architecture and happiness

I have just begun reading a book that helps me bring together the two blogs I write. Yes, I have another blog. Even if you’ve been reading me here at this one for nearly a year, you many have never known about the other. I’ve not mentioned it because it didn’t seem to be obviously philosophical. Also, it has been so tempestuous, creating so much heat in the neighborhood about issues that we care deeply about and also disagree — that I had to all but close it down. I barely write there any more. It’s just too fraught.

The book I’m reading is Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness.

The other blog is Hollin Hills Talks, about the midcentury modern neighborhood I live in just south of Washington, DC. I try to explain to friends who don’t live here what it means, and the best I can do is say, if there were a god, this is the kind of neighborhood he would create. The buildings are simple and in harmony with nature; they sit in the land, not on the land; they are sited to the topography, not the street; the aesthetics and design guidelines respect the “borrowed vistas” that we see when looking across and through the land. It’s like living in a park, and in fact we even have park lands we preserve and open to the public.

But mostly, within the houses, there is just sheer simple beauty. Reading in my living room makes me infinitely happier than reading at my desk on campus. There are few walls; there are mostly windows that look out on to overgrowths of trees and azaleas. The walls are white, the materials organic and curved just so. The balance of objects, books, and furniture strikes a good chord within. It is hard to distinguish inside from outside because the outside pours in through all the windows, yet the outside is always framed, not raw, through the rhythmic placing of juxtaposed, floor-to-ceiling window frames.

Our houses are in the suburbs, but drastically different from the other suburbs just over the neighborhood line. They have manicured lawns with shrubs surrounding their houses; we have legions of ivy and canopies of trees.

To get a sense of all this, look at Juliana Sohn’s photos that she took for Wallpaper magazine last March. Notice that the houses are simple, not out of reach, but somehow deeply pleasing. At least to me with my modernist sensibility. I know others are deeply moved by other styles: art deco, victorian, classical, kitsch, arts & crafts. All have their beauty. Each of us may find that one style speaks to us more than others.

So read Alain de Botton’s book. (And notice how beautiful the book itself is — the paper, the size, the art.) Think about your environment as something that meaningfully extends and speaks to who you are.

But beware that in going there you may start to find that your built environment becomes as fraught as mine, because the more connected we become the more important it is, the more at stake we have there, and the more likely we are to get in heated discussions with our neighbors. All because we suddenly find that our deep concerns extend to the houses we live in.

our ground time here will be brief

End of year, with its ups and its downs. I think about the people who have passed, a few I know, most I don’t. Today I heard about a terrible event: family of four driving to Boise slid into a multi-car crash. Mom, Dad, and older sister die, 17-year-old younger sister in stable condition. What kind of condition will her life be? And today, Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader, assassinated. My heart sank. She was no saint, but she was about the best hope for that twisted nation.

And the rest of us here, how should we live? Is there any counsel to be gotten from these traditions of faith that we’re dazily celebrating now? I take counsel from the Jewish command to heal the world, and I’m beginning to think there’s some good counsel in love. Let’s love family, neighbors, and strangers. Tikkun olam. Agape. I’m not sure whether these imperatives are two or one.

[title of this blog post borrowed from a poem by the poet Maxine Kumin]

Who’s Doing Public Philosophy?

I once read this horrible statistic that maybe four people read any given refereed journal article. Can that be? What a waste of all the energy and thought that goes into this kind of intense writing. And what a shame, we often lament, that writing for “the public” doesn’t count in promotion and tenure decisions. Gone are the days (namely the 1950s), when public intellectuals could write and be respected for writing to an educated and still broad public. Some of us are out to change this, in one way or another. Several years ago John Lachs and others helped raise money for an American Philosophical Association Committee on Public Philosophy. I’ve been part of this pioneering group. We’ve held some special sessions at the eastern and central APA. This is just a start.

So what is public philosophy? I’d say it is philosophy that is in some way or another engaged with public concerns, and not necessarily political ones, and with the public itself. This blog of mine is a species of public philosophy. The title “gone public” doesn’t refer to any initial public offering of stock options to the public. No cents are being made here, though I hope some sense is. We need a separate web site for public philosophy, but in the meantime send your thoughts here by way of a comment describing what kind of public philosophy you see happening in your corner of the world.

On Armchairs and MRIs

In today’s New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah comments on the newborn philosophy movement of experimental philosophy, or “x-phi,” in which philosophers are turning to MRI machines and other laboratory technologies to help unravel philosophical quandaries. This new movement, he reports,

has rudely challenged the way professional philosophers like to think of themselves. Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so. The professional bailiwick we’ve staked out is the empyrean of pure thought. Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect. We love nothing more than our “thought experiments,” but the key word there is thought. As the president of one of philosophy’s more illustrious professional associations, the Aristotelian Society, said a few years ago, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”

But x-phi philosophers (x-philes) are setting out to torch the armchairs, as evidenced in a YouTube video (Experimental Philosophy Anthem) that Appiah mentions. Take the question of when we think that an action is blameworthy? Why wonder abstractly when we can simply ask people what they think, just as Joshua Knobe has done? Why not set up an Experimental Philosophy Lab as Indiana University has? “More and more,” Appiah writes, “you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what’s going on when people contemplate moral quandaries. (Which decisions seem to arise from cool calculation? Which decisions seem to involve amygdala-associated emotion?) ”

What does Appiah think of this? What do I think of it? We’re both in agreement that empirical answers don’t settle philosophical questions.

You can conduct more research to try to clarify matters, but you’re left having to interpret the findings; they don’t interpret themselves. There always comes a point where the clipboards and questionnaires and M.R.I. scans have to be put aside. To sort things out, it seems, another powerful instrument is needed. Let’s see — there’s one in the corner, over there. The springs are sagging a bit, and the cushions are worn, but never mind. That armchair will do nicely.

What a great writer Appiah is! Let’s go further, though, and note that x-phi empirical work is nice work the way that the social sciences produce nice work. They observe how some people behave and think but not whether such behavior and thinking is coherent or commendable. Moreover, the presumptions and methods of such “science” still need to be reflected upon. That’s why we need philosophy of social science, not just social science. Philosophy at its best is self-reflective. An MRI machine is not.

When in despair…

…read Rich’s blog. Rich Harwood is a real voice for civic and democratic change. I’ve known him for more years than I care to admit, first simply as someone with a good ear and knack for focus group research, someone able to hear what regular folks are saying about their condition and their concerns about public life. In the past several years he’s taken these experiences along with his own sense of things to be a beacon for democratic change. Hats off to Rich.