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Monday, September 28, 2020

Is There Profit in Boredom?


Renoir's La Tasse de Chocolat

Alice C. Linsley

My father often said, "It is a sin to bore people." 

He was an attorney who quickly tired of long-winded stories and explanations. He was a pastor who heard too many boring sermons. He also was an author who set aside boring books and articles.

The reader may have the impression that my father was arrogant, aloof, and overly critical. In fact, he was down-to-earth, enjoyed people, and was mostly critical of himself. 

He loved adventure and traveled widely. I have a photo of him standing beside the diminutive figure of a head-hunting chief in the mountains of Luzon.

At age 16, to the distress of his mother, he hitchhiked from Portland Oregon to Portland Maine.

My father thought life is precious and too full of potential to be squandered in boredom. 

During these months of Covid-19 isolation and restrictions, some are complaining of boredom. A young Isaac Newton did some of his best work while home at Woolsthrope during the Great Plague in London. He continued to work on mathematical problems he had begun at Cambridge; the papers he wrote on this became early calculus. He experimented with prisms. And outside his bedroom window there was an apple tree to ponder.

I wonder how my father would handle life during this pandemic. He died more than 20 years ago, but were he alive today I believe he would find even this tiresome situation exciting. Like Newton, he never lacked for imagination and energy.

The nearby Whittier hills were still relatively free of buildings and he explored them as often as possible. As a teen he made extra money harvesting lemons in a neighbor's citrus grove. 

He rode a bike, hiked, helped around the house, and played fetch with his dog Toby. His family members were avid Scrabble players and he enjoyed the occasional victory against his formidable polyglot mother

My father's family of origin was not wealthy. There were days when the meals consisted of bread, butter, and tea. Fortunately, his father had planted avocado trees in the backyard of their Whittier California home. The avocados provided sustenance as well as some productive labor.

While at times financially needy, boredom did not seem to be a problem in the Linsley family. That suggests that a link between boredom and economic injustice requires a deeper look. My father appreciated what he had. He was thankful for even scarce provisions.

Boredom is more complex than lack of resources. It involves multiple emotional and cognitive factors. 

Philosophers tend to view boredom as an existential condition. Moral theologians have called it a sin (ennui or acedia), but for psychologists who study boredom the pandemic has been a boom. Researchers are conducting experiments to discover the potential benefits of boredom.

Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, a psychologist and boredom scholar (University of Essex) considers it an emotion that is neither good nor bad. He wants to understand how it functions. 

It seems apparent that for some people boredom is something to be overcome, not endured. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Sex, Human Rights, and Natural Law


In the news is the feud between the French philosopher Jean-Paul Enthoven (age 71) and his son Raphaël Enthoven after Raphaël's 500-page autobiographical novel was published.

Jean-Paul reacted angrily to the publication of Le Temps gagné (Time Saved), claiming it has left him “heartbroken” and loved ones “drowning in a sea of ingratitude”.

Jean-Paul dated the model Carla Bruni who later married his son, Raphaël (age 44). Raphaël fathered a child with Bruni in 2001. Both men had been married before.

Raphaël and Bruni separated in 2007. One year later, Bruni later married French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

However, the Enthovens’ clash has nothing to do with Bruni. It is about Raphaël's fictional tell-all in which he portrays family and friends in a bad light.

French philosopher Pierre Manent (Wikimedia Commons)

In a stark contrast to the lives of the Enthoven's, the French philosopher Pierre Manent recently discussed the harms of the human rights ideology and called for a restoration of natural law within Western societies. 

He says, "Alexis de Tocqueville often said that democracy was threatened by a despotism from the majority, and today we see in our regimes that there is a tyranny of minorities, of individuals, who are the most minoritarian minority. We don’t realize that we grant illimited power to a right that cannot be formulated and which has no reason to be, apart from feelings. But a feeling is nothing but an affect which can also be very unstable and changing."

In his recent book Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason (University of Notre Dame Press), Manent shows how modern civilization progressively made human will the ultimate source of law within societies, denying that nations can be governed by universal principles that should be acknowledged and preserved rather than constantly reinvented.

Manent taught political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris for many years and is now visiting professor at the Boston College Department of Political Science. He is the author of a number of books about the history of political thought and the relationship between politics and religion, including Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic and A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State.

In this interview with the Register, Manent warns against the excesses of the modern human-rights doctrine and discusses the importance of natural law for civilization's sustainability.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Leszek Kolakowski's Assessment of Marxism

Leszek Kolakowski (© Anka Ptaszkowska/Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw)

It takes at least a decade for the life's work of a 20th century philosopher to come out of the shadows. That is true for the Polish philosopher and historian, Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009). Kolakowski began is career as a Marxist and later became a vocal supporter of Pope John Paul II.

Kolakowski produced a wide range of work in five languages, communicating well in German, French and English, as well as Polish.

He produced seminal critical analyses on Marxism and religion. He understood the true nature of Marxism in practice, having joined the Communist Polish Workers' party as a teenager. During the Stalin era he become one of Communism's most distinguished teachers.

Twenty-three years later, in the spring of 1968, he began to speak critically of the ossified Marxist ideology. He was forced to leave the Party. This coincided with a rise in anti-Zionist sentiments and Kolakowski's wife was Jewish. The Kolakowskis were glad to leave Poland for Canada where Leszek took a teaching position at McGill University in Montreal.

After a year at McGill (1968-69) he went to the University of California where he often confronted student radicals, some of whom revealed ignorance about orthodox Marxism. Kolakowski told the newspaper columnist Zbigniew Mentzel that all the people he met considered themselves Marxists, although their knowledge of Marx was often scant. Students fancied themselves the most oppressed class on earth and sought liberation “from everything.” They told him there wasn’t “the least difference between the conditions of life in a Californian university town and one of Hitler’s or Stalin’s concentration camps.”

Kolakowski spent only one year at the University of California. In 1970, he became Senior Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, a post he held until his retirement in 1994.

Kolakowski's thought continued to influence thinkers in his homeland. Adam Michnik, a leading intellectual of the Solidarity era described him as a prominent figure of contemporary Polish culture.
His 1959 essay “The Priest and the Jester” explored the roles of dogmatism and skepticism in intellectual history, and brought him national attention in Poland. In 1955, Kolakowski traveled to Rome, seeking conversation with the French neo-Thomists Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. These appear to have been pivotal conversations because Kolakowki emerged as a historian of religion.

In the 1950s and ’60s he published books on the history of Western philosophy and a study of religious consciousness and institutional religion. He continued his interest in political theory, and in 1967 he define a humanistic Marxism in his "Towards a Marxist Humanism".

Kolakowski became a popular author in Poland after 1990, often appearing on television. His Mini-Mini-Lectures on Large Issues (Mini-wyklady o maksi-sprawach, 1997) became a bestseller in Poland. 

His many academic honors include an honorary doctorate from the University of Lódz and one from the Central European University in Budapest. His life achievement was recognized in 2003, when he received the $1m Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress.

Kolakowski’s daughter Agnieszka has collected twenty-seven of her father’s essays in a volume entitled "Is God Happy?" Ten of the essays appear in English for the first time. The book provides a glimpse into Kolakowski’s intellectual versatility.

One of the essays, "The Death of Gods,” appears in Agnieszka’s translation, and in it Kolakowski announced that state socialism called itself "scientific" and he exposed that as a myth. He argued that instead of eradicating inequality, state socialism had created new social classes and its own forms of privilege, as well as a central planning system more injurious to civil society than any democracy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Philosophy for Children in a Pandemic

Assuming that U.S. schools will reopen this fall, how can students be given the opportunity to process the months of isolation from their friends and classmates? Perhaps this is the ideal time to introduce basic methods of philosophy: asking questions, reasoned discussion, and critical thinking.

The following excerpts from this article in The Conversation address this.

One way we can help children respond constructively to future existential threats is by teaching them philosophy. In the face of uncertainty, critical thinking skills that can assist with ethical decision making and reasoned argumentation are vital. These are particularly necessary for democracy to work well. How can we make and defend good decisions? Philosophy can help.

The best place to start discussing philosophy with children is with their own questions and topics about which they are already curious. Children have been asking questions to do with the pandemic and the restrictions on their freedom. The adults in their lives have had to explain why they can’t go to school or play with their friends, why washing their hands is so important, and why they need to keep two metres away from others.

With the possibility of future disruptions in the form of new or ongoing pandemics, severe weather and the effects of global warming, political upheaval or economic instability, all school children would benefit from studying philosophy.

Learning philosophy, particularly reasoned argumentation, dialogue and respectful disagreement, equips us with vital critical thinking skills. These skills will support the problem solving and ethical decision making required during uncertain ti; mes.

Related reading: Schools Discover the Value of Philosophy; Philosophy for Primary Students?; Why I Teach Philosophy in Primary School by Giacomo Esposito; Teach Philosophy in Primary Schools; The Benefits of Philosophical Studies; Philosophy: The Most Impractical Practical Tool; Philosophy Education in France; Popularity of Philosophy in Germany

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Wisdom is Expressed in the Practical

Alice C. Linsley

It is said that Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. I taught Philosophy for 14 years I doubt that my students took the courses because they were motivated to pursue wisdom.

Wisdom is not valued in our time because it is perceived as impractical. Fortunately, some educators and employers have begun to see Philosophy's value in the sharpening of the intellect.

Aristotle recognized that wisdom is born of experience. In Nicomachean Ethics he wrote:

While young men do indeed become good geometers and mathematicians and attain theoretical wisdom in such matters, they do not attain practical wisdom. The reason is that practical wisdom is concerned with particulars as well as with universals, and knowledge of particulars comes from experience.

Therefore we ought to pay as much attention to the sayings and opinions, undemonstrated though they are, of wise and experienced older men as we do to demonstrated truths. For experience has  given such men an eye with which they can see correctly. 

For the ancients, wisdom was not intellectual, but practical. It meant reading the stars to predict seasonal changes that affect agriculture. It involved understanding tensile strengths of metals and different rocks. Wisdom built the pyramids using geometry. Wisdom excavated mines. Wisdom enlarged herds through animal husbandry. Wisdom conquered the Nile and the seas through the development of sailing. Wisdom pioneered medicine.

The rabbis taught that study of the Torah leads to Wisdom. However, wisdom came before Torah. It was gained through observation and experimentation. The ancients were motivated to gain wisdom in order to solve problems and make improvements in their lives.

In the ancient world, philosophy found expression in science and technology. Before the academies of Greece, there were mines to be excavated and ships to be built. Before Plato, there were priests keeping records of remedies for thousands of ailments and diseases.

Philosophy has value. The value is not in ego aggrandizement through winning an argument. The value is expressed in the practical ways wisdom serves humanity.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Does Philosophy Have Value?

Alice C. Linsley

Stephen Hawking and other scientists have maintained that philosophy has no point, because science does a better job of seeking and verifying truth. This is an attitude characteristic of scientism rather than science. As the late Dr. Austin L. Hughes said, "Scientism is taking the mantle of science and claiming for it an authority that it doesn't have."

Philosophers cannot do that honestly because they do not agree on the nature of authority.

Philosophy has become an academic profession and philosophy professors are touchy about authority. It has been said that "philosophical clashes, unlike scientific ones, cannot be resolved by appeals to data; they are battles of wits." (From here.) That appears to be true of professional philosophers, but not of the philosophical project.

Science and philosophy have different tasks and different methods. The scientist and the philosopher both find pleasure in the hunt, but they are not hunting for the same things. The scientist is seeking proof of hypothetical models, testing the validity of his or her work or that of the community specializing in physics or chemistry. Scientists work for consensus by repetition of outcomes from controlled tests.

Philosophers, on the other hand, find answers by disagreeing. They agree that there are great questions and great ideas of the past. However, the philosophical project isn't driven by attempts to build consensus. It is driven by polemic and dialectic. The advances in Philosophy come through the tensions and polemic that refine the language of philosophers and clarify the questions.

Philosophy is an expression of love for wisdom. Wisdom is not a solid substance with a continuous reference. It is both bounded and scattered as water drops in lakes and ponds and rivers and puddles.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Sophie Oluwole and Her Work

The Nigeria philosopher Sophie Bosede Oluwole died on 23 December 2018 at age 83. She was the first female to hold a doctorate degree in philosophy in Nigeria.

She rejected the sensibilities of a British education system in which she was educated, and lifted up traditional Yoruba metaphysics, seeking to empower fellow Africans.

Oluwole urged western Africa to reclaim its philosophical heritage, contending that the body of knowledge she found in the Yoruba tradition was as rich and complex as any found in the west.

“Reality contains matter and non-matter,” Oluwole told the Dutch filmmaker Juul van der Laan last year, highlighting a faultline. “In the west, the two cannot go together, they are in opposition. The African says yes, it has two features, but they cannot be separated. There is nothing that is absolutely material. There is nothing that is absolutely non-material. And in all phenomenons in the world, the two are there together.”

If Socrates could be considered the father of western philosophy, having left behind no written work of his own, then why shouldn’t Orunmila, who is believed to have predated Socrates, be considered the father of African philosophy? Oluwole urged western Africa to reclaim its philosophical heritage, contending that the body of knowledge she found in the Yoruba tradition was as rich and complex as any found in the west.

In 2015 she published Socrates and Orunmila: The Two Patrons of Classical Philosophy, directly comparing the two philosophers who had shaped her life’s work.