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LET’S ALL BE INTELLECTUALS!

Review of Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook.  Boston: Godine, 2021

It is not very popular to be an intellectual in America today.  My husband and I, both college professors, were careful not to draw our neighbors’ attention to our status lest they hold back their friendship.  And now, country-wide distrust has been fired up by the idea that intellectuals inevitably condescend to ordinary people and that neither facts nor reasoning  are to be trusted.

The problem is, I become more and more intellectual as I get older.   Some years ago, having read Christopher Phillip’s Socrates Café about the discussions he holds in nursing homes, schools, prisons and public parks, I decided to solve my problem by convincing friends and neighbors that they were just as intellectual as I, and that it would be fun to have philosophical discussions with each other. 

In my Socrates Café, I make a firm distinction between an opinion and a thought, and I always insist that you can’t engage in thinking if you are opinionated. (see https://bit.ly/3jtmQ2b),  Most people are pleased to think things through, though I had to dissolve a Socrates Café at a senior center when, week after week, discussants refused to abandon their opinions about immigrants and people of color.

In Socrates, Farnsworth finds a perpetual questioner of “the commonplace. the acceptance of traditional opinions and current sentiments as an ultimate fact.” People feel good expressing their opinions in a pushy way, but it is precisely this kind of bold assertion that Socrates questions.  “Questions and answers are the sound of thought happening. An essay or lecture is usually the sound of a thought having happened.”

In asking one question after another Socrates is a skeptic, a word whose root means “inquiry” and which involves less of the modern “disdainfully doubtful” connotation than a person who “inquires without reaching a conclusion.  Skeptics don’t say ‘no’ to every claim, or indeed to any of them.  They just keep asking questions.  They want the truth, and are always trying to get closer to it, but they never reach a stopping point; they never find certainty. They have a dread of ‘rash assent’ and of thinking that you’re done thinking before you really are.”

I have noticed that people really like it when you question yourself in front of them: You can’t come across as intellectually condescending when you display skepticism about your own opinions!

When you apply the Socratic method to yourself, you arrive at a state of mind which Socrates calls Aporia.  “You realize that you’ve been pushing words around as if their meaning were obvious but that you don’t really understand.” Once you learn to do this, you can help other people get there, and that is why, pursued in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive manner, the Socratic method has a lot of promise for the hard-held opinions that endanger American democracy today

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Let’s give it a try with a guy who “doesn’t believe in facts”:

G(uy). Global Warming is a hoax made up by the democrats. It isn’t a fact – it’s propaganda.

Q. How about in your personal life? Do you use facts there?

G. What do you mean?

Q. Well, just for an example, how did you decide on the best commute to work today?

G. I started with a map when I first got the job, but as I went on, I worked out some shortcuts to make it quicker

Q. What did the map tell you?

G. Which roads intersected, distances – things like that.

Q. How did you work out the shortcuts?

G. I found some side roads, and then tested the route with my watch.

Q. Were the roads on the map and the timing you worked out based on facts?

G. Yes, but those aren’t the made-up kind.

Q. So you trust some facts, but not others?

G. Obviously!

Q. How about weather reports – do you trust those?

G. They are pretty accurate most of the time.

Q. Who does those weather reports?

G. The news, tv shows

Q. Where do they get their facts.

G. They get them from meteorologists.

Q. So you trust the accuracy of weather reports because they are given by trained meteorologists?

G. Yes.

Q. Do you know where the reports on Global Warming come from?

G. Of course: the democrats – Biden and his elite east coast friends who look down at us and want to ruin our economy.

Q. Do you think the inftense new hurricanes, wildfires, deluges, droughts and heat waves are really happening?

G. Yes.

Q. Why?

G. I see them on TV and we had a whole week of really heavy rain ourselves  last spring.

Q. Was your house okay?

G.  Yes, though the porch floated away.

Q. So your direct observation tells you that those kinds of storms are facts?

G. Yes, but they are not caused by humans: that’s the hoax!

Q. (summarizing): Okay, I see where you are coming from: you trust maps and your own observations of the closest route to work – which means that you trust your own reasoning from obvious facts. You trust what Meteorologists report about weather because it lines up with the facts you see on TV and with your own experience.  On the other hand, you don’t trust what meteorologists and climate scientists tell you about the causes of Global Warming.   I am not sure how one set of facts that you trust differs from the set of facts you don’t trust?

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What do you think? Is it working? If not, why not?  And then what?  Do you think there is room for using the Socratic method in everyday life?

GOING LIGHTLY, with e.e. cummings

In this world full of ponderous pundits and people who take everything far too seriously, have you noticed how relieved you feel when someone comes along who takes things lightly? 

I was dreadfully serious in my 20s, as many of us are at an age when we need to convince everybody – especially ourselves – that, having passed the age of 21, we are really adult (that was the age of adulthood in the fifties and sixties – it seems to be somewhere over 30 these days). My great passion was poetry then – reading it but, also (ponderously) writing it – and I took modern poets like T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats very seriously.

But then, there was e.e. cummings.  We had not “studied” him in our seminars;  I first encountered him in unusually joyous circumstances, when I was  leaning over the rail of a student ocean liner with the love of my life whom I had just kissed for the first time. 

I was (ostentatiously) carrying a little poetry collection around with me.  Henry leafed through it and then read out loud:

“when faces called flowers float out of the ground

and breathing is wishing and wishing is having –

but keeping is downward and doubting and never

it’s April (yes, April; my darling) it’s spring

yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly

yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be

(yes the mountains are dancing together)”

It fit the moment and the mood, it was light-footed to read, cheerfully anti-authoritarian in its lowercase lettering, and lacking the gloom and doom that had shadowed my life until I met my completely joyous, radically optimistic, guilelessly enthusiastic Henry  boarding in Rotterdam two days before. 

Yonks later, I am growing less and less serious and more and more fond of pure unmitigated silliness.  (No, this is not a second childhood, just an renewed appreciation of fun):

“o by the by

has anybody seen

little you-i

who stood on a green

hill and threw

her wish at blue”

Tthe other day I encountered a serious young mother reproving her little girl for splashing in a mud puddle;  

I just had to lean down and whisper to her:

Isn’t “the world mud-luscious…and puddle wonderful!”

We don’t expect anyone to advise us to become more shallow, but there is a lot to be said for trying not to be so boringly deep in order to walk more lightly on the earth. That was e.e. cummings’ idiosyncratic genius, like when he thanks God

“for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is

 infinite which is yes.

(i who have died and will live again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and love and wings:

and of the gay

great happening illimitable earth)

Biden’s Successes and Doomerist Assessments

Here’s Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer celebrating one of the many pieces of Democratic Party legislation that have gone through Congress during Biden’s first term. And there we all were in the middle of a very good political summer, flushed with triumph from getting the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law. Why were our newspapers and media full of doom and gloom about Biden’s low popularity and about huge setbacks expected for the November midterms? So, I hauled myself out of the river once again, setting my swim noodle aside to write an Impakter.com column about this odd discrepancy. Here’s what I came up with:

https://impakter.com/president-bidens-successes-doomerist-assessments/

Good Morning America

What did I do this summer? Although I was determined to lollygag as much as possible, Washington went into high gear on climate change legislation, which I have been working on with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby for years. Now, it all came to a head! As folks in Europe seem to want to know what is going on in American politics, here was my blow by blow description of this exciting summer rush to save our beloved planet that I wrote for Impakter.com.

Good Morning America: The Fight Against Climate Change Leaps Forward  – Impakter

How to be Perfec: A Philosophical Journey

A Review of Michael Schur, How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022.

I took an Introduction to Philosophy in college – my father and my brother majored in it, and I wanted to see what it was about.   What it was about was boring. The teacher wasn’t particularly inspired and never engaged us in the philosophical issues she droned on about. Besides, at that age I didn’t really care about what Socrates or Aristotle, Kant or Bentham felt was so vitally important.

I didn’t see the point of establishing my ethics for everyday living because I hadn’t done a whole lot of everyday living. But now!  After a life filled with the vicissitudes (and joys) of marriage, parenthood, teaching, community organizing and political activism I know what I stand for, though I still struggle to avoid undercutting my integrity by failing to live up to it.

That’s where Michael Schur’s How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question comes in. The fact that Schur is a tv comedy writer (Parks and Recreation) and is funny even when he is carrying on about categorical imperatives and existential anxiety convinced me to read the whole thing this summer, very slowly.

Here’s the kind of ethical conundrum that typically gets my moral knickers in a twist.   We have a community homeless shelter where I drop in with fresh fruit to supplement the hot lunches. I often chat with whoever has come off the streets that day: I have a rule for myself that if a guest wants to talk I will stop running all over town like a chicken with my head chopped off and take time for a conversation.

The other day I brought a bunch of grapes and stopped to greet a guy I often chat with, who was disconsolately slumped over his chair.  

“Lunch smells good,” I said.

“Would you sit down and eat it with me,” he asked.

He had been in the shelter all day with his mask below his nose, and I am at a high risk category for covid.  In order to break bread with him we would both have to take our masks off.

 “I am really sorry,” I said, “I have another errand.”

I chose between his good and my good, and I am still unhappy with myself about it. So is he: he has gone off me, no longer eager for my company.

That’s why I like Schur’s less than perfec (sic) take on the struggle to live up to our moral responsibilities: “Again, part of the project of this book is to help us accept failure – because, again, failure is the inevitable result of caring about morality and trying to be good people. I really don’t mean to argue for perfect living…because a) it’s impossible and b) I don’t even think it’s a good goal. Instead, I’m arguing that when we fail, in matters great or small, we just take a second to acknowledge our failure to ourselves, and try to remember that failure the next time we have a decision to make.”

He devotes the first eighty pages of his book to “various theories of how to be good people.” 

Deontology – Emmanuel Kant: Arrive at your rules for moral behavior through reasoning, as long as they work as well for others. My personal ethics told me to eat with the guy at the shelter, but, the very next day, I was joining my daughters and grandsons for our summer vacation.  Taking a risk on his behalf could in put me and my whole family at risk.  Or, my (Kantian) categorical imperative of being there when people ask me to was undercut because it might not work out well for others.

Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham: Make decisions that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.  Take my monetary donations to that shelter: arguing from quantitative analysis, shouldn’t I donate to groups whose intent is to eradicate homelessness (and poverty) altogether?

Contractualism –  T.M. Scanlon (Author of What We Owe to Each Other):  Make ethical decisions based on what we need to do to live with other people.  What we owe each other is more qualitative and emotional than quantitative and mathematical, therefore “Living with other people” backs my choice to support “bricks and mortar” programs in my own neighborhood rather than distant charities.

Virtue Ethics – Aristotle: what are virtues? Which values do we want to live by, how to we find the golden mean in enacting them that is neither too little or too much? There are two aspects of Aristotle’s ethics that are the touchstone for my decision-making:  first, that life does not consist of ideas but of action; secondly, matching your acts to your values brings life’s greatest happiness; being at one with yourself brings you a sense of wholeness, true flourishing as a human being.

Existentialism – Sartre: don’t look for a meaning in life there isn’t any. There is no source outside of you where you can find moral values: you have to make your own choices (while being sure they are good for others too.)  Camus: Life is absurd; accept human absurdity and try to make good individual choices anyway.

 I used Schur’s philosophical categories to sort out the basis for my life choices.  I have come to consider the universe fundamentally moral, so I go with Kant.   Utilitarianism leaves me (emotionally) chilled; though I have to admit that basing your charitable giving on algorithmically sorted data and quantitative accounting makes plenty of (rational) sense.  

In choosing my actions I have never been a loner, but always join in the social contracts of the organizations where I volunteer: there is my (Unitarian) church’s covenant to principles, for example, and the stated rules that the Citizens’ Climate Lobby adheres to. And there is our United States Constitution and our Rule of Law, about which I am passionate.  

As for Existentialism – when I fell into it during the (mercifully few) depressions I suffered, existential anxiety and a sense that life held no meaning whatsoever  undermined my entire (Kantian/Contractual/Aristotelian)  process of moral reasoning to leave me disastrously adrift on life’s tumultuous seas, without a rudder.   

One of the truly lovely things about living (as often as possible) by integrity is that your ethics have a way of making themselves available at a (non-deliberative) second’s notice. A moment suddenly arrives when I realize that I must stand up for my values, right then and right there. Trembling all over, I get up on my feet to speak my piece for what I think is right and good, and experience what Aristotle described as true human flourishing – a great and all-pervading feeling, a warm bolt of complete happiness that rises from the tips of my toes and shoots up my spine to the top of my head as, once again, I head for good trouble.

Are Rivers Persons?

Have you heard about courts endowing nature entities like rivers, wetlands, and even rice as “persons” with inherent rights? I am fascinated by this concept from an ecological point of view. Isn’t it anthropomorphism to accord humanity to beings who are utterly different from humans? Doesn’t this natural beings-as-persons approach value human beings over nature, which is how we got out of balance with nature in the first place?

Here is a column I wrote about this for www. impakter.com. https://bit.ly/3FbedUa

Regeneration!

The tight little Snowdrop buds poking on stalwart green stems through the hard-packed snow tell me that spring is arriving, the whole earth regenerating itself after the long, long months of snow and sleet and freezing temperatures of an especially hard winter. It is a yearly miracle, but a miracle nonetheless, reminding us of nature’s fiercely self-redemptive powers despite degenerations wrought by our tragic propensity for making bad decisions.

With new warnings about how close we have come to the destruction of a climate that can sustain human life, there are those who feel that only large-scale inter-national, national and corporate actions can save us, while others insist that if we cooperate with nature in personal and local acts of restoration, we still have a chance.

Here is my latest Impakter.com article with my take on The Role of Human Beings in Regeneration:

The watercolor painting by Helen Klebesadel is called “Nature Arising.”

Dear Socratians

DEAR SOCRATIANS

For many years, I have been facilitating a Socrates Café © at our local library, where people ask questions and discuss answers in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive conversation. We meet once a month (including on zoom during the never-ending pandemic), and when I send meeting reminders to my fellow Socratians, I usually include a quote or a question or philosophical tidbit to whet their appetites.  They, in turn, send me questions for a vote at the beginning of our meeting.

As lots of us are doing during this latest Covid lock-down, I was having a big sort-out of old papers when I came across a pile of “Dear Socratians” meeting reminders. During these homebound days and long winter evenings, it might be fun for you to discuss some of our philosophical ideas around your supper tables or, if you live alone like me, inside of your own head.  

Most people are alarmed at the idea of philosophical discussions because they sound so academic and “intellectual,” but Christopher Phillips holds his lively conversations at every kind of venue – school classrooms, prisons, senior centers, and right out in the street – where ordinary people get caught up in issues they have always wanted to discuss.  As Ward Farnsworth notes in The Socratic Method,  Socrates “was the first to show that life affords scope for philosophy in every moment, in every detail, in every feeling and circumstance whatsoever.”

As a facilitator using Christopher Phillips’ methods, my first task is to get people to stop expressing opinions instead of thoughts:

Dear Socratians,

At our last meeting we decided not to express what we have already made up our minds about (opinions) but reframe our ideas as philosophical questions (thoughts).  We had a good start discussing the limits of human choice,  but, when abortion came up, things got a lot less rational.

When our emotions are roused, the neo-cortex can be overwhelmed by the mammalian brain – all fright and flight.  Thus an issue that we are already angry about or personally shaken by is going to subvert the rational tone of our discourse.

Let’s work on proposing questions that we haven’t already made up our minds about.  That way, we can develop our little oasis of reason in this contentious world.

Dear Socratians,

We avoid political and religious questions because these are so contentious. If we really need to ask them, how can we find calmer ways to approach them?  In a Socrates Café, almost any question can be fine-tuned so it can be examined in a philosophical way.

Example 1: When Timothy McVeigh was put to death, a person who wanted to discuss why this happened framed the question as “who owns human life?” In that way the group could look not only at the particular issue, but also at a wide range of o philosophically import ideas that were related.

Example 2: Soon after we went to war in Iraq, people wanted to talk about whether this was the appropriate course of action.   To do so in a philosophical way, they framed the question as  “What is a just war?”

Example 3: A group of Socrates Café members wanted to examine the “gay marriage” issue in a philosophical way. “What is an excellent marriage” let them discuss it in the broader context of the institution of marriage as a whole.

Dear Socratians,

Thanks for your questions!  I wish we could discuss them all, but we will take a vote on just one for Sunday:

1.     What brings you joy any time of the year?

2.     What is intelligence, specifically defined? Is it part of a larger area of understanding? Is it broad or narrow like engineering?

3.      What is courage?

4.     We know about physical illness. We know about mental illness.  Is it possible to have soul sickness?  How would you describe it?

5.     Do words mean different things depending on who says them?

Dear Socratians,

Everyone seems to think that human beings invented mathematics.  But how do you account for the “Golden Ratio,” the fact that in the spiral of a nautilus shell or the ratio between rows on a sunflower head display identical formulas? 

The sea snail and the sunflower evolved before we did, didn’t they?  What do you make of the fact that they contained discernable mathematical algorithms before human beings evolved?  Is the universe mathematical?

Dear Socratians,

Sometimes in the dark hours of the night, or in the middle of yet another chaotic day, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about?  Is Covid 19 entirely random?  Is everything on earth just whirling about every which way, with no rhyme or reason?”

I have been thinking about Stoicism lately. This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control, which is our attitude and our choice of action.

Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless for you?  You might consider Cynicism, also a classical philosophy, but this one is based on the idea that people only pursue their individual self-interest and that social norms are ridiculous.  Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the name derives from “dog” and it’s a dog’s life you will live doing your own thing, like chasing your tail and lazing around in the sun all day long.

Dear Socratians,

In the school of philosophy called cynicism you get to be skeptical about everything and to live all careless of outcomes, like a dog.

I thought you cat lovers might like to know that there is a feline school of philosophy as well. 

John Gray has published a book on Feline Philosophy:  

“Rather than groping for meaning in a universe that offers none, we sure try to be more like cats, creatures that are congenitally happy being themselves…(fostering) contemplation-a mode of perception that fosters equanimity – and offers a scheme for emulating the catlike qualities that might permit us to thrive without anxiously inquiring how to live.”

The question is, aren’t these just as canine as feline qualities, or are cats more “contemplative” than dogs?

Dear Socratians,

There is a kind of philosophizing you could call “short-term” in that it takes place inside a single figure of speech.  For example, look at antitheses, which are words expressing an idea one way in one phrase and another (usually opposite) in the second:

“The United States Right long ago rejected evidence-based policy in favor of policy-based evidence.”

“Intelligence isn’t knowing everything. It’s the ability to challenge everything you know.”

“We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”  

Try writing one – they are fun (like eating peanuts). 

Dear Socratians,

Thanks for your questions!   I am looking forward to seeing which one you vote for on Sunday:

1.     What makes us human?

2.    What does it mean to have a conscience?

3.      When does freedom turn into license to do any and all things?

4.      If we can process the death of cats, dogs, and elephants, why do we have such a hard time defining and coping with human death?

5.    Why is there something rather than nothing?

Would you like to attend one of our meetings? They are the third Sunday of the month at 2PM, currently on Zoom. Just email me to avpratt@aol.com and I will send you a Dear Socratian reminder.

Zee you there!