Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love for Gambia

I just got an email from Erin Poirer, directing me to her blog Love4Gambia. Erin quoted LLD in a couple places, and it was cool for me to see how she could relate to what I was writing. I encourage you to check out her blog, as she is using running to address some simple issues in a country that we rarely consider.

Thanks, Erin! Keep up the good work.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Gospel of the Useful

Max Horkheimer
"Even the words that could voice a hope for something besides the fruits of success have been pressed into this service. ... The idea of happiness has been reduced to a banality to coincide with leading the kind of normal life that serious religious thought has often criticized. The very idea of truth has been reduced to the purpose of a useful tool in the control of nature, and the realization of the infinite potentialities inherent in man has been relegated to the status of a luxury. Thought that does not serve the interests of any established group or is not pertinent to the business of industry has no place, is considered vain or superfluous. Paradoxically, a society that, in the face of starvation in great areas of the world, allows part of its machinery to stand idle, that shelves many important inventions, and that devotes innumerable working hours to moronic advertising and to the production of instruments of destruction--a society in which these luxuries are inherent has made usefulness its gospel." 
--Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, "Rise and Decline of the Individual" 1947.

Two experiences confirm the ongoing relevancy of these words, which were written in difficult times.

The first, today, was a chance meeting with a former logic student and senior history major who informed me that he has decided to put these talents to use as a political strategist, advising in the creation of political attack ads. When I told him that despite my efforts to make him a philosopher, he chose sophistry, he laughed. I laughed too. What else can you do?

The second is my wider experience as an academic adviser. The "gospel of the useful" is used straightfowardly and directly to justify self-destruction, narrowness of vision, lack of imagination, and bald power-grasping. In my conversations with advisees and their parents, the meaning of "useful" when it is applied to the value of education is "that which preserves class privilege, that which does not challenge me to change, that which accepts quite blindly the situation as it is, even when that situation directly opposes my own capacities, strengths, passions, and vision as an individual."

Anyone who chooses to see the true meaning of the word "useful" need only look to the fear that the word strikes in the heart of young people. There is no greater threat that can be uttered to a person involved in the arduous task of self-realization than this: "Make yourself useful."

I've said this before, and I will say it again: one of the best reasons to run is its utter uselessness as an activity. Horkheimer makes the meaning of this clearer. The fact that a run has no exchange value on the open market is a mark that it, as an experience, cannot be exchanged. Its value, like that of life itself, is inherent and singular.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Running and Lies in an Extra Moral Sense

We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live - by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody could now endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error.
--Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 121

This moustache is even better than Nietzsche's.
This morning I ran with two friends of mine. We've got a good eclectic group of runners here in Nashville from a variety of backgrounds. Our conversations are always winding and interesting, full of provocations and insights, rarely conclusive of anything. The running mind seems to skim from topic to topic rather than burrow in.

One subject that we skimmed over today was my last blog post. One of my running partners, who happens to have a PhD in physiology, reminded me that I had finally cured my four-year battle with chronic achilles tendinitis by finding the right shoe (in this case, the New Balance 890). So, my last post, which encouraged readers not to worry so dang much about their shoe choice was really in bad faith. Maybe, he said, if I had paid more attention to shoe choice over the last four years I wouldn't have been running in pain for so long.

I had to admit that he has a point.

NB 890, I owe you an apology.
One of the central distinctions in philosophy of knowledge (and it also appears frequently in ordinary conversation) is the distinction between theory and practice. We say things like this: "That's a good idea in theory, but it will never work out in practice." What we mean by this expression is that the arguments and ideas that are attractive to the intellect are not always the most workable ideas. Some thoughts give us pleasure to think, and this is almost their sole function: they calm us, they give us hope, or they assuage doubt. In a certain sense, these ideas still act, but their effects are more or less confined to the realm of feeling rather than the more objective realm of action.

The ideas that actually work out in practice do not always have positive effects in the realm of feeling. The political process is perhaps the best example of this. We call those folks "ideological" exactly those who are more interested in thinking thoughts that please the intellect in particular ways. Those who are more pragmatic or compromising are less psychologically attached to ideas and more willing to forgo the more subjective satisfactions of certainty or ideological purity in favor of more social (and hence more vague) sorts of satisfaction, like agreement or progress, or problem-solving.

So, in theory, yes, it would be nice not to have to worry about shoe choice. We could be the runner that we imagine ourselves to be: durable, immune to forces of marketing, tough as nails, blind to pain, and able to overcome all obstacles with a healthy dose of our powerful will. This is an idea that is pleasing to the intellect (though once written out, it does seem pretty flat and brutal) but also one that simply doesn't work in practice. In fact one of the reasons that this idea is so attractive is precisely because we aren't like this. It's a fantasy, one that we can disappear into in moments of self-satisfaction.

Running is a practice; it's not a theory. The things that work in running are not always things that are pleasing to the intellect. The intelligence, then, that is required to train well is not theoretical, it's practical. Aristotle called this sort of intelligence phronesis, and he opposed it to theoretical intelligence. Phronesis is precisely that sort of real-world intelligence that is skeptical of too-easy answers. To be practically wise, you have to be careful in a strange way of trusting your intellect. The answers that are satisfying to the mind are not always so satisfying to the world.

We here in the U.S. think of ourselves as practical people, and this value in practical living encourages a kind of anti-intellectualism. We are nervous about academia, the ivory tower, the Washington beltway, etc. We worry that the brightest and most attractive ideas might be dangerous. There's a sort of puritanism at work here: those ideas are most dangerous at the moment that they are most pleasing to think. Perhaps this is one reason that philosophy and philosophers have almost no public presence in our contemporary culture. Ours is not a philosophical culture because we refuse to take pleasure in ideas--and philosophy pretty much luxuriates in them.

What's the upshot of all this? I'm not really sure. One thing that philosophy has taught me is that the truth of an idea is only one aspect of it. Ideas can do many things besides turn out to be true. They can encourage us, motivate us, and ennoble us. They can memorialize a prior time or give us hope in the future. Yes, it's important to be honest. It's important to be realistic. It's important to be practical. We ought to seek the truth.

But maybe one thing that we ought also to do is to remember that ideas also have an aesthetic function in a living organism. I don't believe that we can have it both ways: seeking the truth will always be ugly and painful, if sometimes satisfying. Fantasies and myths will always be powerful forms of pleasure, and often repugnant and ignorant. A nostalgic tale that is not quite true may be just the thing to provide us motivation to tackle once more the difficult task of ascertaining the truth.

Then again, it might just be a lie.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back in the Goodle Days

Some rambling thoughts in response to this New York Times article on the question of whether we were born to run, trends, fads, and marketing:

As cool as it is to think that our evolutionary history was driven by distance running (and I believe it to be the case--I recommend the account given in Our Kind, which was published back in 1989, long before the argument was applied to barefoot running), giving an account of how the foot developed is very different from giving a justification for how it should be shod in any particular case.

It amazes me sometimes when I think of the miles I have put on these legs, which are still made of flesh and gristle, and how well they have stood up to the asphalt over the years. The vast majority of those miles have been in shoes, though I do have a tender spot for barefoot strides over dewy fields.

These days it's hard to sort out the difference between education and marketing. The marketers educate us. The educators market to us. Harvard and Vibram are mentioned in the same sentence: which is the brand, and which the school?

Seems like before the internet all we had were running shoes. You'd go to the store and try a couple pairs on, and if they felt good, you'd buy them and run in them and basically forget about them until the rubber wore off or the upper ripped or what have you. I remember people talked a little about pronating, underpronating, overpronating, but I never knew what the heck that meant. Still don't, really.

If you got injured, you wouldn't blame your shoes, you'd look to that dumb day when you did too many hills. Or the day that you had to get in the car and drive 8 hours right after a meet, and you stiffened up. Or the day when you tweaked your hamstring playing frisbee. You'd put some ice on it, take a day or two off, rearrange a few workouts, and that would be that.

My freshman year in college, I remember that my feet hurt--I could feel all the tendons in them, just kinda raw. And no wonder: I'd gone from a 40mpw runner to a 95mpw runner in a year. I never once considered changing my shoes. What did I do? I kept running. I used to tell myself: it's running, not football. How bad can I really mess myself up moving down the road?

Fifteen years later, 30,000 miles later, I'm still headed down that same road. Was I born to run? Was my body made to run? Those questions seem less important than the simple fact that I'm still running. I kept running. The thing is, it's hard to wrap that up in a cardboard box and sell it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

William James on Attention: Some questions

William James, in The Principles of Psychology, on the development of attention:

"Sensitiveness to immediately exciting sensorial stimuli characterizes the attention of childhood and youth. In mature age we have generally selected those stimuli which are connected with one or more so-called permanent interests, and our attention has grown irresponsive to the rest. But childhood is characterized by great active energy, and has few organized interests by which to meet new impressions and decide whether they are worthy of notice or not, and the consequence is the extreme motility of the attention with which we are familiar in children, and which makes their first lessons such rough affairs. Any strong sensation whatever produces accommodation of the organs which perceive it, and absolute oblivion, for the time being, of the task in hand. This reflex and passive character of the attention which, as a French writer says, makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice, is the first thing which the teacher must overcome. It is never overcome in some people, whose work, to the end of life, gets done in the interstices of their mind-wandering."

Have the marketers, technology having wildly increased their capacity to create immediately exciting sensorial stimuli, created a culture in which we all belong less to ourselves than the objects which happen to catch our notice?

Is this regression to the child-mind the source of the temper-tantrums that characterize the style of contemporary politics--unable to focus our attention long enough to maturely address problems, we lose ourselves in anger (the most intensely sensorial of emotions)?

If these are real problems, then should we be careful not to let intense sensorial stimuli into our classrooms in order to combat these cultural forces? Does the school have anywhere near enough power to combat the war on attention being waged by branding or marketing?

Or, am I being an old fogey: should we see this quickness with which our attention shifts as the appearance of simply another form of intelligence, not its dissolution?

(By the way, isn't this another argument for more attention being paid to physical education in schools: sports being a way to channel the intensity of sensorial perception into organized social life.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pain and Fear: Sport as Ethics Education

As a sport, long distance running distills excellence as much as possible to the category of human effort. Long distance running requires endurance, by which we mean the ability to suffer. We admire good runners because of their ability to run fast, win competitions, etc. In this sense, running is like other sports: we admire elites because they represent the outer limits of human achievement. When it comes to the specific type of achievement that distance running represents, however, the simplicity of running reduces the skill factor to the minimum. Ours is an endurance sport, and as such the currency of achievement in running is pain.

One thing that is strange about pain, however, is its immediacy. With respect to our own pain, it is difficult to find distance from it in order to take it up reflectively. This is why the experience of pain is always difficult to recall in its full intensity. We look back on a race and say: hey, that wasn't really so bad. But if it wasn't so bad, why didn't I run faster? This phenomenon, by the way, explains why we continue to sign up for marathons--Frank Shorter, I believe, once said that he couldn't race a marathon until he had forgotten completely what it was like. In a way, we can't know our own pain because we can't get intellectual distance from it; we only feel it as present to us in a particular moment.

The pain of others is of course even more difficult to imagine. Pain always has to be expressed indirectly through signs and signals. People scrunch up their faces to demonstrate effort. Their eyes perhaps lose their focus on the outward world, as the pain absorbs all of their attention. We have to read the pain of our competitors or our teammates on their bodies, but the text we read never seems to bring forward the actual object. We imagine some runners to be tougher than others, as they seem to physically exude effort. Others show no outward sign of pain, making the sport look easy. But is the first sort of runner hurting worse, or is he just more demonstrative? We can't know because we don't experience the pain itself, just its signs.

Roger Bannister, breaking the 4:00 barrier also appears to be courageously confronting his capacity for pain.
The difficulty here is that in order to be communicated, pain must be expressed. However, pain by its very nature is immediate--and as soon as it is expressed, it is transformed into something that is not pain--a facial expression, a cry, a failed motion. We have to interpret these marks in order to understand the nature of pain, and we can go wrong.

The upshot of this is that experiencing pain--whether it is your own pain or the pain of another--requires intelligent interpretation of its marks. One thing that is striking when watching a race is the difference between how the leaders of a race and those in the back or middle of a race handle the experience of pain. A runner like Bekele or Gebrselassie shows almost no sign of pain, even though they are not only at the limit of their own performance, but at the limit of human performance. It would be absurd to conclude from this that they are feeling no pain; we should marvel instead at the intelligence with which they respond to the pain they feel--expressing pain would be a waste of energy and a clue to opponents.

When it comes to dealing with the pain of running, we more ordinary folk face the same challenges. The most difficult thing in running is to read our pain: what exactly does it mean? As I go through a training cycle and get in better physical shape, I also seem to begin to be able to identify more clearly the difference between real pain and imagined pain. The pain gets more nuanced and communicative. Familiarity breeds comfort, and though I feel the pain, I get better at controlling my reaction to it.

I think that through the years, I have learned that much of the "hurt" of pain has to do with fear. The sensations that hurt the worst are the newest: we don't know what they mean, we don't know how to respond to them, and we don't know therefore how to mediate them. This lack of knowledge brings fear and lack of control, and the sensations come crashing in on us with all of the immediacy that makes pain so, well, painful. But over time and through familiarity, we learn to adapt to them and to run on in spite of them and through them. Some of the sensations that were at first painful later, oddly, even become pleasures.

There is a larger lesson in here, I think, about the human response to suffering. Distance running teaches us that we have the ability to adapt to it, to ignore it, and even to take pleasure in it. While these are essential responses to our own suffering, it is easy to see how our ability to adapt to the presence of suffering can also be a problem politically and socially. Being ethical requires two opposite attitudes. We ought to be as indifferent as possible with respect to our own pain and suffering, but when it comes to the suffering of others, we ought to notice it and respond to it. As opposite as these reactions are, they are united in the sense that both require courage--an active and fearless relation to our own suffering and the suffering of others. Is a capacity to feel pain, that is, not to ignore it but to treat it, deal with it, encounter it, at the heart of ethics?

Villagers stand by a bombed settlement in Afghanistan.
By creating conditions in which human beings can safely encounter suffering, sport teaches us that the presence of courage distinguishes a noble encounter with suffering from an experience of suffering that diminishes life. We don't run in order to experience pain. We run to practice courage in the face of pain. You might say that a race is a sort of celebration of the possibility of courage in the face of pain. As for whether running and racing teaches us to be more ethical people, I suppose this depends upon our capacity to generalize this courage and to extend it beyond the artificiality of organized sport into the more uncertain spheres of ordinary life.

More than any classroom, sport educates us into how to respond to intensities of feeling, the immediate qualities of experience. It is hard to call this sort of response "knowledge," but it is certainly a type of intelligence, one that is perhaps underrated in this angry 21st century.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Running Beyond the Limits of Language

In The Blue Book, which was a sort of collection of lecture notes that he compiled in lieu of writing a book for Russell, Wittgenstein writes the following, ruminating on a common theme of his--the perils of communication:

When we look at everything that we know and can say about the world as resting on personal experience, then what we know seems to lose a good deal of its value, reliability, and solidity. We are then inclined to say that it is all "subjective"; and "subjective" is used derogatorily, as when we say that an opinion is merely subjective, as a matter of taste. Now, that this aspect should seem to shake the authority of experience and knowledge points to the fact that here our language is tempting us to draw some misleading analogy. This should remind us of the case when the popular scientist appeared to have shown us that the floor which we stand on is not really solid because it is made up of electrons.

We are up against trouble caused by our way of expression.
 It seems we are always up against this trouble--the trouble of language. Language bewitches us, creating mysteries through its metaphors, mixing indiscriminately resonances, meanings, and connotations. Wittgenstein's view of philosophy was that most of the problems that it dealt with were a consequence of pernicious habits of expression rather than deep metaphysical mystery. He taught philosophers not to think quite so deeply and mystically--to look for the answers to their great and enduring questions in habits of expression that were imbedded in speech acts that had no clear consequences. Thus, the way to address many of the lasting philosophical problems was not to penetrate to the mystical core of reality with the mind, but instead to wonder practically and specifically about why we were worrying about these things in the first place. What habits of speaking generated these questions? What forms of life propagated and sustained them?

You might say, then, that Wittgenstein was a sort of anti-philosopher. He painted a picture of philosophers as isolated and largely befuddled men (and they were all men) who wasted their thoughts on questions that hardly made any sense, challenging them (and still us today) to reflect upon the habits and contexts that sustain philosophical reflection and inquire into the actual value of those habits for life.

Of course, almost every great philosopher in history was an anti-philosopher in the sense that philosophy makes progress by waking reflection up to reality, shaking it from its daydreams or its enslavement to corrupting influences and liberating it to the service of the enrichment of life. So, in this sense Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations are both a critical investigation into whether philosophy makes any sense at all and a deeply affirmative philosophical investigation into the relevance of our intellectual achievements.

Yes, language bewitches. Our forms of expression, philosophical and otherwise, betray us. Language points, gestures, slips, errs, confuses. But it also is, as Dewey wrote, the "tool of tools," lying at the very heart of human intelligence. The same duality lies at the heart of thinking. Our capacity for reflection can be brought to bear on solving real and pressing problems, or it can be used just as easily to distract ourselves from problems.

The difficulty, of course, is that it is not always easy to distinguish productive thought from distractive thought. Perhaps art demonstrates this tension best: beauty, art, and the artist seem something impractical and perhaps less than necessary while simultaneously coming off as the highest form of human activity. Art doesn't solve any problems--more often it poses them--but on the other hand a world without art, without beauty for its own sake, seems like a world without purpose. Art seems, strangely, both a distraction for life and central to it.

Politics is another example. We are in the middle now of intense political conflict over what to do about the economy.  It seems like all of this reflection and debate ought to be productive, right? We have the best minds (all minds, really) focussed on the question of what to do. We are thinking hard and focused directly on the problem. At the same time, many economists argue that the economy is suffering precisely because because of the political debate--the economy is struggling because we take it to be a political problem! What to do about this? Reflect more on the economy? Debate more? Argue more? Will this really help? Here, reflection on a problem seems not only of dubious value, but possible of negative value.

As you can see, we are always "up against trouble caused by our way of expression."

Here is where running comes in. Running is an activity that requires no language. In fact, when pursued at its highest intensities, it makes language impossible. My memories of my best runs and races are always mute, the linguistic part of the brain having been abandoned for different modes of attunement. When we run, we watch the world with an eye that points in two directions. We look out, ahead to the horizon or downwards to the passing terrain. We also look in, feeling our bodies, the rising surges of sensation, the drifting lines of feeling. Most of what we see and feel when we run cannot be put into words but can be experienced with powerful depth.

Technology, the web, the knowledge economy have created a world that feels increasingly virtual and representational. The world itself confuses and bewitches like language. The dream-screens into which we peer bring us thoughts from who knows where. A run is an escape into a different sort of world, one which feels less full of instruments, tools, and signs. The sensations come scrubbed of their representations, and for this reason they are simultaneously more vague and more vivid.

In his recent post, Zach wrote well of running as a practice of positive freedom, a way to grow into one's self. But running has also always been a form of escape, perhaps the first form of escape, before we learned to dream away our lives. As escape, it is a practice of negative freedom, a practice of liberation from the clang and confusion of representation, the persistent demand that life, our actions, and our values make sense.

In this way, perhaps, running is like Wittgenstein's philosophy. It does not offer a coherent plan or life strategy; it doesn't pretend to completeness or offer the secrets to a well-lived life. What it gives us is a way out of the plans and meanings and senses that have begun to seem virtual and hollow. A run gives life no meaning. It simply reminds us that beyond the sense that life makes, there is so much more life.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Searle's Chinese Room and Intelligent Training

In case you haven't noticed, I've been farming out the blog recently to some of my favorite running-philosophers. This is because I've been traveling all summer, and posting presently from Paraguay. (In 2009, I wrote a series of "dispatches" from Paraguay for those who are interested in what life is like down here. Here's one on running that you might like.) Vacation and travel make it difficult to continue with your regular habits--my writing and running have both been erratic. But it's for this very reason that we need to travel, to break up those old habits and allow some newness to leak in. The tendency is to think that travel and vacation are supplementary to ordinary life, but of course the familiarity of ordinary life would be mere routine without strange and new experiences. In the very same way, I hope that the inclusion of these guest pieces are not merely supplemental, but that they give you a break from my voice and perspective. They certainly are refreshing to me.

This is all a long-winded way of introducing a third excellent piece from Scout7. I'll shut up now and let him have his say. I will be back in the country soon enough and hope to begin posting again on a regular basis.

*  *  *

Now that things have slowed down with life, I took some time to read through the Philosophy Bro site. In my poking around, I came across his summation of John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment.

Quick overview: take a room with a man, a whole bunch of files, some blank paper and pencils; put them in a closed room with two slots on a wall. One slot is labeled “IN”, the other is labeled “OUT”. Slips of paper with Chinese characters drawn on them enter the room through the IN slot. The man takes the slip, looks up the symbol in the files, and draws a corresponding symbol on a blank piece of paper, which he then shoves through the OUT slot. Effectively, argues Searle, this room simulates how a computer works, and that the man in the room has absolutely no understanding of Chinese; all he is doing is following a set of instructions with no context.

So, what does this have to do with running? I bet you’re thinking I’m about to go on some sort of anti-technology rant. Well, I’m not.

Instead, I’m putting this back on you, dear reader. How many of us have looked at a training plan and said, “Hey, I think I could do this”, and then followed it? Probably quite a few, I’m sure. Now, in that situation, did you ever take the time to understand what the program was telling you? Or did you just follow the instructions without trying to comprehend them? If so, how are you any better than a computer? If the argument is that syntax without semantics does not a sentient being make, then are we exercising our understanding properly when we do nothing more than follow along?

Running is, to me, an opportunity to explore, to experiment, to learn. To do this, you have to be actively engaged in your running; that means you are focusing on your body when you’re out there. Sure, you can drift away when you’re doing an easy jog around the block, but wouldn’t it be better to try to pay attention to that twinge in your right knee, or perhaps how your breathing patterns changed when you crested that last big hill?

I see people asking about whether a training plan is “good” for them. Granted, we all start somewhere, and to paraphrase a wise man, newbies are cursed to be newbies. My question to you is what are you doing to move past that newbie stage?

Now, some people may say it looks like I’m telling people not to ask questions of others; nothing could be further from the truth, I assure you. In fact, I would encourage everyone out there to ask questions of other people, of themselves. Asking questions is how you gather data. Putting a context to that data is how you turn it into information. Figuring out how to apply that information to your situation is wisdom. In other words, you should be asking questions, a lot of questions, and then you should be taking the answers and fitting them into a context that you understand and that works with your framework. And finally, you should be taking that information and experimenting with it.

When it comes down to it, one of the benefits of training is learning about ourselves; we learn what we’re capable of, how our bodies respond to training and stimuli, what works and what doesn’t. It’s an experimental, iterative process. But we take away this benefit if we follow blindly the pathways laid before us, and fail to develop a context and understanding of why there’s a path in the first place.
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