Saturday, July 4, 2015

Wisdom Of The Week

We’re eager to optimise our workouts, our sleep patterns, our pregnancies, our policing tactics, our taxi services, and our airline pilots. Even the academy is intrigued. From spatial history to the neurohumanities, digital methods are the rage. Lecture halls have been targeted for disruption by massive open online courses (MOOCs). Sometimes it seems as though there’s little that can’t be explained by scientific thinking or improved upon through digital innovation.

What are the humanities for at such moments, when we’re so sure of ourselves and our capacity to remake the world? Toynbee wrestled with this question for decades. He was as curious as anyone about the latest discoveries and innovations, but he rejected the notion that science could explain or improve everything. And his thoughtful criticism of technology reminds us that poets and historians, artists and scholars must be proud, vocal champions of the humanities as a moral project – especially at moments of breakneck scientific progress. Fluent in the language of crisis and decline, casting about for ways to defend ourselves, today’s humanists could use a little inspiration. We need our spines stiffened. Toynbee might be a man to do it.


‘The historical-minded student of human affairs and his scientific-minded confrère are really indispensable to one other as partners in their arduous common undertaking,’ Toynbee insisted in 1961. He was no Luddite. And like the scientists and industrial titans of his age, he thought it was a worthy goal to try and explain everything. But Toynbee’s was a mosaic universe, variegated and collaborative. Grasping the whole would require every way of thinking that human beings could bring to bear. ‘One must be free to resort to the different methods of the poet, the historian, and the scientist in turn,’ he argued. Today, we could do worse than emulate Toynbee’s genuine and self-reflective brand of intellectual pluralism: ‘No tool is omnicompetent. There is no such thing as a master-key that will unlock all doors.


Today, technology cries out for robust criticism. As Toynbee recognised, scientific principles and technical innovations might help us build a better railway, a faster locomotive – but they aren’t very good at telling us who can buy tickets, what direction we should lay the track, or whether we should be taking the train at all. ‘Man,’ he wrote in Civilisation on Trial (1948), ‘cannot live by technology alone.’ Humanists have a professional responsibility to challenge public faith in scientific progress and technological whizzbangery, to question how the future is to be conducted and to whose benefit. It’s our job to make sure that the machine doesn’t run away with the pilot.


Technology isn’t going anywhere. The real issue is what to do with it..


It’s time for humanists to walk out on a limb. Like Toynbee, we should be as engaged in the world as we are courageous in our convictions. The humanities are most of all a moral enterprise, the pursuit of answers to big questions about how we live together and where we’re going. The stakes are high. We must remember how to speak the language of value, encouraging our readers and students to ask not simply ‘Is it more efficient?’ or ‘How much does it cost?’ but ‘Is it good or bad? For whom? According to which standard?’

- Arnold Toynbee, Humanist Among Machines

Quote of the Day

Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.

- Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness

Friday, July 3, 2015

When Broadmindedness Is Indistinguishable From Indifference

As fate would have it, I had just shown my students at Williams College the grainy footage of Burden’s shooting when we learned of his death in May. Curiously, the clip did not provoke them as it had their predecessors in my classrooms in decades past. No one expressed any palpable sense of shock or revulsion, let alone the idea that the proper response to the violation of a taboo is honest outrage. One student fretted about the legal liability of the shooter; another intelligently placed the work in historical context and related it to anxiety over the Vietnam War.

Placing things in context is what contemporary students do best. What they do not do is judge. Instead there was the same frozen polite reserve one observes in the faces of those attending an unfamiliar religious service—the expression that says, I have no say in this. This refusal to judge or take offense can be taken as a positive sign, suggesting tolerance and broadmindedness.

But there is a broadmindedness so roomy that it is indistinguishable from indifference, and it is lethal. For while the fine arts can survive a hostile or ignorant public, or even a fanatically prudish one, they cannot long survive an indifferent one. And that is the nature of the present Western response to art, visual and otherwise: indifference.

- Mike Lewis

Quote of the Day

The Greeks not only face facts. They have no desire to escape from them.

- Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Quote of the Day

Suppose you ask your friend Naomi to roll a die without letting you see the result... Having rolled the die Naomi must write down the result on a piece of paper (without showing you) and place it in an envelope...

So some people are happy to accept that there is genuine uncertainty about the number before it is thrown (because its existence is ‘not a fact’), but not after it is thrown. This is despite the fact that our knowledge of the number after it is thrown is as incomplete as it was before.

-Risk Assessment and Decision Analysis with Bayesian Networks, Norman Fenton and Martin Neil

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Quote of the Day

A single example of extravagance or greed does a lot of harm--an intimate who leads a pampered life gradually makes one soft and flabby; a wealthy neighbor provokes cravings in one; a companion with a malicious nature tends to rub off some of his rust even on someone of an innocent and open-hearted nature--what then do you imagine the effect on a person's character is when the assault comes from the world at large? You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world. But the right thing is to shun both courses: you should neither become like the bad because they are many, nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you. Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.

- Seneca, Letter VII

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Monday, June 29, 2015

Reflections On The Gay Community’s Political Progress & It's Future.

Today, gay people of a certain age may feel as though they had stepped out of a lavender time machine. That’s the sensation that hit me when I watched the young man in Tempe shout down a homophobe in the name of the President-elect. Gay marriage is legal in six states and in Washington, D.C. Gays can serve in the military without hiding their sexuality. We’ve seen openly gay judges, congresspeople, mayors (including a four-term mayor of Tempe), movie stars, and talk-show hosts. Gay film and TV characters are almost annoyingly ubiquitous. The Supreme Court, which finally annulled sodomy laws in 2003, is set to begin examining the marriage issue. And the 2012 campaign has shown that Republicans no longer see the gays as a reliable wedge issue: although Mitt Romney opposes same-sex marriage, he has barely mentioned it this fall. If thirty-two people were to die today in a mass murder at a gay bar, both Obama and Romney would presumably express sympathy for the victims—more than any official in New Orleans did when, back in 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge.


Three-dimensional people are more persuasive than two-dimensional ones, as Biden surely knows. In the end, the big change likely came about because, each year, a few thousand more gay people make the awkward announcement to their families and friends, supplanting images from the folklore of disgust. My primary political moment happened when I wrote long, lugubrious letters to my closest friends, finally revealing the rest of me.

In one, I came out in a footnote on the seventh page, amid pompous but heartfelt quotations from Wallace Stevens: “The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair.” Harvey Milk always said that this was how the revolution would happen: one lonely kid at a time.

- More Here on the history of this much needed Moral Progress

Quote of the Day

If I am pressed to say why I loved him, I feel it can only be explained by replying: 'Because it was he; because it was me.

- Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays