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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Meeting notes

Meeting notes

Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 268
Life ITSELF 7:15 pm, July 29, 2014

On the way to the meeting, reading notes culled from various books on "life", I had a small epiphany on a question that had been bothering me for some time. Its possible relevance to the meeting is that maybe I'd already had my philosophical "fix" for the day....


I arrived 35 minutes early, to find our tables staked out. After ordering dinner, I launched the "pre-meeting" phase of the meeting (to my recollection, a first), which was to pair each attendee with one of the "Life <prepositional relation> Itself" cards I had manually crafted just before the meeting, using lists of prepositions and prepositional phrases culled from the good ol' Internet. I asked each person as they arrived if they had already chosen a preposition. Most had not, but looked through the deck to find what best matched what they intended to use for their introduction. A couple told me their idea and I suggested a relation, the remaining few took their chances with a random drawing.

By 7:25 we had assembled twelve people. All the regulars who RSVPed showed up, but practically none of the newbies. The cafe was pretty quiet; acoustics were reasonable, but we were a bit spread out. We managed a couple seat switches to improve the situation. I noted how the vastness of Life Itself felt to me like a centrifugal force that forces us to find something to hang on to. Though it looked like the fearful people had already declined to climb board, I put forward the metaphor of one's first rollercoaster ride: you can't predict how it will feel, you're scared but you go through with it, eventually you think it's fun--that is, unless you hold on too tightly. I was impressed with how game people were to try this (I hadn't announced that I would have them commit to a written-down choice, so I'm sure many thought it was something to be passed over). Of course, this was an incarnation of the strategy to make the alternatives discussed more real to everybody, by each having an owner and a physical manifestation (the card). I'm pleased to have utilized the "pre-meeting" time to distribute them, because putting people on the spot might have been too much; or maybe not, as some later said they weren't at all attached to their "horse".

We managed to introduce all the prepositional relations in about 20 minutes, even with some back and forth to clarify the points being made. The novelty of the approach made it pretty easy for me to limit the conversations at this point, but not entirely. Someone kindly pointed out that I didn't have to go first, and I didn't want to! (I don't prepare explicitly for these Top Ten List-type exercises.) It took a bit of coaxing to get volunteers, which I interpret as a sign that we were operating close to our limits, and that is great for building intellectual strength. About halfway through, I was experiencing surprise at how people had chosen the "best" relations (that is, the ones I hoped they would choose). Repeatedly, I'd think, "Oh, good, glad we didn't miss that one!" By the time we'd heard a dozen of these, I could hardly believe we weren't repeating ourselves. Of course, it's possible that some people did want to repeat choices--and in fact there was one relation that was requested three times ("first come, first served")--still it was proof that, given a "need," we can try out, or "on," a distinct (pre)position, instead of sticking with what is most comfortable. I can't remember a time when we've achieved such "coverage" of a theme--not to mention, each perspective came with a built-in name!

The flip side of this intellectual flexibility was a certain "coolness" (and I'm not talking about hip hashtags). Although people can be very passionate about "Life," "Life Itself," to a philosopher anyway, emphasizes abstraction. The reason we could go along with the game (think Monopoly: "all right, okay, I'll be the shoe!") was that nothing was really at stake. As always, the transition out of the introductory survey into discussion was chaotic. I don't know why I didn't prepare a specific question; I guess I hoped that one would emerge from the intros. As I sat back and listened, my impression was that the others began to rehash the various dualisms associated with the question of essences, especially human-vs-nonhuman. I took my first note when someone reintroduced the Ebert quote from the announcement about reality realigning itself, to which the objection was made of "turning emotion into ontology." I DID want us to address alternate ontologies, but rather than use the presence or absence of emotion to do so, we were to have leveraged the dozen relations we'd just laid out. (Reviewing the list, no preposition much suggests emotion, which may have been why there were more takers for "in itself"--besides being rather polysemic, emotions are prototypically "inside" us. Perhaps a high level of interest in one choice is a hint to eliminate it?) It seems that, in the tension between pushing us to new places and encouraging freedom of movement, it's easy to abandon participants in a strange place, which naturally leads them to retreat to familiar ground. Having a card with a relation before us isn't really enough by itself: I have to create a space in the discussion, an interval, in which we might look for such a resource and then apply it. And to do that, I must identify when an opportunity to fit one of the new pieces into the puzzle has arisen. This window may be especially brief when the new memes (here, the various relational senses of "life itself") are intended to replace a dominant old one ("emotion" or "vital force"). Throttling the conversation with more "rules of the game" might make this easier, but it's not really an option.

I suspect that a way forward--to capitalize on the investment in new memes without suffocating us in awkwardness--is to train the holders of the new memes to recognize where they might be inserted into the discussion. To the extent these places are generic, I can demonstrate this as we go along--if I figure out some of the signposts in advance. In this example, "ontology" should have rung the bell, since I had that in mind. Also the film example (Goodfellas), being something I had requested, should have led me to ask everyone (because we don't want the fastest answer), "Look at your phrase. Does yours match Pesci's notion of life being 'stranger than shit'?" Another tactic that seems minimally intrusive might be to gently explore how people feel about their meme, probably with a goal of getting them to feel positively toward theirs. They might also want to trade with one another: in confirming some of the preposition "assignments," I fear I may have swapped certain participants' intellectual interest profiles. If nothing else, declining the opportunity to trade should bind the holder to it more (old cog sci trick, but a good one).

On the other hand, I do recall not expecting us to stick to our memes as much as we did. Was it me who kept drawing connections to them? Probably. Those who most strongly advocated for their meme had either a point of their own to make, or could find a "scripted" motivation within their meme.
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 269
At some point I let on that one motive for using prepositions, as opposed to verbs or adjectives, was that they are universally understood, insofar as most of them refer to physical positions--in, on, under, within, and so on. Thus we are thrust into the creative space of metaphor. Someone identified this (correctly, I think) as a trademark of a "phenomenological approach." One unfortunate side effect--shared, in fact, with phenomenologies originating in other languages--is that prepositions don't translate very cleanly from one language to another. It's difficult for a non-native speaker to decode the precise (physical) relation from the preposition, and any polysemy may be lost entirely. (Score one for mathematics.)

This "unlocalizable language" effect was especially unfortunate because this was the first meeting (ever, I think) to adopt an explicitly linguistic orientation from the start (another reading of "Itself"). But the focus of the idea-generation exercise doesn't always match the interests of the participants, as described above. In previous meeting notes, I have recounted the distribution of destructive, qualitative, quantitative, and discursive "interests," with discourse being my usual favorite. So it might have been kinder to have used a less slippery part of speech than the preposition, though I'm not at all sure adverbs, say, would have sufficed: only the number of prepositions is nicely limited.

The position-oriented prepositions fall into two main groups: internal and external. While the distinctions between "in", "within", "inside", "through", etc. are slight, there is more variety of relation when the things related are "apart". This seemed to make room for perceptible differences between "outside", "against", "beneath", "by"--not to mention "about", "ahead", "after", "before", "beside", "beyond", "near", "following", "near to", "toward", "upon", and "until", which were choices left in the deck. (How interesting that the large subset that presupposes motion/time was not sampled by anyone.) "Apart", being the most generic of these, was perhaps the logical choice to characterize dichotomy; but monism (implied by a universe that is "alive") and the "multiverse" appeared in short order, perhaps an effect of having amassed so many choices. The non-positional prepositions ("for", "despite", "because of", "on account of") invoke purpose or explanation, and so pushed us toward the "meaning of life" as a process or narrative, which is not to say some didn't make a case for loading such senses onto the positional ones. Also noteworthy is that those who had picked internal prepositions volunteered to speak more quickly than those who had external relations (the split was rather clean): might this reflect a subtle shame in being apart, segregated?

About 8:25 I noticed side conversations breaking out, accelerating the arrival of halftime. I'll attribute this to a second qualitative property of conversations: our first half was "hard", in the sense of being more rigorous than a "soft" conversation where "anything goes." This can be emotionally taxing, in that one might worry about being challenged; though "cool" talk can mentally wear us down, too, it does so in manner more like algebra. Despite not pursuing much formal abstraction, the proximate existence of the dozen alternatives made rebuttal a believable possibility.

The task for the break was simple to describe: with up to three others sitting near you, narrow down the relations among you to one preposition. When I returned from my biobreak, I found my neighbors sketching out a categorization covering the full dozen, like I have done above. A laudable project, though I figured with only 20 minutes we'd have our hands full with just three! My subgroup of three (or four?) had a tough choice between "life in itself", "life by itself", and "life like itself", especially after getting a more detailed picture of the first, which was supposed to conjure originality, the creative spark, a "life of its own" (which was not only a new idea, but a recurring motif in PhilCafe). This was the idea of essence that is trapped within particularity--the soul, perhaps. Life by itself, on the other hand, was stripped down, with its nonessential bits detached and evacuated: classic reductionism, maybe. Life like itself's selling point was that it was both and neither of the things it related, which held out the tantalizing promise of being able to cover both sameness and novelty, being with and being apart. As always, the quick back and forth of the small group was refreshing.

Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 270
When the group reconvened at 8:50, we found that the difficulty of getting a short list was universal. Even if someone didn't "like" their preposition (I failed to ask why), someone else might like it. We could judge its utility by how much we had talked about it already, but that seemed arbitrary. In hindsight, the conclusion was obvious: we could not vote anyone off the island because each choice was unique, irreducible (I had already collapsed clear synonyms). We had demonstrated (after a fashion) the multiplicity of essences. And we had done so in a way that didn't seem to have a lot to do with "life," but instead hinged on the physical relation objects can share in space. I expect that we may be able to delimit anyone's claim to have isolated THE essence or meaning of "X itself" by identifying the relation being used: "X for itself" versus "X toward itself" versus "X outside itself," for example (the case of "the meaning of Life" that we considered shortly thereafter). You gotta admit that might be useful!

Last year's Red Lines and Slippery Slopes was revisited in the form of the inside/outside distinction. I couldn't resist tossing in what I'd recently learned from SF author Stanislaw Lem: the word "individual" comes from "indivisible" and referred to how individuals cannot survive without attachments. Amoebas can be divided from themselves because they are not individuals; animals die but amoebas don't. (Well, I forgot the amoeba part, but there it is. And it's a little odd to have a meeting on life with no mention of death.)

That was only one of several captivating metaphors that surfaced during the 30 minutes after the break. The fundamentalism of the suicide bomber dramatically, explicitly juxtaposed essences. There was the onion (for Life By Itself, I think, because nothing is left after peeling). At the core of "onion" that is the brain, we found a seasquirt eating his own brain, once he had arrived at where he was going--hmm, maybe that's why prefer to think in circles! Perhaps the important phenomenon to note, however, was the absence of dualism: we seem to have surpassed it during the break.

We spent 5 minutes discussing what the follow-on meeting might address. I suggested Life As We Know It, which would dovetail nicely with the idea of models that we use to interact with the world. There was some resistance, and subsequently I realized that what we had been discussing was already a model--unusually, a linguistic or semiotic one, but nonetheless a model through which to know Life--so we needed to mix it up more, clever phrase be damned.

We ended with our 5-minute pseudo-haiku, this time prearranged as four line of four words each. There was amusement at my characterizing it as "no worse than the others." (I clarified--though here I've done so much more fully, to put it mildly--that that comment did not apply to the meeting as a whole!) I think next time, whoever adds a word should repeat the words of incomplete line that will contain the new word, to encourage coherence.

Shortly after we adjourned, I realized I'd never let Leuky out of my bag! Though initially chagrined due to the many hours I'd spent hammering out his new protocol, I quickly realized that I'd forgotten him because we didn't need him--precisely because this was, as noted, a "cool" meeting. Leuky's job is head off flare-ups, hopefully adding some value as well. (By contrast, Grace­was, at least during The Incident which provoked work on the protocol, quite "hot.") Very few seemed to be troubled by alternate essences of Life, maybe because our society considers this to be a private choice; in fact, they might have been relieved by the conclusion of multiplicity: to each his own, as we say.

But without "heat" we forgo the excitement of scoring points, eluding traps, and so forth. So we need a follow-on that will allow some punches to be thrown. At least Leuky won't feel left out. Probably there will be dichotomies, because one cannot win without opponents, and victory seems remote if we are outnumbered by a multiplicity of foes. Sounds like we need to inject values! And so we will. And we might build upon lessons learned from February's Love discussion LINK: some people claim to care about Love even more than Life Itself.

For once, I started the Afterword­ as soon as possible after the meeting. The first post, together with this commentary, should suffice as a handy substitute for those who missed it. So now the history has "caught up" with the present.

Why did I appreciate this meeting so much if it was "cool" and "hard"? Because it was also "wet," in the sense of biological "wetware" versus "dry" silicon-based computing of "propositions." In other words, human. Language gives access to such a variety of phenomena. This third qualitative property of conversations tries to capture the value most of us ascribe to the complexity we insist is a recognizable property of life. If we didn't feel we "won," perhaps we felt a little awe at the immensity of what we found ourselves "up against," "lost inside," or "journeying through."

Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 279
The Good Life 7:15 pm, August 12, 2014

Leading up to this meeting, I felt mildly troubled--had I sufficiently determined an approach, did the pre-meeting online conversation invalidate the theme, had the "hardness" of Life Itself discouraged participation? One easily-traceable source of unease was the feasibility of the organizing idea that had emerged from The Good Life announcement--that I would authorize a debate of sorts, in which minds would meet, to be sure, but in an antagonistic mode. Or maybe it was just ongoing lack of sleep. I was less than fully rested, but better than some times.


I arrived 35 minutes ahead of time. Having discovered that several more people had RSVP'd within hours of the meeting, and seeing the cafe area was pretty full (UCB starts Aug 21), I asked if we could meet in the sparsely-populated restaurant area and was told yes. We had a waiter who took a few orders, though most didn't eat, or ordered at the register. The wifi connection was not working. Nearly everyone showed, plus one extra. We were 60% regulars and 20% first-timers, and one third women. Though the fifteen of us were crowded together, cozily, around three tables, we still did have difficulty hearing the more soft-spoken among us. Though we had a quorum at the starting time, we waited until 7:20 to launch. I briefly laid out the agenda, which I had composed en route to the meeting: introduce Leuky, introduce ourselves, first topic by myself, discuss, break, discuss more, closing haiku.

About Leuky I gave only the barest hint why he was there, but introduced a new property of his, that if he should be "activated" (that is, physically lifted and displayed), we would shift immediately into a stiff, formal mode, and I would give instructions on what to do at that time. But the occasion never arose, perhaps because the formality now required raised the bar on the severity of "conditions" that would justify an interruption. Plus there is at least one aspect of his protocol that maybe needs to be ironed out first. But we did comport ourselves well, and I never felt like the meeting got out of control.

I apologized to the (couple of) people who had brought a reply to the question with which I had updated the announcement on Monday, but I'd decided that that question was a little too pointed to be used for our introductions. (To ask what ideas are holding people back from love suggests a helpful attitude, but to ask about misconceptions about the good life might be perceived as attacking another's values. I was pleased, though, that someone appreciated the perspective shift involved in the question.) Instead, I simply wanted to "take the temperature" of the group by asking "why are you here?" But I stressed that a good answer would address why the participant would choose to discuss The Good Life in public--that is, why do we feel the need to air this supposedly private concept? I didn't press anyone too hard to conform to this requirement, but most of the responses were oriented toward it, or contained enough clues that I could reconstruct such an answer for the Afterword­. One trend that got started in this early phase was the sharing of experiences that were more personal than one might expect in an ad hoc group, which prompted me to relate that I used to request such stories, but had ceased to ask for them when I realized they must be freely offered if they are to come at all; I'm still unsure as to whether it was me who triggered this storytelling, as I fell into a confessional tone during my own answer. There were a couple of points where participants wanted to expand their answers, but I successfully discouraged this, partly to avoid jump-starting us on a first topic, but it also felt wiser not to change course midstream--thus we did get through all fifteen intros by 8:45 (and I didn't have to go first). Of course, it's hard to say for sure, but I think they accomplished the goal of getting (most) people to "try on" that perspective shift: the Good Life is public negotiation over a real, shared meme, not just a preference or idle question.

This was followed by my attempt to address that discontinuity that often follows the introductory round, in which a completely different question erases the focus in which 20 minutes have been invested. Rather than another question, I just laid out a closely related proposition, but with a rather different vocabulary: whereas my rationale for public consideration of the good life recalled Wittgenstein's argument against private language and was sort of a call to arms for the group, the opening topic was an evolutionary rationale for why we are so concerned with the good life, particularly what our neighbors think it is. Over the years I've adopted a strategy of holding ideas back so they are not stampeded at the opening, but there is an offsetting advantage in having selected the intro question! While nobody seemed to have been persuaded, the dual presentation seemed to register--plus I was able to see how it connected (or not) to the ideas floated afterward.

It soon became clear, however, that the group was somewhat uncomfortable with a collective, discursive determination of the good life. Maslow seemed to offer a scale upon which a quantitative determination might be made, though the influence of facebook and Oprah tarnished its appearance of groundedness. Not to mention, the fundamentalists in Gaza reappeared briefly, calling into question the coherence of the individualist system, the roots of which seemed to be supposed to originate in the (very modern) concept of human rights. From there it was a short hop to the Beyond (God, tradition, saintly types).
...
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 280

We heard at least two qualitative categorizations of kinds or components of a good life (one consisting of four varieties of "peak" experience, and one describing three sources of values or attitudes). The former seemed to draw on a specialized use of terminology; the latter (from Viktor Frankl) I was able to comment on two of the three categories, one of which led to a new topic that interested the group. While I very much appreciate the rigor that goes into describing or even inventing a typology, the fact remains that in the conversational setting, few will be able to remember the individual points. In my original concept for the discussion, I was going to coach speakers on how to spread their ideas (which is pretty hilarious because obviously my track record is not too good!): while we can all breathe a sigh of relief I didn't do that in the meeting, I think it not inappropriate to do so after the fact. Oral conversation is fundamentally linear--one thing after another--but systems are textual constructs that are spatial--you need to have a blackboard, at least. What would work better? Well, categories aid thought by breaking apart a confused (complex) entity into pieces, so maybe the listeners' attention needs to be drawn to the manifold nature of the values informing a good life, for example. If that is already well understood, then listeners will want to know what binds your categories together--what guarantees that together they will exhaust the entity being disassembled--such as diagnostic questions with binary answers. Anyway, this is something that can be related serially. Having laid out grand typologies of my own, I know the pride that goes with unfurling a beautiful map of the terrain--but maps are two-dimensional and conversation is not. (I'm reminded of the Square's foray into Lineland in Edwin Abbott's Flatland: in their tunnel vision, linelanders only see in front and behind.)

Somewhere in all this we took a 15-minute break at 8:30. I didn't assign any task this time. When I returned to the table, everyone was involved in one of the two conversations. We seamlessly resumed talking as one group, continuing the turn from theoretical concerns of what The Good Life could mean, if anything, to how to live one. It was interesting, in retrospect, that recommendations tilted heavily toward the ascetic, even asking if familiarity with suffering was necessary to live well: was that because the individualist, Maslow contingent felt shushed by the collectivist slant of the introductory question and the preponderance of answers emphasizing conscience in one form or another? (We should have explored it, but it seems to me now that, even when one's own values were presumed to be self-created, they were prosocial. Meaning that avowal of individualism correlated poorly with the popular, materialist conception of the good life.)

With the focus on suffering, the vocabulary I adopted to describe the "atmosphere" of Life Itself added a new dimension: heaviness. We heard some rather personal testimonies concerning the gravity of life that I'm pretty sure was unexpected to all the veterans. Yet it did not feel like a therapeutic encounter, for the simple reason that those who volunteered these narratives had obviously already "processed" them. They were open with them--but were we ready? Well they made us more ready, eliciting further first-person accounts and portraits of people we'd met. (Again, there was the issue of brevity, but because narratives are intrinsically linear, they were easy to follow...except when there was a series of them, meant to be regarded in parallel. As a practical matter, I was loathe to interrupt first-timers on their premiere visit with us, but in fact, all the examples were quite interesting in themselves. It would be useful for me to develop a habit of slowing us down by probing the first example given, as they have a nice effect of putting one picture into everyone's heads. Also it seems like an involving and efficient halftime activity to apply a list of questions, to be developed, to the personal accounts of one's subgroup.) I connected suffering to our previous theme of Grace, and to the tragic sense of life espoused by Nietzsche and Eagleton. And we had some laughs (in appropriate places), and humor was mentioned as a key means of grounding ourselves during crisis. Did heavy mood constitute a crisis? I rather think it invested our proceedings with appropriate solemnity. If we are not seeking merely to amuse ourselves with pithy pronouncements, but to build up some ways of thinking that might come in handy in the future, don't they need to be stress-tested to some degree? "Heaviness" correlates with the "stuckness" of lived experience--our bodies feel heavy, but that grounds us, convincing us we're not dreaming. (The wet/dry dimension echoes this distinction, but without the bodily feeling: "wet" is messy, organic, variable, but in the realm of words, ideas. "Hard to find words" feels different than "hard to take.")

In the home stretch, a side conversation broke out but I looked the other way, as their voices didn't penetrate the main conversation (and the acoustics had not gotten any easier, with the restaurant was filling up.) The destructive interest got its time in the spotlight--because we were nearing the end of our time, or because the thought of suffering made us yearn for it?--as we considered whether pursuit of the Good Life was in fact futile, and whether it was really a mirage. But this was rather muted compared to the usual feeding frenzy that occurs when a concept is derided. As always, I would have liked to connect various parts of the meeting, particularly those coming from different interests, but beside time limitations, there is that pesky one-dimensionality of time itself. (Ah, this is what props are for!...but they can't be available for points that pop up spontaneously.) Yet the idea of the good life as an illusion recalled the first topic's evolutionary context: nature deludes us with happy visions in order to get us to do what is good for the species.

At 9:25 we produced another pseudo-haiku. I found a spare index card, on which we wrote the words as we passed it roundrobin. People read them out loud only after having written, which convinced me that next time we should memorize the (one-to-three) words of the current line, and leave the transcription to someone else. It's a poem, and poems need to sound good. Besides it will may inject some drama into our parting moments. We ended on time and most people took off.

Fifteen minutes later, as I was departing, the waiter reappeared with three checks. Although he admitted his unnecessary tardiness, I returned (having missed my bus anyway) and covered the bill. I figured I was in a unique position to rectify the situation (I would see these diners again), and well, how would it look if a group of philosophers who had just spent the evening discussing moral issues, no less, were to skate on their tab? Sometimes the "lightness" of being just makes life harder to bear, for we have to choose the unpleasantness that those who feel its heaviness merely accept as given.
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 289
Real Life 7:15 pm, August 26, 2014

I arrived just after 6:30, which was just in time to chase away from our usual table a pair who just wanted to have a lot of space. Everybody who RSVPd showed, plus we had an unexpected guest and two crashers, for a total of fourteen people. I didn't update the total this time, while I figure out how to limit attendance (I did make sure all official attendees had seats at the table). The cafe didn't seem as crazy busy as it was last time, but acoustics were a challenge for those whose voices didn't project, which contributed to intermittent, distracting side conversations. We started less than 10 minutes late, due to the lively conversations I hesitated to interrupt.

Plus I was still hoping for that lightning bolt of inspiration. I knew what we would do at half-time and to wrap up, but hadn't really settled on the introduction question (that everybody answers, and sets the mood). Then when the first answer was given, its resemblance to the RSVP question reminded me that I had intended to reuse it in the meeting, since almost no one had answered it online. So we did a quick restart and I liked the result, though still there were a few who declined. It turned out that all the people who predicted a specific difficulty to be encountered in the discussion of Real Life were speaking for themselves, as opposed to anticipating the difficulties of others. Those people with whom I had traded comments online before the meeting basically repeated those positions, perhaps making it too easy and less spontaneous. The better question I'd been searching for would have been one that didn't elicit an oppositional mood; I mentioned that a really committed approach would have been to excuse those who would not join the quest for Real Life, but of course I wasn't brave enough for that! It seemed that those who were optimistic about the possibility of fruitful discussion chose the alternate option of illustrating their understanding of real life with a personal example, though several passed on making an introductory statement (though everyone did reveal what they thought of it eventually). I myself gave an example, having already pointed at, in my essay (in the announcement), several potential difficulties for the discussion.

My example, being last, led naturally into the discussion at about 7:45. Perhaps it was a sign that we were too comfortable, but conversation flowed briskly from the get-go. Several people picked up on my invitation to recommend films; might have been nice to tie back to Life Itself's namesake (Roger Ebert's book), but it seemed like we had so little time. It was Truman (starring Jim Carrey) that set me up to illustrate a nifty idea I'd been hoping to pin on this theme, as well the apparently obligatory ­Matrix reference. Often it seemed that the destructive (or at least avoidant) interest pushed us to attend more to what was NOT real than what was real in life; or rather, the Real was understood to be what seems "unreal". (Oh, to have had the leisure to lead a search for the prepositional relation to capture this!) Yet the dominant flavor of the discussion was the strangeness, paradoxicality, and juxtaposition of normal, unexciting reality with the throat/gut/attention-grabbing "real". Besides being one of my favorite motifs (and not even introduced by me!), strangeness seemed appropriate for a "real life" that seemed to reside on the edge of most people's familiar experience.

The ineluctible consensus that Real Life was to be found hiding in plain sight did not, for most people, make it "the really Real", as Michael S. Roth (of the Wesleyan course, The Modern and the Postmodern) says. Our conversation at the half-time break showed that its rarity comes as a relief to most and an acquired taste to only a few (and a taste perhaps initiated by adversity, at that). I have to be okay with that. I wish I had stressed that just as the True did not eliminate the Good (though people keep trying), the Real doesn't override either--or maybe I hadn't realized it yet. As my pedestrian introductory example hinted, philosophical applications of the Real might be found in how we navigate risk, the potential for irrecoverable failure. To this end, I tried to return to an early formulation (offered by an proponent), "reflection is what makes life real" (note the becoming embedded in this statement), but naturally consciousness of the Real has to come before self-consciousness of it. Ironically, perhaps, it may be easier to become conscious of what is remote and occasional than of what is intimate and quotidian. "Life Outside Itself" may best portray the separation that gives us the sense of something beyond ourselves. A similar take would be the strange seems to be "out of place"--like one's body part in a mirror--and we resolve that dissonance by splitting the perceptual manifold into a "reality"--one's proprioception, or direct viewing of one's body--and a "reflection" that is outside us, but "in" the mirror.

And we must take happy note of the fact that, while we often shifted to speaking of Reality as a whole rather than of Real Life, we hung on to the sense of "real" as a (perceptual or emotional) quality that identified a region of experience--versus its ontological sense. Nobody banged the table top. The Matrix reference was couched in the perspective of why people relate to the movie, not its metaphysics. Participation was pretty widespread, so I don't think we accomplished that though mere suppression of positivism. But I wonder if a more enlivening approach would have been to bypass intensity per se, to gone straight to the natural world, focusing on the win-or-die character (for the individual) of the evolutionary struggle--no, that belonged to Nature (for which we never had a follow-up, hmm....)
...
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 290
The official topic for the break was to discuss possible "real life" activities for an off-site meeting, preferably outdoors, in September or early October. I didn't get a sense of broad interest, but we have a lovely site offered to us in Novato. I'm thinking wine may indeed be the quickest route to Real Life for philosophers ;-) Think of the games we could try! About 8:50 the whole group chatted for 5 minutes about this. I am fond of the idea still. I think I'll post a dateless event, upon which people can comment--or perhaps further writing on the theme will give rise to an approach.

Going into our last 30 minutes, I expressed hope we would address the social aspects of Real Life as I had steered my essay toward. We shared more examples of detachment from normal, consensual reality, beginning with ones that seemed to have been imposed upon us (spiritual experiences, neurobiological disorders), but then gradually taking more control over the phenomenon (e.g., meditation and writing as an exercises in detachment), and finally moving the scale of societies and addressing the political Other. My recollection may be faulty, but it seemed the other end of the table dominated this half of the conversation, though everyone seemed interested. As the topic of failed attempts at social engineering came up (a subtle dig at a perceived socialist bias in the recognition of Others?), I advertised our next theme would be History (of Philosophy), tracing moralists' and philosophers' steps through the Good, the True, and the Real. So this meeting served in part as an introduction to the next month's theme, as I had promised. And since the next two meetings will share the History theme, we are attaining a higher degree of continuity than I ever expected.

I've got my work cut out for me trying to get the crowded page of notes I took into the Afterword­. Interest-wise, I'd say we were about evenly split between avoidant and qualitative. How nice that we didn't venture into quantitative, which here would have strong moral overtones. Perhaps experiential would capture better how, before we could judge its quality, we struggled to get in contact with and keep a grip on life at its most real. Although I set us up for a "heavy" conversation, we kept it fairly light; I think the focus on paradox and dissociation kept us in the gray area between wet/dry, hot/cool, and hard/soft.

The last 5 minutes were devoted to our pseudohaiku, which we composed one line at a time, each person repeating their word for the benefit for those who added a word after them. It worked! Our product made a stronger impression than any before. Next time, we'll just aim at making it more automatic and fun.
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 298
Philosophy Within History 7:15pm, Sept 9, 2014

I was a bit delayed yet was the first to arrive, about 7. The cafe wasn't that busy so getting our tables was easy. We were mostly veterans, with just one newcomer. He was not a member of the group, and therefore a crasher, but as we had two no-shows it was not a problem. There was one late cancellation, for which a late invitation should have been sent out but wasn't, because I had turned RSVPs off. May try the "notify me" list next time. Only half of the people who I had bumped to the front of the line for having answered the RSVP question actually attended, casting some doubt on that attendance management technique. But eight people is the size for a perfect discussion anyway. We started a bit later so I could gulp down my dinner.

By 7:30 we got right into it, with an exercise that I had developed the day before, from an essay I wrote over a year ago, in answer to a prompt about "the persistent effects of the past." (We did something similar but less elaborate for The Future.) My question to the group was "Pick a 'thing'--object, idea, some noun--that you would like to read a history of." Each participant named something very distinct from the others, which was great. I went last, and my long hesitation in making a choice, in retrospect, was pregnant with meaning: because only I knew where we were headed, I tortured myself with trying to find the best, or at least a "good" example, eventually creating a brain freeze that caused me to pick Leuky, the object staring me in the face. The next steps were to identify some aspect of our thing that was strange or incongruous, and then, by implication, what was the "ordinary" part, which we would presume to belong to the past, and thus serve as the starting point of our history. Then the task was to tell a (hi)story about how the ordinary thing in the past somehow failed or broke down to become its incongruous "descendent." This was where, as I recall, an example was requested. I guess I was feeling confident we could do it with minimal help, plus I fear examples because they invite imitation, so I didn't offer the ones I'd cooked up, nor the ones from the paper, until later. We did get through two examples chosen by participants, and then a third by request, but now that I think of it, because we had committed to the things to be given a history, it wasn't necessary to maintain such a blackout. The last step was to name the "relation" between the "original" and the perceived strange thing, admittedly a bit hazy, people stayed with it. So much that I feared it would take too much time away from the freeform discussion, but there was a persistent effort to understand. As hoped, it seemed the real benefit was in actually doing the exercise, in adopting an "anthropologist from Mars" stance, in recalling the experience of incongruity that arose in the Real Life introductory round--that is, in all the assumptions that has be understood in order to really entertain a thesis. I feel this must have happened, because the rest of the discussion was on target, almost to a fault. The immersive purpose of the introductory round had succeeded for most people (or at least had not set anybody off). That we didn't get through all the examples was not so bad, as the lesson to be learned from some of those we missed might have been that additional qualifications need to be put on the "thing" (though we should have done "trolls" :-) As we tried to generate histories, we learned about the boundaries that might be put on that process, which was approaching the all-important topic of what makes a "good" (i.e., a well-written) history. We had a temporary side-trip into a topic suggested by one of the historical "things", but I think it may have been due to our "extra" never having seen the meeting announcement--the theme of our meeting could easily have been missed by an outsider!

Leuky was never "deployed," but he turned out to be the perfect prop to focus us during the "ritual" example, given that the only thing I've stressed about him so far is that we would switch to a very formal mode of interaction. We'll see if that helps when (if) he ever sees any action. And just having any recognizable prop at all made it possible to "demonstrate" how a "thing" embodies opposites to a degree that people do not or cannot: we cannot rely on ourselves to leave our comfortable starting place and venture toward what is strange or dangerous, so we must start there instead, and watch ourselves make our way back.

By 8:05 I managed to get others' questions on the table, though I was still pretty active in the discussion. I gave some relevant stories about paleoanthropologists learned from Elizabeth Kolbert's book on extinctions, that I had hoped to use in Real Life. We made contact with Real Life by tying history to survival, and to Life Itself through history's entanglement with identity and essences. We recalled Tom Peters' advice that the best way to predict the future was to create it (but what was really cool is that we got there through Druids). We had a moment that strongly evoked Bergson­. History's connection to scientific methods led us to list the things that would be written down, which I think (now) that I interpreted differently than whoever brought it up: I was including anything the historical researcher (as distinguished from any old storyteller) would write down, including not just accounts by his informants but also whatever he saw, including descriptions of natural objects (as archaeologists and natural scientists do). But it was a great way to explore the job description of the historian, his degree of professionalism, his materials, and his techniques, especially how these depend (or not) on whether (other) people are involved. I hope we expand on this in future discussions.

Given how central narrative is to any philosophical approach that doesn't presuppose Ideals nor a knowable reality, it made sense, I think, that we addressed the big-picture question of any philosophy that is situated "within" history. Meaning we debated a bit about postmodernism, specfically its resistance to "facts." Of course the "sides" on such issues will be immovable, but this conversation was notable for the relative proportion of non-polemical statements. We also touched on Tolstoy vs. Hegel as an embodiment of the realism vs. idealism debate. Perhaps most significant, I confessed that, though I am a fan of experimental psychology, I have endeavored of late to distinguish philosophy from it, to hold it to a standard of an independent branch of knowledge.
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Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 299
Whether it was the introductory immersion or just the smaller group size, I can't say, but the whole meeting felt more "personal." Some people normally too quiet took the opportunity to express themselves more. As usual, there was some clever phrase-making, but what was most gratifying was the level of attention: I can hardly think of a serious disconnect, no checking of iPhones (though I could have been too focused to notice). This high level of fluidity (and the long introductory round) caused us to sail right through the break. I felt we could have revisited any idea at any time--it was "all there." We made history intimate not just through the phenomenological approach, but also through biography, literature, and a willingness to use what was in front of us or heard in the cafe. History, not as a remote profession, but what we do to "fill in the backstory of Real Life." This familiarity caused me to be perhaps a little too candid at times, in the way that one might feel safety in telling a close friend that the color she's wearing doesn't look good on her, or that you, too, feel insecure in your job. I corrected and redirected and advised almost as though I was provoking resistance: instead, I got acknowledgement (not acceptance, but not resistance either). I'm thinking of specifics, but of course I don't want to spell them out here. Except in the case of the new guy, who was the exception in that it didn't feel like he was "really" with us in the encounter; he didn't respond in the way the others did. Which is not to say he hurt the meeting, because I think he was a great stimulus, contributing a metaphor that I'm seeing now will be of great use going forward (though perhaps not in the way he intended it, if there was an intention there.) His presence felt like a visitation, something from outside the realm of normal experience. (I'll admit that I might be primed to experience it that way, but still...it may be clearer next month. And there's no woo here, I said "like".) He caused friction with another participant, which I did gently call out, but they did not seem to be too bothered by it. But the vibe established among the regulars made it feasible to absorb the shock he created: it's true that "we can't help but fill the spaces."

More than once I pushed for people to write histories for the follow-on meeting. (A comment that most people would sooner read a given article than write anything made me think: I really would much prefer people engage by writing just about anything, versus filling them with some absent person's thoughts.) This seems like the perfect theme to introduce this type of activity. More important, I feel like we're almost there already: the only way to answer the question "is it well-written?" for example, is to be a writer, if only for an hour. As was noted in Real Life, writing is a way to achieve that separation from yourself that makes you real. Wittgenstein statement applies to me, certainly: "How do I know what I think until I see what I write?" And most likely I'll wait to see if any histories are written before opening the next meeting, and perhaps generate more samples and alternatives, too; it should keep the meeting small, anyway!

We wrapped with the pseudo-haiku at 9:25, which was pretty good. Somehow we segued back into going overtime 5 minutes, meaning we talked for over 2 hours straight. A few of us stayed another half-hour. The kind of meeting I'd do again, anytime.
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 327
History, Repeat! 7:15pm, Sept 23, 2014

This meeting almost didn't happen. Originally it was to be devoted to reviewing our experience actually writing some histories. For a few reasons, I changed it to a repeat session of Philosophy Within History: that meeting's attendance cap excluded people who I wanted to share this common experience; there weren't enough written histories posted in advance to do Making HIstories, and I didn't want to have to talk only about my compositions; it seemed worthwhile to try out the "origination"-type histories again, after tightening up the written description and giving more examples.

Before the meeting started, I remarked that I'd been working History almost daily for the past 2-3 weeks--I'd already extracted value out of the theme by writing more than a few histories and analyzing those and more, so there was less riding on the meeting itself. In particular, the month-long focus has allowed me to do some readings specific to the theme, and I'd like to finish certain of those before announcing the October meeting. And if that announcement is in the form of an essay, then that adds more time still. You get the idea--all philosophy, all the time.

Plus I was little bit sleep-deprived.


I arrived about 6:50. Though the most tables were occupied, our tables were free (they lack power for laptops). People conversed as food arrived and I hurriedly ate. We had perhaps the most even gender balance ever; a quarter of us were first timers, the rest were regulars. For whatever reason, most of the people who were on the waiting list last time did not avail themselves of this second opportunity; half of us were doing this for the second time.

At 7:30 I started with a brief explanation (which segued nicely from an informal discussion of phenomenology) of how philosophers generally abhor temporal issues, and how our approach was phenomenological to the degree that, if we were to find the past, it would have to be by looking at the present. I don't recall now whether I gave the speciation example at this point, or later. Then, as last time, as part of the round of introductions, each person also named an "object" they would like to know the history of. Last time we had objects that were clearly defined practices or concrete things (it mattered not whether they were real), which bound their incongruous aspect to a real context that served as a background; this time, however, we had mostly concepts that, although they felt strange, contrasted with rather idealized expectations (a caring world, honest politicians, no war, and so on). And people obviously had history on their minds, as shown by "linear time", "repeating history", and "history as lies". (There was also a cluster around generalized behavior: "nonviolence", "foreign policy", "cooperation".) In theory, the type of object studied should not matter to the exercise, but in practice the temptation to be pulled away from the history angle and examine the object was too great. I didn't help matters by selecting "history as lies" as our first object, because that swept us up into the philosophers' favorite, Truth; as all the objects were rather sticky, I thought "lies" might be best because it had been posted online and I knew we could do something with it, but I think it was too difficult for people to distinguish the historical "treatment" I was trying to portray from their plain fascination with the topic of "lies" itself. Perhaps the better way to frame the exercise would have been to ask for objects whose main compelling puzzle for us was "where did that come from?" (Come to think of it, in the previous session there was a side conversation about the interesting-in-itself topic of "ritual"--but generally, philosophers don't have a direct interest in mirrors, ocean navigation, or trolls.) Another qualification might be that a consensus can be quickly reached on what interesting "incongruity" the object presents, that such incongruity be perceptually "immediate" and independent of tastes or politics. (Not to mention that moral outrage at the object may make it difficult to be open to a history suggested by an indifferent "method".) And perhaps even further, to describe the origin of an object presupposes agreement that at some time in the past the object did not exist (or was very different in the past). Maybe the "object lesson" of meeting dynamics is that a "simple thought experiment" is actually a complex bundle of attitudes and practices that should not be presumed to be engaged.

[Okay, having now written skeleton histories in Show Your Work, my reluctance in the first session to reveal the structure of the exercise in advance, by giving examples, seems to have been vindicated. Several of the "objects" to be historicized turned out to already be, themselves, histories or explanations. As they often do in approaching a meeting, people have a point they would like to make, and so view the exercise as, if not an obstacle, at best a vehicle for that point. (The one object choice that was insistently changed perfectly demonstrated this contrast.) The productive attitude toward an exercise is one of wonder or curiosity as to what might happen: if it does not produce surprise, it has failed (not that most experiments don't fail). Knowing what's ahead increases the temptation to "reverse engineer" one's contribution, in the manner of Jeopardy's requirement that answers be submitted in the form of questions.]

As a result of the longer introduction times and the wrangling with "lies", we spent 35 minutes--the same amount of time as last time, which I thought was too long--but barely made it through the one example--whereas last time we covered three. People were enthused about the conversation (otherwise I could have tried another object), but the conversation wasn't so clearly about history. For a while in the freeform conversation, I didn't take any notes, as the focus, or its relationship to history, was unclear; some definite topics were advanced but didn't arouse interest. There was a push to distinguish lying from truthful history by their purposes, and then by whether the story was backed up by facts created by other means (eg, research). However, identifying a "purpose" is a problem very much like identifying a history: if it is something immaterial lurking behind the visible, then there will be contradictory claims about it, and if it is material, then certainly there will be conflicting interpretations of it! Purpose and intention are very much the same story-making activities as history--so we may have another shot at this exercise yet, for better or worse! Finally I latched onto furthering the distinction between narrative and history that had been tentatively advanced--although it hadn't been part of my recent research, it managed somehow to take root in the community-building function that histories seem to have. An attractive etymology of "re-member" was offered, reminiscent of that given for "re-lig-ion" a few meetings back.
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