Because It Is a Monday, and We May Need a Humor Break . . .

I give you this. My favorite part:

The third section is both incoherent and unconvincing. The long digression regarding the work of Richard Wagner is hardly appropriate; again, the author’s personal animosities are unpleasant to have to wade through. I would much rather see a return to the style of his earlier The Birth of Tragedy, which seemed to me altogether more sure-footed in its following of the transcendental achievements of Schopenhauer and Kant, which the author has sadly turned away from.

(Via John Protevi.)

Quote of the Day

Mr. McGinn, who calls himself both a “ladies’ man” and “the most enlightened person in the world,” is not one to hide his belief that modesty is a form of dishonesty. “People sometimes perceive superiority as arrogance,” he says. “A superior person is not necessarily arrogant, but just superior.”

 --Seth Zweifler on Colin McGinn. (Behind a paywall, alas. Background here. Hilarious fake Twitter feed here.)

Jean-Paul Sartre: Apologist for Tyranny

Good Sartre jokes aside, his reputation deserves to take a serious hit:

. . . starting in the mid-1940s, and increasingly over the next 10 years, Sartre begins to worship at another altar: the altar of Communism. This is an ideology that has notoriously little use for individual freedom; instead of human beings freely making themselves, it sees them acting out the roles imposed on them by the class struggle. In the mission statement for Les Temps Modernes, the magazine he launched in 1945, Sartre seems to reject any notion of artistic independence. The writer, he now believes, is always already committed to history, and has no choice but to take part in the political battles of his day. “The writer is situated in his time; every word he utters has reverberations. As does his silence,” Sartre warns.

In the pages that follow, we witness the strange and, eventually, repellent spectacle of this tribune of freedom becoming an apologist for the worst kinds of oppression, so long as it comes waving the banner of liberation. A key text here is “Portrait of the Adventurer,” published in 1950 as the introduction to a book about writers who were also men of action, like T.E. Lawrence and Andre Malraux. Subversively, Sartre turns his piece into a rejection of precisely that type of human being, in favor of what he calls “the militant”—that is, the militant Communist, the party member. When he writes, “Rather than taking your ego from you, the Party gives it to you,” he means this as high praise: the militant extinguishes his individual personality and becomes a pure function of the class struggle. “He is never alone because he discovers himself through the others. He possesses neither depth nor secrets.” At the end of this hymn to soullessness, even Sartre himself seems to recoil: “Yet a socialist society in which future Lawrences would be radically impossible would strike me as sterile,” he confesses.

Eventually, Sartre wised up . . . kinda:

By 1968, the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia left Sartre with no choice but to abandon his illusions about the U.S.S.R. “The Socialism That Came In From the Cold,” his essay on Czech culture under communism, is as clear-eyed an analysis as any dissident could offer. Yet even then, he condemns this socialism in the name of a potentially better one. By then, he has transferred his illusions about liberation to the Third World. In his famous introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he writes with unconcealed glee about the prospect of Algerians killing their former masters, which happen to be the French. At the bottom of much of Sartre’s politics, in fact, there lies a frank enjoyment of hatred, which also expresses itself in some of his polemics against enemies and former friends. That is why We Have Only this Life to Live ends up seeming less like an inspiration than an existential warning: a great intellect alone, it shows, does not make a great man.

 

Quote of the Day (Part Deux)

. . . My favourite definition of wonder comes from the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, better known for first articulating the tenets of capitalism. He wrote that wonder arises ‘when something quite new and singular is presented… [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance’. Smith associated this quality of experience with a distinctive bodily feeling — ‘that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart’.
 

[. . .] 

For a less flattering view, we turn to the 17th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method. He called wonder ‘broken knowledge’ — a mystified incomprehension that science alone could cure. But this mischaracterises science and wonder alike. Scientists are spurred on by wonder, and they also produce wondrous theories. The paradoxes of quantum theory, the efficiency of the genome: these are spectacular. Knowledge does not abolish wonder; indeed, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the mysteries they unravel. Without science, we are stuck with the drab world of appearances. With it, we discover endless depths, more astounding that we could have imagined.

 --Jesse Prinz.

Quote of the Day

One of the great history teachers in those days was a University of Chicago professor named Karl Weintraub. He poured his soul into transforming his students’ lives, but, even then, he sometimes wondered if they were really listening. Late in life, he wrote a note to my classmate Carol Quillen, who now helps carry on this legacy as president of Davidson College.

Teaching Western Civ, Weintraub wrote, “seems to confront me all too often with moments when I feel like screaming suddenly: ‘Oh, God, my dear student, why CANNOT you see that this matter is a real, real matter, often a matter of the very being, for the person, for the historical men and women you are looking at — or are supposed to be looking at!’

“I hear these answers and statements that sound like mere words, mere verbal formulations to me, but that do not have the sense of pain or joy or accomplishment or worry about them that they ought to have if they were TRULY informed by the live problems and situations of the human beings back there for whom these matters were real. The way these disembodied words come forth can make me cry, and the failure of the speaker to probe for the open wounds and such behind the text makes me increasingly furious.

“If I do not come to feel any of the love which Pericles feels for his city, how can I understand the Funeral Oration? If I cannot fathom anything of the power of the drive derived from thinking that he has a special mission, what can I understand of Socrates? ... How can one grasp anything about the problem of the Galatian community without sensing in one’s bones the problem of worrying about God’s acceptance?

“Sometimes when I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know.”

 --David Brooks.

How the Creative Class Created

Quite fascinating:

Nikola Tesla typically worked from noon until midnight, breaking at 8:00 p.m. for dinner every night at the Waldorf-Astoria. Among the many peculiarities of this ritualized repast was his practice of not starting the meal until he had computed his dinner's cubic volume, "a compulsion he had developed in his childhood." Truman Capote, who wrote lying down in bed or on a couch, refused to let more than two cigarette butts pile up in an ashtray and "couldn't begin or end anything on a Friday." Louis Armstrong smoked pot ("gage," as he called it) almost daily and couldn't go to sleep until he had taken his dose of a "potent herbal laxative" called Swiss Kriss. "Armstrong believed so strongly in its curative powers that he recommended it to all his friends," Currey writes, "and even had a card printed up with a photo of himself sitting on a toilet, above the caption 'Leave It All Behind Ya.' "

The prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos believed that "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." And indeed, if there's a drug the artists in
 Daily Rituals can agree on, it's caffeine. Soren Kierkegaard preferred his coffee with sugar, or perhaps it was vice versa: "Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled above the rim," his biographer observed. "Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid."

[. . .]

James Joyce, we learn, woke daily around 10:00 a.m. He'd lie in bed for about an hour, then get up, shave and sit down at his piano, where he'd play and sing before writing in the afternoon and then hitting the cafes later that evening. John Updike, meanwhile, worked mornings, preferring to "put the creative project first," as he put it. Of his discipline, he said, "I've never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again."

“Some of the creative feats mentioned in the book seem godlike. P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, wrote the last 8,000 words of 'Thank You, Jeeves' in a single day.

Charles Darwin boasts one of the book's strictest schedules. After a stroll and breakfast alone, Darwin would begin a 90-minute work session around 8:00 a.m. He'd break to read mail with his wife and then return to his study around 10:30 a.m. for a second session. By noon or so, he'd have completed what he considered his workday, but the rest of his waking hours were no less regimented. He responded to letters, read and rested at regular intervals until bedtime, which arrived daily around 10:30 p.m. "Thus his days went for forty years," Currey writes, "with few exceptions."

(Via 3 Quarks Daily.)

Quote of the Day

He may not be crudely scientistic, but it is true that these days Dennett spends more time around scientists than other philosophers. "I find the discoveries in those fields mind candy, just delicious," he says. "If I go to a scientific conference I come away with a bunch of new things to think about. If I go to a philosophy conference I may come away just having learned four more wrinkles in the debate about something philosophers have been thinking about for all my life."

But Dennett also maintains that we need philosophy to protect us from scientific overreach. "The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don't learn that history you'll make those mistakes again and again and again. One of the ignoble joys of my life is watching very smart scientists just reinvent all the second-rate philosophical ideas because they're very tempting until you pause, take a deep breath and take them apart."

Ridicule and misrepresentation are in some sense an occupational hazard for the philosopher. "The best philosophers are always walking a tightrope where one misstep either side is just nonsense," he says. "That's why caricatures are too easy to be worth doing. You can make any philosopher – any, Aristotle, Kant, you name it – look like a complete flaming idiot with just a slightest little tweak."

--Julian Baggini on Daniel Dennett.

Seven Tools for Thinking

Courtesy of Daniel Dennett. My favorite bit:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent's case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.

But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody's time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one's opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. 
Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

2. 
List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. 
Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. 
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport's rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…

The discussion on how to use one's mistakes is also exceedingly useful--and difficult to follow for those who refuse to admit to any mistakes whatsoever.