March’s Letter from South America

Dear Bob,

 I don’t know if I’ve told you that when I think of happiness I often think of you. You’re a true professor, a role model for many, an intellectual, an author, a man with a wonderful family, so successful, so admired. And I say and think these things, like Bob must be happysomeone must be happy, or I want to be happy or someone is not happy. It is a fact that everyone wants to be happy (or at least it is a fact that people say that). What do we mean? We look at so many things that are supposed to make us happy: tenure, money, beauty, or skillfulness. My mother used to say that a peasant must be happy: the countryside is so beautiful, so peaceful and so natural. But country life is hard work for little reward; especially in the developing world. And if you belong to a pampered circle you surely find a lot of satisfaction, basic needs fully satisfied and so many perks, but no happiness is guaranteed of course.

 The point here, the thing that I am thinking about, is not the profound question of what happiness is, although perhaps it is unavoidable. My question is how can I be happy? This doesn’t imply that I don’t feel like I am happy at times. You know, every time I go into my classroom and I engage my students in some fun topic I truly feel alive and useful and formidable. And whenever I sit to write to you I truly feel gooood (please don’t correct it. I mean it!). The thing is, is it possible to achieve this ideal: be happy? Not to have moments of glory, or moments of pleasure, or moments of success, but to reach some state of mind, impervious to tragedy, loss, failure, to your own tendency to regret or anything that seems opposed to happiness.

 The definition of being happy eludes me. But I somehow feel that the definition escapes language and I just know what that is. Perhaps I am bullshitting myself here. Maybe I believe it on faith! Who invented this term “happy” anyway! Did she refer just to moments of glory, moments of pleasure or moments of accomplishment? So is there only the temporary mood of feeling happy? Estoy feliz, as opposed to Soy feliz, the first one indicating a mood, the second one an inner characteristic.

 I want to tell you about a practice I have: if I feel lazy or tired or slow at times when I am not supposed to feel that way, first, I have something sweet to eat, and second, I make an inventory of the positive in my life which requires an inventory of the negative that is not part of my life; something like: I don’t have any debts, I don’t have ailments, etc. It works and I feel good. But of course I want more than that. Anyway, Bob, I meant what I said at the beginning of this letter. Being as intellectually active as you are must be happiness, just like Aristotle’s happiness: a philosopher always exercising his reason.


Until next time,


More on happiness: here and here.

Exercise your brain!

Several Thought Experiments



William James’ squirrel:


SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? [Stop for discussion] In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”

“What is pragmatism?” 1904 lecture [1]

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The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche
The Quest for Identity, 1844-1869The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche by Daniel Blue
By Daniel Blue
Review by Bob Lane on Tue, Sep 20th 2016.
Please imagine this conversation between Plato and Nietzsche. Plato has just finished reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. He paces the room. Herr Nietzsche is sitting ceremoniously on the brown couch, stroking his mustache. Plato closes the book and smirks… — A free spirit is… Plato says. — No Plato. Nietzsche interrupts. They are not like those philosophers in the cave. Free spirits do not believe in all that otherworldly Scheiße. — For Zeus sake Herr Nietzsche. Relax now. A free spirit is… at the top of the hierarchy. . . .
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S’s Sermon: NOT by chalk and talk

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Philosophical Society of England has advocated both the use of philosophical material, and perhaps more importantly, philosophical methods in schools, a prominent strand in its history since the 1930s. We reprint from the archives Bernard Youngman’s 1952 assessment of the task of a philosophical education, a task he bases on Bible study and describes as part of leading the young untutored mind towards love of wisdom and knowledge. The teacher, he warns, “must value freedom of thought and revere independence of mind; he must at all times be as Plato so succinctly put it – midwife to his pupils’ thoughts.”

How Mr Youngman combined this duty with his other one, also hinted at, of bringing the young to the realisation that Christianity is the ‘highest’ form of philosophy is part of the challenge. And there are other responsibilities too, of course. 

In Ecclesiastes  there is bitterness and cynicism enough to challenge any adolescent; there is clearly an attitude of sheer materialism, and the writer is devastatingly frank in his statements God, he says, is far away, and not interested in the world or the people in it; He allows evil to flourish all is vanity! Man is just the victim of chance and time. But, he adds, have a good time while the going is good. Here is an almost modern pessimism, and a small dose of this philosophy is probably quite sufficient for the average adolescent.  (Most ‘Agreed Syllabuses’ recommend chapters xi and xii as being enough.)

But the great thing to remember, he concludes, “is that the work must be theirs – by search, preparation, explanation, drama, brains trust, question and answer, project, exploration, study – NOT the teacher’s, by chalk and talk!”  – Source


Losing One’s Cherry: Reactions to Rorty’s Contingency, irony, and solidarity

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About two hundred and fifty years ago a young lad in Virginia chopped down his father’s English cherry tree. The important point about the story evidently is that the boy was instantly honest about what he had done. So presumably we are not supposed to enquire too keenly into his motives. Still, for all one’s admiration for young George Washington’s apparent candour, one does wonder. Richard Rorty, a more recent resident of Virginia, presents a similar problem. For many years now, from within the ranks of the academic establishment, he has been hacking away tirelessly at our Anglo-American philosophical traditions, urging us to clear away the old epistemological undergrowth, so that we can focus on stirring new postmodern vistas. In the process he has become the leading North American spokesman for a revolution in modern philosophy, a rejection of all searches for foundations, an enterprise which would see an end to traditional concerns and instead a concentration upon philosophy as one of the participants in a continuing cultural conversation, therapeutic rather than edifying.

SS: science and philosophy

The Nature of Philosophical Problems: Their Causes and Implications

John Kekes, The Nature of Philosophical Problems: Their Causes and Implications, Oxford University Press, 2014, 238pp., $55.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780198712756.

Reviewed by Robert Almeder, Georgia State University

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)










The author’s Introduction begins with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

What is the use of studying philosophy if all it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life. (vii)

Kekes then states that his aim is to explain why basic philosophical problems are perennial, why they are exceptionally difficult, and “why many centuries of hard work by excellent minds has not resulted in a generally acceptable solution of any of them” (vii). He believes that many excellent books and articles trading in ingenious counterexamples are, and have been, written with increasingly technical skill showing why contrary views cannot handle ever more ingenious counterexamples. But, he asserts, that their connection with the basic problems that prompted the highly skillful work “gets lost in the accumulation of increasingly complex detail whose significance only a handful of specialists working on that small segment of the basic problem can understand” (vii).

Kekes seeks further to explain why philosophical problems are, and will forever remain, perennial (i.e., without generally accepted solutions), and to say a little about how we might nevertheless cope with them reasonably in an effort to make our lives better and happier. He affirms also that in the modern world philosophy has changed; it has become an academic specialty. Research in it is a skill, with the sad consequence that philosophy has become increasingly remote from everyday life. Seldom, if ever, does philosophy seem to bear any relevance to basic problems about how to live in our complex and dangerous world.

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