Tuesday, December 30, 2008

note to self.

for further thought and attention post-metaphysics comp: religion! (as a moral motive)
i've added the two linked journal articles to my moral motivation-themed summer reading list.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

and another thing.

the same actions which are responsible for and instrumental in the origin and development of the virtues are also the means of their destruction.

the nichomachean ethics
book ii, part 3

aristotle famously posits the golden mean as the way to understand virtue-- courage, for instance, as the virtue standing midway between cowardice (a vice of deficit) and recklessness (a vice of excess). virtue is the target, standing at the balanced dead center of all manner of vice and moral compromise.

i wrote a little about virtue ethics over the summer-- not so much about the golden mean, but what the actual exercise of a virtue consist in. what i mean is, i was addressing not so much the question of how, in theory, we understand what courage is, but what it is to be courageous (or to be patient-- the example i used at the time). to actually be virtuous is to be someone whose behavior conforms to virtue time and time again. it has to do with a consistency that is the result of each action springing from the same firm character. and just as consistency depends on firmness of character, firmness of character depends on authenticity. if it's not really you, you can't sustain it. beyond that, the virtuous person explicitly takes herself to be striving for virtue, undertakes virtuous acts for their own sake (that is, for the sake of the ultimate end-- the good life) and not in pursuit of some extrinsic end (like money or something like that), and, in turn, gets a certain pleasure from acting in the way according with virtue.

so, i'm trying to finish a paper on all this. in the paper i try to come to some understanding of how we can make sense of extremists-- radicals, visionaries, ascetics-- in these terms. a lot of our moral heroes (religious saints in particular, but also secular figures like ghandi or john brown) fall into this category, and there are lots of other people (particularly artists) who make valuable contributions to society, although their value isn't explicitly moral, which seems to be generated by certain extreme or ultimately self-defeating character traits. on the surface, at least, it looks like these sorts of extreme characters are not conforming to any sort of "happy medium", and yet we revere them, either for their moral integrity, or some quasi-moral aesthetic integrity.

are creative highs and principled stands the elevated end of a seesaw-- dependent upon, caused by, or one part of a whole that necessarily includes a lowered end? does the golden mean leave us perfectly balanced at the fulcrum, the low end raised, and the raised end lowered? what do we lose, if anything, and is it worth it?

i seriously have to finish this paper.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

something i've been thinking about.

attributing good faith to all other human beings-- particularly those who have done some harm to us-- is often considered naive. but it seems to me, given all of the complexities of circumstance, cognitive biases toward attending to our own interests rather than those of others, and the myriad ways in which people makes sense of (rationalize, perhaps) their own behavior, that the real naivete lies in attributions of bad faith or, more precisely, ill will. it strikes me as almost superstitious-- naive in the way that it's naive to attribute weather that scares or injures us to angry gods. we're harmed in some way by some movement in the world, and, in our pain and ignorance and self-absorption, we make sense of it by attributing some ill intention. this is not a new idea. but i don't mean to say that it's naive to attribute intentions to people in general-- i mean bad intentions in particular. i'm suggesting that bad intentions, despite all the wrenching harm that people manage to do, are relatively rare, and that making adequate sense of all that harm, even in terms of human agency, will require a more sophisticated analysis.

this sounds a little funny. on the one hand i'm trying to correct a certain misanthropic world view. on the other hand, my criticism is built on an understanding of human beings as vulnerable and ignorant and self-absorbed. but i don't mean these terms pejoratively. we're relatively small things with a lot of nerve endings (literal and metaphorical) and limited resources and just two eyes to see out of. to have contempt for a thing because it's that sort of thing strikes me as being ungenerous to the point of its being a kind of misapprehension. what's naive (though forgivably so) is to have ever believed that things were otherwise-- to have been operating on the assumption that we are more, or that our being good or worthy depends on such a thing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

more cut and pasted email.

(this one's from elissa j. do your part, creeps.)

the suburban needs your help

Hello all,

The Peter Coffin Studio and The Suburban Gallery, Chicago are working on a project called; "How to Sneak into Art Museums Without Paying". We'd like you to share any techniques you have acquired through your life/work experience to submit to this project. These instructions (of "How to...") from you should be hand drawn and scanned to reproduced in a booklet/zine that will be distributed for an exhibition at the Suburban and to participants.

These illustrated techniques should actually work and must be relatively current. The instructions you provide should not require doctored documents such as fake passes etc or fake uniforms/badges and should be relatively easy to understand so that someone on the street can enter without paying using the instructions you submit.

If you would like to submit a plan, please hand draw it on 8 1/2 x 11 white paper in black pen/or pencli and scan in on gray scale @ 200 DPI and send to; assistant.petercoffinstudio@gmail.com

Include your name/pseudonym separate from the drawing in the email, to be included in the credits of the booklet. All accepted participants will of course receive a copy of the booklet/zine. And remember to include in the drawing the museum's name and city.

These are plans that should actually work so stick to keeping them as clear as possible....including street entrances, descriptive markers or "what to say to a guard"... anything to make the drawing effective. I have included a sample of a plan to sneak into the KW museum in Berlin to show generally what we are looking for. Feel free to forward this to any sneaky pals you know anywhere, especially outside the US as this is for any major museum/institution across the globe.



Tuesday, December 09, 2008


from: matthew allen
to: me

i searched for "agency philosophy" in google images - hoping to find some obfuscatory diagram to wave at architects to my rhetorical advantage - and i came across an image of you! brightened my day! but no diagram...


(it's true! i'm on page 3!)
(also, soon i'll post real blogs again-- as opposed to cutting and pasting self-promotional materials.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


i want to read this ten times and say a hundred things about it, but i can't right now.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

i'm all twisted up this semester-- contorted with work!  one result of this is that i've been sadly neglecting this blog, and probably you.  in the meantime i've taken to "micro-blogging"-- text-length blog posts-- which is probably just about as creepy as it sounds.  nonetheless, i share brief updates on my whereabouts and the direction of my thoughts via a service called twitter, which i can (and do) update via the web and (more often) my cellular telephone.  if the whole thing doesn't freak you out too much, if you aren't too fretful of your status as dasein, you might consider joining.  heidegger is dead, and won't feel a thing.

(note: spellcheck just tried to make 'heidegger' 'headgear'.  and by 'dasein', it suggests, perhaps i meant 'casein'.  god help us all.  no, wait, he's dead too.)  

Monday, October 06, 2008

despite all the ways there are to be human, the variegated range of culture, there's a lot we all have in common-- every culture on earth.  we're all tool-makers, gossips-- we all read each others faces, read for intention, and are consequently adept at making, masking and mimicking them.  we all have a word that means 'one' and a word that means 'two' (although not always a word for zero, or numbers more than several); we all tell stories, and we all pause in our storytelling for effect.  we all live, and we all die, and we all have rituals to honor and mourn the dead.  

my aunt died this morning, unexpectedly.  she died in her sleep-- complications from diabetes-- in the sort of voluntary mental health facility she'd lived in for as long as i can remember, the kind she'd been in and out of for most of her life.  in and out.  not just in and out of institutions, but of everything.  she'd be gone for days or weeks or months and come back with a man or a long coat or empty eyes.  my early memories are punctuated by her comings and goings.  she did a lot drugs, she made plenty of mistakes, and her life for the last twenty years seemed to me to consist primarily in smoking cigarettes on patios and some occasional crafting.  but you could fill a hundred books with all of the things that aren't what they seem to me.  she may have thought thoughts as deep as space, but i never knew them.  i have this sense, though, a common sense, that a special kind of thoughtful regard is due.  so while leah's at home signing all the papers, i wrote a brief obituary as an alternative to the antiseptic form announcements that the paper runs otherwise.  it's not revelatory or illuminating, but i hope it's not sentimental either, and i think it's true.

jill gillespie, 55, was born in january of 1953 to nancy and calvin gillespie, the third of three.  she was curious, artless, gentle on the whole, and utterly without malice.  she was interested to know what was out there.  jill passed away in her sleep early monday morning.  she is survived by her brother, sister-in-law, and two neices.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

the most self-defeating post ever.

this is my second ever blog (that i can recall) about contemporary politics. it won't take very long: WILL EVERYONE PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT SARAH PALIN!

seriously, when i heard that john mccain had chosen her as his running mate, the only thing i felt was embarrassed for him. a guy whose only hope seems to hang on some vague perception of him as a maverick-- a man of integrity, who does what he thinks is right while everyone else is doing what's merely expediant-- has chosen a running mate whose only creditial seems to be that some political strategist of unsubtle mind thinks that choosing her would be tactical. there didn't seem to me to be any real risk that hordes of women would mccain over obama on the grounds that sarah palin was his running mate. no need for political analysts to explain anything-- the move could not have been more pathetically obvious, ineffective, and self-defeating. i still hold this to be true.

what i failed to anticipate was that reasonable left-leaning people-- particular women-- would flip the fuck out, start groups, fill my inbox with forwards and my mini-feed with their sarah-palin-related feelings! and in this, perhaps the mccain campaign was actually a step ahead of me. because the outrage amongst people who would never support mccain anyway has made this into an issue that actually MIGHT rally hordes of women to the mccain campaign. in a race between mccain-palin and obama-biden, mccain-palin doesn't have a shot in hell. but make this a race between palin and "women against palin", and those soccer moms that everyone's so fucking concerned about might pick palin. and i might not blame them! because in amidst the the valid criticism of her qualifications and policy positions, people in groups like "women against palin" will likely also say things that reflect a certain conscious or unconsious disdain, a certain tone of contempt which those soccer moms, whoever they are, might reasonably take to heart.

it's true that mccain's choice of a running mate is an insult to women who work hard, women who are qualified for the jobs they hold-- women who are overqualified-- and it's an (embarrassingly obvious) insult to our intelligence, and to everyone's, to think that anyone will vote for her on her initial merits. this, i'll admit, didn't immediately occur to me as noteworthy, because every one of mccain's stances on every issue is an insult to women (and to everyone else). but, frankly, i find it almost equally insulting that other progressive people think that i need mccain's move explained to me, or that anyone else does. and in the meantime we're just creating the thing that we feared.

[another thing: in a couple of months i'm going to have to make this blog private for awhile-- meaning you can only read it if your email address is on a list of email addresses that i submit. it's a bummer, but i'm going to be paying a lot of money to send applications out to various graduate schools, and i don't really want any investigative application reviewers to be able to read my extremely informal musings, philosophical or otherwise. if you're on my blogroll, i'll add you automatically-- if you're not, and you ever check this and might want to continue to, please please let me know and i'll add you.]

Sunday, September 07, 2008


i haven't heard back yet about my comp-- i'm assuming that i didn't pass it.  so while i wait, i will post this apt little piece of the answer that i prepared for the question on virtue ethics. 

If an agent is patient, for example, she will be disposed to resist acting in haste, a disposition that consists partially in a particular set of feelings and desires that would make her inclined, under many circumstances, to wait rather than act—a sense of calm, say, a certain resistance to undue urgency.  It consists partially in a certain kind of judgment.  To possess a virtue is to accept certain features of the world as reasons, and to be sensitive to the presence of those reasons, which will sometimes be features of the external world, and sometimes features of one’s own psychological economy.  The agent who demonstrates patience will therefore be an agent who recognizes certain features of the various circumstances that confront her, and of her own mental state in those circumstances, as strong reasons to bide her time, to wait on further information, more auspicious circumstances, or a clearer frame of mind.  The possession of patience as a virtue also involves the practiced and competent managing of subtleties and exceptions.  A perfectly virtuous agent recognizes patience as a strong, but not necessarily an overriding consideration.  Just as the virtue of honesty also involves tactfulness and discretion, so patience also involves promptness, decisiveness and courage, lest it be mere paralysis (cowardly, irresolute, or procrastinatory).

[i passed.]  

Saturday, August 23, 2008


most enjoyable new york times reading experience i've had in quite some time.

Monday, August 18, 2008

doing good. doing all right.

i'm taking a comp on friday, and i spent today reading about virtue ethics-- the ancient (most famously greek) notion that doing what's right is a matter of acting from good character.  it stands in some contrast to the deontological notion (most famously kant's) that doing what's right is a matter of acting on particular principles or maxims.  the theories have plenty in common, but here's where they contrast starkly:

according to most virtue theorists, perfect virtue consists in a flawless harmony between virtuous acts and the feeling and desires of the virtuous actor.  acting virtuously despite bad or conflicting feelings is (mere?) contingent virtue.  but according to kant, an act can only have moral worth when it conflicts with one's immediate desires.  it's not that our actions are necessarily bad if they happen to accord with our desires (if, say, we act generously because it feels good), but they aren't specifically moral-- if we act kindly because we feel like it, then the maxim that we're acting on isn't "act kindly" but "do what you feel like", which, kant says, is not a moral principle-- we certainly wouldn't want to make it a universal (moral) law that everyone in all circumstances should do what they feel like.

so is the more virtuous moral agent the one who has to wrestle with her own desires to do what she thinks is right, or the one who feels inclined to kindness and courage-- who is naturally or cultivated impervious to fear, envy, etc.?   here is a place where a disagreement in the philosophical literature seems to reflect conflicting notions in our everyday thinking about ethics and morality.  we count among our saints and heroes both sorts of agents.

i wonder what you think.  i'm inclined to agree with the virtue ethicists, but i'm conflicted.  haha.  fuck.

[dictionary.com word of the day:  AESTIVAL (es-tuh-val) of or belonging to the summer.]

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

nomadry, in earnest.

i'm homeless for one month.
i wonder what it will be like.

Friday, July 18, 2008


kay ryan has been named america's poet laureate. it's a wonderful thing. she's been my favorite living poet since i was twenty-two and, lonesome and living sparely, read this:

Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning once
you've swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you've begun.

kay ryan
that will to divest

Saturday, July 12, 2008

i didn't die.

but my computer battery did.
it's back now. more so soon.


Thursday, May 01, 2008


hi friends. i finally cleared out my voicemail this morning, but then my phone fell out of my pocket on prospect and got run over by a car-- totally* kaput. god knows when i'll replace it. send me emails if you need anything-- i'll be sitting in front of my computer until monday, and after that i'll be as far away from it as possible for as long as i can manage. i guess then you'll have to send me a letter. or come find me! i miss all of your various faces.

as ever,

*actually, it seems like maybe if it rang, i could answer it. but maybe not. i'm just going to turn it off for now, but someone should help me figure this out later.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

the retributivist instinct?

the following paragraphs conclude jared diamond's recent essay, "vengeance is ours: what can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?".  in it he implicitly and explicitly compares two stories-- the first of daniel, member of the handa clan in the new guinea highlands, who avenged the death of a beloved uncle at the cost of 'three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs"-- the second of jozef, diamond's father-in-law, who lived a long life of ambivalent regret after giving up the chance to shoot the holocaust-era murderer of his mother and sister (who the polish state later set free).  

"we regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions.  it ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly.  modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance.  we grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and transcend.

there is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual's right to exact personal vengeance would miake it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state.  wotherise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing  in non-state societies like those of the new guinea highlnads.  in that sense, jozef was right to leave punishment of his mother's killer to the polish state, and it was tragic that the polish state failed him so shamefully.  yet, even if the killer had been properly punished, jozef would still have been deprived of the personal satisfaction that daniel enjoyed.

my conversations with daniel made me understand what we give up by leaving justice to the state.  in order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad.  but, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discourages, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged.  to a close relative or friend of someone who has been killed or seriously wronged, and to the victims of harm themselves, those feelings are natural and powerful.  many state governments to attempt to grant the relatives  of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one's murderer.

daniel concluded his story in the happy, satisfied, staightforward tone in which he had recounted the rest of it.  'now, when we visit an ombal village to play basketball, and isum comes to watch the game in his wheelchair, i feel sorry for him,' he said.  'occasionally, i go over to isum, shake his hand, and tell him, 'i feel sorry for you.'  but people see isum.  they know that he will be suffering all the rest of his life for having killed soll.  people remember that isum used to be a tall and handsome man, destined to be a future leader.  but so was my uncle soll.  by getting isum paralyzed, i gained appropriate revenge for the killing of my tall and handsome uncle, who had been very good to me, and who would have become a leader.'"

gripped as i am by the philosophical issues surrounding agency and retributivism, and admiring as i am of jared diamond's work, you might imagine the excitement i felt when this caught my eye as i skimmed the index page of this week's new yorker. i read it through once and felt terribly disappointed. i read it again and just felt discomfited-- although not, i think, in precisely the way that diamond surely intended this essay it discomfit us all.  but i might be giving myself too much credit here, so i've decided to sit with this one a little longer, to meditate and stew a little on the essay and my reaction to it.

anyway, it's a little unfair to just have you read the end, given that most of the rest of the essay does the important work of telling the full story of daniel, so that the western reader can't comfortably demonize or distance herself from him-- but i urge you to either take this for granted or, if you can't, to go read for yourself.  my discomfort does not arise from a sense that vengeance or it's taking is monstrous or primitive.

the problem of identity.

david lewis says that there is no problem of identity, and he has a point.  there is no conceptual problem of identity.  identity is a relation-- the most basic relation:  everything is identical to itself and nothing is identical to anything that is not itself.  what is identical will have all of the same properties, and what is not identical will differ in properties.  some properties are intrinsic (the property of being red), and some are relational (the property of being a sister, or of having one foot out the door).  some properties are accidental, like having brown hair (you could change them and still be recognizably yourself) and some properties are essential, like a triangle having three sides, or you not being a fungus (the object in question wouldn't be itself minus the property in question).  identity is the perfect sameness of all properties-- intrinsic and extrinsic, essential and accidental.  

like most of david lewis' wonderfully clarifying explanations of thorny philosophical issues, his analysis of identity solves no lived problems.  he reminds us that there is no problem about what identity is-- a thing is identical to whatever it is and nothing it's not.  but what are you?  the problem of what your identity is still sits there, knotty as ever, and probably unanswerable.  the philosophical problem is solved-- we have clearly articulated standards for what it means to be identical.  but we have no more clue than we ever did about what we're identical to, or of how to recognize the answer should we ever stumble upon it.  for this,  lewis sends us back to inspect the actual world.  it's fair, admirably honest even, but that's what we were doing before.  am i doing any better job of it for having taken time off from my inspections to read this analysis of what it is i'm trying to do?  unclear.

Monday, April 21, 2008

laundry list.

there is always a little moment of surprise when i pull my laundry out of the washer and find underneath it the small pile of items that i left in my pockets or the cuffs of my jeans. last time it was an almond and three packets of green tea (my t-shirts smelled so nice!). today i found a nickel, a limp bit of clear plastic, and a grape.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

the passive voice. (or, how not to say yr sorry.)

active voice: 'i have eaten the plums that were in the ice box'.
passive voice: 'the plums that were in the ice box were eaten'.

using the passive voice is generally considered bad form. it's obfuscatory-- sometimes lazily imprecise, sometimes downright equivocal. it often indicates a lack of confidence-- not just uncertainty about who the actor is, but a lack of confidence in one's own authority to say so. students notoriously write this way: "it might be argued that...", "it is often said...", so that whatever claim is being made, having issued from nowhere in particular, seems to issue from everywhere, from the vast universe itself. but when we use the passive voice we often fail to communicate all of the relevant information, or to acknowledge the weakness of our own claims (is it often said? who says it? is it credible?), and even when we've just moved all of the information around ('the plums that were in the ice box were eaten by me'), we've shifted the meaning all around, made the object the subject and the subject an afterthought.

the passive voice leaves us with an actor-less act, a mover-less move, a claimant-less claim. no one is particular seems to be responsible for the act, the move, the claim. when we want to know or say more about it, where should we look? who can we ask? inspect? praise? blame? the plums that were in the icebox have been eaten, and you were probably saving them for breakfast! now you can no more have them for breakfast if i ate them than you could if the man in the moon ate them, and that's a fact. if what you're concerned about is your relationship to the plums, then the passive construction might give you all the information worth having. but if you're concerned with our relationship (you and me-- friend and friend, guest and host, narrator and reader), you might care very much whether it was me or the man and the moon, and where i acknowledge i ate them, you might rightly discern some difference in meaning between my saying so in a way that highlights my involvement as opposed to downplaying my involvement.

i'm reading a book right now (which i quote from in my last post) by a philosopher named nick smith, and it's about apologies. as it turns out, the passive voice has a sordid history in the realm of apology. it's the difference between "i'm sorry i hurt you" and "i'm sorry you were hurt" (coming from the injurer in question). i'm sorry i. i'm sorry you. as you might guess, smith argues that apologies in the passive voice are bad apologies. passive apologies may amount, smith explains, to thin and self-serving expressions of sympathy, meant to do the relationship-repairing work of an admission of wrong doing without the wrong-doer actually having to admit any such thing. these apologies have the same general problem that all passive constructions have-- they aren't specific enough, and according to smith one of the keys to apologies is being very clear about just who is apologizing and what that person or entity is apologizing for. and in the case of apologies the passive voice has the particularly devastating effect of failing to assign or emphasize responsibility in a case where the whole point of the phrase is to so assign and emphasize. this all makes good sense-- everyone has felt the maddening insult of the passive apology-- the feeling of wanting her to be sorry she did it, sorry because it was wrong of her, when all she's sorry for is that you were somehow hurt, sorry that you feel that way.

yes. totally. i more than agree. but, listen, i decided a long time ago that praise and blame and Moral Responsibility are a shady business in this vast world of causes. and this is the part where i'm suppose to explain and talk about metaphysical commitments. meh. the idea, roughly, is that to keep the idea of a clearly delineated individuals buck-stops-here-responsible for clearly delineated acts, you're going to have to commit yourself to the existence of entities like Souls and external Values and Unmoved Movers-- all manner of simultaneously powerful and unverifiable stuff that does the explaining-- and even that probably won't get you what you want. if you don't want to have to argue for the existence of stuff like that, then what you're likely to have instead is a hard time thinking of people or acts as discrete units and moral responsibility as so easy to define and assign. blah, blah, you've heard it all before, dear readers. anyway, by metaphysical commitments (ontological commitments, more specifically), i just mean the foundational commitments that we are or aren't willing to make about what kinds of things exist (we've almost come full circle, see, we're almost there). it's important when i make a claim about the world that i'm not half-consciously helping myself to belief in some entity that, if i thought about it, i wouldn't actually say i believe in.

ok, i haven't finished. i just inched a little further. someday soon i'm going to bring it all home, tie it all together. i do have some idea how. just not all idea how, or time.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

april fools.

contested facts often lie at the heart of moral injuries. from the outset, apologies stand a better chance of bearing significant meaning if the offender and the offended share an understanding of the facts relevant to the transgression at issue. although our interpretations of events may evolve over our lifetimes, much of our understanding of our selves and our world results from piecing together ambiguous fragments of information into a moral narrative. not only do we want to understand what happened after a confusing or traumatic event, but we also want the offender to share our understanding.

nick smith
[i was wrong: the meaning of moral apologies]

a lot of traumatic events are two-way traumatic. she feels hurt, and so does she. you feel wronged, and so do i. we stay busy telling ourselves the story of what happened, rehearsing our own monologues. i wish we tended to rehearse each other's, instead. wouldn't it be a miracle? you could tell yourself her story instead-- her story from her perspective, and then (fairly, unguardedly) from yours-- and she could tell herself your story, too, like you might tell it, and then like she (this new, better version) herself might. and you could both feel just what you've inflicted as if you had inflicted it immediately on your own self. if i could tell your story, instead, and you could tell mine, it might be energy better spent. defensiveness is the worst sort of laziness this side of passive-aggression-- don't do it, and don't stand for it, and don't wait on someone else to give in first. don't get trapped in the moment. take a deep breath and do a perfect handspring right out of yourself, right in to yourself.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

goodbye and hello. hello and goodbye.

winter is over, and so are my glasses. i'm going to miss them both. the glasses were the best i ever had, and the winter...well, it was cursed, but it included some truly fine moments, and has the special status of being the one and only 26th winter that i'm going to live. the glasses, i should mention, went the way all glasses should go-- as collateral damage done in the course of giving a righteous, an uncommonly angled, an impetuous and enthusiastically received hug! i have glued and reglued them many times over the last few weeks, but their day is done.

each is being replaced by another (another pair, another season), and each is being replaced spectacularly. i don't know what's more luxuriant, more luxurious, more casually effortlessly abundant, showy, than spring (the ultimate ingenue). oh, wait, maybe...buying not one but two pair of new glasses from a shmancy glasses shop in harvard square! was the sweet discount any excuse? what about my propensity to break and lose things? doesn't that make having a backup pair sensible? not decadent at all? i don't think so-- i think that i just fell in love with pretty expensive things and indulged my desire to own them under the pretext of being sensible-- frugal, even! but, listen, i forgive myself. and just wait until you see my sweet new frames! just wait until the tips of tree branches explode live, and we 're all on bikes again!

goodbye glasses. goodbye winter.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

decisions, decisions.

i saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because i couldn't make up my mind which of the figs i would choose. i wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as i sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

sylvia plath
the bell jar

a couple of weeks ago the new york times published this account of dan ariely's new book predictably irrational. it's on one of my all-time favorite subjects-- how people who think of themselves as rational choosers actually make decisions based on impulse-- impulses neither grounded in rational processes nor resulting in rational behavior. i'm inclined to agree with the claim that people rationalize what they do more than do what they rationally ought.[1]

the article focuses on one of the handful of irrational impulses that ariely shows us to be consistently motivated by-- namely, the impulse to keep our options open. we will deplete our energies to keep many or a particular option(s) open even when there is no chance of pay off, and the costs are great.

ariely begins with a maximizing or means/end notion of rationality, like the one economists use: to behave rationally is to behave in such a way as to maximally attain your desired ends, whatever they may be. there are philosophers who think that desires themselves can be irrational-- that rationality should dictate not only how we attain our desired ends, but dictate their content. but putting that aside, i will assume that when ariely says a behavior is irrational he means only to say that we fail to behave in the sort of ways that would maximize our most general desires to be successful and satisfied. so the problem is that we're inefficient. we can recognize a good deal when we see it, but we can't seem to dismiss the other options from our mind and focus our energies, though that would be the rational thing to do. indecision!

we do this, according to ariely, because we are avoiding the immediate pain of loss.2 we hate to give up opportunities. problem is, every opportunity we take is a thousand we leave (or one, at least). so when we choose, there's always loss. the fear of that loss can keep us standing there, trying to hold all of the doors open, even when the best option is clear, or when any option would be equally worthy (and every single one of them better than havering). we want to live maximally satisfying lives, so we hate to give up a chance that might lead us that way-- we experience every chance given up as a loss, and our unwillingness to experience loss then motivates the very indecision that keeps us from making the choices that would, in turn, lead to our maximal satisfaction.

that, to the best of my understanding, is ariely's view. and i think that the first thing to be said is how astoundingly insightful it is. reading it, i was struck by what might best be described as an uncomfortable sense of recognition. i imagine that many others were similarly struck. and i will sit with that discomfort, and think on it, and i hope that they will, too. but i also have some problems.

first, he (or the nyt writer, at least) wants to distinguish between the desire to keep one's options open, and the desire to avoid the pain of loss. the importance of this distinction, i surmise, is that it might seem rational to sacrifice now in order to keep one's future fluid, but not rational that we should be unwilling to suffer a little loss now to minimize our losses, overall. but this is a trick distinction! to begin, i don't see how anyone could look within themselves and discover a true fact of the matter about which desire was the motivating one. the conscious desire to keep options open could be all tangled in a less conscious desire to avoid pain, or vice versa. more deeply, avoidance of pain never tells the whole story about anything-- the reason that people experience pain at all is because they evolved to, because avoiding those pain-causing things has some independent survival value. so even if people could pinpoint their own motives or the motives of others in these situations as explicitly pain-avoiding, there will be deeper explanations. and i imagine that ariely, in his book, takes a good shot at offering some of those deeper explanations. but i'm skeptical of over-confident assumptions about what psychological data (and the speculations of evolutionary psychologists) "means" about us. it's clear that we don't like letting doors close-- it's less clear to me why this is, or what it means.

i'm even more skeptical of tidy, fatherly conclusions about what it is we should do, given who we are. probably this unwillingness of mine to accept a clear answer only proves ariely's point-- but then, if it does, that's fine, because if that's what it means to be right, i'm not interested. anyway, i don't quite know how to formulate my discomfort with ariely's conclusions (as reported by the times), but i think there are two levels-- the first is a surface sort of discomfort with the fact that all of his advice seems to amount to "settle down. commit to one woman. don't take on too much." although i have been known, on occasion, to find this kind of advice tolerable, charming3 even, i do have an abiding skepticism of seemingly deep advice that merely reinscribes the status quo.

my second level of worry is more conceptual, and even less well formed. i once told LP that i don't understand when people say that they regret the things they didn't do rather than the things they did-- or, rather, that i didn't (and don't) understand how that's suppose to help me out in deciding what i should do in a given situation. because everything i do entails a mess of things i didn't do. no matter what i do, it will in hindsight be "what i did do", and the rest will be "what i didn't do", and maybe a regret. what seems clear in retrospect will not seem that way at the moment one is confronted with a choice, and what i'm suggesting is that this isn't just a matter of our epistemic limitation at the moment of choice confrontation-- not just a matter of being blinded in the moment to what will later (or from some other perspective) be visible. how we are blinded in the moment is certainly an important thing to consider-- centrally important-- but it may also be our retrospective view which is skewed-- projecting a certainty or fact of that matter onto a situation in which, at the time, there was no fact of the matter.

[1] i'm actually sympathetic to the idea that rationality alone has no content-- that there is nothing (or nothing much) that we can conclude we "ought" to do without figuring in a couple of basic sentiments and desires which are not themselves proper objects of rational scrutiny. but, still, it's one position that you could take

[2] the loss of a possibility! i promised myself that this post would have nothing whatsoever to do with possible worlds, but i will allow myself one footnote: lewis talks of learning about our world in terms of locating, among all of the logically possible worlds, which world is our own. given that we aren't laplacean demons, we can't be sure which possible world we live in-- there are a large number of possible worlds which, for all we know, might be our own. there are many possible people who, for all i know, i might be. there are many possible people who, for all i know, might be you. and as you and i go on being ourselves and events unfold and i learn more about us both, i learn that you and i aren't some of the people that it was possible we might be-- and sometimes i learn that you (or i!) might be someone that i hadn't imagined was possible. but, anyway, the point is that ariely seems to be saying that there is a real sense of loss that comes with eliminating possibilities, and yet eliminating (relevant) possibilities might be the best way of describing what it is we're doing when we learn the facts about who we are and the world we inhabit.

[3] see richard russo's 2004 commencement address.

footnote, expanded. with footnotes.

so, listen, it's spring break, and whatever arrangement of hours i'm sleeping in can hardly be called a "pattern", and i'm working on the kind of paper that i have to take a lot of breaks from writing, and i noticed that it's almost impossible to read the second footnote and it all adds up to a second post, made discretely, at least, below the first.

the loss of a possibility! i promised myself that this post would have nothing whatsoever to do with possible worlds, but i will allow myself one footnote: lewis talks of learning about our world in terms of locating, among all of the logically possible worlds, which world is our own. given that we aren't la placean demons, we can't be sure which possible world we live in-- there are a large number of possible worlds which, for all we know, might be our own. there are many possible people who, for all i know, might be me. there are many possible people who, for all i know, might be you. and as you and i go on being ourselves and events unfold and i learn more about us both, i learn that you and i aren't some of the people that it was possible we might be-- and sometimes i learn that you (or i!) might be someone that i hadn't considered possible.1

but, anyway, the point is that ariely seems to be saying that there is a real sense of loss that comes with eliminating possibilities, and yet eliminating (relevant) possibilities might be, according to lewis, the best way of describing what it is we're doing when we learn the facts about who we are and the world we inhabit-- shutting doors to possible worlds. not really, of course, because what we choose or don't choose or haver endlessly among is determined-- theres only one world that we're in, and it touches no other. but it's true that we don't know what world we're in, what possible me i am, until we see which it will be.

it sometimes happens to each of us that we stand choosing between doors that each pull so hard it feels like we're tearing. i'm a hard-hearted naturalist with no sympathy for so much as a horoscope, let alone accounts of souls and the supernatural, but among the infinite me's that it's turned out i'm not, there are one or two that were so near to my heart that it feels like part of my heart must be with them somewhere, living those lives i don't live. so for all lewis's theory depends on and underwrites unwarm unliving things like logical systems, i think it also appeals, like religion appeals, to our inescapable sense that there is something more than what is-- that there is more of us than what we are-- only it doesn't demand any nonsensical belief in the supernatural.

[1] he reverses everything, you see: the world isn't first-- the thing from which we abstract possibilities-- it's the space of logical possibility that comes first, and we locate ourselves in it. our knowledge of the world we live in is contingent (if the world were different, our knowledge of it would be correspondingly different). but the space of logical possibility is necessary-- contingent on nothing-- no matter what the world we live in were like, it would be the same.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


the bit below from sarah ruhl (which is only one little bit of a larger article in this week's new yorker on her fine plays, which mostly have nothing whatever to do with technology) probably struck me so forcibly because i had just consulted my cell phone bill, and in the 29 days of february i sent and received a total of 587 text messages. that's far less than what some of my acquaintances manage, far less, even, than what i pay to be allowed, BUT!: holy shit, am i being irrevocably sucked into the device paradigm?

some of my friends are aware that i have rules about text messaging-- or, rather, ideas about what constitutes appropriate content. technically, there are two categories that are allowed: (a) making and confirming plans, and (b) mild flirtation, with occasional forays into sexy. but the "rules" aren't actually that strict-- they're just meant as general guidelines to keep me as far as possible from what i think of as inappropriate content-- namely, anything difficult, complicated, or passive aggressive-- nothing critical, or meant to explain my feelings in some way. if i'm going to say something critical or something about my feelings, then all of the following things are probably true:

(a) saying it by text is likely to foster misunderstanding. it's a complex matter, and it will take some degree of effort and subtly to be correctly understood even with the added benefit of body language, vocal nuance, and real-time exchange.

(b) saying it by text is probably cowardly and/or lazy. communicating feelings and criticism is hard. it's hard hard hard, and it should be. any technology that makes it easier to say hard things by putting distance (physical, emotional, or any other kind) between the speaker and the spoken to is a heady and dangerous thing. we can kid ourselves into thinking that the effort we're saving by texting is just a matter of mundane convenience, when what we are really (or also) avoiding is experiencing the full weight of the things we say, and feeling directly accountable for them.

(c) if i say it by text, it's more likely to be something i regret having said. these rules aren't just for the sake of my friends, they are totally self-protecting. some things are hard to say because it's a mistake to say them, and you know it. is there anything worse than having to live with what you said and shouldn't have? oh yeah-- when it's recorded somewhere for someone to read over and over again! and texts are the worse, because most people have their phone with them all the time-- when they're drunk, when they're sad, when they're angry-- all sorts of compromised states in which one is likely to say what one will regret. oof. terrifying.

technology abridges effort-- saves us work. that's what it does. that's why we like it. work builds muscles, and it builds calluses. there's no one thing that this means, it's just that there are some muscles and calluses (literal and metaphorical) that i don't want to wake up one day and realize that i've lost or never built up. there are things that i owe to myself, and things that i owe to others, and most of it's played out in small ways on the daily-- if i have rules, they're rules of thumb, devices (!) that i hope will help me navigate.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


"cell phones, ipods, wireless computers will change people in ways we don't even understand. we're less connected to the present. no one is where they are. there's absolutely no reason to talk to a stranger anymore-- you connect to people you already know. but how well do you know them? because you never see them-- you just talk to them. i find that terrifying."

sarah ruhl, discussing her new play, "dead man's cell phone"
(which is playing at playwrights horizons, in nyc)
(if you're in nyc, and you go see it, i will be insanely jealous)

Monday, March 10, 2008


one comes to philosophy already endowed with a stock of opinions. it is not the business of philosophy either to undermine or to justify these preexisting opinions, to any great extent, but only to try to discover ways of expanding them into an orderly system...among my common opinions that philosophy must respect (if it is to deserve credence) are not only my naive beliefs in tables and chairs, but also my naive belief that these tables and chairs might have been otherwise arranged. realism about possible worlds is an attempt, the only successful attempt i know, to systematize these preexisting modal opinions.

david lewis
'possible worlds'

i am going to try to restate this as sensibly and as generously as i can: modal realism is not a way of interrogating or justifying my prephilosophic beliefs about possibility, but of systematizing them. and, more broadly, systematization (not critical analysis or justification) of my most fundamental beliefs is the proper goal of philosophy in general.

this is the part where i would generally turn to capitol letters and exclamation points to get across my emphatic disagreement. because, at the outset, i really couldn't disagree more strongly. but in the past few weeks david lewis-- with his whimsical analogies, warm talent for clear explication, and disarming willingness to concede uncertainty-- has totally won me over. won me over to the degree that despite my disagreement (did i mention that it is emphatic?) with these sentiments-- which underwrite his entire theory-- i feel, when i read them, something which could better be captured by a question mark than an exclamation point-- albeit a deeply consternated question mark.

i agree with lewis about the existence of tables and chairs-- there they are, and after a few usefully invigorating and challenging arguments with the skeptic about brains in vats and evil demons, there they still are, and i have no more use for philosophical theories that aim to cast doubt on the matter. but our claims about what's possible, while pervasive-- as essential to our daily talk as regular old claims about what just is-- are not, as lewis claims, improper objects of (potentially undermining) critical reflection.

i do believe that a sense of the possible is as centrally useful to human beings as our sense of sight or touch-- but it's also (and i don't know how to state this gravely enough) a trickier sort of sense-- a sense not anchored to things in the actual world, by which we reach both the highest highs of imagination, and the lowest lows of self-righteous cruelty. it seems to me that we have every reason to ruthlessly examine a sense like that.

(also i'm working slowly on and off on a post about this bit of analysis, which i'm both drawn to and skeptical of.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

what i'm studying this semester.

i'm taking a seminar on modal realism, a theory devised by the great analytic metaphysician david lewis. i don't know that much about metaphysics-- my primary goal this semester, school-wise, is to learn a heck of a lot more-- so while i'm about to take a crack at explaining what i've been reading, and, more ambitiously, why it might be relevant and interesting to you, i want to preface it by saying that i only have a vague idea of what i'm talking about, and i'm a little skeptical of it myself-- of the whole metaphysical project, actually. but it's more fun than i anticipated-- warmer. anyway, let me abruptly begin:

formal logic is a way of looking at the structure of arguments-- of stripping away the content to assess whether or not the thing is structurally sound. arguments transcribed or written out formally look a lot like algebra problems, but with mysterious looking symbols instead of numbers, and instead of solving for the value of variables, you assess validity. it's clear enough, i guess, why this is a useful thing to do, even if it is difficult and nerdy and seemingly removed from daily concerns-- we're not built to think so systematically on the regular, and so we are liable to be persuaded by some invalid arguments from time to time. frequently, prehaps. anyway, the point is that while we needn't all spend our lives reinventing the wheel-- justifying our systems for assessing the validity of arguments, or the nature of our methods for attaching meanings to words to objects, i do tend to hope that when and if i decide to turn my attention to the matter that it turns out our systems and methods for communicating ideas are solid enough that i can justify my sense that particular arguments and definitions can be true or false, and that there's a way of working out which it is.

modal logic is the branch of logic that deals with claims like "it is possible that..." or "it is necessary that...", or "it should be the case that...", or "he believes that...". these are truth-claims, but they're funny ones. it's pretty clear, at least in principle, how a statement like "i forgot my hat" could be assessed for truth or falsity, but what about "it's possible that i forgot my hat"? we could resolve the ambiguity by looking to see if i have the damn thing or not, but that doesn't go any distance toward proving or disproving my claim, which was that something, namely me forgetting my hat, is possible. and then there are the even tougher cases of counterfactual-- if/then claims in which the antecedent is false-- to wit: i say to my companion, "if i hadn't forgotten my hat, i wouldn't be so cold right now". she thinks (though she's too nice to say so) that if i were a little more organized, I wouldn't have forgotten my hat. now i take it that both of these claims (the spoke and the tactfully unspoken) are debatable-- maybe i think that, in fact, even if i were extremely well organized i would still, in this instance, have forgotten my hat. we seem to be disagreeing about something like which hypothetical case is more plausible or something. how in the sam hill are we suppose to establish the criterion for establishing the truth of the matter in an argument about hypotheticals?

and these sort of claims saturate our language-- everything from our most idle conversations to our most august intellectual efforts are loaded with claims about what is possible, what is probable, what is necessary. they're not about how the world is or was or will be, but how it might be or might have been, could be or could have been, must be or must have been. but how do we prove these kinds of claims true or false? they're not, in any clear way, claims about the world that we can verify.

so if you stare at them for long enough, if you relax your eyes and let them go all alien and unfamiliar-- ultra literal-- it starts to look like modal claims are not claims about the actual world at all, but claims about possible worlds. think of it this way: modal claims are claims that “there is a way things could have been” (or should have been, or might be), distinct from the way things are. note the 'is' in that claim: if we take ourselves literally, we seem to be gesturing toward the existence of something that answers the description “way things could have been”.

enter, modal realism: the theory that we really mean it when we say there is/exists a way things could have been. david lewis's theory, which is taken quite seriously by many very smart dudes is basically that all possible worlds exist. according to lewis, our world is one of an infinite number of concrete worlds, one for every possibility, and when i claim that if i hadn't forgotten my hat, i wouldn't be cold, i'm claiming that there is a possible world in which i didn't forget my hat, and in that world, i'm not cold.

stunningly bizarre: yes. but what's funny is that no one has yet come up with a clearly superior way of explaining what the fuck we're talking about when we we talk about the world as it never did and never will exist. but if you believe, even in the face of the ceaseless singularity of the world as it is, that there are many ways that it could be, it turns out that you have quite a bit of explaining to do, and you might have to make some pretty nutty claims to get the job done.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

full moon. lunar eclipse.

tonight, 10pm eastern standard time.
[soon i'll be done with some school work, and i'll be around again.]

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

i'm probably going to delete this tomorrow.

there must be people who pay their bills on time, take vitamins, tend carefully to their possessions, floss daily and remember what day the trash is picked up. there's no question that i am not one of those people, but there is the perennial question of whether i'd like to be one of those people, or more like them. the fact is that i can be astoundingly irresponsible when it comes to the managing my own health and finances and taking care of things i own, even the few things i love the best or need the most. i like to think that i make up for these shortcomings in other departments, that i don't attend to some things because i'm busy attending to more important things, but everyone always thinks that-- egos must preserve themselves. are my flaws a mutable and contingent matter, or do they flow from the same deep source as my talents, such as they are?

it's snowing in boston, and i can't sleep.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

blame, revised.

please excuse, if you happen to have read it, the horrible/interminable whining that was formerly in this very spot. i hope, if you did read it, it didn't cause you to adjust your (attitudes toward)/(expectations of) me too much, but i'm getting ahead of myself. the following is t.m. scanlon's theory of blame.

to blame someone for something is to revise our attitudes and intentions toward them, to revise our expectations in light of something they've done-- in light of who, as it turns out, they are.

to begin with, we're in all different sorts of relationships, and each sort of relationship has different ground rules. there's the most basic of all, which is the relationship that every human being has to every other, which comes with certain moral responsibilities-- to keep promises, avoid inflicting harm, to help out when it's easy enough. and then there are friendships and brotherhoods and marriages and businesspartnerships, and a bazillion others in which some person is a part of our lives in a particular way. from this person i expect loyalty, from this person i expect discression, from this person i expect affection. often the expectations are built into the very definition of our term for the relationship. if 'friendship' is a word with any real meaning, then there must be certain things that being a friend consists in, though each may have some unique features.

it may turn out that someone who we relate to as a friend proves to be unable or unwilling or unlikely to meet some shared or reasonable standard of what a friend is. or maybe they just fail to meet the that standard on some particular occasion for some particular reason. well then it may be appropriate that we should revise our expectation of them-- it may be understandable if we revise our attitudes toward them. we can change the relationship, or even terminate it.

the failure to live up to the reasonable expectations of others is blameworthiness, and the revisions of attitude, expectation and intention that they precipitate are blame. blame, defined this way, might come along with feelings like anger and resentment, but it needn't. and not only can blame of this sort come apart from the strong emotional experience that we generally associate it with, it can come apart from the punishment practices which we also sometimes think of as blame itself. you may hurt someone by changing your idea of who they are and how you will relate to them, but, unlike cases of retributive punishment, you don't blame them to harm them-- you "blame" them because it is the appropriate thing to do, in light of changing circumstance.

though this view doesn't (on the one hand) justify punishment practices or tie itself irrevocably to emotions, it presents our emotional responses to the actions of others (and their consequences for us) as an appropriate starting point for moral assessment-- something which cognitivist ethicists often reject (unfortunately, to my mind), and which accounts of 'moral luck' sometimes undermine. philosophers writing about moral luck often point to the fact that much of the actual behavior that we're blamed for is no different from the behavior that others engage in, but there is some unluckiness in the particular circumstance. in scanlon's example an inattentive driver kills a friend's child. the driver did no more than drive in the same distracted way that most drivers do on occasion, but he may blame himself, and others may blame him, in the harshest terms. but isn't this deeply unfair? personally, when i think hard on moral luck, i tend to get really skeptical of blame. but scanlon just says, look, luck or not, something has happened which causes great pain to others-- it is appropriate (understandable-- inevitable) that this should bring those others (and him) to examine his character and their relationship to him. blame here doesn't exist in a universe of cold logic. although one might hope that meditating on things like moral luck might, in time, calm our most violent angers and resentments.

the view has what i think is the best possible starting point for an ethical view: the given fact of human relationships, and what they mean to us. it needn't (i think) begin with some account of the autonomous will of the individual, which is where accounts of blame usually begin, and which is a non-starter for me. (this is probably a controversial statement as scanlon is, i believe, a neo-kantian, and probably does, in his more extended philosophical picture, want to say something about the autonomous will-- i'll be thinking about this a lot throughout the semester: how scanlon's view of blame and blameworthiness do or do not come apart from a kantian view of selfhood).

anyway, this is a funny idea, but i'm totally in love with it. so in love that i'm going to invent some more hours in my day for a reading group on it-- by which i mean spend fewer hours doing practical things like cutting my hair and paying my bills on time. no doubt some utility company somewhere is going to revise the living shit out of their expectations of me in the form of some increased interest rates.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


so i have these red mittens, and i've had them for something like five years, which is the longest that i've ever kept any mittens, ever (i think that the second runner up would probably come out at something like six weeks), and the reason is that they're on a long string that goes all the way through one coat sleeve across my back and through the other coat sleeve. i can leave them in my coat all winter long. it blows my mind that all mittens don't have this feature. it easily makes my top ten favorite things in the technology category.

in this my fifth long winter with mittens on a string it occurred to me that when my hands aren't in my mittens, i can put other things in them. my phone. money. small food items. i realized this one day when i absent-mindedly put my hand in my mitten with my phone in my hand, and then left it there (the phone, in the mitten, in my lap, on the bus, while i was staring out the window) when i absent-mindedly removed my hand. then i had to jump off of the bus in a hurry. and rather than my phone (or my mitten) (or them both) being left on the bus-- a fate that has befallen many of my mittens, one phone, and two wallets-- they both came swingingly with me off the bus, across the street, and to work (without a minute to spare, p.s.).

these little miracle mittens are a gift from my friend liza. liza is getting married, and i have to get her a gift, back. it has be something really wonderful. i can't imagine how it'll even begin to compare, but i have to try. she gave me the gift that keeps on getting better, keeps on saving me from myself, year after year. and also, i'll probably wear something stupid to her wedding and ruin all the pictures. i have past debts and future indiscretions to repay. please send me your best idea.

[thank to steve, for taking a picture of my mitten and sending it to me.]

Sunday, January 27, 2008

[of] note.

i'm trying to figure out the relationship, conceptually and etymologically, between 'space' and 'capacity' (spacious. capacious. spacacity? capace?) and it's slow slow slow going as always, but i just found this: "space isn't remote at all. it's only an hours drive away if your car could go straight upwards." it reminded me about something else i'd read-- about how (sort of obviously, i guess) the oxygen is richer just around leaves, so there's this little sliver of biota that makes its whole life in these thin bands of superoxygenated air, little flat earths with their own atmosphere. all roads lead to fractals.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


here's my attempt at recounting a little argument by j.d. velleman that i think is very beautiful:

love doesn't essentially consist in desiring someone, but in valuing them. love is not itself the desire to be near a person, or to make them happy, or to be requited, although these desires are the common biproduct of most kinds of love. we may, in fact, love someone very much (a troubled relative, say) who we don't wish to be near. but what all sorts of love consist in is the awareness of value in another. we might think of a friend or a mentor without experiencing a burning desire to go to them, or to spend our time aiding them in their various projects, but what we will experience, what the experience of love amounts to, is something like wonderment. we stand in a sort of awe at that person's incomparable value.

velleman's moral veiws are largely deontological, or kantian, meaning that he believes the moral worth of a decision is not determined by its consequences, but by its adherence to certain principles-- by the integrity of the process that produced it. on this moral model, we must never use another human being as a means to an end (as perhaps we must if we want to ensure the best consequences). velleman says, along with kant, that human beings have an autonomous will (the power to examine our own thoughts and desires and then to endorse or reject them) and that we should (and do) contemplate that will, in ourselves and others, with reverence-- we value it for its own sake. the special force of this act-- the act of reverence, or valuing, inspired by the autonomous will-- is that it arrests self-love, freeing us up, making a little space for us to act morally, as opposed to acting always under the hypnotic influence of our own self-interest.

by a deontological moral standard like kant's, love has moral worth, because it just is a special case of that most morally necessary of practices-- the appreciation of intrinsic value in another human being. and in the case of love, specifically, the special force of this appreciation is that it arrests our impulse to self-protect. when we love someone, velleman says, we value them, and in that act of valuing we are disarmed, making for ourselves a little space in which we can let someone know us. "all that is essential to love," velleman says, "is that it disarms our emotional defenses toward an object in response to its incomparable value as a self-existent end."

now, listen, i'm no kantian. i just can't buy a moral theory that doesn't draw a direct connection between the effects of an action and the morality of an action. i want my moral theories rooted firmly in some account of human flourishing or the greater good. but there's something to it.

[velleman, j.d. "love as a moral emotion". ethics. volume 109, number 2. (january, 1999), pp. 338-374]

[all of the words that i italicized in the body of this post are jdv's words, which i particularly liked.]

Monday, January 21, 2008


[update: i spent most of the last couple of weeks studying (if you can call the nearly aimless reading and wildly wondering note-taking that i do studying) for this ethics comp, which i'm totally certain that i failed. and that's alright. i get three tries, and what i really need to work on are my test-taking strategies (snooze). fine, fine. anyway, the way the test works is that you get a list of twelve questions to study, and only nine will be on the test, and you only have to answer three of those nine, but you don't know which nine, or which three, so you have to make all of these uninteresting/strategic choices about how many you want to study and which, and for how long. i make bad choices, and i know that i'm doing it, but i feel compelled to follow my unstrategic interests. here is the question that i spent the longest time preparing for, which i knew wouldn't be on the test, and wasn't:]

does love for another have moral worth?
now that's a fine fucking question.
and brings me back to philosophy, which (sorry!) i've wondered away from these last few posts.

the problem (as laid out in one particularly nice paper on the subject) is that most moral theories, though wildly different in other respects, demand some sort of impartiality of us. to behave morally may mean acting in a way that maximizes aggregate utility, or some far-seeing enlightened self-interest; it may mean acting in accordance with universalizable principles, or principles that we would endorse if we were to carefully reflect on them. there are an array of theories to choose from, but there is a common sense that an ethical person will be fair and level-headed, fully considerate of the immediate and long-term rights and interests of herself and others.

but love! partiality is love's essence. love enthralls and arrests. love comes all tangled up with our most ethically suspect desires. love is the most notorious skew-er of sound judgment this side of blind rage. was anything ever less responsive to fairness than love? more imprudent? if anything ever was, i can't think of it. anyway, i won't bother cataloging the problems of perception and judgment that are the beginning and end of romantic love-- if you can't think of examples from your own life, please consult any song, poem, book, or piece art created by anyone, ever. the whole of pop music is particularly enlightening on this subject.

but even strong romantic love is not always violent (hume reminds us of the distinction between strong passions and violent ones)*, and we use the word 'love' to describe quite a varied range of emotions and ways of relating to other people, animals, objects, and even ourselves, which aren't romantic at all. there are other ways of getting into love besides falling. often enough we're born into it, or find it generated quietly in the friendly friction of mutual and varied interests, or the camaraderie of shared circumstance. but can any of these kinds of love-- can any love other than an indiscriminant philanthropy-- embody the moral ideal, or even meet the most basic moral standards, of any meaningful and coherent moral picture?

like a whole mess of questions in philosophy, if you define the terms of this question well enough, you've come about as close to answering the question as you're likely to get. does love have moral worth? well, what do you mean by love? and what do you mean by moral? i haven't managed to answer either question, and it's time to stop. but i read a couple of compelling ideas on the this topic, which i'll try to write a little bit about very soon.

*by "passion" hume means something very broad-- not just a subset of our more violent feelings, but all of our feelings-- he means "desires" or "passions" to include all of the bit of human psychology that aren't strictly beliefs on matters of fact. so by this definition a passion may be strong in the sense that it consistently guides my behavior even if it isn't violent (meaning that it doesn't rise and fall suddenly, or that i may not even experience it as an emotion).

[p.s. the photograph is by richard barnes. jared says that my spirit animal is a brown bear, and i say that his is. anyway, i like pictures better than titles, because it's less weird when i change them all the time, which i inevitably do.]

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

hey babies.

it's a new year, and speaking of years, i'm just about to embark on my 26th. oo. it just hit me. right then, just after i typed it. twenty six! but that's not what i want to type about. i'm just typing to say happy new year. and while i won't spend the next hour formulating a perfect tirade against new years resolutions (they get us thinking, after all) i do want to ask you a favor, friends: riot, don't diet, for fucksake. having thought about agency and selfhood from a hundred directions i've found that concepts like restraint and willpower-- concepts about what and why we aren't, we don't, we could have but didn't-- dissipate to incoherence under the microscope of my attention. what holds up and turns out to be interesting is substance, identity-- what actually happens. i don't know. i just mean that if you're determined to be resolved, resolve to be more yourself, not less. or to come see me more often!