A Bad Philosophy Teacher

I once had a philosophy teacher who I’m coming to think was not very good.  He was very brilliant but he taught poorly and the way in which his teaching (both in person and in his written books) was poor reflected I believe a defect of character.  He was a brilliant man and on any particular topic had a lot of dazzling, provocative, unexpected and beautiful things to say but he never connected them in a way that made it easy to follow.  The experience of taking a class from him was you would enter a door marked — let us say “Nietzsche” — and then enter the intellectual equivalent of a carnival dark ride.   Lights would flash, music would play, you would be propelled past fascinating scenes and then deposited outside.  You would think “That was intense!  I guess I learned something about Nietzsche…I just can’t quite say what.”  When he taught he put on an amazing performance.  He revealed a striking degree of vulnerabiity about his own personal, emotional travails, and left you feeling you had encountered not just a professor but a tormented fellow human being.  The net effect was that his students became fascinated with him and did not learn how to be philosophers themselves.  Sometimes you could catch something but it was a risky endeavor, like trying to grab a fire-cracker and start a cookout with it.

I had another teacher who as I have grown older I have come to appreciate more.  This teacher was humble and always seemed ready to reconsider everything he had ever thought.  He was like a good electrician who leaves the jobsite every day in good shape. If the jobsite is in good shape when the electrician dies another electrician is faced not with spaghetti but with a clear system of wires — this one turns on the ceiling fan, this one turns on the overhead lights.   The good teacher leaves a tidy intellectual workspace in which all the tools are well-placed, in good working order and easy to use.  The good teacher teaches his students not to need him.


fiction, philosophy, Uncategorized

Four People Who Don’t Know How to or Have Difficulty Talking

My own difficulty talking is stuttering.  What it is, is an arhythmia.  Why is arhythmia a problem?  Rhythm synchs us up with our listener.  We both enter into a pulsation that carries us both out of ourselves, and out of the present.  BUM bum bum bum BUM bum bum bum BUM bum bum bum BUM bum–even if I died while writing that, if I were capable of rhythm — i.e. facile at it — not a stutterer — you would know what would come next, after my death — bum bum.

My friend Avis is so nice she is nothing but engaging, appealing rhythms which she assimilated unconsciously in childhood.  When I hear her talk I can always tell who actually said what she said, and she appears something like a human being muted by an enormous puppet costume, unable to express herself in language at all, though from deep within her suit I can hear the animal expressions of emotion — sadness, anger and ecstasy.

David was so traumatized that all he hears when he talks is the scolding voices of his parents threatening to destroy him.  He can’t get a word out, he is so choked with terror so instead he produces sentence after sentence which conceal him from his own fear, or I should say attempt to, like someone with chattering teeth saying that he is quite, quite fine.  If he could ever stop being afraid of what he was about to say he would find what he was saying was different than what he thought or feared or imagined he was saying.  Much simpler, more beautiful, as clear as a bell.

My friend Richie is deeply, deeply silent, like a thousand-year old stone on a forest floor.  What does he have to say?  What do we want him to say?  Does he know?  Do we know?  If he could ever gather himself together and give speech to himself I am sure it would strike me with the force of a command that I had been waiting for my whole life, like a sentinel on duty who finally received his orders.   Sometimes I look him in the eyes wondering if that moment will come and if it comes if the order will be “STAY AT YOUR POST!” or “MARCH!” or something I can’t imagine yet because it has yet to be communicated to me, or perhaps a message for someone else entirely.

The four of us together miscommunicate in exactly twelve different unsuccessful ways.

Me talking to Avis

Me talking to David

Me talking to Richie.

Richie talking to Avis, Richie talking to me, Richie talking to David.

David talking to Avis, David, talking to me, David talking to Richard.

Richard, me, David, Avis each talking to ourself

Each way of communicating a failure in its own entirely distinct, unique, wonderful way.

Those 12 ways together are like a single word that hovers on the tip of God’s tongue, frustratingly close to expression, tantalizing and yet far.


Universal Machitunimification

How much of my identity is up to me?  Some of it — I can decide to be a Jehovah’s witness, or a democrat, or a vegetarian, or a fan of Styx.  Unlike in the past when many of these affiliations were handed to me by the circumstances of my birth, now many aspects of my identity are up to me.  I am self-defining.

But not entirely so.  Some aspects of my identity are decided by other people.  Consider my identity as Uncle Eric.  When my brother Flippy had his first child he turned me into an uncle.  I did not get a say in the matter.

My children are not married, but if they do I will acquire another identity, one which has a name in Yiddish but not in English. This is the identity of machituneh.

Definition: A is a machituneh of B iff A has a child married to a child of B.

This identity is also not up to me.  My children can make me a machituneh of somebody else whatever I say, just as my brother can make me an uncle, like it or not.

I can decide to be a vegetarian but I cannot decide whether or not to have the identity of machituneh to a meat-eater.   I can identify as Episcopalian but I cannot decide whether or not to be machituneh to a Jew.

I foresee and look forward to an era of universal machitunimification.  We can argue about whether or not we are literally brothers or siblings, but once everyone has descendants married to everybody else’s descendants we will be a single human family.

Some day maybe humans and intelligent bears will produce bear-man offspring and humans and bears will be machitunim.  I suppose that the incorporation of the first mitochondrion and chloroplast by the first eukaryotic cell made eukaryotes and prokaryotes into machitunim.

But that happened a long time ago– people forget to invite prokaryotes to Thanksgiving.



No Stupid Questions

My father used to say that the most important thing in your life was to formulate what question you wanted to answer, but he was a bad father.

How about “Who am I?”. “Terrible.” “Why?” “Hopelessly vague. How are you going to know when you answered it?”

“What is the meaning of my life?” “Pretentious.”

“What’s it all about?” “Childish!”

“How can I be happy?” “Who says you can?”

“Fuck you!?” “Now you’re just being sassy.”

“What do you want from me?” “What do you want from you?”

“What do I want from me? “ “Now you’re just copying.”

“What about now?” “Now you’re showing off.”

“What is my question? What is a question? What do I need to know?” “Save your self-referential paradoxes for the bullshitters at the tea party, college boy.”

He died and obviously never answered any of the questions about questions, and for a while, don’t you know, I was so relieved not to have his weight on my life. And then I missed him and then I forgot him. I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of asking who was he really, I mean obviously I’d like to know, but it’s not my question. I thought that when he died.

But now I think I think I know the answer. Who he was was the one to flip the oppression his own father had laid on his life by demanding answers by not doing the same injustice, laying the same burden upon me his son. As if making another person and giving him a life of his own could be done so easily and simply as changing a single mark?


Kierkegaard on the Difference Between the Simple-Minded Man and the Simple-Minded Wise Man

Kierkegaard writes:

Christianity is the very opposite of speculation … it is the miraculous, the absurd, calling on the individual to exist in it and not waste time on speculatively understanding it. If there is to be speculation under this presupposition, its task will sooner be that of grasping ever more profoundly the impossibility of understanding Christianity speculatively, something described above as the task for the simple-minded wise man.

(2009-05-28). Kierkegaard: Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (pp. 317-318). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

What does this mean?   What is the difference between the simple-minded person and the simple-minded wise person?  Why is it important to grasp the impossibility ever more profoundly?   If it’s impossible it’s impossible — what good is it to grasp it ever more profoundly?  What would that even mean?

Imagine that Ambrose has hurt Bernard — betrayed him, actually — and the once close and loving friendship between Ambrose and Bernard has been ruptured.  Ambrose asks Bernard to forgive him.

If Bernard is a simple-minded man and has love in his heart he will say “I forgive you, Ambrose!”  And that’s good.

If Bernard is a sophisticated thinker, but not simple-minded, he will ask for arguments that Ambrose will never hurt him again.  There are no such arguments, because who can know that a person will never hurt him again?   So the miraculous, absurd possibility that calls upon Bernard to love his friend again will be unheard.  Bernard will avoid the chance of ever getting his friend back if he wastes his time looking for proofs that he will never be hurt again.

The simple-minded wise Bernard will understand that there can be no proof that he will not be hurt again and forgive Ambrose anyway.  He will open himself up to pain recognizing that it is real pain, and thereby heed the call to the miraculous rebirth of their friendship.

Why does Bernard the simple-minded wise man need to grasp the impossibility of proof more and more profoundly?  Presumably because the more they talk the more Bernard will be tempted to think “I get this forgiving so well I’m really an expert at it.  I understand why Ambrose deserves to be forgiven.  I already can feel the old trustworthy Ambrose is back again.”  And all these things Bernard is tempted to think, all these stories he tells himself, are wrong.  If Bernard forgives Ambrose he can still be hurt again, but if he allows the miracle to call on him and opens his heart, he can forgive him even though that is the case.

It’s tempting to Bernard to think that he is a master of forgiveness, to imagine that he has cracked the forgiveness code.  To realize that he is not — that there is no code to crack–  and to keep realizing it but to forgive anyway  — that is the task of the simple-minded wise man.


Harsh Internet Communication and Trolls: The Good and the Bad


The bad of internet communication is that it can be irresponsible, cruel, and frivolous.

It is irresponsible because the commenter runs no risk.  He or she does not undertake to fix a problem.  He can say “Mrs. Doubtfire sucks” without having the responsibility of making a movie better than it and having it come in on budget, to give an easy example.

It is cruel because the commenter is able to give vent to his sadistic impulses and envy.  He can salve his wounded self-love by causing pain.

It is frivolous because the poster or commenter or troll can assume identities and facts at will.

Needless to say these three qualities enforce each other.  Because the poster runs no risk he need not fear punishment if he fails to be kind.  Because the identity is shifting and anonymous it can be irresponsible.  Because the poster lacks a sense of personal power he is touchy and easily wounded and often cruel.

Each of these is the bad form of a good trait.

A person who is irresponsible is also footloose and fancy-free.  He or she is able to be honest without having to worry about the real life ramifications of his or her honesty.

The cruel person is able to be open about dark, sadistic impulses.  If he or she thinks Mrs. Doubtfire is garbage he or she can provide honest feedback and need not pussyfoot around.

The frivolous poster is able to be playful and explore different possibilities.

If you receive feedback on the internet that is cruel, frivolous, and irresponsible try to see the good side of these qualities — you are receiving a response that is unconstrained, honest, and playful.

If you are expressing yourself on the internet and find yourself cruel, irresponsible, and frivolous try to experiment with talking as if your words matter, that you could actually create a change in the world or in another person, and that you want to treat that person as you would wish to be treated.


Hume on Superstition and Enthusiasm

Hume believed there were two psychological mechanisms that led to religious feeling, which he called superstition and enthusiasm.  Superstition is fear of the unknown, which leads to trust in priests and rituals to keep supernatural forces from harming one.  Enthusiasm is a positive belief about the unknown, such as that God or gods are talking to me, or I am their special favorite.

Enthusiasm is dangerous in the short term — think Manson, or the Taiping rebels — but ultimately burns itself out.  Superstition creeps in subtly and does long term damage as priests either deliberately or by gradual imperceptible evolution achieve positions of political power by exploiting superstition, promising the superstitious to allay their fears if they are obeyed.

Enthusiasm is love for what we do not understand and superstition is fear of what we do not understand.  Writing in the eighteenth century Hume is especially concerned to limit the power of religious emotions to provoke cruelty, bolster oppressive regimes, and give rise to inquisitions.  Yet while superstition seems unequivocally bad — a sort of learned helplessness that causes us to mistrust our ability to think our way through our own problems and to rely upon the unscrupulous or ignorant to allay our anxiety — enthusiasm can be good.  The challenge is to figure out how to harness enthusiasm so it doesn’t burn us with an auto da fe or holy war, but doesn’t go out either.


Relativistic Ethics is Not So Relative

Let’s say ethics is a set of mappings from possible actions to one of three values: permitted, forbidden, and optional.

An ethics is absolute if it holds that this function is invariant across times, places, and cultures.

An ethics is relative if it claims that these functions are in turn a function of time, place, and culture.

So an absolutist would claim either “Killing a spouse taken in adultery” is forbidden, whatever the society, or it is always permitted.

However the relativist could argue “In societies where revenge and blood feuds are a recent memory killing a spouse taken in adultery is permitted.  However in societies where revenge and blood feuds are under control killing a spouse taken in adultery is forbidden.”

However those functions are not in turn relative.  The relativist believes the rule that carries us from society to moral rule is itself absolute.