Tag Archives: maria popova

Something Under Construction

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Maria Popova`

In the 1992 Vice Presidential debate, with Al Gore on one side and Dan Quayle on the other, Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, asked two questions that have become part of Presidential politics lore: Who am I? Why am I here?

Stockdale took a great deal of criticism and heat for his performance as well as triggering a lot of laughter from those who supposedly knew better. But the Admiral was asking questions that those of us who have had to suffer through week after week of painful and embarrassing debates during our current political cycle would be happy to hear someone ask of themselves. Sometimes a bit of self-analysis and awareness is appropriate. Furthermore, Stockdale’s questions are two of the most fundamental timeless questions of philosophy. who am IWho exactly are we and what the hell are we doing here?

The “who am I?” issue is often packaged in philosophy classes as “the problem of personal identity.” How does a person stay the same over time? To get things going, I often ask my students how many have ever said something like “I’m not the same person that I was back then.” Every hand goes up, since everyone knows that even those parts of ourselves that we consider to be most important—our attitudes, beliefs, commitments, and so on—can radically change over time. Add that to the fact that scientists tell us that there is no cell in our body that will still be in our body seven years from now, and it becomes a challenge to identify exactly what it is about me that stays the same over time so I can still call myself the same person as I was throughout all of the changes that every person encounters.

Many philosophers and theologians have cheated (in my considered opinion) by saying that it is the “soul” that stays constant in the human person throughout all of the physical and experiential changes that each of us encounters throughout a lifetime. formsPlato insisted that the human being’s tool to engage with the unchanging and eternal Forms was the unchanging and eternal soul, an idea that traditional Christian theology has been more than happy to adapt to our connection with the divine. But press someone concerning what the soul actually is, and you will undoubtedly instead find out what it is not—it isn’t physical, it isn’t subject to change, is impervious to time, and so on. In short, the soul is the “whatever it is” that stays constant throughout a human being’s changes, but don’t ask for its positive characteristics. It is just a necessary placeholder. Unfortunately, one of the most important rules of logic is that one cannot define something negatively. lockeTheological issues aside, the soul hardly works as a standard for personal identity.

One of the most interesting and influential explorations of personal identity comes from John Locke, the great 17th century British philosopher. Locke suggests that one’s personal identity extends as far back as one’s memories extend—my identity, in other words, is the collection of all of those experiences stretched over time that can appropriately be owned as “mine.” “I” am the subject of all of these experiences. As my students point out in short order, there are plenty of problems with this notion.

  • Does this mean that a person with no memories, someone with advanced Alzheimer’s or in a comatose state, is technically not a person? Locke’s definition requires that we say “yes.”
  • Suppose that at (time A) 5 years old I go to disneyDisneyland, at (time B) 45 years old I am promoted to full professor, and at (time C) 90 years old my sons commit me to a nursing home. At 45 I remember going to Disneyland; at 90 I remember getting promoted but no longer remember going to Disneyland. Locke’s analysis requires me to say that Morgan B and Morgan A are identical, as are Morgan C and Morgan B. Morgans C and A, however, are not the same person. That violates the transitive law of mathematics and logic (A=B, B=C, therefore A=C), but who said personal identity is mathematically precise?
  • Human memories are notoriously inaccurate. What impact, if any, does this have on Locke’s proposed standard?

These and other puzzles arising from Locke’s analysis reliably produce great class discussions—but are we any closer to figuring out who we are?

brain pickingsIn a recent conversation with Krista Tippett, Maria Popova provided a 21st century version of Locke’s suggestions.

Identity for all of us is this perpetual process. It’s somewhat like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic. And it’s as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as bringing in new ones . . . We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely curated catalog of those.

Popova’s reflections highlight a feature of a Lockean analysis that is easily missed—each of us has both the responsibility and the privilege of creating our own identities. under constructionAs Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “the human being is always something under construction.” We do not control much of what happens to us, but we do get to choose which features will rise to the level of “definitive,” which memories will serve as the foundation of who we are. Each of us, as Popova might say, is a curator of our identity. The more items there are to curate, whether experiences, texts, or other people, the more dynamic and nuanced each identity has the potential to be.

Popova is also willing to nod favorably toward the notion of the soul. It may not be the best choice as an anchor of personal identity, but Popova suggests that whatever the soul is, we have reason to think that it is real.woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote that “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And she talks about the slipperiness of the soul and the delicacy and complexity of the soul. But I think the fullest people, the people most whole and most alive, are always those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. And the soul is never an assemblage of fragments. And it always is.

Philosophers are likely to complain that there is still no evidence to support believing in the existence of such a thing. But perhaps the best evidence in its favor is that multitudes of human beings seem bound, even hard-wired, to believe in it. Maybe that’s enough.

Back in the Saddle Again

We in southern New England have been spared a tough winter. Shit can still happen, but this winter has been a breeze compared to last year’s two-month cycle of weekly snow storms. A few mid-fifties temperature teases thrown in here and there in February have been a harbinger of an early spring—furthermore, the groundhog didn’t see his shadow.groundhogThen two days ago, we broke a temperature record and hit 70 degrees. This is all good news for everyone, but especially for me. Because the arrival of early spring coincides with a signature event in my life—I’m back in the saddle again.

I wrote frequently in summer and early fall last year about how one of the central features of my early sabbatical weeks was the rediscovery, after many years, of the joys of bicycling. I loaded tons of pictures, wrote blog posts, got in the best shape of my life, then disaster struck. I tipped over unceremoniously in a completely non-spectacular bike mishap and broke my ankle in early October—less than a week before riding the seventy-mile round trip Woonsocket to Bristol trip that I had been building up to for three months (for those unfamiliar with Rhode Island geography, that’s pretty much the top of the state to half way down and back).RI It could have been worse—I didn’t need surgery or even a cast, only requiring a boot for ten weeks or so. But no more bike riding for at least three months, and by that time we would be in the dead of winter, so probably no more bike riding for six months.my boot

This was more of a problem than just being laid up without exercise for a while. As wrote in a September blog post,

Life at Ten Miles per Hour

“Riding my bicycle early in this sabbatical is doing the same sort of thing for me that reciting the psalms and saying prayers with a 100_0770bunch of Benedictine monks on a daily basis did for me during my last sabbatical seven years ago. Cobwebs and impediments are being removed by simply finding ways to get centered and discover what’s going on beneath the complicated and pressured surface of things on which all of us skate in our manic day-to-day existence.” As I watched my writing productivity become less natural and fluid when I no longer could spend 3-4 hours per day on my bike, I began to wonder about the mind/body connection, a favorite philosophical puzzle of mine ever since graduate school. Is it really the case that paying specific attention to the body is good for the mind and soul?

Not long ago I heard Maria Popova, a social media/blogging phenomenon, talk about the mind/body connection in an interview with Krista Tippett. brain pickingsWhere, Tippett asked Popova, do you get your most creative and fertile thoughts? I resonated fully with Popova’s response:

Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. It’s a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.

In the early weeks of my sabbatical when I was still feeling a bit guilty about riding for hours per day when I was supposed to be writing, a colleague (who is also an avid biker) said “You have it all wrong. Sabbaticals are all about thinking (while riding bikes), then maybe when you get home, you write something down.” She was exactly right—the first drafts of two of the first chapters in my big sabbatical writing project were formed in my head while floating down a bike path.

I took my first real bike ride since October two days ago, a beautiful day when even the turtles were seeking to get an early tan.WIN_20160309_12_17_22_Pro My ankle is ready for it. My mind is ready for it—I need some inspiration for my next big project that doesn’t seem to be coming just sitting in my library recliner. My body is not entirely ready for it—I rode twenty miles and can tell that I’ll need a while to get my stamina back up to where it was in October. My greatest concern, though, is how to make the mind/body wonders of bicycle riding transferable to my “real” life once sabbatical ends and I am back in the classroom in a few months. I’ve found that the inner healing and silent centeredness that were features of my last sabbatical have been transferable to real life, as long as I take the time to work at it. But I will not have three to four hours available per day for bike riding once sabbatical is over—what might serve the same purpose?

It should not be impossible to create more “unburdened spaces” in one’s life, but it goes without saying that our twenty-first century world does not readily accommodate the finding or constructing of such spaces. The only other space in my life where I occasionally have moments of “uninterrupted intimacy” between my mind and body are when Madame DefargeI’m working in the yard—something about digging in the dirt liberates my mind from its usual fifty-things-at-once energies. One thing to remember is that although the mind/body connection goes both ways, this particular facet of it goes from body to mind, not the other way around. My body has never become healthier by my simply thinking a lot (although improved attitudes certainly can help), but bike riding and working in the yard are two examples of how physical activity can liberate my mind and consciousness. Maybe this is why my mother used to knit all the time, so often that one of my father’s nicknames for her was “Madame Defarge.” Maybe this is why apparently mindless and rote activities find their way into the routines of so many people. I need to cultivate such activities; something tells me watching a lot of television, even the good stuff, doesn’t count. Suggestions welcomed!

Bored with Thinking

Many years ago I read a paragraph in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth that was the single most helpful piece of advice I ever received concerning teaching. Brittain writes thattestament of youth

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

The idea of thinking and learning as being intimately connected to the desire to think and learn has driven my pedagogy for a long time, but perhaps even more important in this passage is Brittain’s claim that wanting to think and learn is a moral issue. In our contemporary world, learning is often understood in terms of processing information and then applying it, usually with a view to becoming a more and more efficient and productive member of society. But how might the cultivation of thought and learning be transformed if we paid close attention to the moral aspects of these foundational human activities?arendt

Hannah Arendt once said that “every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them children.” We all know that part of the process of civilizing these little barbarians is equipping them with values and with a moral compass, as well as providing training in how to use these moral tools. If thinking well and being committed to lifetime learning is part of being a moral human being, then muddled and sloppy thinking, as well as the attitude that no further learning is necessary, are moral failings of the same order as lying, cheating, and stealing. We live in a world in which we are in danger of—if we have not already arrived at—cognitive immorality. Not because of the immoral contents of our thoughts, but rather because of our collective unwillingness to commit to the hard work of thinking clearly, work that takes the sort of time and commitment that modern human beings are often loathe to engage with.

I began thinking anew about the moral features of thinking and learning after listening to an interview that Krista Tippett did on her On Being radio program with Maria Popova.brain pickings

Maria Popova: Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age

Popova is a bit of social media phenomenon; she is most notable for Brain Pickings, a popular blog that began as a weekly email to seven of her friends. Now a website, Twitter feed and weekly digest, Brain Pickings covers a wide variety of cultural topics: history, current events, and images and texts from the past. In the introduction to their conversation, Tippett called Popova a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age.” Popova observes that

As a culture, we seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. We’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. The true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. The only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else.

I can think of no better contemporary example of this than our current political cycle. The sense I get is not so much that candidates and voters are incapable of thinking. Rather, there appears to be general agreement with violetViolet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, who once quipped that “All this thinking is overrated.” Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders telling us “I will do this” should be enough—why insist on an explanation or account of how this will be done? Most of us remember being told on a middle or high school mathematics exam to “show your work”—no shortcuts allowed, in other words. How then have we come collectively to a place where we cannot be bothered to “show our work” when it comes to some of the most important decisions we will make in the next several years?

During my childhood and adolescent years I was occasionally told, particularly by family members and people who attended our church, that “you think too much.” A corollary was often that “things really aren’t that complicated.” The truth, of course, is that there are very few times in life where more thought is unnecessary, and things really are that complicated. There is a strong tendency in human nature to want things simplified; even more, there is a strong desire to move from premise to conclusion without having to do any of the nasty and time-consuming work in between. Part of moral and cognitive maturity is to move forward with intelligence and conviction through a very complicated and messy world. We would like everything to be reducible to a bumper sticker or sound bite but, as jamesWilliam James reminds us, “Nature is not bound to satisfy our presuppositions. In the great boarding house of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean.”

The moral aspects of teaching often begin with resisting the temptation to deliver a product, to give the customer what she wants. Sometimes, Maria Popova suggests, what people want is the last thing they should get.

Giving people what they want isn’t nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need. There’s always a shortcut available, a way to be a little more ironic, cheaper, more instantly understandable. There’s the chance to play into our desire to be entertained and distracted regardless of the cost. Most of all, there’s the temptation to encourage people to be selfish, afraid, and angry. Or you can dig in, take your time, and invest in a process that helps people see what they truly need.t and f

I try to focus on the importance of “digging in” every time I’m in the classroom. But observing myself outside of the classroom, I find that I have a lot of work to do. I spend time on Twitter, even though communicating in 120 characters or less is hardly an example of in-depth discourse. I quickly block or unfriend Facebook people who clearly hold political views that are radically different from mine. I bristle when someone challenges me in the “Comments” section of this blog. If I am going to call for moral maturity in thinking and learning, that maturation process begins with me.