January 31, 2005

A complete life

Aristotle says one should judge happiness by looking at complete lives. I have always understood that to mean that one should wait until all the bad stuff that could happen has happened; most stories can be upended by some sort of surprise ending. I still think that is the most likely reading, but I can think of another that has some interest. Some people are pretty much complete in themselves: they have the equipment to execute the plans they make, to judge among the ideas they generate, to gather the information they need for the problems they face. They are like little all-in-one laptop operations, printer attached, modem included. Other people have some kind of gap: they can generate ideas, but they can't choose among them. Their plans exceed their implementation capacity. They need facts they haven't the patience to gather. These people are like chips -- pretty close to useless, apart from a motherboard.

Education spends a long time trying to make chips into laptops, to provide people with minimal self-sufficiency, and that is likely a reasonably noble project. But we have to hold on to the fact that someone specialized might do wonders as part of a larger whole and only ordinary things by himself or herself.

Plato in the Republic describes various kinds of people by first of all saying what they are in themselves and then by saying what they are when they take their proper place in a society that is made for them, that supplements and supports their particular talent. Perhaps this is what Aristotle means when he says that we must judge someone's happiness by looking at a complete life -- that a person's potential for happiness is only obvious when one sees what that person can do with appropriate support.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:42 PM

January 30, 2005

The subtlety of loss

In an earlier entry, I noticed the depth of sadness in Athenian funeral sculpture. Today I ran into an old favorite poem that has the same light touch:


When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight."

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should
come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand
at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?

Thomas Hardy

Posted by shea0017 at 1:07 PM

January 29, 2005

Who cares?

For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where the public heel had testified to their utility. Henry David Thoreau, in Walden

There is a laugh waiting in "self-appointed inspector." An inspector makes sense within an institution of rules and standards and enforcement; a "self-appointed inspector" is a just a guy wandering around and noticing things, as silly as a one person baseball team. But for anything important in a community, there are no inspectors. There are, for example, plenty of inspectors to evaluate, in some terms or other, the quality of college and university programs. The goal of this inspection, people would say, is to safeguard the intellectual health of the community. But there is nobody asking about specifically the intellectual health of the community, how all these disparate institutions add up, what values are being preserved, what values neglected.

In the Twin Cities metro area, there are lots of institutions that teach philosophy. Each has a quite different cast of mind, and none of the departments keeps in active communication with the others, so far as I can tell. So nobody asks about the health of philosophy in Minnesota, even in this limited academic context. And no one I know is asking the bigger question: what is happening to central intellectual values -- like clarity, scholarly care, responsible intelligence, sympathy -- in the academy in general? I am confident that asking that question would bring to the surface some quite unexpected practical priorities in higher education.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:59 AM

January 24, 2005

Big Yellow Taxi

Joni Mitchell's song gets me every time. The refrain:

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Cabela's wants to build a big store in Rogers, Minnesota, on the I-94 Growth Corridor between the Twin Cities and Saint Cloud. The store promo mentions high tech tools for being unpleasant to fish, "and, of course, weapons, every kind of firearm... and a whole variety of hunting knives." Based on Owatonna's experience, this store is likely to be a huge tourist attaction.

There will never be any kids in Rogers who get fascinated with guns and gather up 40 or 50 of them and go hunting in the high school. That could never happen in Rogers. And nobody mad at his wife is going to start thinking of uses for a hunting knife. Not in Rogers. Oh, and all those people who drive 50 or 80 or 200 miles to have a look at really fancy firearms -- they won't have any effect at all on the town, except dropping some money at the gas station and the diner.

Every so often the book of Proverbs gets it right: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind." Joni Mitchell said it better, though.

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:11 PM

January 22, 2005

Overwhelming Presences

A bit of armchair developmental psychology, for Saturday morning --

Young children are overwhelmed by their parents. As they grow up, becoming autonomous means getting some distance from that overwhelming influence. The most natural refuge: a peer group with comparable overwhelming power in another direction. Kids come out of high school caught in some complex vector product of their parents' influence and their peers' influence. Colleges offer very strong and well organized alternative peer groups -- ways of getting distance from high school friends by being overwhelmed by the fraternity or the swim team or the debate squad. But college also allows some time for kids to be outside of strong gravity fields, in a state of neutrality. This is frightening and depressing, and it drives some kids to therapy and others to philosophy, for similar purposes -- to find a place to stand, different from just being overwhelmed by one powerful person after another.

If this picture is correct, there are a couple of implications. It seems quite interesting for a philosophy class not to continue the cycle of overwhelming -- to make the student fixate on the philosophy teacher. Fixation is just another boring response in the endless game. Also, it seems interesting for a philosophy class to help people take the measure of the lives of those around them - the potential overwhelmers - in a just way that also maintains distance. After college, students are going to be in yet more overwhelming relationships, and it just doesn't do for college to be a mere respite or vacation from subjection.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:26 AM

January 21, 2005

"He's a recognized authority on chastity."

I heard today about a proposal for an international course on ethics, to be conducted virtually from several time zones, to take advantage of far flung expertise. The proposal raised many questions. Is expertise what is needed for teaching ethics? How does one identify the right mix of ethical experts, so as to determine that we just have to have this person in Lithuania? And what kind of progress can even the best high level discussion make -- assuming a structure that focusses questions so that participants are actually talking about the same thing? There are surely topics for which one can assemble a dream team, and put to that team the perfect question, and make a decade's progress in an hour. I can imagine that, anyhow, with some kinds of topics. Further, it is true that sometimes a new person in an ethical discussion can bring everyone to see the problem in a new way, can break a deadlock. But can one identify the deadlock-breakers reliably enough in advance to structure the perfect discussion? Or is it more important just to have lots and lots of chance discussions and see what comes out of them?

Imagine a young billionaire, trying to decide whether to lose his virginity or save himself for marriage, hiring the Harvard Philosophy Department to organize a satellite teleconference on the matter from 7 to 10 pm, after which he would decide whether to curl up or cavort.

I don't know my way around here.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:00 PM

January 19, 2005

What it takes to be in the game

In agriculture and also in computer technology, users must invest more and more heavily to stay in the game, to take advantage of the new advantages. I ran into this upgrading my computer to cope with the new generation of class management software, Vista. This program requires an updated Java plugin, and that in turn requires a computer that meets certain minimum standards. More and more, those without recent computers are out of the education game. In time, dsl connections may be a prerequisite for taking university classes.

The new software does some wonderful tricks, and the case can surely be made that these tricks are necessary for 21st Century education. Maybe so. My experience is that some of these tricks are very helpful, some are somewhat helpful, and some are about as much trouble as help. At the margin, I should think, we need to take account of justice considerations. There is a strong ethical reason for using a stable educational software package that doesn't discriminate among users with different levels of equipment. That is one important consideration. Another is delivering good education. At the point of balance of those considerations is the right technology policy for a major public university.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:05 PM

January 17, 2005

Unspeakable sadness

grave stele.jpg

This Athenian grave stele from about 450 B.C. was the Met's artifact of the day today. I had never taken account of Greek grave sculptures until I saw a room of them at the Metropolitan Museum. They are so sad, so full of the sense of missing the person, of the size and shape of the hole left in people's lives. I think it is easy to imagine the Greeks wrong without these things to look at.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:32 PM

Practical dualism

I have a cold. I sneeze mightily, explosively. I can't decide not to sneeze, but I can with a bit of effort decide when to sneeze. I am told that people with terminal illnesses have the same sort of limited control over the time of their death; they can hold on until family members come, until major anniversaries pass.

Our experience is that we sometimes control our bodies and sometimes are controlled by them, and that there's some negotiating room, both ways.

Our experience is also that sometimes we can explain what happens to us purely in terms of intention ("I planned my day") and sometimes purely in terms of physical processes ("The flu hit me in the middle of my day") and sometimes in both sets of terms, alternating.

I think it is very interesting that we have as our central philosophical example, our touchstone for how complex systems work, a body that makes no practical sense except as an uneasy meeting place of two incommensurable conceptual structures.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:33 PM

January 12, 2005

A thought for travelers

I learned from the excellent blog Baghdad Burning that medicines that require a prescription in the U.S. are available over the counter in Iraq. I have heard similar things about antibiotics in Brazil. This bears investigation. A natural solution to a shortage of health care resources is self-medication. (It has always struck me as odd that one can buy a handgun in the U.S. much more easily than one can buy penicillin.) Such a strategy will tend toward symptomatic treatment of very dangerous conditions and toward the evolution of really nasty bugs -- as people expose more and more bacteria to the selective pressures of inappropriate antibiotics.

This is a thought about counter-measures generally. Where they are being employed thoughtlessly and a lot, worry.

I wonder what an "appropriate use of penicillin" map of the world would show. I think I might avoid places where use was grossly inappropriate.

Just a thought.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:31 AM


There's a scene in C.S. Lewis' book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: a ship is approaching a foggy place in the ocean that is marked as 'the place where dreams come true.' For a minute, the sailors are intrigued: then they begin rowing frantically away from that place, as they remember some of their dreams.

Writers who write a lot often track a kind of hero through many books. This person gets all the good lines, is vindicated over the more foolish characters, is clearly the author's pet. But sometimes, when a writer has done enough of this sort of thing, there comes a book in which the hero turns on the writer, reveals a well-lit vacuum at his or her core. I recommend a couple of pieces, to study this: Kingsley Amis' late work Girl, 20, in which the ironic character who appeared on the scene in Lucky Jim shows us where his heart isn't, and Robertson Davies' The Cunning Man, in which, I think, the Jungian psycho-historian, guardian angel sort of fellow who stands in the background of the Deptford and Cornish trilogies comes to realize that guardian angel work is not quite appropriate for human beings. It is interesting that both of these late works are critiques by fine observers of the distanced, academic, observational stance.

St. Thomas said late in his fairly short life that he had come to see everything he had written as straw. Maybe that happens occasionally, with honest people who write enough.

There's an intriguing bit in Plato's Phaedo . On the day of his death, Socrates tells of a dream in which the gods encourage him to write poetry. He has been sentenced to die for a lifetime of direct challenge to the fundamental self-images and certainties of his fellow Athenians. His speech in court is full of confidence that this activity was absolutely the right thing to do, mandated by the gods. And then, at the very end, there's this strange little footnote, which could be read as "perhaps I took the wrong approach, after all."

There's nothing more valuable to study than the big mistakes. One has to get oneself into the minds that made them, as those minds were working at the time the mistakes were made. (All those people who introduced new predators into fragile eco-systems to solve some particular problem come to mind.) One has to realize how natural the fundamentally stupid move seemed, how outlandish and impractical the little critical carping voice at the edge of consciousness must have sounded. If one can come to realize what sort of mind is needed to stop short of doing terrible but utterly natural things -- now that's an intellectual accomplishment. If one can come to that realization before the last day of one's life -- all the better.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:03 AM

January 10, 2005


I have had contact recently with folks who are concerned that I might inadvertently do something that would land me in hell. They have been citing various Vatican documents that purport to map the edges of hell, for such befuddled folks as might otherwise stumble in on the way home from a party.

My question is this: how is eternity in the intimate company of a God Who sends people to hell about stuff like that different from hell?

My test for ideas of God: could I spend a non-hell eternity with this entity? I suspect that there may not be all that many ideas that pass this test.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:21 AM

January 7, 2005

"I saw it on tv."

Today's New York Times reports that a Texas woman has been granted a mistrial because an expert witness falsely testified that a defendant in a Law and Order episode had used just the insanity defense she used after being portrayed as committing the same crime - drowning her children in the bathtub. This was taken by the prosecutors to argue that the crime was planned and that the defendant was therefore in some legally culpable state of mind at the time of the killing. To quote: "Dr. Lucy Puryear, a psychiatric expert for the defense, was questioned about the nonexistent episode. In an interview yesterday, Dr. Puryear said the questions to her conveyed a powerful impression to jurors. "Had she seen that show and gotten ideas from it," she said, "it would say that she had the ability to think in an abstract way and come up with a plan. That would mean she could tell the difference between right and wrong."

One hardly knows where to start with this case. When the fact that someone could have had a certain -- rather obvious -- thought prior to a crime is taken as evidence that she had that thought, and acted on it, we are deep into wonderland. Of course, we are already down the rabbit hole as soon as we start trying to evaluate degrees of mental competence in people who drown their small children. I can't imagine that anybody's smart enough to sort that out.

But there is one other lesson from this bizarre episode. With courtroom shows, forensic medicine shows, and police procedure shows on television frequently, all of those episodes start being relevant to the state of mind of criminals, of witnesses, and of juries. I remember being questioned during jury selection once, at length, about judges I knew who might have imparted prejudicial legal wisdom. But these shows make specific arguments for the admissibility of certain evidence, for the possibility of certain kinds of falsification -- with the full power of the production industry behind them. It is all extremely prejudicial, and neither judges nor lawyers watch enough television to know what questions to ask.

The same thing is happening with medicine of course. The dramatic space on either side of police and forensic medicine shows is occupied by detailed treatments of bizarre medical conditions. These acquaint viewers with symptoms and possible diagnoses and give them all sorts of medical opinions. This wouldn't be so worrisome if the human body weren't so susceptible to suggestion. If someone thinks he has MS, he will start amplifying every MS-like twinge. The diagnostic problem is to sort through all that to the symptoms that matter.

It's really the same problem with relationships. The range of acceptable, plausible behavior is established on a continuum among the sit-coms, with Friends and Will and Grace as the classic, dependable, middle of the road dramas.

The trouble with all this is just that there is something valuable about being naive, about working it out for oneself. There are insights available to people at one level of sophistication that are closed at another. And there are valuable ways of behaving -- judging on the evidence, saying where it hurts, kissing when you feel like kissing -- that are pretty much foreclosed by sophistication.

There are consequences to letting public media float free, so long as it doesn't display malfunctioning bras. Can the media display some level of public responsibility without resorting to censorship?

Posted by shea0017 at 11:01 AM

January 3, 2005

The best front door

The website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is remarkable. It has, first of all, a fine front door: a daily feature highlighting one item in the collection. It's a great thing to wake up to. Also, the museum is generous in making its collection available for study online, without imposing somebody's idea of a guided tour on the experience. It even has a feature that allows one to squirrel away 50 images, with commentary, in a special folder under "My Museum." The commentary material is rich, and the "Arts Timeline" gives astonishing depth of coverage, for the person who is serious about self-education in the long term.

Clearly, the museum has come to see itself as an international treasure, to be used in many different ways. This is what great educational institutions should be about.

Check out the site. Today's featured work is a bowl with human feet.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:43 AM

January 2, 2005

Justice and tsunamis

In the feudal order, there were big differences in wealth. The folks with the money supported the guards and the common fortress, and were major contributors to the spiritual, intellectual, and economic institutions that benefited everybody. And the differences were limited: a deluxe privy is still a privy, a deluxe horse is still a horse.

It's not clear that, in the long term, this was a worse way of providing for the general welfare than a centralized democratic or representative government, which is always liable to be hijacked by some very selfish faction.

In the world order, several lucky breaks have given the United States immense wealth and power. That is by no means fair. But the U. S. could aspire to a role that would have the kind of justice that the feudal arrangement had: we build institutions that are of use to the world at large, and we concentrate resources for times of crisis.

Why can't this country go all out for tsunami relief and reconstruction? It would be more fun than most of what people do in jobs -- and more satisfying to tell the grandchildren about later on. Such involvement would buy us tremendous good will. And, maybe most important, a massive effort of that kind would give the United States a viable place in the world, an understandable and respectable role: not the world's police officer, but the world's coast guard, the world's emergency medical technician, the world's firefighter. What have we got otherwise? National aspirations defined by the bundle of department store ads in the Sunday papers and the dubiously twisty ladders of advancement at the Acme Box Company. Come on, folks. We can do better than that.

Posted by shea0017 at 6:34 PM

January 1, 2005

Torture again

There's lots about U.S. public conduct to worry about, but torture gets me. I just can't stand the thought of being on the same team with make-you-eat-dirt kinds of bullies.

A General-type fellow named Miller is responsible for the brightest moral light thus far shone on this matter. The New York Times quoted him today:"We are detaining these enemy combatants in a humane manner," General Miller told reporters in March 2004. "Should our men or women be held in similar circumstances, I would hope they would be treated in this manner." That's sort of the moral minimum: don't do what you don't want done back. As more and more reports come out of Guantanamo and other places, Miller's statement takes on new meanings, for family members and for soldiers.

And I can't see even perverse intelligence anywhere here. If the standard for the treatment of prisoners is awful, our kids have one more reason not to enlist, and terrorists have one more reason not to get caught alive.

But there's this one other point. When somebody is out there in a dangerous place, in the uniform of the United States of America, he or she should not have to think, "I am fighting for a country that forces people to soil themselves in little tiny cells. in prisons not on any map." That doesn't make for a straight spine or a proud heart.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:44 PM