breaker one-nine

2/19/09

While the insides of my sinuses keep bleeding, I’m honored to have the husband of my college friend Kim – the honorable Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein – write today’s blog. He’s up in North Dakota, where winter will last another three months. He’s got an awesome radio show, and he’ll tell you all about it:

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Someone once remarked to me that her biggest disappointment with being an academic is not having enough time to read. As laments go, it is far from the worst. It’s nothing compared to “my village’s water supply is irrevocably contaminated,” “the military junta won’t let me practice my religion,” or “my youngest daughter was born with AIDS,” but it is still a shock to the system. Add to that the reality of being an ex-pat New Yorker in North Dakota, and I sometimes feel as if I may never have a genuinely cosmopolitan experience again.

I’m the son of a jazz-musician father (turned mathematical logician then education professor) and an artist mother (turned high school teacher), but the major currency of the profession I have chosen is “obscure journal articles that are read by a handful of people who themselves write obscure journal articles”. I’m a philosophy professor in mid-career, a New Yorker in Middle America, and a father/husband in mid-life. Where do I go from here?

My answer has come in the form of public radio and a new show called Why: Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life. It’s the flagship vehicle for the new Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, the mission of which is to cultivate a conversation between academic philosophers and general audiences. I believe that those obscure journal articles can be translated into realspeak and I believe that they are relevant to us all.

And as seduced as I am by Ian’s “American Coastopia” idea, I know that the intellectual blood flows through North Dakota and everywhere else. What we need in my part of the world is permission to inquire publicly and a place to meet where we can share our questions and answers. (Ironically, it turned out that the university is not that place.)

So on the second Sunday of every month, at 5 p.m. central time, on the radio in North Dakota and on the internet everywhere else (www.whyradioshow.org), I invite people to share philosophy with me, other professional philosophers, and as many people who will call in, or e-mail, or listen.

I wanted to write for xtcian because it’s a community with goals I share. My wife Kim (a college friend of Ian and an ex-pat Tarheel,) turned me on to it and in the comments, I see others, like me, trying to find ways into an adult intellectual life, remembering the days when we stayed up all night talking about stuff without worrying about work the next day or kids waking up in the middle of the night, or the headache from lack of sleep that comes from being older.

I’m wondering what you all do to reinsert inquiry into your lives? What do you do daily (or weekly) to have an intellectual core? I’d love some help and some guidance to see where I can go and where I can take the radio show. Our first guest will be Clay Jenkinson, (Thomas Jefferson himself), and we’ll be talking about the place of philosophy and humanities in the world.

It will be a better conversation if you all participate, if I can read your comments in advance to prepare myself, and if we can start a discussion that will last longer than this one post. And, if you hang around until June, you’ll get to ask a United States senator what the purpose of government is and what he means by freedom. When was the last chance any of us got to do that?

Write me if you want: ippl@und.nodak.edu

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0 thoughts on “breaker one-nine

  1. LFMD

    Hello Dr. Weinstein! I enjoyed your entry today. I will definitely be listening to your show.
    At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I feel in many ways as though I have been dying a slow intellectual death since leaving school. My work provides me financial stability and fits into my work/family balance, but it is boring. My day-to-day conversations revolve around household stuff, daughter’s school stuff, etc. I am usually too exhausted at the end of the day to have an intelligent conversation with anyone.
    My saving grace is my iPod. Seriously. Each night, I download all sorts of podcasts that interest me, and I listen to them all day long at work. I engage in political debate, listen to religious discussion, try to grasp our economic situation, and learn a little bit of German, all in the privacy of my cubicle.
    By the way, will your radio show be available as a podcast?

    Reply
  2. kent

    My biggest question about philosophy is this: How do people read books by philosophers. I don’t think I’m more than nominally dense, but try as I might, I never get past the preface in any book by a serious philosopher.
    At the same time I’m keenly interested in any vernacular discussion of the ideas of those philosophers, just as I vastly enjoyed a class I took in college that touched on the ideas of Barthes, Lacan and Derrida without making us actually read anything they wrote.
    Is there a place for serious philosphy written in plain language that doesn’t fall prey to the fake profundity of e.g. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?” Are philosophers great thinkers but lousy writers?
    I’m a software engineer, so I know jargon can be opaque, but 10 pages of Kant is worse than trying to learn APL….

    Reply
  3. Jason Savage

    I remember finding “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?” fairly profound.
    Guess I’m more than nominally dense.

    Reply
  4. GFWD

    I hated that Zen Motorcycle book. I FORCED myself to finish it only because I was certain, CERTAIN there was some profound message waiting there for me. Clearly, I’m not smart enough to get it because reading that book was a profound waste of my time.
    Stupid motorcycle.
    I enjoyed The Fountainhead, however, which I read around the same time.

    Reply
  5. Bud

    What do I do to reinsert inquiry into my life?
    I’m afraid I don’t do much. I try to stay current on events and to “Wik up” anything I don’t know enough about… also to discuss events (and occasionally ideas) with friends and family.
    I almost always wish there were more hours in a day; even if there were more hours I’m not sure I’d delve too much into true Philosophy. There are simply too many demands.
    Generally speaking, I’m much more interested in HOW than in WHY. Perhaps the saying of our times should be: “Ours is not to wonder why / Ours is but to work and buy.”
    I agree with Kent that Philosophy would be more fun if it were more accessible (I also agree about “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”).
    The best examples of accessible Philosophy I’ve encountered are “Antiaesthetics” by Paul Ziff and “The Ethics of George W. Bush” by Peter Singer.
    But thank you, Dr. Weinstein, for making me wonder whether I should be asking “why?” more often. I will check out your radio show.

    Reply
  6. Ehren

    This is a great idea, and I’ll definitely check out the show, I am a philosophy grad myself, and definitely believe that developments in philosophical thinking have provided everyday folks tools to help them better navigate their lives, and to adapt to the rapidly changing world around us.
    To your point, Kent, I think that philosophy requires such precision of meaning that it’s almost like writing math. It makes the language very, very precise, but a little stiff and unnatural. Law is a close cousin to philosophy in many ways, and even well-written legal documents are difficult to read because of the extreme formalism required.
    That being said, contemporary philosophers write for general audiences with greater frequency than dudes in togas or even mid-20th century types. Try any of Daniel Dennett’s non-atheist work, like Elbow Room.
    And for the good doctor, I keep my intellectual life vigorous by taking time out to hang out with similarly-minded friends. Whether it be the Jartacular or just a few beers at a local bar, I try to continue to have the sort of discussions about things that interest me in the world that I had in school. Also, I think that writing, on a blog, in emails or in a journal, is a great way to structure your thoughts about things that keep you more engaged with them.

    Reply
  7. Tessa Blake

    Thank you for your excellent post. Looking forward to the show. Seems like the philosophy counterpart to “Speaking of Faith,” which is a great program.
    I think Ian and I are pretty good at bringing inquiry into our lives. It’s what we’ve always done. We talk. A lot. With a lot of people about a lot of things.
    But it comes at the sacrifice of other things. I know that I am less prolific as a writer because of the time I spend with my friends and my husband, talking…. I don’t get as much sleep as I could. And, sadly, I don’t read as much as I would like.
    But when I think like that I remember Chuck Mee (an exceptional playwright and friend) saying to me that when he looked back over the year, he really felt like he had gotten *too* much done. He regretted not going to the Guggenheim or having more picnics with his daughters or staying up late talking to friends.
    It is true that adult life brings inherent constraints. Work and family and home ownership and planned exercise and meal preparation and bill paying etc… I think a show like yours can provoke many questions for people, among them “what choices do you make outside of those constraints and does it give you contentment?”
    For me, it boils down to this. Am I living the life I want to live? And, today, my answer is “almost.” Is that good enough? I hope so.

    Reply
  8. Caroline

    LFMD and Dr. Weinstein – yay!
    LFMD, I happen to be having one of those soul-searching days and I feel the same way, I literally just uttered some of the same words to someone before I read this post. I’m totally under-utilized at work but yet when I go home I’m pooped. I haven’t been challenged mentally in so long, other than brief chats with my husband who is a) brilliant but b) works all the time. I obsessively listen to NPR to hear all of their weird and wonderful programming and oh, say, international news for a change. (And an aside, Tessa, I LOVE ‘Speaking of Faith”.) And my friends and family and I talk all the time about all sorts of odd things, but it’s not enough.
    But at the same time, the idea of reading Nietzsche or something in my free time is about as appealing as stapling the palm of my hand.
    I ask WHY all the time. My husband thinks I am just whining, but apparently I’m just extremely philosophical.
    Dr. Weinstein, I really look forward to hearing the show.

    Reply
  9. xuxE

    heeeeyyy!!! philosophy major in the house! concentration in metaphysics and epistemology, locke, stock, and barrel. greatest major ever, my senior thesis topic was proof of the existence of color. hysterical, i still cannot believe this qualifies for a diploma… thank god though, because i cannot memorize facts to save my life, but i can damn well make shit up.
    anyway, i hate ethics. ethics shmethics, philosophical debates on ethics do nothing for me except raise my blood pressure and piss me off. and i’m talking western philosophy here, with the focus on dialectics.
    i also think that when it comes to discussions about the human condition and *correct* behavior, we shouldn’t think that the answers lie in philosophical debates. these debates de-humanize real issues into abstract concepts so that philosophers in the debate can score points and *win*. i guess you could argue that it has merit in terms of an intellectual exercise, but i think it’s better to play sudoku than play with real issues that affect people’s lives and give yourself a false sense of making a positive contribution or gaining awareness.
    take an issue like “my youngest daughter was born with aids” and in a philosophical debate it becomes an abstract argument about what the medical establishment should or should not do (despite the fact that the philosophers are not MD’s) or about “those women” who transmitted the disease (despite the fact that each individual’s circumstances or motivations won’t be known), etc. i find it offensive.
    so this sort of brings me to where i use philosophy in my own life.
    i think of philosophy as the math and science that pre-dates math and science as we know it. so it’s a good complement, particularly when the results you get from math and science are spurious. basically, anytime an answer is unknowable using math and science, you can turn to philosophy and figure things out with logic.
    one really easy to read modern book (seriously, this is nothing like trying to read aristotle) which applies philosophy the way i like to see it is “against the gods, the remarkable story of risk” by peter bernstein.

    Reply
  10. xuxE

    ok, i had to come back with addendum so i don’t come off as though i’m dissing the entire experience – i do have to give props to my senior thesis mentor, or whatever it was called, because he rocks and can talk about the most out there stuff with total clarity and he would probably be a great guest for your show:
    http://philosophy.unc.edu/blackburn.htm
    with his charming british accent it would also be great if you could get him to join you in the philosopher song from monty python but i think it would probably be considered a tad bit rude…
    and he was amazing for philosophy of law, he made it utterly fascinating:
    http://philosophy.unc.edu/postema.htm
    i also remember he was great for logic but i can’t for the life of me remember which class i took:
    http://philosophy.unc.edu/simmons.htm
    Schlesinger was cool, we did logical proof for the existence of god and he had this quirky humor with a German accent that actually made it fun.
    But Dr. Galligan, ohmyfreakingod. he made me insane, thought i wasn’t even going to graduate. he was like a cross between boris karloff and abe vigoda, wearing a dark suit and carrying a briefcase which i don’t think he even opened, and he would just chainsmoke and go off on these bizarre, long winded meandering lectures on aristotle and plato and the meaning of life like he was taking you on some strange absynthe trip (maybe that’s what it takes to figure out aristotle, i don’t know…)
    and then after hearing this and making zero sense of it i’d have to go try to read the nichomachean ethics without slitting my wrists and write a 20 page paper on it. my paper would be totally wrong, and would come back littered with nasty notes such as “put your spitballs back in your bag”. in retrospect it’s really funny, but at the time i literally hid in the bushes when i saw him coming.
    http://philosophy.unc.edu/CHPEmeritus.html
    ok, that is all, good luck with the show.

    Reply
  11. xuxE

    (reposting without links)
    oh and just so i don’t come off as though i’m dissing the entire experience, i do have to give props to my senior thesis mentor, or whatever it was called, because he rocks and can talk about the most *out there* stuff with total clarity and he would probably be a great guest for your show:
    Simon Blackburn
    with his charm and british accent it would also be great if you could get him to join you in the philosopher song from monty python but i think it would probably be considered a tad bit rude…
    and he was amazing for philosophy of law, he made it utterly fascinating:
    Gerald Postema
    i also remember he was great for logic but i can’t for the life of me remember which class i took:
    Keith Simmons
    George Schlesinger was cool, we did logical proof for the existence of god and he had this quirky humor with a German accent that actually made it fun.
    But Edward Galligan, ohmyfreakingod. he made me insane, thought i wasn’t even going to graduate. he was like a cross between boris karloff and abe vigoda, wearing a dark suit and carrying a briefcase which i don’t think he even opened, and he would just chainsmoke and go off on these bizarre, long winded meandering lectures on aristotle and plato and the meaning of life like he was taking you on some strange absynthe trip. and then after hearing this and making zero sense of it i’d have to go try to read the nichomachean ethics without slitting my wrists and write a 20 page paper on it. my paper would be totally wrong, and would come back littered with nasty notes such as “put your spitballs back in your bag”. in retrospect it’s really pretty funny, but at the time i literally hid in the bushes when i saw him coming.
    ok, that is all, good luck with the show.

    Reply
  12. Ehren

    I loved Galligan, but I understand why he drove people nuts. I also loved Richard Smythe. He was a lonely existentialist in an otherwise fairly analytical department, but I found his classes to be electric at times.

    Reply
  13. tregen

    I’m wondering what you all do to reinsert inquiry into your lives?
    I have never lost it. Stay focused on thinking, turn off the TV (or better yet, throw it out the window) and read, read, read.
    What do you do daily (or weekly) to have an intellectual core?
    Stay constantly in touch with old and new friends and go out of my way to make new acquaintances. Read. Observe. Think. Also, I listen to AM radio, no particular channel. Sometimes,
    Crazy Fox, sometimes NPR, sometimes religious sermons, all over the AM spectrum. Internet browsing. Also, as a litigator, I tend to find my daily job replete with intellectual opportunities and with a true hodgepodge of people.

    Reply
  14. tregen

    Side note:
    I recall there were some insurance attorneys who lurk here and was curious about the built in conflict in insurance defense. This area is not my general practice but have taken on a case on behalf of one of our partners, which is an insurance defense case, and I find the conflict, in general, to be so untenable that it is hard to a way forward.

    Reply
  15. kazoo

    this is such an interesting question in itself…as many of us have inquiry in our lives but cloaked in the every day. that said, having grown up in a household of academics, i’m never very far from inquiry. as many people here have said, i find it most in the conversations i have with friends and colleagues. i became addicted to this blog for that very reason. polite (while heated) discourse keeps me nimble.
    and, i’m lucky enough to have a job that includes a lot of inquiry about our changing world and the place of digital media in it – is it good? is it bad? do we stop thinking as a result? or think differently?
    i also find that, as a psych major, the social psychological books in plain english also keep me asking questions. yes, everyone loves to beat up on gladwell, but his books raise questions and prompt dialogue. and the writings of robert sapolsky always make me re-examine the basis of our humanity.
    keep up the great work, dr. weinstein!

    Reply
  16. Jack (Dr. Weinstein)

    Thank you, all of you, for your comments. First off, please call me Jack. Second, the radio show is available as a podcast (you can subscribe) and as streaming audio. The direct link to that stuff is:
    http://www.whyradioshow.org/previous.html
    I’ll think about all of your comments and suggestions, and it’s always interesting to hear (or read) people’s own experiences in philosophy. But it is comforting to know that everyone has their own tricks and ways of squeezing intellectual life into their day-to-day activities.
    I listen to Speaking of Faith, we don’t have cable TV (although we do watch a lot of Simpsons on DVD)and yes, there is a great deal of popular philosophy out there as well (I too like Blackburn). For the record, I really wanted to like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but never got into it when I read it in college. Maybe I would like it now.
    The comment that frightens me the most because I identify with it myself is from LFMD who wrote “I feel in many ways as though I have been dying a slow intellectual death since leaving school. My work provides me financial stability and fits into my work/family balance, but it is boring. My day-to-day conversations revolve around household stuff, daughter’s school stuff, etc. I am usually too exhausted at the end of the day to have an intelligent conversation with anyone.”
    I think this is true for more people than we like to admit, even us professors, and we all HAVE to find a way to get past that trap. The ipod is a big help for me too, but in the end, we have to figure out a way to incorporate intellectual social life into our day to day experience not just create a world where we shut everyone else out to listen to programs. I think this need is why blogs are so appealing. They are a way of having a more selective community rather than having to rely on the co-workers who luck has provided.
    Tessa, you wrote “For me, it boils down to this. Am I living the life I want to live? And, today, my answer is “almost.” Is that good enough? I hope so.” I share this dualistic optimism/fatalism, but there are simply days when I don’t know what life I want to live in the first place. I’m still figuring that out. The radio show, I think, is helping me with that, and now, thankfully, so are all of you.
    Thanks so much. Listen to the show when you get the chance and keep in touch.

    Reply

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