conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Here’s a note to excuse my absence

leave a comment »

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.


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?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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

with 2 comments

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.


via Biblioklept

Written by kirkistan

February 14, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Posted in curiosities, philosophy

Tagged with ,

Stop-Action Living & How to Pay Attention

with one comment

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.


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.



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

with 6 comments

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.


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

Written by kirkistan

September 3, 2013 at 9:18 am

Is it Time You Wrote Your Autobiography?

leave a comment »

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?


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

with 3 comments

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.”


Image Credit: Mid-Century via thisisnthappiness

Written by kirkistan

August 29, 2013 at 5:00 am

Are You a Philosopher or a Popularizer?

leave a comment »

Must I choose?

08052013-tumblr_mqzif3nYDT1r31mkdo1_500In recent conversation with a local philosopher and food writer, we got to talking about the work of a philosopher in the world today. There’s teaching, which employs academic rigor to help students understand where philosophy has been and what it has been up to. There’s research, typically a subset of teaching, that sorts truth from fiction and sometimes swaps the two. And then there’s, well…that’s it. That’s what a philosopher does in our culture.


Teaches rarified stuff only a few understand and even fewer care about.

Which is not to say philosophy is not happening all over the place.

I’ve begun to argue we’re all philosophizing all the time. We’re not all at the highly abstracted levels represented by academic philosophy. But we’re all in the business of making meaning. Most of us don’t much think about it: once we’ve figured out the basics of family and job and faith and community, the business of meaning-making largely runs on auto-pilot. Until we get cancer. Or age. Or lose a spouse.

Or see a sunrise.

The more questions we ask in everyday life—the less we take as a given—the more life we experience. This is the wonder of being amazed at the small connections that occupy those making meaning every day. Which should be all of us.

My recent conversation turned to the author Alain de Botton, who I described as a philosopher but then back pedaled. We allowed he was certainly a popularizer. I’m a fan of de Botton. I like the places his books send me and the meaning-making tasks he introduces. I also like to read Damon Young, the Australian who is a bona fide philosopher and card-carrying popularizer (meaning only that he regularly publishes philosophy columns in Australian newspapers).

I’m not sure so a philosopher cannot also be a popularizer.

I’ll argue my friend’s food writing displays a philosophical bent even as he courageously walks into the smallest, diviest joints in the metro. I’ll also argue that the ordinary conversations we have with each other, the ones where we try to sort out the details of life together, are themselves often instances of practicing a sort of popular philosophy.

Ordinary conversation is the very stuff of thinking together.

I hope it becomes more popular.


Image credit: Via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

August 5, 2013 at 10:02 am

Fascinating: How Stanley Cavell Was Fascinated by JL Austin

leave a comment »

Gimme a bigger brain. I’ll settle for a bigger trigger of fascination.

Stanley Cavell’s uneven memoir about becoming a philosopher (Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory) is interesting and boring and interesting. Like a lot of philosophy texts, it calls to you days and weeks after you’ve put it down and made peace with never finishing it. I’ve checked it out twice and twice have not finished it—usually a signal I need to actually buy the book with cash money.


Today I’m rethinking Cavell’s descriptions of sitting under the teaching of JL Austin when he visited UC Berkeley from Oxford. Cavell’s descriptions of Austin are not always becoming or charming. JL Austin was a brilliant philosopher but also a bit of a cad, it turns out. But what’s of particular interest is how blown away Cavell was by Austin’s “A plea for excuses.” It’s a pedantic text—like a lot of Austin’s writing. But for Cavell it was full of clarity and win and entirely energizing. Just based on Cavell’s enthusiasm, I’ll reread Austin’s paper.

Enthusiasm is humanity’s secret weapon. The boring teacher is the one unimpressed/unmoved/unchanged by the subject matter she drones on about. But the enthusiastic cheerleader for speech act theory or a particular camera lens or the lobster roll at The Smack Shack is enough to move me to action. As a copywriter I think a lot about how to present this priority or that piece of information so an audience will become interested. But human enthusiasm cuts through all technique and strategy, like sunlight burning off fog. Maybe that’s why word of mouth is the pot of gold every marketer seeks today.


Image credit: Lia Halloran via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

June 26, 2013 at 10:00 am

Dallas Willard: If I wake up dead, please someone tell me.

with one comment

Dallas Albert Willard (September 4, 1935 – May 8, 2013)

Fountain-2-05092013He was an improbable thinker: crazy about Jesus the Christ and a well-regarded professor of philosophy at USC. An expert in Edmund Husserl (father of phenomenology) and yet a very clear writer (despite phenomenology, which is notoriously difficult reading). Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy was a key text for me in learning about spiritual formation. His writing continues to bubble through my brain pan.

Dr. Willard combined the many unlikely things I love best. I never knew him personally, but I miss him already. John Ortberg’s tribute was perfect.


Written by kirkistan

May 10, 2013 at 5:00 am

Philosophers Make Uncomfortable Pastors

leave a comment »

Sermons built on questions only inflame the faithful

tumblr_mlmtdr2unu1qate3qo1_1280-04242013It’s the philosopher’s job to ask uncomfortable questions. They don’t take ideology as a given. They question ideology—that is forever the philosophical task. Some philosophers reading this would say “Yes, and what do you mean by ‘pastor’ and who/what is ‘God’”? That’s fair and a reasonable line of questioning. Certainly worth examining.

But say a philosopher has satisfied herself there is a God. And say that philosopher has a commitment to the God revealed in the Bible (yes there are such people). Can she pastor others? Can he serve as a shepherd? Can she speak sermons that have questions rather than answers?

No. At least not to our typical congregations. People come to church for comfort and to be told they are going the right direction. To offer the food of questions is to deny parishioners the happy holy feeling they paid for when the offering plate passed by.

But honestly, can a pastor be anything less than a philosopher? Because the claims of Jesus (to start there, for instance) are so wildly outlandish as to call into question the threads of daily existence. For instance, this notion of turning the other cheek to the one who just slapped you—it’s completely nutty stuff. Unless it is actually meant to be worked out in daily life. Unless it says something crazy deep about each and every interaction we have. To treat Jesus’ words as ideology only—as some exalted religious state—and to not examine them further in the crucible of daily life is step forward with 75% of your brain shut off.

And that’s no good. That’s no way to live.

It’s also true that most philosophers don’t abide the preacher’s art of packaging things in tidy simple packages that are easily understood. Questions don’t often fit those boxes: they bump against corners and lids with their labored back story and brief histories of how others have asked them. That’s tedious stuff that rarely fits into three alliterative points.

Which is not to say philosophers should not pay attention to packing their thoughts so they become mind-ready. They should and many do. But philosophers mostly cannot escape the orbit of the questions themselves.

I think philosophers don’t make good pastors. But I hope to stumble on such a being at some point in my existence.


Image credit: 4tones via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

April 24, 2013 at 8:25 am

%d bloggers like this: