Archive for January, 2009

John Updike, R.I.P.

We Pennsylvanians lost one of our great ones yesterday, and I lost one of my favorite writers.  He even once helped me in my “day job” pursuing science and religion dialogue.

A character from John Updikes’ novel, Roger’s Version, warns of a danger in pursuing something like the “constructive engagement of science and religion”:

Whenever theology touches science, it gets burned. In the sixteenth century astronomy, in the seventeenth microbiology, in the eighteenth geology and paleontology, in the nineteenth Darwin’s biology all grotesquely extended the world-frame and sent churchmen scurrying for cover in ever smaller, more shadowy nooks, little gloomy ambiguous caves in the psyche where even now neurology is cruelly harrying them, gouging them out from the multifolded brain like wood lice from under the lumber pile.

Maybe.  But it seemed to be not like that for Updike himself. Not entirely.  Not unambiguously.  In this novel, for instance, it’s the “scientist” who’s out to prove God’s existence once and for all, and the world-weary Divinity School professor who’s giving the advice above.  The professor has proof of another sort:

Indeed, it has occurred to me that in my sensation of peace post coitus, of sweet theistic certainty beneath the remote vague ceiling, of living proof at Verna’s side, I was guilty of heresy, the heresy of which the Cathars and Fraticelli were long ago accused amid the thunders of anathema–that of committing deliberate abominations so as to widen and deepen the field in which God’s forgiveness can magnificently play.  Mas, mas.  But thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God.

Updike did, I think, understand temptations well…of all sorts.  No one could conjure abominations better.  R.I.P.


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He wrote this for me…

…Patrick Kavanagh did…just didn’t know it, is all.


My soul was an old horse
Offered for sale in twenty fairs.
I offered him to the Church–the buyers
Were little men who feared his unusual airs.
One said: ‘Let him remain unbid
In the wind and rain and hunger
Of sin and we will get him–
With the winkers thrown in–for nothing.’

Then the men of State looked at
What I’d brought for sale.
One minister, wondering if
Another horse-body would fit the tail
That he’d kept for sentiment–
The relic of his own soul–
Said, ‘I will graze him in lieu of his labour.’
I lent him for a week or more
And he came back a hurdle of bones,
Starved, overworked, in despair.
I nursed him on the roadside grass
To shape him for another fair.

I lowered my price.  I stood him where
The broken-winded, spavined stand
And crooked shopkeepers said that he
Might do a season on the land–
But not for high-paid work in towns.
He’d do a tinker, possibly.
I begged, ‘O make some offer now,
A soul is a poor man’s tragedy.
He’ll draw your dungiest cart,’ I said,
‘Show you short cuts to Mass,
Teach weather lore, at night collect
Bad debts from poor men’s grass.’
     And they would not.

     Where the
Tinkers quarrel I went down
With my horse, my soul.
I cried, ‘Who will bid me half a crown?’
From their rowdy bargaining
Not one turned. ‘Soul,’ I prayed,
‘I have hawked you through the world
Of Church and State and meanest trade.
But this evening, halter off,
Never again will it go on.
On the south side of ditches
There is grazing of the sun.
No more haggling with the world…’

As I said these words he grew
Wings upon his back.  Now I may ride him
Every land my imagination knew.

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Lying awake at night, wondering if there’s a GED…

When is a GED better than a PhD?  Now!  Kai Ma tells yet another story of disaster and despair in the humanities.  One of her correspondents tells her:

Every single academic, especially in the humanities, has a tinge of buyer’s remorse [about their PhD]. You see your peers in law or business school make down payments on homes and buy cars and go on vacation. But as a PhD student, you’re in your 30s, still renting an apartment and driving an ’84 Corolla. It’s not cute.

Advice:  Learn a trade!

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Why not?  John Derbyshire reviews The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton, founder of the artsandlettersdaily website (for which we owe him a debt of gratitude).  The gist?  That we have biological, evolutionary sources for our tastes, that perhaps what we like held, at least once upon a time, adaptive advantage.  Derbyshire asks, why not?  Let a thousand conferences bloom!

Speaking of bloom, I first heard about this in a talk (notice) by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom:  the world’s “most desirable painting.”  Mentioned also in Dutton, an experiment in the nineties by Komar and Melamid conducted surveys to determine tastes in painting. Here is the most desirable painting for Americans:


The funny thing is, in almost all the world, everyone prefers paintings that contain a lot of blue, water, trees, animals, people, and historic figures.  Here, for instance, is the favorite from Kenya:


You can check out the rest of the (remarkably similar) most desired–and the least desired–paintings for different nationalities here.  Just one thing:  Can sombody please explain to me the Dutch (whom I love and yet cannot fathom)!

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But don’t take it from me…

Here’s an essay on getting into and out of academia.  A taste:

[T]he life of the mind is highly portable: research and writing can be done outside the friendly confines of colleges and university, and some of us can even become better scholars for having experiences the worlds of commerce and public culture. Further, corporate life is different from the academy, but not completely alien: it has some aspects that are pleasantly familiar, as well as pleasantly different. Because of this, the skills that you develop as a graduate student and postdoc can be real assets in the private sector. Our talents, it turns out, are really quite marketable, and quite useful.

And this:

[A]lmost everyone in the humanities takes for granted that the academy is the only place in which one can pursue the life of the mind. The assumption is so pervasive as to seem perfectly natural, and thus it goes unquestioned. Immersion in things intellectual seems by nature antithetical to the coarser interests of the rest of the world, and its absurd obsessions with money and power. If that is true, then there is nothing to be done about leaving: there are and can be no alternatives to the university to (literally) speak of, and no rational policies to pursue or plans to make. Outside the ivy walls lies oblivion, and the less said about that particular abyss the better. It’s no wonder that our language for describing lives that aren’t academic, but are scholarly, is so poor.

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Yes…what ARE they thinking?

One of our local publications, Main Line Today, just published a little feature on Metanexus.  In it, I am described as a “real-life philosopher,” an appellation I think I’ll keep, thank you very much.  Money quote from Hansell:  “The ideas here at Metanexus go beyond the jamming.”  I think we’ll use that for the title of our next conference:  “Beyond the Jamming:  A Transdisciplinary Approach.”

Some other observations:

  • While it is true, as the article notes, that we do not “necessarily ‘foam at the mouth'” over controversy, we do contingently foam at the mouth over controversy.
  • The article notes that Metanexus is “providing a forum for those passionate about discovery and cosmic fine-tuning.”  And…well…LOTs of stuff, too!
  • I am quoted as saying, “It’s not a cocktail hour.”  I would never say that.  For me, it is–ontologically–cocktail hour!
  • The article states (that we think, I guess) that “Everyone is an expert, and no one knows the answer to anything.” It is not a quote, and I never said it, but now I’m kinda wishing I did.  It’s a koan.

Elsewhere, I am quoted as saying,

“We’re always glad to have rich resources. Maybe there are none like we have here, but we’re still interested in these questions, and I’m convinced they should matter to everyone—academics and non-academics, young and old, the boy who works at Borders and also runs his high school philosophy club, and the churches and libraries.”

Uh…what?  What’s that about the resources?  And the boy who works at Borders? (Not me, brother.)  Also:  academics, non-academics, the young, the old, the boys and the men constitute, in part, “everyone.”  Churches and libraries do not.

The article goes on:

“Real wisdom is a collective thing,” Weislogel adds. “You draw out wisdom. The search for it is a form of intellectual and spiritual tourism—and the sun never really sets on such things.”

The quest for wisdom is NOT “a form of intellectual and spiritual tourism,” although the sun never really sets on it.  The “tourism” refers to some of those not in academia who choose to attend our annual conference, especially when we have them in interesting locales.  Not a bad little vacation, really.  But it doesn’t refer to the quest, the thing itself.

Anyway, thanks to Main Line Today, though, for checking us out and providing us a little local visibility (and me a bit of amusement).  And the picture makes us look every bit as awesome as we are!


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It’s a good thing a philosopher doesn’t need a university…

…because pretty soon there’s not going to be any place for them in the university.  According to Stanley Fish, so says Frank Donoghue in his new book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities.

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