Thursday, July 30, 2015


If you didn't laugh you'd cry. Enjoy that whooshing sound deadlines make as they fly by, like Douglas Adams, and die laughing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Live the questions now

Great advice to young philosophy students as well.
...have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet
More thoughts on patience:

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
A.A. Milne

“Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”

“There are times to stay put, and what you want will come to you, and there are times to go out into the world and find such a thing for yourself.”
Lemony Snicket

“He that can have patience can have what he will.”
Benjamin Franklin

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.”
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace      

“And sure enough, even waiting will end...if you can just wait long enough.”
William Faulkner

“In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fair-mindedness, and gentleness with what is strange.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

Your least favorite virtue, or nominee for the most overrated one? Faith. Closely followed—in view of the overall shortage of time—by patience.”
Christopher Hitchens


The limits of satire

We've still not expunged the name of Forrest Hall at my school, named for the confederate firebrand who lent his support to the founding of the KKK. Letters and editorials have been and will be written, violent confrontation is no solution, but Woody has a point: polemic and satire carry you only so far, when Nazis and other white supremacists are involved.

There was this devastating satirical piece on that in the Times.
     -Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks get right to the point.
But biting satire is better that physical force.
     -No, physical force is better with Nazis. It's hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.

How not to take a nature walk

Thoreau clearly isn't for everyone.

Roz Chast in the New Yorker

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Hume-Thoreau connection

Hume was a gregarious freethinking bon vivant, Thoreau an introspective solitary naturalist. But both were committed more to solving life's practical problems than the merely theoretical puzzles that so perplex some philosophers. Hume himself, when perplexed, typically found a pub for distraction. Thoreau usually took a hike.
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty. Of a life of luxury the fruit is luxury, whether in agriculture, or commerce, or literature, or art. There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a noble race of men. But why do men degenerate ever? What makes families run out? What is the nature of the luxury which enervates and destroys nations? Are we sure that there is none of it in our own lives? The philosopher is in advance of his age even in the outward form of his life. He is not fed, sheltered, clothed, warmed, like his contemporaries. How can a man be a philosopher and not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other men? Walden
Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.
Were the generality of mankind contented to prefer the easy philosophy to the abstract and profound, without throwing any blame or contempt on the latter, it might not be improper, perhaps, to comply with this general opinion, and allow every man to enjoy, without opposition, his own taste and sentiment. But as the matter is often carried farther, even to the absolute rejecting of all profound reasonings, or what is commonly called metaphysics, we shall now proceed to consider what can reasonably be pleaded in their behalf. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Monday, July 27, 2015

The real me

More full of life James letters:
To (wife) Alice James (1878)-
...I have often thought that the best way to define a man's character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: "This is the real me!" And afterwards, considering the circumstances in which the man is placed, and noting how some of them are fitted to evoke this attitude, whilst others do not call for it, an outside observer may be able to prophesy where the man may fail, where succeed, where be happy and where miserable. Now as well as I can describe it, this characteristic attitude in me always involves an element of active tension, of holding my own, as it were, and trusting outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony, but without any guaranty that they will. Make it a guaranty—and the attitude immediately becomes to my consciousness stagnant and stingless. Take away the guaranty, and I feel (provided I am �berhaupt in vigorous condition) a sort of deep enthusiastic bliss, of bitter willingness to do and suffer anything, which translates itself physically by a kind of stinging pain inside my breast-bone (don't smile at this—it is to me an essential element of the whole thing!), and which, although it is a mere mood or emotion to which I can give no form in words, authenticates itself to me as the deepest principle of all active and theoretic determination which I possess....
To Shadworth H. Hodgson
NEWPORT, Dec. 30, 1885.
My dear Hodgson,—I have just read your "Philosophy and Experience" address, and re-read with much care your "Dialogue on Free Will" in the last "Mind." I thank you kindly for the address. But isn't philosophy a sad mistress, estranging the more intimately those who in all other respects are most intimately united...

As for the Free Will article, I have very little to say, for it leaves entirely untouched what seems to me the only living issue involved. The paper is an exquisite piece of literary goldsmith's work,—nothing like it in that respect since Berkeley,—but it hangs in the air of speculation and touches not the earth of life, and the beautiful distinctions it keeps making gratify only the understanding which has no end in view but to exercise its eyes by the way. The distinctions between vis impressa and vis insita, and compulsion and "reaction" mean nothing in a monistic world; and any world is a monism in which the parts to come are, as they are in your world, absolutely involved and presupposed in the parts that are already given. Were such a monism a palpable optimism, no man would be so foolish as to care whether it was predetermined or not, or to ask whether he was or was not what you call a "real agent." He would acquiesce in the flow and drift of things, of which he found himself a part, and rejoice that it was such a whole. The question of free will owes its entire being to a difficulty you disdain to notice, namely that we cannot rejoice in such a whole, for it is not a palpable optimism, and yet, if it be predetermined, we must treat it as a whole. Indeterminism is the only way to break the world into good parts and into bad, and to stand by the former as against the latter.

I can understand the determinism of the mere mechanical intellect which will not hear of a moral dimension to existence. I can understand that of mystical monism shutting its eyes on the concretes of life, for the sake of its abstract rapture. I can understand that of mental defeat and despair saying, "it's all a muddle, and here I go, along with it." I can not understand a determinism like yours, which rejoices in clearness and distinctions, and which is at the same time alive to moral ones—unless it be that the latter are purely speculative for it, and have little to do with its real feeling of the way life is made up.

For life is evil. Two souls are in my breast; I see the better, and in the very act of seeing it I do the worse. To say that the molecules of the nebula implied this and shall have implied it to all eternity, so often as it recurs, is to condemn me to that "dilemma" of pessimism or subjectivism of which I once wrote, and which seems to have so little urgency to you, and to which all talk about abstractions erected into entities; and compulsion vs. "freedom" are simply irrelevant. What living man cares for such niceties, when the real problem stares him in the face of how practically to meet a world foredone, with no possibilities left in it?

What a mockery then seems your distinction between determination and compulsion, between passivity and an "activity" every minutest feature of which is preappointed, both as to its whatness and as to its thatness, by what went before! What an insignificant difference then the difference between "impediments from within" and "impediments from without"!—between being fated to do the thing willingly or not! The point is not as to how it is done, but as to its being done at all. It seems a wrong complement to the rest of life, which rest of life (according to your precious "free-will determinism," as to any other fatalism), whilst shrieking aloud at its whatness, nevertheless exacts rigorously its thatness then and there. Is that a reasonable world from the moral point of view? And is it made more reasonable by the fact that when I brought about the thatness of the evil whatness decreed to come by the thatness of all else beside, I did so consentingly and aware of no "impediments outside of my own nature"? With what can I side in such a world as this? this monstrous indifferentism which brings forth everything eodem jure? Our nature demands something objective to take sides with. If the world is a Unit of this sort there are no sides—there's the moral rub! And you don't see it!

Ah, Hodgson! Hodgson mio! from whom I hoped so much! ...If you want to reconcile us rationally to Determinism, write a Theodicy, reconcile us to Evil, but don't talk of the distinction between impediments from within and without when the within and the without of which you speak are both within that Whole which is the only real agent in your philosophy. There is no such superstition as the idolatry of the Whole...

To (brother) Henry James
CHOCORUA, June 4, 1890.
My dear Harry, ...The great event for me is the completion at last of my tedious book. I have been at my desk with it every day since I got back from Europe, and up at four in the morning with it for many a day of the last month. I have written every page four or five times over, and carried it "on my mind" for nine years past, so you may imagine the relief. Besides, I am glad to appear at last as a man who has done something more than make phrases and projects. I will send you a copy, in the fall, I trust, though [the printer] is so inert about starting the proofs that we may not get through till midwinter or later. As "Psychologies" go, it is a good one, but psychology is in such an ante-scientific condition that the whole present generation of them is predestined to become unreadable old medieval lumber, as soon as the first genuine tracks of insight are made. The sooner the better, for me!...

Friday, July 24, 2015

Getting out

Science once again confirms common sense:
...scientists randomly assigned half of the volunteers to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, parklike portion of the Stanford campus or next to a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. The volunteers were not allowed to have companions or listen to music. They were allowed to walk at their own pace.
Immediately after completing their walks, the volunteers returned to the lab and repeated both the questionnaire and the brain scan.
As might have been expected, walking along the highway had not soothed people’s minds. Blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged.
But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.
They also had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains were quieter.
These results “strongly suggest that getting out into natural environments” could be an easy and almost immediate way to improve moods for city dwellers... nyt
Also in the Times today: a far more profound immersion in, and identification with, the natural world is reported by Oliver Sacks to offer tremendous consolation in the face of terminal illness.
A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.
I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”
Not everyone is comforted to notice how the short span of a human lifetime is dwarfed by the immensity and practical eternity of time and space, but "getting out into natural environments" really does quiet the mind.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


This morning's Rebecca Solnit post neglected to include the smartest thing she ever wrote, I think: "Walking articulates both physical and mental freedom... Home is everything you can walk to." What can't you walk to?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hume walk

I take the James side, in the James v. Hume radical or skeptical empiricism debate, but Hume remains my favorite Scots freethinker and namesake. He led the way.

Photo published for Hume Walk


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The soul and spirit of atheism

Was Faulkner right? Do we have "a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance" (etc.)? Many atheists resist that kind of talk, preferring to attribute our heroic virtues to intelligence and rationality and other evidently-evolved traits.

But I don't think a secular humanist should ever cede the language of spirit to the supernaturalists. Spirit means breath, soul means life. Breath and life require a natural host. Simplify, simplify. But don't oversimplify. We're not automata, we have feelings that enter inextricably into our thoughts and actions.

Most walkers step confidently in the conviction that our human essence is experienced most vitally in its native habitat, on planet earth, the only world we've ever known. The earth of things, objects, entities, relations, processes, and physics is our spirit's abode.

Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote, in The End of the Soul, that "for atheists the significance of life is greatly increased by the disappearance of an afterlife: the absence of an eternal life allows mortal life to bloom in importance." And when mortal life blooms, spirit breathes free.

This is that delightful old "vision of life at once spiritual and deeply rooted in 'the open air and possibilities of nature'" that I caught from William James a long time ago, a vision that "assigns a destiny-shaping, evolutionary role to the emergent personal and cultural forces of intelligence and the human spirit as gifts of nature... that finds nothing incongruous about nature and spirit in harness together."

And in one of James's more clever turns of phrase and table: "the conception of spirit, as we mortals hitherto have framed it, it itself too gross to cover the exquisite tenuity of nature's facts." Human spirituality naturalized is more subtle and sophisticated than anything ever cooked up in the traditional religious philosophy shop.

So, the end of that soul is only the beginning. Take a breath, and take another step. Whatever Faulkner meant, godless humanists are entitled to invoke the spirit.

Monday, July 20, 2015

We crave only reality

I may have been hasty in detecting deconstructionist tendencies in Frederic Gros's Philosophy of Walking. Overtly at least, he's on the side of immediate experience and reality, against that of the Derridean overtextualizers. Or so it appears, given his sympathetic rendition of Thoreau's famous "rocks in place" declaration of independence from tradition, convention, and cultural inertia. Honest writing must first acknowledge the truth of the writer's own experience. If he cannot tap that well, he has no business writing. "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business. Walden, "Where I Lived and What I Lived For"
 "What do you mean, we?" asks (implicitly) Andrew O'Hagan in his unexpectedly fine essay in yesterday's Times style magazine. "The Happiness Project" tries to see the world of Disney through his children's eyes, as well as his own. The reality of that fantasy is something to be experienced, too, and
"the greatest ride in Disneyland is the ride through one's own ambivalence... In Disneyland, every child feels chosen, and why wouldn't you empty your bank account to see that happen, when the child is yours... only a curmudgeon, or a writer, would choose to question the authenticity of the performers' smiles or ask how much they are being paid."
So maybe I was a little hard on Goofy the other day too. Just trying to keep it real.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Podcast. Finished Harari's Sapiens, a hugely entertaining and provocative contribution to the Big History genre. I do have bones to pick with him about humanism, meaningfulness, and happiness. (Also "amortality," but I'll save that for later.) One passage I found particularly engaging:
If planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed.
I'm missing it already!
Hence, any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.
That was a quick "hence," much too quick.
The other-worldly meanings medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the modern nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people find.
The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company, are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures and going on a crusade or building a new cathedral.
Not okay, especially not in the scientist's case. "Delusional" is not the word for knowledge lost to cosmic inexorability. Tragic might be one word. Fragile, precarious, precious... I'll check the thesaurus.
So perhaps happiness is synchronizing one's personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful and find happiness in that conviction. This is quite a depressing conclusion.
Quite depressing indeed. But entirely unnecessary. Bertrand Russell still has the best answer to the Alvy Singers of the world, who think our ultimate finitude means that nothing matters and that happiness is a sham.
...if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course... I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out -- at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation -- it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. "Why I Am Not a Christian"
So, to Harari's rhetorical "Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?" I reply: it depends on self-awareness, self-knowledge, occasional self-abnegation, ultimate self-transcendence... but not on self-mockery, which is what you get when you presuppose the futility of all human endeavor on account of cosmic finitude. As Dr. Flicker (having read his Russell) told Alvy, we still have millions and billions of years ahead of us, multiplied by countless loci of  conscious experience. It's too easy to wave away all that experience, all that potential meaning and enjoyment, as mere transient subjectivity. It's anti-sapient. It's unwise.

And to his claim that "to be happier, we need to re-engineer our biochemical system," I say, un-rhetorically: take a hike.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Deconstruct this post

I tweeted earlier that the real world awaits our discovery, but should of course have pluralized the statement: there are realities and worlds, new horizons (not just Pluto's) to scope out, implying or at least intending a critique of deconstructionist heavy textuality.

I don't have the time or the patience to work that up, and there doubtless are moves the other side in the postmod-decon language game would make if I did. I'm no expert on that. The whole discussion/debate feels so 'eighties, so Grad School. (I do see the Rorty Society's new call for papers has been issued.)

But the point I want to punch right now, the textual proposition I want to punctuate, is simply that when I go walking, pedaling, and swimming (okay, floating mostly) each morning I'm also looking for real worlds and new horizons. Or refreshed and renewed horizons, minimally. The fact that I almost always entertain some problematic discursive query or concern while in motion, for a fraction of that time anyway, does not alter the fact that a key element of the total experience feels light and non-discursive, in a very good way.

So, my philosophy of walking denies the dichotomy between working and recreating, the dualism of discoursing and experiencing that I think I read in Frederic Gros. I need now to go back and re-read his Thoreau section, with the question before me: does he also take from Henry what I do, viz., a sense of walking as a form of life that straddles the worlds of text and experience? Again, I must pluralize. Texts, experiences, realities are my quarry, not just words and verbal constructs.  Something there is, Horatio (and Jacques), that is not merely dreamed up and written in your philosophy texts. That's one of the implications of "more day to dawn."

If I'm right, I must of course use words and texts to tell you about it. That's where this language game gets so tricky, and it's why I'm always wondering about the pre- and post-poetic experience of poets. A poet is, ex hypothesi, a textualizer who draws from a well deeper than words. We all do that, good poets just do it with greater sub-surface dexterity.

If these words mean anything, they mean something real. If real means anything, it means something extra-verbal. That I must use words to point that out and you must use them to take my point may be funny and ironic, but it's not deconstructive. Is it?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Proust & Whitman redux (and a bear)

Proust and Whitman, then: returning to the question of how they relate to other walking philosophers and philosophers of walking like Montaigne, Rousseau, and our contemporary Professor Gros. Their sensibilities were so different, noticed Adam Gopnik: alternately expressing the urge to flee civilization and the madding crowd, in Rousseau's case, and in Whitman's to embrace it.

Professor Gros himself says almost nothing of Whitman, though he does say plenty of Thoreau. Our popular notion of the latter is of a hermit-like solitary individualist, a guy not even invested enough in the society of his peers to pay his taxes when disappointed by his government. From a Gros point of view maybe that's fair, so maybe we can't infer his take on Whitman from what he says about the author of Walden.

Seems to me, though, that Whitman's famous "barbaric yawp" in celebration of the teeming masses of Manhattan is not so different in tone and intention from Thoreau's more secluded call of the wild. Both are declarations of attachment and an expansive sense of identification with a larger world, and with a nature whose constituents include varieties of organic and pan-temporal life including but not restricted to humanity. Both, in their different ways, affirm what William James called "our really vital question... what is life going to make of itself?"

In discussing Proust, Gros - in his oracular style of un-circumspect pronouncement - says "I refer to the stroll [or promenade] as light relief, relaxation, walking to 'get some fresh air'... you say goodbye to your work." But I think it's not so simple, so architectonic and neatly boxed. When strolling with children, as discussed yesterday, the work/play distinction simply does not arise. The adult stroller who is open to the instruction of children (which can run in both directions), the Thoreau-style saunterer who always "walks to work" like D.B. Johnson's Henry realizes that real work is too important to leave at the office desk.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Walking with dogs and kids (and Proustian sentiment)

Signed off this morning's podcast about walking with children somewhat plaintively with the unpremeditated lament that, while I used to walk with dogs and kids, now it's mostly dogs. The kids prefer to drive.

But, I should hasten to add, I do still walk with kids: the kids at school, when we make our rambling class rounds. Planning to expand the peripatetic classroom format this semester, especially with the 8 a.m. Intro to Philosophy ("CoPhilosophy") class. We'll wander the groves of our middle Tennessee Lyceum just as Aristotle and his followers wandered theirs, back when their homeland was still solvent. Sitting rigidly still and silent before breakfast makes no sense to me at all.

8 to 9 has long been my favorite morning walk-time. In fact, I've come to regard it as my sacred hour.  Nothing - doctor's appointments, committee meetings, philosophy classes - has been allowed to interfere. I'm not about to let that change, just because the scheduling and room allocation tsars have decreed that we must occupy that slot or none at all. We'll occupy it alright, and with a bounce in our steps. Or at least in mine.  Some students may sense that a grade could be at stake, but that should only quicken their pace.

While I'm indulging the sentimental mood for those days of yore when the pre-collegians who happened to share my roof and my last name walked with the dogs and me enthusiastically, without any hint of obligation or compulsion, I'm tempted to hunt up and share some old and gauzy images of our dogs-and-kids expeditions of yesteryear.

But maybe this borrowed image, reproduced in yesterday's Times review, will paint the picture with just a little less tint of embarrassment for them. The day will come, I promise, when (like me now) they're beyond embarrassment and feel only nostalgia for temps perdu.

And there's my self-reminder to address the question I posed the other day about Proust and Whitman. I will, eventually, time permitting.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A leg to stand on

Podcast. Still celebrating Oliver Sacks's birthday and applauding the magnanimity with which he's met his terminal diagnosis, I'm pleased to find the brainpicker's illustrated rendition of his death-defying fall down a Norwegian mountain. A Leg to Stand On (1984) recounts this waking nightmare, which will terrify all of us who've found lifeblood in our motility and who wonder how we'd ever manage on a single shank.

More importantly, Sacks recounts his full recovery, and the triumph of will it attests. In the chapter aptly titled after Diogenes the Cynic, "Solvitur Ambulando" - it is solved by walking - he clearly expresses the vital feeling of will that impelled his recovery, and that must be the impulsion behind all forward movement. For Sacks, that active feeling is literally the music of life.
It was the triumphal return of the quintessential living "I," lost for two weeks in the abyss, and two minutes in the delirium; not the ghostly, cogitating, solipsistic "I" of Descartes, which never feels, never acts, is not, and does nothing; not this, this impotence, this mentalistic fiction. What came, what announced itself, so palpably, so gloriously, was a full- bodied vital feeling and action, originating from an aboriginal, commanding, willing "I."
There's much to be said for various forms and aspects of selflessness, but if you're ever chased down a mountain by a raging bull, you're going to want that aboriginal "I" to stand and lean on.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A sense of scale

Podcast. I've had a Philosophy Timeline on my CoPhilosophy course blogsite for a long time.

It's important to keep a sense of scale, and to realize how large an imagination and expansive a spirit it takes to do that. 

What did Casey Kasem say? "Keep your feet on the ground, but keep reaching for the stars."
Carl Sagan's calendar... Neil de Grasse Tyson's... Sagan on "the beginning"... the Sagan-Tyson connection
UPDATE: Still wondering about the nature and frequency of Wittgenstein's perambulations, but there's this: Sunday afternoon Wittgenstein and I were walking to Drury's home for a discussion group on (what else?) philosophy. W was delivering an impromptu lecture on the history of astronomy when he got to Sir Isaac Newton and 'the motion of the bodies.' He had me walk in a slow arc, and then he positioned himself a few steps away and began walking around me in a circle. I recall this large willow oak near the river. He then guided me to walk around it. So. There I was, walking around the tree with Wittgenstein walking around me. When we had made one circle, he said, 'You are the earth, I am the moon, and that tree is the sun. It is the gravitational pull of the earth on the moon and the sun on the earth that keeps us from all flying off into outer space where, I should think, one day soon we shall travel. If I could deliver my lectures in philosophy this way, I might not be such a failure.
This is just a story, I think, not a history. But it's much in the spirit of the strange philosopher who said “a serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.”
French philosopher Frederic Gros's bestselling (in France, of course) A Philosophy of Walking struck one reviewer as missing the distaff half. Gros's subjects are "various thinkers for whom walking was central to their work –Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant, Rousseau, Thoreau (they're all men; it's unclear if women don't walk or don't think)..." Well, women have always walked and thought. Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Austen spring instantly to mind, among Brits. Over here, Margaret Fuller probably walked with Emerson and Thoreau. More recently, Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed... Put this on your research list, S: find us some more walking/writing/thinking women.

I've resisted reading Gros, fearing to discover that he'd scooped me and my dilatory Philosophy Walks project. But if this passage and the reviewer's response is any indication, Gros's take on the subject is not at all like mine.
Rousseau says in his Confessions, when you walk all is possible. Your future is as open as the sky in front of you. And if you walk several hours, you can escape your identity. There is a moment when you walk several hours that you are only a body walking. Only that. You are nobody. You have no history. You have no identity. You have no past. You have no future. You are only a body walking.
I've walked a lot over the decades, but I've never walked entirely away from my identity and my history. Or ours. I've never been only a body walking, or an Emersonian "transparent eyeball" either.

Poor Professor Gros "started to look depressed. So, you don't manage to walk much on a day-to-day basis?" What? The philosopher of walking is sedentary?! He definitely should get a dog.

Looks like I'm going to have to write my book. Monsieur Gros has not written it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

We walk

"Another singular human trait" is bipedalism, freeing our hands to write. Salvation, or curse?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Otis and Ludwig

PodcastThis morning's allusion to Otis Campbell letting himself in and out of Mayberry's jail cell

reminds me of Wittgenstein's fly bottle. (It's no less esoteric, I'm sure, for the uninitiated.)

Showing philosophers how to drop a line of inquiry, he said in his Philosophical Investigations, is like showing flies the way out of their less cerebral captivity. A question that holds us captive is a question we can dismiss. [Of Flies and Philosophers]

But is it that easy? Wasn't Wittgenstein an exception, as a philosopher who felt tormented and restricted by his questions? This doesn't mean he was wrong, or that Otis, surely also an exception, doesn't also illustrate a kind of charmed captivity that is no less dysfunctional for its charm. But at least Otis knew that to get out of jail you've got to walk.

Not sure if this line of thought will repay itself, but I do love the idea of Otis and Wittgenstein in Mayberry. Sometimes you just have to buzz around the bottle and knock into it a few times, before finding your way back out into the open.

Of course, Otis wasn't Mayberry's only philosopher. There was Goober... And Barney must have thought deeply about his surprising judgment that "Freud (rhymes with food) had it all figured out."
Just found a walking quote I wasn't previously familiar with, by pop composer George M. ("Yankee Doodle") Cohan. It speaks to the tragic suicidal strain in the Wittgenstein clan, which the fly bottle metaphor might ultimately be about. "You never heard of anyone doing away with himself after a long walk." America on Foot: Walking and Pedestrianism in the Twentieth Century

But maybe Ludwig already knew this. Did he walk, S?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rousseau's other dog

A Great Dane gave Rousseau a rare moment of selfless "wonderful calm." Then he died.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A positive thought about J-JR

Podcast. It's a rare summer's afternoon when I find myself in my office at school, behind my desk, simulating work. (I don't teach summer school, my home is nearly an hour from campus.) Today I'm here, though, running errands, waiting for the IT people to finish updating my old laptop, and playing with my new office desktop. So here's a small inaugural post from a new machine.

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I've been trying to find positive things to say about J-J Rousseau, beyond appreciating and plotting to swipe the structural layout of his walking "reveries." I found something, in this short notice of the 2011 edition: he inspired Wordsworth's Prelude.
When Rousseau died in July 1778, the unfinished manuscript of Reveries was discovered along with the 27 playing cards on which Rousseau had jotted down his thoughts while walking. He had been working on the 10 "Walks" that comprise Reveries until three months before he died. "I am devoting my last days to studying myself," he wrote. The result is remarkable, the work of a man who felt himself rejected by society and who turned in on himself. His random walks spark brilliant "flights of thought" on life, nature and the falsity of society. Although not intended for publication, Reveries has been hugely influential, as Russell Goulbourne's excellent introduction to his new translation makes clear. The Reveries inspired Wordsworth's ambulatory poem The Prelude and Baudelaire considered naming a collection of poems about Paris The Solitary Walker. Rousseau's walks are not urban, but there are also clear parallels with the Parisian flâneurs and the dérive of the Situationists. A powerful meditation on the quest for self-understanding.
The dogs and I ambled through our neighborhood version of the Sandwalk this morning, over on the grounds of the nearby Baptist Church that we almost always have exclusively to ourselves. This time, though, we encountered something I'll bet Mr. Darwin and Bob never did: screeching Vacation Bible Schoolers, and firefighters on break. A good reminder that solitary walking always happens against a social backdrop, whether we're explicitly aware of that during the walk or not. Today we were definitely aware. Accelerating Intelligence News