Monday, August 14, 2017

As if

Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book about "strategic untruth," not to be confused with Harry Frankfurt's (or Donald Drumpf's) "bullshit"...
Idealization is a fundamental feature of human thought. We build simplified models in our scientific research and utopias in our political imaginations. Concepts like belief, desire, reason, and justice are bound up with idealizations and ideals. Life is a constant adjustment between the models we make and the realities we encounter. In idealizing, we proceed “as if” our representations were true, while knowing they are not. This is not a dangerous or distracting occupation, Kwame Anthony Appiah shows. Our best chance of understanding nature, society, and ourselves is to open our minds to a plurality of imperfect depictions that together allow us to manage and interpret our world.
The philosopher Hans Vaihinger first delineated the “as if” impulse at the turn of the twentieth century, drawing on Kant, who argued that rational agency required us to act as if we were free. Appiah extends this strategy to examples across philosophy and the human and natural sciences. In a broad range of activities, we have some notion of the truth yet continue with theories that we recognize are, strictly speaking, false. From this vantage point, Appiah demonstrates that a picture one knows to be unreal can be a vehicle for accessing reality.
As If explores how strategic untruth plays a critical role in far-flung areas of inquiry: decision theory, psychology, natural science, and political philosophy. A polymath who writes with mainstream clarity, Appiah defends the centrality of the imagination not just in the arts but in science, morality, and everyday life. HUP

Eclipse



Thursday, August 10, 2017

Norms & Cliffs

I've been prodded to finalize my plans for the "Cheating" course this Fall, to which I'll contribute a block of two sessions. I already knew I'd call my contribution "Cheating truth," and that we'd read Harry Frankfurt's classic "On Bullshit"... but what else? This, I think:

Norms and Cliffs in Trump's America
...deflecting the discourse into one about norms, when we are really talking about premises and principles, is one more way of, well, normalizing Drumpf’s assault on democratic government. It turns what is really subversion into mere behavior. It’s one form of the frightened levelling-off that Drumpf has intimidated too many pundits and reporters into accepting.
Suddenly, all we hear about is “norms”—norms are here, norms are there, norms are everywhere: norms violated, norms overthrown, norms thrown back in the faces of their normalcy. Not since “Cheers” went off the air, back in the nineties, have we heard so much about Norms. “Cheers”—surely the best television comedy between “The Honeymooners” and “Seinfeld”—featured, you may recall, its own Norm, the saturnine barfly played by George Wendt, a good example of a man whose life consisted of nothing but norms. Putting a beer out for Norm was a norm of the bar: you did it because it was expected, though not written down anywhere. (“Beer? Have I become that predictable?” Norm occasionally asked, in feigned surprise.) An outsider once arrived at the bar and took his stool. “What do you do?” he politely asked an obviously enraged Norm. “Do? I sit there!” was the answer. These were Norm’s norms.

Norms are social conventions; they’re normative because they’re useful, and they’re not codified because they don’t have to be. One might say that every social game in which we participate has three elements: premises, rules, and norms. The premises state the concept; the rules regiment the play; and the norms inflect the action. Life is full of norms. A norm is a barstool reserved for a habitué. A norm is the rule that you tip the bartender when his shift ends even if you are carrying over the tab. In Monopoly, the rules are written down, but it would be a dull game indeed if it were not played with norms that have developed over time—putting fine money on “Free Parking,” say, or getting double one’s salary for landing directly on “Go.” It may be a dull game anyway—as countless families are now remembering, on rainy days in summer cabins—but it would be a lifeless game without evolved and unwritten norms.

Donald Drumpf and his minions have been engaged, we are told, every day, in violations of what are being called norms—the expectation, say, that the President will not engage in an open war with his own Attorney General, or make reckless accusations of illegality on the part of former Presidents. Google “Drumpf” and “norms,” and you find a huge, alarmed journalistic literature, enumerating the norms of political discourse that Drumpf has overturned that week or day—but those same pieces will also, more often than not, point out that, after all, overturning norms is what he was elected to do. When people accuse Drumpf of violating norms, there is a near immediate concession that they are, after all, only norms. One man’s favorite barstool is the next man’s barrier to bar-service entry. Emily Bazelon, writing in the Times Magazine, summed up the problem this way: “Though some of our core democratic values are wrapped up in norms, it’s still easy to ask: If no laws have been broken, what’s the problem?” Bazelon (who, it should be noted, is well aware that these questions are hard ones) observed that it was “natural enough for his supporters to dismiss talk of ‘norms’ as the useless hand-wringing of a worse-than-useless establishment.”

But respecting the rule of law is not a norm. Telling the truth about matters of state—or apologizing when you haven’t been able to tell it—are not “norms.” They are premises. They aren’t enumerated or listed in advance in a legal document, not because they’re merely conventional but because they make all the other conventions possible. They’re not the way we wear our hats; they’re the ground beneath our feet. Call them—well, call them Cliffs, after Norm’s beloved mailman drinking partner, inasmuch as we fall right off the moral mountain to our obliteration without them. We take them for granted because without them there would be no way of standing up at all. We don’t list them not because they are mere manners and conventions but because they are the unstated absolutes that let everything else go on.

Nowhere on the Monopoly box does it say, “It is forbidden for the players to use guns to force a trade.” It doesn’t have to; sitting down to play Monopoly implies that you have already understood that. The Constitution does not say, in its preamble, “it is important to respect laws,” because it assumes that no one would, or could, seek power who did not share that assumption. Standing up to play the game of government implies good faith in it. Values and premises and principles are not codified because if you had to codify them you couldn’t have a code at all.

This difference is neither merely verbal nor philosophical; it is vital. For deflecting the discourse into one about norms, when we are really talking about premises and principles, is one more way of, well, normalizing Drumpf’s assault on democratic government. It turns what is really subversion into mere behavior. It’s one form of the frightened levelling-off that Drumpf has intimidated too many pundits and reporters into accepting. Every totalitarian country has a constitution—the Soviet constitution was a mockery not because its “norms” were not respected but because the ruling party had complete contempt for the premises it was based on. What mattered were not the norms of its enforcement but the social compact that was understood to underlie it and the mutual respect people showed for it. That Drumpf’s hard-core followers delight in his transgressions—even if such followers were a majority, which they are not—does not make them normative. It is exactly the point of a democratic government to say that, though norms may change, the premises aren’t directly or easily subject to a majority vote, even by the gleefully vengeful. Some of the rules are unwritten because if you had to write them down it would be an admission that there were people not ready to play.

So let us hear no more of norms. Do not let anyone convince you that Drumpf’s evils are matters of performance or personality or affect—that they can be overlooked, or that there is a mere violation of decorum underway. For that is exactly how tyrants have always engaged in the moral degradation of their followers. “I just have to look past the tweets” or “He has a problem with his tone” is the new moral equivalent of “Well, the trains run on time,” or, “At least the emperor has built a lot of marble temples.” Norms come and go, no matter how hardily they stick to their bar stools. The principles and premises of social contracts, which make both bars and republics possible, don’t.

-Adam Gopnik

Cheers!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Don't fear the reaper



(4:20)...the Reaper was invented during the Plague to cope with the horrors of mortality, and really not much has changed despite our effort to cheat death by running on treadmills or eating kale. The Grim Reaper is always on his way, and while we wait for time to come all we can do is laugh. It may not be
much, but it's a brief respite from the existential grip that death holds after all when death comes knocking at the door he could just be a sore throat.

There are more than 100 of these. Still my favorite:

Image result for new yorker grim reaper cartoon

Thursday, June 22, 2017

America the Philosophical

"America is philosophical not because of the A.P.A. but in spite of it..." Harsh, but not entirely unfair. Past MTSU Lyceum speaker Carlin Romano* meets critics in the lion's den.



This Author meets Critics session on "America the Philosophical" was organized by the Karl Jaspers Society of North America in conjunction with the 90th Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division in San Francisco, California, April 2, 2016.
*Romano at MTSU-

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bertrand Russell Now

The current edition of Philosophy Now has been commandeered by Russellians:

The following articles by members of the Bertrand Russell Society aim to show why, almost fifty years after his death, he remains both an important figure in the history of philosophy and a role model for those who – in the spirit of Philosophy Now – want to make philosophical inquiry accessible to all.To what extent does Russell continue to have a significant influence on modern times? A generation has passed since Russell’s death, and the number of people who knew him by direct acquaintance is dwindling. Recently, in my capacity as President of the Bertrand Russell Society, I received a call from a woman who had seen a listing for the Society in which my phone number was given. “Are you Bertrand Russell?” she asked me. I was rather taken aback (albeit flattered) that someone could even ask such a question. While I can’t in good faith claim to be Bertrand Russell, I can honestly say I’ve shaken the hand of people who shook his hand. Two degrees of separation!
Tim Madigan is the President of the Bertrand Russell Society and has been known to shave those who do not shave themselves, including himself. For information on the Bertrand Russell Society please see bertrandrussell.org.

Peter Stone reveals the deep and varied passions of the analytic philosopher.
John R. Lenz tells us why Russell thought philosophy worthwhile.
Tim Delaney finds joy in Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness.
Tony Simpson tells us how the Russell-Einstein manifesto led to Pugwash.
John Ongley investigates what Bertrand Russell thought about human reason.
Landon D.C. Elkind explains why Russell believed logic can set thought free.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tolstoy's blisters

Note to spiritual pilgrims: wear comfortable shoes.
On this day in 1881, Leo Tolstoy (books by this author) set off on a pilgrimage to the Optina-Pustyn monastery.
He was 52 years old, and his two greatest novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), were behind him. He had found himself in a crisis—he was famous, had a family and land and money, but it all seemed empty. He was unable to write, had trouble sleeping, contemplated suicide. He read the great philosophers, but found holes in all of their arguments. He was amazed that the majority of ordinary Russians managed to keep themselves going every day, and he finally decided that it must be their faith. From there, it was a short time until Tolstoy took a walk in the woods and found God. He wrote: "At the thought of God, happy waves of life welled up inside me. Everything came alive, took on meaning. The moment I thought I knew God, I lived. But the moment I forgot him, the moment I stopped believing, I also stopped living."
His wife Sophia was not so thrilled with his conversion. He renounced meat, sex, alcohol, fiction, tobacco, and the temptations of a family. He dressed like a peasant. He wanted to give all of his money away, but Sophia wanted to live what she considered a normal life, not to mention raise their 10 children.
Tolstoy made his first visit to Optina-Pustyn in 1877, a visit in which he apparently exhausted the chief starets—or community elder—with his questions. On this day in 1881 he set off on a second visit, and this time he decided that to be more like the common people, he would walk all the way there, dressed in his peasant coat and wearing shoes made out of bark. He was pleased with his spiritual guidance, but he wasn't used to walking in bark shoes, so by the time he made it to Optina his feet were so covered in blisters that he had to take the train back home. WA
Spiritual transcendence in bad footwear is just about impossible.

Friday, June 2, 2017

American Philosophy: A Love Story

Robert Richardson on John Kaag's American Philosophy: A Love Story.
There is a strange daylight magic in this book. It is part memoir and part flyover of American philosophy, which, says Kaag, “from Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century . . . to Cornel West in this one, is about the possibilities of rebirth and renewal” (66). The book is also clearly and beautifully written. I picked it up for a quick look and couldn’t put it down. Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought. A young philosophy professor dangling at the end of a failed marriage, depressed and not at all sure life is worth living, stumbles upon a magnificent abandoned stone library deep in the New Hampshire woods. The lost library is crammed with old rare incredibly valuable books — all the classics of American philosophy and its German, English, and French antecedents. As the narrator struggles with his life (and with the problem of what to do about this hidden treasure) so he struggles with the main lines of American thought from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism and beyond. A female colleague, a Kantian, joins him in his strange mission and in the string of personal experiences that follow, the narrator takes us back and forth from learning to love until he can answer the question is life worth living with a sly “it depends on the liver” (8) and a modestly rapturous “maybe” (235). Kaag’s notion of philosophy is not technical or academic in the usual ways. Heidegger once started a class on Aristotle with a disdainful dismissal of the biographical. Of Aristotle’s life he said “He was born. He thought. He died.” 1 Heidegger had more reason than most to avoid biographical illumination, but his low view of the subject is fairly common in some quarters. Not, however, with John Kaag, who writes “Royce’s lectures on German Idealism began where all philosophy does, in biography” (166). That is to say, in life. And if philosophy couldn’t help us lead better lives, most of us wouldn’t care two pins for it. American Philosophy: A Love Story is saturated with William James’s thought and life. Even so, Kaag is, I think it fair to say, a Roycean; he is drawn more to a life with others — to community — than to individualism, however splendid. But he gives equal time to Emerson, Thoreau, James, Hocking, and so many others (Descartes, Hobbes, T.H Huxley, etc., etc.) that I would advise a beginning student to read this book rather than those of Father Copleston or Will[iam James] Durant for an overview of American thought. And beyond overview, Kaag has many new things for us, the relationship between Emerson and Henry Lee, that between William James and Pauline Goldmark, and that between Ernest Hocking and Pearl Buck. There is a fresh bit on Royce’s last words, another on the origins of Shady Hill School, a reappraisal of Jane Addams and much, much more. American Philosophy: a Love Story is then a brightly written, thoroughly accessible, sometimes moving account of a young life in philosophy. (It is also an adventure story about the discovery of the lost library of Ernest Hocking.) Kaag teaches courage, risk-taking and above all reading. He would, I think, agree with the comment attributed to Borges that “you are not what you write, but what you have read.” And his book goes on my shelf with other books in which philosophy lives, with Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, Margaret Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children, Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and Simone de Beavoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Kaag leaves us with what Goethe, Emerson, and William James all agreed on. In the beginning was not the word, but the deed, the act. The way forward is not twelve steps, or ten or three. It’s just one. Don’t sleep on it, sit on it, stand on it, or take it for a trial spin. Take the step, You have to do what you can, and you have to do it right now.
Robert D. Richardson
WILLIAM JAMES STUDIES VOL. 13 • NO. 1 • SPRING 2017 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Walking promotes divergent thinking

How Does the Brain-Body Connection Affect Creativity?
Humans have a complicated relationship with walking. This wasn’t always so. British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey identified marks of bipedalism dating back 3.7 million years in Tanzania—it’s an old endeavor indeed. The story of our uprightness was, for most of history, one of survival and thriving. Today the tale of our peculiar relationship to gravity is being written much differently.

Bipedalism conferred onto us two distinct advantages. First, it helped us gaze longer into the landscape than quadrupeds, who must rely on mountaintops and trees to acquire such spatial information. This helped us quickly identify prey and predator, both of our species and others. Our reaction time increased.

Secondly, and more importantly for this story, the ability to walk turned us into efficient communicators. As a social animal the extra distance offered by bipedalism let us signal across large expanses. Creative means of communication developed. Walking and creativity developed together.

Was walking considered a creative endeavor, however? Utilitarian, definitely. Every facet of our existence relied on an ability to travel long distances (as well as, in the early days of agriculture, walk around tending to crops). Today nomadism is romanticized, but for millions of years it was necessary for survival.

The more sedentary the world has become, the more the primitive act of walking is romanticized. Gardens erected by 17th-century British aristocracy were our introduction to what would become public parks—specific locations of recreation and retreat to spend hours meandering through. To celebrate, poets and thinkers poured accolades on our simplest and most profound example of biomechanics... (continues)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Conservatives are right about one thing

Revisiting Richard Hofstadter's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, as timely and relevant now as in '64. "Let us admit the case of the conservative," John Dewey once wrote. "If we once start thinking no one can guarantee what will be the outcome..." Sapere Aude!

Lea's Lookout

Nice Tennessean story about Laura Lea Knox, 90-year-old daughter of Luke Lea, the benefactor of the land and "lookout" that's become my ritual Sunday morning hike destination.


...both the Warner Parks and Knox came to be in the same year, 1927. And both just celebrated their 90th birthdays. The parks are part of her family roots, a legacy of her of grandfather, Percy Warner, and her great-uncle Edwin Warner. But many people wrongly assume that they were men who gave the land for the acres of green space preserved by our city today. That man was actually her daddy, Col. Luke Lea. He was a lawyer, a soldier, a senator, a newspaper publisher and a man who went to jail and lost every penny of his fortune — but not before he gave 868 acres to the city, protecting the trees and trails from development while the city has boomed around it...

Laura Lea Knox enjoys hiking along the Harpeth Woods 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Forest-bathing

Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane)
Word(s) of the day: "shinrin yoku" - 'forest-bathing'; the calming, restorative power of simply being in a forest or among trees (Japanese). pic.twitter.com/h2dzLQ81PO





Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane)
Word of the day: “nuddle” - to walk in a dreamy or preoccupied manner (English, regional). Cf “soodle”, to stroll thoughtfully. pic.twitter.com/2ZQIcR3f2X
Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane)
Word of the day: "shadowtackle" - the shifting webwork of shadows cast on a woodland floor by sun, branch & leaf (Gerard Manley Hopkins). pic.twitter.com/304NhzPmnV
Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane)
Word of the day: "flâneur", "flâneuse" - a wanderer of the city, sauntering observer of urban others, a "passionate spectator" (Baudelaire). pic.twitter.com/JsPYupXKyj
Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane)
Word of the day: "inscendence" - the impulse not to rise above the world (transcendence) but to climb into it, seek its core. (Thomas Berry) pic.twitter.com/u7XsX7nC4q
  17 hours ago
Word of the day: "cynefin" - one's place of true belonging, the habitat with which one feels most attuned (Welsh). Distinct from "hiraeth".

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hope

Hope is the subject of another terrific book by Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark... and of today's eponymous poem by Lisel Mueller. "It is the singular gift/we cannot destroy in ourselves, the argument that refutes death, the genius that invents the future, all we know of God."

Solnit: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” And, "To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” And, “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

And, someone concluded his book on William James with:
Hope-the need for it, the possibility of it, the sense of it as the only reputable alternative to inadmissible despair-is the center of his vision as I see it. The prime requisite of hope is confidence that what we do matters and may make all the difference further along the chain of life. Meanwhile, conscience and hope command our respect for the immediately contiguous links who are our contemporaries, and sometimes command as well our intervention to secure their hold (which is also ours) on the communal life of our species. A chain really is no stronger than its weakest link, and James shared the Emersonian sense of life (expressed in the epigraph to "Nature") as a "subtle chain of countless rings." We are all vulnerable, fragile creatures, our luminous time here is brief, and we owe one another support and sympathy. "The truest vision of life I know," wrote Wallace Stegner, "is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark." But the hall's retention of light after our departure, for the use and enjoyment of later migratory transients whose way we have marked, can be our purpose and their deliverance. Meanwhile our human vulnerabilities will always exceed our personal "fortifications," says Anne Lamott, "so the only choice is whether you are most going to resemble Richard Nixon with his neck jammed down into his shoulders, trying to figure out who to blame, or the sea anemone, tentative and brave, trying to connect. . . ." James is with the anemones, and the larks. "What I like best about William James after all," Henry James scholar Sheldon Novick once told an online community of Jamesians, "is the relentless effort to express experience in ordinary language, as rigorous and coherent in its way as Emily Dickinson's poetry," and, in its way, as cheerfully restorative of life: "Hope" is that thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tunes without the words/And never stops at all." 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Spring Lyceum: Social Hope in the Time of Drumpf

Friday, April 21 at 5 PM, COE (College of Education Bldg) 164. The MTSU Department of Philosophy is pleased to host Ronald Aronson (Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Ideas, Wayne State University) for a Spring Semester lecture and discussion.

In his MTSU lecture, he will examine the current social/political moment, viewing the election of Donald Drumpf against the background of a generation of shrinking hope—deindustrialization, rising inequality, attacks on public education, and shredding of the social safety net. For Aronson, Drumpf’s tumultuous first months as president have set the stage for a stunning insurgency of resistance. Drawing on generations of political struggle as well as philosophy, especially the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Aronson will argue for a unique conception of social hope. Hope, for Aronson, is not a religious attitude but a secular one, and it is far more than a mood or feeling. The very basis of social will and political action, it entails acting collectively to make the world more equal, more democratic, more peaceful, and more just. Even at a time when false hopes are rife, Aronson argues social hope still persists. Always underlying our experience—even if we completely ignore it—is the fact of our social belonging, which can be reactivated into a powerful collective force, an active WE which can still create a better future for everyone.

Ronald Aronson grew up in Detroit and earned a Ph.D. in the History of Ideas at Brandeis University where he studied with William Barrett, Page Smith, and Herbert Marcuse. A long time professor at Wayne State, he has also been a guest lecturer at several South African universities.

The story of his first experience in South Africa, at the height of the struggle to end apartheid, is told in STAY OUT OF POLITICS: A PHILOSOPHER VIEWS SOUTH AFRICA. In recognition of his scholarly career and political contributions to South Africa, the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Aronson is an internationally recognized authority on Jean-Paul Sartre. He has focused on Sartre’s transformation to a political thinker and activist. A past Chair of the Sartre Society of North America and founding editor of the journal SARTRE STUDIES INTERNATIONAL, he is the author of JEAN-PAUL SARTRE-PHILOSOPHY IN THE WORLD (Verso), SARTRE'S SECOND CRITIQUE (University of Chicago Press), and CAMUS AND SARTRE: THE STORY OF A FRIENDSHIP AND THE QUARREL THAT ENDED IT (University of Chicago Press) which has been translated into eight languages.

In addition, he is the author of LIVING WITHOUT GOD: NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ATHEISTS, AGNOSTICS, SECULARISTS, AND THE UNDECIDED as well as AFTER MARXISM. He has published articles in such academic and popular journals as THE NATION, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE WASHINGTON POST, DISSENT, NEW POLITICS, SCIENCE AND SOCIETY and YALE FRENCH STUDIES.

Professor Aronson is also co-producer of the feature-length documentary film PROFESSIONAL REVOLUTIONARY about legendary Detroit social and political activist Saul Wellman and, most recently, 1ST AMENDMENT ON TRIAL: THE CASE OF THE DETROIT SIX, focused on the Federal government's trial of Michigan Communist Party leaders in the '50s.

His newest book, WE: REVIVING SOCIAL HOPE (University of Chicago Press) is scheduled for publication the week of his MTSU lecture.

An informal reception will follow the lecture at the home of Professor Michael Principe.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1407681699262651/

Saturday, February 11, 2017

John Lachs podcast

"The greatest insight: quit telling people how they're gonna be happy. You don't really know..."
"Having just recently lost my wife I know death is real and not something we can remedy..."
This fifth episode of the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast features an interview with Dr. John Lachs of Vanderbilt University on the topic of stoic pragmatism. John teaches us about how to balance the need to cope with our limitations in life, while nevertheless making some progress every week or every day in ways large and small for making our lives better. Balance is the key.
 (1 hr 7 mins)... Transcript

...I was born in Hungary, as you said, and grew up there. Grew right at the time that the
world was getting ready for the Second World War. And there was a tremendous amount of mayhem that was being committed, bombing in Hungary, bombings. I don’t mean the kind of bombings that we’re facing now from “Isis”, I mean the kind of bombing where airplanes fly above and drop a lot of bombs on you. And, I saw people die... Which naturally raises the question of what is this all about? What is life all about, what is a worthy life? Particularly given the fact that it might be ended at any time right then and there. So, my interest in philosophy did rise from that... There is, there is no question in my mind, but that there is meaning to life. But, it’s very difficult to discern what that meaning is. There’s no question in my mind that, that there’s the possibility of happiness in life. But then there’s also the reality of death. The nature of which we know, and the implications of which we don’t really understand. So, when I went to college, I knew that I wanted to deal with the problems of life and death, mainly death. And, I went around, went to the chemists. Were they interested in these? They weren’t interested at all. I went to the sociologists, no they weren’t interested. Eventually, I found the philosophers and they say “yeah, you sound like a philosopher”. So, I took that seriously and, started acting like a philosopher and thinking like a philosopher and being a philosopher. That’s the brief version of how I got to where I am. It’s been a wonderful journey, with full of frustration and full of significance. The frustration comes from the fact that after a while, as a philosopher, you realize that really we don’t have clear answers. That we, the one thing we know, the one thing we know is we really don’t know all that much. That leads us back of course to Socrates and Plato, and I’m a great admirer of those folks. Although the problem with many philosophers is that they begin by saying, “oh, we don’t know”, but if you don’t watch out, in a matter of no time at all, they’ll be telling you all the things they do know. So, you have to be pretty careful, and you have to be pretty skeptical. And, if you’re careful and you’re skeptical, you may actually get some answers that are not certain, but probable. How probable? Not very, but that’s okay because so long as there’s another day, we’ll keep on thinking about it...

Dr. Weber: Well, you know, John you know when I met you, my sense was that you were one of the happiest people I think I’d ever seen. And, I think a lot of people have the sense that you’re an optimistic guy, that you think well about, you know the long, big picture history, and you have often talked about how there’s a lot of progress. Is this something that philosophy taught you or is this something you think you found in thinking philosophically about the world?

And, if I’m misinterpreting you, tell me, or do you think that you think differently from then or how would you think about happiness today for you?

Dr. Lachs: I continue to believe that life is such that it’s worth living, and that good things will be made available or can be made available by one’s self and one’s loved ones. Day by day, I’m not optimistic about the ultimate outcome on a personal level, because having just recently lost my wife, I know that death is very real and not something that we can remedy easily or at all. So, one can be, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that one can be optimistic and happy in a short-run and quite glum about the ultimate outcome in the long-run...

Dr. Weber: Well what would say is the greatest insight from philosophy that you found for trying to be happy?

Dr. Lachs: The greatest insight didn’t relate to my happiness, I am by nature somebody who is rather happy. The greatest insight is how immensely different people are, and how amazingly different the things that make them happy. I’ll give you one example which is my favorite example. I am so happy teaching students. It’s wonderful, they are full of energy, full of life. So many people can’t wait to get out of the classroom and get into the administration. Now, if you ever wanted to find something that would make my life not worth living, it would be to make me dean. [Laughter]. At the same time, I readily admit that some people find it absolutely wonderful, and power to them! May they go ahead and pursue their happiness. But, that ain’t mine. [Laughter]. So, you know there are people who take the weirdest things, the strangest things, the most incredibly different kinds of things and convert them into the patterns of a life. And, they’re happy! And that’s really all there is to be said about it, if you, have to step back, and that’s what Meddling is all about, you have to step back and quite telling people how they’re going to be happy because you don’t really know.

Dr. Weber: So, John was talking about one of his latest books, On Meddling as a critique of people meddling in others affairs, right?

Dr. Lachs: Yeah, and they do that with so much pleasure... (continues)
==
Notes
  1. John Lachs, Stoic Pragmatism (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012).
  2. Epictetus, Handbook, or Enchiridion (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1983).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bibliophile in chief

From our most literate and reflective president to the least. Sad.
Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.
Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.
During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”
...during his last two years in college, he spent a focused period of deep self-reflection and study, methodically reading philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr, to strip down and test his own beliefs.
To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Golden Notebook” and “The Woman Warrior”). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night... 
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Celebrating two centuries of Thoreau

For someone generally associated with serenity, Henry David Thoreau can get people riled up. In a 2015 essay in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote that the transcendentalist and his work had become “simplified and inspirational,” and that our beatific vision of him “cannot survive any serious reading of ‘Walden,’ ” which reveals a writer “in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Donovan Hohn counterargued at length in The New Republic, saying that Schulz simply replaced “the distortions of hagiography with those of caricature, and the caricature has been drawn before.”

Many political observers have recently noted the renewed relevance of the essay “Civil Disobedience” with Donald Drumpf moving into the White House, but that’s not the only reason the 19th-century thinker is on our minds. In 2017, if the air at Walden had been really, really health-giving, Thoreau would have turned 200. With the bicentennial arrive several books about the naturalist. (Kevin Dann’s “Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau” is reviewed on Page 13 this week by John Kaag.) This spring will see a focus on narrow slices of his work, like Richard Higgins’s “Thoreau and the Language of Trees,” and “Thoreau’s Animals,” edited by Geoff Wisner. Robert M. Thorson’s “The Boatman,” about Thoreau’s relationship to the Concord River and alterations made to it during his lifetime, promises what the publisher, Harvard University, calls, “the most complete account to date of this ‘flowage controversy.’ ”

An ambitious new full biography by Laura Dassow Walls, an English professor at Notre Dame, will be published in July — the month when Thoreau officially turns the big 2-0-0. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Buchanan's scholarship

Jane Mayer's Dark Money confirms that our school's most distinguished and celebrated alum was cozy with the dark side, "lambasted for reducing 'all human behavior to simple self-interest.'"

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