Thursday, June 04, 2015

Music and Silence

I mentioned Jankélévitch's Music and the Ineffable in my last post, and I want to thank Jay Langguth, a philosopher at Thomas More College, for bringing the book to my attention. If I understood the book correctly, Jankélévitch adopts the view that music does not "express" emotions or ideas (in any sense of "express" that is linguistic, so to speak) but rather imitates the rhythms and "atmospheres" of "life, freedom, [and] love." He's talking about instrumental music ("pure music" in the terminology of philosophers of music). I'm not sure I agree, but it's an interesting view to consider, especially when thinking about music without words/lyrics. I would accept that some music takes that form, or is fruitfully understood in this way.

Any way, here's a nugget to ponder from the last chapter (on music and silence): "Music is a sort of silence, and one needs silence in order to hear music; the one silence is necessary to hear the other, melodious silence. As melodious, measured noise, enchanted noise, music needs to be surrounded by silence. Music imposes silence upon words and their soft purring, that is, upon the most facile and voluble noise of all, the noise of idle chatter." -- Vladamir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable (139-140)

And a video of a slow, quiet tune I worked up the other day on the fretless banjo, "based on a true story" (see title). A lot of banjo playing is fast, but I also find myself interested in tunes that work at a slower tempo (and not just because I have a slow and clumsy left hand).

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Update: Tenure, Patience, & Banjos (Among Other Things)

It goes without saying that I've gotten away from the blog and from keeping up with other blogs. (I do miss the discussions I had with some folks on our blogs). You'll see what happened to "blog time" below. Here's a sort of year-in-review, since it's been almost a year since I last posted.

I received tenure this spring, starting in the fall. (That's a pic of the application.)

I continue to work on getting my patience manuscript placed with a publisher and will spend some time this summer doing some tweaking. Also, look for an article by me on "Nietzschean Patience" in The Journal of Value Inquiry some time soon. (It's in press as of now.)

For a year, I'll be the President of the Kentucky Philosophical Association. The annual meeting will be at Bellarmine University some time in late March or early April.

I'm also coordinating the summer programming at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The community minister recently gave me a bumper sticker that she said reminded her of me. (Thanks, I think!)

I taught a very interesting honors course with Christopher Jackson of EKU's Department of Art & Design called "Arguing with Images." We examined the idea of "visual arguments" and spent time looking at philosophical and visual arguments on issues like abortion, animal ethics, and in politics. The students created their own visual arguments at the end of the semester and some of them were quite impressive. This class has also continued to steer me, along with a recent thesis I mentored and a paper I commented on recently, into that other realm of "value theory" that is aesthetics.

Right now I'm reading Vladamir Jankelevitch's Music and the Ineffable, and have also been reading stuff on, roughly, "the limits of language." My position right now is still that there aren't the kinds of limits to language that the early Wittgenstein insisted; I think that those who claim that there are things within our cognitive and experiential grasp that "words can't express" forget about the power of figurative and poetic language and that those uses are part of language, too. I've been trying to write on this a bit, but it's all mostly taking the form of notes right now. I need to read more.

I shaved (left), which was a real shock to my children. (I also have a new scar on my forehead from taking an elbow to the head while playing basketball. It was a bloody mess, literally. I did make the shot, though.) I guess I'll have to finally retire the profile pic I use in various places, which was a picture taken by my friend Craig Earl Nelson (right), who passed away at the end of 2013.

Last, but hardly least, I started learning to play the 5-string banjo in January 2014. That's primarily where "blog time" went. And family life is keeping me busy, too.

Here's something I made up a few days ago that I'm pretty happy with, although the recording and the playing are rough:

And here's another song that's fun recorded a few months ago (although it turns out that I switched up some things from the version I'd been listening to. One nice thing about the Old Time scene is that variations on themes rather than lock-step imitation seems to be part of the tradition; I've heard over a dozen versions of Cumberland Gap and each one is a little different). "Ramblin' Hobo":

You can see the top of my other, fretless banjo in the background of this video. Maybe I'll post something on that soon. I'm working on something on it that's sort of a musical dialogue.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Patience for Parents

I got asked to talk at the local UU on Father's Day. I'd originally hoped to offer some "narrative non-fiction" about being a dad, but ran into a bit of a wall. So, I went back to what I "know" (in theory if not practice), and attempted to say something about the place of patience in the life of the parent, and my sense of the need to connect my own theory and practice: "We Are Not There Yet: Patience for Parents."

I joked that perhaps one way in which my work on patience intersects with my life as a parent is when I am yelling at my children to be quiet so that I can work on my book about patience...

P.S. The Jack I refer to at the end is Jack McDowell, a UU member who practices Zen meditation (and often goes to retreats at a Zen center called Furnace Mountain in Eastern Kentucky), who did a talk and guided meditation on mindfulness the week prior to my talk.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Two Senses of Patience in the Greek of the New Testament

Up to know, I'd been working with the assumption that the term patience had roots that come later than the ancient Greek thinkers (which is in some sense right), in part because although Aristotle, for example, discusses virtues related to patience, like mildness, there is no obvious term in his ethic that captures quite what patience came to mean in Christian thought or in its (watered down) modern sense of calm waiting. This article points out that there are two Greek terms (not commonly used by the ancients) that occur in the New Testament, both of which have been translated as patience, although their meanings differ slightly.

I found a copy of Barclay's New Testament Words (one of the sources for the article above) at Berea College Library today (just down the road), and it's an interesting little book. Barclay calls hupomonē "The Manly Virtue" and a kind of "masculine constancy," which suggests that it's a form of patience that Aristotle would have regarded as a virtue (given it's meaning of endurance and perseverance, and so its connection with courage), even as makrothumia (the patience of tolerance and forbearance, that connects with the Christian virtue of meekness) appears ultimately at odds with his conception of mildness (which allows for some justified anger and payback, even as one is slow to anger) and magnanimity (megalopsuchia). [I keep thinking about those odd commercials for the low-calorie soda Dr. Pepper 10 that exclaim, "It's not for women!" and how to turn that into a joke about hupomonē, given Barclay's gloss.]

I haven't done as much principled and chronological mapping of these various terms as I might have, and I find myself now wondering how we got from hupomonē (and to some extent, makrothumia, too)--which is close enough to courage that Aquinas classifies patience as he understood it as a form of fortitude--to patience as calm waiting. My main hunch is simply that endurance, perseverance, and tolerance/forbearance all involve, in part, waiting (for the pain to end, for the goal to be achieved, for anger and the thirst for revenge to pass, so that one can act justly and wisely). (A quick survey of the French terms patience and l'attente suggests the same thing in French, just for another point of comparison in a contemporary Western language.)

Animal Ethics (Interview/Article, Part II)


Thanks again to Jeannette Smith for inviting me to do the interview that resulted in this article and the previous one.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Horn, Tooting

I'm in the news, sort of, and there may be a second part that gets more into theory. (Answering by email the interview questions that produced this article was hard--harder than it may appear in the article. At least, it took some time. I'm not a quick thinker.)

Also, Epictetus: His Continuing Influence and Contemporary Relevance is now out (and has one of my papers on patience in it).

Good luck to all as the semester winds down. I'll do something other than toot my horn soon.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Patience is Always a Virtue

I'll be presenting a paper thus titled this coming weekend in Bowling Green Kentucky at the KPA. These ideas will be familiar to regular visitors here. Here's the abstract:
ABSTRACT: It is sometimes suggested that traits commonly regarded as virtues are not in every instance virtuous. On such views, these traits are not univocally good: one might possess too much courage or too much patience. Such talk has a natural feel — “be patient, but not too patient!” — but it conflicts with traditional ways of thinking about the virtues. In this paper, focusing on the case of patience, I illustrate a way of resolving this conflict that accords with the spirit of the traditional approach — in particular with the thought that the virtuous traits are themselves always good. That means, for example, that patience is always a virtue, and that one cannot be “too patient,” even though those claims seem to conflict with other rather ordinary ways of thinking and talking about patience. The approach illustrated herein can also be applied to similar conflicts and disputes about other virtues.
Comments welcome. I'm hard at revisions and re-writing of the book manuscript, which is a challenge in part because I'm generally trying not to copy and paste from these various papers and presentations, in an attempt to write in a way that is as non-technical as possible (for me and my aims, at least). I hope, however, to merge key ideas in many of these shorter papers into some kind of a journal article (or two) that will hopefully complement the book, and build on some forthcoming book chapters that are also about patience.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Niether Duck Nor Rabbit

As a follow-up to my last post and the comments: as I was reviewing my discussion with Reshef, it occurred to me that my not knowing what the "right" response is on some nights when I stare into the vast sky and can, on the one hand, be filled with thoughts of our smallness and the seeming groundlessness of things, and then, on the other hand, with thoughts about how wondrous the whole world is--perhaps this state of not knowing, of not moving decidedly into either aspect (or way of viewing the world), is itself a "position" rather than a failure to know what the "right" position is? Perhaps this is obvious to those who have considered the issue of aspect-seeing, that the real temptation is to think that the tension between seeing things one way or another must ultimately, in all cases, be resolved. That the true "resolution" is to resolve to learn to accept certain fundamental ambiguities, to accept the tension between apparently contradictory aspects. Perhaps this is why Simone Weil says, in Gravity and Grace:
The contradictions the mind comes up against—these are the only realities: they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity.
This might shed a different light on Wittgenstein's distinction in the Tractatus between the worlds of the happy man and the sad man, or show that there are different ways of being the happy or the sad. On the one hand, the happy man might be the one who sees the world as a wondrous miracle, and the sad man the one who sees everything as awful and pointless. But on the other hand, the happy man might be the one who has accepted the tension between the two aspects (and yet sees and feels the weight of both aspects, at different times, forcefully), and the sad man the one who cannot accept this ambiguity.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Waxing and Waning (Gaita)

I just recently learned of (and quickly obtained and read) Raimond Gaita's collection of essays After Romulus, each of which reflects on something to do with his book Romulus, My Father. I think it is all very much worth reading if (a) you've read Romulus and (b) are interested in Gaita's philosophy. The essay on the process of bring the book to film was, if nothing else, a good reminder for me to see the film (which I did, and it is beautiful and sad).

I've been meaning to post something about a couple remarks in the essays that stood out to me, but I think now I'll stick with just this one. In the final essay, "An Unassuageable Longing," Gaita writes about his mother, in part to address her seeming lack of character in comparison with his father. [Their relationship and struggles are rather too complicated to summarize here.] He suspects that she and his father did not understand each other, and that on her side, "She didn't understand the conception of morality that made me say that, like Socrates, my father would prefer to suffer evil than to do it" (186). He emphasizes that this attitude is rare and seems strange to many (my comment: recall what Socrates says about this in Crito), and so his mother's failure to understand this about his father is not the result of some special moral failure on her part. Then he says this, which is what struck me:
But even someone who takes the Socratic perspective has only occasionally a full understanding of what is revealed to him from it. His sense of the reality of good and evil waxes and wanes. (186-7)
This surprised me, and I scrawled "hm..." in the margin, but I continue to reflect on this and whether I understand this. One might first wonder how Gaita can know this--unless one assumes that he has internalized the same moral outlook as his father, which is of course plausible. But then it seems surprising that a person who had the kind of moral seriousness as his father (although informed also by what Gaita describes in this book and in Romulus, My Father as "compassionate fatalism"), would have a sense of the reality of good and evil that waxes and wanes.

Perhaps this has something to do with Socrates' thought that evil is always the result of ignorance. For if one emphasizes the ignorance, then one might be led to think that "real" evil does not exist, only ignorance that has latched onto a false sense of what is good. But then one confronts some terrible action and then evil seems again quite real and in need of serious resistance.

I have come to connect these remarks to a kind of waxing and waning that occurs in my own thought that stems from moving back and forth between taking seriously notions about the ultimate groundlessness of our values and the deep impression that there is value in the world--that life is sacred and beautiful and so forth. Between gazing at the sky on a clear night and being struck by how small and fleeting our lives are, and how silly so many of our concerns, and gazing at the same sky and, like Wittgenstein, wondering at the existence of the whole world (and in doing so, finding it good). But I am not sure that I know what a "full understanding" of all of this would amount to. That both aspects are "real" (or revelatory) and that the tension between them is not one that can ever be eliminated or dissolved?