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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Meeting notes

Meeting notes

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 102
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 103
Intensive: Bergson on Laughter, 3:15 p.m., Saturday, 1/5/13

Everybody showed up, plus one! We started 10-15 minutes late, with introductions. A lesson learned from previous inaugural-type meetings was that it's important to make everyone feel welcome and at ease with one another. Rather than have one question for everybody, like a form to be filled out, I prodded them individually, as needed. Might have been good to write down questions and test cases for use at the end of the meeting, but as it turned out we didn't need it. As usual, we (seven) were evenly split among newbie, veterans, and occasional members. One person volunteered to be the "observer." One person was familiar with Bergson, but not with this essay; another found the text online, but preferred to stick with the learner role (which I thought was a wise idea for our maiden voyage in the format).

After 10 minutes or so of introductions, and a brief situating of the article in time and in the context of Bergson's work, we started with the first of four or five entry points to the text that I had identified. I would read or paraphrase two or three of the fragments that were nodes in the concept map, then pause for feedback. I had to put my glasses on to read them, but then I would take them off to interact eye-to-eye to see if the ideas "took." We quickly established a rhythm, and while it would have been cumbersome to have everybody confirm every point, people roughly took turns responding. The usual responses were to paraphrase or translate to the "lingo" of the respondent's preference, or to give something believed to be an example (sometimes, a putative counter-example). In fact, we got a lot of mileage out of examples that did not occur in the text, especially, as I explained, many of Bergson's examples were from French literature and so omitted from my notes. For the most part I felt I addressed these "tests" adequately. Interestingly, the points at which, in my test run the night before, I had found the transitions to be awkward, others found to be leaps, too. My explanations were that it was published as a magazine article, the length was fixed (perhaps necessitating filler material), and that Bergson may have used the humor topic as a way to reach a general audience with his philosophy; however, I did emphasize that I thought the approach worked in general way, and it wasn't a scholarly piece.

Certain statements became touchstones, either because I emphasized them ("the vital does not repeat," "something mechanical encrusted on the living"), or because the readers found them provocative ("comedy resembles real life more than drama does", "comedy is the only art that aims at the general"). We spend a good long time on the embedded philosophy lesson, concerning the "veil" that artists natural detachment puts them in a position to lift, or pierce, for others. Our own examples of found art (urinal laying down) and color perception (influence of color words) were nicely explored. When we got through the longer quote I selected, on how "realism is in the work when idealism is in the soul...," which we wrestled with a while, we'd spent 75 minutes going over the text. Having covered the two main idea-masses (don't have a good term for disconnected subgraphs of the concept map) relating specifically to laughter, and most of the third that was about Bergson's metaphysics, rather than wear ourselves out, I switched us to free-form discussion. (The omitted portions had to do with vanity, the logic of the absurd.) But we kept discussing the ideas, and I did highlight when they matched up with what Bergson said elsewhere in the text. For example, the topic of suicide strongly suggested a reference Bergson made to Hamlet that we'd hadn't reached. But I was a little surprised at how close we stayed to his ideas for another 30+ minutes.

An intent of the concept map's "flat" organization was to facilitate reuse of the ideas in other contexts by providing more entry points, and that seemed to work, though I might have created even more "cycles" in the graph. In discussing the "veil" of categories that art ignores or damages, though, people wanted to skip to the art path (just as I originally did when reviewing it), but I felt is necessary to explain first how the veil is essential to practical action–that is, not every path through the semantic network is a good one!

There were no problems of the kind the relatively extensive RSVP was designed to forestall. First and foremost, learners focused on understanding and probing the text, rather than refuting it. Several people seemed to be taking some notes, though I didn't notice anyone attempting to make their own map. As the presenter, I not only presented what I had noted about the text, but I attempted to answer questions as I thought Bergson would have. Sometimes I couldn't resist the temptation to add my own thoughts (when it seemed they might make a more satisfying answer), but I was careful, at least, to indicate at those times that it was me speaking for myself. Only a couple times did I gently turn off a direction of inquiry, pointing out that it was not a matter of validity but that Bergson simply hadn't addressed it; my response seemed to be expected, so I emphasized that it was indeed better to bring it up and see if it fit (perhaps with a different part of the text) than to err on the side of passivity. If I could have had anything more, I would have preferred that more of the examples people used had been drawn from well-known works, both for brevity and impact. The smoothness of the entire interaction was quite impressive, fulfilling my hopes that we would "improvise on the ideas of the text" while basically staying inside the lines, like a jazz musician does in relation to the harmony of a composition.

There was actually another tiny section of the text we omitted, and points to a curious observation that didn't hit me until later. He mentions that "relaxation" is laughing together, but I don't recall that we laughed much, maybe not at all. But then it never is funny to explain a joke.

After 2 hours of discussion, 75 minutes more than planned, and a quick review by our "observer," we wrapped the meeting up. A couple of us stayed for a long while after. (There are exciting things coming up in other philosophy groups as well, so get involved!) Afterward, I spent a long time, and some bucks, at the bookstore...this will be relevant at some future meeting:-)

A huge thanks to everyone for making this experiment not just work well, but enjoyable, too. I hope you found it beneficial, because it was exactly what I had in mind (and really, how often does that ever happen?) I'm thinking this format will happen monthly, perhaps more often if we get more presenters.
Chris W.
Albany, CA
Post #: 20
As a reply to Jeff's request for the references I made (see also earlier post and file on Beth Bonnstetter article on "Mel Brooks meets Kenneth Burke (and Mikhail Bakhtin): Comedy and Burlesque in Satiric Film that analyzes Blazing Saddles & History of the World, Part I:

Kenneth Burke's A grammar of motives: Burke's dramatism uses a pentad of "act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose" useful dimensions for analyzing literary, political, and social acts.

G.H. Mead's Philosophy of the Act, Mind, Self, and Society are also useful background from symbolic interactionist perspective

Examples discussed: mechanical (Terminator/Robocop), Bahktin's carnival (Rabelais and his world), Groundhog Day (maybe relate it to as satire of Bergson's durée?), The man in the booth (Hulu+), Sarah Polley's Take this waltz (transgression within comedy - pops you out temporarily)

[Mentioned in my post on Bonnstetter: Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000) along with Dave Chappelle and Sascha Baron Cohen are exemplars of comic transgression]

Worth exploring: Comedy's artifice is to lift the veil.
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 108
Salon: Creativity 7:15 p.m., Tuesday, 1/15/13

I arrived just after 6:45 to find two of our number already ensconced in our favorite table. People trickled in steadily, enabling leisurely introductions, then a gush at 7:15. People got drinks while I wolfed down the last bites of my dinner for about 10 minutes more. The cafe was rather quiet, and so were we, about half veterans and a quarter newbies, nine in all.

We did a quick round of very brief introductions–maybe I could have probed a little more, but it would have felt like putting the new people on the spot. A warm-up game game (on yet another cold night) seemed in order, so we did one long round of Everybody Knows. Once one whimsical answer was given, play became much faster and funnier. Still, I had a sense that people weren't as comfortable as they would need to be to safely "create" in public: could have been the cold, the lack of buzz in the cafe, the abstruseness of the theme, the four weeks since the last salon. Anyway, we pressed on.

I gave a brief overview of how we do things, introducing Leuky and a new gadget, the Easy button (from Staples, yeah), the function of which was to signal a change in topic. I hinted that it might be used to get us started on our first topic, and someone took the hint. Laughter–but then I was the only one to ever press the button again. A couple times I was about to press it, when I noticed someone else was on the verge of speaking–so some rethinking is in order there.

We had a soft speaker or two on the ends of the table. I need to remember to save a space for them near the middle.

I brought a book (Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit), and so did someone else. Of course we didn't take time away from the group to peruse them, but I'm all in favor of material props to help us focus. Beforehand, I had a thought that we might try, or discuss, one of Tharp's exercises, but as usual, a reluctance to turn the salon into a workshop discouraged that (but I could have asked for one of the exercise from the other book, which surely it contained).

I noticed afterward that the topic question cards I contributed read more like the full-blown essay prompts that appear in Your Last Word, which is a bit imposing, in the oral setting. Some people brought some cards that they had prepared as well.

Our start was a little slow, but pretty soon we got to a dynamic equilibrium where about half of us were active in the conversation, though all were attentive. (There is no presumption, or need, that everyone will speak up.) People were taking great care to articulate their thoughts, with others showing terrific focus, and even patience, in listening as well as responding on point. Maybe I'm overestimating our seriousness because in the months since I determined this would be our first topic, I had blithely assumed "creativity" would engender an atmosphere bordering on frivolity. It seemed several people came to this meeting with convictions, and when confronted with a pretty detailed world view, we tend not to pick fights. Not that I wanted fights, but some tug-of-war would have been fun. Yet, to have found points of contact between the views that seemed to be there would have been a much deeper project that the format allowed. For example, I found myself calling up bits of Bergson (and not just the Laughter essay), Elaine Scarry (The Body In Pain), as well as my Power of Logic piece; in addition, I recounted "creative" events from various meetings that only some of us had attended. But those are the kind of ideas–verging on metaphysics–one has to turn over in one's mind for a long time, and I was inarticulate through most of it (lack of sleep being partly to blame), so I'm very grateful just for the deep attention that was given to my fumbling exhortation to "look over there," and conversely, the opportunity to see what steps I might take to make that fruitful for others.

The concept map captured some of what we talked about, but many of the thoughts expressed were not so amenable to compression to phrases. Tellingly, it is a bit more disconnected than usual. I anticipate quite a project getting the Last Word together!

The only rule I imposed on the content of our discussion was that we not replicate the "critical" stance that was adopted in August's Art meeting. People cooperated with that edict, though it likely slowed down people's responses (we're all natural critics).

I wonder now if a bold application of Leuky would have been to directly address our slight uncomfortableness, or even to see if others perceived that at all. But for that to have happened, I would have had to have called a "timeout" (and probably, have felt more courageous). Or maybe it would have been worse to call our attention to it, though I do think I would have been understood.

When I did press the Easy button (a couple times), I selected a new topic card, but not once did I take the "timeout" that I had carefully explained at the start. (The purpose was to assure that we would come at the problem from a variety of perspectives, and to afford time for private/small-group reflection.) It seems that when the conversation is brisk, I don't want to call a break and lose momentum or cut someone off, and when it is limping, it tends to change direction by itself (though we do tend to pick the path more traveled when under pressure). So, it appears that the psychology of pacing and direction is of more weight than its apparatus. I suspect, for example, that if people had been showing overeagerness to jump in, it would have been easier to "direct" because I would have felt the possible damage to self-direction to be affordable. But that could mean merely that the Easy button is a tool meant for a situation that we just didn't encounter.

After a round of Last Words, we ended at 9:35. A few lingered 10 more minutes.

...I really wish we had done a concluding round of Everybody Knows, but with a twist I've contemplated now and then that seems like it would have been appropriate: everybody's "sentence" would consist of just one word. Each person would have to fill in, in his own mind, what caused the person before him to choose the word he did. In fact, we might have eliminated the conjunctive phrases, as well. Even more radically, if we had done this in the middle of the discussion, I wonder if that would have helped to link the many conceptual islands we had created.

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 116
Arrived a half-hour early, kind of upset that I'd left not just Leuky, but my notes at home. First two of us sat in back, wondering if we had enough room; next two convinced us to join three tables in the front. We didn't have palm fronds in our faces, but the coffee grinder and the ambient noise was sometimes challenging. Once the full dozen of us arrived (stragglers until about 7:40), we were half veterans and a quarter newbies (who were more active than the usual newbies). People were a bit tardy arriving, so we didn't launch until 7:30.

I sketched out my plan, similar to last week's unannounced plan, but better than that one, to break our discussion into segments centered around one relevant quote each, separated by various activities drawn from the repertoire we've been accumulating. The first of those was to introduce ourselves (clever, I know). A newcomer offered our first starting point, featuring the familiar scenario of explaining something technical to Mom. This was a good way to start, as people in this area are familiar with the challenge of intellectual simplicity; we might have sought a little more resistance, but getting comfortable was more important at the beginning. One plus of the format alteration is that it doesn't matter if I "miss a step": I had forgotten to do a warm-up game, so we did a double-round of Everybody Knows that went a lot like Creativity's–once kind of serious, once in pure fun. (With the long table, round-robin was the only option.) Then we had a deep, mystical-sounding quote that steered us closer to a more profound orientation to the theme, or at least more poetic. I realize now that, had this been offered in our unsegmented format, we would have rolled right past it into more familiar territory, and in fact we were drawn toward practicality as an explanation, but it revealed our assumptions more clearly. So already there was an important confirmation that a subtle discipline could pay off. A couple people got up at the end for drinks, so it was a good time to take a brief break, about 8:20.

My memory is fuzzy here, but after the 5-minute break, we did a Top Ten List that, in the moment, seemed rather random–"really, you thought that was going to be complicated?" and "but that is hard!" kept going through my head–but looking at the concept map (which, for whatever reason, I was better able to keep up with this time) now, I can see brought us to more of a first-person perspective on the theme. Another point in favor of multiple occasions for subtle course correction. Our next jump-off was not exactly a quote, but it was a nice conjunction of the moral perspective and the abstraction of opposites. We know we're getting outside of simple rationalism when we consider ambiguity as possibly functional. This segment did seem to lose focus for a bit, so I introduced a specific quote (Schopenhauer's), though it favored the abstract angle. Feeling brave, I introduced a new game, which was to improvise a group haiku, one word at a time. Felt right for everybody to repeat their word again, and the next person to add their word: silly things seem less embarrassing when done together, quickly! I think this game will work, believe it or not. We had another quote, or maybe just an idea, that I oriented as an invitation to explore why we feel the way we do about simplicity. Again, looking back at it now, I don't think there would have such a ready admission that we fear complexity, if we hadn't committed as a group to discuss it. This was where the Top Ten List may have had an impact. We managed to follow the fear all the way through to courage, for a happy ending. We were running low on time, so I introduced the last segment with Einstein's God quote, on the idea that we had been climbing a metaphysical ladder of sorts. It's always good to ponder the relationship of a theme to the old veil of ignorance!

At 9:25 we skipped to Last Words, favoring those who hadn't spoken so much. We got some juicy ideas and slight admonishments on having missed others. Someone mentioned Simplicity's connection to making choices: doing more than merely mentioning each issue perforce means skipping some. Also, having set a higher standard of inquiry with the first two segments probably made us averse to redundancy later. I think it is nice to be know that the subject isn't going to completely change at any moment; the one time I actually did a "last call" for thoughts on a quote, though, it did turn into a retread. I think the last call has to be limited to people who haven't yet chimed in; in fact, a bit part of the appeal of a Last Word is that they won't be called to defend their view, so we should enable that form of participation.
Perhaps even more than usual, people were articulate, cooperative, and focused on the same idea, even as it changed for each segment. We had several soft-spoken or low speakers, but everyone said they could hear (with some effort, cheerfully applied). The mood throughout was engaged yet cool. This could have been due solely to the dispassionate nature of the theme, or perhaps our approach of supporting quotes by distinguished thinkers (whom we didn't want to appear to gainsay) contributed by making us more inclined to agree. I have to wonder, though, if the boundaries that go with segmentation psychologically lower the stakes of participation: the major "prize" in a free-for-all is domination of the discussion, to really have the last word. In a word: to win. Yes, it might be juvenile, but invigorating, perhaps motivating us to make that difficult leap, be it intellectual or emotional. We didn't stay afterward, at least not to further discuss Simplicity. Next time, I will leave the last segment open as an opportunity to tie together the others, to explore applications to life, or for open combat. And I still want to do a closing Everybody Knows someday: there was a comment afterward to the effect that each time we began again, it was erased the wins and losses, a nice note to end on.

Thanks to everyone who helped this become one the experiments that panned out!
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 118
At the designated start time, 3:15, I was only about halfway from DTO to Berkeley (on a crowded #1 bus), at which time it dawned on me that I should've hopped on BART as soon as it became clear that I had missed my connection. When I arrived at the cafe about 3:40, I was only the third of our eventual five. The only good thing about Saturday afternoons is that people don't have to rush home to get to bed; everything else–errands, difficult parking, erratic bus lines–works against it. Therefore future meetings are very likely to be Thursday evening, which was the expressed preference of several in attendance and others who weren't.

We finally got underway at 4:00. Though we had been chatting about related matters, and most of us knew one another, I neglected to do introductions: even though this format puts the presenter at the center, it might have been good to encourage a bit more esprit du corps. I had prepared a "route" through the concept map that included select points from the previous three chapters ("Consciousness," "Instinct," and "Emotion"). Because this prologue cleaved less closely to the text, it may have set up a bad habit of trying to "make" James's points for him (ostensibly by introducing modern research results) rather than simply "translating" the text. In a way, this may have helped me develop my own understanding of James, but I don't think it helped the project, which was to deliver a Study of the text–for instance, it was hard for me to get a sense of whether people fully absorbed the points of the introduction. Another complication was that I, and the other person who had carefully read the Briefer Course, succumbed to supporting our interpretations by citing other parts of the work. This is undesirable because (I suspect) it puts learners in the position of having to trust that the proper details have been selected, rather than everybody being on an equal footing with respect to the text being studied.

Once I started on the "Will," I felt myself on firmer ground, able to confine the presentation and the discussion it elicited more to what the text said rather than implied. But there was a giant exception to that. In the previous Study­, I so enjoyed fielding the learners' examples and weaving them into the presentation, resulting in a nicely customized update of the author's ideas. This time, the scenario supplied (returning a lost wallet) was further beyond what the author had written about–the example of adherence to an exercise program or diet would have required less improvisation on my part. What I should have done was to defer that example until after the presentation, at which time we would hopefully have had a basic understanding, which we then could try to expand to include a moral decision. It was hubris that led me to take it on, because I was confident it could be explained; I still think James could explain it, but having to interpolate additional logical steps of my own to support the added case detracted from both the soundness of his own narrative, and from the authority of my presentation.

This conflict became most salient when we slowed down to "inhabit" what I described as the central image of the text: the feeling of indecision, which is terminated by any of five events. We did spend time there, but the attention to the challenging example took away from getting the learners to feed back on (a) how we get to the state of indecision, and (b) what might end that state.

When we got to the appearance of "will" itself (which the text skillfully defers to the last possible moment), I highlighted James's delightful turns of phrase, which perhaps had the unanticipated effect of drawing attention on the text. Or it may have been that we were already at 75 minutes by then. We pressed on anyway for about 15 minutes, covering the major points and reaching the dramatic conclusion. The wonderful thing that happened here (for me) was that I was able to articulate the thing which I had advertised that James had been so careful not to say! That is one of the selfish reasons for presenting these studies: we learn things by having to actually explain them to others (if, in fact, we can). Still, I think this Study would have been of more benefit to learners if it had taken a more narrow path (even my epiphany relied on other parts of the work).

Another complication that made our Study feel more like a Salon than last time was having two people who were familiar with the text. Advantages included having someone to find the original text in the book and, when in agreement, having a second (sometimes better) wording to choose from; disadvantages were having two people sometimes speaking at once and, when in disagreement, detracting from the flow of the text. It also occurs to me that it might discourage learners from repeating back what they think they heard, because it doubles the chance for a mismatch (though, logically, it should increase the odds of a partial match, I guess). Because I certainly value having the additional experience of a second reading to add to the Study, I will have to ponder how to maximize the advantage of multiple "reads" of the text while minimizing the scatter of multiple presentations. We discussed afterward whether to "encourage" people to read the texts in advance: I remain ambivalent on that, but certainly will never prevent it or exclude anyone who has!

After 5:30, we continued talking, mostly about the format and the group generally, until the last of us left about 6:15.
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 119
Salon: Attraction 7:15 p.m., Tuesday 2/12/13

Arrived about 6:30 to watch State of Union, but once people started arriving, we moved to the big table in back. Turned out to be the right move, because nearly everyone showed up, plus one extra, which made it just a little cozy–and might have been fortunate, in view of the unusually intimate topic. Not so much conversation beforehand as other times, which may have been several regulars having been called away: one-third regulars and only one newbie meant we had a majority of "occasional" attendees. Also unusual (though I shouldn't admit it, even here) was that most arrived in advance, so we started right on time!

We did a round of introductions: although mine was too long, that didn't stimulate others to be loquacious. I described the new "segmented" format we started last week, and someone started us off with a collectible object. I improvised a question to go with this, but it did mean we didn't begin with human attraction, intended (but not stated) to be our template; on the other hand, it might been beneficial to get comfortable with one another before diving into the deep end. Also, it turned out to be a way to seed the intellectual landscape with some notions that we might reuse later. It led naturally to a Top Ten List about collections that helped loosen us up some more. (I did forget to compile some list titles in advance.)

We had another question that was rather loosely formulated about the attractiveness of ideas, which again I interpreted as an avoidance tactic, but it did lead quickly to ideology and to the military, which was an easy segue to the attractiveness of men in uniform, for which I had a quote to anchor us. After this point, I didn't really follow the segment-break-segment pattern like last time, and I retroactively explain that intuitive decision by the fact that a difficult topic like this (that doesn't conjure a set of preformed opinions) doesn't need speed bumps to be inserted in the path of the discussion. There are always more avenues that could have been explored. Instead, like monkeys, we just swung to the nearest branch to make our way through the forest. It felt quite natural, as we incorporated another artifact that someone brought, as well as a quote and a question from the announcement. The questions these generated, as well as the ones that crystallized in the course of conversation, sometimes had captivating imagery, but their main utility was to provide checkpoints that we could back up to if we lost our focus. I also felt emboldened to ask people to repeat their ideas that I thought made good centerpieces (and that I wanted to be sure to get into the concept map): a specific condition for doing this is when someone puts forward a pair of ideas. There were also cases in which a stream of good ideas were mentioned, but it was impossible to record everything, and so we ended up incorporating only the last one.

Like some other meetings that had an intimate feeling, this one had key references to well-known works from fiction, music, and broadcasting: I'm starting to see these as a sign that we are "inhabiting" our subject, trying to see it from the inside, so to speak. We did have a couple personal narratives, tastefully abstracted, but it was very far from becoming a support group (such as some might have suspected it might).

Probably I talked a bit more than usual: I can tell because I didn't have much time to fill in the concept map, yet I know we were on topic almost all the time. (There were two longish digressions, one being, of course, the required riff on evolution:-) Every single person present made significant contributions to the conversation, and all seemed to be fully engaged. I usually don't note the gender balance, but the sole representative of the female gender was extremely cooperative in producing needed balancing perspective, and all us guys were rather polite in accepting what was provided without demanding more. (Come to think of it, wouldn't it have been interesting to compare a Back to the Future version of the discussion with only guys!) The sense of ease increased throughout the session, even as (or because?) we got into increasingly subtle observations.

Speaking of which, I made use of Leuky to highlight some interesting contrasts without redirecting the conversation. I think it worked, though next time I'll be sure to hold onto him until I'm done (that's what supposed to keep the interruption brief). I only cursorily explained what Leuky was about, so I have to hope the usage will become self-evident at some point in the future. Several references were made to other meetings, including the most recent William James study.

The tone was mostly fairly serious, but we had a little fun with the break/warm-up exercises. I learned a new acronym (that I can't repeat here). I figured out that a regrettable move in Everybody Knows, which we did as a closing piece this time, is to insert yourself as a subject into the conversation (using "I"). We had a few more closing comments before officially wrapping up at 9:30.

After that, we lost people only gradually, with four of us staying for an extended period. (I had to leave at 11 p.m.) That seems to confirm the notion that the more intimate topics tend to make for especially cordial gatherings.

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 129
Salon: Property 7:15 p.m 2/26/2013

Arrived 7:10, at which time a couple people had grabbed a table "under the trees." We assembled three tables there, which was good, because it allowed people to get out more easily. Seemed to be able to hear pretty well, but I was in the center. All eleven of us showed up, and we needed the space. We had more than half regulars, with only two newbies, who weren't shy. There were lively conversations on both end tables, but as everybody had arrived, we started at 7:20.

I was still eating, so I didn't forget to have a round of introductions, which went a little too quickly. So after a brief intro to our process, I led off with a request for The Top Ten Kinds of Property We Should Not Overlook, based on the suggestions gathered from the RSVP. My intent was use this list as a hedge against our analysis becoming specific to a particular class of property. We never tried any substitutions from the list, but our conversation did remain at a suitable level of abstraction, so it's at least possible that this helped. About 15 minutes in, I opened it up to someone else to have the first volley, so to speak, but the first person challenged my framing of the issue in the announcement. I wish I polled the group as to how many and what kind of "focal points" they brought, because it wasn't clear they did, the result of which was that most of them were mine(, mine, mine:-) When we're moving quickly and don't want a break exercise, there probably should be some quick ritual to mark the topic change. We got three more topics in before 8:25, at which time I invited people to mention something that someone else had said that they might like to pursue further in the second half.

So this was the first time ever that I actually got a chance for a little "alone time" with my notes and the concept map in the middle of the meeting. I neglected to really dig into the map, however, concentrating on which of my copious pre-meeting notes I wanted. It felt a little awkward to have discounted some of the suggestions I had asked for, on the basis of our having flogged them quite a bit in the first half, but we did get back to the one that had multiple votes. (Perhaps I should have clarified that the interesting points should be things we hadn't explored enough.) Multiple people also favored taking a more personal viewpoint ("creative prospect" in my emerging lingo), as did I, because I had run into difficulty prying us loose from the notion (I would call it a crutch) that the state (or culture) is to blame for property. One thing I knew about how to bring that shift about was to use elements of drama, so I debuted a second new exercise to re-open the floor.

At 8:40 I again felt bad to interrupt the conversations that had emerged during the break, but I gave a brief overview of how I had came across the idea of us jointly sketching a character, or telling a story about a fictional character, whose name is some quality humans have. I was delighted to find, after some prompting, that the nominated quality was exactly the choice I had prepared! We told a story about "Greed" that seemed to come pretty easily to people, and had interesting and humorous twists, like a good Everybody Knows. Now I wish I had done it before the break, so we could have leveraged it more in the actual discussion.

We handled three more topics after that, though the boundaries of the middle one(s) were a bit mushy, which is hard to avoid when you're running toward the fixed close of the meeting. We explicitly tied in a topic from the previous Attraction theme, as we had roughly the same group available. One of my layouts for the last half was indeed to focus the group on a problem and let them have at it with minimal herding on my part, and that was sort of what we did in discussing Marx's argument about property's foundations. We don't usually discuss particular authors, but my feeling that his was pretty well known seemed to be accurate. And we did make a new link (to intellectual property) that I did not foresee. Still, I wonder if something with that much structure should have come earlier.

There were many fine contributions to this theme. I tried to get to us to linger over some of them, but really thought-provoking ideas just seem to need to be turned over and over in private for a while before generating a public statement. The give-and-take was pretty lively. Of course I talk a lot, but generally I manage to keep it brief (I think!) Everybody had something to say. Some people seemed a bit unwilling to let go–even on a trial basis–of their convictions; yes, I was one of those people, but it's my job to direct us to a territory that isn't overly familiar. That is a dynamic I need to ruminate: I would like to be able to measure where people who are not speaking up on a crucial issue stand, because if no one wants "to go there," then I should give up, but if it's just one or two vocal opponents, then they should yield. We're just talking.

Maybe it was a job for Leuky to call attention to the conflicting agendas, and what implications each might have for the rest of the conversation. Anyway, he did have at least one clear application, which was to give a turn to someone who wanted to speak but didn't want to interrupt a speech.

We talked right up to 9:25, which left a few moments for people who hadn't talked as much to get into their Last Words, and get the newbies impressions. After we officially ended, people started drifting away, but we had a group of five for about an hour, until 11, in sort of a "workshop" on last time's theme.

An interesting postscript to the evening is that I met a fellow on the bus afterward who seemed to need to talk to someone about how his life had gone sour due to bad choices he'd made. I always complain that people don't talk on the bus, and here was someone who seemed to want to talk philosophy. What were the chances? Well, I was all warmed up, so why not? He appreciated my first suggestion profusely. After a pause, I thought of a second one, which he accepted graciously. Then we both transferred to the same bus. He took his leave of me to sit in the back. It dawned on me not long afterward what might have been the dynamic. I think what he was really looking for was commiseration (as I hear that all the time on the bus), not advice. We were in the same age bracket, but our stories seemed to be quite different. Would it have been painfully inauthentic, or irresponsibly enabling, for me to have given him the interaction he wanted? Food for thought.

A former member
Post #: 15
The bus conversation got me thinking: does being "authentic" mean having to tell others exactly what we're thinking/feeling in the moment regardless of whether they want to hear it? Is expressive truthfulness more important in conversation than considerations of the other person(s) (their interests, concerns, desires)? Now I'm thinking that "truthfulness" doesn't have to be based solely on a cognitive moment but may involve an ongoing process that encompasses consideration of effect on others, as well as one's values, and priorities. After all, values and priorities are part of one's "authentic self" just as much as whatever one's current thought/emotion is. Considering "how can I be true to myself but also be kind or helpful" may involve a more expanded sense of "authenticity" than "how can I be true to my fleeting thought/emotion". And truly wanting to help means wanting to be effective, which is different than wanting to give advice regardless of whether that advice is heard or appreciated by the other party. None of this is to suggest that "commiseration" would have been a better response. Btw: Authenticity would be a great topic for a meeting.
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 134
Study: Elaine Scarry on "Pain and Imagining" 6:45 Thursday, March 7, 2013

A couple of us arrived 20 minutes early and got a table in front. People filed in until 7 or so, but we started at 6:50 because we had plenty. (My original idea had been to limit us to 7-8 people to keep it manageably interactive, but several people signed up at the last minute.) It's interesting how having less improvisation in the format makes the lead-up to the start of the meeting less hectic for me. I didn't forget to do introductions, and a longer one for the new face we had; most of had met at previous meetings, so the atmosphere was cordial, but tinged with uncertainty, as I'm sure people didn't know what to expect. We were pretty comfortable and the cafe was quiet though busy; it seemed like everyone could hear. Occasionally my printing on the semantic map was too small to be read in the available light (so I'll write bigger in the future, or sit next to someone with younger eyes).

We did briefly (against my better judgment, though I kind of opened the door to it) get into Scarry's much later, very different writings on political events. I had no knowledge of them in any detail. They were and are irrelevant to my regard for the piece. I emphasized that she was a (now retired) English professor, with no credentials in politics, and probably a different set of concerns and techniques than most philosophers. I offered a brief description of how I came up the book in the first place, some years ago, based on a family issue. (This may have fostered some misconceptions, addressed below.)

I was conscious of awkwardness in getting into the body of the meeting. Perhaps I should have thought of a suitable framing question, because, in retrospect, the sticking point of Scarry's line of thinking, for most people, seemed to be her initial statement that "physical pain is unique in that is has no object." That the main objection occurs right out of the gate is probably not unusual for any argument, so that might be something to anticipate next time. Anyway, I held firm on the idea that it must be provisionally accepted in order to go forward. I had meant to sketch out the flow of the argument as a way to draw attention to what I saw as a nice model, but didn't want to deviate much from her presentation: I should have prepared an overview of its functional organization to make that point afterward.

Despite my various entreaties to people to ponder and accept the rules of the Study game in advance, I did have to lay down the line (gently) a couple of times. Having enough people there who were obviously in a receptive mode put the wind at my back, though: people wanted to hear what they came for! Again, a framing question might have helped: I think people supply a default one if it's not given. In this case, it seemed to be "what is pain?" or "what causes pain?" or maybe "why is there pain?" But, as I realized in the process of explaining her ideas, the object of philosophical contemplation is not pain at all, but referentiality itself, particularly intersubjectivity: the choice of pain was likely motivated by the need of something fundamentally private that wants to be shared. I emphasized this as I became aware of it, but by then minds had set themselves in a groove. Live and learn!

Some of the "objections" turned out to be anticipations of the argument, cueing me to travel some "optional" paths I had identified beforehand. It was good to explore the difference in sensory modalities, especially, because that is a theme that I'm working on (in the background). We progressed pretty smoothly, and I did stop at several junctures to see if the group was with me (which I emphasized did not mean agreement, only comprehension): I didn't hear any misconceptions that couldn't be addressed without having to go back. With nine people, though, I didn't grill everybody, though a couple of times I issued a "pop quiz" (multiple choice). Might have been fun to have prepared some more such questions, ones that expanded the example set, perhaps. I missed a turn once in the crowded map, and inserted it later when I found, which I hope didn't confuse people. Of the four points that issued from the main crossroads of the map, one of them was bungled by something left out, which I wisely didn't pursue at that moment. And I hadn't given as much preparation to the final stretch (e.g., there were "islands" that needed planning to be linked into the tour), simply because I wasn't too sure that we would get there: indeed, we were running out of the allotted 75 minutes anyway, so I gave a less linear overview of the highlights.

I'm very tempted to think that I should have demanded some positive examples–ones that DID fit Scarry's model–before we even entertained counterexamples. That would have shown a good faith attempt to meet the author on her own ground. That might have been more effective than my entreaty to "find a place from which you can see the argument as valid" and assent to it, for sake of argument.

By about 8:15, the "presentation" was over. As it didn't seem anyone had been "won over" by Scarry's way of thinking, it was left to me to answer the accumulated objections. This part was quite productive for me, as it really clued me into the framing problem, the setting of some expectation as to what problem is being solved. (I don't think it would have helped to do it earlier, because it would take time to process that information.) It gave me the opportunity to point out certain philosophical maneuvers that recur across systems of philosophical thought (at least they do in the ones I like:-): mainly, that of reversal or negation. I wish I'd also highlighted the notion of a word collecting multiple meanings being significant rather than accidental (here, "work.")

The attention level seemed pretty high throughout, which I think meant people were following (when they're not, minds turn to other things). Around 9:30 one person was preparing an exit, which reminded me that we were going overtime, so I made an announcement to that effect. They continued to grill me for 15 more minutes, at which point it occurred to me that the group might be thinking I wouldn't release them until they gave in to Scarry's argument, so I said so, gave my last attempt to reorient how they perceived the content, and asked for last words. There weren't any and we disbanded by 10 p.m.

On the ride home, I was seized with the thought that I did not want to the abandon the incremental progress (and what other kind is there, really?) I felt I made toward creating an appreciation (or at least, an awareness) of a phenomenological approach to semiotics. In Scarry's terms, I want to objectify what was reached so that I don't have to start from scratch next time. Mostly likely this will take the form of (yet another) discussion thread. My intuition suggests the difference from "Your Last Word on ..." may be that the call would be, not for answers, but for questions.

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