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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

Go Find Yourself

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Are you hiding in plain sight?

Are you already doing who you are?

That question barely makes sense.

Still, I like it because it combines process with self-identity and hints at motivation. To answer that question all you have to do is look at how you spend your day—and with whom—to begin to sort your priorities.

Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) is not a quick read. But it is a satisfying text because he pulls back the draperies hiding some daily mysteries we live without thinking.

For instance, I found out I am an artist. Of sorts.

For instance, I found out I am an artist. Of sorts.

Like work.

Mr. Crawford, the philosopher/motorcycle mechanic dismantles the notion of work and rebuilds it around the cylinders of service and ability and passion. (Wait—only three cylinders? What sort of wimpy metaphor is that? Don’t blame Mr. Crawford—that’s just my take on it and I’m only ¾ of the way through the book.)

Mr. Crawford notes that we must submit to a discipline—this is important—to become useful and adept at that discipline. Sort of like knowing the rules well so that you can break them well:

  • Mechanics must know the fundamentals of engines to work on them.
  • Writers must know how to speel, and the must know a grammar, to right. Otherwise, misunderstood. Are they?

Mr. Crawford’s take on authority is powerfully counterintuitive: we submit to the authority of a discipline so we can work within the logic and expectations and outcomes of that discipline. Along the way, after practicing that discipline for a time, it turns out we come to understand life through the tools and foci that discipline affords.

This notion of authority is counterintuitive because we Americans like to speak ill of authority every chance we get. I may be chief among the ill-speakers. That needs to change (though, of course, speak truth to power, and so on).

Here’s the point: looking back over the disciplines we’ve come to use every day is a key to how we understand the world and how we process life. Some people understand life through their writing. Some people process life through their woodworking. Some through watercolor or costume design or clipping topiaries.

There is a link between who we are and what we do.

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Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

September 11, 2015 at 9:41 am

Wait: Can we talk too much?

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Feed your existential intelligence

I’m gearing up to teach again: freelance copywriting and social media marketing. My understanding of communication and writing and the volunteer social-media tethering we do continues to evolve. I can talk and teach and speculate about what works for communication and how to provide what a client needs. I can talk about how we need to help our clients think—that is a piece of the value-add a smart copywriter brings to a relationship. But these days I’m seeing more limits and caveats—especially in the promises inherent in social media.

These are English students and communications and journalism. Some  business students. Juniors and seniors. Many are excellent writers. Many, if not most, have worked hard to develop an existential intelligence, as Howard Gardner puts it. I teach at a Christian college, and from very many discussions with students, I know they will seek a place for faith in their life and work and life-work balance. Many if not all are just as eager to make meaning as they are to find a job.

That pleases me.

That’s one of the reasons I like to teach there.

One thing I’ve learned is that work alone does not satisfy the meaning-making part of life. Nor does work itself feed the existential intelligence. Craft comes close. Especially when we grow in our craft as we seek to serve others. But work and craft and meaning-making must be purposefully-pursued.SelfPortrait-08262015

Intentional-like.

Because if we don’t pursue them, we fall prey to entertainment. We gradually anesthetize ourselves and starve the existential intelligence with the well-deserved zone-out time in front of the big screen TV. I’m starting to wonder if some of our social media habits also starve our existential intelligence.

I wonder because I wrestle with these impulses.

No. One does not fall into meaning-making. It takes work to make meaning.

I suppose that is the work of a lifetime.

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Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

When Truth Sounds Like a Lie

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And the lie that turns out true

Let’s make up a new term: the “aspirational lie.”

The aspirational lie is that thing that falls from your mouth before you can stop it.

  • It is not quite true—that’s why you almost didn’t say it.
  • But it is not quite false—something about it is true. Which is why you did say it.

That happened to me when talking to a writing class of business students. My professor friend let me come in and chat about freelance copywriting. She wanted her MBA students to see some different shades to how work gets done. In the course of our discussion we talked about how one prepares to write and about how one does the work.

I told one truth that sounded like a lie.

And I told a lie that turned out to be true.

Arrows-01302015

The Truth That Sounded Like a Lie

The truth that sounded like a lie was that I make a bunch of stuff up for my clients. “How so?” wondered the class. It’s like this: the writer’s work is to think forward and then tell the story of how all the parts fit together. Whether writing a white paper, a journal article, an advertising campaign or refreshing a brand, writers do what writers have always done: make stuff up. They grab bits and pieces of facts and directions and fit them into a coherent whole. As they move forward, they gradually replace false with true and so learn as they go.

That is the creative process.

You fill up your head with facts and premonitions and assumptions. Many are true, some are false. But the process itself—and the subsequent reviews reveal what it is true. Writing is very much a process of trying things on for size and then using them or discarding them. And sometimes we used facts “for position only,” as a stand-in for the real, true fact on our way to building the honest, coherent whole.

 

The Aspirational Lie

We also talked about backgrounds and how one prepares to write. I explained how degrees in philosophy and theology are an asset to business writing. Yes: I was making that up on the spot. But not really, because I have believed that for some time, though had never quite put it in those words. Pulling from disparate backgrounds is a way out of the narrow ruts we find ourselves in. Those divergent backgrounds help to connect the dots in new and occasionally excellent ways. Which is also why we do ourselves a favor when we break from our homogeneous clubs from time to time.

Comedy writers do this all the time. I just finished Mike Sacks excellent Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers (NY: Penguin Books, 2014), and was amazed all over again at the widely different life experiences comedy writers bought to their work.

The more I’ve thought about the aspirational lie that philosophy and theology contribute to story-telling, the more convinced I am it is true. That’s because I find myself lining up facts and story bits and characters and timelines according the rhythms and disciplines I was steeped in during school. In philosophy it was the standing back and observing with a disinterested eye. In theology it was the finding and unraveling and rethreading of complicated arguments—plus a “this-is-part-of-a-much-larger-story” component.

Our studies, our reading, our life experience—all these help line up the ways we hear things and the ways we connect the dots. Our best stories are unified and coherent because of this.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

About the Node Not Taken

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Steady There, Young Philosopher

My hardworking, entrepreneurial colleague surprised me in conversation the other day:

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like had I stayed in the corporate world—what would I be doing now?

My friend was in one of the periodic slumps that happen to anyone building a business of their own. Those slumps squeeze out long-suppressed questions. These are the questions that precipitate momentary crises of faith for those constructing wings as they plummet.

No. Really. Is there an actual "Afton State Park"?

No. Really. Is there an actual “Afton State Park”?

Young philosophers like to ponder the “What ifs” of life:

  • What if I had dated that person rather than this person?
  • What if I had taken that job rather than this job?
  • What if I had studied engineering rather than philosophy? (One certain answer: the world would have to cope with a very bad engineer.)
  • What if had dived 12 inches to the left and missed that rock in the lake?

One problem with our casual “What ifs” is that they often assume a straight line from the point of decision. You go this way. You go that way. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood.

But what if our lives are composed of nodes that become roads? What if each decision is followed by another so that our paths are constantly changing in real-time?

Another problem with casual “What ifs” is they forget the tiny but forceful pinpricks of relationship and conversation and motivation that accompany every choice. Thousands of tiny insights and histories and dreams contribute to each action as well as each subsequent action.

Personally, I cannot help but wonder if the nodes that become roads all lead to the place/people we were meant to be in the first place. Wait—don’t call me a determinist yet. Stick with me: what I mean is that whether we stayed in the corporation or went on our own or dropped everything to join the circus, would we end up as the kind of people we were meant to be?

This is not a perfect thought: we build things into our lives, good and bad, by daily habit. We grow, or not, because of those habits and subsequent opportunities. Admittedly, the determinist take on choice has holes.

But I’m reminded of that inveterate letter writer who wrote his friends about walking in the “good works” begun in them.

Today I’m looking for nodes and roads.

And I hope to step in a good work along the way.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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.

HighRiseSunset-07132014

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.

OneCloud-06302014_edited-1

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

Is it Time You Wrote Your Autobiography?

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I’m not writing one. Then again, who isn’t adding to their autobiographical material daily, whether with words or deeds?

but surely I am king of something

I’ve been reading the autobiography of R.G Collingwood, an Oxford philosophy professor of the last century. He set out to trace the outline of how he came to think—a kind of personal intellectual history. Early on in his life (at 8 years old) he found himself sitting with a philosophy text (Kant’s Theory of Ethics). And while he did not understand it, he felt an intense excitement as he read it. “I felt that things of the highest importance were being said about matters of the utmost urgency: things which at all costs I must understand.” (3)  That reading set one course for his life.

One thing that makes this book worth reading is his notion of how questions and answers frame our production of knowledge. Collingwood said he “revolted against the current logical theories.” (30) He rebelled against the tyranny of propositions, judgments and statements as basic units of knowledge. He thought that you cannot come to understand what another person means by simply studying his or her spoken or written words. Instead, you need to know what question that person was asking. Because what that person speaks or writes will be directly related to the question she or he has in mind. This is incredibly useful when studying ancient texts—like a letter from the Apostle Paul, for instance. It’s also incredibly useful when listening to one’s wife (ahem), or a student or to anyone we come in contact with.

Another thing that recommends this book is hearing him tell about his main hobby: archaeology. Collingwood was the opposite of a couch potato. He spent a lot of times in digs around the UK, unearthing old Roman structures and then writing about them. Here too, he explained that while some archaeologists just set out to dig, he only set out to dig when he had formed a precise question to answer. His digging (tools, methods, approach) were all shaped by this question. By starting with a question, he came to very specific answers and, of course, other brand new questions.

Questions begat answers. And more questions.

What question is your life answering?

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Image credit: J-J. Grandville via OBI Scrapbook Blog

Written by kirkistan

August 30, 2013 at 5:00 am

Talking Philosophy with a 10-Year Old

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Why not talk about something more interesting like dragons or flying?

tumblr_meg9maNCwJ1qilfuzo1_500-12062012I like reading Emmanuel Levinas. He’s mostly opaque, but every once in a while his writing opens on a breathtaking view and is just what I needed. If I had the opportunity to explain why Levinas matters to an interested ten-year old, I would say that we have a problem with other people. And the problem is that we mostly don’t want to hear from them. I could use an example from their life: you don’t want your mom to interrupt your fun: when she calls you in for dinner, you go in only reluctantly. One problem with the will of the other is that we don’t welcome distraction from our preoccupations. But it is not just that, it is that we really don’t want to even interact with some other who might have authority over us.

10-Year-Old:   “Oh. You just don’t want to do what other people say. Does Levinas tell you how to avoid doing what others tell you to do?”

Kirkistan:        “Not exactly.”

10-Year-Old:    “Does he tell you don’t have to do what they say?”

Kirkistan:        “No. It’s more like you suddenly want to do what the other person wanted because you really, really loved them.”

10-Year-Old:    “Like maybe if my grandparents were in town and asked me for something and I wanted to do it for them because they are so nice?”

Kirkistan:        “Yeah. Maybe like that. And maybe you found yourself really interested in the experiences they had, partly because they are such good storytellers and they make everything sound so exciting. You like their stories and can almost imagine being there.”

10-Year-Old:    “So my grandparents are cool and I want to get to know them because they are nice and tell interesting stories. So what you are really talking about is why it is important to hear from other people and why we should care.”

Kirkistan:        “That’s right.”

10-Year-Old:    “So why did you start be talking about stopping what I thought was fun to do something I had to do?”

Kirkistan:        “Well, I might have been a bit confused. But also because sometimes I close my ears to people who are trying to give me a gift. Something I really need. Say you are at the grocery store with your parents. It’s Saturday. And there are sample ladies on every aisle. There is lady offering free ice cream in the frozen aisle. And another man making pizzas in that aisle. And another with little chicken nuggets and another handing out crackers and cheese.

Kirkistan:        “But say you really didn’t want to go to the grocer. You really wanted to watch cartoons. So you went to the grocer reluctantly, but you took your iPod and listened to music the whole time. You walked behind you parents, music turned up. So you didn’t hear the sample ladies calling out to you. You kept your eyes on the floor so you didn’t see them either.”

10-Year-Old:    “That would be bad. I like ice cream and chicken nuggets and pizza. It’s like I had missed all the really good stuff while everybody else got something. I’d have gotten my way but I’d have missed out on the very best stuff.”

Kirkistan:        “That’s why Levinas is important. He helps us start to see and understand why it is we should care about the people around us: what they know. What they bring to our conversations. What they have to say about this and that. Even people who don’t seem to have anything to say—even those people can surprise us with lots of interesting things.”

10-Year-Old:    “OK. Well, why don’t you just listen to people? I listen to people and learn things all the time. That isn’t hard to do. It is super easy to listen to people. It’s not like you have to do anything. You just listen.”

Kirkistan:        “Well, that is great advice and I want to follow it. My answer to you would be that as you get older, you start to think you know a few things. We get to thinking we know the patterns of how things work and we figure we know pretty much how anyone will respond in any given situation. Anyway, all I’m saying is that it gets pretty easy to think you know what most people will do or say in any given situation. The surprise—if you can call it that—is that quite often people live up to our expectations. They do what we think they’ll do. Not always. But often. Then the question becomes, “Did that guy say that because I expected him to say it?” “Did I have a hand in turning this conversation this way?”

10-Year-Old:    “You’re pretty boring aren’t you?”

Kirkistan:        “You might be right.”

10-Year-Old:    “Why don’t you write about something interesting like dragons or warships? Why don’t you write a book about how to fly?”

Kirkistan:        “Great suggestions. I really want to write a book about how to fly. I think that this is the book I am writing.”

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Image Credit: Mid-Century via thisisnthappiness

Written by kirkistan

August 29, 2013 at 5:00 am

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