Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

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”).

Forgetting Beauty

February 20, 2014

Is there a greater regret than forgetting beauty? To have known the beautiful — truly, immanently, intimately — and to forget that fact is akin to death. It is certainly a tragedy.

Simple stunning beauty, like the rich, subtle gradations of color in a perfect sunset, is never really forgotten. It lives within, it makes up our being.

But one must make the effort — must remember the light — the brilliant, beautiful, life-giving light — even in the depths of darkness. It is that which nourishes and sustains.

Beauty is alchemy. It transforms a leaden heart into a golden glowing grace. It is rock-solid philosophy. Unshakable. A foundation for the ages, immune to any challenge, argument or skepticism.

“She walks in beauty, like the night.” Maybe. Rather her beauty transforms — transmutates — night into day. Makes the darkness shine. Turns subtle shadowy forms into transcendental perfection.

The truth is there’s no regret — no place for sadness. Beauty cannot be forgotten. It will always be. It will not be forgotten. It simply is.

It is the seeing, the remembering — that is the art. To have eyes for the purpose. To open the blinds that cover the windows in a darkened room of the soul. That’s a worthwhile quest.

Beauty…I always remember. And love.

Self-Improvement is a Hoax

January 24, 2014

“Here is the situation: the whole idea of self-improvement is a will-o’-the-wisp and a hoax. Let us begin where we are. What happens if you know beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is nothing you can do to be better? Well, it is a kind of relief. I am what I am, there it is. So you say, ‘Now what will I do?’, and there is a little fidget that comes up because we are so used to making things better — ‘leave the world a little better than when you found it’ sort of thing, or ‘I want to be of service to other people,’ and all such dreadfully hazy ideas. There is that little itch still. But if we realize that there really is nothing we can do to improve ourselves or improve the world, it gives us a breather in the course of which we may simply watch what is happening. No one ever does this. It sounds terribly simple, it sounds so simple that it looks almost as if it is not worth doing. But have you ever just watched what is happening, and what you are doing by way of reaction to it? Just watch it happen, and do not be in a hurry to think you know what it is. People look and say, ‘Well, that is the external world.’ How do you know? The whole thing, from a neurological point of view, is just happening in your head. That you think there is something outside the skull is a notion in your nervous system. There may or may not be. That this is the material world, is someone philosophical idea. Or maybe you think the world is spiritual; that, too, is someone’s philosophical idea. The world is not spiritual, it is not material, the real world is simply as it is.”

From Alan Watts, The Way of Liberation: Essays and Lectures on the Transformation of the Self (New York: Weatherhill, 1983), 69-70.

Thoughts on Telos

January 20, 2014

Life doesn’t make any sense. There is no rhyme or reason. No greater understanding to be had, no deeper meaning to be made. But life has purpose. More than this, life is purpose. That’s all it is – a blind, instinctual drive to be; to exist. It’s a constantly renewed desire; a wanting and needing without end. It’s no wonder that some long for the peace of death, as life is the ultimate state of disharmony – a constant irritation. An itch that can never be satisfyingly scratched.

This is the purity of telos – of the end of life. Life pushes, life swells, life consumes and is consumed. This is the primal function of Aristotle – the anima nurtritiva – the nutritive soul. It exists, it generates, it grows, it seeks out nutrition and sustenance, without sense or reason. The philosopher Spinoza saw this as the essential, inevitable fact of the living; that it strives to survive. He called this principle of animation in living things “conatus” (striving).

This is also the essential madness of life. It’s an impulse akin to the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s “blind idiot god” Azathoth: “Outside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity – the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond space and time…” Indeed, it is we, as human beings trapped in a consciousness whose purpose and origin will forever escape us, who “gnaw hungrily” in our own minds – which in a manner of speaking are “inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond space and time.”

Life is the eternal cusp of becoming. It is what Heidegger described as “being” (Dasein). It is the point toward which we constantly strive but never arrive. Life, the essential fact of our very existence – our life force – is desire. Desire and pleasure are connected but not synonymous. Desire is that force which compels us to the point of satisfaction – to the point of reaching our goal (whatever it may be). It is the neurological system that behaviorists argue impels us towards certain behaviors.

The problem, of course, is that this system is at its most engaged – the neurons fire most intensely and the release of dopamine is most pronounced – at a point before we reach our objective. And so, in the end, we as living things are wired to seek and compelled to desire regardless of the outcome.

One can derive all sorts of pseudo-profound axioms about life and its meaning from this fact (i.e. “it’s about the journey, not the destination”). But these are just echoes of mind, of our desire to create patterns, to believe there is true purpose and meaning behind our actions.

There isn’t, of course. Our purposes and actions are no more significant than those of a flea biting a dog, or of that dog’s preoccupation with a ball or a bone that it cannot reach.

In the end, that is our end. We live and breathe and grow and think in spite of ourselves. We are built to strive. Towards what it usually isn’t clear. But always there is the impulse, the compulsion. Always we are propelled forward, oozing out into the world like a cup full of liquid spilling out onto a clean table.

And so, this is why the pursuit of desirelessness – of the contemplation of desirelessness – is the ultimate purpose. And yet, it is not a pursuit – or at least cannot be understood as a pursuit. In fact it cannot be understood at all. It’s a pursuit beyond all pursuits. This is the vipassana – insight into the true nature of reality. This insight is at root insight-less. It is being one with Lovecraft’s “blind idiot god.” It is, in a sense, a being beyond being.

The Philosophy of Slack 8: Slack and Chaos

October 5, 2013

Slack accepts, even thrives, on the idea of chaos. Most fear chaos. Chaos reminds us of the laws of thermodynamics and entropy, of the breakdown of all things. For living things, this implies death and decay; that which lives naturally avoids death, and, by extension, chaos.

But avoiding something requires effort. This is antithetical to slack. As Epicurus reminds us “Don’t worry about death.” “Death is nothing to us,” he says, for “when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.”*

Thus, slack should not concern itself with the apparent perils of chaos. This particularly since slack is instinctually opposed to order. Order implies law and justice. And control. These are all inimical to slack. Control requires effort, often of monumental proportions. Justice gives one what one is due, but is contrary to the principle of slack, which holds that things “just happen,” sometimes — even often — unjustly. Law is the instrument of this unjustness.

Order is an illusion; a notion that we can impose structure with effort. But the real order is beyond us, and exists regardless of the outer appearance of chaos. Slack accepts this, and by extension takes chaos at face value.

*Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, eds., The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), viii.

[N.B. This is part of a series. Here's the last one I posted. And here's the first.]


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