trying to appreciate Rousseau's reveries, I was slightly diverted from my intended path this morning when the Almanac reminded me of Huxley and pointed me back to Darwin's Sandwalk.

I love this sequence in Jay Hosler's Sandwalk Adventures, with its graphic rendering of what's appealing but misleading in the familiar notion of an evolutionary parade. Every step of a walk entails literal forward progress, and it's hard not to transpose that into "a nice, neat progressive march" of natural history. But we must resist the impulse to impute directed progress where the evidence is only for adaptive change.

However, just four pages later we find Darwin declaring  that "passing ideas onto a new generation can be just as important as passing along some physical adaptation." Why is that, if not because we think ideas make a difference in that corner of nature where the parade of human history unfolds? And why wouldn't we call the difference ideas make progress

And so Hosler's strange and wonderful tale concludes with Darwin musing about his legacy, hoping someone might succeed him with a better idea of how natural selection works with heredity. "I've spent a lot of time on this Sandwalk trying to answer [that] question..."

And lo, it did fall to subsequent generations to discover the double helix, and propose memetics, and perpetuate Darwin's legacy. "Who knows? Maybe we already have the answer and don't recognize it for what it is." Maybe we just need to have a little faith in progress.

And maybe someone needs to write a graphic novel about Rousseau.
Search for "progress" in William James's "Springs of Delight"...
Up@dawn the podcast is now on iTunes.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Rousseau's paranoia

Podcast. Before the plug was so abruptly pulled on this morning's dawn post, I was saying Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "reveries" were too solitary, his humanity too self-centered. His "first walk" begins with a blast of paranoia.
Behold me, then, as  if alone upon the earth, having neither brother, relative, friend, or society, but my  own thoughts; the most social and affectionate of men, proscribed, as it were, by unanimous consent.
Of course it's true that, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't follow that everyone might not be plotting against you. But Rousseau really seems to have had serious difficulty latching and hanging onto interpersonal and social reality. He did make some real enemies, as you might have guessed, and David Hume tried to offer sanctuary and friendship. It didn't last. (See Rousseau's Dog.)

I'm always surprised and disappointed by dog-lovers who abuse humans. Rousseau was one of those. And he was a walker, so I'm doubly disappointed in him. But I must come to terms with him, he wrote that book about solitary walkers.

I think "solitary" is key: Rousseau may have walked in company with a canine, but he did not expand his mental universe sufficiently to include or empathize with others of his own kind. He stands as clear evidence that walking as such does not necessarily improve a person's capacity for humility, fellow-feeling, or even baseline sanity.

Another key: in this translation he's the solitary walker. The gifted edition from my old friend JM, years ago, called him a solitary walker. Or at least I'm pretty sure that's true, and the presumption of ego in that deceptively small grammatical shift might be telling.

(More on this to come...)
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Friday, June 26, 2015

A pleasing confidence

Podcast. One of the wisest things young William James ever said, before age thirty and not long after hurdling the crisis of confidence that had him "about touch[ing] bottom" in his diary and contemplating suicide:
It is a pleasing confidence that... by working our stint day by day on the one line we have chosen, without looking ahead or thinking much of the final result, we are sure of waking some fine morning, experts in our particular branch, with a tact, so to speak for truth therein: a judgment, and ideas and intuitions of our own - all there without our knowing exactly how they came. (April 8, 1871, cited in Robert Richardson's bio)
Put in the hours and days, and the years and career will take care of themselves. Lay down the right habits of work and routine, and eventually you may expect to soar like those skimming Amazon gulls. Or at least you'll figure a few things out, maybe even publish a book or a few. As Annie Dillard said (and as Maria Popova never tires of repeating), how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. A step at a time.

Notice, James didn't claim to know this. It's a "pleasing confidence," an article of faith, a repository of hope, a bootstrap to pull up on. It worked for him.

Where was James's Thinking Place? In Cambridge, MA, there was Emerson Hall where he taught his classes.

There was his longtime home at 95 Irving St.

And there was the half-mile between them that he trod daily.

His favorite Thinking Place was surely in Chocorua, N.H., to which he escaped when classes ended each summer, and where he sat on a wall and chided his Cambridge colleague, metaphysical rival, and neighbor Josiah Royce. "Damn the Absolute!" (I sat on that wall myself, in 2010.)
Image result for william james chocorua

And his favorite spot in Chocorua had to be the mountain across the road. 

Image result for william james chocorua

Followed him there, too, a step at a time. Confidence rewarded.

Where the Great Man Lived by Bob Bradford A Report on the William James Memorial 100th Anniversary Symposium, Chocorua Village, August 13-15, 2010 When William James, Harvard‟s pre-eminent and iconoclastic 19th-century pioneering psychologist, philosopher, and scholar of religion, was dying in the summer of 1910, one of his last heart-felt desires was to return to his beloved family summer residence, “Stonewall,” up on Heavenly Hill in New Hampshire‟s then-remote and still bucolic Chocorua valley. Upon arrival, he exclaimed, “It‟s so good to be home!” So, how fitting it is, in this Granite state whose motto reads “Live Free or Die,” that a 100th anniversary to commemorate the death of this philosophical giant of Free Will thinking was organized last August. This was an extraordinary four-day conference-symposium, convened and coordinated by dynamic William James Society‟s president and university professor, Paul Croce, and co-sponsored by the Chocorua Community Association, spearheaded by tireless Rev. Kent Schneider of the Chocorua Community Church. A final day of the conference concluded back in Cambridge at Harvard University‟s Houghton Library and James‟s home stomping grounds around and about the Crimson‟s campus. This long weekend symposium, charging a $100 registration fee, was titled “In The Footsteps of William James,” and designed to honor James‟s spirit for some 130 international academics, Jamesian scholars, college students, and also just plain interested philosophy neophytes, congregating in little Chocorua village from locations as far away as Oxford University, Moscow, Bologna, and Tokyo. The whole idea was to become immersed in Jamesiana, exploring places where James lived, and attending a diverse range of lecture presentations, seminars, interactive workshops, casual Socratic discussions, all with the hope of reflecting on James‟s ability to encounter experience afresh and approach problems creatively. People also were provided ample opportunity to explore the philosopher‟s natural settings, hear folk singing and cornet band performances of period music, listen to storytellers recounting James-related anecdotes, canoe and swim in his stillpristine nearby lake, and even hike up the very mountain trails that had inspired and played such an essential role in formulating a Jamesian intellectual ethos. “The intention was for this to be a public event that could bring academics and regular citizens together to hear about William James‟s life and theories, and evaluate continuing uses of his ideas for our time,” explains conference coordinator Professor Paul Croce, speaking from his Stetson University American Studies offices down in Florida. “To me, two of James‟s most important teachings for today is, first, his deep commitment to liberal arts education as a key essential to democracy---in other words providing a mental map of learning as a key to good citizenship. Secondly, he had a simply remarkable mediating mind that presents key ways to cope with William James (1842-1910) Chocorua Lake Association page 7 Fall 2010 Chocorua Lake Association extreme polarizations in our society, including truly listening to others and grasping different points of view. “Bottom line is he was an incredibly wise dude,” Croce emphasizes, “and whatever he‟s singing about, we‟d do well to listen up, today.” Croce adds enthusiastically that, according to just about everyone who attended the symposium, Chocorua did indeed live up to highest expectations as “the perfect place” for this conference. “What we were trying to achieve with this was to let James‟s thinking resonate out to communities at large, well beyond academic circles. And here everyone found a locale with great charm, unpretentious warm and accommodating places for lodging and meals like the Lazy Dog, Riverbend Inn, Gilman Tavern, Whittier House, everything so welcoming and friendly. There was also a true appeal for both mind and body throughout the whole weekend, as well. It‟s exactly the way James himself would have wanted it. I can‟t tell you how many people were just raving about the whole laid-back informality of it all, how persuasive it all was, how refreshing and lovely the entire community experience.” Agrees Harvard Magazine associate editor-feature writer, Craig Lambert, who journeyed up from Cambridge for the weekend, “Academic conferences are too often confined to airless rooms where participants engage the subject at hand on a purely intellectual, cerebral basis. William James was not that kind of scholar, and this was in no way that kind of an encounter. “We were able to enjoy the lake and the mountains that meant so much to him, and get a feel for the village where he passed so many happy summer months, and even, thanks to the current owners, to tour the inside of his dwelling, as well as his barn and surrounding property. We listened to James music, stories, saw galleries of historic photographs and memorabilia from the James era. What I came away with was a much more rounded sense of who William James was, not only as a philosopher and psychologist, but as a man.” Internationally celebrated Harvard astrophysicist-turned-teacher of philosophy, Robert Doyle, echoes Lambert‟s thought. Doyle was one of the showcase speakers up for the symposium, championing James theories about Free Will and changeable destiny vs. the staunch beliefs in hide-bound determinism, where everything in life is already scripted and never subject to chance. “It was the location factor for this conference that had the greatest impact on my psyche,” Doyle says. “I‟m an historically oriented thinker, and I can‟t tell you the number of philosophers I‟ve studied going back before Aristotle, and studied them in 12 different languages” he observes. “So, visiting this intimate home site venue has provided me a profound new James connection. “In the spirit of hermeneutics, I guess you could call me a „hermenaut,‟” he goes on, with a dry chuckle. A what, we ask? Doyle laughs and explains this is a kind of word-play he coined on the space exploration astronaut idea, “only my hermenaut is an explorer who‟s traveling backwards in time to literally put himself back into the environment of a given philosopher. You‟ve almost got to put on those same shoes the thinker was wearing to understand his work. “So, in this case, here was William James in the later 19th century,” Doyle continues, “when determinism was the order of the day, everything in God‟s hands, neatly programmed, pre-ordained, so very Victorian. But this great man was able to break free from all that. Somehow, he had the independence of mind and courage to break away. He was the first, if not the only, philosopher of his era Chocorua Lake Association page 8 Fall 2010 Chocorua Lake Association to do so.” Consider the grasp of this phenomenal achievement. And here we are in Chocorua, the very dead-center of where so much of this unprecedented, ground-breaking, independent philosophic freedom of thought was really created, Doyle emphasizes. Maybe it was a brain storm that occurred while swimming on his back, floating free, suspended and weightless, gazing up at that ruggedly independent, majestic granite peak, as Doyle himself had just done this morning. Maybe major inspirations took shape while gazing at these White Mountain silhouettes of the whole Sandwich range during a long, lingering, glorious Chocorua sunset, like the spectacular free-form, ever-changing color show Doyle had witnessed just last night. “Who knows exactly what all the inspirations were?” Doyle muses aloud. “But being here and experiencing James‟s Chocorua firsthand has been indescribably exciting for a hermenaut like me.”
- http://web.mit.edu/~slanou/www/shared_documents/CLA_Fall_2010_Newsletter.pdf
Post-postscript. Not quite the way it was originally...


slideshow, 1434 Chocorua Mt Hwy...

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thinking Places

Podcast. Digital dependency sneaks up on you, as it did me this morning.

Cable system and wifi down, I considered not even going to my Thinking Place - the back porch of my Little House across the yard - worried I'd possibly not be able to come up with any words at all if I couldn't immediately transmit them via QWERTY. Then I remembered that I could go ahead and do a dawn podcast on my phone (could do a blog post that way too, of course, but I hate thumb-typing); and only then did it occur to me to begin the day with pen and notebook.

That's not as bad as maybe it sounds, my recently-adopted new routine of heading straight to the keyboard each day was by deliberate design. I'm not giving that up, it gets me going a little quicker and lets me tap into my drowsy subconscious before the caffeine kicks in. I choose to depend on the digits I type with, and probably would even if I were still pounding the Smith-Corona.

But, and it's a big but...

It's imperative not to lose the older habit of reaching reflexively and repeatedly throughout the day for the trusty Moleskine. Make new friends, keep the old. Silver and gold. Open chromebook and notebook simultaneously.

Digital dependency won't be a problem-addiction for me, so long as that notebook continues to feel like a reliable friend and not a last-ditch alternative, in an emergency, to failed electronic media. And it will continue to feel that way so long as I keep scribbling, at all hours.

That doesn't settle the issue, many of us are still feeling our way for a healthy balance between old ways and new. I know, for instance, that I simply have to resist the daily seductions of social media at least until I've composed something new each morning and then thought about it while pacing and pedaling. I know I must not check email until I've done that and come up with my next line of reflection.

And I know I must then put my butt in the chair and leave it there, with periodic mini-breaks on the hour to relieve the sore arthritic numbness I'm determined to call an annoyance and not a "pain" (if you call it a pain, they'll ask you to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 and I just don't know how to do that).

While in the chair, I also know I need to pour more words into the keyboard or Moleskine than I pull from the screen or page. Up to a point, at least. Later in the afternoon and evening I can and should give myself over to reading. An issue closely related to digital dependency is the decline of reading for pleasure and guidance, as opposed to the social "reading" people do to report and monitor "status" and "likes" etc.

Consistently connecting the knowing to the doing, though, is always the challenge. How to do it? I don't know any shortcuts, just gotta keep plugging. There's only one way to get to Carnegie Hall.

Well, I did make it to my Thinking Place this morning, pulled out the Moleskine, wrote some notes, uploaded a podcast, and remembered how good it feels to be at least modestly self-reliant in the processing of words and sentences.

It's not my back porch so much as the aura and mental associations I've created around it, I think, that makes my Thinking Place a good place for me to begin thinking each morning. But it's not anchored, it's mobile. It walks and rides with me, that aura. It relates the porch to all the places I go, somehow. I am not dependent on the porch as such. It moves.

And so, we arrive at the zen of all this: the best Thinking Places are one with the universe.
Classrooms are supposed to be Thinking Places too. Maybe that's why I was so put-off by the décor of my classroom in Forrest Hall, with its militant orders and slogans. "Follow Me," etc.


I had to contradict that. In Philosophy you DON'T have to follow me, you don't HAVE TO follow anybody.

But of course, Brian ("You're all individuals, you're all different") Cohen was not ROTC.

Good news: we're "revisiting" the name of that building.
University officials said it dedicated the ROTC building as Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall in 1958 because of Forrest's military record with the Confederate Army and his Middle Tennessee ties. The Confederate cavalry leader was known for his tactical battlefield skills and for leading a successful 1862 raid that captured more than 1,000 Union troops and freed local residents in Murfreesboro. He also reportedly served as the first grand wizard for the Ku Klux Klan after the war...Phil Oliver, a 12-year philosophy professor at MTSU, said it's past time to rename the building for someone who isn't a "symbol of racism.
"I'm embarrassed every time I teach there," Oliver said.
And pass by. Or even just think of it. Dropping bad symbols doesn't solve racism but it's not (contrary to the opinion of a "Smyrna resident") a mere "laughing matter" either. If we're ruthlessly enforcing high standards of humanity, that name's got to go.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Faces of Existence

Podcast. Added a late post-podcast insertion to this morning's post on Bierce and epiphenomenalism:
The word "epiphenomenon" is missing from Bierce's dictionary, but its flavor is there.
EFFECT, n. The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other—which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in the pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of a dog.
The post hoc fallacy does not necessarily lead to epiphenomenalism and the impotence of consciousness, but the latter inclines us to commit a reverse fallacy: detecting no cause where there might in fact be one.

That's what I was thinking about during this morning's walk-and-ride, when I looked up and found myself spinning down old grad school prof John Post's street and revisiting happy memories from many years past. He was the first Vandy prof I met after moving to Tennessee, at the very home I pedaled past this morning. He gave me my first book citation* and over-generous credit for pointing some small thing out to him, I forget what. (I'll look it up when I get back to the office.) It was from him that I first heard the phrase "distinction without a difference," which I've had innumerable occasions to use when describing the verbose public behavior of my fellow philosophers ever since.

Post was no epiphenomenalist, though he was a materialist (he preferred "non-reductive physicalist") and an exceptionally kind man who had an undeniable material effect on my own philosophical pilgrim's progress. Might even say he impacted my consciousness, gave me cause to reconsider some of my beliefs, and led me to act differently than I might otherwise have done... thus effectively and practically refuting epiphenomenalism.

The *book in question is The Faces of Existence: An Essay in Nonreductive Metaphysics. Again, it's at the office (and not on Google Books) so I can't offer a quote from John. But I'm happy to pass along this slightly-hyperbolic reader review, the reader being "Schopenhauer," no less!
John Post's THE FACES OF EXISTENCE (1986) is not among the most widely read or commented upon books in philosophy. This is due to a deficiency in the philosophical profession, not to a deficiency in Post's book, which may well be one of the two or three best books published in the second half of the 20th century... John Post may well be one of the last genuine philosophers.
You're too pessimistic, "Schopenhauer." But Post's definitely a good guy, and I'm delighted to be in his book. Whenever I think of it, and him, I'm reminded to resist the reductive aspirations of my more ideological peers. And I'm reminded that philosophy is supposed to make a difference.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Shoeless Georg

Of course Hegel walked. "If he were walking with one, he would stop every moment, speak, gesticulate, or let ring out a hearty laugh."
Hegel was charmed with the beauty of nature about Heidelberg. He writes home that his wife, when she joins him, will then first know what walks can be. Hegel lived at almost the outskirts of the town. He was often* seen at his windows, looking out, in Socratic meditation, toward the forest stretches and the haze-softened hills beyond...
We are told that, during the summer of 18 17, he was often so lost in thought that he was quite oblivious to outer happenings. Once, it is said, he was walking to  the university building over a miry piece of ground. One shoe remained sticking in the mud. Hegel went on his way without noticing the loss.
One more difference between Hegel & me. I'd notice.

But like Georg, I also loved my old Heidelberg; and like him I believe "a freer relation to the outer world is attained by man through his power of  walking. By this he does away with the limitations of space, finding the place he  wants." Shod or not.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Darwin's dog Bob

Didn't have to look far, to find an answer (implicitly at least) to the modest query in this morning's dawn post: did Darwin walk with dogs, on his daily Sandwalks? According to Darwin's Dogs by Emma Townshend, "dogs were the animals Darwin observed the most closely and for the longest." He may never have spent a day absent their company, except possibly during his Beagle expedition. There were Shelah, Spark, Czar, Sappho, Dash, Pincher, Nina, Bran, Quiz, Tartar, Pepper, Butterton, Tony, Polly... and the big black and white retriever called Bob, a beloved member of the household in the 1860s.
"When Darwin left the house by the lawn door, Bob always believed they were both heading off down the garden for the morning's constitutional. He was excited."
I too am very familiar with the face of canine ambulatory-anticipatory excitement, and with the "hothouse" face of dejection. I have no doubt, Bob was a daily Sandwalker too. He helped his friend think, and like my dogs helped him not overthink.

Also like my dogs, Bob (front and center in this rare photo of the Darwin clan c.1863, sans Charles) knew how to chill between walks. Gotta conserve that second wind.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sandwalk and a sign

Podcast. Found a little joy (and temporary relief from the latest obscene atrocity involving American racism and domestic terror propped by the gun lobby) walking the length of a surprising Wall last night, and enjoyed thinking about it some more during this morning's daily dog circuit. It's a granite wall in Nashville, and it records highlights of not merely the first two hundred years of local history its locale (Bicentennial Mall) commemorates but of a billion-plus years of planetary pre-history too. Not sure why they lopped off the other billions, but we freethinkers will take what we can get here in God's country.

My daily dogwalk has been a bit constricted of late, the heat and humidity of a hot June morning are hard on my four-legged friends. We typically do a lap and a half around the grounds of our welcoming neighborhood Southern Baptist church, good for about forty minutes with a pause in the middle so they can lap up the contents of their canteen and catch their second wind. Then I take them home and carry on alone, with my own thoughts and immediacies for company.

This morning I entertained the amusing thought that my little loop sort of resembles Charles Darwin's Sandwalk, on the grounds of the home he called Down House. He used to rack up so many laps, lost in thought, that he eventually resorted to piling up stones every time he passed "go" so he'd know when it was time to traipse back to desk and hearth and daughters and pigeons.

I certainly don't flatter myself by trying to carry the comparison any further than that. I'm never going to hatch the greatest idea anyone ever had, out there orbiting the temple of doom. (Wouldn't that be a nice prize?) But if the orbit doesn't decay too soon I may still hope to come up with a better idea than I've yet considered.

One thing my Sandwalk has that Charley's didn't is this tangible sign of progress and encouragement:

It always put a little more bounce in my step, as I enhance the quality of my life and keep circling for better ideas.

If I come up with a solution to the problem of domestic terror in the USA I'll be sure to pass that along.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Pedestrian joy

A "pedestrian" is simply a walker, a person whose motility is accomplished on foot.

Why, then, has the adjectival form of the word come to connote dullness, disenchantment, boredom, tedium, monotony, uneventfulness?

I wasn't thinking of any of those connotations this morning when I wrote that my friend and I are looking forward to a "pedestrian" evening's entertainment at the ball-yard tonight, by contrast with last night's family film outing to Jurassic World at the cineplex. I just meant it would be less over-the-top, outlandish, loud, crazy, sophomoric... in other words, "pedestrian" in ways that signify sanity, solidity, maturity, and order. All good things.

Pedestrian has been unfairly maligned. It is my mission to rehabilitate it.

That's part of what I thought about during my morning walk.

Then I  thought some more about "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," James's classic plea for mutual recognition and respectful toleration of one another's respective inner lives. He notes the nature-reverie of a Wordsworth, and the crowd-ecstasy of a Whitman, and the cosmic expansiveness of a Tolstoy ("Then Peter cast his eyes upon the firmament, filled at that hour with myriads of stars. 'All that is mine,' he thought. 'All that is in me, is me!"), and gleans the message: no single "occasion," no specific and exclusive sort of "experience," is required for our happiness. "It all depends on the capacity of the soul to be grasped, to have its life-currents absorbed by what is given."

In other words, the pedestrian soul can soar too. He cites one of Emerson's reported flights of (subjectively) "perfect exhilaration," and then serves up one of my favorite paragraphs ever:
Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities. But we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys.
So, in my dictionary "pedestrian" can also mean exhilarated, responsive, and joyous - like a night at the ballgame.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Warming up

Podcast. Wondering where "second wind" comes from, and "how to channel and transfer some of that energy more efficiently onto page and screen," I climbed down from my porch and set out with the dogs this morning.

 James says, in Energies of Men, "everybody knows what it is to 'warm up' to his job. The process of warming up gets particularly striking in the phenomenon known as "second wind." Well, the pooches were through long before I got my answer, these summery mid-south days are tough on peripatetics who can't remove their coats. They warm up a lot faster than I do. So I dropped them at home and hopped on the bike.

[CORRECTION: on this morning's podcast I errantly said the first Bloomsday commemoration was fifty years ago. It was in fact sixty-one years ago in 1954, on the fiftieth anniversary of the fictional day depicted in Joyce's book.]

Whence the wind is the less engaging question for me, since the only live options I see are naturalistic. Somehow it has to come from the reservoir of intention and initiative we call will, and that we build up over time through habital bodily exertions including those of the brain/mind.

But tapping into that reservoir and refilling it at will, and making the most constructive use of those reserves: how to do that is the most practically-compelling question I can think of.

The write-walk-write three-step is, I've found, a most efficient little dance, best supplemented by reading and reflecting. Throw in some regular downtime for sleeping, dreaming, and attentive non-thinking, with whatever the subconscious can contribute, and you've got a process of thought.

Taking the question quite literally: I transfer some of my walking energy, in the form of ideas for further exploration and elaboration, by recording them. I hit the red button and make voice memos for later transcription and cogitation. It's a modern version of Thomas Hobbes's pen-&-ink walking stick.
"He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his cane a pen and ink-horn, carried always a note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entered it into his book, or otherwise he might perhaps have lost it."
Thinking of Hobbes's cane reminded me of Vita Sackville-West's butterfly:
“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.”  
James writes that "writing is higher than walking, thinking is higher than writing, deciding higher than thinking, deciding 'no' higher than deciding 'yes'..." Higher in requiring more "inner work," he says. In my own case, these activities are not so neatly separable or rank-able. But that's not important here. What's important is the general thesis that we all have more energy in store than we habitually or reliably access, and we access more of it in the relaxed state of mind-and-body that some of us find only in regular mild to moderate physical exertion.

I already knew the answer to this one. For peak efficiency, I have to warm up and walk my path. Every day.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Just showing up

Podcast. Today's dawn post on haiku, personal development, and mortality yielded no single pressing question for my walk & ride, just an attentive state of receptive appreciation. I'll take that any day. Sometimes it's better to let the questions find you. As Woody Allen and many others have said, 80% (or 90?) of success in life is achieved by just showing up.

One of the questions that found me this morning, bubbling up from my recent rediscovery of Will Durant's Story of Civilization, is whether we'll ever finally become a species permanently possessed of the courage to think, to use its capacity for reason consistently, to resist the temptation to turn everything over to the magical and mystical agencies of some supposed supernaturalism.

That question also comes from thinking about the climate denier who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Senator Inhofe. He thinks other people's religions (like the Pope's) have no place in the public discourse on global warming but is quick to insist that "God's still up there" holding the world in His hands and taking care of  Mother Nature. Concern for the human contribution to climate change is, he's said before, "outrageous."

Inhofe's colleague Sen. Santorum chimes in,
The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we're really good at, which is theology and morality."
Being good at a science-denying theology is bad. Doing nothing about a worsening environmental crisis is immoral. Sapere Aude, Senators, use your heads! But they're doing their best, I suppose. Scary thought.

"Human knowledge as we have it is a mere medley and ill-digested mass, made up of much credulity and much accident, and also of the childish notions which are at first imbibed." If there's hope for us, it's implicit in the fact that Francis Bacon wrote those words centuries ago. If we despair, it may be for the same reason. Our elected "leaders" continue to appeal successfully with their childish notions to voters' credulity and inattention.

Our long-term success as a species may just depend on those voters not showing up. Or, all this will be gone a lot sooner than we anticipated.

But maybe we can still catch our "2d wind"...

Saturday, June 13, 2015

James and Hume, semi-reconciled

Podcast. Went walking and pedaling this morning with the question of whether David Hume's "common life" cure for sadness ("I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends" etc.) is cheating, somehow. Is it the mere simulacrum of happiness, "a trick, a sham, an illusion?"

No, I don't think so. I agree with William James about "the lustre of the present hour" always standing in relief against a backdrop of alternative possibilities, but strongly resist the insinuation that theistic/supernatural possibilities possess plausibility enough to invalidate the genuinely happy (though "common") experiences of everyday life. The pleasures of dining, gaming, and socializing are as real as anything we know. Unless you're suffering a serious chemical imbalance, you'd have to be dangling at least one foot in the insubstantial hypothetical Empyrean otherworld, to be so desensitized to them.

James's point was not that heaven is real, but that there are individuals among us who so vividly entertain its possibility that its contrast with common life is capable of casting a despondent shadow and (again) turning us into "melancholy metaphysicians." I don't think he meant to repudiate Hume's cure.

I also wondered about Yeats and Inisfree, which might be taken as a paean to heaven but also as a celebration of the more common and grounded pleasures of pounding and pedaling upon gray pavement. I take it that latter way, as a statement of loyalty to life here and now, a proclamation that the poet is at home in the natural universe.

I hope that those who dream of a supernatural heaven will not renounce or neglect what James called the earth of things, too. Because for us humans the most vital question remains the fate of life on this rock and not in some transcendent cloud, the seductive so-called "glories of the upper ether" must be regarded with healthy Humean skepticism. When he wasn't bending over backward to accommodate the varieties of others' experience, James was a pretty good Humean skeptic himself. He too was a practitioner of the common life cure.

Another mundane thought of the reality of common life crowded in on these reflections this morning, as I pounded and pedaled: simple admiration for Older Daughter's work ethic, and inspiration from her example. She's been putting in long hours at her summer job, and was catching up on much-needed sleep early this morning as I drafted my dawn post. Then the phone rang, and she was almost immediately out the door and back at it, cheerfully pushing that rock. Right at home.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Thought in motion

Podcast. It was a shorter walk this morning, Younger Daughter had arranged an early appointment for one of my canine walking companions to luxuriate in a "standard wash" at the Pet Resort. Said last night she'd happily get up and drive the dog herself, but (surprise) slept in instead and let Dad do it.

But there was still time to enjoy a bike ride, which I did. Part of it was mildly thoughtful, as I asked myself why I usually find it harder to philosophize (or even just ruminate) on two wheels, compared with two feet. I think it's partly because I have to work harder (especially on an incline) to maintain the steady pace and rhythm which invite that untethered feeling of mental freedom I find in any walk of more than a few minutes.

Partly too, it's because I've  not been biking every day and have become a rusty cycler. Must expand the habitual morning routine to include at least a few pedaled miles. Motion's the thing.

And that thought reminded me of the film documentary "Examined Life," whose subjects (Cornel West, Anthony Appiah, Peter Singer and others) young director Astra Taylor decided to put in motion.
She had just read “Wanderlust,” a discursive study of the history of walking by Rebecca Solnit, and was reminded of the figure of the peripatetic philosopher, from Aristotle (who paced the Lyceum while teaching) to Kierkegaard (a proponent of thinking while walking, which he frequently did in the Copenhagen streets) to Walter Benjamin (the embodiment of the Paris flâneur). She realized that putting her subjects in motion would elicit a different kind of interview than if they were seated behind their desks in offices. This conceit became a guiding principle for a film that would attempt to take philosophy out of the ivory tower and affirm its place in the flux of everyday life.
“My intention was to show the material conditions out of which ideas emerge,” Ms. Taylor said. “People often think of philosophy as cold, analytic, abstract, disconnected from the real world, and I really want to say that’s not the case.”
No, not when it's in motion. "Philosophy is in the streets," indeed.

(Thanks to my Research Assistant S., for sending this link and a mountain of others I'm slowly burrowing through.)

Thursday, June 11, 2015


This'll be fun: heading to the Nashville Belcourt with film major Older Daughter to see the Altman classic Nashville. I've never seen it on the big screen, in the company of fellow Nashvillians. “This is a film about America. It deals with our myths, our hungers, our ambitions, and our sense of self. It knows how we talk and how we behave, and it doesn't flatter us but it does love us.” Roger Ebert
This morning's walking question was: Are ambitious, accomplished determinists and fatalists disingenuous in denying that ambition presupposes belief in free will, or that satisfaction in accomplishment depends on it?
This afternoon's answer: not disingenuous, necessarily. Deluded, possibly, from my point of view. (It's important to add that emphasis and claim it as mine.) That is to say, I have a hard enough time motivating myself to concentrated and sustained action in service of my goals, without the additional burden of believing that what I do or don't do is separate from my will. And if I came to believe that my greatest victories were in some significant sense fore-ordained, I'd be deflated and dispirited.
But I also acknowledge that not everyone feels or would express those beliefs in that way. I always ask students about that, and they always split: some consider belief in free will indispensable, others can take it or leave it.
So, this time I'll be watching Altman's film through the free will/determinism lens. Does Nashville the movie make more or less sense than Nashville the city, on the supposition that at least some of us here are acting willfully? And does that make us more or less absurd, more or less lovable, more or less "American"?

The closing number may hold a clue: "You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me."

A Whitmanic cosmic embrace

Will Durant (1885-1981), who wrote the voluminous Story of Civilization and the more compact Story of Philosophy (which an undergrad prof of mine dissed, but which I still credit with lighting my fire for philosophy back in the '70s), in his late-life testament Fallen Leaves:
I am abnormally excited by  any form of beauty; I am a nuisance to those who accompany me on my walks  because I'm always enthusing about something lovely or sublime - white clouds in a blue sky, or the honeyed fragrance of sweet alyssum, or the bright face of a passing youth, or the splendor of a tall, straight elm spreading its branches as if in a Whitmanic cosmic embrace.
I can relate, and I aspire to be that kind of old man in a few decades. I'm adding him to my collection of inspiring seniors.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Miserably delighted

Spent much of the day in the car, taking Granny home to the "High Forest" Swiss settlement she calls God's country. Plenty of time to think about whether miserable people can be happy. (I know they can be good, I've met and worked and ridden with lots of them.)

My tentative reply: some people who affect and project a state of misery are in fact delighted with themselves and the world they love to bemoan. Schopenhauer's the poster boy for this familiar human type. Bless his heart.
"Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

“What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original. Much would have been gained if, through timely advice and instruction, young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.”  
But, "happy"? That's probably not the right word. They've found something that makes them think their lives worth living, something to get up out of bed for. They're pessimists, and they're very glad things could be better. They might even be at home in the universe, which is usually my own working notion of what happiness must minimally entail. But I'm not yet prepared to call them happy.

Gonna think some more about it. But this was cheap Growler day at Tailgate, so I'm first gonna think about some Saison and Bourbon Brown.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Infectious but immune?

This morning I asked, echoing Frederic Lenoir: Is happiness contagious? His answer is unequivocal. "The happier we are, the happier we make those men and women around us."

But I'm not so sure. The imprecision of language, the inevitability and frequency of misunderstanding, the sheer improbability of mood-syncing (and the utter likelihood of sinking) among us "higher" primates makes the transmission of happiness problematic at best. Domestic life in any small tribe of subjectively-complicated humans confirms this time and again.

We had one of those episodes here ourselves last night. One of us said x, another said y, a third (who'd have said he was at that moment in a happily-harmonized state of contentment) made the mistake of then saying aloud exactly what he thought about the infelicity of that exchange, and the downward spiral of miscommunication predictably preempted what should and could have been a cozily-shared happy family evening at home.

Why is it so easy to infect others with a bad mood (or just a bad moment) and bring them down? Why is it so hard to spread the joy? Well, if it was easy we'd all be so happy all the time, we'd never even know or notice. Is that it?

Possibly. What I concluded while pondering the "contagious" question and pounding pavement this morning was simply that none of us can manage anyone else's internal state. All we can do is endeavor to act consistently with our own intentions. "Be the change" etc., as the wise Mahatma said, and be patient with one another. We're all works in progress.

(If I'd walked longer I might have come up with something less cliché.)

The thing is, there seem to be lots of tormented creative geniuses in the world who never attain anything like the degree of happiness they spread. They're carriers, not themselves infected. Cole Porter and Charles Dickens were the hypothetical examples this morning, but I didn't know either of them and couldn't really say whether they were happy or not. Suppose for the sake of reflection that they weren't. In that case, happiness doesn't rub off of happy people but is a fresh creation. Gonna think about this some more.

People are always quoting that statement from Tolstoy about happy and unhappy families, and usually then contradicting it. I don't know. I do know that shared happiness beats solitary happiness, but is generally harder to conjure. But maybe that's just me.

Younger Daughter's greatest unhappiness seems to come from dental appointments. She begged me to accompany her to her cleaning appointment this morning, "so you'll be able to stop them if they hurt me." She actually texted while in the chair, with me three feet away: "this is torture."

But as students are always insisting, when we talk in class about the problem of suffering: if we didn't suffer we'd not recognize its opposite. I don't really buy that. I can't deny, though, that it is always a great happiness to get out of whatever place we associate with pain.

A couple other thoughts crossed my wandering mind during this morning's walk. I'd yesterday finished T.C. Boyle's new novel The Harder They Come, about the razor-thin line between ideological purity and infectious violence, among libertarian tea party types. Some anti-social anti-gov'mint ideologists may be immune to the violence of their own rhetoric, but too many are not. I'd like to infect them all with a big shot of stoic pragmatism.

And I thought about When Books Went to War, which celebrates the drive during WWII to put pocket-size books of all sorts in the pockets of GIs, to strike a blow for freedom against the book-burning Nazis. I'm struck, sadly, by how relatively fewer contemporary soldiers would be as enthused to read in the trenches and barracks as so many of "the greatest generation" were. My impression is that GI Joe nowadays would rather play a video game simulating war, than read something genuinely uplifting and diverting and soul-saving.  I hope I'm wrong.

And one more thought, that I've often entertained while hoofing it around the neighborhood but may not have shared: how often a walk that begins in a state of flatness and one-dimensionality, reflecting a subjective mood or a bad digestion or whatever, ends with the world's depth and multi-dimensionality restored. Today again, around the 45 minute mark or so, the trees and clouds just seemed to leap at me. It's always a happy surprise. I wish I knew how to bottle and sell it. All I can do, really, is talk and write about it. And be glad I'm not myself immune.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Don't stop thinking about tomorrow, but

stop merely thinking about it.

Went walking earlier with this morning's questions:
how optimistic can or should a happy person be about the future? And how do we go about striking a salutary balance between present satisfaction and future expectation?
Actually, first I took them walking, then ditched my panting canine co-philosophers and hopped on the bike. Then, into the pool. Philosophy walks, but sometimes in summer it also pedals, treads, paddles, and floats.

These are not questions to be settled in a single day, even by an amateur tri-athlete. But a few salient and semi-determinate thoughts surfaced before the circle closed this morning. I noted that, however optimistic I can or should be, in motion I am always moreso than this guy appears to be.

But maybe less, most days, than this guy:
You know what the first guy's probably thinking:

But seriously.

A happy person who is tangibly invested in the future through his children or others' (this comes naturally to those of us in the teaching profession) should be as optimistic as our present uncertainty will allow. Better yet, as melioristic: don't just think about tomorrow, get up and do something about it. Have a little hope. (But don't confuse that with faith.)

My assumption is that the very act of procreating or adopting implies a degree of optimism, at least to the extent of affirming the possibility that the world won't end before our children have had an opportunity to enjoy it and maybe even improve it, to discover something in it that makes life worth living, that makes their specific lives significant. There should be no absolutely unhappy parents, Sisyphean though the job sometimes can seem. One must imagine the diligent parent at least as happy as a rock-roller.

Nor should there be any absolutely unhappy humanitarians, whether they share a roof with representatives of the next generation of humans or don't. They're all our children. All of them, all of us.

On the other hand, no one should be so happy as to profess utter indifference to the matter of how things may turn out for the next generation. "The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?" That's why I have issues with George Carlin, even though he almost always made me laugh.

I thought a bit this morning, too, about Darrin McMahon's History of Happiness, and about the life of one of happiness's better exemplars, David Hume. Also, T.C. Boyle's The Harder They Come. Stay tuned. Or don't, if it makes you happier not to. Follow your arrow.

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