Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category


October 18, 2014

“To some extent the rigid distinction between ego and environment is equivalent to that between mind and body, or between the voluntary and involuntary neural systems. This is probably the reason why Zen and yoga disciplines pay so much attention to breathing, to watching over the breath (anapanasati), since it is in this organic function that we can see most easily the essential identity of voluntary and involuntary action. We cannot help breathing, and yet it seems that breath is under our control; we both breathe and are breathed. For the distinction of the voluntary and the involuntary is valid only within a somewhat limited perspective. Strictly speaking, I will or decide involuntarily. Were it not so, it would always be necessary for me to decide to decide and to decide to decide to decide in an infinite regress. Now the involuntary processes of the body, such as the beating of the heart, do not seem to differ very much in principle from other involuntary actions going on outside the body. Both are, as it were, environmental. When, therefore, the distinction of voluntary and involuntary is transcended within the body, it is also transcended with respect to events outside the body.”

From Alan Watts, “The Way of Liberation in Zen Buddhism.” In The Way of Liberation: Essays and Lectures on the Transformation of the Self (New York: Weatherhill, 1983), 13-14.

Cascading Thoughts

October 6, 2014

Someone mentioned synesthesia to me the other day and defined it as the opposite of amnesia. Although that’s not at all what it is, the latter notion stuck with me. The opposite of amnesia; A swirling vortex of thoughts and memories, cascading all at once. This overwhelming mental state I understand, since I’ve lived it time and time again. Some marvel at my recall or the quick and lateral associations I sometimes make, but often it is more curse than blessing. Ideas, concepts, memories, feelings, vague intuitions followed over-enthusiastically — all this blends in an uncomfortable palette of being. Deleuze’s multiplicities. Or nothing to do with post-modern French philosophy at all. Just an assault.

This then is the quest — to tame the brain and find flow, rather than get caught in eddies and backwaters.

Yet as I sit and write this, sitting on a rock overlooking a quiet backwater in the river, autumn sun dipping below the treeline across the shore, the bubbling flow of a gentle waterfall just upriver, I think there is virtue in how I think (imagine the convoluted nature of that). That my ruminations and absurdities amount to meaning. Or at least coherence.

Wasn’t it the “weeping philosopher”, Heraclitus, who said that “No man ever steps in the same river twice“?

Eddies, backwaters or thundering waterfalls…

It’s all flow.


October 6, 2014

“…Symbols are not invented, they are there, and belong to an inalienable estate of man; indeed, one might say that all conscious thought and action are the unavoidable consequence of unconscious symbolization, that mankind is animated by the symbol.”

From Georg Groddeck, The Book of the It. Intro. Lawrence Durrell (New York: Vintage, 1961[1923]), 49.

Life and Childhood

September 8, 2014

“Life begins with childhood, and by a thousand devious paths through maturity attains its single goal, once more to be a child, and the one and only difference between people lies in the fact that some grow childish, and some childlike.”

From Georg Groddeck, The Book of the It. Intro. Lawrence Durrell (New York: Vintage, 1961[1923]), 13.

Breathing’s for the Meek?

July 3, 2014

Lovely satirical poem in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s The Sirens of Titan:

Break every link with air and mist,
Seal every open vent;
Make throat as tight as miser’s fist,
Keep life within you pent.
Breathe out, breathe in, no more, no more,
For breathing’s for the meek;
And when in deathly space we soar,
Be careful not to speak.
If you with grief or joy are rapt,
Just signal with a tear;
To soul and heart withing you trapped
Add speech and atmosphere.
Every man’s an island as in
lifeless space we roam.
Yes, every man’s an island:
island fortress, island home.

From Kurt Vonnegut Jr., The Sirens of Titan (New York: Delta, 1971), 152-53.

The Power of Vitalism

April 1, 2014

We exist in a social and intellectual world that is deeply schizophrenic. As the tradition of the Marxists reminds us, society is constructed and constrained by class, economics, and control of the means of production. Thinkers from the Frankfurt School extended the idea of limits and constraint into the realm of the academic and aesthetic, speaking of “instrumental rationality” and “the culture industry.” Philosopher Michel Foucault showed us how our very bodies and minds are disciplined and ordered by dominant knowledge forms, forms that further shape our most basic institutions. His project of trying to intervene into this normalizing process with his deep quasi-psychiatric analysis and treatment of post-Enlightenment society met with mixed results.

Postmodern thinkers like Derrida and Lyotard have added further complications, undermining the notion of grand narratives and even the fixed meaning of text itself. At times it seems we are left in a chaotic, endlessly confusing, frustratingly relativist world. Few still revel in this intellectual morass without any even vague guideposts, much as it at times does provide for dynamic and playful aesthetic outbursts.

And thus we are left with life. Life constantly ordered, organized, constrained, systematized, analyzed, institutionalized, disciplined, proscribed, described, and, sadly at times, senselessly destroyed.

But, despite these factors, life is a constant reminder of the small, essential truth of vitalism. It remains, sometimes only in slight, subtle ways, sometimes only in fits and starts, ultimately unpredictable in any universal sense. No ordered, mechanistic, technocratic system, regardless of its ferocity or scale, can completely consume life’s endlessly unpredictable and dynamic process of becoming.

Power is a heady and dominant notion in our world, but life is, in its essential nature, beyond the constraints of power. To believe in life as life, to accept some small segment of the idea of vitalism, is to, in the final analysis, “fight the power.”

N.B. The original draft of this text is about fifteen years old…It was recently rediscovered and necromantically re-animated and re-purposed as a blog post.

Shameless Self-Promotion Sunday

March 23, 2014

Much of what gets posted on this blog is essentially ephemera — random thoughts, idle speculation, little morsels of meaning, and the occasional snapshot. But I do also produce more cohesive work in my “real life” as a historian and philosopher of science. Believe me, in the age of the corporate university, that’s a lot less glamorous than it sounds.

Anyway, without further ado (well, maybe a bit more ado) here’s a link to a semi-popular piece that I wrote last spring in the literary e-magazine Berfrois about breathing, mindfulness and their simple transformative potential.

So take a deep breath and dive right in!

The Philosophy of Slack 9: Slack and Success

March 8, 2014

Slack states unequivocally that it remains sedated in the face of success stories. There is no success, only survival. In a Darwinian struggle for existence replete with killer asteroids, super bacteria, mutagenic cosmic rays, environmental toxicity, dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, and oncoming buses just making it through the day unscathed is success.

Slack is inured to the inundation of insights offered by an unending stream of success gurus. In any event, these all boil down to a conspiracy on the part of “management” to just get you to work harder.

There is no “secret” to success. Success is an illusion – there is no success, as thing out there in the world. We are all Holden Caulfield, and the brass ring will always be out of reach. Success, rather, is perspective. Getting out of bed is success. Alas, even here slack is sometimes unsuccessful…

Slack understands that success is, quite definitely, not directly related to effort. The winds of fate and fortune blow hither and yon, and for some, success is an innate function of being. Would anybody listen to Anthony Robbins if he were 5’7” and had crooked teeth?

Slack is its own success. In just letting go and being, slack has succeeded where most fail. Success, after all, can only be measured, never truly felt. Success is a function of comparisons – with others – and judgments of those around us by often arbitrary and obtuse standards. In its dependence on judging, success is actually by definition failure.

Slack grows weary of the whole self-help and self-improvement craze. Taking a page out of Alan Watts, slack knows that “self-improvement is a hoax.” Better how? Better when? Better than what?

In embracing each moment and languishing in it like a lizard sunning itself on a rock, slack happily waves goodbye to success as it speeds by on the highway of life, always moving towards its next goal, objective, meeting or coronary.

Besides, success in a contemporary context amounts to the acquisition of larger and larger quantities of stuff, which is really just a drag (c.f. “Slack and Stuff”).


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