A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

First Sentences of Philosophy

In Philosophy, Writing on March 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

If you were a book, your opening sentence would be my first impression of you. It is that type-set handshake, that eye contact, the initial body language of our literary relationship, from which I will decide whether we might become friends. I should warn you, I am exacting when it comes to first impressions.

I have on at least two occasions here surveyed first sentences of literature. (First Sentences, and First Sentences II.) I thought it might be of interest to run the same exercise with some classics of philosophy, to see how the thinker begins the engagement. At first glance, it appears that the philosopher is less cordial–less needy?–than the artist-novelist. That is, I guess, to be expected of a writer less interested in drainage and more interested in hydraulics. So, to make it easy, I pull some books off the shelf, from the Philosophy section:

Despite my comment above, Robert Nozick (1938-2002), provides one of the best opening sentences of any genre, From his

The Unreadable Book?

The Unreadable Book?

Philosophical Explanations:

“I too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even to bring reading to a stop.”

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Philosophy (vol 1.):

“Philosophy means to dare penetrate the inaccessible ground of human self-awareness.”

A favorite thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), from Genealogy of Morals:

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge–and with good reason.”

And, for grins, Nietzsche, again, in a sentence which shows why he was, arguably, the most literary writer of the thinkers, from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

Heidegger begins his magnum opus with a quote from Plato: “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression you use the expression “being”. We however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” Then the first sentence of Being and Time:

“Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’?”

From Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, the opening chapter titled, The Phenomenon, comes this twist:

“Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.”

And here, the doubt-filled precision of Wittgenstein (1889-1951), from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

“Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it–or at least similar thoughts.”

Wittgenstein, as an aside, lays claim to the most wonderful last words. From his death-bed: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Lovely.

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The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

If you’re in the mood for an eminently readable survey of the history of philosophy, I recommend Simon Critchley‘s The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009). It is entertaining, fun (last days of the big thinkers), and when you’re finished, you will have touched all the bases of philosophy.

Sunday Repost: Woof, Woof. Bark.

In Death, Dogs, Faith, Philosophy, Writing on February 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

I was at a book reading a few evenings ago. Two rows in front of me sat a woman and next to her, on its own seat, perched an ivory-colored terrier. The dog was well-behaved and I was enjoying her (his?) presence when it turned and looked at me through the slats of the ladder-back chair. Her eyes were like brilliant black marbles tucked in a fluff of silk. I stared into them, lost, and was suddenly and unexpectedlly overwhelmed with the thought of those eyes locked on her master, then closing forever on the stainless steel veterinarian’s table. I chased the thought away it was so immediately and consumingly dark and troubling. Why such a thought would occur to me is a mystery. I’m not dark that way; but animals have always held an incomprehensible sway over me.

It is possibly apocryphal but reported that upon finding a horse being abused on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself,

Nietzsche, Turin, & the horse.

Nietzsche, Turin, & the horse.

sobbing, around the neck of the beast. The event so overwhelmed the fragile philosopher that he never recovered, never spoke another word, and plummeted into a psychosis from which he did not recover. One can profess a will to power but protecting an animal might be the greatest philosophy.

I’ve had dogs all my life. One dog lost to illness years ago prompted a friend’s comment, “That must be like losing a family member.” No, it was not like losing, it was losing a family member. The most violent mourning I’ve ever experienced was at the loss of my Maggie a year and a half ago. As I write this my little Lucy, a terrier mix, is asleep at the office door, putting

Lucy: ragamuffin.

Lucy: ragamuffin.

herself between me and any intruder who might make the mistake of crossing her without my permission.

Any philosophy I might have must include the beasts.

Hubristic medieval philosophers held that animals had no soul because they had no self-consciousness. Perhaps in that fact alone we hold the  evidence of a superior soul-filled being. This seems provable in that animals will not burn witches at the stake nor slaughter whales.

It is maybe that I want to be more like a dog and less like a human being. I find in them evidence of how to live in a moment so completely as to exist in full vibrancy. Too, I recognize love in a dog more readily and without apprehension than I do in people. Surely, that is a teaching. A dog does not make professions of faith, does not pray, does not sin nor seek redemption. Those are human designs extraneous to an animal intent on spirited life. There is joy at a dog park that is not found in a church. That is where I go to pray.

We are the Tribe.

In Creativity, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on January 30, 2013 at 6:00 am
Diogenes and members of the tribe.

Diogenes and members of the tribe.

We are the tribe of Diogenes. Through the village darkness he leads, lamp held high, peering into the blackness of night. We seek not the one to deliver us from darkness, that is not our quest. Rather, we seek companions to walk with us toward the dawn.

We push through the slumbering village herd. We hear their night talk, their groans, smell the stench of the herd. At dawn they will rise and charge off in search of food and water. They eat as the herd, shit as the herd, procreate as the herd. The herd is monolithic in ignorance. The herd is to be avoided. Danger lurks within. An individual becomes lost amongst them, or worse, witless and crushed by the stampede. The herd will always stampede. Press on.

We collect other pilgrams. You make the camp. You build the fire. You collect water. Together we rest. At nightfall we tell stories, and as some of us slumber, others stand watch. The master’s lamp is never extinguished. The journey never ends.

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According to Plutarch (ca.45 – 120 C.E.), it was in Cornith that the meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes took place. They exchanged only a few words: while Diogenes was relaxing in the sunlight in the morning, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. To which Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”  Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”

"Stand back, Fancy Pants. You're blocking my light."

“Stand back, Fancy Pants. You’re blocking my light.”

Sunday Repost: Foucault

In Life, Philosophy, Thinkers on January 27, 2013 at 6:00 am
Philosopher, Michel Foucault

Philosopher, Michel Foucault

Yesterday I finished James Miller’s overview of French philosopher Michel Foucault, The Passion of Michael Foucault. Miller relates the following story. It is 1975 and Foucault’s career is in full bloom. His reputation is international and he has accepted an invitation to the United States. It is proposed that he visit a Taoist commune at Mount Baldy in Southern California. It is night, there is a fire blazing. The philosopher and his hosts are sitting on the porch of a cabin. From Miller’s book:

One of the young men plaintively remarked that he felt completely lost.

“‘You have to be lost as a young man,’ Wade recalls Foucault replying.

“‘You are not really trying unless you are lost. This is a good sign. I was lost as a young man too.'”

“‘Should I take chances with my life?'” the student asked earnestly.

“‘By all means! Take risks, go out on a limb!’

“‘But I yearn for solutions.’

“‘There are no solutions,’ said the French philosopher firmly.

“Then at least some answers.’

“‘There are no answers!,'” exclaimed Foucault.

Foxhole Stoicism

In Death, Family, Life, Philosophy on January 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Dad (and me in mirror)

Dad (and me in mirror)

My father is ninety years old and has a cold. It is an annual event, his cold. The rest of the year he remains healthy, but for a bit of arthritis and type-two diabetes. My father is stoic, though he could not necessarily tell you what stoicism is. He will tell you, however, that the classroom for this life lesson was a fox hole in the Ardennes Forest in 1943. Why define a concept when your life exemplifies it?

He surprised me yesterday during our visit. “I’m not afraid of death,” he said. “It’s dying that worries me.” My father does not typically talk this way, again the stoicism. But over the recent years he’s said enough to let me know that it is a subject he now entertains. He looked at me keenly.

“It’s been said, dad, that you’re either afraid of death, or your afraid of dying.” I didn’t bother to elaborate on other insights of Julian Barnes. He nodded. “It’s the suffering,” he said, before changing the subject.

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Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

“The act of dying is one of the acts of life,” said the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD). He also preached the comfort of ignorance that is the void of pre-existence, birth, with the existential ignorance that will be the void of post-existence, death. That is, you didn’t fret over your non-existence before you were born, why would you fret over your non-existence after your demise?

I subscribe to this way of thinking and find a modicum of comfort in it. But I’ve recently discovered that there is a third concern in dying, not summarized in Barnes’s observation, nor taken up by the Stoics. (For the record, on death, I am not Woody Allen. Concerns of my eventual extinction do not color my thoughts all day long. But, like my father, as my days advance, so does my thinking on the subject.)

The American philosopher, Mark Johnston, makes this observation (as related in the book I finished reading last night, Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt): “The prospect of one’s own most [sic] death is perplexing and terrifying because it reveals that we are not, as we supposed, the fountainhead of the reality we inhabit, the center of the world..” Truthfully, who can’t help but fall into this trap, the concept of being at the center of the reality we inhabit? We have no other way in which to experience the world. He then delivers the body-blow: “It turns out that I am not the sort of thing I was unconsciously tempted to think I was.” How deeply we have given into that temptation seems, to me, proportional to the degree of terrifying perplexity death elicits.

“Know thyself,” advised the Oracle at Delphi. I attempt to march to this admonition, but stumble over what this self actually might be. Johnston’s observation underscores my inkling that at the root of this conundrum is the concept of the self–a concept that gets in the way and ultimately trips us up. It is not surprising that Holt closes Why Does the World Exist?, with an observation by a Buddhist monk: “The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid-seeming.” It was the Buddha, lest we forget, who observed the self as a false concept.

Thanks for reading,

d

Ray Bradbury, Nietzsche, a New Year, and How to Live. Whew!

In Books, Creativity, Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Literature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 7:22 am

the-lives-they-lived-2012.png

Did you read the Sunday Time’s magazine last Sunday? It is the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue. As you might imagine, for a guy who’s spent a lot of time working on the project How Best To Live, this issue is always and annually most welcome. I don’t think one has to lead a life of pronounced accomplishment to live the best life, but for a lot of people, people far more motivated than I am, accomplishment is often the gauge of their existence.

There is one life in particular I want to share with you. Ray Bradbury (b. 1920). Here is the piece in full:

Shortly before his 90th birthday, when asked which moment of his life he’d return to were time travel possible, Ray Bradbury told his interviewer: “Every. Single. Moment. Every single moment of my life has been incredible. I’ve loved it, I’ve savored it, it’s been beautiful–because I’ve remained a boy” Bradbury was a rare and necessary antidote to the tortured-genius myth–that toxic cultural narrative that requires great creators to suffer lest their work have no depth, no gravitas, no legacy.

Bradbury left high school with plans of going to college, but no money. So he set out to educate himself by going to the library three days a week, a regimen he continued for 10 years, never romanticizing poverty or the so-called writer’s life. Instead, he celebrated the joy of writing itself. In 1951, living in Los Angels with his wife and two infant daughters, he got a bag of dimes and rented a typewriter in the U.C.L.A. basement for 10 cents an hour. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451″ for $9.80.

His secret? “You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past–you just explode.”

Two and half years ago I posted a note about the biography I’d read of Nietzsche by Julian Young. In that post I quoted the opening paragraph. I’m posting it again–the paragraph–because I think it the perfect end piece to the Bradbury life we’re considering.

Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s fee, shout “Da capo!–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!–to “the whole play and performance.” In perfect health one would “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return” of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.

So the process continues, this business of how best to live. Why should a new year be any different?

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What is going on here? A couple of posts since shuttering …the house… Are we back together, the first breakup never lasting? I don’t know quite honestly. I have missed sharing my thoughts and observations, that is true. And something is nagging me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it brought me back here.

I’m not going to analyze it. Going forward (with life, the big picture, that is) I wish to make fewer plans, establish fewer goals, make fewer commitments. In summary, I just want to live as best I am able in this moment. I’ll never be the boy Bradbury claimed to be. Nor can I say with Nietzsche that I would do it all again without editing. But those are lessons and I value them–lessons I wish to better incorporate.

I do hope our paths cross again, you, dear reader, and me. I so enjoy your company.

Happy New Year.