November 19, 2005
In the last issue of Phlit, I said, “I plan to focus on Bruno in the next issue of Phlit.” My Bruno essay isn’t quite ready, however, so I’d like to devote this issue to other topics, and return to Bruno in the near future.
There’s a Great Books group in East Providence; I participate now and then. Recently we read and discussed a short piece by the American philosopher, John Dewey. The piece was called “Habits and Will”; it was an excerpt from a book called Human Nature and Conduct.1
Dewey is known for his theories on education. He advocated “learning by doing.” At the University of Chicago, Dewey and his wife ran an experimental school at which “Children learned much of their early chemistry, physics, and biology by investigating the natural processes which went into cooking breakfast — an activity they did in their classes.”2 Dewey is considered one of the three major exponents of the philosophy of Pragmatism (the other two are William James and Charles Sanders Peirce).
Dewey’s reforming instincts went beyond the classroom to man in general:
“Habits and Will” is an interesting essay. I wouldn’t describe it as a literary work; pragmatist that he is, Dewey is more interested in practical reforms than belles-lettres. And I would hesitate to call it a philosophical work since it doesn’t belong to any philosophical tradition that I’m familiar with. It’s a practical work about our habits, our everyday habits, the habits that we find it so hard to change. I would place the essay at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and inspirational literature (also known as “self-help literature”). When I describe something as “inspirational literature,” people think I’m criticizing it, but actually I respect inspirational literature, and I’ve discussed it in several earlier issues.4 Inspirational literature aims to improve your life. An Amazon reviewer said of Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct, “This book... helps people solve their problems and get rid of their hang-ups.”
Everyone can relate to Dewey’s remarks on bad habits:
Dewey forces us to admit that our bad habit is a fundamental part of our self — more fundamental than “vague, general, conscious choices.”6
Dewey insists that a bad habit can’t be overcome by will alone. We need to forget the bad habit, to find an alternate activity that can absorb us, an activity that we can focus on as if it were our goal. In short, a bad habit can’t be overcome by a frontal assault, but only by a flanking movement:
To illustrate his argument, Dewey discusses a habitual drinker:
People fall short of their goal, and dissipate their time on bad habits, because their goal seems distant, and difficult to attain. We must translate our end into means, and treat these means as if they were our end:
In an earlier issue, I discussed Hank Whittemore’s new theory about Shakespeare — more specifically, about Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I asked a local library to invite Hank to speak, they did so, and on November 13, he spoke.
Hank’s talk was a success — well-attended and well-received. They said it couldn’t be done, they said people wouldn’t come to the East Providence library, on a perfect Sunday afternoon, to hear a talk about Shakespeare, but we took the risk, Hank drove from New York, and we managed to get an audience that was sizable and interested. I don’t think there was a single Oxfordian in the audience, but Hank managed to introduce people, not only to the Oxford theory, but to the Prince Tudor theory and the Monument theory as well. He didn’t hit people over the head with his convictions; rather, he dropped hints, and let people follow the trail for themselves. He concentrated on the Sonnets, and drew on his training as an actor to read sonnets in a lively and entertaining way. He used a PowerPoint presentation to good effect.
One anecdote: at the end of his talk, I introduced Hank to an elderly Providence actress, Marilyn Meardon, who does an excellent solo performance of Queen Elizabeth. Hank looked at Marilyn, and said, “you have a wonderful face, you must be a very interesting person.” One can only imagine how pleased Marilyn was to hear Hank’s words! I can’t resist repeating the Schopenhauer remark that I quoted in the last issue:
National Character and the Occult
In response to my remarks about occult phrases in French, two subscribers wrote to me and said that there were similar phrases in English. Jim Fedor wrote: “Actually, we do have such a phrase concerning someone talking about you. Didn’t your mother or friend ever say to you (as mine do) ‘Were your ears burning? We were just talking about you.’” Yes, I have heard that phrase, but only once (about 3 weeks ago). Another subscriber reminded me of the English expression, “If looks could kill...” Again, I’ve heard that phrase very seldom. I never heard someone use both these phrases, as I heard my French professor use their French equivalents. Though I won’t try to prove anything, I suspect that further research into English and French would find more “occult expressions” in French than in English, since Protestantism separated the English from the unconscious, the subliminal, and the occult.
One subscriber said, “The English are actually more into the occult than either the French or the Germans, I would say, and I’ve lived in both countries as well as England.” True, there was a spiritualist movement in England and the U.S. in the late 1800s. But this was when Protestantism/Christianity was in decline, so it doesn’t disprove my argument that Protestant countries have less interest in the occult. If Protestantism/Christianity decline further in England and the U.S., then interest in the occult is likely to grow. “But isn’t Christianity still popular in the U.S.?” Perhaps so, but ascetic Protestantism isn’t popular, and that’s the kind of Protestantism that reduces our feeling for the occult.
When spiritualism was popular in England and the U.S., it was even more popular in Dublin, which was a hotbed of Hermetism. (Joyce often pokes fun at the Dublin Hermetists.) Doesn’t this suggest that Catholic countries are especially receptive to the occult?
In a recent issue, I discussed the Harvard conservative, Harvey Mansfield. I said he was supportive of the Harvard president, and critical of Harvard’s left-wing feminists. Then I discovered that Mansfield wrote an essay about Harvard for The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine edited by his former student, William Kristol. I found it to be an interesting and well-written essay. Here are some excerpts:10
|1.|| The piece can be found in Introduction to Great Books: Third Series. back|
|2.|| Wikipedia, “John Dewey” back|
|3.|| p. 15 back|
|4.|| See, for example, 2003-04. back|
|5.|| pp. 17, 18 back|
|6.|| p. 18 back|
|7.|| p. 23. I recently saw a documentary called “Newton’s Dark Secrets.” It argued that Newton, though regarded as a rational thinker par excellence, had a deep interest in alchemy, and in heterodox religious ideas. It also said that Newton battled sexual temptation by using a “flanking movement” (to use Dewey’s phrase). Newton said that if we preoccupy ourselves with chastity, we’ll be assailed by temptation; we need to get our mind off the whole subject of chastity/temptation, by immersing ourselves in an entirely different subject. back|
|8.|| p. 23 back|
|9.|| pp. 23, 24 back|
|10.||The essay appeared in the 3/7/05 issue of The Weekly Standard. Click here to see the whole essay. back|