As to what matters

What matters, at this moment, are compassion and communication–and recalling that communication requires listening, especially when we assume we know what the Other will say. [The Other may be black, or white, or a parent, or a politician, or of a different culture, etc.]

http://blacklivesmatter.com/

To people of color in the United States of America, in particular to African-Americans: Ask your questions. Speak up. I understand that some of you are prepared for argument and rhetoric, others for fear, anger, and defensiveness. You are tired, perhaps, of speaking up. Tired of the resulting outcry and pushback and character assassination and judgment and stereotyping. Tired of the pain. I get what you are feeling, even though it isn’t my personal experience, even though my social experience differs from your social experience.

Speak up nonetheless. Many of us finally recognize the need to listen. It matters because once someone signals readiness, true perspective begins. Because connections must occur before listening can occur. Where do we begin?

“Why don’t you listen?” is a good question, though it tends to put the Other on the defensive. If, however, people can hear genuine curiosity behind the interlocutor, there may be a moment of pausing to reflect: “I thought I was listening. Why do you think I am not?” Both parties need to ease the borders a bit (not a popular thing to do, I know).

So often, perspectives vary so widely that each of us carries into the discussion a host of unspoken assumptions based upon the only experience each of us has–our own. No one can ask the child-like, curious questions without being accused of hidden or not-so-hidden agendas.

I am reminded of an old saw one of my high school teachers wrote on the chalkboard:

Screen shot 2016-07-12 at 12.18.21 PM

Learning to listen and to accept and to formulate questions reminds me of the process of raising children. Really. My perspective as an adult in the world–my assumptions–so often trumped what my children were experiencing as small people with totally unexpected and intriguing perspectives on life. I had to learn to listen to their points of view at least some of the time, and I was always rewarded with insights I would not have discovered on my own. (I referred often to the Faber & Mazlish book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk when my children were at home.) We have to make ourselves more aware, and much much much more patient than usually comes naturally, as parents and as members of a wider community than human societies have ever encountered before.

Yes, we yearn for answers. We do. That yearning may be part of the human genome. But just like our brains, and our conscious sense of self or selves, it’s complicated.

It would be helpful for all of us to recognize that listening to questions, and forming more inquiries–rather than answers or arguments–supplies the basics of Socratic inquiry. For the methods application in contemporary society, check out books by Christopher Phillips. Despite my occasional ramblings and speculations on rational thought (see many of my previous posts on argument, pedagogy, philosophy), argument may not be our best human tool at all times. The best human tool is compassion.

What matters is that human beings, whatever our color or culture, enter into relationships with one another and with our environments. That we admit to complexities and to questions; that we remain curious, which opens us to connections and enables us to see how vital all kinds of relationships are. Do people need to be reminded that #BlackLivesMatter? Yes, alas, people do. While a few of the social majority of human beings in the USA are more cognizant than usual, grab the moment. And people? Listen.

Because there actually is but one species of human being. Let us be homo sapiens–wise, judicious, sensible.

 

Valuable to know

One of the philosophy faculty members at my college perennially assigns an end-of-term paper in which the freshman student must defend whether (or not) a philosophical principle, view, or argument “is valuable to know.” He has a list of possibilities, such as “Is Descartes’ concept of the body-mind problem valuable to know?” and “Is Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence valuable to know?”

The students wrestle mightily with these essays, although the professor’s question does not in itself constitute a major philosophical argument; even when we disagree with something, we may still feel it is valuable to know. The students do not always recognize that they have to make and defend only the view that knowledge is valuable. They tend, instead, to re-argue the philosopher’s claims…which confuses them, but also works to help them learn what those claims are and how they operate as arguments.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Socrates. This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here.

Philosophy, the art of thinking about thinking, by its very nature creates confusion on the path toward greater understanding. Or anyway, that should be the intention. What I like about this assignment (which I often see when I am tutoring) is the way young people come to terms with the material while they are in the process of composing the paper.

Here is how the tutoring sessions tend to go: I look at the first paragraph for context and clarity. Then I look at the claim and help the student clear up any grammar or mechanical errors. Then the student writes about what, for example, Aristotle’s claims about moral and intellectual virtue are. Usually this section comprises two rather vaguely-worded general paragraphs presenting claims by the philosopher, paraphrased in freshman-student sentences, and two short paragraphs presenting opposing views come next.

Here is where grammar and rhetoric are friends. I read each sentence, and I tell the student what he or she is saying in the sentence–based on how well the student can write or proofread, what the sentence says and what the student meant to say may be rather distant partners. So we work on that. As we plow through the paragraphs, the student gets a chance to re-think his or her arguments about and understanding of the philosophical questions at stake in the essay. Sometimes, I can almost see the lightbulb of comprehension beginning to glow in the student’s mind.

It really demonstrates what I tell my students all the time: Writing helps thinking! And so does discussion. In my office, for half an hour, the student gets a sounding board for his or her own ideas and then writes them down. Not all of my students get terrific grades, but it fascinates me to watch them in the process of coming to understand that pretty much anything can be valuable to know.

 

 

 

Complications

National Poetry Month has rolled around again, and sophomores enrolled in the Poetry classes are trying to interpret poems. Somewhere along the line, people in the USA acquired the notion that teachers ought to make things simple to understand so that students can learn the material. What about diving into the material in order to learn about it? Asking it questions? Having a heart-to-heart conversation with it? Those are alternate approaches to reaching an understanding.

Truly, one aspect of teaching that frustrates me is that the majority of human beings want everything to be simple. “Simple” has become a click-bait word, an advertising slogan. Even the American embrace of mindfulness largely bases its premise on the idea that mindfulness is simplicity itself, when anyone who has seriously attempted meditation and mindful living can attest that the theory sounds simple enough but the practice is more complex than it seems.

Now, I have nothing against simplicity–I yearn for simpler ways of living in the world, myself. Nevertheless, a person does not reach her fifties without a clear recognition of how complicated life is; and no one can deny complexity has considerable value. We would not be human beings, capable of speech and abstract thought and deep love and senses of humor, if it were not for the incredibly intricate operations of neurons and synapses, nerves and hormones, rods and cones, DNA and all the rest that somehow connects us inside our physical corpus.

blood_vessels_1.jpg

blood vessels=fractals=complicated

All of these contribute to our conflicting emotional states, to our individual and, because we are group-dwelling creatures, our communal (cultural) psychologies, morphing into social structures of vast networks and multiple influences. Nothing about any of this is simple.

In an effort to assure my students that they can, indeed, become better writers, I endeavor to simplify the writing process as to structure and foundational principles as much as I can. I refuse, however, to suggest that written expression can be simple–because human expression is not simple. We desire and feel and experience in ways that are complicated, layered, multifaceted–hence not easy to put into spoken words, let alone written ones. Writing is work that requires complicated approaches to thinking and reflecting. That doesn’t necessarily make writing hard, but it does not make it simple.

Writing requires inquisitiveness, which seems to come easily to little children but which doesn’t mean inquiry is simple. One of the things my students struggle with most is asking questions. When I say, “Ask some questions about this text,” they look at me as though I have three heads. Students assigned philosophy papers feel gobsmacked by Socrates–he seems so surface-value simple, but he never answers any questions! And now their professor requires them to ask further questions, rather than asking them for the right answer to a simple question.

Oh, my darlings, if there were truly simple answers we would not have developed art or dance or music or poetry.

natural_fractals_tibet.jpg

cloud formations (Von Karman vortices) seen from space*

In other words, if everything were simple, we could say what we need to say and all other people would understand everything they needed to know about us without nuance or subtext or background or socio-cultural context, or whether we are secretly embarrassed by our slight lisp, or grouchy because we had a spat with our spouse the previous night. That sounds pleasant and easy, but that’s not how things evolved among human beings.

I would tell my students I’m sorry about all this, but I’m not. Complexity: I revel in it.

 

*from http://www.jessicacrabtree.com/journal1/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/natural_fractals_tibet.jpg

 

Enter the philosophy paper…

My “day job” at a small university is part administrative, part teaching, part assessment, and largely tutoring in writing. The last of these requires a peculiar balancing act, because my directive says I must not tutor discipline content; I have to tutor students toward “clear expression” while staying within the areas of grammar, spelling, vocabulary use, assignment interpretation, thesis writing, paper structure, and documentation. As a job description, that all sounds quite clearly delineated and objective enough, but writing well cannot happen when the writer fails to understand content material. Enter the Philosophy paper.

In any discipline, it’s difficult to separate tutoring “clear expression” in terms of grammar and vocabulary without also tutoring content. With philosophy that process is especially challenging, because to a large extent, philosophical understanding (content) relies on grammar (rhetoric). A student can contradict himself simply by neglecting to type the word “not” in a sentence, rendering his attempt at argument void. Or a student may announce she will use one approach to prove her claim and then prove the claim, quite adequately, with a different (and opposite!) approach.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Cases like these cause me to ponder. How can I coach the writer without offering a content-based answer? Philosophy itself supplies the method: inquiry.

“So, you say here that because Locke believed in Natural Law, he would not apply Natural Law in the case of the social contract. Can you explain that statement? Because it seems as though you are contradicting yourself, unless you accidentally added the word ‘not’ or unless you have more to say after this sentence…maybe, why he would not do so?”

“Here, you do a pretty good job explaining why beauty is in the eye of the beholder, although you need to pay more attention to your use of the comma. But back at your claim in paragraph one, you say you will prove beauty is transcendent–and your definition of transcendent doesn’t work with your argument in paragraph three…do you mean beauty is not transcendent? Did you forget a word, or are you missing a paragraph of explanation?”

When the science students or economics students bring papers to me, it is, I admit, much easier for me to stick to grammar and mechanics. The same sorts of logical structure or argument issues crop up, however. Sometimes, I feel as though I am right on the borderline, and sometimes I think I’ve teetered a bit too far into content tutorial–especially when the students are writing about history, philosophy, literature, or philosophy. Yet would any philosopher disagree that you cannot completely disentangle grammar logic from any other kind of logic? They stem from the same root.

In which I discuss the theme of death in literature

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Victor Brombert offers an octogenarian’s reflections on death, literature, and the creative process (storytelling, history-creating, poetry-inspiring) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education. I found his musings of interest partly because I have best beloveds who are octogenarians and partly because Brombert is a dyed-in-the-wool humanities professor (professor emeritus of Romance and comparative literatures at Princeton) whose thoughts on mortality cannot help but have been shaped by his long associations with such texts, as well as by his long life and his experiences. “After Omaha Beach, where I discovered that I decidedly did not have a heroic vocation, I also discovered between the hedgerows of Normandy how repellent the smell of dead cows and dead men can be, how repulsive the sight of half-burned tank drivers finished off by machine-gun bullets, their bodies folded over the turrets, or of gunmen and mechanics who had tried in vain to crawl out of escape hatches,” Brombert recalls; then, he reminds himself that he had considerable warnings about war’s savagery–through literature–citing Montaigne and The Iliad. In fact, he says that “the theme of death stood for me in a special relation to literature.”

About death’s “special relationship with literature,” my education agrees with his. Before I ever had much experience with death in the immediate small circle of my own life, I had encountered it in the books I read voraciously. I knew death could be gruesome, sentimental, slow, quick, painful, transformative, pointless. But I was very young, and I did not, could not, fully understand with what I was engaging: the very question of being and non-being, of what comes “after” and if there is an “after,” and if those words as we know them (temporally) mean anything at all.

Brombert says: “I began to understand that all art and the love of art allow us, according to André Malraux’s famous pronouncement, ‘to negate our nothingness.'” His reading, his studies of art and humanist thinking, “elated” him. He felt drawn to Montaigne, whose essays he calls “flexible and meandering” and whose reflections on mortality seemed affirming in that death itself was “subject to laws of transition, passage, natural progression, or process.”

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Brombert recognized his job as a teacher of literature was a kind of giving voice to the dead. Here, I think of Hofstadter’s conclusion about human consciousness: that it is shared, carried on–in part–by living human beings after the bodily death. Is that troubling, or comforting? Some excerpts:

[W]riting itself was implicitly suffused with the theme of mortality, especially narratives and storytelling in general (the example of Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights came to mind) as ways of eluding or delaying the inevitable.

Plato set the tone in the Phaedo when he had Socrates tell his disciples, before drinking the poison hemlock, that true philosophers concern themselves with nothing but dying and death, that philosophy is in fact the study of death. This seemed to me rather excessive.

Though never losing sight of his mortal condition, Montaigne is primarily intrigued by the processes of life, the mutations from day to day, as he watches his own decline and feels, as he puts it, that he is dissolving and slipping away from himself (“Je fons et eschape a moy“). His concern is not with essence or being but rather with transition: “I do not portray being, I portray passing” (“Je peints le passage“). Throughout, his Essays affirm the need to live to the fullest. Yet, in a deep sense, his thought seems prompted by the recurrent sense of the transitory and the perishable.

Kind of dovetails with the concept of impermanence, no?

~

On a closing note, and back to my favorite topic of poetry….Billy Collins has claimed that “the theme of poetry is death.” Like Brombert’s assessment of Socrates’ claim, I’m inclined to think this statement is a bit exaggerated. There’s merit to it, however. Worth thinking about.

Collins’ poem “The Dead” offers one way of thinking about death in a poem; this link will take you to a clever animated version of this poem.

And there’s a nice example of paronomasia: animating the dead!

Confident but not certain: the garden

Recently, I listened to a radio interview with Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, who is promoting her latest book. The interviewer asked her what quality she thought most crucial to a good leader. Albright has met many, many leaders; she is also a brilliant person. It was a good question to ask her, and she had an excellent and thought-provoking answer: A good leader should be confident, but not certain. (If you download the mp3 file in the link above, her explanation of this idea comes near the end of the program.) Powerful people who are both confident and certain of themselves, their aims, knowledge, and ideas, are too likely to veer into autocratic dictatorship. Those who are neither certain nor confident are too easily swayed by advisors with their own agendas or are unable to make decisive moves. A person who is open-minded–and therefore not certain–but who is confident in his or her ability to make a good decision once the facts are in, leads wisely and well even when mistakes occur due to faulty information or circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

We could all benefit from becoming more confident and less certain. It strikes me that Socrates might have possessed this pair of qualities. The philosopher continues to question and is therefore not certain; but the uncertainty isn’t of the waffling, inconclusive kind. Uncertainty in Albright’s use of the word means curious, inquisitive, searching. The confident person trusts his or her values (confidence, from fidere, “to trust”) but does not let dogma or single-perspective “certainties” obscure research, facts, other perspectives.

I will grant that this approach is difficult for us humans, and that is why so few leaders possess this pair of traits. While I have no interest in becoming a world leader, I plan to keep Albright’s phrase in mind and discover whether I can become more confident and less certain in my life.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and the image was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

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Gardening is one area that relates well to confidence and uncertainty, though in a slightly different form of practice. I’ve been a gardener for over 30 years, and one thing you learn when you garden is that there are no certainties. Planning takes mental and physical effort and preparation, and then there are the endless obstacles involved in planting and overcoming soil deficiencies, insects, fungi, and weather inconsistencies just to name a few. Am I a confident gardener? Yes. Years of research, experiment, study, practice, trial and error–and successes–have made me confident. But there are always new hybrids to try, new species to plant, and there are problems that never seem to go away (why can’t I get carrots to grow here, when I have grown carrots every other place I’ve lived? How to keep certain fungi at bay using organic means?).

And one never has any sort of surety or pledge (the etymology of “certainty”) that those tomatoes will ripen without blossom end rot or fusarium wilt, that the pigweed will not take over during the gardener’s five-day vacation (well, that’s almost a certainty!), or that hail will not wreck the whole summer’s worth of plantings.

Ann E. Michael

June, 2009–after the hailstorm

This year, my vegetable garden is producing well despite overbearing heat, hard brief rains, and far too many weeds. I feel annoyed with its overgrown appearance, but one thing about gardens is you get another chance as long as you can wait a couple of seasons.

Meanwhile, with a little more thought and research, I’m confident I can plan an even better garden next year.

Art and “human intelligence”

I’ve gotten almost to the end of Brian Boyd’s intriguing and well-argued book On the Origin of Stories, which makes fairly large claims about sociality, cognition, theory of mind, art, and storytelling (ie, fiction) given an evolutionary perspective (art as adaptation). The first 200 pages lay the foundation for his claims; he provides evidence from the “hard” sciences, most often biology and neurology, and from archeology, anthropology, and psychology, to back up his theory that art is an evolutionary adaptation humans developed in order to live as social animals. And that art is necessary for human cognition in terms of further developing intelligence and the ability to communicate among our peers: it is cognitive play, practice and skill strengthening for mind and muscle.

Big claims, and occasionally hard to “prove” from the hard sciences. I believe he does a good job with that set of proofs, but I’m not a scientist. His claims based on social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology—are very convincing; but many people have arguments with those fields because they are so apparently subjective. Most exciting to me is the way Boyd synthesizes neurological findings with evolutionary developments.

Actually, most exciting to me are his chapters on the Odyssey, but that may be because I am a literature geek. He essentially writes a literary analysis of the Odyssey based upon the inferences and findings in the first half of this book (evolution) rather than the customary literary analysis grounded in, say, context or culture of style or theme, ad infinitum. The resulting analysis is, for me, a truly exciting way to look at Homer’s work and why it matters now, as well as why it mattered then.

Boyd comes close to making the assertion that Homer made Socrates possible, and hence all of Western civilization’s philosophy and social intelligence. Of course, he is careful not to go that far in his argument—he steers as far as he can from logical fallacies— but the thought certainly feels planted in the reader’s mind. His argument does suggest that metacognition in human beings is the definer that makes us human, and art as more-than-play separates human from not-human. He also demonstrates that the Odyssey offers great leaps beyond older epics and posits that the author(s) composed the epic for contemporary audiences that were capable of intelligent, sophisticated, “modern” thought processes; the piece is therefore not primitive literature, as some critics claim.

Boyd’s work has also turned my thoughts to how the attributes of attention, perspective and foreknowledge, overturned expectations, audience-sociality, false belief, cooperation and competition work in the poem as well as in narrative. Granted, many poems have a narrative framework, however thinly sketched, but not all of them do. When there is no narrative frame, these other aspects of storytelling (audience expectations in particular) take precedence and can be employed in almost infinite ways, bounded only by imagination and the willingness of the reader to pay attention as the writer earns that attention through a host of innovative or traditional skills.

A last thought…I spent the long weekend visiting octogenarian friends, both of whom are wonderful tellers of stories. The value of such people to human society is priceless:

“Story by its nature invites us to shift from our own perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another.”  ~Brian Boyd