July 31, 2004

Games and the Transparent Moral Life

Wittgenstein has drawn the attention of philosophers to the illuminating power of games. Comparing complex human actions to simple games may show us important things about how we think, about our language, about the intricacies of common sense. But that point is preliminary to something more fundamental: that ordinary life is learned and understood in a process of dialogue between simplified activities -- games, dances, competitions -- and life in its full, messy complexity. This passage, from W.B. Gallie's memoir An English School, makes this point with respect to the games tradition of English public school:

"Anyone who has reflected carefully on his own character is aware of certain basic or structural faults in it -- faults that show themselves again and again under outwardly varied forms and in the most diverse circumstances: for instance, the general fault of over-estimating one’s own capacities – shown in excessive confidence in one’s own judgment or the accuracy of one’s memory, or in dislike of criticisms or suggestions from others (however helpful or kindly meant), or in the inability to hold back one’s own best talents (or tricks) when these are not really needed. Now one of the great educative merits of games is that in them such faults are visibly expressed and their consequences are there for all to see, comment on, and, likely as not, curse one for. In a game, agent and act and consequence are visibly co-present; and what gives point and value to any action or move in a game is always one of those background considerations – as to how the game is going, what are the other side’s obvious weaknesses, etc. -- which are in the minds of all worthwhile players on the field. For this reason, a team-game not only displays one’s own and other people’s faults of character, it encourages the liveliest observation and criticism of these faults. A boy’s ‘games personality’ is thoroughly known, be it good or ill, by those he habitually plays with. " (page 38)

Posted by shea0017 at 10:18 AM

July 30, 2004

Education and Attitude

"I had never skated before, and did not become very proficient, but I learnt to race at quite a high speed from one end of the tarn to the other, to circle the small coves, leaning, bending, feeling my body's glow against the frosty air. It was my first sustained and intensely conscious experience of the joy of my body's life and vigour; the first clear invitation I had felt to the body's pride in its reserves of skill and power. When the frost ended and football and running were resumed, I transferred to them my new-found energy and enthusiasm. The inner feeling-tone of my life -- muscular, nervous, emotional -- ceased to be one of fatigue and anxiety, and in particular of anxiety of fatigue; instead, every day, week, term opened for me to a new field for enjoying and extending (rather than testing or proving) my appetites and capacities for life." From W.B. Gallie, An English School, page 18, italics mine.

Gallie tries to explain what his English public school education gave him, and why that education might contain important lessons for British education generally. He captures in this account a shift in attitude, something different from learning a fact or developing a skill. How would education change if planners said at the beginning: "we know that some shifts in attitude are valuable, and we will promote an environment in which those shifts in attitude are likely to happen."

Posted by shea0017 at 9:44 AM

July 29, 2004

Youth and Age

One's life does not start over every morning. I was reminded of this last night, reading W.B. Gallie's An English School, an account of this philosopher's time at a British boarding school. Gallie is sensitive to the presence of the past. He is aware that his present energy is derived from quite early experiences, to which he must keep returning to draw inspiration and encouragement and illumination. Gallie generalizes Freud's point about early traumas to a general view about the presence of the past and the power of the past in the present.

Two suggestions from this: the impulse to preserve childhood is an impulse to preserve the later maturity of children, to give adulthood a foundation in memory and experience. Also, there is a natural alliance between adults and children: children are the reminders by which adults can recover the central examples for their concepts and the wellsprings of their energy.

There may be some absolute necessity to inter-generational education.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:00 AM

July 28, 2004


"The never-ending debates over the central concepts of philosophy" have as their function "to ensure intellectual vitality across the whole spectrum of human knowledge." W.B. Gallie, preface to Philosophy and Historical Understanding.

I am not sure that Gallie is right that vitality is ensured by debate. Ultimately, his idea about what ensures vitality is more complicated, something like : 'a combination of debate and committed action arising out of debate.' He thinks that vitality emerges when people try to live out different conceptions of "democracy" or "rationality" or "tolerance," to show those on the other side of the debate: this is what it really means. I am not sure he is right even in his more complex view. But I am quite sure that vitality matters, that the standards for "good debate" or "good intellectual life" are not internal or technical standards. One can make lots of reasonable points in a dead debate. The question worth asking is: which debates are alive and which are dead? Where does intellectual life have vitality, and what does that mean? How can intellectual life intertwine with other kinds of life so that life as a whole has vitality?

Posted by shea0017 at 10:12 AM

July 27, 2004


There's ethics, at a general level, and then there's the ethical work of the world, at a particular level: the way individuals and communities do subtotals of life and of their lives -- prior to the final accounting. Eulogies are important here, because they document the way that the dead live on, and also the way that human beings make sense of losing something irreplaceable. Eulogies are reminders of the themes in someone's life. They also complete the picture, showing what different impulses and projects were held in tension in this life. The make it possible to take a life seriously by placing the absurdities of the life in some context, excusing what can be excused.

Taken together, eulogies form a moral literature that documents what the community strives to hold on to, over time.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:45 AM

July 26, 2004

"We are safer -- but we are not safe"

This headline reminded me of a conversation between my boys, years ago -- Tim: "I'm tough." Ben: "No you're not." Tim: "I'm tough, compared to lots of kids." Ben: "Tough guys don't say 'compared to.'" There's a germ of what was bothering Plato here, the idea that, beyond the comparative statuses, there is some absolute status. Compare: "It's greener, but its not green." Said of paint, that makes perfect sense. "He's happier, but he's not happy." "He's larger, but he's not large." "He's smarter, but he's not smart." "He's richer, but he he's not rich." All of these make sense in some context. And it seems important about our language that this use is possible.

The headline still leaves me puzzled. I cannot imagine any measures that would make an entity as big and vulnerable as a country safe, or even safer. One can surely make certain attacks less likely. But compare: "I have locked this door; we are safer." That is true if we are in house, with a finite number of doors. Locking a door while sitting out on the prairie doesn't make us safer.

The problem is this: if we could monitor all the plausible avenues of attack, we could only do that by putting the whole country on perpetual high alert. And a country on perpetual high alert can be destroyed quite simply by false alarms, and it will be gradually ground down by the high alert status itself.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:32 AM

July 23, 2004

Two Ways of Telling a Story

Years ago, Newsweek reported the discovery of Hitler's alleged diaries. In a long article, writers discussed how these documents would change our picture of Hitler, if the diaries were genuine. Some doubts about their authenticity were relegated to a box in the article. In the next issue. Newsweek presented conclusive evidence that the diaries were hoaxes: tests on the glue of the bindings showed that the books were bound after 1945. Last night, a two hour special presented the story of the alleged Chinese discovery of America in 1421. The last half hour of this special was devoted to criticism of the evidence for this view. The criticism was devastating: the author had made bold claims without considering very serious objections and problems.

I thought of another sort of PBS special as I was watching the Chinese discover and populate the American continents: those engineering specials where the scholars and engineers try to recreate a Roman bath or a catapult or a Chinese bridge, fighting all the while about how exactly the thing was made.

Two ways of telling a story: "begin with an hypothesis, present the hypothesis in technicolor, with dramatization, then consider whether it is true" or "begin with a question, consider the possible answers to that question, and document the process by which the answers are weeded out by experiment and research."

Each of these is also a way of thinking. The first way comes very naturally to people. The second way requires training and discipline. The first approach is dangerous in one way: one may be so taken with one's hypothesis, after fleshing it out, that one doesn't pay good attention to the evidence. The second approach is dangerous in another way: one may not be impressed enough with the importance of a proposal to give it the test it deserves. It is not always sensible to be neutral in our attitude towards theories not yet well supported. Some matter, and it matters that they matter.

This is one turn in the endless dance between faith and reason that constitutes the living human mind.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:18 AM

July 22, 2004

A GI and a Pig Walk Out of Hell Together

I get vision of a Bosch painting: the good natured alligator with the hunter impaled on his spear, the various ways of being invaded, impaled, entered, eaten -- inventoried on a large landscape. At the edge of the landscape are two modern figures, a soldier and a pig. The pig has a broken leg and is pregnant. The owner won't fix the leg, saying: "We're going to kill her anyway, after the litter is born." Next to her is a soldier serving in Iraq. He didn't sign up with this duty in mind, and his term of service has been extended without his consent. His commanding officers have allowed insurance companies to come in to hardsell policies he likely doesn't need, at rates that likely don't compete with stateside rates.

In the best world, the pig looks at the soldier and the soldier looks at the pig and they walk out of hell together. Neither one looks back, and hell doesn't even notice they're gone.

Posted by shea0017 at 7:22 PM

July 20, 2004

Getting Out the Vote and Rallying Consumers: Two Not So Good Ideas?

It seems obvious that the way to change administrations is to encourage lots of people to vote for the other party. It seems obvious that the way to stop corporations from raising animals in cruel conditions -- or manufacturing shirts in cruel ways -- is to persuade consumers to stop buying the meat and the shirts. That view may be right, or some version of it may be right. I have doubts. Both voting and selling on a large scale are like market systems with very good information in which the players have access to immense resources. Let's suppose that some player within this system who has counted on a certain result -- 51% in Florida, a 20% market share in Minnesota -- gets early information that returns are lower than expected. That player has all sorts of emergency options -- in the political case: adjusting policies, increasing advertising, perverting the electoral process, readjusting strategies to spotlight other states as swing states; in the economic case: lowering prices, increasing advertising, smearing competitors' products, opening new markets, changing the sales goals to emphasize other products. Some of these moves will go in the general direction that the opposition party or the consumer advocacy group supports: the government may support more UN involvement in Iraqi peacekeeping; the food companies may de-emphasize pork in their marketing strategy. But given the range of options available, that is just one possible outcome.

Another point to worry about: minor challenges to any system are likely to encourage innovation and the competitive weeding out of weaker players. That's the lesson from the overuse of antibiotics and from the strange case of anti-bacterial soap (the germ species' best friend and the weak germ's worst enemy). One does not, as an advocate of social change, want to play the role of the wolf pack shadowing the moose herd: the tough love approach to medicine and public health for moose. No sane supervisor of any large system -- the Republican Party, the meat industry, the Catholic Church, the city of Bloomington -- wants that system to be free of opposition or challenge. In an important way, opposition and challenge are part of the system.

Is social change then random, impossible to direct, not worth the effort? My suspicion is that this is an adult problem, that one becomes an adult when one recognizes and starts to think about what Tanner calls "revenge effects" in his superb book, Why Things Bite Back. The literature of adulthood is limited: the test is whether the literature has a conception of the complexity of action. I think the Tao Te Ching might be a place to start. More later.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:59 AM

July 19, 2004

The Journey and the Destination

Long ago, I read a science fiction story about someone going to a strange, alien place in his town by take an odd succession of turns through familiar streets. Last week, I flew to a funeral in Cedar City, Utah. I had gone there often with my family over the years, driving across the plains of the Dakotas and Montana or Wyoming to get to Utah. This time, I came quickly from Minnesota to mountains, and the mountains seemed richer than they had before. I could understand why my mother misses the mountains, living in the flat land of central Minnesota. It's a simple point: before, I had come to the mountains tired and with my capacity for seeing landscape exhausted and disappointed. This time, it was fresh.

In a similar way: on Friday, I was part of a bus trip through wooded areas an hour north of Minneapolis -- country I had driven through. This time we stopped to listen to proud farmers show off their land and their cows to an appreciative audience. I got a whiff of what it would feel like to be at home in this place and also to be responsible for it. And again, the landscape shifted.

Travel agents help one to move among points on a two dimensional map. They are less and less needed; one can plan such trips oneself, with the internet to help. But there is somewhere in Plato's heaven the real travel agent, who helps people move from where they are, in many dimensional space, to some other place they they long for but can't quite name, to some new way of being at home, by taking odd turnings on familiar streets.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:29 AM

The Imitation of Christ

Archbishop Flynn is launching a project to re-energize Catholic faith in the archdiocese. A cornerstone of this plan is a project to encourage Catholics to follow, imitate, "live in" Jesus who is called the Christ, the anointed one. The language is drawn from the piety of Paul and the early church, and surely some good will come of this effort. I worry conceptually about the initiative. Jesus didn't follow anybody, except maybe shepherds and maybe his father and, in some extended way, God, whom he urged people to "be like." Also, the evidence that he thought about himself is elusive, since the statements beginning "I am" in the gospels are often plausibly construed as attempts by later theologians to interpret Jesus' words and actions, well after his death. It seems pretty clear to me that the core teaching is a direct engagement with the natural and social world of Jesus' time. See Dominic Crossan's The Five Gospels for an attempt at reconstructing that core.

The puzzle is then this: what does it mean to imitate a non-imitator, to follow an original and fairly mysterious person. It looks like a paradox of the sort philosophers love: if one does, one doesn't, and if one doesn't, one does. I worry that "Follow Jesus" will translate into "Do what you think you should do" -- ensuring that action will never rise above the quality of each individual's "shoulds." See Mark Twain's picture of Huck Finn's moral torture about whether to give the runaway slave Jim back to his owner, for an idea of how that trap works.

I'd suggest this as an alternative, perhaps a friendly amendment, to Archbishop Flynn's proposal: try to recover and test out whatever squint Jesus had when looking at the world, and try to recover and test out Jesus' gambits in action, his opening moves in the social game. Squinting is a fascinating activity: one forces one's eyes to focus a little differently than they want to focus. The magic eye books take advantage of the capacity to squint, and allied capacities of the imagination, to enable people to see strange new images in meaningless jumbles. And gambits are fascinating: the first moves in which are contained the possibilities for later interaction, and the limits of later interaction. The Jesus stories are full of clues about squints and gambits. And the process of testing out is different from the process of following or imitating. One checks out the results, as one goes along. One is an active mind in the process.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:58 AM

July 18, 2004

Animal Agendas

If you raise beef cattle, you intend to have them killed for your own profit. You have roughly the relationship to them that Tony Soprano has to pretty much everyone in his life: I let you live as long as it serves my purposes. And it may look like cattle ranchers are various sorts of Tony Soprano monsters.

Beef cattle wouldn't exist if they didn't exist to be killed, and cattle ranchers would have no relationship to them at all, if they were not in the business of preparing them for slaughter. So how does one read this relationship? Can one have a sane and morally clean relationship to a creature one is also using without its consent? That question casts a broad shadow: over slavery, problematic marriages, corporate relations to workers. One needs to tread very carefully here.

I think that a great deal of the most important moral work will be available through thinking about animal relations.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:41 AM

July 17, 2004

Love's Labours Lost

I went on a beef and dairy cattle tour near Mora with the Minnesota Cattleman's Association -- one of the most idea-rich days I have spent. At the end, I did the sum of the day this way: small and medium operators in that area don't make much. They'd likely be better off selling their pastures for hobby farms. Farming for them is a labor of love, and, for many of them, care and affection for their livestock is a big part of what makes life worth living. They also partly think about their cows as living money-machines, and that thought is in some tension with their obvious concern for their cows as animals like themselves, only not so bright.

My vegan friends will not be able to make sense of the idea that one can both care for a creature and intend to slaughter it for money. I have trouble with that too, but I think, empirically, that attitude is present in these people. Indeed, some may care more deeply for the welfare of their animals than those who work to end the whole animal production system.

The puzzle I am left with is that beef farming seems to be an uneasy compromise between entrepreneurial capitalism and shepherding in something like the sense Jesus meant it. It hasn't maybe dawned on people that, as entrepreneurial capitalism, lots of these operations are ceasing to make sense, so that, if they are to make sense, it must be through an infusion of a different vision, or rather, a shift in emphasis within the broad motivating vision that makes small to medium scale farming possible. As one farmer put it: we have to get the feeling back into this operation.

I came away from conversations with ranchers and with the owner of a local slaughterhouse oddly optimistic about the future of the animal-human bond. There is great confusion afoot, but also a great reservoir of pretty-good-will. I still don't think beef ranching makes sense, but I think it isn't all that far from making sense, and, if it can be protected for a while from the overpowering presence of truly rapacious capitalist agriculture, great and beautiful new structures may emerge.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:00 PM

July 9, 2004

The Words We Speak; The Things We Mean

I learned today from a movie magazine, inTouch, that Britney Spears is upset. She thought that the Chinese character tattooed on her shoulder meant "mysterious" but recently learned that it means "strange." From the same magazine: the cast of Friends are reported to be still friends after the show's end, but not "Friends": they tell us that Phoebe and Monica will never speak again. And our own Star Tribune headlined its story about the presidential campaign this way: "Both Camps Hit the Trail Swinging."

Philosophy in the analytic tradition is about unpacking things. If Britney could explain what she has in addition to being strange that makes her mysterious, if the friends could explain under what conditions the Friends might come back to life and begin speaking again -- or perhaps just nuzzling, if the editor of the Strib could explain how a camp can hit a trail, and whether hitting it makes it swing or whether the camp swings to hit it -- in any of these cases they would be doing philosophy. It would be good if they did.

For those thinking of getting a tattoo in a language other than their first tongue, a suggestion: get the tattoo on some part of your body not normally visible. You can imbue it there with whatever private meaning you choose. Those rare persons who get to see the tattoo will likely go along with whatever story you tell about its meaning. Reserve public spaces for messages in your native language.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:28 AM

July 7, 2004

The Courage of Very Large Animals

The best examples of courage: when small, weak, fragile folks put themselves in danger. But it is very interesting when large institutions with great resources take very small risks, because those actions move the whole society forward. McDonalds decides it can afford to enforce some humane standards on the slaughter of animals. A university divests itself of stock in destructive and dangerous companies. A governor makes a slightly risky appointment to bring new voices into the judiciary. A library goes public with the advice it has been giving privately about copyright issues -- contributing to the public consensus about fair use.

It is hard to applaud such acts, or even to notice them, because so little is really at risk, compared to protesters going to prison, soldiers going into battle, emergency personnel entering burning buildings. But I suspect that social progress happens by very small acts of courage, very small risks that then enlarge the circle of what is possible -- permanently. And that happens perhaps in the negotiation of personal relations and jobs and implicit contracts also, just as much as in large public affairs. The suburban wife who gets a job at the library once a week, the kid who quits swimming, the pet owner who gives his dogs an extra walk every day -- all of these may be renegotiating life at the most important level.

Sometimes I think that the problem with ethical thinking is that we look at the wrong size of thing.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:59 AM

July 6, 2004

On Aiming Way Too Low

At a recent college event, the president of a local institution pointed to a mission statement: the college aspires, he said, to be in the top 20 small liberal arts colleges. Another college in my acquaintance wants to be the best women's college in the country. And my kid's clinic wants also to be the best in some field or other.

I think there is something deeply nutty here that should be stopped. It seems to me beneath the dignity of an institution to tailor its programs or its ideals to the standard set by some other institution. If they jump off a cliff, as a matter of vision, of mission, of principle, we jump off a cliff -- and we aspire to be among the first 20 off the cliff, should jumping become popular.

This is just a category mistake. One wants of course to be respected, but one cannot aim at being respected without seriously assinine consequences. One needs to aim at being worthy of respect, and hope that respect follows worth.

When I was at Macalester, my teacher David White talked a lot about what we should be striving for, what every reasonable philosophy preached as the goal worth striving for: full humanity. Now there's a notion to put in a vision statement.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:59 AM

July 5, 2004

Chinese Porcelain

On the third of July, eschewing rockets glaring red, I went to the last day of the Chinese porcelain exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It was a fine bunch of images to get anchored between the ears, a collection documenting the continuous development of a multi-layered art form over more than a hundred years of imperial patronage.

We have been trained to love novelty and breaks with the past and new beginnings, and the Fourth of July celebration is part of that training: we rejoice that our collective history goes back only 200 years. It is helpful to be reminded of the fruits of continuous development: eggplant blue, and a public that could appreciate it, because they knew how hard it was to achieve that color in a kiln; a temple vessel that is also a living body. And, along the way, a consciousness of chemical elements as vibrant, particular colors.

Next door to the porcelain exhibit was another, about steamboats on the Mississippi and the economic development of the Mississippi. The porcelain involved was not nearly as good -- cluttered pictures with obligatory eagles. But what was striking was the steamboat, the country it opened up, and how incredibly quickly both were superceded. There's one picture of a river city with many steamboats on the water -- and a lone train chugging along on the bank, the scout for the next technical revolution.

We are being taught to leave thngs behind before we have even begun to understand them. And so much of the substance of formal education, echoing the public culture, is: how to leave things behind, how to move on.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:11 AM