Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thoughts on James and Nietzsche

Since my last (and first!) entry, I've taken a step forward in my writing and a step back in my running. Strangely, the step backwards is more easily recognized as progress than the step forward. I made it through the Flying Monkey Marathon with a second place finish and a harder-than-it-should-have-been 2:58:17. Since then, I've run twice, and basically have decided that it will be in my best long term interests to lay off of "training" and just run when I feel like it until the end of the year. Let my body get strong and healthy and make another run at a fast marathon in April.

After I finished the Monkey, I wrote the first chapter of the dissertation. The main idea behind the chapter is to show how the three concepts of education, experience, and experimentation relate to each other in the context of thinking about the value of values. I struggle a bit trying to pull together the style of my writing with the content that I would like to express. This is something that James and Nietzsche both do quite well in their own ways.

Recently it occurred to me that one of Nietzsche's strategies is to take the reader through certain habits of thinking, but in a way that over-emphasizes those habits. The effect is similar to what happens if you add energy in steady amounts to a pendulum--eventually its swing passes the point of simple harmonic motion and becomes disrupted. In this way, the very same processes that make the motion possible are capable of undermining that motion simple through subtle changes in the intensity or rhythm of the applied force. Nietzsche is a master of just this sort of subtle modulation--and it is the very subtlety of his methodology that shows the precariousness of even our most firmly established habits, if taken up from a different point of view.

James' techniques are, perhaps, less careful but for that very reason more attractive. There is a confidence in the Jamesian approach that I find refreshing, particularly in the scholarly context in which I find myself. He understands that making progress on a problem often means abandoning the problem and inquiring into the manner in which "the problem" became a problem. For example, in thinking about the old debate in running--whether "intensity" or "mileage" is the best approach for improvement--it's impossible to make any progress on this question without considering the conditions that force the question to arise. If the question arises because someone has been running a lot of easy mileage and less intensity without making improvement, then the answer to what is a vexed question in the abstract becomes very simple.

James' gift as a philosopher is to be able to show how our inquiries are connected with other, seemingly irrelevant, aspects of our experience. This is perhaps the principle value of the concept of synechism or the continuity of experience--that it encourages us to draw connections. And through this practice of drawing new connections, we weave and re-weave the fabric of experience. Perhaps it is best to put the Jamesian thought like this: to "make a connection" is to do exactly what the expression suggests. It is actually to bring things into relation; the relation is not there prior to its making--we must do it. The difference between "true" and "false" relations is, then, not a matter of whether the inference drawn corresponds to a real relation in the world. It is a matter only of the effects of the connection drawn. The "true" relation--like a law of physics--shows its truth in opening up a domain of practical action, and the limits of that domain are circumscribed precisely by the actions it makes possible. For example, the truth of Newton's Laws is circumscribed by the activities it makes possible--building bridges, but not computer circuits. Or the truth of a high-mileage approach to running only goes so far as the consequences of high-mileage for the health and development of the runner.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Logic of Long Distance

Run a fast marathon. Write a dissertation. The two goals for the next year. I thought I'd track my own progress here for myself and for family and friends that want to follow along. We'll see how it goes.

I'm working now on the first chapter of the dissertation. The challenge is setting up the context for my ideas about the nature of experience, experimentalism, and a social view of education. The key figures in the dissertation will be William James and John Dewey, and their ideas will be supplemented by more contemporary folks like Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Michel Foucault, Cornell West, and Paulo Friere. The basic idea behind the dissertation is that if we properly understand the nature of experience, then we understand ourselves as educational beings. The task of building democracy means building institutions and ways of thinking that allow folks to take education into their own hands.

This is the meaning of autonomy--to be able to play a part in the making of one's self, to be able to control the relations, powers, and forces that create us as selves-within-communities. To be free is to educate; to be free is to be educated. The dissertation itself is an experiment in this way of thinking: I will be successful insofar as I construct a document that reflects what I've learned; and, on the other hand, I will be successful insofar as the making of the document teaches me something new. It's bringing these two sides of myself--the student and the teacher--together in some sort of productive relationship that is the real challenge. The strange thing about writing is that one never knows what one wants to say before it is said. The task of writing: to teach one's self what one does not know! A paradox for a thinking self, but not for an active self.

Or something like that.

On the running side of things something similar is going on. The life of a graduate student is necessarily sedentary--lots of books and computers. That's fine, but I've got this body that makes its own demands as well. I was really happy with the 2:38 marathon I ran this spring, and it's left me with some further questions about how fast I can go.

So, two projects. Two question marks that hang out in front of me. One is a question of body, the other a question of mind, but they will both be worked out the same way, according to the logic of long distance. One foot in front of the other, a little belief, working it out as I go.

William James puts it this way:
Sustaining, persevering, striving, paying with effort as we go, hanging on, and finally achieving our intention -- this is action, this is effectuation... Here is creation in its first intention, here is causality at work.
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