Kant and the Manipulative Middle Manager

My first week here at the Philosophy Bistro has gone well. I get my meals free, the witticisms are frequently both complimentary and complementary, and whenever someone complains about my service, they at least start off by saying, “Bless his heart.” My only concern is that Wode Toad was in charge of my orientation, and I have not always found his instructions easy to follow. For example, he spent about fifteen minutes explaining that I must starch my shirts so that their collars are “stiff” without being “rigid,” and I have found this a fine line to tightrope across. Still I try my best, in part because I love the work, and in part because I can tell that the management is generally beneficent even when inscrutable.


“What have I told you about overdoing the chlorine?”

I cover all of my first week at the bistro in more detail in my epic “Ode on a Wode Toad,” but this is not yet ready for publication. (I made the mistake of writing the first draft in Gaelic, a language that I know mainly from Scrooge McDuck cartoons, and this has complicated my translation efforts.) Rather than drilling down further into my own experience, however, the way an artist might, I would like to step back and abstract from that experience as a Philosopher would. As an aid to this abstraction, let’s consider another case.

A good friend – we will call him “Rosebud” – recently told me he had called a meeting with another manager at his workplace for the first time in several months. For a long time they met regularly, at Rosebud’s invitation, but during the crunch period of a major, year-long project he ceased to find the time. Now that things had settled down he wanted to check in again, but the other manager’s first response had been to ask in a worried tone what the meeting was about. As we talked further, I began to see that these two probably had divergent expectations about their session. Rosebud understood that he had taken the responsibility earlier for establishing a good relationship with his co-worker, he had gotten too busy to keep meeting with her, she had not taken steps to continue those meetings, and their work together had suffered some as a result. He wanted to clear the air without blaming anyone, while inviting both of them to do better in the future. The other manager, I sensed, might have taken for granted Rosebud’s early initiative to bring them together, felt ignored or abandoned when he stopped calling meetings, and decided that if there was any blame to go around, it should not go to her. This was only a guess on my part, but it seemed a good way to make sense of Rosebud’s story. When it came time for me to offer advice, I made two suggestions: (1) Forget the past and just focus on the future, and (2) Stress the positive, including giving any praise that you sincerely can. Rosebud understood how the first suggestion could reduce defensiveness and avoid the kind of deep processing that he appreciates but his co-worker might now. And he generally agreed with the second suggestion too, but worried that it would be manipulative.

Since this discussion I’ve thought a lot about management and manipulation. In my own years managing people I never really reached a settled position on this topic. In part, I blame Immanuel Kant.

Everything you say seems more erudite when you’re wearing a powdered wig.

Kant, you see, is almost without question the leading ethical thinker in the Western Philosophical tradition, certainly as judged by his reputation among contemporary Philosophers. He is the leading theorist of autonomy – the right of each individual to make their own informed decisions – and so the arch-enemy of even the most well-meaning manipulation. You must never, according to Kant, use other people as a means to your own ends, but must instead engage with respect for their innate ability to decide their own goals. Over the decade I spent in college and graduate school, I can recall only a few ethical debates where Kantian arguments did not play a significant part, and only slightly fewer where Kant did not have the last say. Individual autonomy is essential our overwhelmingly liberal culture. (I mean “liberal” in a slightly broader sense than it’s usually used, and that’s a discussion that will have to wait for another day.) And I grew to appreciate and largely adopt this position for my own. I made something like a vow to myself that I would always try to treat people as ends-in-themselves, to avoid manipulating them, even in a sincere effort to help them, and instead to give them the information they need to make their own decisions.

And then I started managing people. And then I became a (step-)parent. And I wonder what Kant would have made of either experience. I certainly don’t think there will ever be a Kantian Guide for Raising Autonomous Children, and we have yet to see a book with a title like Kantian Leadership in the Boardroom. The latter is surprising, because the still burgeoning world of business books keeps churning out management guides based on the lives of considerably less admirable figures, Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan among them. (For those in a rush, here is a brief summary of the lessons from Genghis Khan’s career: gather the nomads, make sure you’ve invented stirrups so that they can fire their arrows forward or backward while riding at a full gallop, and avoid southern China like the plague, because that’s where the plague comes from. Also, if you see someone with either of these books on their desk, walk away.) There have even been books that draw on other ethical thinkers. But Kant just does not lend himself well to such application.

It took me a while to figure out why. And while managing adults helped me learn this lesson, it’s been helping raise young twin daughters that has really let me understand: before people can hear you, they have to trust you. Kant, like most Philosophers, treats language as it consisted mainly of statements exchanged between people dispassionately contemplating the world. But that is not usually so. Take the sentence, “You could have done that better.” We can analyze its truth conditions and find that it is almost surely true. You – whoever you are – could almost surely have done that – whatever it is – better by some reasonable standard. This is the typical way Philosophers study language. But it’s not how most people, including Philosophers, actually use language most of the time. If someone you trust tells you that you could have done better, you know they have your best interests at heart and think it’s important for you to be encouraged to improve. (I make variations of this statement to my step-daughters almost daily, and increasingly they say it back.) By comparison, if someone you’ve come to see as your enemy says the same thing, you’re more likely to think they are trying to undermine you. And you may be right.

People warned me when I first began managing some of my fellow faculty members that all of my professional relationships would change. I didn’t believe them. Or rather, I believed that that could happen, but I thought it all depended on how I carried myself. If I still treated people the same way, we would have the same relationship. But that wasn’t true. The same words had different meaning when they came from “the boss.” I anticipated that I would have to stop making fun of my close friends, and that they would probably make fun of me less, at least when I was around. But I didn’t get that everything I said and didn’t say would be scrutinized for possible threats. I didn’t realize that the (honestly, rather limited) power I had in this new position meant that people I had known for years were going to have to learn to trust me in this new role, and that without that trust they honestly would not be able to understand me the same way any more.

Here’s where Kant really got me into trouble. I kept trying to give people information and let them make their own decision rather than manipulating them into what I thought was the right decision, whether on my terms or what I took for their own. And this had worked for me as a teacher and as a colleague. I think one of the reasons I got elected to an administrative position in the first place was that people found me collegial in precisely this way. But when I did the same thing as a manager, people were confused. I believe that some thought I was trying hardest to manipulate them when I was trying hardest not to. It took me a while to hear how they must be hearing me when I said things like, “That decision needs to be yours, and I respect whatever decision you make.” I imagine that if you’re in the certain percentage of the population that has not had a relationship with a supervisor like the kind I was inviting, such statements seem particularly sinister.

If I were starting administration all over again, I would pay more attention to earning people’s trust from the beginning. You’re never going to get everyone – disliking the boss is just too fun and too well ingrained at most institutions, often for good reason. But parenting has hammered in how essential it is to earn trust at the outset. Once you’ve got it, even difficult conversations become easier. And if you don’t have it, even exchanges you think will be easy can be fraught.

So that’s why I encourage Rosebud to let his Kantianism go just this once and to risk feeling a little manipulative in an attempt to build trust with his co-worker. And that’s also why I so appreciate it when Wode Toad begins by saying, “Bless your heart,” even when he continues with, “You’re as dumb as a bag of hammers, aren’t you?” It tells me that my amphibian overlord cares for me and wants me to understand that. I’m guessing that he reads a lot of Aristotle.

Picture credit: Robert Shields, Wikicommons.

Why Cook?

Sing to me, oh Muse!

Sing fireto me of fierce fire tamed,
      and made to humbly do our bidding;
Of strangers drawn unto its warmth,
      to make and eat and become a people.



Sing to me of sweet earth’s bounty,
      harvested and shaped and changed;
Of food upon the open table,
      to fill the gut and feed the heart.

salt spiceSing to me of precious salt,
      wrested from deep earth and sea;
 Of herbs and roots, of leaves and spice,
      to season the plate and gladden the sense.



Sing to me of spoiling turned tool,
     and rot to flavour and preserve; 
Of fermentation in riotous rot,
     bringing bread and beer, pickles and cheese.

Sing to me of roasting and baking,
     of stewing and frying.

cherrypistachio 013Sing to me of bread, precious bread,
    combining fire with plant and salt and yeast.

Sing to me, oh Muse!

Sing to me of the cook.


Around the Bistro this week, we have been keeping busy. Wode Toad has been hazing/harassing the new guy, Brandon, we’ve been doing some spring cleaning, and Pierce brought in a new book: Cooking, by Michael Pollan. He is probably the most influential food writer of our times, and a champion of real food as opposed to processed food–both from factories and factory farms. It seems strange that it has taken him this long to establish a connection between food and the cooking of food, but in this lively, entertaining, and occasionally overstated book, he examines cooking and learns to cook. This has generated a great deal of discussion in the Bistro’s kitchen, and it occurred to me that, in spite of the fact that we are a bistro and I share weekly recipes and many of my illustrations center around food, I hadn’t actually written about cooking.

It occurred to Wode Toad that my weekly essays have been Wode-Toad-color-miffed.jpgsteadily growing longer, or, as he says about brevity: “Och, I don’t know abou’ the soul of wit, Bear, but with your writings as with briefs, the less I see of them, the better, Aye?”

Observing that I loved to eat (a doctor once pointed out that my sister as an infant displayed tremendous “hand to mouth coordination”–a family trait), my mother convinced me that there was a natural relationship between cooking and eating, and that if I wished to eat well, I should learn to cook well. I agreed, and asked if she’d teach me. She said yes, the first thing you need to learn is how to wash dishes, which she then made me do.

The lesson, however, was not lost on me; I learned to cook because I wanted to eat. After my first kidney transplant, I had to control my diet (and my budget), so I learned to bake my own bread and to cook from scratch and from fresh ingredients. Because my daughter likes good food, she learned to cook, and will probably soon surpass my skills. With a few exceptions, most of my friends cook, and cook very well.Wode-Toad-color-miffed-150x150


I cook because I need to eat.
I cook healthy food because I need to eat healthy food.
I cook well because I like to eat well.

I cook because I need to create.
Most of us work jobs that don’t actually produce anything, and where nothing is actually ever finished–it just keeps starting over again. Most of us live in worlds that our outside of our control. In the kitchen, I have control, I am producing something, and, at the end of it, I am actually done. I can look at it, and–Godlike–say: ‘it is good.’

I cook because it keeps me busy.
Due to a variety of circumstances last fall, I spiraled into a deep blue funk, a slough of despond, a dark night of the soul, a dark forest, a depression. To keep me from sitting and staring, I made myself cook every day, even though I had lost my appetite. Because of this, I gave a lot of it away. “Well,” my friend Amy said, “even if you are still depressed, at least you’ll be very popular and depressed.”

I cook because it is handiwork.
I live in a world of words. I sell words at one job, and guide students through words at the other. Everything I do is so verbal. Don’t get me wrong, I am at home in the world of words. But one of the great pleasures of cooking is that it is working with my hands (and smell, and sight and taste, etc.) rather than with words. It is to me what Zen meditation and running are to many others. Because of this, however, it is hard to explain why I love it so: like music, it defies words. It is my own quiet time.

This doesn’t mean that I would not occasionally like help.
In fact, one of my greatest regrets is that I have never really figured out how to cook well with others. I have worked in commercial kitchens, and I love the camaraderie, but I tend to be alone in the kitchen. Even when I do get a chance to cook with somebody–usually my daughter–we tend to bump into each other because we each are used to having the kitchen to ourselves. If you are just starting to cook, or if you are just starting a relationship, my advice would be to learn to cook together.

I cook because it connects me with our food.
I know each piece, because I found it, brought it home, cleaned it, and prepared it. My food belongs to me, and is not just a product; I know it intimately.

But I also cook because I love.
I am not a person who feels comfortable expressing affection–or even emotion, for that matter–but cooking is an acceptable, safe way of telling somebody that I love them.
There is something strangely satisfying in getting up several hours before I need to in order to cook my wife breakfast for her birthday, or to make muffins for the intrepid New York travellers to take to Brooklyn, or to leave bread on somebody’s mailbox, or lean in and hand it to them in the middle of a conversation. I think of the people I am cooking for, and this happiness permeates the experience of cooking.

So, go cook something yourself.
Make yourself something to eat,
then make someone you love something to eat,
then convince that person to cook with you.

And remember to drop by the Philosophy Bistro for recipes and discussion.

Cherry Pistachio Bread

Cherry Bread with PB“Some look at the world as it is,
and they ask: ‘Why?’
I look at the world as it is,
and I ask: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a dark chocolate and peanut butter sandwich on cherry bread?
I wonder how you make cherry bread?'”



  • 2 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • 2 Tbsp. Cherry Jam
  • 2 Tbsp. Yeast (maybe 3 envelopes?)
  • 1 Tbsp. Salt
  • 1 cup Dried Cherries
  • 1 cup Shelled Unsalted Chopped Pistachios
  • 8-9 cups, give or take, of whole wheat (3 cups) and bread flour (6+ cups)
  • 1 Egg (you need the white)

Step 1, Wet Stuff: In a large bowl (or the mixer bowl if you plan on letting the bread hook to the heavy lifting); whisk in the Cherry Jam into the warm Milk and the first cup and a half of warm Water. Add the dried Cherries, and set to the side.

Step 2, meanwhile, back at the yeast: in a smaller container, whisk together the remaining cup of warm Water, the Yeast, and just a smidge of the Cherry Jam. Let this sit for a few minutes (listen to a pop-song, gather the flour, begin to shell the pistachios; whatever you fancy), and let it start to bubble.

Step 3, mixing and proofing: Whisk the yeast micherrypistachio 001xture into the milk mixture. Next, add in the first 3 cups of flour a little bit at a time, whisking until it is smooth–I usually move from the coarsest flour to the smoothest, so the wheat flour here. Now leave this in a warm place for 5 minutes and walk away. Fold laundry, try to figure out where you put the bread flour, dance, just leave the yeast alone. If, as I found, you cannot find unshelled unsalted pistachios, this is a good time to shell the unsalted pistachios you found.

Step 4, kneading: Come back, Little Sheba. If it is bigger, and a little poofy, the yeast is doing great. If not, either you have bad yeast or a cold spot. Whisk down this living thing in the bowl, and add 1 Tbsp of Salt. Add in the Bread Flour 1/4 of a cup at a time, and thoroughly mix it in; when the whisk becomes impractical, use a big wooden spoon, when this is too hard, use a mixer with a bread hook or turn it our onto a floured surface. It is important to knead the flour in 1/4 of a cup at a time, and after each bit of flour, hook or knead the bread until it becomes one thing again–not a mixture of flour and dough, but one unit. When the dough is a single round thing holding on to itself and not sticking to other things, behaving about like a deflated volley ball, it is ready. The amount of the flour doesn’t matter–getting it to this proper consistency is what matters. Roll it around on the counter for good measure.cherrypistachio 006

Step 5, let it rise: Grease a smooth bowl 3 times as big as the dough. Roll the dough ball in the oil, and then cover with plastic wrap or a wet towel or something that will let it work without drying out. Let this sit in a warm place–in the oven with a heating pad on a different shelf, on the sunny side of the house, just a safe and warm place–until the dough has doubled in size. Usually, this will be about an hour.

Step 6, making loaves: Turn the dough out onto a clean cherrypistachio 007surface, and punch it down (forcefully knead it), which should reduce it to close to its original size. Separate this into 3 portions ( or 4 or… you figure it out). Flatten each of these, and sprinkle with the first half cup of Pistachios. Fold the dough back into itself, knead it slightly and shape each into loaves; make sure that there are not seams or spots the loaf might separate, maybe pinching loose edges and rolling it about a bit–each should be smooth and coherent–it’s own little self.

Step 7, second rising: Grease some baking sheets and sprinkle with corn meal, or grease 3 bread pans, or 2 bread pans and 2 little pans, or some such combinations. Put each loaf into a pan, slit along the top with a sharp knife (this lets bubbles out) and set these into a warm place until they have grown–usually less that the first rise. About half way through this rise (20? 25 minutes?) pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Step 8, prepping and baking: Beat together an Egg White and a little cold water. Paint the tops of the loaves with the egg white mixture, and then sprinkle with the remaining Pistachios. Put the bread in the oven for 30 or 35 minutes, until the top crust is a nice dark brown. Figure out your oven, and see if you need to turn them orcherrypistachio 020 rotate them to get them to cook evenly.

Step 9, cool it, boy: When they are done, get them out, take them off the sheets or out of the pans, and put them on a cooling rack.

Last Step, sharing: You may have noticed I made several loaves. You can, of course, use division and figure out how to make a smaller batch, but I suggest you make more, and then figure out why you needed more. The bread might be so good that one loaf is eaten before it even cools. Break out the Brown Betty; it is perfect with some butter and a cup of tea. Most importantly, if you have extra bread, you will have to give it away.     cherrypistachio 023 Give it to friends for Christmas, a House Warming or just because. As always, give it to a wandering Buddhist monk, a musician or a college student–all of these are good karma. You might give some to somebody you love, or whom you wish to love, or who needs to feel loved. My mom says it is just as easy to pray for somebody while kneading bread as it is just to pray for somebody; I don’t understand prayer, but I know everybody needs to feel loved and everybody loves good bread.

Post-Last Step, left-overs: It makes brilliant toast, of course. It also makes excellent French toast, bien sûr, if you like that sort of thing.

What Women’s Underwear Can Teach Us about Knowledge and Evidence

Hello, my name is Brandon and I’ll be taking care of you here at the Bistro this evening. Thanks to Chef Robert for giving me this gig, and I hope I last long enough to earn my own doodle.

Ask me about our bottomless cup of despair

When I considered what to serve for my first post, the answer came to me quickly. It’s one of my favorite stories, involves a dear and sadly deceased friend, and teaches an important philosophical lesson about as memorably as one could hope. Unfortunately, the first title that occurred to me was “The Parable of the Panties,” which I thought might be working a little blue for my first shift, and could also lead to some amusingly disappointed Google searches. But the present title quickly took its place, so as soon as I locate the croutons and dribble a little balsamic vinegar on top, your appetizer will be right out.


My buddy Joseph Yeh died twelve years ago and I’m still mad about it. That’s not necessarily the most spiritual attitude to adopt, but most days I prefer it to my sadness over his loss. It was such an absurd way to go: jumping off a boat to take a swim, forgetting to set the anchor, and failing to make it to the nearest island after the boat blew away. After we heard the news, some of us took dark comfort in our realization that of all of our friends, Joe was easily the one most likely to fake his own death. Some days I honor Joe’s memory by imagining him somewhere in Central America, working undercover and waiting for the day he can step back into our lives right where he left off, starting by saying, “Funny story.” (In researching this story I learned that this fantasy is no longer operative.)

That would be the right way to begin, because Joe’s life was one funny story after another. He did not just tell them, he lived them. Many were merely delightful trifles. I’ll never forget wandering into the hall that held our college swimming pool and finding Joe and his friend Phil taking turns walking to the end of the diving board, delivering a rhyming couplet, then jumping in. After a minute or so of this I caught Joe’s eye. He just said, “Poetry in motion,” as if that explained everything, then dove in again. This sort of thing happened every day when that man was around.

Other stories had a deeper resonance. My favorite illustrates an important philosophical question: What counts as knowledge? One famous answer is that you know something when you have a justified true belief.

The main point of this definition is that it is not enough for your belief to be true for it to count as knowledge. You must also have adequate evidence. This is important because if this definition is right, then we know much less than we often say we know. We often use the phrase “I know” as if it were synonymous with “I’m positive.” But Philosophers would like you to keep in mind that your certainty is not in and of itself proof, even if it feels that way. (This is a good example of why Philosophers get invited to so few parties.) To test this definition we need an example – preferably a memorable one – featuring a true belief that seems to be justified but actually is not. That’s where Joe Yeh’s story comes in.

One year in graduate school Joe dated a woman I never had the opportunity to meet. Things became strained between them for a period without quite reaching the breaking point. During this time Joe had a brief affair. He felt bad about it, but apparently not bad enough to inform his girlfriend. Life went on as before, or so he thought.

Coincidentally, around the same time Joe helped organize and run a conference. Since the speakers were mostly other graduate students from out of town, the organizers all offered to provide them rooms if they had any available. Joe spent the night at his girlfriend’s, giving up his own bedroom for an incoming speaker who happened to be female. Later that week, Joe found a pair of women’s underwear in his room. It was the same brand and color that his girlfriend preferred, so he put it in the basket with other pieces of her laundry. Only much later would he find out that this underwear was not his girlfriend’s size.

Soon thereafter the semester ended and Joe and his girlfriend went their separate ways for the summer. She stayed with her family in the Seattle area, and shortly before the fall semester began Joe flew out for a visit. They got on a ferry to the island where her parents lived, at which point Joe’s girlfriend asked him if he had had an affair the previous spring. There was a brief pause during which Joe decided to confess. Before he could answer, however, she added that she knew he had because she had found the other woman’s underwear in her laundry pile at his place.

PH2009042302069.jpg (650×345)

There are few prettier places in the world for an argument.

Joe laughed, which was the wrong reaction. Their relationship probably couldn’t have been salvaged at that point, as hinted at by the fact that his girlfriend waited until he had flown across the country and gotten on the ferry to her parent’s house before making her accusation. Still, if Joe had any chance of earning her forgiveness, he likely lost it with that laugh. But without defending any of his actions in this whole affair, I will say that I understand and sympathize with his laughter. Because you don’t expect your mate, in the process of charging you with having an affair, to present you with a classic philosophical conundrum. But that’s what happened.

I used to tell this story in my classes. There were usually a couple of people who couldn’t get past the word “panties,” which is one of the reasons I’ve largely avoided it here. But most others appreciated the problem. “Did she know he had an affair?” I would ask them. Almost without exception a majority would say, often fervently, that she did. She believed that he had an affair and he had, so that counted as knowledge. But the only proof she offered – or so Joe said in his anecdote, and so I assume for the sake of argument – was the pair of underwear that belonged to the graduate student speaker, with whom Joe did not have any inappropriate contact. Should we really count his girlfriend’s belief as knowledge, then?

Consider another example. As the cliché says, even a broken clock is right twice a day. But imagine that your clock is stuck on noon. A friend calls and asks you what time it is. You say that it’s noon, which in fact it is. Your friend says, “Are you sure?” You answer, “I know it is. I’m looking right at the clock.” Do you really know what time it was, or was that just a lucky guess?

Fall backward.

Or take the very different case of religious faith. Long ago I traveled to Philadelphia with a friend to stay with one of his friends, and we all met a young doctor who worked in an inner-city hospital that dealt with a high number of violent assaults. I remember him saying in a matter-of-fact tone that the area where he worked had a significantly higher homicide rate than Israel-Palestine, which in the early 90s was a striking claim. At some point after dinner the conversation took a philosophical turn when I wasn’t looking, and the doctor drew my attention when he suddenly beat his fist on the wooden table and shouted, “I know there’s a God.” It was a powerful claim, not least for the context he had developed all night with a stream of stories about the horrors he confronted every time he went to work. I remember the long drive back to Kentucky, looking out the window and wondering if that – whatever it had been – counted as knowledge, and if what that had been was conviction. (A couple of years later I would read the book On Certainty, which dealt with related issues in ways I found mesmerizing, which led me to declare Philosophy as my fourth and final major. But that’s another story.)

“Call me in the morning.”

Finally, imagine reversing the situation, so that instead of an unjustified true belief we’re dealing with a justified false belief. Supposedly, the Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein attended a party one time.

Yes, I would love to hear more about your opinions.

I say supposedly, because it stretches credulity a bit already to imagine that cranky Viennese at any sort of social gathering, but let’s use our imaginations. Another attendee began ridiculing the pre-Copernicans who held the mistaken belief that the sun revolved around the earth rather than the other way around. “Wasn’t that positively stupid, thinking the sun went around the earth?” this man made the mistake of asking Wittgenstein, who replied with his standard icy stare, saying, “Yes. But I wonder what it would have looked like if it did.” Of course the sun would appear much the same in that case, like a golden chariot racing across the sky, and if the courses of the stars would seem different in a Ptolemaic universe, the alterations would be subtle enough to be missed even by most close observers. In other words, belief in geocentrism was justified by the available evidence. It merely had the misfortune of also being wrong, although it took Copernicus to prove it. So did the pre-Copernicans know that the sun revolved around the earth? It’s difficult to say that they did. But no more difficult than finding yourself accused by your girlfriend of cheating while taking a ferry across Puget Sound.

Who’s orbiting whom?

That’s today’s meal. If you saved room for desert, speak up and I’ll tell you about the time I recounted this story for a room full of police officers, who decided that the story was about me, not Joe, and refused to allow me to retract my “confession.” Thanks again to Robert for letting me serve you, and to Joseph Yeh for all the laughs and insights. Don’t forget to tip your wait staff, and please – don’t try the veal. Veal is evil.

Photo credits: N/A, Augusta Chronicle, Mark Parisi, N/A, Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, Salvador Dali, Titan, uncertain, Hameed at Deviant Art.

What to do with Eggheads

My Dearest Jerri,
intellect 1Thank you for your question; I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get around to answering it. I got so many great questions to start (although I seem to be running out) that it took me a while to sort through them. If I recall (or, of course, if I can call it up on-line—do folks still recall?), you asked why American culture vilifies intelligence and critical thinking.

My answer would be: Well, it does and it doesn’t.

If Wode Toad were here rather than on a spring trip gigging rednecks in Kentucky (Shine the light right in his eyes!), he might point out that this kind of ambiguity is one of the many reasons why, since America prefers simple answers rather than a complex sic et non.

I mean, we don’t villify intelligence to any extreme—you guys live most days without a mob of villagers with torches & pitchforks showing up on your lawn, as do bright, intelligent people like Jeff & Debbie who live 3 blocks from you, or I, who live 4 blocks east of you, or all the Banks family scattered south of you and north by the river.

Sorry. I guess I’ve given those mobs a fixed location; sorry about that. Hope they don’t show up during Doctor Who, or you’ll hurt them.

On the whole though, people aren’t bothered by intelligence or intellectual pursuits. When I tell people that I have a PhD in Philosophy, they find it a curious oddity, much like the news that my brother-in-law regenerated his wisdom teeth or that my great-aunt used to dress up like Liberace.

We are a democracy, and we like to think of ourselves as a fairly egalitarian society. We tend to feel that any attempt to “rise above” seems a bit “elitist,” and we tend to mistrust it (unless, of course, it makes money; then it’s OK). The problem with smart people is we fear that they are smarter than we. Even if, on some occasions, as in the case of William F. Buckley, Jr., or Adlai Stevenson, we do let the best and the brightest shine, on the whole we dislike it when other people flaunt their intelligence at us. We prefer to let really bright, well-educated people like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush be folksy and talk with accents, rather than showing off their educations.

Our current culture is also driven by the market place, and with most markets it is best to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That explains a great deal about the current crop of idiot comedies and half-hazard action flicks at the movies, as well as most of the dreck on television.
On a recent Friday night, Wode Toad & I were walking around downtown Johnson City, Tn. We were watching the University kids having a good time with their drinking, smoking, carrying on, music and karaoke (two unrelated endeavors apparently), and other forms of fun, and Toady asked me:  “Why shouldn’t America be anti-intellectual?  The lights, the music, the people, the fun, the drinks? Why should we need a world of ideas as well?”

Of course, there also remains the basic problem that we dislike having our comfortable assumptions called into question. I don’t even, and I live in a state of gray ambiguity; I’m sure that folks with easy, casual certainties don’t.
Classical Athens prized intelligence and critical thinking—hey! It was dedicatedPassage Difficile to the goddess of wisdom—but it still killed Socrates. Renaissance Italy tortured Galileo. John Locke fled Enlightenment England for the relative safety of Holland. Spinoza died penniless and ostracized outside of Amsterdam (his unconventional notion of the divine was a little too radical even for the Dutch). Enlightenment France imprisoned Voltaire. America prefers isolating them to hurting them.
Cognitive dissonance is discomfiting—humans dislike being presented with ideas which conflict with our self-evident truths—and we prefer to isolate or eliminate those who cause it.

Women who think are, of course, even scarier….

Mostly, though, I am not sure that American culture knows what to do with thinking, and so it is made a little uncomfortable with it. At the time of our beginnings, the “Old World” (Europe) prided itself on the fiction that it was their culture–their high culture, art , literature, & intellect–that made them superior. We have preferred authenticity to culture. This is a false dichotomy, but a simple, useful, and persistent one. Living with this self-view, we have never quite been able to figure out what to do with thinking, especially not with thinking for its own sake, or even with smart people who seem to want to think about things which are out of the ordinary.
Intelligence and critical thinking seem harmless enough, but is there any possible use for it? It there any real place for it? In the past, we sort of set aside places in libraries and universities and New York and San Francisco, but now that all of us have a role in supporting and building our culture (not just Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers), it is hard to see what to do with thought. It can’t be quite as entertaining for most people as, say Music or Theatre (well, it can be the way I do it, but generally).

However, what that leaves us with is an indifference to intelligence. This indifference can at times be stifling, almost as harsh as vilification. Intelligence and critical thinking don’t seem require much in terms of resources or special equipment, so we can still practice them in the face of vilification (your term) or stifling indifference (my prefered term). One would think that we can practice them alone, but that simply isn’t the case. I think that is because using intelligence and practical reason does require a place, and does require some sort of conversation. On this level, indifference limits intelligence as well.
On the other side, the academics have done as much harm to intelligence by limiting this conversation to small places and specialized jargon as those who are openly hostile to it. You and I both know that we have met folks who are incredibly intelligent, yet who haven’t even gone to or haven’t finished college. These friends make us smarter when we have intelligent conversations with them.
Perhaps it would be best not to focus upon getting our culture to provide a place for thinking, but instead to try to figure out just how much we need it, which is the same as figuring out what we don’t know. Although we have explored huge swaths of our planet, and have even taken pictures of space, we are left with an infinity still to explore, a mountain of problems still to be solved, and so much to still figure out—in the words of Kris Kristofferson (or Dr. Seuss or Dr. Pangloss—one of them) “lots of pretty thoughts that I ain’t thunk.”

Regardless of who else cares, as the thinkers of the past did, we must talk together (or write to one another), and reason together, and think critically together. Whether there is a public space for it or not, whether we are vilified or not, thoughts are free.418signature

Die Gedanken Sind Frei, my thoughts freely flower ;
Die Gedanken Sind Frei, my thoughts give me power .
No scholar can map them;
no hunter can trap them
No man can deny, Die Gedanken Sind Frei!
No man can deny, Die Gedanken Sind Frei!

I think as I please and this gives me pleasure;
My conscience decrees this right I must treasure.
My thoughts will not cater
to duke or dictator
No man can deny, Die Gedanken Sind Frei!
No man can deny, Die Gedanken Sind Frei!
And should tyrants can take me and throw me in prison,
my thoughts will burst free like blossoms in season.
Foundations will crumble,
and structures will tumble,
and free men will cry, Die Gedanken Sind Frei!
Yes, free men will cry, Die Gedanken Sind Frei! 

What to do with Eggs

Frittata 002

This is my standard left-over-veggie-sunday-dinner-in-a-hurry-go-to-dish.
Nice with a little of my french bread and some wine, but hey! what isn’t?



  • Left over vegetables (brocoli is good, Spinach is good, Onions are a must, carrots are good, cabbage isn’t quite as good–whatever you happen to have ready to hand–about a 1/2 cup’s worth for each person eating).
  • 4 eggs (for 2 or 3 people, more for more)
  • Olive Oil
  • Cheese (a hard Italian is best–I am going to regret having said that–like Parmigian or an Asiago, but a Gruyère or something like that will do as well).
  • Herbs, Pepper and Salt to Taste

Step 1, prepping the veggies: Heat up a small iron skillet (or a big one, if you are making lots of this–you do the math), and saute the left-over Veggies with plenty of Olive Oil (or, of course, butter).

Step 2, prepping the eggs: While they are sizzling, take a large bowl and whisk the eggs with a little bit of water–like an omelet; this mixture should about triple in volume. You may add in the herbs, salt & pepper and whisk some more.

Step 3, the combo: Pre-heat the broiler to High. Pour the eggs over the stuff in the skillet, mixing it a bit, but then just stand back and let it cook. When the bottom and middle start to solidify (two minutes or so? not long), put the cheeses on the top.

Step 4, broiling:  Switch the frittata from the top of the stove to under the broiler to cook the top. When the top is browned (it should puff a bit, so don’t overfill), take it out, let it sit for a few minutes and serve with a green salad.

Timely Virtue

Last week, I sat in on a lecture on Ancient Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. It was really enjoyable to see how well Brian Hook did the lecture, and also reassuring that there didn’t seem to be anything I was missing. When he was discussing Aristotle’s virtues, my mind began to wander, and I began to wonder what the virtues of our age are, or rather, what they should be. What habits of character do we need to cultivate?

For the Ancient Philosopher Aristotle, living a good life, living “well-souled” (eudaimonia) or happily, was a matter of cultivating virtues, or character traits that lead to living well. He describes these virtues as a proper balance between two extremes. This is sometimes discribed as the Via Media or middle path.Middle Road For example, Courage is a prominent Greek virtue—as Alexander the Great’s tutor, Aristotle was in tune with the Homeric warrior culture that underpinned their culture. For Aristotle, Courage is not an ideal like it would be for Plato, a perfection to be aimed at, but instead it was a balance between Cowardice on the one side, and Fool-heartiness on the other. A man shouldn’t run from every confrontation, but on the other hand, he shouldn’t run towards every confrontation, either. A person shouldn’t allow pleasure to rule them, but he or she shouldn’t be numb, either; a virtuous person should be temperate. Of course, part of the problem teaching Aristotle is that the English words—temperate, magnanimous, etc.—we use for virtues are outdated and almost as alien to our ears as the Greek would be.

We live in an age of speed. I can have books at my doorstep within days or on my device withMountain Time 3in seconds. I can communicate instantly with friends in Germany (if they are still up) or friends in on the Pacific Coast (if they are up yet). The town I live in and the town I work in used to be half a day apart, then were an hour apart, then were 45 minutes apart, when I moved here 30 years ago were 30 minutes apart, and now are 15 minutes apart.

Much of this is good: it is nice to be able to keep in touch with Lois or Daniel or Karyn & Rich or Katy or Brandon. I enjoy the fact that I am able to walk the Appalachian Trail outside of Hampton Tennessee in the morning and work at the Johnson City Tennessee Barnes & Noble in the evening. But for many people, this very speed of life has changed how we live. In order to keep up with all the places we have to be, Mountain Time 5 shadowwe spend more time in our cars. Because we can do soccer and zumba and school and work, most families do all these things. And other things become fast as well. As our employers continue to have to cut costs, and we have to do more and more with less and less, even professions which used to be leisurely, like medicine and teaching and selling books, are feeling more and more like conveyer belts. Fast food—either the drive-through joints or food that relies more and more upon processed food—becomes a bigger and bigger part of how we eat. Fast communication—not just texting and Facebooking, but even the quickness of passing conversations—become the norm. We are speed-dating our own lives.

Let me suggest that a virtue we need to cultivate to live well in this time is something between the speed at which life seems to be forcing us to run and an inertia of resignation, passivity and entertainment which seems to be the other alternative. Mountain Time 2Now, anybody who knows me will be amused that I would be the spokesperson for slowness—it does seem so natural. However, there is something to be said for taking a cue from the various slow movements that have started in the last decade.  I have already written about the importance of slow mail. I have friends who are involved with parts of the slow food movement. In particular, many of my friends have taken to preparing food from the ground up. The answer to fast food thrown from a drive-through window is planting (or raising) your meals, cultivating them, and then cooking them yourself. But there are other areas in which we can slow down. We can try to walk or bike instead of driving. Read instead of watching. Knit or sew.

Slowness seems negative, though, so let me suggest another term. In regard to the speed of life, the mean between the extremes of speed and inertiaMountain Time 4 is moving—and living—deliberately. We can cook and eat at a deliberate pace at which we can be aware of the food and cook it well, and enjoy it. We can communicate at a deliberate pace at which we can be aware of the unspoken cues of our partners, children, friends, coworkers, and clients, and take the time to follow up on questions, and—most of all—to connect. We can move through the world in such a way that we are aware of our surroundings, deliberately, so that we are also aware of ourselves.

In the words of the original hipster and inventor of the No.2 pencil (whose name, appropriately enough, is pronounced like “thorough”):

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

In an age where the only two options seem to be to join the frenentic rush or to resign ourselves and drop by the wayside, we must learn to choose our own way, and our own pace. What we choose to do, we can do with care, and do deliberately.315signature