Sunday, August 30, 2015

Hume's equanimity, & Sacks's courage

The passing of neurologist and humanist Oliver Sacks, though we saw it coming, is still very sad. But it is heartening to know that he approached his end with the salutary precedent of David Hume fully in view, as he related in that remarkable post-diagnosis essay last February:
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”
“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”
I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.
Hume continued, “I am ... a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”
Here I depart from Hume... And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.” Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands...
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
 A good life. An exemplary death. The privilege and adventure are still ours.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Kant's depression

Legend has it that Kant’s final word on his deathbed was “enough” (genug). The aged peripatetic philosopher of Koningsberg let out a word that was also a sigh, and depressive reason seems to have had the final say. Eugene Thacker
If legend is accurate, Kant didn't do it right. Not many genuine peripatetics  surrender to depression.

Monday, August 17, 2015

How college sold its soul to the market

If college is seldom about thinking and learning anymore, that’s because very few people are interested in thinking and learning, students least of all. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report in Academically Adrift, the number of hours per week that students spend studying for their classes has been falling steadily for decades and is now about half of what it was in 1961. And as anyone associated with a college can tell you, ambitious undergraduates devote the bulk of their time and energy, and certainly of their passion, to extracurriculars. Pinker, in the response I mentioned, wonders why he finds himself addressing half-empty lecture halls. I can tell him why: because his students don’t much care about the things he’s trying to teach them.
Why should they, given the messages that they’ve received about their education? The college classroom does or ought to do one thing particularly well, which is to teach you to think analytically. That is why a rigorous college education requires you to be as smart as possible and to think as hard as possible, and why it’s good at training people for those professions that demand the same: law, medicine, finance, consulting, science, and academia itself. Nor is it a coincidence that the first four of those (the four that also happen to be lucrative) are the top choices among graduates of the most selective schools...
Instead of treating higher education as a commodity, we need to treat it as a right. Instead of seeing it in terms of market purposes, we need to see it once again in terms of intellectual and moral purposes. That means resurrecting one of the great achievements of postwar American society: high-quality, low- or no-cost mass public higher education. An end to the artificial scarcity of educational resources. An end to the idea that students must compete for the privilege of going to a decent college, and that they then must pay for it...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Alan Lightman

I don't know why it's taken me so long to discover the writing of humanist/physicist Alan Lightman, a native Tennessean whose grandfather (I learn from his memoir Screening Room) opened the old Hillsboro Theater (now the Belcourt) in Nashville in the '20s, and who wonderfully expresses a sense of secular spirituality I share - and in the voice (no less!) of the Creator!
Rationality and logic can be spiritual. What's more, there [is] still plenty of room for the mysterious. Because even if a very intelligent creature within this universe could trace each event to a previous event, and trace that event to a previous event to a previous event, and so on,  back and back, the creature could not penetrate earlier than the First Event. So my universe would have logic and rationality and organizational principles, but it would also have spirituality and mystery. Mr. g: A Novel about the Creation
Lightman's fictional Creator/narrator is the only kind of god, decidedly lower-case and constrained by nature, I could ever consider "believing in": a well-intentioned and compassionate but considerably less-than-omnipotent lesser god, regretful of the suffering of his animate creatures, unwilling to concede suffering's necessity, but ultimately incapable of eliminating it all by fiat. This is one of William James's speculative deities, needful and solicitous of a co-creative alliance against evil with suffering humanity. (Note to self: this might be a good text to use in CoPhi.)

Lightman's Accidental Universe includes an honest and unflinching concession to our mortality that still respects the ubiquitous impulse for "more life." a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and  thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, my “I-ness” dissolved in an  infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate even though I  believe it to be true...“A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants."
Suppose I ask a different kind of question: If against our wishes and hopes, we are  stuck with mortality, does mortality grant a beauty and grandeur all its own? Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might  we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be a preciousness and  value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration?
 Yes there could, Lightman affirms. Can't wait to follow the trail of that message through the rest of his ouvre, beginning with Einstein's Dreams.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

John Lachs

Today begins the long-awaited and richly-deserved tribute in Berlin to my old mentor John Lachs. To the organizers and to John I've written,
 I'd like simply to register my appreciation to the organizers of this gathering, and my enduring gratitude to John Lachs for igniting and repeatedly re-sparking my enthusiasm for philosophy over the years.
When some of my Vandy cohort alums and I organized a much-smaller tribute to John for the Tennessee Philosophical Association meeting in Nashville, in 2007, he made it clear that he wasn't  through. Nearly eight years later, that's  still very clear. I look forward to participating more tangibly again next time... several years hence.
You're a perennial inspiration, John. Thanks again.

"There is something devastatingly hollow...

"There is something devastatingly hollow...
...about the demonstration that thought without action is hollow, when we find the philosopher only thinking it." John Lachs  
Front Cover
Freedom and Limits: the Philosophy of John Lachs

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Had to say goodbye to another old friend and faithful walking companion yesterday, "Lilli" (2002-2015).  Sweet old lab, with a golden temperament and a puppy's enthusiasm for each day's journey until nearly the very end.

We knew the fatal day was coming soon, a couple of weeks ago, when the old girl could no longer accompany us on even our shortest neighborhood strolls and showed little interest in food. Like her predecessors Grace and Phoenix, she pounded out thousands of joyous miles over the years. Won't forget her, either.
So we're now a one-dog household, with Angel (looking over her shoulder).
Lilli never complained. Truly a great dog.
Nor did she bark gratuitously.
She was incomparably better than even the best couch therapy.


Monday, August 3, 2015

Professor Humbug

William James loved interacting with students but despised other aspects of his Harvard professorship. When the time finally came to retire, he wrote a friend:

I thank you for your congratulations on my retirement. It makes me very happy. A professor has two functions: (1) to be learned and distribute bibliographical information; (2) to communicate truth. The 1st function is the essential one, officially considered. The 2nd is the only one I care for. Hitherto I have always felt like a humbug as a professor, for I am weak in the first requirement. Now I can live for the second with a free conscience.

He also said:
"It's the harness and the hours that are so galling! I expect to shed truths in dazzling profusion on the world for many years."
He didn't have many years left, alas, and never finished the grand systematic summation of the pragmatic, radically-empirical anti-system he intended but only just began with the posthumous Some Problems of Philosophy.
But he did shed some truths, and a lot of dazzle, before checking out in August of 1910. As professors go, he wasn't such a humbug. But I'm happy to reassure all young aspirants to the profession that a sane and functional professor of philosophy these days really doesn't have to be a walking bibliographic compendium. I've known one or two who seriously aspired to earn that description. Most of us know better. You cannot imagine how much bad academese you'd have to ingest, to stay on top of the current literature. Du bist was du isst, so there are worse things to be than Professor Humbug. Accelerating Intelligence News