Thoughts on Time, Grief, and the Self

I would like to begin by considering two radically different pictures. First, consider the original notion of an atom: a kind of indestructible, unchanging, simple. That is, because it had no smaller parts, i.e., it was simple, and it was further then taken to be indestructible and unchangeable, since to be destroyed or changed, it would require smaller parts that could be taken away or replaced. Now imagine such an atom moving through the world, interacting with various things, but not being affected or changed by those interactions. Throughout all of its interactions and relationships with other things, it remains exactly what it is, this singular, unchanging atom. It hangs out with other atoms for various times, but then moves on, unchanged by the interactions.

Alternatively, consider another picture. Consider a seed that falls from a tree, catches the wind, and lands a ways away on the ground. With the air, light, and moisture it comes into contact with, it begins to change, sending down a tiny shoot that will form a root and opening up to the sky, to the embrace of light. Over time it interacts with, enters into deep relations with, the earth, the air, the sun, water, and even other organisms, such as fungi that form a symbiotic relationship with its root system—and we should not forget gravity, space, and time, all necessary to its existence. One summer there is a drought, and the young tree nearly dies. Ten years later it is still stunted from that summer and near death. But the soil is rich and the sun and water plentiful, and so it grows after many years to a great height. At one point though lightning strikes it, causing a split down its trunk. This doesn’t kill it but it forever alters the life of the tree.

What is the primary difference between these pictures? From my perspective it is that the atom’s nature, what it is, how it is, is intrinsic to it. That is, aside from its origin (if it has one), it is causally unconditioned by the world. The world does not leave its mark on its features, for it has no features, being a simple atom. The tree on the other hand, is what it is in complete dependence on the rest of the world. The kind of tree it is of course depends on its parent, but leaving aside its origin, we see that every aspect of the tree, its height, its girth, how healthy it is, the extent of its roots, the strength of the wood, etc., are all dependent, all conditioned, by the environment over time. If the tree had grown up and lived in an altogether different environment, even as the same seed, it would be a very different tree. Over time, the way it grew, the way its “being” enlarged would have been quite different. This is not at all the case with the atom.

And, so, let us now turn to a consideration of the self. While I think that the idea or concept of “self” is non-univocal, i.e., has multiple senses, I do think we can speak generally and usefully of the self. And here by “self,” I “simply” mean that which one takes oneself to be. For example: I am so-and-so, who was born here, loves this person, reads books, doesn’t watch sports, grew up here, and wants to one day live there—it is that self that is of concern when one contemplates one’s mortality. I take it that that is sufficiently clear for us to work with, even though there are a ridiculous number of complications that we could consider. Continue reading

In Defense of “I feel…”—Philosophy is Not Merely, “I believe…”

How do you feel? –What did I just ask you? “Feel” is like many/most words, i.e., we usually use it without thinking and its meanings are many and varied. I might ask you how you feel in regard to your physical health—the answer, “I feel good; the pain in my ankle has gone away.” I might ask how you feel in regard to life/mental health—the answer, “I feel kind of down these days; I can’t quite place it.” I might ask how you feel when facing a particular challenge—the answer, “I feel a little intimidated, but I believe I can do it.” Or I might ask how you feel about a particular idea—the answer, “I feel like that’s a good idea; I think we should do it.”

I want to focus on the last example of feeling. I remember being at the University of Georgia, working on my BA in philosophy, when I heard for the first time someone say something to the effect: “Don’t say ‘I feel…’ but rather ‘I think’ or ‘I believe.’” The context was a discussion of writing philosophy papers. So, instead of saying something like, “I feel Descartesdualism is problematic,” one should say, “I think/believe Descartes’ dualism is problematic.”

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Cutting Through Bullshit—The (Possible) Advantages of Chronic Illness and Disability

Some years ago, I was reading Nietzsche and it occurred to me to make a note in my journal. Something along the lines of needing to regularly come back to Nietzsche, as he provides a wonderful sort of intellectual conscience. Is this a surprising thing to think about Nietzsche? What I have in mind are such passages as, “[Philosophers] all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic…. while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesman for the prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’…” (Beyond Good and Evil. “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” §5). That is powerful stuff and bites to the marrow. And so I am cautious, in my better moments, to try to avoid succumbing to such temptations, which include being tempted to hold true that which makes us feel better. Along these lines, I take it that part of what it means to have truth as a goal inquiry is that the standards for whether or not one’s inquiry is going well are not ultimately relative to one’s subjectivity.

With all this in mind, I’d like to explore some reasons for thinking about the advantages of being disadvantaged, at least in terms of chronic illness and disability (I’m not including the disadvantages of poverty and racism, for example). I will try to avoid belaboring it, but here is my background. Continue reading

Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens me with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty of Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

The Nietzschean Bodhisattva: Part I

One of the tasks that Joan Stambaugh pursues in her chapter on “Creativity and Decadence,” is to explain what it means to say that “Nietzsche sees art as fundamental to life, as the ‘truly metaphysical activity of man’” (The Other Nietzsche, 21). Nietzsche, Stambaugh says, sees art as not, “a sphere of culture, not as a highly specialized, privileged area for the few, but as that activity of man that is most crucial to his life” (ibid.). Stambaugh finds such a claim rather strange, for aren’t other things crucial to life before art? She sees the resolution of the strangeness in her interpretation of Nietzsche on truth. She writes:

For Nietzsche, there is no truth in the traditional sense of that word. The world of the will to power is in constant flux, not the undefined, undetermined flux of Heraclitus, but the flux of shifting centers of power that increase and decrease, but never remain the same. True knowledge of this world is impossible, in fact, it is incommensurate with the very nature of the world. “Knowing” is simply a pragmatic falsification of the world for the purpose of dealing with it more effectively. Therefore, instead of despairing over the fact that there is no static, finished world to be known, the meaningful activity in this world of flux and the will to power becomes art, shaping this world, giving it meaning and values. The previous institutions and endeavors of man are forms of decadence, they distort the world. “Our religion, morality, and philosophy are decadent forms of man. The counter movement: art” (The Will to Power, No. 794). “The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available, they seek ways and means of reaching it. ‘Will to truth’—as the impotence of the will to create” (The Will to Power, No. 585). (22-23)

This denial of truth is very much in line with Nietzsche’s pronouncements about the death of God, which signals the death of the power of the idea of a fixed transcendent world giving meaning to this world. The world is not finished, with its meanings and values already determined. Instead, the world is in a very important sense continually underdetermined as a result of both there being no transcendent, fixed meaning giver, while at the same time that the world we inhabit is in constant flux. So, Nietzsche’s denial of truth is the denial of a kind of Platonic conception of truth/meaning/value. Continue reading

Walt Whitman and Crossing the Boundaries of Consciousness

My dear reader, forgive me for what is most likely a projection. I am loath to admit it but often when poetry begins some prose piece that I am to read, I do little more than skim it. I have never even read through all of the poems that begin Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Please do not gasp too loudly—I know I’m a terrible human being. So, please do not be like me. Please read these selections (and ideally the whole thing sometime) from Walt Whitman‘s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” carefully, tasting the words in your mouth, experiencing the poem in your heart. The effects of poetry are subtle—as Gary Snyder notes to Wendell Berry, “… The place we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values” (Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder)—and I fear that the philosophical points that I want to make are less likely to robustly come across if you do not linger a while with Whitman’s words.

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Facing Profound Suffering: Part I

I recently saw on Facebook something like, “It’s not the opinions you post, but what you do that matters.” While I think I certainly understand the point, I think such a line misses that words and deeds are often the same. Consider, what are you to do if you want to help others but you have limited resources and come into contact with few people in your day-to-day life? Well, one thing to do is to post your opinion, i.e., write something that may prove useful to others. Is this not doing something? Let us hope so.

Speaking as an American, our culture is expert at eliding the ubiquity of pain, suffering, and death. If you ever have occasion to talk to others about their suffering or the suffering of their friends and family, you will soon discover nearly everyone has a story to tell. But we often (usually?) are unaware of this common thread that runs through all of our lives. It Is much like the parable in which a distraught, grieving mother who has recently lost her child goes to the Buddha for solace. He tells her he’ll help her after she goes around to each household in town and collects a mustard seed from those homes that have not suffered a similar loss. She returns to the Buddha empty handed and wiser.

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Does a Robustly Just Society Require Just Citizens?

Yesterday in one of my Introduction to Philosophy classes we were discussing the introduction to Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? It’s an engaging read and great for the classroom, particularly as he adroitly handles a number of real world examples. One of them concerns the issue of price gouging in the context of Florida post hurricane Charlie. After considering several arguments for and against laws against price gouging, which he uses to illustrate the way in which discussions of justice hinge on people’s ideas about the nature and role of welfare, freedom, and virtue, he writes:

So when we probe our reactions to price gouging, we find ourselves pulled in two directions: We are outraged when people get things they don’t deserve; greed that preys on human misery, we think, should be punished, not rewarded. And yet we worry when judgments about virtue find their way into law. (9)

One of the main issues he’s concerned to clarify is the problem of government legislating conceptions of who we ought to be, i.e., virtuous people or not, and what conception of virtue (or not). One problem is that when the government legislates the kind of person we are to be (virtuous and what counts as virtuous), our freedom to make of ourselves what we will is limited. As he goes on to write immediately after the above passage: Continue reading

The Philosophy Classroom: The Ultimate Safe Space

In the past weeks my newsfeed on Facebook has been filled with articles about safe spaces and trigger warnings. My impression from the headlines and comments alone is that most people are understanding these things differently than I and my colleagues do. Very briefly, I understand a trigger warning to be a kind of heads up that the topic to be discussed will go into graphic detail about a topic, e.g., rape, that may “trigger” past trauma. The point being to allow someone who is not yet ready to hear, much less discuss, their experience to bow out—for even if they are not explicitly the subject of the conversation, if the subject concerns their kind of traumatic experience, it is their experience under discussion. I have not had occasion to use trigger warnings in my philosophy classroom simply because I have not discussed topics that deal with trauma. There seems to be some confusion or worry that trigger warning are used to allow students to avoid hearing things that make them “uncomfortable.” However, if some use them that way, that is unfortunate, but I do not have reason to believe it is the norm. There is, of course, a huge chasm between the uncomfortable and the traumatic. I’m guessing that most teachers would catch on that something disingenuous is up if they gave a trigger warning and half the class walked out.

Similarly with safe spaces: there’s a ton of confusion. Unlike with trigger warnings, I have used the phrase, “I consider this classroom to be a safe space.” What I meant and what I said to my students was that that means people can speak up, share their thoughts and experiences—fully be themselves—without worrying about being ridiculed, made fun of, or otherwise made to feel bad for what they have said or who they are. It most definitely does not mean that we won’t be discussing difficult or controversial material or material that will make them uncomfortable. As a philosophy professor, I don’t believe I’m doing my job unless I’m leaving my students confused if not also uncomfortable. Confused because I believe that they cannot deepen their understanding of the world and themselves without first working through confusion. Uncomfortable because my philosophy classroom is not about telling them how things are, but rather challenging them with questions they wouldn’t otherwise be asked to consider. Continue reading

Dying. Suffering. Death.

I have suffered death since 3—
Grandmother’s open casket—
casting a shadow on everything since

I have suffered the death of
insects—some drowned,
some squashed
many on their backs refusing
to go gently

I have suffered the death of
animals, some by my hand—
both accidental and with tear-shuddering
some on the vet’s table
some on the bathroom floor
all struggling, gasping: suffering.

I have suffered the dying of
never death itself, that moment.
The hospital bed.
The nursing home bed.
And again,
the struggle, gasping: suffering.

I have suffered the death of
myself—or at least its
thought and imagination—
countless times in the weight
of the shadow.
But how to die? In my sleep?
So easy and not suffered.
on the table?
on the bathroom floor?
struggling and gasping: suffering?

I want to die
sitting upright
actualizing the wholeness and
depth of the grasses and trees,
the mountains and waters,
the true human body.

I want to die in
solidarity with this world.