Friday, December 16, 2016


Interesting musings on free will from "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang - the novella upon which the film "Arrival" was based.

 Was it actually possible to know the future? Not simply to guess at it; was it possible to know what was going to happen, with absolute certainty and in specific detail? Gary once told me that the fundamental laws of physics were time-symmetric, that there was no physical difference between past and future. Given that, some might say, “yes, theoretically.” But speaking more concretely, most would answer “no,” because of free will.
I liked to imagine the objection as a Borgesian fabulation: consider a person standing before the Book of Ages, the chronicle that records every event, past and future. Even though the text has been photoreduced from the full-sized edition, the volume is enormous. With magnifier in hand, she flips through the tissue-thin leaves until she locates the story of her life. She finds the passage that describes her flipping through the Book of Ages, and she skips to the next column, where it details what she'll be doing later in the day: acting on information she's read in the Book, she'll bet one hundred dollars on the racehorse Devil May Care and win twenty times that much.
The thought of doing just that had crossed her mind, but being a contrary sort, she now resolves to refrain from betting on the ponies altogether.
There's the rub. The Book of Ages cannot be wrong; this scenario is based on the premise that a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future. If this were Greek myth, circumstances would conspire to make her enact her fate despite her best efforts, but prophecies in myth are notoriously vague; the Book of Ages, is quite specific, and there's no way she can be forced to bet on a racehorse in the manner specified. The result is a contradiction: the Book of Ages must be right, by definition; yet no matter what the Book says she'll do, she can choose to do otherwise. How can these two facts be reconciled?
They can't be, was the common answer. A volume like the Book of Ages is a logical impossibility, for the precise reason that its existence would result in the above contradiction. Or, to be generous, some might say that the Book of Ages could exist, as long as it wasn't accessible to readers: that volume is housed in a special collection, and no one has viewing privileges.
The existence of free will meant that we couldn't know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.
Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?

...perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the world-views that ultimately across were the end result of that divergence. Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.

...The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don't act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods' mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history's events; it is also that their motives coincide with history's purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.
Freedom isn't an illusion; it's perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it's simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It's like that famous optical illusion, the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There's no “correct” interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can't see both at the same time.
Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don't talk about it. Those who've read the Book of Ages never admit to it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sunday Assembly

I'll be preaching in secular church this coming Sunday at 10 am, at Nashville's Sunday Assembly. They meet now at the lovely Scarritt-Bennett Center. Their website's events page falsely credentials me in psychology, as a "super ace" - ? - but I'll be happy to join them under any label. 
This month, don't worry, be happy. Or, at least, let's consider the ups and downs of "Happiness". The super ace Phil Oliver, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University will tell us what researchers have found out about happiness.
My subject: Happiness: A Free Person's Worship, alluding both to Bertrand Russell's 1903 "A Free Man's Worship" and his 1930 Conquest of Happiness. The former reflects Russell's early Platonic phase, but both are concerned with how to achieve godless happiness in a finite and indifferent cosmos.

One of the students in my Atheism & Philosophy course reported on his SA visit in 2014, a "great experience" with "incredibly friendly" people.

Julian Baggini did a similar thing when he spoke to an Anglican Church in England, beginning by "repeating that tired cliché of our times: 'I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.'"
I told the congregation what I thought people meant by this. They mean that they reject the creeds and institutions of traditional religions, organised or not. They can’t accept that any religion has a claim to divine truth when history suggests that every religion is the product of the particular time and place in which it emerged. Religions are too obviously human institutions to own universal truth, and sacred texts too obviously the product of the human hand to claim divine authorship.
Nor do the best-known teachings of the main religions make sense to them. They don’t believe in the stories of ancient miracles, of angels dictating God’s word, of a saviour rising from the dead. Even more unbelievable is the need to perform certain rituals in order to attain salvation, or at least to have a relationship with God.
But rejecting all this does not mean they are willing to embrace the full-blown naturalism of atheism. They cannot believe there is nothing more than the physical realm. They believe that there is more to life than the material, and that something they give the label “spiritual”.
The Sunday Assembly people seem a bit further down the secular road than that, judging by their stated affirmation that "we are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together." They claim no doctrine and no sacred texts, but endeavor to "make use of wisdom from all sources." They worship no deity, having found something "bigger than Phil" - nature, and the humanity nature has spawned.
"...the need for God never vanishes. Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man, asked to explain the origin of God, admits that early humans first adored “a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshipped him.” Phil “was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!” One day, a thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. “We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Then we said to one another, ‘There’s something bigger than Phil!’ ” The basic urge to recognize something bigger than Phil still gives theistic theories an audience, even as their explanations of the lightning-maker turn ever gappier and gassier..." Adam Gopnik: When Did Faith Start to Fade? : The New Yorker

"We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do." They "won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can."

Sounds like my tribe.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

"I Am a Dangerous Professor"

I am jealous, George.
Those familiar with George Orwell’s “1984” will recall that “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.” I recently felt the weight of this Orwellian ethos when many of my students sent emails to inform me, and perhaps warn me, that my name appears on the Professor Watchlist, a new website created by a conservative youth group known as Turning Point USA.
I could sense the gravity in those email messages, a sense of relaying what is to come. The Professor Watchlist’s mission, among other things, is to sound an alarm about those of us within academia who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” It names and includes photographs of some 200 professors...
-George Yancy (continues)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Space is big...

...You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

World and Science (@WorldAndScience)

The size of Hubble's Deep Field image in relation to the rest of the night sky.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Questions, and a good answer

On the Interstate, my daughter tells me
she only has two questions. I’m relieved
because she usually has two hundred.
I say, Okay, let’s have them, and she asks,
What was there before there was anything?
Stupidly, I think I can answer this:
There was grass, forests, fields, meadows, rivers.
She stops me. No, Daddy. I mean before
there was anything at all, what was there?
I say that I don’t know, so then she asks,
Where do we go when we die? I tell her
I don’t know the answer to this either.
She looks out the side, and I look forward,
then she asks if we can have some music.
“Questions” by Joseph Mills from The Miraculous Turning. © Press 53, 2014. Reprinted with permission. WA 10.1.16

Friday, September 30, 2016

An Ode to the Hammock

I've not been to Caracas, but I totally get this:
"Once you get used to having one around, a hammock isn’t so much a design option as a necessity. It practically imposes a different rhythm on your life. You walk into a room and see it hanging there, and it’s hard not to fall into it, even for just a few minutes. And once you’re there, suspended, swaying, the process is automatic: Cares evaporate.
I read in it. I nap in it. I text in it. I lie in it while talking to my children or they lie in theirs while talking to me. I don’t sleep in it overnight but I do lie in it sometimes during bouts of insomnia."

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Packing a Point of View

Now that "an Authorized Employee may carry a concealed handgun on MTSU property," I'm in the market for one of these.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Immediacy and the Future

“Parents are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs… If you don’t believe in the future, unreservedly and dreamily… I don’t see how you can have children.” Michael Chabon
“One thing that makes us unique as a species is that for the last five or ten thousand years we have been the beneficiaries of conscious planning by our parents and cultures. Today we are actively concerning ourselves with what the world is going to be like in the future. We have strong beliefs about this. They play a role in what homo sapiens is going to be like a thousand years from now.” Dan Dennett
In 2007 it was my great privilege to organize a session of the Tennessee Philosophical Association’s annual meeting, dedicated to honoring the distinguished personage and career of John Lachs. Several of my old Vanderbilt cohort and I, who began learning from Lachs early in the 1980s, took turns fondly recalling those years and their enduring imprint. We reminisced, we laughed, we expressed our deep and lasting thanks for his tutelage, his inspiration, and his continuing example of how to discharge the professorial vocation with humanity, diligence, and care. We shared our appreciation of his commitment to making philosophy relevant for life, and our gratitude for his specific and sometimes heroic vocational advocacy on our behalves. Adjectives like energetic, genuine, generous, affable, gregarious, open-minded, inspiring, andbeloved were floated and affirmed.

For my part, I recalled how Lachs made the abstraction of “immediacy” real for me during some downtime at my first Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP) conference- a tangible Lachs legacy, now in its fifth decade – in Lexington, Kentucky in the mid-’80s. He’d generously, typically transported some other penurious grad students and me up from Nashville in his own vehicle, and housed us in his hotel room. We were packed like sardines, and grateful to be there.

Before we headed down to Saturday morning’s session, Lachs caught me in the act of shamelessly enjoying an old cartoon (I think it was the Roadrunner and his perpetually frustrated antagonist Wile E. Coyote) on television. He was amused, and I started to feel a bit embarrassed about this inadvertent display of what I thought must have looked like ripened immaturity on my part. But he simply registered and reinforced my delight – “delight” is a distinctive Lachsian word to which my subconscious would soon stake proprietary claim – in this particular form of immediacy.

A lightbulb went off, inside, and I finally thought I got it; I began to understand what Lachs meant by saying that we have it in our power to regard our acts as so many ends, not just intermediate steps on the way to some perpetually-postponed future fulfillment. Oh, I thought, so immediacy isn’t just another technical notion from the philosophers’ shop. It can be about mundane personal enthusiasm and simple delight in everyday experience, too.

That moment nourished several themes that eventually coalesced in my work. Now I had my thesis topic and a gestating book theme, eventuating in William James’s “Springs of Delight”(Vanderbilt, 2001) with its acknowledgement of Lachs’s “deft but unobtrusive direction that enabled me finally to subdue the ‘Ph.D. Octopus.’”

Lachs has said the aim of teaching is the creation of human beings, and that its essential condition is inter-generational faith. Older people genuinely caring about younger people, generation after generation, sounds like a small achievement. It is not. It is how our species evolves, when we “pay it forward” and invest our present labors and lives in contributing to the creation of our successors. That form of futurity does not in any way detract from our ability to revel in immediacy and enjoy life in an ever-expanding “now.”

When it was his turn to speak, at our 2007 fete, Lachs said he felt a bit like a guest at his own funeral. He didn’t have to add, Twain-like, that reports of his professional demise were greatly exaggerated. None of us is surprised that, nearly a decade later as of this writing, he is still going strong. He’s the proof of Cicero’s sagacious statement that “the fruit of growing older is the memory of abundant blessings previously acquired.” With such an attitude, and a collection of gathered moments, the accumulation of years “sits light upon me, and not only is not burdensome, but is even happy.”

I now teach a Philosophy of Happiness course at Middle Tennessee State University. Lachs is the reason why. Like David Hume he radiates a sane life-work balance. Be a philosopher, even be a Stoic and a Pragmatist, but stay human and be happy. Love life to its very end.

In 2008, my Dad was diagnosed with late-stage leukemia. In his waning days that summer he picked up and annotated the inscribed copy of Lachs’s In Love With Life: reflections on the joy of living and why we hate to die (Vanderbilt, 1998 ) I’d given him in much earlier and healthier days. Dad wrote that it “took on much greater significance when thoroughly digested in 2008.” He died that September.

Lachs: “The lesson is clear. Love life so long as there is something worth loving… But at some point, wanting more life runs into the chill reality that the kind of life we can get is no longer worth the cost. This does not mean that we surrender our love of life. As in a broken love affair, we give up the loved one, not the love. With anguish or with quiet resignation, we face the fact that the days of love are gone.”
Dad: “Well expressed!”
Lachs: “All it takes to overcome tiredness with life is to open open our eyes. The world is throbbing with energy and promise, and if we can view it as kin to us, as our home, as in some sense ours, its movement will forever hold our gaze. The fascination abides even if we are too weak to do much more than see what happens next. We need simply to immerse ourselves in the energy of life all around us, as fish do swimming in the throbbing sea.”
Dad: “great!!”
Great!! indeed. Lachs has opened my eyes, to immediacy and to so much else over the years. He is a quintessential humanist, personifying an infectious love of life while repudiating false solace in overly-simple answers to its persistent, inequitous existential riddles. He embodies, enjoys, and demonstrates the liberty of a free mind and heart for whom work and play converge in philosophy.

He’s the right kind of Stoic, not the sort who ridicules positive thinking, disparages optimism, and counsels a general attitude to life of indifference (see Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking). Lachs knows we don’t have to “chase after enjoyable experiences,” we just have to be ready to catch them when they come.


Lachs likes to say that if you can accept constructive criticism you’ll go far. He solicits it himself, with zest and without resentment. He doesn’t particularly need it now, from me; he’s gone far, far beyond mere professional distinction, by any reasonable measure of intellectual, pedagogical, or humanitarian excellence.

But I would like to raise one small point of dissent, with respect to Lachs’s treatment of William James’s concept of “moral holidays”; and another point of general concern, regarding his approach to balancing immediacy and temporality.

Lachs says James recommends against moral holidays, I say he doesn’t. More on that shortly.

And, Lachs says we mustn’t spend much time or energy worrying about the future, on pain of compromising our attention to present satisfactions. I agree that we mustn’t sacrifice immediacy, but I’m concerned that this way of putting the issue invites recklessness on a warming planet and in a fractured democracy.

To begin with with my second point of concern. We should use the past the way we use food, Lachs has said, for the sustenance of life. The same surely applies to our orientation towards the future, whose very possibility depends on our ability and will to live sustainable lives and create conditions enabling our immediate successors to do likewise. But what can it mean to use the future, to sustain life in the present?

One powerful use, suggested by a visionary organization called the Long Now Foundation but implicitly spurned by Lachs, is to use and deploy tangible symbols of our possible commitment to a self-sustaining world to help actuate that commitment as persistent and real.

“The attitude of seeking fulfillment in the future and viewing each present act as means to later joys,” he wrote in Intermediate Man, “tends to destroy the natural satisfaction that attends the exercise of each of our parts.” It’s an attitude, he was saying, that deprives us of immediacy and its intrinsic rewards, and encourages us to fret about things far beyond our control. He was already anticipating his own later stance as a pragmatic stoic, who’s learned the futility of ceaseless effort directed at outcomes we’ll never know or enjoy.

“Once attention is shifted from the future and we begin to enjoy activities at the time we do them and for what they are, we have transcended the mentality that views life as a process of mediation toward distant ends.”

There’s the rub, for me. Of course we owe it to ourselves to enjoy our lives and not let them slip away in dark clouds of distress over all the possibilities for future failure that may cross our worried minds. We owe it to our children to show them how to do that, or at least inspire them to pursue happiness themselves and pay it forward in their own turn. But we also owe it to ourselves and them to dream a little dream of a flourishing future for all our descendants.

We’re ennobled when we keep an eye on the future, and diminished when we don’t. The great challenge of living is to enjoy our lives while not forgetting that they are indeed part of an ongoing process, while not allowing ourselves to transcend the mentality that views life as a chain we’re privileged to link up with, and for which we bear generational responsibility for sustaining and extending to the best of our capacity.

It may sound a bit grim, that focus on perpetual responsibility for the future. It isn’t, if we allow our speculations and dreams about distant ends and the possible futures we’ll never know at first hand to expand our catalog of positive possibility.

And it isn’t, if we give ourselves permission to take regular breaks from the feeling of burdensome responsibility and relax for a little while into pure immediacy. William James called those breaks moral holidays, and (contrary to Lachs’s suggestion) he was all for them. “I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays,” James proclaimed, not because the world’s fate is in better hands than ours – Josiah Royce’s Absolute conviction – but precisely because it isn’t.

“I just TAKE my moral holidays,” because pragmatic empiricism does not give them to us in the way of Absolute Idealism. Lachs contends in a footnote (Stoic Pragmatism 99, 8) that James “does not say that the holidays of which he speaks are moral holidays, and he generally shies away from endorsing breaks in our earnest efforts to improve the world.” Does he? I generally read James as wholly and unreservedly endorsing the attitude of his German shopkeeper “who for five or six months of the year spends a good part of every Sunday in the open air, sitting with his family for hours under green trees over coffee or beer and Pumpernickel, and who breaks into Achs andWunderschons all the week as he recalls it.” His “contentment in the fine weather, and the leaves, and the air, and himself as a part of it all” is a springboard of renewal that propels him cheerfully back to work, back, as we say, to “reality.” But he knows that his recreation is at least as real as his work (which would suffer as surely as he would without his springboard).

The visionaries of the Long Now Foundation dream of a day, possibly a day in the year 12,017 or so, when tourists on holiday will journey to a destination that houses an ancient clock. There they will marvel at the foresight and mentality of people who taught themselves, ten thousand years in the past, to transcend a life of pure and exclusive immediacy.

Lachs also favors moral holidays, of course, and cares deeply about the future – especially the immediate future of his students. I would simply invite him to widen his appreciation of the implicit purview of that care in its most expansive natural scope, and enjoy the view from circa 12,017 now, in our present, while it’s still one of our constructively-motivating possibilities. If ten-thousand years feels like an overshoot, consider again that Dennett epigraph above. So many of our long-gone benefactors of millennia past held us in their regard, even as they boggled to imagine the detailed shapes of our lives. They didn’t need the details, but implicitly knew we needed their regard. They knew their present could become our past, our present their future.

Here’s another slant on this issue. I recently returned from Ecotopia, the bicycling mecca of the great American northwest,, mythic Portlandia, aka Portland, Oregon. The city played genial host for this year’s Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP) conference. Being there was wonderful, a much-anticipated moment of professional engagement and personal renewal that was on most counts sufficient unto the day. Of course it evoked many previous occasions of the same sort, and ended in explicit anticipation of the next such gathering a year hence.

But therein lies a more exposed portion of the partially-occluded philosophical knot we’re tugging here. Being in the moment, and being happy to be there, is much of what Lachs means by immediacy. Waiting for a moment, anticipating it, wishing and longing for it, may pull us away from countless potential moments of immediacy nearer to hand. It may also warm a cold winter’s night, though, and bring a different kind of immediacy – the immediacy of expectation and hope.

This question of how to balance a quest for personal immediacy with a sense of responsibility to the future has long teased and tormented philosophers. I don’t think it’s detracted at all from my own enjoyment of the present, which for a professional academic necessarily involves this form of tease and torment. Rather, it has linked many presents and brought many futures closer. It’s been one of the streams I fish in, a tributary of the great Transcendentalist river Thoreau and Emerson paddled.

Deadlines are arbitrary, in the larger scheme. But for us practiced procrastinators who love “later” too much, they’re indispensable. They’re the point of temporal convergence when there must be a reckoning, when we must toe the line.

Henry knew. “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

Did he meet all his deadlines? No. Who does? “I love deadlines,” said Douglas Adams. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” But we’ll all meet the last one, too many (like Adams) much too soon. That ought to put a little more resolution in a procrastinator’s step and keep him moving, not to toe the line but to extend it and finally transcend it.

If every day is Doomsday, as Emerson said one day, then every moment is a deadline. “One of the illusions of life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour.”

We can’t really be thinking that every moment, we’d die too soon of stress and worry. But there are days, deadline days, when it’s a good thought to hold in mind. “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year,” and get on with it.

Isn’t the future an inscrutable abstraction? Well, futurity may be. But living and breathing future humans are concrete possibilities, dependent largely on us until doomsday dooms us all. My mentor Lachs has always understood that, acting with tireless solicitude for the students he’s tacitly but unmistakably treated as tangible emissaries of the future, visiting us here in what will become (barring that rumored imminent doomsday) their past.

Balancing immediacy and futurity would then seem to be a matter of sensing where we are, in the present, with regard to past and future. John McPhee’s Bill Bradley had that sense on the basketball court for Princeton, as chronicled by John McPhee in A Sense of Where You Are(1965) and revisited by Dreyfus and Kelly in All Things Shining (2011). It’s a special quality of attention to what’s going on right now, that sets up smart choices going forward. Shoot, pass, or dribble? Doing the right thing next depends on how well we attend to what’s happening now. Immediacy with a shot-clock: great metaphor! And what great inspiration for writers and scholars, to grasp the ultimate payoff of so many separate moments strung together:

McPhee has published more than 25 books, even though he rarely writes more than 500 words a day. He once tried tying himself to a chair to force himself to write more, but it didn’t work. He said, “People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific.’ God, it doesn’t feel like it — nothing like it. But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”

And that’s how the present appropriates the future, a moment at a time, a day at a time, a sentence at a time. It’s not one or the other, now or then, present or future, but all in due course. Next follows next. John Dewey rightly said we must live in our own time, “extracting the full meaning of each present experience” in preparation for the future. But he also concluded A Common Faith with a stirring recognition that we’re all linked to the “continuous human community,” inseparably tied to its future and bound by our stake in civilization to bear a responsibility for those who will live after us.

Samuel Scheffler calls this the “collective afterlife” of humanity on earth, and in Death and the Afterlife makes explicit what Dewey hinted at, that our investment in the future matters more to us than we typically know.

We should not be so preoccupied with the future that we neglect present joys and satisfactions, but neither should we be so fixated on those that we fail to notice how greatly those joys and satisfactions wordlessly presuppose life’s continuation long after we’re gone. Scheffler’s Doomsday Scenario thought experiment makes clear just how hollow and imperiled our immediate present would be, were we to learn that our species literally lacked a future.

Short of Doomsday, it would be too easy at this odd moment in the civic life of our democracy, to surrender to despair over the prospects of our species and the democratic experiment. But surely that’s precisely why we need to cultivate both immediacy and the long view.

Let’s try one more slant on immediacy. In Spring, when I was a young man, my fancy turned always to the crack of the bat and the thrill of the grass. Still does, and did again recently with Spring Training beaming on the radio from places like Fort Myers FL and Surprise AZ, and sunshine beaming brightly in my own backyard in the middle of Spring Break.

It’s always made me feel like a kid again, with nothing in the moment more urgent than the next pitch, hit, out, batter, inning. If my team didn’t win it was a shame, but there was always hope for tomorrow’s next game, and eventually for next year. Sometimes “we” won, sometimes lost, sometimes it rained, but the unfiltered immediacy of the sounds and conjured images crackling through those “50,000 red-hot watts” was hot indeed. It was almost better than being there.

Yearning to recapture the vital immediacy of that childlike devotion, I keep tuning in every Spring. It’s so much easier, now that all the teams’ radio broadcasts (not just the “home teams’) are readily available via the internet. So are most of the telecasts, but I’m not interested in crowding the game into a small screen. In my imagination it’s so much better, so much bigger than life. Immediacy is also like that, so much enhanced by the power of personal imagination.

The kind of philosophical writing Lachs says (in “The Personal Value and Social Usefulness of Philosophy”) he’s always aspired to, “with the beauty and inventiveness of Mozart’s music,” is similarly enhanced by the imagination’s quest to trap the immediacy of our best moments and days.

“It is necessary to write,” wrote Vita Sackville-West, “if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?” It’s a bracing thought, which itself threatens constantly to flit away. Sometimes there are just too many butterflies to track.

Tracking butterflies is another lovely metaphorical way of thinking about immediacy, though “tracking” may imply more deliberation and conscious intention than is desired. Less spontaneity and receptivity. The best experiences of immediacy seem just to happen, unsought, unsolicited, unexpected but very welcome. They flow. Or flit on the wind. No one, no thing, no visible chain of interference or interpretation interposes between you and the object(s) of your experience, when your net is working.

Writing is a highly directed and intentional activity, but it is possible occasionally to fall into a rhythm of words that seems to flit and flow without excess effort or angst. When that happens, writing is itself another fly for the net.

I don’t mean that genre of involuted, tortured, self-conscious, overly self-involved post-modern hand-wringing that some indulgent writers perpetrate. I don’t mean writing about writing at all, necessarily. I do mean writing that recognizes its own intrinsic value, undertaken both for its own sake and for the sake of noticing and attending to the world beyond pencil and keyboard.

The aforementioned All Things Shining includes an interesting discussion of blogging as a species of writing that can feel direct and immediate and attentive, but become something else – something derivative and dull. I’m pondering that. It was in the butterfly spirit that I began posting my daily dawn reflections several years ago, to capture more moments. How many butterflies get away, for every one snared? How many must you snare, to gain immediacy and claim attentive success? If one day in a hundred that would have slipped by gets caught, isn’t that good?

Lachs agrees, I think, that for animals like ourselves it may just be good enough. The point is not to capture all the butterflies, all the moments, an unreasonable aspiration for finite and imperfect creatures, but to capture those we can and in the process make vital connection with others of our kind. In a season of recurrent political bluster and the repeated threat of self-imposed isolation, we must insist on building not walls but bridges.

And, we must insist on accepting and enjoying, but possibly never finally “solving,” the puzzle of our complex relationship with time. Older Daughter neatly punctuates the point when she reminds me of what the Panda said: “the past is history, the future’s a mystery, today’s a gift. That why it’s called the present.”

Albert Camus’s rebel was not wrong to say that “real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present,” so long as we understand that present-mindedness only becomes generous when their present matters to us too.

Our goals must not be cosmic, Lachs has said [SP 33]. Perhaps not, but our sensibility and our intelligence had better be. “Our future depends powerfully,” said Carl Sagan, “on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky…”


Lachs’s stoic/pragmatic commitment to immediacy, it should be noted, is resonant with the kind of altruism and empathy we get from Buddhist Matthieu Ricard. In his 2004 “Habits of Happinss” TED Talk RIcard says some of us believe only in “remembering the past, imagining the future, never the present.” I don’t know anyone who really says that, but many of us act as though we believe it most of the time. That was also Kierkegaard’s point, when he complained of the mania of busy-ness. We don’t stop to smell the roses often enough, forget the clock and the to-do list (Lachs’s “rat-race”) and just inhabit the moment attentively.

But that’s not to say that happiness is exclusive to right now, the present moment that’s here and gone in a wink. Ricard quotes Henri Bergson, “All the great thinkers of humanity have left happiness vague so that each of them could define their own terms.” Smart. When I find a way to articulate precisely what’s wrong with a pure presence that forgets past and future, I’ll finally have defined happiness my way and identified my happiness project. There is no single Project, Lachs knows, just so many projects mirroring so many human natures. Most of them have been allowed to gather dust.

The best projects integrate a capacity for attentive presence, a reminiscent fondness for the past of pleasant memory, and an active interest in what William James called our most vital question. “What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?” Happy people delight in imagining the future, caring about it, building it – or at least not impeding or derailing it – in the present. They always have.
Phil Oliver
Berlin Practical Philosophy International Forum -
E.Weber on JL's "Cost of Comfort" -

Friday, June 10, 2016


They had a little earthquake ("little," easy for me to say from this distance) in southern California last night, magnitude 5.2. I'd probably not have noticed, but for the fact that my family is out there right now. Slept right through it, apparently, but they're jittery about possible aftershocks nonetheless. "Wish you were here," texts my wife.

I was driving in SoCal just the other day, musing to myself about when that might happen again.

We were in Palm Springs when a comparable quake happened back in the early '90s. She slept through that one too, but it got my fully wakeful attention right away. I can only imagine what it would be like to survive a really big one.

The anniversary of the great San Francisco quake of '06 was recently marked, as I noted in my dawn post on April 18:
The great San Francisco quake of 1906 was a century and a decade ago this morning, notes theAlmanac. William James was there, and his reaction was amazing - " fear, only admiration for the way a wooden house could prove its elasticity, and glee over the vividness of the manner in which such an 'abstract idea' as 'earthquake' could verify itself into sensible reality." The quake "fed his thoughts," says Rebecca Solnit, as extreme outer events can sometimes nourish a person's inner life with challenge and purpose. But you have to be the kind of person who welcomes spontaneous extremity, to be so nourished. Some of us come by that temperament naturally, others have to work at it.
I dipped into James's letters over the weekend, as I often do, for sustenance and inspiration. In what would turn out to be his final months, he was writing to friends of his admiration for a new "discreet" biography of Nietzsche, by Halevy. He was not a fan of the Will to Power and "poor Nietzsche's antipathies" but he did appreciate the German iconoclast's openness to extremity and the strenuous life. I've started Halevy's Life of Nietzsche, it's good. (And free on Kindle.)
Earthquake is a good metaphor for that, not only the geologic energy of the seismic event itself but even more the social energy of reconstruction. The willingness to pitch in with your peers, in times of stress and destruction, to bring about something better for the whole community, is admirable indeed. The will to collaborate in common cause, for the common good, is one of our best attainments. Nietzsche didn't quite get that. San Francisco did.
Pitching in to clean up and rebuild devastated communities, rising from the ashes and reconstructing lives, is one of the best things humans do. We do it because we live forward, in time and in imagination, emulating our most noble forebears. And that's how we make the most of the present.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Whitman sings the body electric

A long-lost guide to "manly health" by Walt Whitman has been discovered.
...Whitman’s words, part of a nearly 47,000-word journalistic series called “Manly Health and Training,” were lost for more than 150 years, buried in an obscure newspaper that survived only in a handful of libraries. The series was uncovered last summer by a graduate student, who came across a fleeting reference to it in a digitized newspaper database and then tracked down the full text on microfilm.
But the most striking thing, Mr. Reynolds said, is its emphasis on moderation, and a holistic vision of the relationship between mental and physical health, in contrast to the radical temperance advocates, water-cure partisans and dietary reformers who sprang up across mid-19th-century America.
Whitman, who lived to a ripe 72, is really advocating “getting up early, having a walk, getting the benefit of fresh air and lots of moderate exercise,” Mr. Reynolds said. “One could do worse than follow his advice.” nyt

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Summer course at MTSU: "A Stroll Through Western Civilization"

My Master of Liberal Arts course, scheduled to begin soon after the Spring semester ends in May:
MALA 6030 - Topics in Culture and Ideas: A Stroll Through Western Civilization Focused on interpreting the western philosophical tradition as an ongoing response to Plato (to whom British philosopher A.N. Whitehead famously said all of western philosophy is a series of footnotes) and Aristotle (whose students were known as Peripatetics, from the Greek word meaning "to walk up and down" while learning.

  • Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization
  • Frederic Gros,  A Philosophy of Walking
Inline image 2“...Socrates describes the world around us as a darkened cavern, across the back of which a puppet show is flashed with the figures of men, animals, and objects cast as shadows. For a modern audience, the description has an eerily familiar ring. It’s the world of television and the media at its most flimsy and superficial."
Image result for television as cave
Inline image 3"Walking is a matter not just of truth, but of reality. To walk is to experience the real. Not reality as pure physical exteriority... but reality as what holds good: the principle of solidity, of resistance. When you walk you prove it with every step: the earth holds good."
"To stimulate thinking, to move reflection forward, to deepen inventiveness, the mind needs the help of an active body. 'My thoughts sleep if I sit still," wrote Montaigne. "My fancy does not go so well by itself as when my legs move it.'"

Thursday, March 10, 2016

John Lachs

Selections from Stoic Pragmatism (Indiana, 2012)-

...human beings tend not to be content with seeing the complex ways in which the past issues in the present; they seek to learn lessons for controlling the future. Marx captured this attitude when he said that philosophers typically want to understand the world, but “the point is to change it.”5 30

Image result for john lachsPeirce's second claim about the future is that it involves the growth of “concrete reasonableness.” This process is characterized by the gradual disappearance of force and chance; thirds or laws and regularities take the place of dynamic seconds and the immediacies he calls firsts. 31
“Will you never have a pause, as for a Sabbath, and turn a speculative eye upon regions distant and serene?” Santayana asks.10 There are very few of us who don't want to and even fewer who feel happy when we don't try.

There is a deep tradition that understands and can answer this need, although it is not the tradition of pragmatism or of Hegel. The present, when it is detached from its relations to the future and the past, holds a permanent promise of momentary satisfaction. The delightful absorption doesn't last—nothing does. But so long as it fills the mind, it feels free of the temptations and the disappointments of the world. This is the nunc stans or eternal present of which Schopenhauer speaks11 and which is a living part of the sacred traditions of both East and West. It may be the only spirituality open to nonreligious people, though it is probably the same spiritual experience religious people interpret in religious terms.

Throwing oneself into the relationless moment is not taking possession of the present as Hegel claims we do when knowledge reaches the Absolute.12That present is fully mediated; the web of its relations individuates it and connects knowers to the world rather than distancing them from it. The immediacy is also not exclusive concern with present circumstances, expressed by the cry of “carpe diem,” uttered in drunk self-absorption. 36-7
The only presents stoics and epicureans acknowledge are immediacies with second thoughts. Neither is prepared to let go and surrender caring even for a short time. Understanding the past and controlling the future have taken over Western life to such an extent that even enjoyment of the present depends on one or both of them. Shelving the two concerns for the moment liberates the present to display the sheer joy of conscious existence independently of what happened and what may come. This is transcendence of this care-laden life—an embrace of whatever there is that, though imprisoned in the moment, touches eternity. 39
The stoic in stoic pragmatists reminds them of the contingency of life, the vastness of the universe, the finitude of everything human, the tragic cost of whatever we do, and the possibility that our efforts will be of no avail. Stoics whisper “memento mori,” as religion used to but perhaps no longer does, calling the attention of communities to the larger, historical cycles over which they exercise no control. Without a cosmic perspective, we cannot present a just assessment of our situation. With this prospect clearly in mind, we can never place ourselves at the center of the universe. Stoic detachment is a powerful antidote to the hype that elevates science to the level of savior and social effort above natural limits. 52
...the stoic teaches us to smile, to say it was a good game, and now goodnight.

Pragmatism and Death

The ameliorative strategy to life that is the hallmark of pragmatism fails, critics say, because it cannot deal with the ultimate fact of death. It is not altogether clear what “dealing with death” means, that is, what critics expect pragmatists to do about the termination of life. Stoics supposedly know what to do about death, namely accept it without complaint. Deeply believing Christians also know what to do when it comes time to die: they make a last confession, commend their souls to God, and pass away in the faith that they will meet their maker face to face.

Neither one of these strategies is open to pragmatists because they are committed to the improvement of life here and now. Their theory requires completion in practice, and this suggests that critics expect pragmatists to attain a decisive victory over the end of life, a victory to establish once and for all that “death shall have no dominion.” Short of such a mighty achievement, pragmatism seems to offer only Band-Aids for the wound of life that permit us to bleed to death. 53
What, then, is it that the critics of pragmatism want it to do in “dealing” with death? I can see two possible and sensible demands. The first is to provide a way of integrating the fact of death into meaningful and satisfying lives. The second takes the form of making useful suggestions for how to live in the shadow of death, diminishing its power by delaying the inevitable. The first is a conceptual task; the second focuses on practical strategies. 56-7
It is sensible to concern ourselves with the near consequences of our acts, but not with what might flow from them in the unforeseeably distant future. Experience of what comes next teaches us what to do and what to abstain from, but only the power of language enables us to waste our energy wondering what might happen a million years from now. This is genuinely useless activity; it does not contribute to handling our problems now and its horror may immobilize us. It may sound harsh but is in fact the heart of sanity to say that what may happen in the hazy future has no relevance to our lives today. 59
The question of what pragmatists would have us do in relation to death has a simple answer: fend it off one day at a time. For pragmatists, as in real life, there is no wholesale solution to anything, so we remain in a constant struggle to prevail. Every day we stay alive is a victory over death, to be celebrated as a grand achievement. Every meal strikes a blow on behalf of life; every time we wake up in the morning, we avoid permanent sleep. Each glorious breath keeps us from suffocating and every glass of clean water forestalls infection and possible death. Schopenhauer once said that walking is but a way of avoiding falling on our face, but it was clear that he would have been just as happy to see us in the mud. Similarly, all our labors in supporting life are ways of avoiding death, but pragmatists, and the rest of us, delight in its success. 60
The major activity in which we engage is the manipulation of words. We argue with each other, give lectures, discuss policies in committee meetings, contribute to reports, write books and articles, and instruct graduate students. We live in a sea of words and get paid for talking, not unlike preachers and comedians. But talk is a thin veneer covering the surface of events, which tends to turn our attention away from the underlying physical and biological realities. 68
We cannot wrap our minds around the millionth prime number and cannot give content to how life might be different a hundred years from now. 81
the tenth and last blindness, which is the greatest and most lamentable. We can be so taken with the past and the future that we become unmindful of the present. The young see the failures of the past, the old its victories. In either case, what has been casts a long shadow over the only thing real, which is what exists now. Expectations can terrorize life or else charm it; when they do, we live for what is not yet and will perhaps never be. The present always ends up as the victim, seen only as residue or preparation, appreciated only in its passing. What we seem not to understand is that the present never passes, that its riches are inexhaustible, and that in spurning it we discard all of life.

Objects tend to be of interest to us for their instrumental value. The more we view things, people, and relationships as means to ulterior ends, the less we are concerned with their intrinsic properties. We can quickly reach the stage where we hardly notice what is immediately present, reading it only as the sign of things past or yet to come. The firstness, as Peirce would say, of whatever we deal with tends to give way to its secondness and thirdness; the immediacy before us is quickly mediated. The genius of James, Peirce, and Dewey is that they did not go down the road of Hegelian mediation, maintaining instead a keen consciousness of the importance of unmediated presence. Hegel, however, was more prescient of the common mind than were the Americans. Busy people don't linger over the appearance of things, savoring each marvelous aspect of the world. They turn a blind eye to how things look and feel and thereby lose the most direct contact we can develop with the real. This is the blindness of people who have no trouble finding their way, but haven't a clue as to where they have been.

I have distinguished ten different sorts of blindness, undifferentiated by James, all of which, however, are hinted at in his essay. Some of the blindnesses are connected with each other in a variety of ways; others remain essentially independent. They are different from each other because their objects, causes, organs, processes, or remedies differ. But they tend to travel in company so that, for instance, the person who is blind to immediacies is likely also to be nescient of how others see the world. Similarly, persons who take no delight in our simpler functions probably also fail to lead an intense sensory life. 92-3

A pounding sense of reality convinced me that language and conceptual discourse constitute a relatively superficial play on the surface of events. I have a profound appreciation of the power of language, but I cannot live in a world of chattering the way Groucho Marx and some contemporary philosophers appear able to do. I view preoccupation with language, including the famous “linguistic turn,” as the folly of academics whose lives are consumed by conversation, glib repartee, and argument. I am too close to the silent people, to the nonverbal nonintellectuals who constitute the bulk of humankind, not to know the places where the stream of words dries up in the sands of feeling or the mountains of action.

The same sense of a vast nonhuman environment makes it impossible for me to accord special metaphysical prerogatives to thought, minds, or persons. Of course, all the information that reaches us about the world is conditioned by our cognitive apparatus. But this equipment consists of earth-bound organs, not transcendental faculties. Accordingly, it must be placed in the context of its biological role of sustaining our bodies and enabling us to find our way in the world. 184-5
Believing in what our fervent hopes promise has, in any case, never much appealed to me. I think, on the contrary, that the dignity due our intelligence requires seeing the world and our prospects in it with unclouded eyes. Religion gets undue support from our desire to escape the pain of loss and the dread of death. Although they do not bring out the best in religion, I have no quarrel with such consolations. But philosophers should not need them. They ought to have the courage to look into the abyss alone and to face sudden tragedy and inevitable decline with equanimity born of joy or at least of understanding. I am prepared to be surprised to learn that we have a supernatural destiny, just as I am prepared to be surprised at seeing my neighbor win the lottery. But I don't consider buying tickets an investment.

Philosophers need courage also to leave the security and comfort of the university and address nonacademic people on issues of personal significance and public policy. As a profession in this country, we have reached a level of irrelevance that renders commercial presses reluctant to publish our work. The in-groupish abstraction of philosophy books makes them the butt of jokes. Yet the public is hungry for thoughtful commentaries on the affairs of life and for guidance on how to deal with its problems. The response to In Love with Life showed me the magnitude of the need people experience for philosophical reflections on what they do and what befalls them. Meeting this need is a project of the greatest importance for philosophers. I continue to contribute to the effort as a writer and promoted it as chair of the Centennial Committee of the American Philosophical Association... I am unable to think of anything more important for the future of academic philosophy in this country than for it to become less academic. 188-9
I have an intense loyalty to people near to me, which shows itself in my readiness to go to great lengths to promote their good. This attitude defines my relation to friends, students, and family. 191
If it is wise to look a week ahead, we suppose, it must be better to think of what may happen in a year or a decade. Reflecting on what is possible over an unlimited period of time generates foolish theories, baseless hopes, and unending worry. A part of the reason why animals live better than some humans is their freedom from ultimate concerns; they act as if they knew that finite creatures are not designed to deal with totality.

Up to a point, life gets better in proportion to our ability to get absorbed in the immediate. Failure rehearses memories, caution advises planning; future and past squeeze us from two sides until life becomes the hurried conversion of one into the other. Even universities have become beehives that leave little time for leisured reflection or the life-giving moments in which one can simply be. Few things are more difficult for our burdened and busy generation than focus and absorption. These are the gifts of immediacy, which is not some unconceptualized given but simply the present in whose movement we can feel at home. Momentary forgetfulness can liberate us from the future and the past and reveal the exhilarating beauty of whatever comes our way. This is transcendence—probably the only sort available to animals.

I am grateful for living at a time when I can contribute to the recovery of American philosophy, a great and greatly neglected national treasure. The founding of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, in which I gladly participated, serves as clear evidence that just a few determined and persevering individuals can have a lasting effect on the future of a profession. We need to continue expanding the canon by adding to it thinkers whose work is excellent but who have, for one reason or another, been neglected over the years. I work on this, as I work on bringing philosophy into contact with a broader public, with the conviction that the energy and vision of a small band of people can make all the difference we need.

The activist element in American philosophy seems to fit well with my temperament. I value the sort of robust engagement with the world that evokes personal activity and aims at social improvement. Scholarly imprisonment in universities strikes me as intellectually narrowing and emotionally impoverishing. It tends to make professors timid and compliant souls. I am interested in ordinary people and their problems because I see myself as no different from them; I simply cannot take claims about aristocracy of any sort seriously.

As a consequence, I love philosophy for the perspectives it offers on human difficulties and the tools it provides for their resolution. Thinking about what I see around me is one of the great pleasures of my life. Acting on what I believe combines the satisfaction of being a whole person with the exhilaration of an experiment. Academics who live only in the mind sadden me. Their truncated existence denies them the robust delights and the sound common sense of those who engage the world on multiple levels. A sense of practical reality is a badly needed balance to excessive cerebration.

Philosophy needs balance no less than do philosophers. Even if it could attain the precision of some of the natural sciences, philosophy would need the literary imagination to complete its task. Its product is not disinterested knowledge but a relationship that changes lives. To establish that relationship, we need to communicate both discursive ideas and visions. The manner of the communication can be as important as its substance; people respond to what is well thought and well said. The magnificence of philosophical ideas and the excellence of their expression are, therefore, integrally connected to their effectiveness. My ideal has always been to write philosophy with the beauty and inventiveness of Mozart's music, though I would also like for my ideas to be true in some sense on which philosophers will never agree. The momentousness of this ideal is measured best by seeing how far I fall short of it.

In the end, I do not want to be absorbed in the technical details of the problems of philosophy. My passion is to deploy philosophy to deal with the important issues that face us as individuals, as a nation, and as members of the human race. There is a large public waiting anxiously for what philosophy can offer—for careful thinking, clear vision, and the intelligent examination of our values. That is where the future of philosophy lies, that is where American philosophy has always pointed us, and that is where I will continue to be. 192-3
Image result for john lachs

Lachs in Berlin -

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Study Abroad in July: American Philosophy, British Roots

American Philosophy, British Roots
Earn 3 credit hours for Philosophy
Dates:  July 12 - 23, 2016
For more details: or

To apply for this program, request pre-approval by clicking the "apply now" button above and then complete this application and return it to Dr. Phil Oliver.

Dates / Deadlines:
TermYearApp DeadlineDecision DateStart DateEnd Date
Summer201603/04/2016 **Varies07/12/201607/23/2016

** Indicates the Office of Education Abroad pre-approval deadline. Students will also need to meet the actual program application deadlines, which may be earlier. See the Getting Started page for more details. Accelerating Intelligence News