The Loss

The Loss

We expect waves to froth and vanish;
that is the way of the whale road.
But the roads on which we travel we count the rails as strong, sure, straight — unswerving they take us in a known direction.

We know how sentences end but we count on the commas to spin out our tale, and relish even a semicolon as that offer of tomorrow.

Our world directions matter; things should come before other things, places before other places, events before other events.
Believing in the logic of nature we resist the chaos variable.

We are blind to it even as it weaves its way into the fabric of our perceptions.
As that absence interrupts a day and cancels out our bright hope,

That hope froths and then vanishes, leaving a dark where once there was logic, order — the ordinary sequence of becoming and being.

And the landscape of your world is shadowed by his sun.
That bright and shining boy who laughed. And then left.

Dedicated to my colleague on the loss of his son

Finding Humans at the APA

This past week I attended the American Philosophical Association, Eastern division meeting.  It was held in Baltimore, MD and after an uneventful, even pleasant trip on Amtrak I found myself in this city, taking a taxi to the hotel near the waterfront.  The Eastern Division meeting is a daunting mix of graduate students, eager to see what job possibilities there may be, younger faculty jockeying for attention from the “important philosophers” and the important philosophers themselves who live in an alternate universe at the intersection of Mind and Ego.

What struck me most was the imperviousness of everyone to others.  Standing in an elevator (a fairly common occurrence as I traveled between my room and the conference rooms) I would observe everyone staring straight ahead, somber, as if at some funereal observance. They were Serious People with Big Ideas, not small talk.  But surely we were all there as members of hte same cohort group?  In the journeys up or down electronic dance music reverberated in the elevator car.  Rather incongruous! The temptation to dance was strong but I resisted the urge.  Once I was in the car with one other person when I noticed that on the intercom was an entire exchange about firemen working on an elevator, as if from a walkie talkie.  He stared ahead until I piped up that it sounded like something was going on somewhere.  He burst into a relieved smile and said he thought it was my phone.  But the transformation from robot to human was quite remarkable.

In the lobby everyone was looking for familiar faces, fellow faculty and colleagues from other institutions,  but no one seemed to see anyone else.  It was a kind of blindness of the intellect:  so intent on ideas and their presentations that other people were simply non-existent.  After all, if a woman walks through the book area but you do not see her, does she exist?  I supposed it is worth noting that philosophers tend to be introverts, even to a pathological degree, so perhaps I should not be so surprised.  Shy myself, I confess to not speaking up to others very often.  But when I did make a passing comment or hold a door open (yes, I see you there behind me), a spark of person did emerge.  Somehow that gesture appeared to be unexpected and rare.

My most startling encounter with humanity occurred when I was walking down the street one morning, on the way to a coffee shop.  A woman on her way to work stopped briefly before a homeless man and reassured him that God loved him and that there was a mission to which he could go for warmth and good.  All the while he yelled and cursed at her and the world, rocking back and forth in a bitter anger at everything.  Sh smiled and continued to wish him well.  She saw him as a person and acknowledged him.  There was a lesson there for me, and perhaps all the philosophers at the APA.

Shortly after the meeting ended and I had returned home, the Daily Nous, a cleverly named website that publishes news in the philosophy profession, highlighted philosopher Bence Nanay who won a substantial award to study “Seeing Things you Don’t See.”  His study will tackle multimodal sensory experiences, for example how hearing something affects vision.  I immediately thought of those individuals who drive with their subwoofers throbbing to the point where one has to question how they can see the road at all.  But that might be too simplistic a point for Dr. Nanay.  Nevertheless, I saw an intriguing link between the title of his study and my experiences at the APA, both within the conference and outside on the streets.  And herein lies my bigger message:  we have to see one another as persons, speaking to them, looking at them.  Then we can be human.


The Value of Philosophy


As a philosophy professor I often am called upon to defend my discipline. When it comes to the media and any examples of “useless humanities,” philosophy ranks way up there, probably along with comparative literature and art.  As colleges around the country tighten their belts and work hard to justify the high cost of higher education (a genuine concern but consider what drives up the cost…), the first departments to be chopped off are the liberal arts, the humanities in particular.  After all, “what are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?”  Academic departments are asked to complete a PPR, “Program Prioritization Report“–admin-speak for justify your existence in terms of quantifiable numbers or else.


Ralph Waldo Emerson

Now much of this rhetoric against the humanities is fueled by administrators in two camps:  those who have but a nodding acquaintance with anything beyond business subjects and those whose entire college education was composed of the subjects that they are rushing to condemn as useless.  It reminds me of the Transcendentalists in 19th century America who scoffed at European values and especially a classical education and used the very language of that education to do so.   While they  may have been making some good points about authoritarianism and rigid thinking, many of their ideas became the foundation for an anti-intellectualism that we still see thriving in our country today.

OK, all that aside, in a world where college = job training, how does one defend the humanities?  Majoring in accounting, hospitality and tourism, nursing, computer science clearly signals a paying job at the end.  However, this kind of thinking is driven by a mid-twentieth century notion of career: one majors in x and works in X for the next 45 years, retiring as the CEO of a X-firm with that gold watch. Hmm… not the way it works any Career-Change-at-50more, folks.  Most of our young people will change careers many times in their lives and work in jobs and careers that do not even exist today.  Imagine being in college in the 70s and now working in the IT industry.  Oh wait, you do.  What did you major in?  Chances are it was not Social Media or even Programming.  To do the business community credit, most companies will clearly say that they want young employees who can write, speak and think creatively–regardless of their major.  In fact, most corporations will train their new employees as they want them to be trained.  They do not want the business majors whose thinking has been shaped by their 50-60 year old profs.  But all of this has missed the ears of anxious parents (and yes, the cost of college is worrisome), college administrators hoping to lure more students to enroll, and government officials.  They stick with the script that college’s duty is to train workers.

So, what can anyone do to defend the humanities in ways that does not simply look rantings from self-serving luddites?  I hate to use a generation of college students as guinea pigs so as to say in 10 years, “we told you so.”  Some research minded colleagues at the Daily Nous blog (extra points for the great title, right?) are working on collecting data and reasoned arguments so as to provide philosophy–and other humanities–with some ways to argue asimovfor the continuing value of the liberal arts. And in a country that is skewing more and more towards ignorance, this may be the needed wake up call.  So, let’s stop and think about the value of philosophy, but not only in terms of those data-driven mandates, but really–what kind of life do you want to live?  What values matter?  How do you determine truth from ‘truthiness’ or falsity?  Who are you and how can you create a meaningful life?  These are some of the fundamental philosophical questions that every human grapples with.  Oh, and yes, thinking philosophically can help you get that job if you can present a clear argument and listen carefully to objections.  And to end with words of wisdom from  Steven Wright:

I was in a job interview and I opened a book and started reading. Then I said to the guy, “Let me ask you a question. If you are in a spaceship that is traveling at the speed of light, and you turn on the headlights, does anything happen?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “I don’t want your job.”