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Thursday, June 1, 2017

"The Anglo-American Mind"

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Welcome, students in MALA 6030.2, "Topics in Culture & Ideas: The Anglo-American Mind" - an independent focused study course beginning today and continuing for the next ten weeks. We're few in number, but we'll make up for that in enthusiasm and intensity! Here are a few bloggish thoughts to get us started, exploring The Wordsworth Connection.

Being independent and focused means we'll meet sporadically and spontaneously, when the spirit moves. Perhaps it will move those of you who reside closer to campus than I to meet occasionally amongst yourselves, to discuss our topics and readings. 

When we're not meeting in person we'll gather in the virtual space of this "CoPhilosophy" site. Each of us should plan to post a short weekly essay (250+ words) on the current assignment, responding to one of my discussion questions, one of your classmates', or one of your own. At semester's end, post a longer essay (1,000+ words)* on the relevant topic of your choice.

Also, keep track of your additional posted comments etc.-if you think of good discussion questions or encounter interesting and relevant links to books, articles, videos, podcasts or whatever, share them with us. I like to play a baseball-inspired "scorecard" game with all my classes, in which each such post earns a "base" (or a participation point, if you prefer) and every four bases earns a run; and those weekly posts are each worth a whole run. Let's see if we can push ourselves to score lots of runs, which in our case will mean we've had lots of good conversations.

COURSE DESCRIPTION. The English wit Oscar Wilde once said "we have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language". This course will examine that hypothesis by undertaking a study of cross-currents in British and American thought, exploring ways in which classic thinkers on both sides of the pond have mutually influenced and reacted to each other. We'll also read and discuss the likes of William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, David Hume, Anthony Trollope... NOTE TO CLASS: That's an ambitious agenda for an independent and focused course. We may not get around to reading and discussing all those other figures, but I encourage you all to bring them or anyone else who seems relevant into our conversations.

-Pragmatism by William James, 978-0486282701
-English Hours by Henry James, 978-1848854857
-The Sandwalk Adventures [of Charles Darwin] by Jay Hosler, 978-1482385007
-On Liberty by J.S. Mill, 978-0486421308

Any edition of these texts will do, including the free online versions. 
Week 1 - meet on June 5, 5 pm (details tba)

Week 2 - June 12 - Pragmatism Lec I-IV. 1st weekly post.

Week 3 - June 19 - Pragmatism Lec V-VIII. 2d weekly post.

Week 4 - June 26 - On Liberty Ch1-2 - 3d weekly post.

Week 5 - July 3 - On Liberty Ch3-5 - 4th weekly post.

Week 6 - July 10 - English Hours tba - 5th weekly post.

Week 7 - July 17 - English Hours tba - 6th weekly post.

Week 8 - July 24 - Sandwalk Adventures - 7th weekly post.

Week 9 - July 31 - tba (perhaps we'll each want to spend these last weeks focused on our respective final posts*)

Week 10 - August 7 - Final post* due no later than Friday, August 11.

*Final post-1,000+ words on the relevant topic of your choice. My suggestion: select an additional text, possibly one of these or another of your own choosing, and give us a book report/critique. Help build our Anglo-American bibliography (and give yourself a base for every suggestion):

William Howarth, "Reading Thoreau at 200"

John KaagAmerican Philosophy: A Love Story [and see Robert Richardson's review in William James Studies, Spring 2017 - reprinted here]

David Leary, “Authentic Tidings”: What Wordsworth Gave to William James" (PDF) in William James Studies, Spring 2017

J.S. Mill, Autobiography (see especially ch5, "CRISIS IN MY MENTAL HISTORY. ONE STAGE ONWARD," on how Wordsworth saved his sanity)

Mitchell, The Joys of Walking: Essays by Dickens, Thoreau, et al

Oliver, William James's "Springs of Delight": The Return to Life (let me know if you'd like to borrow a hard copy)

F.C.S. Schiller, Essays in Humanism

Henry Thoreau, Walking

Colm Toibin, The Master [a novel account of Henry James]

Emma Townshend, Darwin's Dogs: How Darwin's pets helped form a world-changing theory of evolution

Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism ("imbued throughout with the author’s conviction that a thorough reexamination of American pragmatism may help inspire and instruct contemporary efforts to remake and reform American society and culture")

Whitman, Wordsworth, Thoreau, et al, The Spell of the Open Air

"Five Books" on John Stuart Mill from fivebooks.com-
"John Stuart Mill spawned the British liberal political tradition," Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister told Five Books recently. "That then came to shape and define so much of modern democracy all around the world." Traditionally, new presidents of Clegg's Liberal Democrat party are presented with a copy of Mill's On Liberty upon their election to the post—"handed down like some sort of totemic emblem of everything that we’re supposed to still believe in, even now." But is not only Lib Dems who continue to prize Mill's monumental 1859 work: it has appeared time and again on the lists of our experts. Here are some of them.
Nick Clegg on his favourite books
"The extraordinary thing over recent years has been the eruption of angry populism and the politics of identity. There is this wall-building view of life in which populists harness the legitimate anger that many people have about the status quo and direct it, through the politics of blame, at a particular group—whether it’s Islam or the European Union or Mexicans. What we’re having to relearn now is the fire-in-the-belly liberalism that drove Mill to write On Liberty in the first place."
A C Grayling on 'being good'
A very important document, and one which, because of the clarity with which one can read it and its brevity, is slightly passed over... so people miss a really significant point that he makes: that allowing people the opportunity and space to experiment in quest of the good—and to do so in a way that frees them from the worst kind of tyranny, the tyranny of public opinion—is of the very essence in human progress. You only get human progress if you will allow a thousand flowers to bloom."
Claire Fox on freedom of speech
"Mill said: "Truth gains more even by errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think'—it is better to have people try out ideas in the public sphere, even if they are wrong, than to simply parrot the right answer. It is only by having those debates that you can improve your own arguments, but also possibly reconsider your position. He encapsulates why tolerance and freedom have to be actively fought for and actively asserted."
Anne Heller on libertarianism
Mill’s famous essay is an illuminating reading experience, even if you read it in college. Its conclusion is that ‘the sole principle for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of any of their number is self-protection’. He was a utilitarian rather than a libertarian proponent of natural rights, which disqualified him as a lover of liberty for [Ayn] Rand, but file that away and read on, unperturbed.

National Trust (@nationaltrust)
Britain's best nature writing of the last year: nattru.st/5ojhw Is your favourite on the @wainwrightprize longlist? pic.twitter.com/7bl86Uu0b7

The American Scholar (@TheAmScho)
What's with all the transcendental trash talking? William Howarth defends Thoreau on his 200th birthday. theamericanscholar.org/reading-thorea… pic.twitter.com/2am0jhZK1Z

DISCUSSION QUESTIONScomment on any of these, and on your own and your classmates' discussion questions. Claim a base for each posted question and comment.

Week 2 - June 12 - Pragmatism Lec I-IV-

  • Why do you think James dedicated Pragmatism to J.S. Mill?
  • James says in the preface that there's "no logical connection" between pragmatism and his radical empiricism. Why not? What makes an empiricist philosophy "radical"? 
  • In Lecture I James tells his general, non-academic audience and readership that "each and all of you" have a philosophy; but he quickly adds that our most important philosophies are all  "dumb..." What's he mean? Do you agree?
  • How would you profile your own personal philosophy, in light of James's "tough" and "tender" traits?\
  • Why do you think James is so hostile to the philosophy of Leibnitz ("superficiality incarnate... feeble grasp of reality" etc.)?
  • James has kind words for Herbert Spencer, because "we feel his heart to be in the right place." But Spencer defended a version of social Darwinism that Darwin himself repudiated as hostile to human progress and social justice. Do you think Spencer's heart was in the right place?
  • What do you make of the squirrel story at the beginning of Lec II? Does it successfully illustrate for you what James means when he says pragmatism "turns away from abstraction... from verbal solutions... towards concreteness... towards facts, towards action"?
  • James says "I just take my moral holidays." Do you? What does that mean?
  • COMMENT: "To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter COULD have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the PRINCIPLE of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life's purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter's possibilities." (Lec III)
  • Interpret and comment on the following, in light of the fact that James defends free will against determinism: "Free-will is thus a general cosmological theory of PROMISE, just like the Absolute, God, Spirit or Design. Taken abstractly, no one of these terms has any inner content, none of them gives us any picture, and no one of them would retain the least pragmatic value in a world whose character was obviously perfect from the start. Elation at mere existence, pure cosmic emotion and delight, would, it seems to me, quench all interest in those speculations, if the world were nothing but a lubberland of happiness already... If the past and present were purely good, who could wish that the future might possibly not resemble them? Who could desire free-will? Who would not say, with Huxley, "let me be wound up every day like a watch, to go right fatally, and I ask no better freedom." 'Freedom' in a world already perfect could only mean freedom to BE WORSE, and who could be so insane as to wish that?"
  • Is it good, bad, or a matter of indifference to you whether the world is "one or many"? Comment in light of "the pragmatic question 'What is the oneness known-as? What practical difference will it make?' saves us from all feverish excitement over it as a principle of sublimity and carries us forward into the stream of experience with a cool head. The stream may indeed reveal far more connexion and union than we now suspect, but we are not entitled on pragmatic principles to claim absolute oneness in any respect in advance." (Lec IV)
  • [Post and comment on your own and your classmates' discussion questions, and claim a base for each]

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