October 30, 2004

The love of capacity

Last night, I watched a history of the late days of World War I. It reminded me: this was a war among dynastic cousins, Nicky, Willy and George. The war machine was set in motion by the most primitive and thoroughly refuted idea in the history of human intellection, "ruling blood." Brilliant scientists and educators and organizers produced an immense capacity. The will to use it, the direction of its use, came from the dumbest subsection of the human reptilian hindbrain.

It seems to be unquestioned practical wisdom to spend lots of energy building capacity, so that whatever one wants to do, one will be able to do. For middle class folks, that means building equity, making money. For nations, it means building industrial infrastructure. Somehow philosophy has never made the case that figuring out what you want, or what you ought to want -- giving some direction to the will -- is an actual job, actual work, in legitimate competition with the work of building capacity for whatever the hell it might occur to you to do tomorrow.

The problem is that ethics has often misunderstood its job. Ethicists at their most relevant have tried to articulate general answers to the big questions about human life -- "What are its proper goals?" "What are its appropriate limits?" They have not taken it upon themselves, by and large, to describe or to model the work that everyone blessed with a decent lifespan must do to become a human being. And so all that work is off-stage, ignorable -- and the first book anybody bright picks up is likely to be a technical book.

Posted by shea0017 at 2:12 PM


Soon children will be putting on snowsuits. My son Ben wrote a piece about his early experiences with a snowsuit. I like it a lot. Here it is: Download file

Posted by shea0017 at 12:18 AM

October 29, 2004

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing

This country trades in illusions of efficacy. My friend's father used to burn boots in his fireplace. He said he'd done some research on global warming, thought it was on balance a good thing (never liked San Francisco much anyhow) and wanted to do his bit to help it along. I have my own temptations to take elderly Republicans drinking on election day.

But let's hold on to something. The choice the country faces this election, and the tight race, reflect features of our country's character that are, to put it mildly, damn spooky. Whoever wins, huge amounts of good stuff are going to be lost. That's a big trend, impossible to buck. We all have some responsibility to oppose idiocy in the manner of Bullwinkle the Moose facing the buffalo stampede, holding up five fear crazed fingers and saying 'Whoa." But that responsibility is tiny compared to the responsibility we have to work in those corners of the world in which we may actually preserve, protect, and change something. Some of us have a link somehow to real originality, to folks whose generative capacities are fully alive. We must protect these people. Any reconstruction of the world depends on them. Some of us have in our care one of the great traditions of humane thought and action: philosophic conversation, meditation, pottery, storytelling, romantic love. We must grow that out, as we grow out the seeds of forgotten species. These are resources we will need for reconstruction, and we cannot invent them from scratch.

So: everybody vote, and then go home and make something or think something or call somebody.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:52 PM

October 28, 2004

The controversial spirit

Somehow, figuring things out and finding a path forward got combined with scoring points, with winning and losing. Our legal system, our political process, our academic publishing industry are all children of that unhappy marriage.

It can't have been this way very long, in the evolutionary history of humans. We have been hunter/gatherers, most of our history, and a little band can't afford to sacrifice 49% of its members.

As we see demonstrated, every four years, how far partisan debate takes us away from any plausible picture of reality and how far partisan jockeying for power takes us away from an viable foreign or domestic policy, we realize what must be happening in every corner of a controversy-dominated society. In corners everywhere -- plea bargain sessions in the courts, informal gatherings of old friends at the American Philosophical Association, private discussions among senior bureaucrats in Washington -- people work out compromises, accomodate, try to paint the big picture. The world wouldn't work otherwise.

Philosophy is a tradition of humility in the face of large questions. Systems introduced with great fanfare as the last word on all interesting issues litter its junkyard history. Philosophy is partly the record of the historical experiment of people learning to listen to each other, to take seriously the contributions of different perspectives and experiences. It is for that reason important.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:09 AM

October 26, 2004


There are so many things that are important to us, and when we are thinking of some of them, we forget others, perhaps for a long time. And then, when the things we forgot come rushing back, all at once, we are suddenly in danger.

So the safe life contains walking tours, frequently, through all the things that matter. I think that's what liturgy and ceremony are partly about, and why people who don't go to church need to go to museums as often as they go to forests.

Beware of the thought of the dog you haven't thought about for a while.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:28 AM

October 25, 2004

Causal oddities

It's election time and, like lots of people, I have my strong preferences. I am going to vote. And yet I have no settled opinion about which candidate is likelier to be good for the world, long term. And that is because the causal mechanisms are so twisty. Actions in public can bring about the exact opposite of their intended consequence. Consider, for example, a progressive critique of Bush: 'his pursuit of terrorists is inept, the war in Iraq will wreck American credibility in the Arab world, tie down U.S. military at a time when they need flexibility, and define America for the rest of the world as a rogue nation that has to be controlled. His domestic policies will doom any hope of government fixes for social security, health insurance, or the environment. His tax policies instituionalize the gap between rich and poor.' Now, suppose we elect a candidate, say, Ron Merry, who will do just the opposite of all this: 'he will pursue terrorists with vigor and intelligence, restore flexibility and effectiveness to the U.S. military, get the rest of the world to trust us again. His domestic policies will restore hope that government can save social security, provide universal health care at affordable prices, close the ozone hole, and reconcile the wealthy and the poor.' We know that, if Ron wins, he will win by a narrow margin; the polls have spoken. So something just a bit less than a majority is waiting in the wings, hoping that he fails. In four years, they will quite likely come to power; one cannot turn the country around in 3 years without making some embarrassing, politically dangerous mistakes. The new President, Marge Mush, will come into office facing terrorists who have been trained to act intelligently. She will have at her disposal a really useful military and a good bit of diplomatic power. And people will have come to trust government to address the big problems facing the United States, humankind, and the entire living world.

An ethics experiment: take any advocate for any change whatever. Give him or her a little plastic push-button and say, "Describe the change you want made as completely as you can. Now, suppose that, by pushing this button, you could bring that change about, instantly." See whether the advocate pushes the button.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:30 AM

October 24, 2004

Actions, public actions, and laws

When I do something in a private context (kiss someone, make a will, offer help), I can count on that "something" getting a small range of responses, interpretations -- being put to a small and controllable number of uses. When I do something in public, I should expect that it will elicit all the possible responses and that it will be used in all the possible ways. And when I make a law, I should figure that those engaging with that law will do all the things that can be done with it, including especially: exploiting it for their personal profit and using it to subvert the intentions for which it was proposed.

So, when I do something in a private context, it is relevant for me to say: "this is what I intended." That is an excuse, when my action goes astray. When I do something in public, to say: "this is what I intended" is partly just beside the point: public actions need to take account of the multiple interpretations and responses that the public generates. And the information about the intent of a law is even less interesting. One wants to know how that law works as furniture in a room inhabited by many different people.

Of course, it is tempting to judge our own actions by their intentions and everybody else's by their effects.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:32 PM

October 22, 2004

The flu shot test

George W. Bush will not get a flu shot. Neither will some younger senators. If you make the rules, you have to follow the rules, and the rules say that only sick people and old people and very young people get shots this year.

Of course, the people who make the rules could put in a clause "except for the rulemakers." They do that, routinely, for labor-friendly laws that threaten to apply to their own staff.

When a President gets sick, when a Senator gets sick, whatever ball he or she was holding at the onset of the sickness gets dropped. If that ball is 'tracking Russian nukes' or 'school lunches,' a lot of people suffer.

Can we live with a law that says: 'take care of the important people first, and after that be fair?'

Posted by shea0017 at 9:35 AM

October 21, 2004

Only the holy dare to be pure

In today's Strib, J. Winston Porter called Kerry's environmental policies a mish mash. Those are fighting words, these days. We are looking for straight shooters. Hunters would do well to remember that straight shooters usually miss anything that's alive; they do best with stop signs and beer cans.

For the record: this is a country founded by riff raff, consisting of a mish mash of cultures, languages, and geographies. Its claim to honor derives from its historical flip flops: on genocide, on slavery, on Jim Crow, on prohibition, on isolationism, on cultural purity and eugenics.

Years ago, Jacques Barzun did a book called Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers. I bought it, thinking that any decent writing should be "simple and direct," like decent thinking, like clean, Hemingway hero action. But -- go read Faulkner. Just: go read Faulkner.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:30 AM

October 19, 2004

What does it mean to withhold honor?

Watching Enigma last night, one fact leaped out: the Brits withheld honor from their intelligence people and codebreakers. They also withheld honor from their heavy bombers. So they followed a pattern we also see elsewhere: some people get the light and others, who may be causally very important to the success of the lit-up folks, remain in the shadows. One way of thinking about it: authorities honor those whose actions they think people can safely imitate: the lonely Spitfire pilot, going up against the Nazi hordes, the dogface toughing it out in the trenches. But some people's efforts are taken to be only occasionally useful: seeing what people try hardest to keep secret, ruthlessly applying overwhelming force to the innocent in pursuit of an all important goal -- and these get forgotten very quickly. Enigma is nice because it shows someone crossing the line, applying codebreaking skills to the "code" of his own country's policies.

I recommend Enigma, perhaps in a triple feature with Turing and A Beautiful Mind. It's not great stuff, but it starts some trains of thought running, about the way intelligence is understood in our public culture.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:38 AM

October 18, 2004

Egg, larva, pupa, adult, ???

Over the weekend, I visited Clay Coyote, a pottery studio and gallery out in the central Minnesota farm country between Dassel and Hutchinson, right in the middle of fields and meadows. The proprietors are in their second major career, having left Bakers Square corporation in the 90's to build this business. They work maybe 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and they seem very pleased with the variety and richness of their lives: buying art from 150 artists for the gallery, making functional pots in quantity, and maintaining interesting relationships with community groups in the area.

I was juxtaposing this interview in my mind with some interviews I did recently with mid-career and late career scholars from different disciplines. It is valuable to see how the adult life-cycle is emerging for humans in the 21st Century, among courageous and intellectually alive people. For the folks at Clay Coyote, their Bakers Square experience was an incubation stage, a safe place to acquire skills, build up capital, and figure out what they really wanted. It made sense as a limited part of a life that eventually became much larger. I find something similar with scholars: at the beginning of their careers, solving the puzzles in the literature, the joy of winning -- are enough to keep them going. Later on, they come to see their work more and more as part of large, ongoing political and moral dialogue.

Almost any stage of human life pretends to be: life entire. And I expect that almost any stage is tolerable if one can see through that pretense.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:53 AM

October 16, 2004

Captain America meets Shazaam the Magician

The third presidential debate was not a good omen for democracy. Over and over, it seemed clear to me that candidates were saying what they thought Americans would be dumb enough to believe and trivial enough to expect. Bush waved the word "liberal" around like a magic sword, and Kerry displayed a touching faith in the power of preventative medicine -- forgetting, I think, that preventative medicine, if it works, delays death without delaying the onset of very expensive chronic conditions. Facing a hugely uncertain world, both alike treated "increased taxes on the moderately wealthy" as the ultimate unspeakable evil, the step they would never take. I hope the American people are smarter and less selfish than the candidates believe them to be.

One comforting thought, perhaps. So far as I can tell, after November 2 some sort of cartoon hero is going up against the cartoon villains of the International Terrorist League. That is likely good. The last thing we want is for someone smart and subtle to provoke the terrorists into evolving into smart and subtle villains. I don't know whether that is worth the price: living so very far from the truth for four more years. But one takes one's comfort where one finds it.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:56 PM

October 14, 2004

Mark Dayton makes a decision

Senator Mark Dayton moved his official office from Washington D.C. to Minnesota for a few weeks, after a secret security briefing alarmed him. An unsigned editorial in the Strib today says, "It is simply impossible to take Dayton's alarm seriously in the absence of any other lawmaker or security official, so far, coming to a similar conclusion." This is very badly thought. First of all, a security official did come to a similar conclusion: the official who decided that the senators needed to be briefed on new threats. Why do you brief senators about risk, unless you think it reasonable that they change their behavior? And, for major terrorist risk, the only change that makes sense is: to leave the place terrorists are most likely to attack. Also, we don't know what other senators have done about the warnings; we just know that they didn't close their D.C. offices. And finally, it happens all the time that one person's judgment is better than everybody else's. Is that impossible for Mark Dayton, just because he's a senator, a Dayton, a Minnesotan?

We know this: Mark Dayton took a serious political risk to protect his staff and his constituents, when he could have gained the same security for himself by developing a bad cold and going home for chicken soup.

The Strib today reports that Dayton's decision "spurs bafflement." If the newspaper has nothing more to say about an actual individual decision than that it was baffling, perhaps the editors need to read some books. They could start with Walden.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:36 AM

October 13, 2004

Cultural Workers

Last night, I attended the final performance of "An Empire Disguised as a Nation: A Call to Conscience," a two actor play written and performed by Dean J. Seal and Steve Anderson. The play tells the story of the United States as an empire, as ruling those who don't want to be ruled, from the 1840s to the recent venture in Iraq. The play is pretty much straight history lesson, enlivened with quotes, songs, pictures, maps, and the interplay between Seal's character, a progressive college professor, and Anderson's character, his cynical and pragmatic army "keeper," assigned to hold the lecture within the bounds of good taste and patriotism. It is a funny play that teaches a lot of history and that makes the simple and important point that history is interesting when it expresses a point of view and a direction for the future.

I mention this play because I want to pay tribute to the folks who do this kind of work: the actors, producers, volunteers, writers, stage crews who keep the small theatre scene alive throughout the country. They invest incredible amounts of time and talent and money to bring non-standard messages to people, showing up personally to talk about what's important to them. Their work keeps popular culture alive. In particular, plays like this keep the progressive movement in America alive, and the voice of that movement is one Americans need, to maintain modesty and perspective.

As army recruiters put pressure on fragile and clueless kids to enlist in unimaginable adventures, elementary fairness dictates that kids and their parents get to hear the story according to which America is usually wrong, has been pretty consistently wrong whenever it used military force against smaller and weaker countries. Before signing their lives away, kids need a chance to seriously consider the possibility that the enterprise will harm them and harm the world. Plays like "An Empire Disguised as a Nation" give them access to that perspective.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:39 PM

October 8, 2004

Of dinosaurs and their big floppy tails

"He said his interest in the secondary recovery of silver had been one result of certain computer models that had been given wide circulation in the early nineteen-seventies, using differential equations to link such things as world population, pollution, resources, and food, and allow them to swim forward through time, with a resulting prediction that the world was more or less going to come to an end by the year 2000, because it would run out of resources." From John McPhee's compendium of his geology books, Annals of the Former World, page 105. The predictions turned out to be way too pessimistic. A piece by John Cassidy in the most recent New Yorker reports that, if the United States had to rely on just its own oil resources, it could get by for an entire four and a half years.

At just this point in history, the United States embarks upon an unlimited military adventure that will be very costly in its use of resources, especially oil. (I say unlimited not because the Iraq situation is unlimited but because the rationale for action in Iraq justifies about an invasion a year for the next decade.)

The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing a major shortage of clergy, as the priest population ages. Dioceses are consolidating parishes.

At just this point in history, Rome tries to place firm limits on the role of the laity in church services and stridently rejects any widening of the priesthood to include women and married people.

What these have in common: in both instances, major institutional change is necessary and inevitable. In both cases, that realization prompts a spasm of frantic activity to maintain the systems that cannot continue to work.

Reform means developing the models for the new world, carefully and quietly, someplace off in the corner. When segregation was accepted practice, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee was holding workshops in which African Americans and other Americans met on conditions of equality and friendship. In a thousand places throughout the world, people are meeting and organizing on new principles of resource use, of friendship, of power-sharing.

The little furry things stayed mostly in their burrows for many years, eating roots. Then, when the thumping up above died away, they emerged and finished off the last of the eggs.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:59 AM

October 7, 2004

Less and More

With text or with pictures or with landscape, there seem to be natural bites, amounts one can hold in memory accurately, turn over in one's mind, respond fresh to. Take in just a bit more, and one can watch one's mind shifting to another mode of processing, a more distanced mode.

The dialogue in education is between apprehending bites and apprehending larger masses of stuff. College often presses people to read their first big books before they have had the experience of reading bites, and to write big papers before they have written bites. And the panic in education happens when people feel one sort of grasp slipping away, without being sure what will replace it.

Posted by shea0017 at 7:53 PM

October 6, 2004


To fight the war on terror is to demonstrate that the institutions and practices of the United States are resilient. That discourages terrorists from trying disruptive tricks, and makes it reasonable for people not to panic and over-react when the next attack comes. (It's the reaction to an attack that does the real damage.) Whenever officials face an unusual emergency (4 hurricanes in a row, a 50% cut in available flu vaccine), what smart people say spontaneously in response is a plan for becoming resilient, across a broad range of danger areas. The New York Times editorial page today said this about the flu vaccine shortfall: "there are bound to be a lot more deaths and illness from influenza this year among people unable to get immunized. The lesson for the future seems obvious. A stronger, faster-acting, more flexible manufacturing base for influenza vaccine is badly needed. Officials called yesterday for cell-culture technologies that could expand capacity or shift direction quickly in making flu vaccines, as well as for the greater availability of eggs to make vaccines the traditional way. Other experts have suggested that governments should buy a lot more vaccine in normal years, a move that could yield immediate health benefits while enticing more manufacturers to enter the field." One could say similar things about the blood supply, the availability of emergency personnel, backup computer facilities. (I was struck by a recent effort to train truckers to watch for sabotage at bridges and public buildings; one might deputize all sorts of people, put half-measures in place everywhere - a real safety net under the "best" solutions. One might entice many more people into the field of taking responsibility for the safety of their communities. )

One more quick point: this vaccine shortage took officials by surprise. That is an intelligence problem. Disaster happens as an interaction between harmful agents and the resiliency of the organism they are attacking. Intelligence agencies have to monitor both the impulse to do harm (the terrorist phone traffic) and the state of resiliency, or all problems will be presented at a kindergarden level: "There's a bear in the woods," "There are germs on your countertop. And putting problems in those terms is bad two ways: it distorts and simplifies the problems, and it encourages stupidity about causes and effects.

Someone I know suggested a bumper sticker for the last days of the campaign: "What would a grown-up do?"

Posted by shea0017 at 10:18 AM

October 4, 2004


Masterpieces of the World's Great Museums is a miscellanious collection without much plan or reason for being, and so is a good random walk through painting and sculpture. One thing I noticed over the weeks since I brought it home from the estate sale is how often the critical essays talk about works in pairs. There seem to be some pairings that are just natural for understanding, or maybe necessary for understanding, even. And, once the articles start pairing, it is natural to keep doing that, as one turns the pieces over in one's mind.

We often go at things assuming that the natural unit to be understood or appreciated or responded to is -- the single thing. But maybe that's known to be a mistake, for some things. Maybe paintings need to be in pairs, frogs in triplets, churches in quaternities. We need to listen to how people naturally discuss.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:34 PM

October 3, 2004

Traffic Cones and Lies

Traffic cones are wonderful objects. Lots of technology works just like traffic cones. The cones have three properties. (1) They do their job only when they stand in a particular spot. (2) They do the opposite of their job when they move even a few feet from that spot. (3) They are quite easy to move around.

Lies are like traffic cones. If a lie is believed, it keeps someone from finding something out or instills a false belief in someone. But if a lie is found out, then the person who discovers the lie knows that there is something in just this area that someone else is very concerned to keep dark. Deception and censorship have similar effects: one can find the killdeer's nest by deducing the point from which she is trying to lead one away. Lies and deception undertake to minimize someone's understanding, but, when they fail, great torrents of information gush out.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:41 PM

October 2, 2004

Slow Reading

The University of Minnesota Philosophy Department has a tradition of slow reading groups. We take some text and read it, a paragraph or two at a time, addressing any perplexities that come up. People at different levels of sophistication are included, so all sorts of questions are asked. Often, the group moves on with the clear understanding that the difficulties have not been resolved, though nobody can think of anything further to say.

A couple of features of this practice strike me. First, a reading group gives participants a way of seeing each other's ongoing strengths, their long-haul virtues -- and a way of understanding what traits deserve the title "intellectual virtue." Also, with texts from other languages and philosophic cultures, slow reading makes tangible how translation matters and how cultural background matters. One can actually see, over and over, the importance of alternative translations, or the way that a particular bit of history may influence one's reading. Finally, the groups allow for the effortless and natural transfer of bits of information from A to B, at just that moment when B needs those bits of information (contrast lectures).

I have this fantasy: an hour and a half reading group with Bush, Cheney, Edwards, and Kerry. Each reads aloud a paragraph of the rationale for American presence in Iraq. Anyone perplexed about anything gets to comment. 100 million people watch.

Better yet: David Susskind used to do late night talk shows on public issues in which everyone talked until no one had anything more to say. There was no end time. I think, before a country goes to war, that's an appropriate thing to do.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:59 PM

October 1, 2004


As a teacher, do I put a premium on in-class discussion, or do I allow email, threaded online discussion, and online chat to carry the "traffic" of student to student and student to teacher interaction? As a public educator and journalist, do I put my resources intp cable production, radio production, or text media like blogs and online columns? As an historian of philosophy, do I preserve the work of important philosophers as printed texts and transcripts, as audio recordings, or as video recordings? All of these decisions have this in common: they require that one have some kind of line on the importance of the visual "component" of human behavior. Researchers know that this component is incredibly complex: they can study the play of gestures at a 2 minute family breakfast for months. And we all know intuitively that we have reactions to people's presentation of themselves that we would not have to a transcript of their talk. But neither of these facts settles the question about the importance of the visual information, its relevance to the range of purposes we bring to communication.

Here's what I suspect: when we watch someone talk, we want to know what he or she has to say, and also how he or she could say that (in the sense of the exclamation, "How could you think....?") We are especially interested in what happens when people get something astonishingly right or astonishingly wrong. In some of the visual cues, there is information not just about the thought expressed, but about how the thought came to be, and that information is more valuable, often, than the thought itself. We learn attitudes by watching people.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:22 AM