Mar 31, 2011

William James at the Book Club

Monday night saw a good crowd of the regulars at the Cumberland county book club.  Or selection this time was the last of the philosophers whose thoughts I'll get to watch the ordinary, educated, non-academic people of this book club engage with -- I'm leaving Fayetteville for the Hudson Valley at May's end, and our two next selections are more literary than philosophical.  Further blog entries in this "at the Book Club" series (which includes Arnold  and Kant) will have to wait until I find a suitable Great Books Club up north next Fall.

The selection included portions of a tried and true, oft-anthologized, piece, Pragmatism:  A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, commencing with the story of the squirrel and the conundrum over whether a man who circled the tree, the squirrel maintaining itself ever on the other side of he trunk from him, could rightly be said to have gone "around" the squirrel.  This, everyone agreed, was an entertaining tale, but not all actually saw it as significant -- a small irony.  And the discussion in fact added further ironies.

On the whole, the club members liked James' ideas.  One member, when asked:  "so do you think he's right," quipped: "more than I think he's wrong."  And that laconicism could well sum up the overall assessment, except that where there was some feeling that he was wrong, that he was off, that something had gone lacking, the objections became worrisome the more they were worked out.  But, that was not entirely unexpected for me, as a philosopher, who has read that essay countless times, and taught it already a few.  People tend to react in relatively few different ways to James' reduction or reworking of the notion of truth or meaning.  What I was much more startled by were their criticisms of James' style

Mar 27, 2011

Metal Music, (Heideggerian) Mood, and Memory

Right now, as I start writing this entry, blogging from my (temporary) iPad, I'm sitting in an Irish pub in the Boston airport waiting on a connecting flight to Chicago O'Hare, where I then grab a rental car and drive down the Dan Ryan through the city, up on the Skyway, and south into Indiana, where I watch my daughter dance her parts in a local ballet production of Sleeping Beauty. After that brief respite, enjoying my girl's deepening initiation into one of the high arts, a discipline inducing and perfecting grace and balance, I retrace my steps almost exactly, driving back to O'Hare to catch a flight to Boston, then another down to Raleigh-Durham, then drive back to Fayetteville, to resume classes again Monday morning and finish out what remains of my last semester at Fayetteville State.

On the first flight, suspended in the sky, relocating constantly over who knows what terrain, as I switched back and forth between rereading Platonic dialogues on an iBook reader and writing notes preparatory to an upcoming presentation in a word processor, listening to metal songs shuffling through the sequence my internal iPod randomly spun out, I found myself washed over by the sorrow of nostalgia, an always unfinished grief for times past, that unpredictably swells up out of imperceptibility, and wells up tears -- a reaction I've experienced enough times to know and be comfortable with as much as one becomes towards eccentricities of long-lived-with companions

You see, once you possess halls of memories stretching out long enough for you to have forgotten great portions of what lies behind, once they have looped over each other, sometimes crisscrossedly repeating, sometimes referring, confabulating -- or to forge another hallmark, when some of your memories are of times and moments where you remembered, you ruminated upon, you brought back to affective vivacity other intervals and events -- then enough of your own life is behind you for the past to assume aspects, dimensions more acute and complex than the young can really imagine (though they can yearn for it when they read of it -- glimpses with the heart's eye are afforded some of them).

Mar 24, 2011

Should Everyone Get to Vote?

One of my philosophical colleagues, Kevin Timpe, posted a link to a paper and got an interesting (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) discussion going on Facebook.  The paper is Jason Brennan's "The Right to a Competent Electorate," coming out soon in in International Philosophical Quarterly.   Brennan argues what is guaranteed to be a controversial position, that "the practice of unrestricted, universal suffrage is unjust," and proposes replacing democracy with an "epistocracy" (i.e. a rule by the knowledgeable and competent).

Both the implications and elements of the argument itself are bound to not only raise objections, but actually set people off, push the buttons triggering anger, ire, indignation.  And, that, I think, will be reflective of the very problematic of democracy and voting that the paper touches on, but does not resolve, because those sorts of responses will occur -- even sometimes on the part of educated, well-informed, intellectually virtuous (or at least not vicious) citizens to whom such arguments and proposals would restrict voting or full political participation, for reasons I'll discuss below.

The passage that started the fairly brief Facebook conversation, which got me thinking more about an issue that has been relegated to the back of my mind for some time, runs:
People who exercise power over me—including other voters—should have to do so in a competent and morally reasonable way. Otherwise, as a matter of justice, they ought to be excluded from holding political power, including the power to vote

Mar 18, 2011

Lessons from the EBEP Workshop (part 1 of 2)

I've delivered my last workshop as a Philosophy faculty member to educators in the School of Business and Economics (SoBE) at Fayetteville State University.  This finality is amicable in tone and tenor -- I'm simply leaving FSU in June for opportunities elsewhere (I'll say more in a future post), so if I return to provide further workshops, curriculum review, or assessment assistance, it will be  formally (rather than just functionally) as a consultant in Ethics pedagogy and assessment, rather than as a Philosophy prof.

It's certainly not the last workshop I'll be providing dealing with issues, programs, or initiatives in Ethics -- I intend to further develop and draw on the materials, bases, lessons, and collaborative model of the Ethics in Business Education Project (EBEP) which I co-founded with a Management professor, Beth Hogan, originally to assist SoBE in improving their Ethics assessment required for their specialized disciplinary accreditation with the Association to Advance College Schools of Business (AACSB)  It's not even the last workshop of the EBEP series -- later this month, we're bringing in a former FSU Philosophy prof, Michelle Darnell, who we lost to the Warrington School of Business (University of Florida) last year to give another workshop in Business Ethics pedagogy.  What becomes of EBEP at FSU after I leave depends largely on what the involved Business faculty choose to do with it and whether any of the remaining Philosophy faculty choose to step into the engaging space of dialogue we've created and take up the project.

I'm going to indulge in a little retrospective about what we've achieved with the collaborative project in its first year -- but put off fuller assessment for a followup post after Darnell's workshop -- and then discuss something very interesting, even humorous if you look at it in the right light, that occurred throughout the course of my last workshop, driving doubly home its lessons to me, if not to every one of the participants it was designed for and delivered to.

Mar 13, 2011

Saint Anselm on Anger (part 4)

Continuing the series of Sunday posts discussing Saint Anselm's views on anger in light of his moral theory (so far part 1, part 2, part 3), tonight we turn to a very interesting, well-discussed (in secondary literature), but somewhat underdeveloped (in Anselm's own writings) aspect of Anselm's theory of the will:  the distinction he draws and develops between the "two wills," the will-for-justice and the will-for-happiness.  Where does anger and connected matters -- the emotional response itself, the causes of the emotion, the acts carried out under that emotion, the volitions,  the virtuous or vicious dispositions bearing on the emotion and the actions -- fit into this motivational  and moral scheme Anselm elaborates?

As mentioned in previous posts, the will has a threefold aspect in Anselmian moral anthropology: there is the will-as-instrument, will-as-use, and will-as-inclination (or -as-affection, as-disposition, affectio).  Both the will-for-justice and the will-for-happiness are examples of this third type of will, motivational structures perduring through and expressing the will of the person in multiple determinate situations.  There are several features of these affectiones of will which I summarized several years back in a paper, which will be helpful to bring up early on here.

Anselm says that “the will-as-instrument is affected [affectum] by its inclinations,” probably the reason he uses the rich term affectio to denote them.  To be sure, the will-as-instrument is also affected, in that it takes on determinate form in time in action and intention, by its uses -- but will-as-inclination affects the will-as-instrument over time, habitually, motivationally, affectively structuring it and conditioning the wills-as-use, the determinate intentions, choices, preferences, acts that a person has or makes.

Mar 11, 2011

Reflections on Repentance, Psalms, and Philosophy

Wednesday was one particularly important days of the liturgical year, involving a ritual often viewed as distinctively or exclusively "Catholic," often to the dismay of Protestants belonging to denominations which retained enough from the Catholic church for their more radical Protestant brethren to criticize them as remaining still far too "popeish" -- Lutherans, Anglicans (including Episcopalians), Methodists (who after all were at one time Anglicans themselves). . .  really anyone who recognizes some sense or value to a liturgical year might find themselves marked by an ashy cross smudged on their forehead.  This includes those Evangelicals who, regretting losses which occurred through ever more radical waves of Reformation, are now finding value in cautiously reappropriating rituals, notions, actions, lines of thought, ways of life formerly considered far too Romish.  My partner texted to tell me how startled she was at the sight of a drive-through where one could be marked with the sign of repentance. For me, that is Evangelicals doing things as they tend to do them best, enthusiastically, exploiting aspects we Christians less experimental and settled in our ways of doing things would never think of,  sometimes introducing a bit of unintentional comedy.

Ash Wednesday introduces the season of repentance -- with prayer, alms-giving, fasting as the traditional pillars.  Every religious tradition I have studied -- and I've not only been researching religions since I was a teenager, but had the opportunity to teach a Religious Studies curriculum for 6 years at a former job, so I've covered quite a few -- every religious community has some way of marking time, of structuring the cycles and patterns of life, something akin to a liturgical year, in which narrative intersects with and is enacted within calendar, where feasts or fasts for some at least are prescribed or proscribed, where space and time, and even silence for self-reflection is opened, where the theme of sin, distance from God and from neighbor, from the persons we ought to be (and study of actual world religions, in their practice, in their scriptures, will tell you that the notion of sin is a lot more widespread than some polemically maintain), becomes a focus.  Sin is multiform and multifaceted, and may be grasped by numerous holds, some of them intellectual, some of them much more affective, some more global, involving universal experiences and conflicts, others so personal that the one holding them within may doubt whether anyone else has ever felt, suffered, done, and regretted what -- or like --  they have.  And all of those complexities and stances, realizations, and progressions and degenerations of moral life are rolled up, implicitly, into the ordering of Ash Wednesday, and Lent, and the Passion, and Easter and . . . .

I pray the Liturgy of the Hours (these days using iBreviary) -- at some times of my life diligently, at others desultorily -- or better put, since I hardly feel as if I'm praying them, I read them, I speak them, or I sing them.  This is another one of those complex intersections of text, ritual, daily practice, tradition of whose depths and fertility some Evangelicals, among others, are becoming aware and enamored.  The Liturgy consists in arranged prayers, many of them Psalms, read at given points in the day. There is a cycle to it, where canticles and verses, Scripture readings and commentaries (in the Office of Readings) bob and weave, dance and chant their ways in and out of the weeks and months.  The Liturgy of the Hours is a complex pattern woven largely out of Scripture, and if one desires or aims to know Scripture better, particularly the Psalms, it is highly recommendable.

Mar 6, 2011

Saint Anselm on Anger (part 3)

The last two Sundays, I posted installments of serialized set of posts, part 1 and part 2 of a longer study of how anger fits into Saint Anselm's moral theory.  That study in its turn forms part of a broader-scope, ongoing set of examinations of anger (and connected topics) as understood by philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and (perhaps later) literary figures, ultimately intended to be housed in books (one of which, dealing with Aristotle on anger, I'm working on currently). Here, in this format, I work out and provide for interested readership the shorter, more preliminary studies of anger that later find their way into more systematic, academic manuscripts.

The last post on Anselm identified four Anselmian virtues bearing on anger:  patience, meekness, humility, and justice, and noted that each of these virtues was a particular habitual and dispositional structure of the human will, instantiated not only in the uses the human person chooses to make of his or her will, but even more so in  lasting affective currents of desire, fateful shaping, character, what Anselm calls will as affectio.

In order to better understand virtues, and their opposite, vices, we have to understand the will, and that requires us to understand a number of other interrelated matters.  There are good reasons why we human beings are so often mysteries to ourselves even when we think we best understand and know ourselves, and Anselm touches on this while mimetically representing what must have been a common enough occurrence in his life and teaching, begging off from giving his views and rational reflections on a divine mystery in Cur Deus Homo:
we need an analysis of ability and necessity and will and of other notions which are so interrelated that no one of them can be fully examined apart from the others. . . . For an ignorance of these notions produces certain difficulties which become easy to deal with as a result of understanding these notions.

Mar 4, 2011

Exploring VYou's Potential

Back last semester, when the social networking site VYou had recently started up, I wrote a piece discussing some of VYou's potentials for education and for talking about philosophy:  On VYou: Carving Out New Territory for Philosophy in Cyberspace, and I started up my own VYou account, linked it to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and suggested it as a means for posing questions to me for readers of this site.

The basic idea behind VYou -- structurally -- is that its users create video profiles, complete with a short, silent, holding pattern video (like the one you see at the bottom of this post) and a "'I'll respond to your question or comment" response video.  Users or other visitors to the site can enter questions or comments, to which the user creates a short video response, using a webcam (though I'm guessing that smartphones with front-facing cameras would be usable as platforms as well -- VYou's designer, Steve Spurgat, talks about this).  One's responses can be tagged, in a way, and questions can be set up as follow-up responses to previous questions and responses.

To go by the website -- in which the most prominent term displayed is "Conversational Video" -- the basic idea behind VYou is to create both a new hybrid medium for interaction, one which could interface with the other more popular and established social media networks out there, and to build a community of users who would interact with each other through that medium -- "Build," "Share," "Interact" are the key action words, although, for reasons below, I'm a little skeptical about how far the last one goes."  Their overall helpfile Wiki suggests that users "communicate with friends & fans. . . . share your expertise . . . answer common questions about your business." In fact, they seem to have had businesses in mind when they envisioned the medium -- not a lot of business use up to this point though.

I didn't get a whole lot of questions  or comments to respond to -- even now, I'm down in the high end of the lower-tiers of users (some of whom have answered hundreds of questions) -- until the last week or so.  Since then, the number of questions I've been asked and responded to has more than doubled.  More importantly, I'm getting a better grasp on some of the potentials -- for philosophy as a practice and for education more broadly -- this relatively new social medium presents.  It also has some handicaps, some, I think, unavoidable given the nature of the medium, others possibly remediable.

Mar 1, 2011

Matthew Arnold at the Book Club

Some time back. I recounted portions of discussions that took place when the Cumberland County Library Great Books Club read Immanuel Kant's essay Towards Perpetual Peace.  As a philosopher by both profession and inclination, I was very interested to see what non-academic educated, interested, attentive readers would make of that classic philosophical work.  In explaining that interest, I mentioned a notion found (though not originated) in Alasdair MacIntyre's thought -- the idea and experience of  taking what "plain persons" make of things as one important criterion, all too often ignored or disparaged (at other times idolatrously invoked) by academic types.  That entry, somewhat surprisingly to me, has occupied a place each month among the most read in my blog (explanation as to why that is so, perhaps someone will suggest in a comment?)  So, since we had another rather philosophical text to explore together, I thought I'd add another post to what threatens to become a series  (next month, William James' essay "Pragmatism" -- how can I resist writing on that?)

This month's reading selection consisted in portions from Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, a work which I freely cop to not having read but only read references to -- one of those someday-to-be-remedied gaps in my education, though shamefully not of my library:  the sections "Sweetness and Light," "Doing as One Likes," "Barbarians, Philistines, Populace, and Hebraism and Hellenism."  Only four of us made it this time -- scheduling conflicts, family visits, thunder and lightening threats of a real downpour last night, all pruned our numbers -- myself, the librarian who coordinates the club, and two other locals, one a former military man, the other a transplanted French woman.

Predictably, the discussion ranged over many points and passages of the text, ran off on a few fruitful tangents, and came back to its implications or applications for contemporary affairs.  The very first remark that was made -- I'll report that one, and just summarize the others, because this one was rather striking -- was stylistic:  Arnold used self-deprecation well as a device (specifically in the section "Doing As One Likes"), listing criticisms made against his "religion of culture" from various sides, and then addressing them, showing that he understood but could not agree with his opponents and why.  By engaging in such measured dialogue, by granting the relative rightness of opposing views and only then pointing out their shortcomings, by profit[ing] by the objections I have heard and read," Arnold thereby models aspects of the very stance of culture he espouses.