GIF Minutes for November 14, 2003
Prepared by Judie McCoyd
Attending: Roland Stahl, Paul Grobstein, Tom Young (Widener), Sam
Glazier, Corey Shdaimah, Anne Dalke, Judie McCoyd
Readings: The Metaphysical Club by Menard, continued
We opened with the observation from our recent shared experience
with Catharine Stimpson at the Explorations
of Teaching workshop. She asserted that boundary-spanning (to
steal Toba Kerson's term) of graduate education disciplinary boundaries
leads to a more complete graduate education. We commented that this
seems to be the premise of both James' life and work as described
in Menand. Corey commented that it seems that this boundary crossing
relies on feeling confident in one's "disciplinary home"
prior to striking out into new territory. Although most agreed with
this notion, some challenged her further assertion that our own
privilege (time, financial resources) are what allow us to pursue
these thoughts (this seems in retrospect, the beginnings of the
gender split that occurred often in this meeting).
Roland wondered about the historical context as a time when new
disciplines were coming into existence, and possibly making boundary
crossing easier. Paul asserted that there were very clear disciplines
with tight boundaries at the time, leading to discussion of whether
tight boundaries are more characteristic of newer or older disciplines,
funding issues connected to boundaries, and what sort of student/scholar
might be inclined to cross disciplinary boundaries- with no consensus
on any answers to these issues.
Paul discussed pragmatism's history as a philosophy broadly embraced
during James' time but "disappearing in the 50's by virtue
of becoming embedded in American culture- it was no longer a subject
of its own." He believes it was co-opted by the establishment
as a way of justifying all behavior. He ended with the assertion
that he "hates pragmatists," later clarifying that he
is referring to those who came to call themselves pragmatists, but
really use the term to justify poor behavior that "works"
under the guise of being pragmatic. We all recognized that this
returns us to Sam's earlier questions (from Pinker) about the origins
and implementation of morality.
The morality questions were discussed at length, particularly as
to where morality derives- ie is it really just defined by where
you are located culturally and by virtue of past behavior (Paul)
or should we adhere to post modern notions of a total lack of absolutes
and assume that means there are no set values (Roland), or must
we take Anne's suggestion that we must re-claim the word to provide
guidelines, not absolutes.
Corey suggested that maybe the true source of values/guidelines/morals
is not in any of the contexts above, but in the process of grappling
and agonizing over difficult decisions with moral implications.
Roland contested this wondering what human grappling adds to the
development of morals. Judie suggested that grappling is the opposite
of certitude, a characteristic we discussed last meeting as leading
to death via wars, stifling of thought etc, and therefore, grappling
indicates a healthy lack of certitude. Anne suggested that there
may be amoral imperative of struggle to all big decisions.
This led to Roland's examples of draft resistance and his experience
of maintaining a moral stance in the face establishment pressure
to conform to authorities wishes. Sam responded to these questioning
"Isn't this what pluralism was trying to solve?"
Paul responded that pluralism relies on one's willingness to allow
accommodation of other's views- to which Anne summarized "So
anyone can believe anything until their behavior gets in the way
of your opinion that there are no absolutes?" Roland reminded
us that Judith Butler claims that there can be no function without
certitude. From there, we digressed into a discussion of use of
guns to enforce one's belief under circumstances of threat and the
pacifist position was held in opposition to a hypothesized pragmatist
position (though there was contention among the group about whether
pragmatists are characteristically pacifist or gun-toting)- with
all finding support for their view within various aspects of words
by Holmes, James, Addams etc. as cited in Menand..
After much contentious discussion (ending with Paul's assertion
that "Jane Addams is a sissy" and strong negative reaction
to that by most of the women present, Tom stated that he felt uncomfortable
with the notion that action requires certainty, and that his experience
teaches him that most of us are acting in the face of uncertainty
much of the time. Corey suggested that this is really what the concept
of "bet-ability" raised in the book is all about. Roland
asserted that the moment of action still requires some certainty.
Paul raised the construct of separate levels of consciousness as
possibly solving this in that the conscious may act with certainty,
while the unconscious must question the certainty. Corey suggested
a "contingent certainty" and questioned if this is where
the Coin-flipping of decision-making may come in.
Paul provided an example of frogs "flipping"and used the
example to question whether "flipping" is genetically
encoded and inherent, to which Tom asserted that it's not in humans
(with many others concurring). Tom further suggested that the frog
example may support the idea that there is no need for certainty
after all, just action. Paul then said that he was not supporting
Roland's assertion of need for certainty, but arguing that there
is no certainty. He cited Camus stating that one "wishes there's
order, knows there is no order, and can't lose sight of either beginning
We agreed to continue discussion, adding Goodwin Liu, Ken Richman
and Robert Tucker articles to promote discussion. We raised the
question of whether discussions of pacifism and pragmatism, non-violence
and Israeli rusniks might yield interesting further discussion.
Next meeting scheduled for Dec. 12, 2003
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