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Question Authority: “I wonder if that’s true.”

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Is suspension of belief the same as active doubt?

Strangers, colleagues, friends and family are adept at sounding like they know what they are talking about. It’s a piece of the human condition in our U.S. of A. to come across with confidence (even better—hubris—if you can manage it). Use a certain tone of voice, jam words together quickly, toss in a few technical terms, keep your head steady and hold someone’s gaze, and—presto!—you’re an expert.

And your word matters.

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Back in college studying philosophy I might have been an irritating presence with friends because the most common, most innocuous comments could elicit questions. Over time I learned to hold those questions to myself and mull things over in a less public way. But whenever I find myself in the presence of people who wrap themselves with authority, those questions pop out.

I’m attracted to Robert Sokolowski’s take on phenomenology. In particular, this notion of bracketing our natural thoughts and suspending a belief to ask about it and examine the pieces and parts and moments and manifolds of that belief. It’s a great thing to do in conversation, and many generous-minded thinkers and experts will walk that direction with me. But those intent on cloaking themselves with authority—those using bits of knowledge as rhetorical tools to one-up their conversation partners—see ordinary questions that come from bracketing as weapons of aggression.

And in truth, sometimes they are. To respond to the expert with “I wonder if that is true” is to question authority, to question context, to question orthodoxy. It also brings common relationships into question. Can we be friends if you question this basic statement?

And yet the most marvelous thoughts follow those ordinary questions. Thoughts that propel forward with much deeper motivation and insight.

Friends who allow you to ask very basic questions are a gift to be cherished.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How To Rip The Top Off Your Club

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Work or church or bowling: It’s easy to mistake why we’re here

First a quiz:

  1. My company exists to give me a job. True or False?
  2. My church exists so I can feel better about myself once a week. True or False?
  3. I’m part of a bowling league so I can practice bowling and maybe get better. True or False?

Lately I find myself using “club” to describe those organizations that have turned so inward they have forgotten their purpose. Sometimes clients forget they got into the business to help customers live better lives. Sometimes they spend their days fixated on managing up. Sometimes pastors think all these people show up to take direction, fill the offering plates and carry out the pastoral vision. Sometimes parishioners show up thinking this hour will medicate me—I’ll be inoculated from the mundane horror of daily life for about a week.

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Of course, none of this we say out loud. We also try not to say these things to ourselves. But our attitude gives us away.

When I teach college writing classes and we talk about finding jobs, we spend a lot of time talking about how work is thing we do together for others. Work is not a thing set up for the sole purpose of getting money. If you think the former (work is about helping others) you’ll have an enduring, meaning-making attitude that will help you accomplish stuff in the real world. If you think the latter (work is for me to get money/fame/prestige), you will never be satisfied. Might as well trade derivatives on Wall Street.

It is true that we each stand at the center of our world. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski calls that stance our “transcendent ego.” And that’s just how we experience all there is to experience in the world. But it takes a maturing person to step away from the giddy, teen-age fiction that all of everything revolves around me for real.

Is it time to call your club back to the central purpose—the purpose that people signed up for in the beginning—making a difference in the world? If it is, you’ll likely have uncomfortable conversations with your friends in the club. You may even cause current programs to jump the tracks. But that’s ok: that’s what happens when we refocus on the bigger purposes of why we are here.

That is a work that helps all of us in the club.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

 

No, Really: What does a Philosopher do?

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When Adjuncts Escape

Helen De Cruz has done a fascinating and very readable series of blog posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) tracking the migration of philosophical thinking from academia into the rest of life. As low-paid, temporary workers (that is, “contingent faculty” or “adjuncts”) take over more and more university teaching duties (50% of all faculty hold part-time appointments); smart, degreed people are also starting to find their way out of this system that rewards increasingly narrowed focus with low pay and a kick in the butt at the end of the semester.

Ms. De Cruz has a number of excellent interactions with her sample of former academics (at least one of whom left a tenured position!). I love that Ms. De Cruz named transferable skills. What would a philosophy Ph.D. bring to a start-up? Or a tech position? The answers she arrives at may surprise you.

Why the Nichols Station Apartments look different.

Why the Nichols Station Apartments look different.

I’ve always felt we carry our interests and passions and skills with us, from this class to that job to this project to that collaboration. And thus we form a life of work. Possibly we produce a body of work. We once called this a “career,” but that word has overtones of climbing some institutional ladder. I think we’re starting to see more willingness to make your own way—much like Seth Godin described his 30 years of projects.

The notion of “career” is very much in flux.

And that is a good thing.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion Ms. De Cruz had with Eric Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan found his way out of studying phenomenology (and philosophy of language with advisor John Searle!) at Columbia and UC Berkeley to writing television comedy (Letterman, Flight of the Conchords, and Big Bang Theory, among others). If you’ve watched any of these, it’s likely you’ve witnessed some of the things a philosophical bent does out loud: ask obvious questions and produce not-so-obvious answers. And that’s when the funny starts. It’s this hidden machinery that will drive the really interesting stuff in a number of industries.

Our colleges and universities are beginning to do an excellent job dispersing talent. That thoughtful diaspora will only grow as time pitches forward.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Here’s a note to excuse my absence

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I’m sorta here and please carry on without me

It’s Monday so I’m sitting in my work chair.

But honestly, I’m sorta still sketching tombstones in the peaceful, cool graveyard. And I’m sorta still walking Dayton’s bluff above the Mississippi thinking how little control we exert over this force of nature overflowing the boundaries we set.

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I’m sorta still at the party commemorating an 83-year-old’s deeply human connections and I’m sorta still cycling through Northeast Minneapolis marveling at the fancy systemic alternative to internal combustion. I’m sorta still reclining in an armchair sorting through Robert Sokolowski’s argument for how little time we’ve spent exploring the notion of absence.

So—yes—I’m here.

Just put your post-it reminder on my forehead. And when I return I’ll send you that copy you wanted yesterday.

Or was it tomorrow?

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Darling, let us now speak of love (Jacques Derrida)

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Or shall we speak of death?

Allow Mr. Derrida to dampen any small flicker of emotion you may still retain.

Oh, philosophers: You romantic…bunch.

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Written by kirkistan

February 14, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Posted in curiosities, philosophy

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Stop-Action Living & How to Pay Attention

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Jean Laughton’s Mythic West Borders Her Real West

Put a frame around the scene before you and the scene changes. The frame creates distance from the action, which is both useful and off-putting.

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Useful in that the frame helps you stop and see what is going on. Moving parts fall (momentarily) silent and you are released to think critically about the action. Note that critical thought need not be negative or a complaint or a sardonic aside. Critical thinking can result in even more whole-hearted agreement with the action. Critical thinking can also lead to backing away from the action.

Off-putting in that the frame truncates the scene and isolates it from everything else. Off-putting because the people in the scene see the camera and note you’ve switched from action to observer, which most of us find discomfiting. Pick up a camera or sketch pad and you’ve suddenly marked yourself as something other than what is happening right here and now. Pick up a camera and watch people freeze or back away.

Edmund Husserl (that 19th century mathematician/philosopher/phenomenologist) talked about leaving the “natural attitude” and bracketing his experience to come to fully understand/appreciate the experience. Actually, Husserl advised breaking with the natural attitude and bracketing experience to get on with his phenomenological work. Henri Cartier-Bresson always used a 50mm lens to capture the surrounding action, so his audience could see the central action in context and form stronger conclusions. Damon Young, in his Distraction, cites Henri Matisse in explaining how art became his way of looking at the world:

“I am unable to distinguish,” he wrote in 1908, “between the feeling I have for life, and my way of expressing it.”

Any way you cut it, paying attention and making your experience available to others are somehow linked. In Jean Laughton’s work, she takes her camera in the saddle and documents life as working cowgirl. The images she creates are mythic and telling and honest.

Walk through a few of Jean Laughton’s images and you’ll be glad she is paying attention. Laughton seems to have found a way to live in the scenes even as she brackets them. Her frames seem to not take her away from the action. The result is both memorable and accessible.

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Image credit: Jean Laughton via Lenscratch

Written by kirkistan

September 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

You Don’t Have to be a Professor to be a Professor

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Rock Your Otium With Purpose09032013-philippe-ramette-15

Australian philosopher Damon Young’s Distraction cites the fascinating example of Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza. An able, talented and academic-class thinker, he did much of his work outside the academy. But in 1673 Spinoza was offered a position at Heidelberg University where he would teach while earning the salary of a full professor—opening for him a “life worthy of a philosopher.”

Spinoza refused.

He preferred to continue to practice his craft: grinding optical lenses for short-sighted friends. Spinoza wanted to earn his own income and use his free time (his otium) to uncover the mysteries of the universe and sort out how people should treat each other. Teaching would be a distraction from his primary work of writing and thinking. He refused the distraction, though the job seems a much easier route for what he was already doing.

Young wondered if there was something of the work of the mind in the crafting of the lenses that helped Spinoza move his thinking forward. That connection between thinking and craft is something Matthew Crawford (Shop Class as Soulcraft) would likely agree with. Spinoza’s lenses were renowned and admired—he did good glass work. But his philosophical writings are why we remember him.

We still read Spinoza today. Young points out that while Spinoza’s prose makes for boring reading, it is among those unusual texts that have passed the test of time.

09032013-9781844652549_p0_v2_s260x420The truth is there are only so many hours in a day. If you’re an adjunct professor, you are basically volunteering your time, which might have gone toward research. If you are a full-time professor, you must diligently make clean breaks from distraction to do the research you studied for.

I relish Spinoza’s example for the intrinsic motivation that led to his colossal works. I am also intrigued by the relationship between his daily lens grinding and the sight he brought to his writing. I very much enjoyed Damon Young’s book.

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Image credit: Philippe Ramette via Frank T. Zumbachs Mysterious World

Written by kirkistan

September 3, 2013 at 9:18 am

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