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
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Lachs in Berlin -

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