• Tag Archives philosophy
  • The Humanities. Yeah.

    Spring                                                         Beltane Moon

    “Reminding us that “professor” means someone professing a faith, Delbanco exhorts us to keep the etymology alive: “Surely this meaning is one to which we would still wish to lay claim, since the true teacher must always be a professor in the root sense of the word — a person undaunted by the incremental fatigue of repetitive work, who remains ardent, even fanatic, in the service of his calling.” ” Stanley Fish, “The Case for the Liberal Arts.  Again.”

    It has been a while since the last impassioned plea to see things clear, at least those things important to a liberal arts education.  To see them clear and to embrace them as important, even necessary elements of an education.

    In the days since college its impacts still effect me on a daily, even hourly basis.  Here are a couple of examples from my freshmen year.  And the key to them both was the professor.

    The first and maybe most important impact came in the sheer joy of learning, a joy I didn’t grasp or even experience in high school.  Two courses at Wabash gave me a jump start.

    CC, or Contemporary Civilization, required of all freshmen, started at the beginning of human history and, over two semesters, brought us up to the present.  The professor, a man whose name I have forgotten, gave lectures that were narratives, heroes and villains, fools and knaves who blinked on and off as our species made its way from the past until today.  His lecture on town versus gown tensions in the middle ages was so famous among Wabash men that some would return for it each year.

    The second class, again a two semester course, an Introduction to Philosophy, was taught by J. Harry Cotton.  J. Harry wore tweed, smoked a pipe as he taught, a pipe with a paper wrapped plug of tobacco, and often rattled off paragraphs of Plato or Aristotle in Greek, finishing with a flourish on the black board, pointing out the intricacies of denotation and connotation.

    CC showed me that history was exciting, that I could expect it to be not only illuminating but also interesting.

    But Intro to Philosophy.  Ah. That one peeled back the entire cultural project of late 50’s, early 1960’s middle america and laid it bare.  I could see its sinews and its ligaments; its veins and arteries.  And more.  It was possible to critique it, to create a new way of understanding the world.  The only thing required was the mind and the courage to engage.

    In fact, it went deeper than that.  The intellectual content of my small town faith simply didn’t stand up to the rigors of philosophical thought.  When you march back through the argument from design to find yourself at the point of unmoved mover, it is possible, even urgently required, to ask one more question.  What made the unmoved mover?  Oh.

    So, there was this liberation, this vast opening, a vault of stars under which I could begin to stand as my own man, not a man made by tradition and custom, but a man made by saying yes and saying no.  Philosophy, for that reason, has been at the center of my life ever since.

  • I (heart) Religion

    Imbolc                               Waning Bridget Moon

    Some people like NASCAR, others quilting, some the middle ages, some middle age.  Tastes and attractions vary for often indiscernible reasons.  Me, I like religions.  Most of them anyhow.  Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto, Taoism, Celtic Faery Faith, ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian, Voodoo, Native American, Mayan, Aztec, Hawai’ian, Tibetan Buddhism, Jain.  Buddhism, except for its practices like meditation, mindfulness, some how doesn’t attract me.  Don’t know why.

    A part of me, a strong, even dominant part never left the young boy stage where why came out at every instance of anything.  Why do birds sing?  Why do dogs die?  Why is the sky blue?  Why is Dad grumpy?  Why did you make noise last night, Mom?

    Philosophy suited me, fit me like a bespoke suit straight from Saville Row.  What is beauty?  Why do we love?  What is justice?  What is the nature of reality?  What is reality anyhow?

    Religion is often a folk way of asking–and answering–these same questions.

    Let me give you an example from breakfast.  I just experienced transubstantiation.  The folks who run the monastery think that happens at the eucharist as the wine and wafer transform themselves into the actual body and blood of Jesus.  I”m not sure about that.  But, I do know that this morning I ate an apple, a slice of bread with peanut butter and drank some tea.  They became me.

    No.  I’m not saying I’m Jesus, far from it.  I am saying that the apple, the peanut butter, the bread and the tea did transform, through the miracle of my digestive tract and its millions, billions, of host organisms, into me.  Think about it.  After the big bang and the gradual cooling of the universe, gas clouds gathered, due to gravity and created stars from the initial elements, thinks like hydrogen, iron.  The stars themselves, in their fusion furnaces, then combined and transformed those basic elements into the familiar elements making up the periodic table.

    Later still, as the gas clouds and chunks of matter surrounding each star coalesced those elements deposited themselves inside and on the newly born planets, comets and asteroids.  Those same elements, the very same elements, then, through more eons, at least here on earth, combined and recombined to form simple organisms like single celled animals and  plants. Long after that those simple organisms combined to form multi-celled life forms, among them humans.

    This morning I–consider that I–the end point of a certain historic chain of events traceable to the creation of the universe ate.  In eating I took in the products of other organisms, the apple which grew in the air on a tree, wheat which grew in fields across these very plains and peanuts which grew beneath the soil.  I also drank water, the same water present on earth for eons, perhaps the same water drunk by dinosaurs.

    And it is, even now, as I write, becoming me.  The apple, the wheat, the peanut are also, like me, the end point of a traceable (if we had the instruments and skill) chain from the moment before time until now.  So we recombine, sift and shift elements.  A miracle.

  • Still Examining

    Imbolc                                                        Waxing Bridgit Moon

    Greg Membres, my Latin tutor, recommended a film, The Examined Life.  You may have seen it already since it was made in 2008, but it’s a powerful introduction to some fundamental philosophical questions like ethics, the meaning of life, political theory.

    One truth struck me more powerfully than any other while watching this movie.  I imagined, when I was in high school and then in college, that there was an upward and onward nature to learning, a steady progression in which high school and college pushed me, and a progression that would give me enough momentum to take my life up the mountain, all the way to the top, that somehow learning and life would be a regular unfolding of answers and conclusions.  After, maybe, my sophomore year I began to realize this was a mistaken view, not only mistaken but might have had reality actually inverted.

    That is, I was never more certain of the truth than when I was in college and then, later, in seminary.  Life since then has offered a sometime gradual, sometimes sudden degradation of both the things I know for sure and the things I know at all.  An abstract thinker by nature and inclination, I found it logical, desirable to hunt for truth in the abstract systems of philosophy, theology, theoretical approaches to various disciplines.  At one point, in fact, I wanted to study the theoretical foundations of anthropology in graduate school.  Turns out not many graduate schools had much interest.  In either the discipline or me studying it.

    As life experience and longer thought has lead me to reconsider many of my core positions, I have abandoned Christianity, the liberal politics of my father, the traditional roles of men and women, boys and girls, the positive assumptions about capitalism with which I was acculturated, the metaphysics of Rene Descartes which still informs our unexamined ontology, a soul, an afterlife, respect for the government, though not for democracy itself.  These are not trivial decisions, nor were any of them made lightly nor suddenly.

    On some of the big questions like the meaning of life, I have chosen to abandon my search.  Life is what we are, it is what we do and needs no abstract cover story for its purpose.  This may be too minimalistic for many and I get that, but for me, I find my purpose in life itself, the living of it that includes marriage, family, friends and  actions that press for greater justice, a sustainable future, a climate that will not kill us.

    Though I’m not a complete cultural relativist, I’m pretty damn close.  Murder, oppression, suppression, starvation, unchecked disease, poverty, racial and sexual discrimination of any kind are wrong, in my view, universally.  In almost all other matters, I’m more than open to different cultural perspectives and practices, I expect them, celebrate them and would find the world shallower and morally impoverished without them.

    Still working on this, noodling it.

  • An Ancientrail, Still Traveled

    Samhain                                                  Waxing Thanksgiving Moon

    Tracking down a quote from a Mary Oliver book led me to Plato and to his Symposium, in particular a portion dedicated to the mysteries of love.  It reminded me of my initial excitement in studying philosophy, created in large part by J. Harry Cotton, a professioral stereotype at Wabash College.  He wrapped tobacco in a light paper plug, inserted it into his pipe, applied a match and away we went into the history of Western philosophy, J. Harry’s head wreathed in tobacco smoke.  He often quoted whole pages of Plato or Aristotle in Greek, showing us the key words on the blackboard, explaining the intricacy of their translation and how an interpretation could turn on a single word.  I’d never met any one like J. Harry and my memory of him is still fond.

    The excitement he stirred slowly winked out when I had to transfer to Ball State University, out of money for Wabash.  There the logical positivists still reigned, even though their star had already fallen in graduate schools across Europe and the US.  At Ball State I had the opposite of J. Harry, Robert something.  He was the head of the department and an avowed enemy of all metaphysics and a champion of philosophy as clarifier of scientific language.  What exactly do we mean by cold?  Hot?  Solid?  Gas?  Not unimportant question in a techn0-scientific age, but hardly inspiring.  At least to me.

    I finished out my philosophy major, but added one in anthropology because my passion for it, once lit, did not go out.  This was all a long, long time ago.  I graduated from Ball State in 1969, so that’s, what?  41 years and another millennium in the past.

    What is truth?  Justice?  Beauty?  How do we know what we know?  What is a sound argument?  What is a weak one?  Why?  How have ideas about these big questions changed over time?  And why?  What do they matter now, in our world?  This was what interested me and the logical positivists had nothing to teach me in regard to them.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that I ended up in Seminary, where those questions still matter and where there are answers and the history of the answers.

    Ironically, of course, I have come to inhabit the flattened, anti-metaphysical world of the logical positivists, but not from the perspective of clarification and rejection of metaphysics, but from the standpoint of existentialism.  In this new world, which I’ve inhabited since 1991 or so, gnothi seauton, know thyself,  inscribed over the door within the Temple of Apollo at Delphi that lead to the Oracle, has been my holy writ.  Rather than books full of poetry, creation myths, messiahs and anti-Christs, I have two words.  They’re enough for me, though.  More than enough.

  • Oh, You’re So Pragmatic.

    Summer                                    Full Strawberry Moon

    “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” – William James

    Pragmatism and pragmatists are an original American (US) contribution to the history of Western philosophy.  Since I can’t get my hands around it well, I’ll not try to explain it, though on its on my list.

    But.  William James was among its founders and early proponents along with Charles Saunders Pierce and John Dewey.  He was also an early American psychologist as was Dewey.  So.  James is an important guy in philosophy, psychology and the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

    His quote above is disarmingly simple.  On the face of it you might say, well, yeah.  Whatever, old dude.  If you took that perspective, you probably skipped over two important words:  I agree.  Now, I’m not going to get into the free will debate, very complicated at this moment in cognitive science, so I interpret this as our attention will go where we intend for it to go.  It’s the intentional nature of the I agree that I want to lift out and underline.

    Why?  It reminded me of a dilemma I spoke with Kate about just this week, “Kate, there are several things, for example, pragmatism, Taoism, aesthetics, the Enlightenment that I would like to explore in greater depth.  The problem is that to do it I have to have sit down time, lots of it, to read complicated material and absorb it.”

    “Yes,” she said, “There are just aren’t enough hours in a day.”

    Just so.  We have a limited amount of time, that’s a given, both day to day, and in this finite trip, life.  How I agree to direct my attention will determine the nature of my experience.  If I choose to garden, I will not be reading Dewey’s Reconstruction of Philosophy.  If I choose to do Latin and translate the Metamorphosis, I cannot, at the same time, read Chuang Tzu.  If I use time writing this blog, I cannot use the same time to write a novel.  And so on.  And on.

    Just using those examples I have chosen to direct my experience toward the garden, the soil and complex interactions within them both.  I have chosen to fill some of my experience with Latin grammar and vocabulary and learning how to translate.  I choose to write this blog and so have the experience of an ongoing journal/diary/weblog.

    Is there anything bad about these choices?  No, at least not in my opinion.  I do, though, have to reckon with what James identifies.  Each of those choices makes other choices if not impossible at least less likely, therefore directing my stream of attention and with it my experience in one direction and not another.

    The point here is that you decide the type and quality of the experiences you have and those experience not only shape your life, they are your life.  So, choose well.  And know what your choices mean.

  • En-Theos

    Spring                                      Awakening Moon

    If you know me, you know I have enthusiasms.  Two or three years in astronomy.  Two years of close study of Jungian thought.    9 years of touring and two and a half years of education in art history.  A full years home study course in horticulture.  We’re now in our third year of converting our property to a permaculture environment for vegetables, fruits and nuts.  The most recent instance, though one of long standing in my thoughts, is Latin.

    As I finished my first four lines of the Metamorphoses the other day, it struck me that art history and Latin suit me pretty well, better than politics and the church.  I said this out loud to Kate and she said, “Well, philosophy and anthropology were more masculine.”  I guess that’s true and I guess the same certainly goes for politics although that’s changed a lot since the 60’s.  The ministry is a more mushy profession gender wise, especially for liberal protestants, but since I always did politics and consulting, probably not so for me.

    The thing is, I don’t think art history and Latin were options that were even visible to me.  It wasn’t, in other words, that I rejected them in favor of philosophy and anthropology.  Nothing much more to say about this than that I have them in my life now and I’m not about to let go.

    I have wondered about political action, long my baseline activity, the self-authenticating act.  Has its time passed for me?  I’m not sure about that. Will take more thought.

  • Pyrrho of Elis

    Imbolc                                          Waning Wild Moon

    OK.  So I’m listening to the history of Western Philosophy on the way into the museum today.  The lecturer starts going on about Pyrrho of Elis.  I thought.  Cool.  Not only is the name of his hometown near my own, he was the originator of radical skepticism, which boils down to my own philosophical position.

    Not only those two interesting things, but I also found this interesting note:

    Elis was the only city that built a temple to Hades in one of its precincts. The Eleans were the only one to worship him. The construction was built after Heracles’ war against Neleus in Pylos. Only once a year, the doors to the temple of Hades would open, but no one would enter the temple except the priests.

    So, here’s a nod to a philosophical ancestor, pictured here.  And to his hometown of Elis and to the temple of Hades built there.

  • Worlds Opening Up

    Imbolc                                     Waning Wild Moon

    On the way into St. Paul tonight I listened to lectures on Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism.  These were especially relevant and resonant for me since Latin is the native language of many who took them up, though their roots were in Greece.  They got me excited about reading Cicero and Polybius, maybe Marcus Aurelius in the original.  It was a fun intersection current learnings.

    Of course, in St. Paul, I play sheepshead with a group who have had varying relations with a Latinate institution, the Roman Catholic Church.  Mostly Jesuits, or ex-Jesuits rather, they have lived inside an institution directly influenced by the Latin language and Roman political culture.

    The  card gods smiled on me tonight, sending me several wonderful hands.  This does not always happen so it’s fun to play them when they come.

  • Pragmatically Speaking

    Imbolc                                     Full Wild Moon

    “Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” – William James

    William James helped found and expand the American philosophical tradition of Pragmatism.  This is not a publicly well known school of philosophy, partly because it does not lend itself well to sound bites like dialectical reasoning, theory of forms, Occam’s razor, cogito ergo sum.

    His quote teases us toward an important element of pragmatic thought, namely that truth is something we live into or toward rather than an absolute.  In fact, as this quote suggests, we can even change our own truth by changing our minds, our ways of thinking and the directions of our thoughts and in so doing, change our lives.

    Pragmatism is a very American philosophical system, relying on the rough and tumble of human interaction with the world to get at what other systems find through deductive logic.  It’s messy and inexact, but it binds itself tightly to the human experience.

    Here’s a nice paragraph from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy that will give you the flavor of James’ thought.  Pay special attention to the last sentence.

    “James’s chapter on “Pragmatism and Humanism” sets out his voluntaristic epistemology. “We carve out everything,” James states, “just as we carve out constellations, to serve our human purposes” (P, 100). Nevertheless, he recognizes “resisting factors in every experience of truth-making” (P, 117), including not only our present sensations or experiences but the whole body of our prior beliefs. James holds neither that we create our truths out of nothing, nor that truth is entirely independent of humanity. He embraces “the humanistic principle: you can’t weed out the human contribution” (P, 122). He also embraces a metaphysics of process in the claim that “for pragmatism [reality] is still in the making,” whereas for “rationalism reality is ready-made and complete from all eternity” (P 123). Pragmatism’s final chapter on “Pragmatism and Religion” follows James’s line in Varieties in attacking “transcendental absolutism” for its unverifiable account of God, and in defending a “pluralistic and moralistic religion” (144)based on human experience. “On pragmatistic principles,” James writes, “if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true” (143).”

  • What Good Is Philosophy?

    Imbolc                            Waxing Wild Moon

    “Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know.” – Bertrand Russell

    In spite of what I said yesterday I have listened to the opening lectures on of a history of philosophy course.  In the first lecture the professor teased out three notions of what philosophy is:  1.  A search for answers to the perennial questions, 2. A love of wisdom and 3. A quest aimed toward the unknown.

    Each of these makes sense to me in their own way, but it is the 3rd idea I want to explore.  Russell’s quote nails it so well.  In this understanding of philosophy the discipline performs the early thought experiments, theorizing and critique out of which grow many others.  Science and the scientific method grew out of early philosophical speculations about the nature of reality, such speculation goes back to the very beginning of Western philosophy in the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece.  Once regular methodology and empirical data begin to define a new discipline it pulls away from philosophical thought into its own domain.  Psychology is another example.  Theology put philosophical rigor in service to Christian faith.

    The ongoing rhythm of philosophical investigation leads to many answers to the same problem.  This in turn leads to skeptical thinking which observes that many answers to the same question does not make sense.  Then a consolidation occurs which often develops into a cohesive new line of thought.

    A good example of this process going on right now involves the philosophy of mind.  At issue is the nature of consciousness, the existence or non-existence of free will and the nature of the self or the individual.  Pretty fundamental matters, especially when we consider what it means to be human.  The back and forth of philosophical speculation in these areas courses past the limited tools we have for empirical investigation into the brain.  Some people say we will never solve the problem of consciousness because the investigation requires consciousness  itself.  I’m in this latter camp.

    All I wanted to observe here is the interesting result of philosophical speculation:  disciplines develop and move away from home, leaving philosophers once again wrestling with the unknown.