Wisdom from Whitman, Camus, and Mae West

davinci_army_583I am a body. I have been “designed”, through mishap and random success in an ever- changing environment, for millions of years. The result is astonishing: a pumping heart, breathing lungs, and a bewildering array of chemical processes that allow me to maintain a steady temperature, stave off infections, digest food, and repair minor injuries. I am furthermore a life-support environment for many non-human beings, bacteria that live in me as I live on the earth. All of us together can run, jump, sleep, roll, balance, swim, climb, stretch, lift, and dance. I have in me everything celebrated by Walt Whitman as he sings the body electric. There is no mystery in all this – or, at least, no mystery in principle: for all can be discovered, grasped, and marveled at.

I am a mind. In addition to the movements through physical space my body can undertake, I can travel through the domain of ideas upon a sea of images and language. I can deploy nouns and verbs, though these are not physical things, and they exist only in the mind. I can formulate equations, algorithms, subroutines, and hypotheses. I can think in terms of what is true, what must be true, what is false, and what cannot possibly be true. I can think of what might have been, and what would have been, had things been different. I can tell jokes. And in the quiet of the night I can look at the stars and know them to be not just pinpoints of light, but light that began to shine millions of years ago.

I am a soul. Music entrances me, as does a poem or a painting. I can hear a prayer, and though my mind tells me sternly that the words are addressed to no one, I can hear its beautiful rhythms and be moved by them. I can fall in love with a person, a child, a tune, a seashore, an animal, a thought. I can feel the wonder that can find no suitable question, nor any answer. I can hear wisdom in the voice of another, even when my mind tells me that what has been said makes no sense, strictly speaking. I have known the Absurd, and the pain of being alone in a crowd. I can see the beauty in a stone, or an old shoe, and I can recoil in horror from a place, a book, or a policy that has been designed by a mind operating on its own.

To be human is to exist in these three dimensions. Body, mind, and soul will each tell you that they are the most important, for they are jealous of one another and do not believe in one another. But you must remember – and you, not just some part of you – that you are always all three, perhaps in varying degrees or concentrations as occasions warrant, but always all three. There is no neat packaging of this complex truth. It is as unthinkable as a divine trinity, and to flatten it out into anything comprehensible always results in heresy. One can only accept and embrace the multiplexity, and try to balance it through wisdom in the contours of a well-lived life.

We must have love, for without it our lives shatter into meaningless fragments. Our souls feed on love, just as our bodies need food if they are to remain whole. What do we love? We love what we can. We find, if not beauty, then sympathy, and we stretch out our concern to encompass what we love within our arms, or in our sphere of care. When Camus insisted that we must imagine Sisyphus as happy as he repeatedly rolled the stone up the hill, he was insisting that – for our sake and for his – there was something in that bleak existence that Sisyphus could befriend or admire or at least keep company with. For without imagining that, his life would be no human life at all, and to say that is to admit that our own lives, though they are not so extreme, may also be inhuman. The door to despair lies wide open, in that case. So we must imagine Sisyphus as happy:

His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing.

Sisyphus’s case is at an extreme, one in which all external meaning has been stripped away, and Camus’s point was that even in such an extreme there can be love. Otherwise, there can come a point where our own soul is taken from us; and we must believe that it can never be so.

The mind craves stimulation. It must be presented with a problem, and with some need to solve it. A pointless problem can be a joy only to the critically bored, and a mind that can find no problem to solve begins to digest itself over time (as in the case of the sea squirt, which secures its perch and then eats its own brain). We know the people who make their lives far more difficult than is necessary – in fact to satisfy their restless minds, though they may not know this. We have known those whose mentality has atrophied, and whose thoughts are empty of all substance. But when a problem is presented and our mind is called into action, it searches for reliable patterns, causal relationships, and understanding. It pursues this intelligibility with greedy hunger, adopting any sort of model of its own circumstance, so long as it appears to work. Thus science and magic; explanation and superstition. As we find the need for finer discriminations, we discern the differences between better and worse models, and in this way knowledge is born.

The body follows its own appetites, but often blindly and even to its own detriment. It has been “designed” to seek out sources of nutritional energy, but if left on its own in a land of plenty, it will suck down great quantities of sugared water until its kidneys fail. It has been designed to seek out sex and warmth and some degree of thrill. All of this can get wondrously out of hand if it is not properly channeled and moderated. (Mae West was right – “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful” – but it does require some delicate strategy.) The body plays a critical role for both the mind’s stimulation and the soul’s love, and it is fundamental to our humanity. This point should be obvious, but it is denied, incredibly, by many great philosophers who (from malcontent? prudery? envy?) try to portray the mind and the soul as disembodied, or at least as intelligible without considering the body.

Love and stimulation in a healthy body – if more is required, I do not know it.

Posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 1 Comment

Crowd going apeshit

I’m generally not a fan of pop music, but the recent Beyoncé/Jay-Z video really is masterful:


So many difficult questions are held up for reflection, especially for successful producers and consumers of today’s arts. If you are a successful black or female artist, are you ready to have your work put up next to the great works in the Louvre – many of which trade upon racial injustices? As a viewer, how do you put together the historical power of western culture with today’s culture? (“Have you ever seen a crowd going apeshit?”) And what about the Janus-faced values of American culture – which rewards this video with over 34 million views in just a week, while also decrying the black athletes who take a knee in protest of institutional racism?

JSTOR’s blog has a good general discussion of the artwork featured in the video here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chronic dysfunctions of systems


W. G. Sebald, in Austerlitz:

And several times, said Austerlitz, birds which had lost their way in the library forest flew into the mirror images of the trees in the reading room windows, struck the glass with a dull thud, and fell lifeless to the ground. Sitting in my place in the reading room, said Austerlitz, I thought at length about the way in which such unforeseen accidents, the fall of a single creature to its death when diverted from its natural path, or the recurrent symptoms of paralysis affecting the electronic data retrieval system, relate to the Cartesian overall plan of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional instability.


Posted in Books | 3 Comments

A summer education

Many years ago, I taught a “big ideas” class to a group of summer citizens. These are retired folks who live in Arizona but come up to Logan for the cooler weather in the summer. I taught the course, under one title or another, for a couple of years. Many of the people in my class were Jews from the east coast who had had very successful careers and substantive educations. (One of my regulars was a guy who had taken philosophy courses from Morris Cohen back in the day, at City University. Because this is the way the world works, I happen to own a teaspoon that belonged to Morris Cohen, given to me by his grand-nephew, who is a dear friend.)

Anyway, these folks really put me through my paces. I was young and not very wise, but I was earnest and clever, and they liked that.  They raised questions and objections that I could not shrug off lightly, as they were coming from so much background in education and the world. I like to think they enjoyed the chance to exercise that knowledge and argumentative skill, even at my own expense. But they made clear after class that they felt kindly toward me. One day after class, a lady told me very fondly that I reminded her so much of her son, who is a rabbi.

I remember that one summer there were three guys who seemed to me to different versions of the same guy, at 70 years, 80 years, and 90 years. They sat in rank, one row behind the other, escalating upward since the room had stadium-style seating. The 70-year-old guy would raise a point or question, and I would do my best to field it. The look on his face suggested the answer was okay; the 80-year-old would look dubious, but willing to accept it for now; and I never could please the 90-year-old, who would shake his head in a way suggesting I’d made a grade school blunder. Tough crowd. I tried once to introduce Rawls’ theory of justice, and that’s the class that came closest to an all-out riot.

I’m not even sure there is a program anymore for the summer citizens, which is too bad. At some point the university seemed to phase it out in favor of more lucrative ventures, like cheerleading summer camp. While the program existed, many of the classes seemed to be of the “how to use the Internet” variety, but I think these “students” (though the term here does not fit) were eager for greater intellectual stimulation than the usual life of the retiree typically affords. And, boy, for me it was a real education.

Posted in This & that in the life of CH | 4 Comments

Review of Sloterdijk by Pieter Lemmens

Thank you to the ever-reading Rick Krause, who forwarded to me this excellent review of Sloterdijk by Pieter Lemmens. An excerpt from his conclusion:

…Foams is written in a rich and playful style. His tone is jovial and detached, ironic yet joyful, reminiscent of a certain side of Friedrich Nietzsche. It also owes much to Diogenes. It is a far cry from anything considered as serious thought in the predominantly analytic world of Anglophone philosophy. Even among so-called continental philosophers, and in particular among his German academic colleagues, Sloterdijk remains a controversial, if not a vilified, figure, a status he has cultivated by calling himself a philosophical writer, a Schriftsteller. It is precisely in this lightness and deliberate antiseriousness that Sloterdijk is most subversive.

Posted in Books | Leave a comment

The Challenge of Being Vertical

Sloterdijk, Peter. You Must Change Your Life, translated by Wieland Hoban (Polity, 2013)

torsoWe construct for ourselves ideals that taunt us, pull us upwards, and change our lives. This is fixed; but the the nature of those ideals, as well as our natures, the natures that need changing, vary among times and cultures. Sloterdijk’s set of reflections in this book concern “the methods of mental and physical practising by which humans from the most diverse cultures have attempted to optimize their cosmic and immunological status in the face of vague risks of living and acute certainties of death” (10). His title is taken from a well-known poem of Rilke’s, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, which describes the mysterious power of a form to address us and command us directly: “… for there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life”.

This is the essence of any religion or soul-forming philosophy: to take what we are and recommend some sort of regimen, or some sort of training, to elevate us into what we are meant to be. It may be that we are to become mindful children of a tyrannical god, or channels of enlightenment through which bliss flows, or übermenschen who leap over these tightrope walkers into uncertain futures. Perhaps we are meant to climb evolution’s mountains of improbability into a civilized existence fit for proper human beings. Whatever challenge we construct, we need that challenge, for it is the ideal generated by a culture, and our cultures act as defensive shields against the chaos or entropy that comes crashing in without them. Our challenge is the same as ever: namely, to construct the right shields, and the right ideals, given what we think we know about the world and about ourselves.

But there is a productive tension at work whenever an ideal is raised. The ideal is meant to be available universally, for all of us, in principle. But not yet. If the ideal really is achieved, all its energy is gone. So the ideal also must be not really available, or at least never really attained. This, I think, is what Sloterdijk identifies as “the paradox of all advanced civilization”:

[The paradox] follows from its orientation towards hyperbolic or acrobatic excesses, which are always viewed on the assumption that they are only suitable for imitation or normalization. By elevating exceptional achievements to conventions, advanced civilizations create a pathogenic tension, a form of chronic altitude sickness to which sufficiently intelligent participants in the paradoxical game can respond with the development of an internal space of evasion and simulation, and thus a ‘soul’, a ba, a psyché, an atman – or, more generally speaking, an inner world that is permanently reflexively unsettled. (274)

There ain’t no faith without some bad faith. As we fall short of our aims, we find some evasion – splitting ourselves into willing spirit vs. weak flesh, or real me vs. apparent me, or rider vs. elephant; or else convincing ourselves that we really have done the trick, and shunting to the back anything that indicates otherwise. Is this paradox – the tension between verticality and gravity – really at the core of every advanced civilization? I am inclined to think so, at least with regard to the main story each culture tells itself. There are also the challenges of harnessing energy and maintaining civic order, but perhaps for now we can set those aside.

YMCYL, like all of Sloterdijk’s works, is a firework display of his erudition and imagination. The concept of an ideal that elevates us and frustrates us gives him a wide-open opportunity to plunge into religion, philosophy, and art, unearthing texts and artifacts that suddenly shine with new light and cast new shadows. I must read Sloterdijk with pencil in hand, just so that I can fill margins with exclamation marks and questions for further reflection. Towards the end, the book ramps its way toward the project of Spheres, and especially Foams, which is to highlight the contemporary challenge of constructing “a global co-immunity structure”, a structure we can inhabit even knowing all that we know about ourselves, our misbegotten and hollow idols, and our propensity for building uninhabitable structures:

Global immunity reason is one step higher than all those things that its anticipations in philosophical idealism and religious monotheism were capable of attaining. For this reason, General Immunology is the legitimate successor of metaphysics and the real theory of ‘religions’. It demands that one transcend all previous distinctions between own and foreign; thus the classical distinctions of friend and foe collapse. Whoever continues along the line of previous separations between the own and the foreign produces immune losses not only for others, but also for themselves. (451)

Anyone who has been carried along to this point has gotten the message: you must change your life.

Posted in Books, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | Leave a comment

A New Liberal Arts


(the liberal arts, circa 12th century)

The traditional liberal arts (logic, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) arose for two reasons: to preserve knowledge and to render young men fit for positions of influence. Knowledge had pretty much been wiped out in western Europe with the fall of Rome, and winning it back again was hard work. The resulting strategy was to train young men in the arts, and to establish scriptoria in monasteries where any surviving texts could reproduce themselves through monks’ hands. Information that survived from the ancient world was thus uploaded into a distributed network of texts likely to survive any calamity – and for the most part, it did. Learning the liberal arts also gave young men the credentials for joining the segment of society that did all the reading, thinking, and writing, which came to be a disproportionately powerful class of people: if they were not the ones in charge, they were the ones who presided over the networks of influence used by those in charge (and so, they were medieval equivalents of internet hubs).

Universities were built around scriptoria and the teaching of the liberal arts – along with the teaching of the “higher faculties” of Theology, Law, and Medicine (the business schools of their day). The liberal arts remained relatively stable, at least in general form, while new continents and moons were discovered; and their descendants still govern universities’ general education curricula. The goal of teaching “everything a well-educated person should know” is still with us, and in their attempts to meet that goal, universities still offer main dishes that draw upon medieval ingredients. A typical gen ed curriculum features Writing (Rhetoric), Critical Thinking (Logic and Dialectic), Math (Arithmetic and Geometry), Science (Astronomy), the Arts (Music), and some sort of “Culture” or “Diversity” class (as a sort of “oopsies” apology for medieval hegemony).

But here’s a shocker: the conditions giving rise to medieval universities no longer obtain. It’s certainly not clear that what the young men of A. D. 1320 needed to know is what people of the 21st century need to know. Indeed, it’s far from clear that we should believe there is a single set of things everyone needs to know. If we’ve learned our lessons from Darwin, we ought to expect that some wide variation in educational curricula would be a good idea: for we do not know what the future will expect us to know, and in the absence of any plan, a broadly varied onslaught is a good strategy.

Some colleges may be well-situated to continue to teach some version of the traditional liberal arts. They have small classes that dive deep into historical texts, and they track how students evolve from one insight into others. Other schools try to teach big populations, and can’t track individual development, and have a more applied orientation. Still other schools might specialize in one sort of training (like business or engineering), and not care so much about other stuff. “What everyone needs to know” should vary among all these schools, it would seem, given their different missions. And this is a good thing: as I said above, variation is what we need when the future, whatever it may be, is bound to come as a surprise.

So it would be a good idea for traditional liberal artsy-type curricula to remain in force in some places. But there is also room for some experiments at updating the medieval curriculum. With that in mind, I have my own variation to propose – a new set of liberal arts for students who want to be well-equipped for the world as we now find it.

  1. NETWORK SCIENCE: We spend most of our waking hours on the Internet, and most of what we do supplies ore to data-mining agencies whose operations are perfectly opaque to us. It might be a good idea to learn how we’re being used. Students should learn how the internet works – how algorithms can be deployed, how information is used, and ways information can be stacked, gamed, or skewed – basically, what we might call “the uses and abuses of information for life”.
  2. THE NEW NEWS: News isn’t what it used to be. It’s written in response to real-time measurements of user hits, and skewed to provoke our appetites. This has a huge effect on how events are reported – or whether they are. Again, knowing how we are being gamed might help to make us better consumers, and changes in our consumption will inevitably reshape the news.
  3. WAYS WE’RE STUPID: We all fall prey to my-side biases, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and other cognitive shortcomings. But we are smart enough to be able to learn what these shortcomings are, and we can develop our skills at self-diagnosis, so at least we can be on the lookout for the sorts of errors we’re liable to make as we go along.
  4. EPISTEMIC HUMILITY: It would also be good to learn the lessons of Socrates – that in every case, we might be wrong, and that it’s through honest, open, respectful, and critical discussion with others that we can learn how we’re wrong. But typically we are clueless about how to do this without resorting to bitter name-calling, as anyone who has explored a comment thread can attest. This might be a good skill to teach.
  5. NEED-TO-KNOW SCIENCE: It also would be nice to know – wouldn’t it? – what scientists are looking into these days, and what they think may be possible in the near future – alongside reasonable accounts of what evidence there is for their views, as well as how one figures out what sorts of tests or findings would refute their theories. This would give us valuable content knowledge, but also insight into how evidence works, and how any theory – no matter convenient it is, or how much we like it – can be laid low by empirical findings.  
  6. HOW NOT TO GET BOXED IN BY A PROBLEM (AKA, CREATIVITY): Very often the problems we face are result from how we conceive a situation. By reframing it, we can discover possibilities we hadn’t seen before (“thinking out of the box”, as the slogan goes). While there’s no sure-fire method for doing this, there are plenty of practical exercises that demand creativity and mental flexibility, and some effort spent in this direction can encourage the hope that, with some creativity, what seems like a no-win situation can actually be reconceived and become a new opportunity. Not always, of course. But sometimes, and that’s good.
  7. HOW TO DO POLICY: It’s easy to have opinions about what has to happen, but a lot harder to think through implications of policies aimed at making it happen. How do we craft policies in ways that take all factions’ concerns into account, but still manage to get something done? How do we minimize the harms of unforeseen consequences? These are hard challenges, no doubt, but ones we will always face, and some practice with them will make us better at them.

My suggestion is that these subjects (with more dignified names, of course) could become a new liberal arts, at least for some schools: a new basic toolkit for educated people. Students who spend time studying these matters could easily combine what they learn with the work they go on to do in their own particular degrees (Accounting, Philosophy, Zoology), confident that what they learned will integrate with further studies and also be relevant to their lives.

Again, this is not meant as a “one size fits all” solution. We need people with all sorts of training and preparation. But it is a “one size fits many” proposal, and maybe even “most”. These new liberal arts would be undeniably useful for a thick swath of people bound for influential positions in our society. In this regard, they serve one of the original purposes of the classical liberal arts tradition. Regarding that other purpose – to guard against a massive calamity that wipes out everything we know – well, these days, that would take a calamity of enormous proportions. We can try as we might to try to safeguard ourselves against such an event; and such a curriculum also might be helpful for that purpose as well.

Posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning | 3 Comments