Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Holidays (and Some Free Art!)

Happy Holidays to all, and a Happy New Year!

During my visit home, the family and I ventured to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR. The museum was founded by Alice Walton (of the Wal-Mart Waltons), and admission to the museum is free in perpetuity, courtesy of Wal-Mart. (Say what you will about Wal-Mart!) I was quite impressed by the structure, the setting, and the collection. If you're ever in the area, it's worth a visit, and probably worth a visit in its own right if you're a connoisseur of American art.

I recognized several of the pieces, including iconic portraits of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter," and Maxfield Parrish's "The Lantern Bearers." I hope to explore the walking trails and outdoor sculptures in the future during warmer weather.

I was particularly intrigued by these:

John Singer Sargent, Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885)

Tom Uttech, Enassamishhinjijweian (2009)
(original is about 9' x 9' and is a sight to behold in person)
(more info about Uttech here)

Irregular blogging to resume sometime after the holidays.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Justus Lipsius

When I presented my paper "Beyond Patience" in Indianapolis a few weeks ago, and audience member (Susan Purviance, Toledo) recommended that I look into Justus Lipsius' On Constancy. A modernized version of a classic translation of this "neostoic" classic has recently been released. I haven't yet gotten into the text, but was perusing the introductory material, and learned this of Lipsius' political philosophy (bear in mind that Lipsius lived in Europe in the late 16th Century):

"In his Politica....he argued that no State should permit more than one religion within its borders and that all dissent should be punished without mercy. Experience had taught him that civil conflict enflamed by religious intolerance was far more dangerous and destructive than despotism." (4)

Not exactly an enticement to read On Constancy (which, from the introduction, sounds in some ways similar to Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy in the kinds of theodicies it offers--one of Lipsius' aims is to show Stoicism to be compatible with Christianity).

But as I reflected on this, it struck me (and compare to Hobbes and even Rousseau's "On Civil Religion" in The Social Contract) that this attitude makes sense in the historical context. If all you've seen is violent conflict between religions, then it will not seem possible that we can all just be Rodney Kings and get along. (This reminds me also of remarks T.M. Scanlon made in a recent interview about why some people see tolerance as an impossible ideal. See Part III of the interview.) But it still seems a little odd coming from someone attracted to Stoic ideas. Anyhow, more to come. (Notice that Lipsius appears to be sporting a faux hawk in the picture above, for whatever that is worth...)

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

CFP/CFA: Living with Animals (Eastern Kentucky University, March 2013)

Sorry for my blog-absence. Too many pots on the stove. Perhaps some of you might be interested in the CFP (or abstracts) below, or know of someone who would be. I'll be presenting something on genetic modification as a means of reducing suffering in livestock (and why, e.g., Shriver's proposal strikes me as wrong-headed).


“Living with Animals,” including the subthemes, “Teaching with Animals” and “Living with Horses.”

This conference has special relevance to the venue. Eastern Kentucky University, located in Richmond just south of Lexington, ‘The Horse Capital of the World’, began offering the first undergraduate degree in Animal Studies in 2010.

A three-day conference: March 21-23, 2013
Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, KY

Margo DeMello/Francine Dolins/Ken Shapiro/Kari Weil

Dr. Robert Mitchell and Julia Schlosser

LIVING WITH ANIMALS: Many of us enjoy our lives with animals. We live with them in diverse ways: they are our friends, our enemies, our food, our materials, our helpmates, and our co-inhabitants of the planet. They invade our fields and mythologies, and we invade their habitats and lifeways. They are pervasive in our history, artworks, language and literature. News media contain innumerable references to animals every day: pets unintentionally euthanized, smart and even sexy bonobos, human-killing bears and chimp-saving humans, pigs who save their owners, tigers who maul people who are seeking oneness with them, and ridiculous cat activities swarm YouTube, Fox News, and more intellectual media such as the New York Times. Animals fascinate us. Yet the consequences of our collective actions do not always bode well for animals, whose lives and deaths depend on us. Many studies have concluded, without irony, that the myriad dangers posed to endangered species and the global environment would disappear immediately if human animals ceased to occupy space with nonhuman animals: Humans are truly the “elephant in the room” in any discussion of conservation.

During this conference, we propose to examine our interactions with animals, the ways we live with them and they live with us, the ways they live and die, and the ways that our decisions affect their lives and deaths, as well as practical solutions and philosophical/ethical issues surrounding our lives with animals. We will also examine the ways that literature, art, film, science, and popular culture represent human-animal relationships and the lives and deaths of animals, and the implications of these mediated visions. Dr. Ken Shapiro, cofounder of the Animals & Society Institute, and Dr. Francine Dolins, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, will be keynote speakers. Dr. Shapiro will present an overview of the Animal Studies field and its relationships to the animal protection movement. Dr. Dolins studies behavioral ecology and cognitive processes in non-human primates. Her research mainly investigates spatial cognition and navigational behavior, in addition to decisionmaking processing in spatial behavior. She has conducted fieldwork in Madagascar, Costa Rica and Peru.

TEACHING WITH ANIMALS: In 2005, the “Animals in History” conference held in Cologne, Germany, concluded with a vibrant discussion about the future of the academic discipline of Human/Animals studies. Many participants argued for the continued existence of Animal Studies as an interdisciplinary endeavor. Since that time, courses containing animal subject matter have proliferated across academia. The H-Animal Syllabus Exchange has been a popular on-line resource for faculty since 2006. In 2010, Eastern Kentucky University premiered the first interdisciplinary baccalaureate degree in Animal Studies; other universities have had Anthrozoology degrees, or specializations within Sociology or Psychology. Since the Animal Studies major appeared, EKU has also developed a “Humans, Horses & Health” minor. Bark magazine (Sept. 2012) featured an article on the inclusion of canine subject matter in a variety of curricula. What then are the current issues facing faculty teaching animal subject matter across the disciplines? Is an interdisciplinary approach practical and beneficial? What strategies have you used to convey animal-centric information to your students? How have you navigated the politics of academia to find a “home” for your Animal Studies course? Papers from a diversity of perspectives are sought which discuss experiences teaching animal subject matter, and we hope participants will bring discussion questions about teaching Animal Studies. Anthropologist Dr. Margo DeMello (author of Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies) will be the keynote speaker anchoring the Friday session devoted to teaching animal subject matter. Related activities will include breakout discussion sessions, a voluntary syllabus swap, and a larger discussion session debating the benefits and practicalities of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching animal subject matter. Dr. DeMello is the President and Executive Director of House Rabbit Society, an international rabbit advocacy organization, and the Program Director for Human-Animal Studies at Animals & Society Institute. Her latest book Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing will be out in fall, 2012.

LIVING WITH HORSES: The horse holds a unique place among domesticated animals. Whether as food source or beasts of burden; as objects of worship, sacrifice or study; as tools in science, therapy or agriculture; or as traveling, sporting or battle workers, horses have influenced human societies since the two species came together. Within these interfaces, horses are large, potentially dangerous beings with whom humans can and do develop deep and often reciprocal relationships. The Thursday session focuses on the following questions: How is it that humans and horses have lived together in the ways they have? What makes horses what they are? How do humans conceive of their uses and value across cultures, and how do these conceptions factor into their use and treatment? The session takes an inclusive, multidisciplinary animal studies approach, and seeks presentations from across the sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts, and applied fields. Potential topics include but are not limited to: equestrianism and equestrian sport; equine psychology, sociality and culture; human-horse bonding; perceptions and representations of horses in various human cultures and subcultures, past and present; changing paradigms of training and schooling; considerations of equine agency, rights and welfare; and the ethical implications of the human-horse relationship. The session chair, Dr. Gala Argent, teaches the course “Horse” for EKU’s Animal Studies major and Humans, Horses and Health minor. Our Thursday keynote speaker will be University Professor of Letters at Wesleyan University, Dr. Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) whose current project is tentatively titled, ‘The Most Beautiful Conquest of Man’ (sic): Horses, Gender and the Conquest of Animal Nature in Nineteenth-Century France.

Please send 200-300 word abstracts and CV to Dr. Robert Mitchell, either by email: robert.mitchell@eku.edu; or mail (Department of Psychology, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, KY, 40475, USA) by December 15th, 2012. We are open to receiving late submissions, but we will begin making decisions by the end of December. Individual papers 20 minutes. Panels of up to 3 speakers are welcome. Selected speakers will be notified via email by January 7, 2013.

http://psychology.eku.edu/insidelook/living-animals-conference-be-held-eku-march-21-23-2013 You can also email Julia Schlosser with questions: julia.a.schlosser@gmail.com
After Dec. 10 the updated web page can be found at livingwithanimals.eku.edu

CONFERENCE LOCATION: Eastern Kentucky University is located in historic Richmond, Kentucky, including many areas of historic and scenic interest. Fort Boonesborough State Park, birthplace of Kentucky, is located 12 miles to the north, and Civil War and many other historical sites are nearby. The university is located just south of Kentucky’s famed Bluegrass Region, internationally recognized for its horse culture. See http://www.eku.edu/about for more information.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Merton on Factory Farming (1965)

This was a surprise find on my visit to the Thomas Merton Center. (And a neat find, since I'm teaching animal ethics right now.) In a display case that had been put together for a recent conference on Merton and ecology, I found this typed statement by Merton:
A STATEMENT ON FACTORY FARMING                                          April 26, 1965
Since factory farming exerts a violent and unnatural force upon the living organisms of animals and birds, in order to increase production and profits, and since it involves callous and cruel exploitation of life, with implicit contempt for nature and for life, I must join the protest which is being uttered against it. It does not seem that these methods have any really justifiable purpose except to increase the quantity of production at the expense of quality: if that can be called a justifiable purpose. However, this is only one aspect of a more general phenomenon: the increasingly destructive and irrational behaviour of technological man. Our society seems to be more and more oriented to overproduction, to waste, and finally to production for destruction. Its orientation to global war is the culminating absurdity of its inner logic, or lack of logic. The mistreatment of animals in “intensive husbandry” is then part of this larger picture of insensitivity to genuine values and indeed to humanity and to life itself— a picture which more and more seems to display the ugly lineaments of what can only be called by its right name: barbarism.
The statement was included in a pamphlet entitled, Unlived life : a manifesto against factory farming, edited by Roger Moody, (Bristol: Campaigners Against Factory Farming, 1965 (or '66)). The statement is also quoted in full here.


This nugget--from the inimitable josh blog--continues to delight me:
"You can imagine that a lot of people saw Socrates coming and said, ugh, that guy."
 Of course, I would surely not have been one of those people...

Tuesday, November 06, 2012


EKU is on Fall Break today and tomorrow, so I decided to make a pilgrimage to the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, and then to the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton lived. When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on Merton's life and work from Lynne Spellman, at a rather critical point in my life. It was reading Merton that led me to appreciate that there is a kind of religious thinking that is worth taking seriously.

One purpose of my trip was to listen to a recording of Merton's on patience and Sufism, which was a lecture to novitiates. I had not heard recordings of Merton before, and his voice and manner are quite engaging. This is the kind of thing he says to the new monks (always in a serious tone, but not so serious that he cannot also be, in subtle ways, funny):
"for the rest of your life if you stay here you are going to be struggling with constant dissatisfaction, and if you leave here you’re going to be struggling with more constant dissatisfaction, only you’ll have enough pillows and things to fall on that you won’t notice it…"

"love means trials…love and trials are inseparable...you don’t have one without the other, and that goes for Divine love and for human love…and I feel that today, there is a tendency everywhere, in religious life and out of religious life, for people to start kidding themselves that you get the love without the trials. You don’t."
Fair enough, I think. (Remembering this kind of thing when the kids are freaking out is harder.)

I took a nice walk along a trail with various religious statues scattered through the woods (including the striking one above). The air was cool and the sun bright. On my way back I noticed this peculiar sign (to the right), and then looked up (see below). Even the trees, so it seems, are praying at Gethsemani. I don't pray, but I did have a nice sit in the woods. It occurred to me--it has been in the process of occurring to me for a long time--that life is strange. I often wonder, "Where are we going?" (And "are we there yet?") This relates to my prior post on animal research (and Duncan's semi-response) in ways that I would like to explore further at some point. I don't think that "enjoying the ride" or "stopping to smell the roses" is quite the right way to get re-oriented. (I think this is what Duncan was getting at, too.)

Perhaps a little Nietzsche helps:
By doing we forgo.—Basically I abhor every morality that says: "Do not do this! Renounce! Overcome yourself!" But I am well disposed toward those moralities that impel me to do something again and again from morning till evening, and to dream of it at night, and to think of nothing else than to do this well, as well as I alone can! When one lives that way, one thing after another that does not belong to such a life drops off: without hate or reluctance one sees this take its leave today and that tomorrow, like the yellow leaves that every faint wisp of wind carries off a tree. Or he does not notice that it takes its leave--so sternly is his eye set on its goal, entirely forwards, not sideways, backwards, downwards.'What we do should determine what we forgo; in doing we forgo'--that's how I like it; that is my placitum. But I do not want to strive for my impoverishment with open eyes; I do not like negative virtues--virtues whose very essence is negation and self-denial. (The Gay Science, 304)
It may seem odd to be thinking of Nietzsche after a day at a monastery. (Isn't that precisely the self-denial that Nietzsche doesn't like?!) But somehow I think it can all fit together, because in both cases total devotion takes the place of all the various kinds of pettiness, distraction, and drifting. (And if one reads Nietzsche it becomes clear that there is a love of life there which, if followed, would prevent single-minded devotion to truly ugly aims--at least one would hope!)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the Farm and In the Lab

In my animal ethics class this week, we're discussing transgenic animals and research. Transgenic animals are genetically modified animals--from the GloFish to the oncomouse (i.e. mice that "model" cancers by getting them), as well as animals, such as rabbits, that express human proteins in their milk which can be used in medical therapies. This stuff makes my head spin a bit. On the one hand, much of the research is interesting, even exciting (does a cancer-resistant mouse bespeak of cancer-resistant people in the future?).

But it's also troubling. Ian Hacking claims of over-bred animals (like turkeys) that "we have created a species that cannot have any dignity" (in Cavell et al, Philosophy & Animal Life, p. 155). Earlier in the essay he discusses oncomice, and I assume that he would say the same of them. Even for comparatively benign transgenic research, animals are killed in the process of creating the transgenic lines: embryo donors, particularly mice, are euthanized; and most viable transgene implantation methods are less than 100% successful--some animals don't exhibit the transgene, and some are born with (unintended) problems. But then millions of (ordinary, industry standard) rats and mice are killed every year in labs already.

So is there a special problem with killing in the context of transgenic research? Only if there's a special problem with transgenic research, it seems. Hacking points to one possible problem, though it perhaps doesn't apply to all transgenic animals. Considerations of dignity probably won't move the interdisciplinary conversation very far--at least, convincing biologists and chemists that rats and mice have a kind of "animal dignity" (as Nussbaum and Elizabeth Anderson use the term) might be a hard row to hoe. Even then, perhaps curing cancer trumps animal dignity--viz. human dignity trumps animal dignity. I have to confess that I'm not sure that it shouldn't. That may seem foul (or, if you're all for this, a moment of clear-headedness), but in cases like the oncomouse, it certainly doesn't seem like you can have it both ways.

I think most people would like to have it both ways. For it to be ok to eat animals as long as they've lived happy, natural lives. For medical (and transgenic) research on animals to be ok as long as they've been housed in sufficiently enriched environments, and been administered the kind of anaesthetics and analgesics we'd use to alleviate human pain in surgeries, and then euthanized painlessly. And I guess it is ok if you're comfortably utilitarian or a certain kind of theist. (It's interesting to find those two groups in the same camp.) Or if you've accepted the idea that in the animal world--of which we are and are not a part--might rules.

In a Nietzschean mood, I would say: and we have to be strong to live! This doesn't mean exercising our strength indiscriminately or foolishly, however. But that just brings us back to the start again...

[I seem to have misplaced my copy of Cora Diamond's essay on animals and experiments (in The Realistic Spirit); I need to find it; perhaps it will help...]

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Patience, Unity of the Virtues, and Ideals

[Below is an excerpt from a concluding line of thought. Up to this point, I have considered the relationship between patience and a few other virtues--such as justice, love, courage, and wisdom--in order to illustrate the implicit role of patience in the development of these other virtues. Here, I consider a few issues that arise from those explorations. NB: I realize that the unity of the virtues thesis is controversial, but I am not concerned here to deal with objections, or what to say about the place of patience amongst the non-unified virtues; perhaps some other time.]

If either version of the unity of the virtues thesis is true, then an analysis of any virtue—say, courage—might take the same form I have adopted in this chapter with regard to patience: one could show how courage is necessary for the realization of virtues such as justice, love, wisdom, and so forth. In the case of courage, we would simply need to be reminded of the circumstances in which exercising these virtues may involve overcoming and facing down dangers and fears.

This might raise some questions about the starting point of this chapter—Gregory’s claim that “patience is the root and safeguard of all the virtues.” For if the unity of the virtues thesis is true, then there will be a sense in which every virtue is a “root and safeguard” of the others: no virtue has special priority and each one bears a crucial amount of weight in supporting a virtuous life: remove one virtue, and the whole structure collapses.

It is not essential to my project that patience have special priority in this sense. But then what of my rejoinder to Aquinas at the beginning of this chapter that perhaps we should hold that patience is “the greatest of virtues”? One possible explanation is that the aspect of patience characterized as constancy or steadfastness of commitment should be understood as constancy in one’s commitment to virtue in general. On this line of thought, patience is what enables a person to maintain a clear-headed sense of the significance of striving to live virtuously, even in one’s darkest hour. This fits with Gregory’s conception of Job as a paradigm of patience.

However, it may seem peculiar, and perhaps artificial, to suggest in this way that patience is a virtuous disposition to remain committed to the virtues come what may. On the one hand, even if there is such a virtue, it seems unclear why it should be called patience. On the other hand, if we conceive of the virtues as consistent, settled dispositions to feel and act in the right way at the right time, and so forth, then one might think that these dispositions will, as it were, take care of themselves. That is, a commitment to virtue for those who possess the other virtues is unnecessary.

In response to this criticism, it may be helpful to mark a distinction between ideal virtue and (for lack of a better term) non-ideal virtue. Dispositions are not binary; they can be more or less settled, more or less consistent. Aristotle, for example, appears to allow that occasional, slight deviations from the virtuous mean do not necessarily give us a reason to withdraw our characterization of a person as possessing a particular virtue. That person might not possess the virtue in its ideal, perfected state, but in characterizing people as courageous, just, loving, and so forth, we do not only measure them against an absolute, ideal standard, but also against the degree to which that virtue is reflected in others. A person might not be perfectly courageous, but he or she may well be much more courageous than most people. If we suppose that all, or even simply most, virtuous agents are not ideally virtuous, but rather approximate the ideal to some high degree, then circumstances will remain in which acting in accord with the (ideal) virtues is immensely difficult even for the most virtuous amongst us. (Here, Christians might consider the point that even Jesus experienced temptation—and perhaps this is essential to the idea that Jesus was fully human, even while also being fully Divine.) We could then interpret Gregory’s remark as indicating that patience (as constancy) is the final line of defense in such circumstances. This also aligns with Aquinas’ conception of patience as a bulwark against those provocations that might prompt us to react in non-virtuous ways. Given the assumption that none of us achieves ideal virtue, the significance of patience would then be that it provides some protection against the degree to which we are, as it were, imperfectly excellent.

Of course, if ideal virtue is just that—an ideal—then perhaps no one is ideally patient either. But in the present context, this would only mean that no one is absolutely immune to corruption, despair, or resignation, each understood as an abandonment of a commitment to virtuous living. This may be an unsettling thought, but perhaps it is better to be unsettled, to be reminded that we are not ideal agents. To summarize the considerations above: patience enables us to abide our own (often quite normal) imperfections and limitations, and to persevere nonetheless. Some may be uncomfortable with the perfectionist tone of these considerations, on the grounds that if our imperfections and limitations are in many ways normal, then there is something misplaced about holding ourselves to an ideal standard—that it implicitly demands something of us that we cannot give. I would suggest that this is to misunderstand the purpose of an ideal.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Aeon Magazine

Via Mark Rowlands, I've learned of a new digital magazine called Aeon. One of its sections is labeled "Oceanic Feeling." Intriguing.

I'm also looking forward to reading Rowland's whole book Can Animals Be Moral? His article above provides one entry point; he's also written about the subject here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Recent Tootings

Busy busy. Reading about animal minds (teaching a class on it in the spring, and realized too late that there was a vast learning curve I needed to start climbing immediately; expect animal minds posts in the future). Finished a paper on "Humility and Environmental Virtue Ethics," which will be coming out in the future in a volume on applied virtue ethics, edited by my colleague Mike Austin. I must give a particular shout out to Tommi Uschanov for bringing my attention to Aldous Huxley's essay, "Wordsorth in the Tropics." This provided the inspiration for the above attempt to get at "ecological humility" from a slightly different direction than in my related paper by that title. Thanks, Tommi!!!

I'll also be presenting something of a prelude to my work-in-progress on patience at a couple small conferences in November. It's called, "Beyond Waiting: Patience & Moral Development." Comments welcome.

As above, I hope to have things to say here soon beyond merely tooting my horn. But if my son is any indication, there are pleasures to be had in tooting, too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sweet on Mill

Just finished teaching Chapter 2 of Mill's Utilitarianism (in two different classes, ethics and honors humanities). I always get sweet on utilitarianism when I read Mill. Is this common? Is it contagious? Is there anything I can take for it? (Perhaps re-reading some of the dubious arguments in Chapter 4, the proofs of the principle of utility? It's been awhile since I've studied those closely.) Of course, perhaps the things that attract me to Mill's thought are the things that seem (or is it: seem) hardest to square with consequentialism.

(Pictured below: me & Mill...)

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Patience and Wisdom

[Putting this together has been a struggle, perhaps as it should be. But have I said anything?]

Simone Weil wrote that, “We do not have to understand new things, but by dint of patience, effort and method to come to understand with our whole self the truths which are evident.” [1] This is reminiscent of the suggestion in Plato’s dialogue Meno that acquiring knowledge is a matter of recollecting truths innate within the soul—knowledge involves a search within the self, rather than an investigation of the world beyond. Of course, if we think of the mind at birth as a “blank slate,” or even if we think that what is innate in the mind are capacities (or dispositions) rather than propositions (a store of sentence-like truths written into the brain by our DNA), then both Weil and Plato’s ideas will seem peculiar. Similarly, if we think that scientists make discoveries about the world that add to our knowledge, then it will hardly seem that we can construe what they do as recollection. We do not learn about penguins or electrons by probing the recesses of our own minds.

Even so, “patience, effort and method” would surely have a place in our coming to learn about penguins and electrons. Research in both the field and the laboratory takes time, and it is not hard to see how patience is relevant to such undertakings—not only because one must wait for the results, but also because one must be prepared to endure the frustration of failed experiments or adverse conditions in the field. However, I do not want to dwell on the obvious here, but instead to consider what kind of knowledge and understanding Weil might have in mind, and why the achievement of such wisdom depends essentially—and not just accidentally—upon patience.

We can begin to grasp Weil’s point by imagining someone with a photographic memory who accomplishes the feat of memorizing an entire encyclopedia but who cannot tell us what any of it means and who is incapable of making sense of such questions about what the encyclopedic facts mean. The facts are one thing. What we make of the facts—and in that sense what they mean, or ought to mean, to us—is another. That is, there is a difference between knowing a great deal of information and being able to say in what ways that information is important and how that information should be incorporated into our lives. What I am imagining the human encyclopedia above to lack is what we sometimes call insight, and insight—like the kind of understanding Weil discusses—is not something that is achieved by learning more and more facts—as in the Gradgrind school in Dickens’ Hard Times. For if we lack any grasp of what the meaning of the facts are, or which facts are more important than others, or how the facts inform practical questions about how best to live, then facts alone cannot make us wise. Wisdom and insight are reflected in what we do with, what we make of, the facts.

For most of us, most of the time, there is not much to make of facts about penguins or electrons. That is, rarely do questions of meaning arise here—questions about how these facts fit into our understanding of ourselves, our values and goals, the people with whom we live, and the everyday world in which we live with them. Perhaps if we have just watched March of the Penguins or read a book about the strange world of quantum mechanics, we do find penguins and electrons touching our lives and the sense we try to make of life in a more direct way. But let us consider a more straightforward example in which a simple, commonplace fact often raises serious questions of meaning for those about whom it is true: the fact that one is a parent.

To wonder what it means to be a parent can hardly (if at all) be understood as a request for a dictionary definition (unless one is learning the English language). Often, such questions can be understood as ethical questions about what the role of a parent entails, what one’s responsibilities are, and in general what is involved in being a good parent. But wondering what it means to be a parent, perhaps especially as the birth of one’s child draws near, or as one holds the child in one’s arms for the first time, can also be coupled with a sense of awe, perhaps anxiety, or pure dumbfoundment.[2] Creating a child, from a dispassionate biological point of view, is a relatively straightforward phenomenon; there are no “miracles” here from the scientific point of view. To be awed, amazed, or to see the birth of one’s child as miraculous—or to find oneself confused, stupefied, or anxious—is simply not to see the event from that point of view.[3] Such reactions are all ways in which we express the meaningfulness of the child’s birth for us, and they are the background against which we begin to make sense—and even recognize that there is sense that must be made—of questions about what it means to be a parent. If the birth of our own child left us entirely cold, and indifferent to our own coldness, such a reaction would simply indicate that being a parent has no meaning for us.

The new parent finds himself or herself thrust into a new role, a new identity. Yet there are various ways in which we can assume this identity, different ways we can integrate the role of being a parent into our lives—different ways, that is, in which we can understand, or demonstrate by our actions, what it means to be a parent. Of course, cultural norms, circumstances, and our experiences with our own parents (and other parents, etc.) shape our understanding of the parental role and our sense of what being a good parent involves. However, cultural norms shift (and are neither infallible nor determinate guides), circumstances change, and our determination to do or never to do what our parents did is often belied by our failure to fully grasp or anticipate the nature of certain challenges (and joys) in parenting. As with the human encyclopedia above, we can arm ourselves with parenting books, fill our heads with all sorts of advice, and make all sorts of preparations and plans and yet still fail to be good parents, fail to have any real insight into what it means to be a parent and what being a good parent involves. The books and advice and plans may make it less likely that we fail miserably, but that also depends upon whether the books and so forth are any good, the degree to which we are actually capable of following the advice and our own plans, and the extent to which we have some understanding of why we are doing what we are doing. Speaking for myself, I often have too little idea, as a parent, what I am doing or what I ought to be doing.

To grow in wisdom about what it means to be a parent involves coming to better understand what being a good parent involves. It would be difficult to see how one who is content to be a mediocre parent could at the same time be moved by concerns about what it means to be a parent. The desires for wisdom and goodness go together, and essentially so, if we are drawn to a view like Weil’s. Consider this further remark of hers:
The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do—that is enough, the rest follows of itself. [4]
The truth necessary to bring about a proper sense of care for the hungry and thirsty man is, if Weil is right, deceptively simple, and yet all kinds of rationalizations, intrusions of one’s own ego, and inattention to others can prevent us from thinking and acting with the understanding that every other person really exists as much as we do, that each is a fellow human being. Loving others, for Weil, depends essentially upon our ability to keep the reality of particular others in full view, and it is through such attention that we learn what is necessary—for this particular person, in this particular relationship—in order to love that person well.

To apply these ideas to the question of what it means to be a parent, the simple, fundamental truth to be kept in view is that the child really exists as much as we do. Of course, this may seem painfully obvious—or, wonderfully clear to the new parent. But as children grow and develop their own personality and sense of self, it can be challenging at times (speaking from my own experiences) to keep the reality of one’s child in full view, especially as one seeks to balance parenting with other roles and responsibilities. It can be hard to pay the right kind of attention—not only to our children, but also to our own actions (and how they affect our children). On the one hand, we can all too easily forget that our children are not miniature adults, and treat them in ways that fail to keep in view their own limitations and needs. On the other hand, we can smother our children, and fail to give them the necessary space to learn and grow on their own. Practically, the wisdom we seek as parents involves a need to navigate between these two kinds of errors, which, in Weil’s manner of speaking, we could call failures of proper attention to the child, failures to see the child as a child (and not a miniature adult on the one hand or a possession to be mollycoddled on the other).

We know already that children grow and change. We do not need to know anything “new” here, but instead to be prepared to pay (loving, patient) attention to the ways in which our children change. Of course, we do need to know how to respond to these changes, how to adjust the ways in which loving attention to the child is translated into action. (If we treat our teenager like a toddler, something has gone wrong.) This is where our handbooks and the advice of others may help, but we also have to be prepared for this bookish wisdom to fail us, and to put the books aside so that we can attend completely to the child. Put simply, all the “wisdom” in the world will be of no avail if we do not understand our own child.

Again, if all of this seems obvious, we should reflect upon the moments in which we forget the obvious. (Of course, you, dear reader, may not need such reminders as much as I do!) Keeping the obvious in clear view is an act of patience precisely because, as I have discussed in various places above, the capacity for steadfast attention—in the midst of potential distractions, frustrations, and uncertainty—is itself an outgrowth of patience. No doubt, becoming a better, wiser parent depends upon more than patience, but what I have tried to show is that we cannot begin to make such progress without it. Furthermore, this is not some special fact about parenting, but applies to any role in which we measure our progress against an ideal standard of excellence. For in every case, approximating the ideal will involve some kind of steadfast, patient attention to the particular activities and relationships which are constitutive of that role or practice. We inhibit our ability to learn when we do anything only halfway, when our attention is divided.

Thus, there can be no wisdom without patience. This is not merely because developing the capacity for insight takes time and experience (or because experience itself only increases over time), but also, and perhaps more essentially, because wisdom involves requires patient attention to that which one is trying to understand.

It may, however, seem that I have traded one mysterious concept (wisdom) for another (attention), and so have not helped us to become any wiser. Weil warns that what is meant by attention is easily misunderstood:
Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one’s pupils: “Now you must pay attention,” one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles. [5]
In contrast with this wasted “muscular effort,” Weil suggests that attention involves a kind of getting ourselves out of the way:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it. [6]
The difficulty of attention thus understood is twofold. On the one hand is the difficulty of getting ourselves—and all of our busy thoughts—out of the way, of making ourselves, our minds, empty—that is, receptive. On the other hand is the difficulty of remaining in such a receptive state without returning to our busy thoughts or simply daydreaming (or checking our email, our Facebook account, our text messages, etc., etc.) As soon as we find ourselves making a “muscular effort” to resist those distractions, then we are already distracted—the spell has been broken.

The idea of wisdom is mysterious because it is not something that can be forced or willed into existence. This is why Weil stresses that wisdom is something upon which we must wait, and why the proper form of waiting is patient attention to the object (or individual) we are trying to understand. We have to be willing to let that object—or person—speak to us. And genuine listening is itself an act of patience.

[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 2002 [1947]), p. 116.
[2] Of course, people who become parents through adoption may have similar experiences and reactions.
[3] Compare to what Wittgenstein says about miracles in the "Lecture on Ethics."
[4] Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 119
[5] Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting For God (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001 [1973]), p.60
[6] Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies," p.62

Friday, September 21, 2012

Weil on Attention

I'm grinding it out right now in my classes, and struggling to find time to write, let alone write here. (Family life is busy, too!) I've recently finished a few papers, and am getting back to work on patience. (I'm not sure I ever quite stopped that work, but it feels like it.) In the mean time, for the teacher-readers especially, here's something from Simone Weil:
The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do--that is enough, the rest follows of itself.
     The authentic and pure values--truth, beauty and goodness--in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object.
     Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.
     All the other advantages of instruction are without interest.

-- Gravity and Grace, p. 119-120.
(See also Weil's "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God")

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Ring of Gyges

In preparing to discuss the section of Plato's Republic in which Glaucon tells the story of the Ring of Gyges, I was struck by the abrupt way in which Glaucon stops talking about the ring: "Enough of this." What is the Ring of Gyges story supposed to prove? Glaucon's reaction sounds as if he's no longer convinced that the Gyges story is the right approach. This is significant since it's this story that is often mentioned--in ethics and philosophy classes (like mine)--in discussions of egoism.

Socrates and Glaucon had begun by considering what kind of good justice is, and Glaucon defends the common view that justice is only an instrumental good--or better, a necessary evil (because we must deal justly with others because we cannot get away with dealing unjustly with them).

People who think that way presumably would abandon any commitment to justice (or fairness) if they got hold of a Ring, and as Glaucon surmises, would think anyone who didn't was foolish. Importantly, the Ring of Gyges story does not prove that everyone would abandon the commitment to justice upon stumbling upon such a ring. (Glaucon seems aware that there is not much of a proof here that psychological egoism is true.) Perhaps he then abandons the story because the question he and Socrates are after is whether the people who think this way--in a moral and not merely a psychological sense--are right. Thus, he proposes the more powerful thought experiment in which we consider who has the better life: the perfectly unjust person who appears perfectly just, or the perfectly just person who appears perfectly unjust.

I don't have a grand point to make here, beyond the observation that, although it captures the imagination, the Ring of Gyges turns out not to be the main attraction. On the other hand, perhaps I'm selling it short: what's important about it is that it helps Glaucon clarify the idea that perhaps all that really matters--or all we actually (if mistakenly) care about--are appearances. And one way to get at that is to consider how we would act (or think) if we could disappear.

Friday, September 07, 2012

3QD Philosophy Prize: Vote!


The entries are impossibly diverse, both in subject matter and in their various implicit conceptions of what a "blog" is, from posts that are essentially feature magazine-style articles or academic essays published on websites called "blogs" to much less formal, but no less interesting, reflections of thinkers working through an idea or problem on their personal "blogs."

(FWIW, I voted for this. Thanks for doing the translation, vh!)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

3QD Philosophy Prize

Some of you usuals might be interested in participating in this contest at 3 Quarks Daily. Why not?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rousseau on Animals

From the Preface of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754):
Leaving aside therefore all the scientific books which teach us only to see men as they have made themselves, and meditating on the first and most simple operations of the human soul, I believe I perceive in it two principles that are prior to reason, of which one makes us ardently interested in our own well-being and our self-preservation, and the other inspires in us a natural repugnance to seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer. It is from the conjunction and combination that our mind is in a position to make regarding these two principles, without the need for introducing that of sociability, that all the rules of natural right appear to me to flow; rules which reason is later forced to reestablish on other foundations, when, by its successive developments, it has succeeded in smothering nature.
In this way one is not obliged to make a man a philosopher before making him a man. His duties toward others are not uniquely dictated to him by the belated lessons of wisdom; and as long as he does not resist the inner impulse of compassion, he will never harm another man or even another sentient being, except in the legitimate instance where, if his preservation were involved, he is obliged to give preference to himself. By this means, an end can also be made to the ancient disputes regarding the participation of animals in the natural law. For it is clear that, lacking intelligence and liberty, they cannot recognize this law; but since they share to some extent in our nature by virtue of the sentient quality with which they are endowed, one will judge that they should also participate in natural right, and that man is subject to some sort of duties toward them. It seems, in effect, that if I am obliged not to do any harm to my fellow man, it is less because he is a rational being than because he is a sentient being: a quality that, since it is common to both animals and men, should at least give the former the right not to be needlessly mistreated by the latter.
I'd forgotten about this until preparing again to teach Rousseau in my Honors Humanities courses. Since I was at the same time discussing Kant and Bentham in my animal ethics class, I had them look over the paragraphs above as well. The end of the passage anticipates Bentham's remarks, and also helps, I think, in raising questions about Kant (and his grounding moral considerability in rationality).

Of course, there's much else that could be discussed. Rousseau is positing those two principles as our basic moral psychology--and as I understand him, the moral psychology of "original man," prior to life in society, and language (and reason, in any sense above the kind of reasoning other animals are capable of). And so then one might wonder whether Rousseau is attempting to derive an ought (in the second paragraph) from the is of our, as it were, prehistoric psychology. Still, that seems like a fine place to start: what are we "really" like; what has society foisted upon us? Of course, since his "history" of our development is "conjectural," there are problems here. As he allows, perhaps we never existed as solitary beings. (Does that obviously undermine either of the two principles above, self-preservation and pity?)

Another thing that strikes me is what he says about "the participation of animals in the natural law." He says that animals cannot follow the law because they lack freedom, but that we still should not mistreat them. But when he is describing the relationship between humans in (his version of) the state of nature and other animals, he stresses that predators tend not to attack other predators, and that the threat posed to them by robust, self-sufficient human beings would have led such animals not in general to tangle with humans. (And predators do not prey upon more than they need.) So it would seem that such animals participate (if not self-consciously) in at least the first law (of self-preservation). But if there's something that such animals lack that prevents their--natural, instinctual--participation in the second law (pity)--understood as a psychological law--it wouldn't seem to be intelligence or freedom that's relevant, but rather pity. Of course, there are now various studies that suggest that some animals exhibit "empathy" toward other members of their species when those animals are hurt, and so those animals would seem to exhibit both of the traits that Rousseau identifies as fundamental in our own (original, natural) moral psychology. We could then, I suppose, say that such animals are "moral animals"--which is just to say that their moral psychology (or, behavior) is somewhat like our own. And more like us--or some of us--to the extent that the capacity for empathy crosses species lines. We might say that their "participation" in the natural law is merely involuntary (instinctual). But on Rousseau's picture, that would have been true of the original humans, too.

In some sense (and this is perhaps too quick), Rousseau's ethic amounts to something like this: act like an animal (and bear in mind that animals do not have the various false needs that have been engendered by egocentrism and society). Or: act like the kind of animal that you (really) are. Our freedom, it turns out, often gets in the way of that, which is peculiar, since it implies that what we are is the animal that has a hard time acting like itself (or its "true" self).

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back to Nature

"I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but the kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care." - Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, p. 82

In response to an earlier posting on ecological humility, Tommi Ushanov noted Huxley's critique of Wordsworthian adoration of nature. I am now writing a shorter paper for a book (edited by my colleague Mike Austin) on "applied virtue ethics," in which I start with Huxley vs. Wordsworth. I also plan to use the passage above by Murdoch.

So, one in a Huxleyan frame of mind might wonder whether we can only give attention to nature in the way Murdoch describes once nature has been tamed and made safe. (If we are in the "tropics" and a hungry tiger spots us, we will no doubt give attention to the tiger, but we will also care not to become the tiger's dinner.) Huxley:
The inhabitants of the tropics have no such comforting reasons for adoring the sinister forces which hem them in on every side….Rivers imply wading, swimming, alligators. Plains mean swamps, forests, fevers. Mountains are either dangerous or impassable. To travel is to hack one’s way laboriously through a tangled, prickly, and venomous darkness.
True. But then it can't all be bad either, otherwise we wouldn't be here. (Huxley acknowledges that.) Provisionally, it seems one could argue that even the "hostile and sinister" in nature can humble, precisely because of its otherness (or, if you like the word, it's alterity). Such aspects of nature force us confront the fact that the natural world does not--naturally, as it were--revolve around us, and challenges the self-serving idea that nature was created for us (or, challenges a self-serving way of interpreting that idea as meaning that nature is just a stock of resources for human use; what then of all the animals that Job cannot control?).

Of course, the moment you've been spotted by a hungry tiger is not the moment to wax philosophical. Unless that tiger has been hanging out with Jeff McMahan.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Back From Arkansas, Still Lost in the Cosmos

I didn't manage to read as much of Talbot Brewer's The Retrieval of Ethics as I'd planned, but I did find (and read) a nice used copy of Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, which has been on my wish list for awhile. (I never quite feel I've been home unless I get a chance to visit the Dickson Street Bookshop.)

A cousin who teaches English in Fayetteville (and writes) led me to Percy a few years ago. Percy has a penchant for philosophy--particularly Kierkegaard--and Tom (my cousin) wanted to know what I knew about SK. This led me to The Moviegoer, which was great. (It's been a bit too long since I read it to say more than that; sorry!)  

Lost in the Cosmos was a worthy interruption from my reading plans, and probably something better to read while on "vacation" (visiting family). Percy uses the form of a "self-help quiz" to probe twenty different aspects of the "self" and to raise, with plenty of irony, lots of questions about the various hangups, biases (religious fundamentalism on the one hand and scientism on the other), existential quagmires, and so forth of the modern self. He's well-versed enough in philosophy (and science) to be dangerous (his anti-reductionistic critiques of naturalism seem generally on point), and his wit reminds me in some ways of Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Robbins (though it's been awhile since I've read either of them so I might be a touch off in the comparison). The whole book is at once both serious and a hoot. Written in 1983, some of the pop culture references are dated (Carson vs. Tom Snyder, Phil Donahue, etc.), and his digression into a discussion about semiotics is a bit peculiar (though his point in doing so isn't), but the basic questions he's probing still seem relevant.

The flavor of the book is hard to illustrate succinctly, but here are a few passages that tickled me:

[On "The Bored Self"]: "Why is it that no other species but man gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep." (71)

[On "The Depressed Self"]: "Thought Experiment: A new cure for depression:
     The only cure for depression is suicide.
     This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option. Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it..." (75)

[On "The Orbiting Self" which transcends the everyday through art or science, but then has to return to everyday reality]: "But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o'clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoyevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?" (142)

[On "The Lonely Self," which feels so alone "that it will go to any length to talk to Chimpanzees, Dolphins, and Humpback Whales"]: "So anxious, in fact, have some people been to communicate with Washoe, the most famous chimp, that in the attempt to make signs for Washoe three psychologists have had their fingers bitten off for their pains. Alas for man: rebuffed again." (169-70)

It's a fun, peculiar read.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Virtue in (the) Twelve Steps

Here's a draft of something I've been working on: "The Virtues of the Twelve Steps." Around the time I was working on the relation between integrity and certain kinds of inner conflict and struggle (resulting in "Integrity and Struggle"), I saw a call for essays on "Twelve Step Spirituality" and was intrigued by the idea of writing about the Twelve Steps. I'm not entirely sure why. (I've been to one AA meeting in my life, having gone with a friend who was "forced" to, as it were. At the time--I had a very different attitude about a lot of things--I thought it was all unimpressive. But then I didn't know much about much at that point in my life.) But it seemed connected to some things I'd been writing about. So I did some research, saw what seemed like a fairly obvious way of reading the Twelve Steps as a virtue ethic, with some virtues that I've been thinking about at its center--and so as something more than a program for addiction recovery--and had at it.

I'm looking forward to reading the other essays in the volume; I'm an outsider looking in and trying to make connections (and I hope that because of that I haven't made myself into a hack). Some of the other contributors (from what I can tell from their bios and abstracts) have more personal experiences and stories to tie in with their philosophy. At any rate, I thought I could say something fruitful here (and based on a proposal I submitted the editors seemed to think so, too), so I gave it a shot. And the project as a whole strikes me as a good one because it takes up something that matters to real people, even if some snooty types "purists" will wonder whether such undertakings count as "real" philosophy. (Blah.)

If you have suggestions or criticisms, please share. I hope this is a more or less final draft, but I may still need to make some changes, and possibly shorten it just a bit. And I hope you find it a worthwhile read, maybe even worthwhile philosophy. (!)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoughts, Propositions, and Animals

I recently read Donald Davidson's "Rational Animals" (after re-reading Norman Malcolm's "Thoughtless Brutes"). Davidson's argument that possessing a single belief requires the possession of many beliefs, and that to be a thinking (rational) being requires language--being a "communicator" in the "full linguistic sense"--is rather impressive. I am not sure, however, what the "full linguistic sense" is, and Davidson's argument doesn't entail that (other) animals don't "think"--but that any thinking animals must be linguistic. (Do Wittgenstein's builder's think?)

Connecting thought to language is tempting. [Clarification: read that as taking thought to depend necessarily upon language.] But it strikes me that this really is a temptation. One reason to think so is that we have high-functioning autistic people like Temple Grandin who, to hear them tell it, insist that they think in non-propositional ways for the most part. And if animals that lack language still think in some sense, it is then not surprising that it would be more like what Grandin describes--and this would also enable us to make sense of why it is that her autism enables her to understand animals (or, see things as they do) better than most people.

Here's the main thing that strikes me about any Davidson-style argument: this whole way of approaching the issue privileges the proposition, and may even assume that all thinking--indeed all intentional states (all forms of thought)--are propositional. As I've seen others suggest, the temptation to think this may have to do with the tendency to begin analyses of intentional states by looking at belief, which seems inherently propositional (or incredibly easy to translate into Propositionalist language) as anything.

But as Alex Grzankowski argues in his forthcoming paper "Not All Attitudes are Propositional," Propositionalism runs into a great amount of trouble when confronted with the task of analyzing other intentional states (like fearing, liking, etc.) in terms of propositions. I'm not well-versed in this area of philosophy, but Grzankowski seems right, or on the right track. We like objects (or individuals), not propositions. (Well, we can like propositions, too, I guess, but the point is that in liking my wife, I like her, not some proposition or other.)

The next question I have (and here I have more reading to do) is how we might make sense of "animal belief" without appealing to propositions. I suspect this is related to why Malcolm talks about his dog "thinking" that the cat is up the tree, rather than of his dog believing it. In these cases it seems ok to say that our beliefs are about objects, but then we will also say that we believe certain propositions about those objects to be true. It might be that we could say that animals don't have beliefs (if we agree with Davidson that belief is inherently bound up with language), but that animals nevertheless make (and have?) observations. Malcolm's dog observes the cat go up the tree. And that observation, combined with a desire to eat the cat (the intentional state here can be non-propositional, the desire is for the cat, not for some relatable proposition), explain why the dog barks up the tree. Of course, we might ask: but is that thinking? Malcolm says, well, sure, my dog thinks the cat is up the tree. (That's why he's still barking, even though the cat isn't in that tree any more.) How do we get from observes the cat up the tree (or going up the tree) to thinks the cat is up the tree without attributing propositional content to the dog? Could we say that the dog continues to affirm a previously observed state of affairs while, not being a linguistic creature, cannot be understood as affirming the corresponding proposition? At any rate (since I'm in over my head here), could it not be that the dog thinks (believes) something about the world without believing any propositions (propositions are about the world, not part of it here)? If intentional states aren't all propositional, then must belief always take a propositional form? (Could that explain why we have thoughts that seem impossible to put correctly into words?)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Patience, Courage, and Facing Death

(Another excerpt, along similar lines as the most recent previous post.)

[In reflecting upon the ability of the courageous to face death...] we should think not only of those who risk death for a noble cause, but also of those who struggle against suffering and affliction even though death is inevitable. We attribute courage to those who contend with terminal illnesses without despair, who seek to live out the remainder of their lives as best they can, who, as Dylan Thomas urged his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” There is of course a way of reading Thomas’ poem such that raging against the dying of the light reflects a refusal to accept one’s mortality (or such that Thomas’ advice reflects his own refusal to accept his father’s mortality). Let us, for now, not read it that way, but rather see Thomas’ poem as a celebration of life, of the idea that even in one’s dying hour, there is life to be lived, words to be said, gestures to be made which can have a significance that death cannot invalidate. To acknowledge that is not to deny death; it is instead to call to mind that one is not yet dead, that dying itself is part of life, and that one can continue to live even as one is dying. In this way, it is possible that dying itself can, in the terms set forth by Callan, take the form of a moral task.

I make these suggestions with some hesitation. What do I know about dying (or, for that matter, suffering, really)? Rather than pushing the argument, again, it is surely better to let those whose examples inspire us speak for themselves. [Note: I make this same suggestion in connection with the idea that I would rather defer to the witness of Viktor Frankl than simply provide a priori arguments that great suffering can be endured with patience.] However, perhaps we can also get some glimpse of how the strengths that inform our ideas about courage, fortitude, and patience are related to the possibility of dying well by considering our desires about death, about what kind of death we would prefer. Perhaps many of us hope that death will come swiftly, unannounced, like a bolt of lightning—that in such a swift death we might avoid the task of enduring a protracted, slow march to death, and thus not have to confront the question of how we ourselves might hold up in the face of such a task. Palliative care can manage pain, we know, but presumably not eliminate it, and reflecting upon the gradual loss of our physical and cognitive capabilities can be frightening, or at least disconcerting. It is in this sense—and not only in the hero’s sense—that we can say that facing death well requires courage. And while “raging” against the dying of the light presents us with heroic imagery, reflecting upon the prospect of a slow death reminds us that this is not the courage of the charge, but rather the courage of endurance and fortitude.

The[se] considerations [...] suggest that growth in fortitude, in courage, cannot be entirely isolated from growth in patience. Here, I disagree with one claim that Callan makes about the blind man he imagines, when he suggests that as long as this man has no patience for the moral task of accepting his blindness, “no amount of courage or fortitude can compensate for the absence of that virtue.”[1] To distinguish fortitude from patience in this way seems to assume that fortitude is primarily toughness of mind or a kind of imperturbability, but then we can ask what it is that underwrites this mental toughness. Then we must either say that fortitude involves a kind of insensibility, which explains why provocations and pains don’t disturb the individual, or that fortitude involves a kind of tolerance of such provocations and pains in which the person really does feel them, but is not unsettled by them or, in other words, maintains him or herself in a state of self-possession. If fortitude is insensibility, then it seems hard to say that this is a virtue, since the insensible person does not actually endure anything—he simply does not feel what most of us would.[2] (Think for example of a person who is incapable of feeling pain.) And in many cases, such insensibility would be crippling rather than enabling. But if, on the other hand, we say that fortitude is a function of one’s ability to tolerate provocation and disturbance, then we seem to be speaking about one of the aspects of patience. What looks to us like fortitude, if not underwritten by the patient tolerance of such adversity, might just be inner deadness. And in that respect, we can agree with Callan that the blind man cannot come to terms with his blindness by simply making himself numb to the psychological pain that the fact of his blindness causes him. This, we might say, is a way of avoiding the problem, rather than confronting it. Coming to terms with his blindness, exposing himself to that psychological pain, will no doubt take courage—to face the fearful. But it should now be clear that since facing what is fearful in such cases is itself an activity that takes place in time, over time, and which cannot be separated from the pain and suffering that such a confrontation may involve, the courageous act itself cannot be undertaken without patience.

[1] Eamonn Callan, "Patience and Courage," Philosophy 68, (1993), p. 526. [2] REF Scarre and my stoicism paper.

[2] Cf. my discussion of Scarre's (I think failed) attempt to distinguish fortitude and patience in "In Defense of Patience."

Friday, July 20, 2012

Patience and Courage

At first glance, it might seem that patience and courage are dispositions that tend in different directions, reflecting different strengths. If we are asked to imagine exemplars of each of these virtues, we probably call two very different individuals to mind—the courageous person imposing, heroic, probably male, and the patient person quiet, reserved, quite likely female. (After all, Ancient Greek courage simply was the virtue of manliness (andreia), and the Victorians used to name their daughters Patience.) Some of our images of courage may even positively conflict with some of our images of patience, with the courageous person insisting upon action while the patient person implores him to wait.

In his wonderful paper, "Patience and Courage" (Philosophy 68(266), 1993), Eamonn Callan begins with a sort of thought experiment intended to capture our intuitive--though he thinks mistaken--sense of the relative significance of patience and courage:
Suppose your friends had to ascribe a single vice to you in large measure, along with any virtues that could be coherently combined with that salient vice. Suppose further that the vice had to be either cowardice or impatience. Which would you choose? (p. 523)
Callan suspects that "almost everyone would choose impatience without hesitation," because a coward strikes us as an unreliable kind of person, and impatience itself might in some cases be a good thing, e.g. impatience with tyranny and injustice. Callan goes on to argue against this intuitive response, in that it underestimates the need for patience (an idea I have explored in previous posts), and also suggests that a more nuanced thinking about courage and patience shows that these virtues do not essentially conflict. This should not be so surprising if we think, as Aquinas does, of patience as a part of fortitude, and recognize fortitude itself as the core of courage (or, as synonymous with courage). Of course, when we speak of fortitude, we speak of endurance, and talk of courage (or bravery) may seem instead to call to mind the "courage of the charge." But charging, as Tim O'Brien notes in his memoir on Vietnam, is only a tiny slice of bravery--once one has charged into danger, there is much to be endured.

Or consider this perhaps surprising remark from Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart: "Is patience not precisely that courage which voluntarily accepts unavoidable suffering? The unavoidable is just the thing which will shatter courage" (p. 173). Interestingly (as the translator notes), the Danish for patience taalmod contains the term for courage (mod). (Literally, taalmod is "enduring courage.")

Kierkegaard connects patience to "unavoidable suffering" and thus implies that courage differs in that in courage we choose to put ourselves in the way of danger and adversity for a noble cause. And he discusses how it may seem then that there can be no virtue in enduring adversity that is unavoidable and which, it seems, cannot be chosen. (If it's unavoidable, then there seems to be no real choice.) Here, he imagines the mocking voice of someone who says that this "patience" is merely "making a virtue out of necessity," and Kierkegaard replies, yes, that's exactly it! His point is that merely being saddled with unavoidable suffering or adversity does not imply that we will, as it were, shoulder that adversity in such a way that we remain committed to the Good. We may despair, or become bitter and resentful, angry at the world. Of course, it may be that since Kierkegaard is a theist, he can assume that there is some way in which any suffering thrown at us can possibly be endured well. Non-theists may not have grounds for the same hope. But let me put that, for now, to the side. (I hope to write a chapter about this issue in the future.)

Callan discusses a case that goes to Kierkegaard's point: a man loses his sight, and vacillates between despair and rage, who thinks that the possibility of a good life has vanished. It is not that he fails to learn how to get around in the world in spite of his blindness, but his life is devoid of all hope and joy because of the deep resentment he has about having become blind. He refuses to accept this unavoidable part of his life. Callan says, "The blind man in my story has no patience for the moral task his blindness has set him, and no amount of courage or fortitude can compensate for the absence of that virtue" (p. 526).

Now here, there are interpretive difficulties, since I suggested above that we might see courage and patience as linked by fortitude. Here we might take Callan to be treating fortitude as a kind of thickness of skin, the stoniness we might ascribe to the Stoic sage: he is in despair, but doesn't show it. I have argued in my essay "In Defense of Patience" (newly revised as of yesterday), that perhaps we should question the idea that fortitude and patience can be pulled apart very far, that we should not reduce fortitude to the external appearance. (Otherwise, we can't distinguish genuine fortitude and endurance from mere psychic deadness.) Callan's point--at any rate--is that the possibility of this man's seeing and seeking Good in his life depends upon his coming to accept his blindness. Why call that patience?

Perhaps what I said about love and patience in a previous post provides part of an answer, especially if we can translate some of what I said about learning to love another person into talk of learning to love one's situation. (This is what Chris Cowley's "Learning to Love" is all about, in Philosophical Topics 38(1), 2010.) Here, we come to accept the distance between our new condition and our previous one, and re-commit to living well (and not merely, as Cowley discusses, "making the best of it").

We can call this patience, but at the same time, I think we can see, pace Callan to some extent, that such a process may in any number of cases also involve the kind of strength we describe as courage. People who are seriously injured and require extensive physical rehabilitation are sometimes praised for their courage in their efforts to endure the problems caused by their injuries, and to re-learn what they can, and to learn how to compensate for the abilities they have lost. Why call this courageous? First, there is the great endurance involved. Second, in such circumstances, we may be tempted to despair, to feel sorry for ourselves, and even be afraid to face our condition, afraid of failing, afraid to learn what our new physical limitations are, and afraid to think about living our lives, or returning to our everyday lives, beset with the problems incurred through our injuries.

If we think of courage primarily as the (voluntary) facing of fears and dangers, then courage is involved in facing the fears above, but the need for patience is not very far behind. This isn't peculiar to this example, since many courageous acts are extended in time. Indeed, focusing on courageous acts that happen in an instant may obscure that many of our actions are in fact chains of action, stretches of activity, oriented toward some goal. Within such a stretch of time, the difference between a courageous and a rash action may come down to one's ability to wait and endure the anticipation of setting out into "positive" action. (And so, in many sports, great athletes are praised for their ability to "wait for the game to come to them"--not to take bad swings or shots or to throw bad punches. Consider how Kobe Bryant will sometimes bide his time for three quarters only to dominate the final twelve minutes, or Ali's notorious "rope-a-dope" strategy for fatiguing his opponents. [Not that we should exactly recommend Ali's strategy to young boxers, for unfortunately obvious reasons of long-term health.])

So, courage and patience turn out not to be foes, or to show that there is disharmony amongst the virtues. And again, we see how in its quiet, unassuming way, patience reveals itself to be something of a "silent partner" as we seek to develop other virtues and strengths.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Wittgenstein in Haiku

The series continues, I guess. (I just feel like posting something and am right in the middle of, or beginning, a few lines of thought. So this will have to do for now...)

Early Wittgenstein

The world is all that
is the case. That's nonsense. But
what else can one say?

Later Wittgenstein

There is no beetle
in your box. Look and see. I
still think you've got soul.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Patience and Love

Here is another excerpt, taken from the end of a reflection on the relation between patience and love, which began with some reflections upon the meaning of the well-worn line that "love is patient." Hopefully, it's clear enough that this discussion isn't primarily about, as it were, "feelings" (or that way of talking about love, though the development of this sort of love may indeed lead to a change in one's feelings toward another person). I don't know to what extent this manages to avoid lapses into wishful thinking or sentimentality...so comments welcome. UPDATE: it may help to look at the second of the comments to this post, in which I supply some further (rough) paragraphs that immediately precede the line of thought here in the post.

...To grow in patience for this colleague [who we deeply dislike, but will have to work with closely for a long time] might be understood as the movement away from the attitude that I am “stuck” with this person toward the attitude that I am here with this person and must share a significant part of my life with him (or her). When we are stuck with another person—when that is our primary orientation to the relationship—there will always be, at least in the back of our minds, the question of getting out, and so our attention, and thus our patience, will remain divided—or as above, conditional. Sartre’s, “Hell is other people,” captures the spirit of this attitude although he wants to stress, of course, that ultimately there is “No exit.” We are stuck. But it is one thing to remind us that we are social beings—that our lives are lives with others—and quite another thing to frame that point in terms of our being stuck, because that image practically begs for the interpretation that, since the ideal would be to get unstuck but we cannot do that, we can only “make the best of it.” Perhaps this is, in large part, due to Sartre’s view that love is an “impossible project” which contains “the seed of its own destruction,” because it desires both to possess and to know the other (the beloved), which are contradictory aims (because the first involves objectifying the other, while the second requires regarding the other as a subject who is independent of my will).

One way of avoiding (or escaping) Sartre’s hell is to envision love, as Weil suggests, as unpossessive, unimposing: “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.”[1] Love, thus conceived, is not an attempt to possess the other, or to impose one’s will upon the other. Caring with love for another is not a matter of imposing one’s will; rather, it is the enactment of patient attention toward the other. Through the eyes of loving patience, we see our relationships with others who enter, by choice or chance, into our lives as part of the fabric of our own lives. To be at home with ourselves thus requires us to find a way to be at home with the others who are part of our lives. This is not to deny that we may begin with the thought that we are “stuck” with the other person—whether this is because we find ourselves the lone survivors of a shipwreck, stranded on a desert island, or because we have started a family together, and cannot take as a serious option the possibility of divorcing or otherwise leaving the other person.[2] In such cases, patience may begin as patience with the situation, as “making the best of it” (viz. enduring the other person), but if the best outcome is the one in which we come to find ourselves fully at home with the other person, then it seems we can only attain the best outcome if we can learn to love the other person. That is, if we think that we are “making the best of it” while refusing any attempt to learn (patiently) to love the other person, then there is a sense in which we are not truly making the best of it.

Learning to love the other thus presents itself as the ideal toward which we can (and perhaps ought to) strive, in our relationships with others. Progress toward this ideal is made by way of patience—not merely as endurance and fortitude, tolerance of the other’s disagreeable traits, but as attention to who this person is, and what has made this person that way. Such loving attention is prior to, and makes possible, effective loving action, since effective action requires knowledge of the other. An obvious obstacle to such attention is egoism, self-absorption, which seeks to impose its own will on the other, its own vision of how or what the other person should be. Genuine attention to the actual other militates against this imposition of oneself, and enables one to recognize, and accept, that since the other person is a separate reality, there is no guarantee that one’s own efforts at loving attention and care will bring about positive changes in the one we love. The ideal of “unconditional love” does not even depend upon the expectation of such changes, and we have not only the examples of parents who lovingly care for their afflicted children and grown children who lovingly care for their declining parents (afflicted with diseases such as Alzheimer’s), but also the examples of saintly people, like the nun Raimond Gaita describes in A Common Humanity, who visited and treated with a pure and non-condescending love the most afflicted and abandoned patients at the psychiatric hospital he worked at as a teen. Such examples, and others, show that love is capable of spanning what otherwise seems like vast and unbridgeable distances and that, as Gaita stresses, love can illuminate the humanity of an individual in ways that philosophical concepts and theories cannot. That was the effect of the nun’s loving attention to the patients upon him. For similar reasons, Iris Murdoch suggests that the basic reason why love—and the patient attention that characterizes it—is a virtue is because love has the power to attune us to reality, to disclose truth to us.[3] In impatience, we fall short of perfect love, or simply refuse to love, and in doing so, we turn away from the reality of others (and of whatever else in the world can be loved) and retreat into ourselves and the imaginary world of our own wishes or fantasies or consolations...

[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 2002 [1952]), p. 65.
[2] Cf. Christopher Cowley, "Learning to Love," Philosophical Topics 38.1 (2010). [Cowley discusses not learning to love another person, but rather learning to love a situation of permanent adversity.]
[3] See Murdoch's The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 2001 [1971]).

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Philosophy: Traditional and Experimental Readings

I just received notice of a new intro to philosophy reader from OUP, Philosophy: Traditional and Experimental Readings, edited by Fritz Allhoff, Ron Mallon, and Shaun Nichols. The table of contents looks quite interesting, and I may be looking for a new book in the near future. (I'm very peeved about the new edition of Kessler's Voices of Wisdom--very few changes except for the addition of completely pointless color inserts that do nothing but drive up the cost.) The book I currently use is much more "multicultural" and I make some use of that aspect (and it also has very good introductions). But I like OUP products because they're generally good (enough) and the price is usually more right than with other publishers.

The way the book is organized is kind of (not incredibly) funky--which might be good--although one could always complain about what is left out. (And that, no doubt, is dictated in this case by what philosophical topics have received attention and been written about by x-phi folks.)

"Experimental Readings" might be fun. Even though I'm not myself an armchair-burner. Might be an interesting and different way to challenge students to think beyond their initial responses and "intuitions." But I wonder whether such a book might be, as it were, "too fashionable"--too wedded to a still relatively recent hot trend. And whether adopting a book like this already does too much in the way of communicating the idea (which I don't tend to agree with) that philosophy is a "science." ("Experimental" being in the title might be a problem here...but then again, this could be a good way to start various conversations about philosophical method...)

Well, I requested an examination copy, and perhaps I'll follow up on this once I've had a closer look.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Justice and Patience

[This is an excerpt of a work in progress, in which I am attempting to illustrate the claim that patience supports the development of other virtues. As the post title suggests, here I am looking at justice, as a character trait. I'm not entirely happy with this, which is in part why I'm posting it here for comment.]

As Seneca suggests, anger poses a difficulty if we aspire to be fair in our judgments and treatment of others because anger tends to fixate intensely upon a harm (or a perceived harm) and to lash out in response. We might say that lashing out is anger’s idea of justice: you hurt me, so I hurt you. Yet when we are not angry, we easily see that this kind of reactionary “reasoning” (if it can be called that) is misguided. Although it has been so often repeated that it now seems cliché, we know that there is a great deal of truth in Gandhi’s remark that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But precisely because that remark tends toward cliché, it is easy to nod in passing agreement without pausing to appreciate the significance of its implications. For it means that we have to rethink, and essentially reject, the logic of anger, which presumes that an injury or harm can be canceled out by responding to it in kind.

Responding to the injustices of others with patience rather than anger […] is certainly not to “do nothing.” Indeed, the failure to respond to injustice can itself constitute a further injustice, and there is nothing patient about those who “tolerate” injustice because they lack the motivation to address it. Thus, as we seek to reflect upon the relationship between patience and justice, we must bear in mind that apathy and despair—as well as attachment to the goods we may enjoy as a result of injustices in the society as a whole—can also pose obstacles to just action and a just character.

The challenge of justice is rooted in the problem of power. That is, it is in the power we can exercise over others that we find the possibility of treating them with either justice or injustice. It might be said, then, that we commit injustice when we abuse our power, and are complicit in injustice when we fail to exercise our power to respond to those abuses committed by others. But some might go further and suggest that we become unjust when we fail to offer assistance to those who are suffering, even when that suffering is the result of natural causes rather than human wrongdoing—that it is not merely wrong, or unkind, but unjust to stand idly by when we could provide great relief to others. This further thought might be vindicated by suggesting that we owe others basic moral consideration, simply in virtue of our sharing a world with them, and that ignoring the suffering of others is an instance of the fundamental injustice of not honestly acknowledging them as members of the moral community.

Through news and other forms of media, we can learn of many problems, many injustices, about which we can realistically do little or nothing, as individuals. At the same time, we may feel complicit in governmental policies and chains of production and distribution (of goods, like food and clothing, which we need) which trouble us morally if we look at the details closely. Indeed, we may worry about complicity precisely because we suspect ourselves—those of us living in privileged nations—to be one of the few. These observations and concerns can become a source of weariness, and thus a problem to which I will return below.

If we are called to settle a dispute—between children, or friends, or colleagues—then justice requires a fair hearing. We must attend to both sides, weigh details and claims, and offer not only judgment but justification. Often, the parties to the dispute will themselves be angry and impatient, which we ourselves will have to endure. If we are infected by their anger, we may well lose the ability to judge impartially. In patience, we are able to keep our attention properly focused; good judgment requires wisdom, but it also can take time. Justice cannot always be swift. In many cases, “swift justice” may not be justice at all, but only the violent outbursts of anger or other forms of impatience.

Importantly, failures of patience that take the form of despair may also undermine our capacity to act justly. The weariness I mentioned above can manifest itself in the despairing attitude of those who, overwhelmed by injustice surveyed at large, withdraw into their own lives and narrowly defined worlds, choosing to live their own lives without paying as little attention as possible to the world beyond. Of course, we all do this to some extent, because there is only so much attention we can pay and only so much that we can do. And we do indeed have our own lives to live. Thoreau writes, in “Civil Disobedience”:

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

In this respect, Thoreau leaves it open that we may, without being unjust, withdraw from the busy world in pursuit of our own Walden Pond. But the risk of withdrawing is that we may be doing so in bad faith, that we withdraw from the world, convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do, as a rationalization for enjoying the conveniences and comforts of our own lives and labors, and for not getting involved in larger affairs.

The withdrawal I have in mind here is not so much a physical withdrawal—say, of the hermit who goes off to live far away from others—but rather a mental withdrawal, in which a person focuses only upon his or her own circumscribed life, a turning inward that is merely self-absorbed rather than contemplative, and thus obscures the possibility of mindful attention to others, of taking notice of others—a withdrawal that has excused itself from taking notice of others. This kind of orientation could not possibly be conducive to a just character.

Thoreau’s conditions for justly devoting our attention “to other pursuits and contemplations” call for a kind of patience. It is the patience required to examine our own lives, to determine whether we are giving “practical support” to unjust practices, through the goods we purchase or the leaders we support, and so forth. Since most of us do not choose to withdraw from society, to live in the woods or the deserts, this means roughly having the patience to make ourselves reasonably informed citizens. (Here, we might take “reasonably” to imply that we don’t try to “inform” ourselves to the point of self-defeating psychological and moral exhaustion.) Thus, the examination of our own lives and habits ultimately requires the patience to attend to the world of which we are a part, to resist the temptation to withdraw mentally. All of this takes time and attention which is easily spent, and often wasted, on other things: media and technology, for example, enable us to connect, but they can also promote immense disconnection, distraction, and self-absorption.

We often think of patience as involving the endurance of something irritating and unpleasant, but here we might recall the remark of the Sufi mystic Sahl al-Tutsarī that, “Patience in well-being is more difficult than patience in tribulation.” When life is good, patience as constancy and mindfulness is crucial if we seek to maintain a commitment to justice, to maintain a just character. This is because we can become spoiled by our own good fortune, and in our enjoyment, fail to give thought to those who deserve our moral attention. This is not the place to theorize about what, in terms specific acts, we owe to those others, but if we lack—or lose—that disposition for patient attention to the world beyond our own immediate lives, then it appears that we lack a necessary component of a just life and character.