Nietzsche Panel discussion (after hours at the Bistro)

Dr.-Bear.pngAs anybody who follows my cooking knows, I am always up for trying something new. I also wonder if, in spite of the biographies on the “About the Bistro” page, some of my readers might be unfamiliar with the staff.
I thought we might have this week’s feature as a panel discussion.
Recently, Andy—long-time friend of the Bistro—

It seems like the Bistro’s version of the old radio Brando-cautiously-optimistic1.jpgcall-in show line ought to be,“Long-time customer, first time eater.”
(Or maybe “eater” sounds too weird.“Consumer”?)


The gentleman in question has eaten here before;Pierce 2
if I recall, he had a salad, the peace lentils,
and the corn-cakes. Oh, and a side order of Russian Nihilism,
and Community v. Individualism for desert–with some remarkable cheese.

Nietzsche buttonAnyway…he sent me a note asking “Where should I start with Nietzsche?”


The mustache. If I were to start with Nietzsche,
it would be that mustache.
What the bloody hell is that thing all about?

“But if we start there, we may never stop.
It was a legendary and epic ‘stache.”

Dr.-Bear.pngI think he was asking what he should read first, guys.
For those of you newer to philosophy, Friederich Nietzsche was a 19th Century German Philosopher. He is best known for attacking many of the commonly held beliefs of Western and Christian culture, such as the notion of their being an absolute truth or absolute right and wrong.
I would recommend starting with Thus Spake Zarathustra, Andy.

Written throughout the summer of 1885, and first published iPierce-bust.jpgn 1886
as Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen
(although the 4th section was added in later printings),
it is written in a heavily poetic, rather mystical style.
It lays out its ideas using the central character Zarathustra
as the author’s spokesperson. It contains many of
Nietzsche’s central ideas, such as the death of God,
eternal recurrence, the critique of the superficiality of modern man,
the “Übermensch”, self-overcoming, and so forth.

Thank you, Peirce;
Brandon, would you throw him a fish?

Tako Nigiri, if you please.

All we have is canned tuna.

Any sesame wafers left?
We could top it with a dollop of that Kentucky Whisky Aioli,
crumble some of those Sriracha Potato Chips on it…


Cooking is about all Kentucky whisky is fit for…

Dr.-Bear.pngAs Peirce said, the book contains many of Nietzsche’s most important ideas, and they are well presented and dramatic. The most famous idea is the “Übermensch,” usually translated as superman or overman. This is a human who is constantly overcoming or overtaking or exceeding their own limitations, as well as the limitations imposed upon them by societal expectations, religion, and traditional morality. A lot of the fans of Nietzsche–his street cred–is based on this idea of the overhuman who rises above mundane morality.
When I taught college, I generally make students read the section on the madman, which discusses the death of God. One of the things I admire about Nietzsche is that he recognizes that the loss of God will actually have a tremendous cost to our culture. “God is dead! What will we do with the rotting corpse?”

This is maybe the most widespread misunderstandings about Nietzsche.
My dad took a Philosophy class in which the professor had written on the board
the first day the old joke,Brando-cautiously-optimistic1.jpg
“God is dead.” – Nietzsche
“Nietzsche is dead.” – God
In other words, “Suck it, Friedrich.” But it wasn’t Nietzsche’s intent to kill God. He just thought he was already dead, and insisted that we all make arrangements for the funeral.

The writing is poetic, even beautiful, and really fun to read. It is sort of like an ancient epic or holy scriptures.It is aphoristic, so you can read it chapter by chapter, and section by section, and don’t really need to study it.
Zarathustra is not, however, systematic or well argued.

Bloody Hell!WT-black-white-blue2.jpg
It has less logical structure than Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
That would be an interesting Laundry setting;Pierce-bust.jpg
I suppose it wouldn’t do for delicates, though.

For something with a bit more analysis, you might move on to the The Birth  of Tragedy.

I agree.
Though it’s interesting that in order to move on we need to move back.Brando-cautiously-optimistic1.jpg
The Birth of Tragedy was Nietzsche’s first book, written all the way
back in 1872, when he was still a professor of classical philology in Basel
rather than a syphilis-ridden recluse in the Alps.
Which reminds me: Have you ever noticed how much “syphilis” looks like “Sisyphus”?
(Beware what you push up the mountain. It might roll back down.)


Syphilis or Sisyphus,
either way some poor bugger’s going to lose a rock.

I don’t get it.

You are better off not getting it, Peirce.

All righty, then.
The Birth of Tragedy, originally published as
Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik,
or The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, it is an examination of Classical,
Pierce-bust.jpgand, more significantly, pre-classical Hellenic culture.
Nietzsche explores the rise of the dramatic tragedies.
He contrasts the Dionysian ideal–one of ecstasy and freedom–to the Apollonian idea–one of control and reason. The original theatrical productions were tied to the ecstatic catharsis of the Dionysian rites,
but as it was fully developed, tragedy retains both elements in balance,
allowing the Greeks to look into the abyss of human suffering and affirm it,
passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence.

While it has some commendible points, especially in the move away from the cWT-black-white-blue2.jpgold, rationalist , ordered thinking he calles “Appollonian,”
it is an oversimplificaton of Greek religious culture, ignoring the earthy nature of the other Gods–even Priapus or the phallic Herma.
Och! But before I spend the my hours criticizing Nietzsche
too much, I must say that it is a truer critique of that blasted bugger Kant then of Apollo.

You can critique Kant later, Wode,
Dr.-Bear.pngmaybe when he comes in for spring peas in dill later this year.
Yes, Nietzsche is definitely a spokesperson for the Romantics against
the dryness and over-rationalization of the Enlightenment.
Finally, Andy, I would recommend Beyond Good & Evil……

                      Ah. Beyond Good and Evil was first published in1886 as
Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der ZukunfPierce-bust.jpgt.
It is less poetic than Zarathustra, but still largely a collection of observations
and pronouncements in either paragraphs or even short sayings.
By performing a genealogy—an examination of the origins
and nature of Judeo-Christian morality—
he calls it into question, showing its reliance upon philosophical dogmatism,
and proposing instead a perspectivism. It is a dramatic call to arms
to those who cannot abide living within the controls of slave morality,
advancing an extra-moral wisdom to be shared  by those kindred souls
who think ‘beyond good and evil’.

Salut, Vache interrompant.
Dr.-Bear.pngIt also introduces important ideas, like the will to power, and the idea that morality is an invention of the weak to handicap the strong.
OK, to wrap up, guys—is it weird that we are just guys? I mean, it doesn’t seem very inclusive. Except for Alex, the fantasy IT person, the Bistro only has males of the species….

“A woman is a womaPierce-bust.jpgn,
and a man ain’t nothing but a male.
One good thing about him,
He knows how to jive and wail.”
Wait: Who is Alice?

Alex. She is our tech support. You haven’t met her, yet, but will at some point.
The service appointment window I was given was “the Twenty-Teens,
give or take two hours.”
Wrapping up, take two. OK, to wrap up, guys, I think ….

Haud yer wheesht, Skinny Malinky Longlegs!WT-black-white-blue2.jpg
You haven’t really captured why folks still read and quote Nietzsche 100 years after his death
and 130 years after he stopped writing. Although many of his romantic ideas had been expressed earlier, and even his nihilism had already been floating around for years—Dostoevsky had already critiqued the idea of the superman in Crime & Punishment in 1866, nobody writes the call
to arms against our certainties and complacencies better.
He is the John the Baptist of the absence of values, the John Knox of Post-Modernism.
He is the mustached prophet still preaching to punks, cyber-anarchists, and black clad emo kids.

Dr.-Bear.pngFair enough. When I was young and alternative and used safety pins as a fashion accessory, I carried a paperback of Zarathustra in the knee-pocket of my cargoes.
He is a wonderful thinker to work through, although you have to be careful not to make him an idol.
Wrapping up, take three. I think we should close by each quoting our favorite Nietzsche quote. Although I really like “but it is the same with man as with the tree. The more he seeks to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep – into evil.” I think I will go with:
Perhaps I know best why only humans laugh.
Only they suffer so deeply that they had to invent laughter.
This unhappy and melancholy animal is, as is proper, the cheeriest.

That faith makes blessed under certain circumstances, that blessedness does not makeWT-black-white-blue2.jpg of a fixed idea a true idea, that faith moves no mountains but puts mountains where there are none: a quick walk through a madhouse enlightens one sufficiently about this.

Brando strangley selfsatisfied looking rightSo many to choose from, but I will have to go with the chapter titles from Ecce Homo, which include “Why I am So Wise”, “Why I Write Such Good Books”, and my favorite: “Why I am a Destiny.” Whenever I do something breathtakingly dumb, I like to say, “This is why I am a destiny.” Oh stupidity, where is thy sting?

Without music, life would be a mistake.Pierce 2

Ramp Ravioli with Cashew Ricotta filling

IMG_2040[1]This is my Übermahl or Over-Meal, a process of self-transcendence that eschews traditional cooking and makes its home beyond the pale. It is also delicious.

Ramps, for those of you who do not live in the Appalachian Mountains, are a variety of wild Leek than can be found in this region in the spring. It has a unique flavor, but is milder than onions or garlic..

Part One: The Filling
Homemade Ravioli Cashew Ricotta Cheese

(lifted from the Simple Veganista )
  • 1½ cup raw cashews
  • water
  • 1 large lemon (or, in a pinch, 1 Tbsp vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • dash onion powder
  • 1 tsp basil (optional)
  • salt & pepper
Step 1, Early Prep (day before, first thing in the morning, etc.): Put the cashews in a bowl and cover them with water, an inch or more above the cashews which will expand. Soak for at least two hours.
Step 2, Blend: Drain the cashews, keeping the water. Add the cashews and all the other ingredients in a blender or food processor, blend scraping down sides as needed until creamy. You might add a little of the water if it isn’t wet enough. Taste it and see if you want to monkey with it until you like the flavor. You might want it saltier, or not. For this recipe, I added 1 tsp of dried basil.
Step 3, let it sit: pour out the mixture into a container that can be covered. Put it in the refrigerator for an hour or two to let it set (in a pinch, this step can be skipped).
Makes appx. 2 cups. Stores in refrigerator for up to a week.
Part Two: The Pasta
Homemade Pasta (4 servings)
  • 2 cups flour
  •  pinch salt
  • 3 eggs (at room temperature)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • Ramps or other Special Ingredient: if you want to mix it up, add ½ cup of something interesting. For this recipe, I added blanched ramps, but I could have added beets or something else crazy.
Step 1, Sifting: Measure out the dry ingredients (flour & salt) into a sifter. Sift (I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming). You can do this the tradigional way, onto a clean surface, or the easy way, into a large bowl.
Step 2, mixing: Make a deep well in the flour. Break the eggs into this hole and add olive oil. Whisk eggs very gently with a fork, gradually incorporating flour from the sides of the well.
Step 2, alternate: in a food processor or blender, add your “Special Ingredient,” and chop it to a fine paste. Add the eggs and oil and blend. Put this mixture in the well in the flour.
IMG_2036[1]Step 3, People, people who knead pasta: When mixture becomes too thick to mix with a fork, begin kneading with your hands or your bread hook. Knead dough for 8 to 12 minutes, adding flour as it will take it—the final bit by hand even if you are using a machine. The dough will be harder than bread dough, and smooth and flexible.

Step 4, let it sit: Wrap dough tightly in plastic and allow it to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Step 5, Roll on: Roll out the dough with a pasta machine or a rolling pin to your desired thickness. For the ravioli, I rolled it to about a millimeter. For long Pasta, I prefer it pretty thin. Cut into your favorite style of noodle or stuff with your favorite filling to make ravioli.
Step 5, alternate: Roll out the pasta into long sheets and place half of this Ramp Ravioli 3on a large, smooth surface. Put dollops of the ricotta mixture ad even intervals (do you like big raviolis or small ones?), and moisten the areas in between (to make the pasta stick). Cover the sheet with the other sheets and use gentle pressure to seal the little packets (or a ravioli roller, a cool but difficult tool). Cut in between the dollops—there is a crimper/cutter they make for this, but I use a knife. Press the edges of the packets with a fork to make sure they are sealed.
Step 6, cooking: Bring water to a boil in a large pot and add salt. Cook the pasta until al dente, 1 to 8 minutes depending on thickness. Drain, treat, and eat.

Ramp Ravioli 4Extra Step, treating: You could just make some sauce, but for this, I prepared Browned Butter & Mushrooms. In a large skillet, sizzle a half stick of butter until it begins to brown. Add a half to a whole pound of sliced mushrroms, and allow them to brown as well. If too much of the liquide boils away, add more butter or a little white wine. Add some mixed garlic for the last little bit, long enough so it softens & releases its flavor, but not long enough to brown. Dump the pasta into this.

Sense and Nonsense

We all have weird little things that annoy us.
I realize that we language freaks live in a different world than most people. I try not to wince when people use whom and who incorrectly, and I try not to slap folks who use impact as a verb.
I realize that we foodies live in a different world than the most people. Your loss.
I realize that we philosophers live in a different world than the most people. I try not to wince when people confuse strong arguments with valid arguments, and simply giggle to myself when folks describe things as being phenomenal. However, we all have issues we feel must be addressed, and the time has come (the walrus said) to talk of one such thing.

Looking at some children’s books the other day, I was shocked. Isn’t it about time we told children the truth instead of filling their impressionable young minds with half-truths and fable? Science isn’t scary; ignorance is what is scary.

I saw some brand new picture books about the five senses.


Let me make one thing perfectly clear: there are more than five senses. With only five senses, you couldn’t even get out of bed in the morning. For one thing, without equilibrioception, the senses which give you feedback on your equilibrium, you couldn’t get up at all. Without the sense of proprioception, the sense of bodily location, you wouldn’t even know if you were up.

Scientists disagree on how many senses we actually have, but depending on how you eyes1parse them, we have anywhere between 13 and four dozen. What I mean by parsing is this: we would all agree that we have a sense we call sight. Is color perception the same sense as light perception, or are these two (within the eye, there are two distinct structures which provide each) separate senses? Is depth perception, which couples visual input with an awareness of the angle of the eyes in relationship to each other a separate sense?

Similarly, are the five different types of mouth taste—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—all one sense, or are these five senses?smell

We know very little about smell, in large part because it is so complex. Odd that taste, which is relatively simple, is broken down into 5 different sensations, but smell, which is tremendously complex, is left as just one sense. I believe my dog, who can sniff a storm on the wind, would beg to differ.

hearing1Hearing is also mysterious, and from a phenomenological perspective fascinating, since it includes speed and frequency and duration—it is the closest we come to sensing time directly.

For folks who persist in the notion that there are only 5 senses, everything else is touch. Yet even for the common view of touch, is using my fingerstouch1 to sense the roughness of jagged granite, the pressure of a hand squeeze, and the temperature of the water in the dishrag bucket them same sense? If I were to feed you a grape, when you feel the pressure and give of it against your teeth as you bite into it, or when you feel the warmth of my breath against your cheek, or the gentle brush of my fingers across the back of your knee, are these all the same sense or are they different senses?

These, though, are only the outwardly directed senses. We in Western cultures are terribly forgetful of the body (you might not be at the moment, since I just tickled the back of your knee, but we as a culture are—trust me. And don’t get me started about Platonism). Most of the nerves we have are involved in provided us with feedback about our own bodies—even though these sensations often do not register consciously. When you kick me under the table (probably because I touched your knee), you will not have to look to see where your leg is—proprioception will let you sense where it is. This is useful if you drop something (your napkin, the Romanov jewels we lifted earlier that evening), have to locate it by feeling around with your foot, and then reach down—knowing where it is because you just felt it and knew where your foot was—you reach down your hand and pick it up.

Frazz Proprioception

If you don’t read Frazz, you should; It’s one of the best cartoons out there.

In particular these kinesthetic senses are important because they allow the body to be the base from which all other senses operate. The kinesthetic sense of eye movement and adjustment is an important part of visual perception. Knowing where are body is allows the sense of touch to be effective. Body awareness allows us to integrate the external senses into a coherent awareness of our world. I have a good friend (Hey, Mel) who spends a great deal of time each day, each week retraining children who have an inadequate kinesthetic sense—an inability to be aware of where there body is. These senses can go haywire, and when they do, it affects everything.

How about temperature? You can sense the temperature of the air around you, but you can also sense your internal temperature. There is a tremendous difference in the different ways of sensing pain—pain on your skin (Cutaneous nociception), pain in your bones or joints (Somatic nociception), or internal organ pain (Visceral nociception). Nausea is sensed, but doesn’t fall neatly into any of the traditional 5 external senses, but also seems different from the pain of a stomach ache or a gut punch. Hunger is similarly sensed, but is a radically different feeling, and can be sensed either as a feeling of the stomach, or as a feeling of needing to eat, which is more realted to how the body feels in general. So many of these senses are vital to our survival, yet we don’t think of them as at all worthy of attention.

So enjoy your senses. Focus upon one at a time. Play with how many of them are involved in enjoying your meal tonight at the Bistro. They are all sensual–proprioception seems rather dull, but the sensation of dancing is magnificent. Equilibrioception is mundane, but we love playing games with it on swings and rollercoasters. Your senses are a wonder, but even this mystery pales beside the great mystery of how the mind puts them all together, and the greatest mystery of you being you.315signature

Pita Bread

pita 4This recipe is adapted from a pita bread recipe my friend John—an excellent baker—got from Cooking Light. There are certain tricks—either oven or stove top, spritzing the breads with water to make them puff into pockets—which you can experiment with.



  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • 1 Tbsp. yeast
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 cups (maybe less?) bread flour
  • 1 cup white whole-wheat flour
  • 2 tbsp. Greek-style yogurt (such as Fage)
  • 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 tsp. salt

Step 1, I demand proof!:  In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl for your mixer), whisk the honey and the yeast in 1 cup of warm water; let it stand 5 minutes to make sure it bubbles.

Step 2, yeast at work: Add in the wheat flour and let the mixture rest and rise for 10 minutes.

Step 3, mix & knead:  Add in the yoghurt, olive oil, and salt. Gradually add in the remaining bread flour, switching to kneading or the bread hook as it becomes stiff.

Step 4, walk away again: Coat it with olive oil, put it in a big bread bowl, cover it, and leave it alone to rise until it is doubled, probably about an hour.

Step 5, short division: Divide the dough into 8 portions. Roll each portion into a 6 inch or so circle.

Step 6, choosing: At this point, you have two choices: baking the flat breads, or cooking them on the stovetop. My preference is to do four of each; the griddle ones are better fresh, the oven ones are better the next day, and it takes too long to do either alone.

Step 7a, baking: Preheat the oven to 500°, and position the oven rack on the lowest shelf. Grease a baking sheet heavily either by hand or with spray. Bake the rounds, one sheet at a time,  for about 8 minutes or until puffed and browned.

Step 7b, griddling: Heat a large griddle, like an iron pan; grease it lightly.pita 2 Place each round on the pan, flip after a few minutes before it begins to scorch. If you sprinkle a little water on the rounds, they will be more poufy, if you prefer them as flat bread, roll them thinner.


Step 8, wrapping up: Cool on a wire rack. pita 1Serve as part of a Mediterranean meal, or with the White-Bean Dip, or with Hummus, or for sandwiches.  Just do your best not to eat alone.

Other Love Languages

Brando_sceptical_-_Copy - CopyA note from Brandon: The title makes it sound like this post is about Saturday Night Live’s Continental. Don’t be fooled.

If my 18 year old self knew I was writing a non-ironic post on this topic, he would smack me in the back of the head. Hard. 

Some friends were reading Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages and suggested it to K and me, so we gave one of the book’s quizzes a try. It asks people to compare how important five different means of expressing respect and affection are to them: gifts, attention, affirmation, help, and touch. We didn’t learn anything too surprising, (K [No, not that one] already knew, for instance, that I rarely care about gifts, even though I appreciate someone carrying enough to pick one out for me), but the exercise led to a nice discussion about what makes both of us feel loved. If you can get your family to put their smartphones down for a minute, it could provide a good way for you all to reconnect. (Oh, who am I kidding? Surely there’s an app by now. Tell them they can pick their phones back up.)

A student once asked me after class if I thought Patterson Office Tower – P.O.T. – had secretly been named in honor of Kentucky’s de facto leading crop. Examining his bloodshot eyes more closely, I asked how much pot he had had to smoke to come up with the idea. He grinned nervously then ran away. I miss Kentucky sometimes. 

One day in graduate school I was wandering the 14th floor of Patterson Office Tower trying to decide what to write my dissertation on, when the head of the department stopped me to note that one of the best things about our field was that you could study anything and call it “Philosophy.” Specifically, he noted that “You could even write about surfing and call it the Philosophy of surfing.” As he walked away I asked myself, “Does Don really want me to write about surfing? Or is this his subtle way of telling me that I’m being very undude (NSFW)?” But it was neither. He just wanted to point out that you can philosophize about anything. Even love languages. So here goes.

First, let’s talk about what makes a language. Language has two main components:  meaning and structure. Many linguists, following Noam Chomsky‘s lead, have paid greater attention to the latter, cataloging the rules for combining words into phrases and sentences that native speakers normally pick up without realizing they’re learning them, often without being able to explain them. (It was fun to sit around the Stammtisch and realize that we non-natives had an easier time spelling out the rules for which form of “the” to use in German – der, die, das, den, dem, des – even though our Germans friends could of course follow those rules more fluidly than we could. As compensation, one of those Germans had a name for a verb tense we liked to employ in Kentucky in sentences such as, “If he’d wanted to get home before midnight, he would have had to have driven his own car” – which we naturally made trickier to track by pronouncing the key phrase, “woulda haddawa.” Its official name was something like the “past pluperfect hyperbolic subjunctive,” though I still prefer to think of it as “the woulda haddawa tense.”) But although structure is essential to language as we know it, it’s still secondary to meaning. Structure is like the steel frame supporting a skyscraper. Meaning is everything that fills in that frame – even if its only a single story – to create a room where people can work and live.

The easiest way to understand what meaning is is to relate it to action. When I dig holes in the dirt, plant seeds, and water them, my actions are directed at getting plants to grow in my garden. My behavior is making a physical difference in the world. But as all social animals know, every action can also communicate. If for instance, my spouse and I have been squabbling all weekend about whether we’re each doing enough around the house, I might engage in all that gardening activity in order to demonstrate that I’m doing my part. In addition to their physical effect, then, my digging, planting, and watering also convey the meaning that I contribute to the household. All actions can have meanings. Language is distinct in minimizing physical effects in favor of maximizing the meaning it conveys. Speaking always has physical effects on the environment, including increasing the carbon dioxide in the room. But such physical effects are nearly always less significant than the meanings of our words. (That’s why when our words are particularly meaningless, others say we’re full of “hot air.” The quality of the gasses that extrude from your mouth should be the least noteworthy aspect of your speech.)

By this measure, Chapman’s categories hold up well as examples of language. Giving someone a gift or a hug doesn’t have the grammatical structure of a sentence like, “Ah, my great bundle of sweetness, it is love, love, love at sight first,” but they likely do a better job of expressing your care for the recipient. And even if these exchanges have greater physical effects than speech usually would, in most cases I would expect the meaning they convey to be more important. So I’m going to side with the author here: the examples he offers really should be considered languages of love.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. What really grabbed my attention was whether Chapman had captured all of the major categories of love languages. Check out that list again: gifts, attention, affirmation, help, and touch. Are those the main ways you give and receive love? A little Googling shows that at least one commenter has suggested food as an additional category, which fits nicely with the theme of the Bistro. The other option that comes to mind for me is play.

Play is so essential to my way of being in the world that I can hardly imagine life without it. I’m approaching the end of my first year living here in the Pacific Northwest, and while there is so, so much I love about this place, I’m still building my network of friends. That’s in no way a knock on the wonderful people I’ve gotten to know, who are kind, helpful, neighborly sorts all around. But very few of them want to play as much as I do. I realized this in part because I got to have coffee a couple of months ago with someone who does like to play that much. Without intending to, we immediately fell into the sort of goofy verbal sparring that I’m almost constantly engaging in by myself when I don’t have anything better to do (and often when I do). Our whole conversation was just the perfect balance of serious discussion punctuated at nearly every comma and full stop by some absurdity. I could analyze why play like this means so much to me – how it alchemically transforms both everyday and existential frustrations into sudden and enduring bursts of joy – but I don’t even think that’s the point. The point is simply that play does make me feel alive and connected in a way nothing else ever has or will. It’s my principal language of love.

So that’s the question I’ll leave you with as your after dinner mint: What’s your language of love? Don’t feel generic if Chapman captured yours. This isn’t a contest. Brando_strangley_selfsatisfiedBut whether your favorite is on his list or not, I’ll suggest that it’s a valuable and affirming thing to know about yourself.

So: What’s your real native tongue?

Photo credits: Gary Chapman, University of Kentucky

Biology, Community, and Identity

Community & Individuals, part 2

Roan Mountain Walk 022In discussions of human nature, one of the central questions that soon appears is how much of who we are is determined by our biology, our genetic code, how our brains, nerves, & bodies are wired, and how much of it is shaped by our culture, the deliberate and accidental conditioning of our upbringing, the communities to which we belong?

To borrow a phrase I heard our mutual friend Mike use, “It’s a ‘both/and’ sort of thing, not an ‘either/or’ sort of thing.”

Although my area of research is much more focused upon the cultural community social side, I cannot deny that it is closely tied to, even dependent upon, a hard-wiring that makes us capable of being adapted by our environment. Our genetic heritage also seems to make us pre-programmed to live together with others. By nature, we have a long developmental period, which leaves us dependent upon others. Most of the evidence suggests that we have an inborn drive towards interaction with others; we are pulled to nurture and to be nurtured. We are naturally drawn to others like us, and pulled towards living in community. With the exception of some unusual conditions causing sociopathy or developmental delays or other issues, we are capable of empathy and language.
Although we have capabilities for interacting with our world, most of the tools we humans have to make sense of it are derived from our community. Even those that aren’t—those fundamental categories such as time, space, motion, color, cause & effect—these are all skewed and adjusted to fit the tools our community gives us, as well as to meet the need our community presents us with.

Since thinkers first started looking at human nature through the theoretical tool of evolution, the relationship between the individual and their community has proved difficult to deal with. While clearly humans survive as individuals to pass on their DNA to the next generation, is our survival as a species more due to our persistence in groups, much like the survival of other social animals like ants, bees, and termites?

We are, as Aristotle said, sociable creatures, and we areHipsters in Washington Heights drawn to the society of others. That is our genetics, our conditioning, and our habit. However, as Kant pointed out, we are troubled by a human nature marked by “an unsociable sociability;” we want to be with others, but we also want to be alone. As a species, we seem to be designed with an inner dichotomy of occasionally conflicting ends: we are individuals with individual needs, pleasures and desires, and, as a species, we are also communal, needing to be part of a community’s needs.

It’s not even really a “both/and thing;” it is a both/and & more thing.
Persons and groups are constantly engaged, constantly influencing and changing each other. Individuals and communities are in constant conversation, sometimes in a open dialogue allowing both to flourish, sometimes one of control and resistance, mostly somewhere in between. However, just as a community is always more than just a conglomeration of its parts, an individual is always more than just a member of a community.

Since the 80s—ironically, as a pathological individualist in one of the most individualistic decades imaginable—I have been a researcher of, a theorist of, an advocate for, and a member of communities. It seems to me after the isolation, individualism, selfishness, lost-ness and fragmentation of the last few decades, I see many more people moving towards living in community—either accidental communities or intentional communities.

However, as my last post indicated, my 25 years of experimentation have left me uncertain of community as an end in itself. Theoretically, human needs are rather similar and consistent, and forming communities within which these needs are satisfied,
allowing, as my friend Jeffery Nicholas puts it “human flourishing.” However, in practice, humans in groups large or small seem much more complex, and we might consider more flexible social groupings.

It seems to me, instead of being deeply bound to community, instead we have moved towards an individualistic serial sociality, where we connect ourselves to the orbit of a community for extended periods of time, form bonds and relationships, work together towards common goals, but then can shift or even move on. We are not monadic, but we remain nomadic. I think that 25 years ago, I would have critiqued this trend as just another form of individualism—which it is—or as boutique communitarianism or niche tribalism—which it can easily become. I think, however, that serial sociality does satisfy our basic human needs to be part of a group without compromising our own individuality. It also prevents the insularity of belonging to a group and the tendencies to start dealing with other humans through the dualist lens of us and them.

Greenleaf, NYCHealthy socialities form just as easily at workplaces, coffee shops, bars and on the trail as they do in colleges, churches, families, and intentional communities. One might argue that they are not as nurturing or as stable as groups that have a stronger commitment to each other, but I’m not sure that is the case; a bar is as likely to take up an offering for a member in the hospital as a church is.

I have no doubt we need each other; the question is: how?

French Lentil Soup


I realized that I had not done a proper entree for a while.
I am also coming to realize that the bit of philosophy at the end of my recipes might be the best I produce all week.



  • 1 lb green french lentils (about 2 cups), washed and picked over
  • 2 qts vegetable stock (add more liquid if you like a thinner soup)
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • 2 Tbs olive oil (olive, canola or peanut)
  • 1 onion, finely minced
  • 2 carrots, finely minced
  • 2 stalks celery, finely minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 medium peeled raw sweet potato, chopped or shaved into large bits (it cooks really well if you shave it with a vegetable peeler, but this is time consuming.
  • 1 Tbsp. either fines herbs or Herbes de Provence.
  • Salt to taste

Step1, Low Boil: Put the lentils, stock and bay leaves in a large pot. First, bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot. Let this simmer for an hour or more, like bitter resentment.

Step 2, Low Sauté: We are making a Mirepoix here mirepoix(I like mirepoix; mirepoix are cool). Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot (or pan if you don’t own two pots) over medium heat. Add onion, carrots, and celery. Stir the mixture until it begins to cook, then turn it to low and let it slowly cook for an hour or so. About 20 minutes before the lentils are ready (or you are), add the sweet potato; about 10 minutes before they are ready, add the garlic.

Step 3, mix it up: Add the lentils to the mirepoix (unless you used a pan, then add the mirepoix to the lentils). This is a good time to fish out the bay leaves.

Step 4, fiddle a little: Add the herbs and more salt to taste, if desired, and cook 15-30 minutes more. Add more things or other things until it seems right.

Step 5, share it with other people around your table: Add some freshly baked bread, maybe some salads, some good cheese, and share it. As always, there may be leftovers for monks, students,

IMG_2025Is this the basis of community? No, not really. It’s not a bad place to start, but this is hospitality. Friendship is when others bring cheese (or wine). Community would involve helping with the fine mincing, or washing & drying the dishes together.

Sympathy for the Sophists

If you asked most Philosophers where Western Philosophy began, they would probably say “Ancient Athens” and leave it at that. But if you kept buzzing at them, gadfly-like, they would likely cite Socrates’s challenge to the Sophists for the hearts and minds of Athens’ youth (read: male, propertied elite) on the question of whether they should learn the Sophists’ art of winning arguments regardless of whether or not one is in the right, or instead Socratic pursuit of truth for its own sake. This is the mythic origin of the Philosopher’s creed that truth is more important than influence and other worldly goods. The unexamined life, as the say goes, is not worth living. And that  examination must be rigorous even if the rigor leads you toward denial of the world and your self. It’s a heady principle, with more than a little resonance with Christian asceticism. Socrates, too, was a martyr after all.

“Two words, fellows; two words: hemlock smoothies!”

I though about all this recently while pondering an open letter from San Jose State University’s Philosophy Department to Harvard Philosophy Professor Michael Sandel. (You can see the letter here and Dr. Sandel’s response here.) At issue is the attempt by the San Jose State to offer Sandel’s famous course on justice as a MOOC – a massive open online course. (If you don’t know what a MOOC is, you might consider it the educational equivalent of World of Warcraft. And if you don’t know what World of Warcraft is, I’m not going to corrupt your pristine worldview further here.)

This is actually a Moog synthesizer, not a MOOC. Isn’t it pretty?

The background for this case is the ongoing effort by colleges and universities to use technology to control instructional costs – an effort that has largely failed to date – and the corresponding response by faculties across the country to prevent what they see as the mechanization and de-professionalization of teaching. This letter fits neatly into the debate as it has developed to date, but is nevertheless noteworthy for being so public and for making a justice-based appeal to one of the world’s most prominent theorist of justice. That, I suspect, is why it made the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But that’s not why the letter interests me most. Instead, I’ve found myself thinking about how well it measures up to the standards of Socrates vs. those of the Sophists. Now, in Philosophical circles I’m using loaded terms here, and maybe even fighting words. The adjective “sophisticated” notwithstanding, no Philosopher wants to be compared to the Sophists. But I mean the comparison in good faith. It’s my view that the San Jose State Philosophy Department’s public protest holds up better if evaluated as a piece of political rhetoric, evaluated primarily on its persuasiveness, than if it is judged as an attempt at pursuing the truth in Socratic fashion. And I wonder if we should expect otherwise, even from Philosophers.

The letter’s argument is not by any means bad, but it does not meet the standards that I’m sure most of its authors would set for works in their field. Specifically, the authors: (1) direct their letter to Michael Sandel, but their disagreement is more properly with their university’s administration (and with similar-minded stakeholders in higher education generally), (2) don’t spend any significant time dealing with the values and interests motivating their opponents to offer this massive online class, and (3) pile their arguments on top of one another in a jumble instead of pulling each issue out for distinct consideration. Philosophically, each of these steps is a misstep, and collectively they threaten to turn the whole enterprise away from reasoning and toward rhetoric. The letter is otherwise well written. If a student majoring in another subject wrote such a piece in an upper level Philosophy class, her professor would likely praise it while noting at the end, “If you were a Philosophy major I would expect a little more from you at points.” A revised version directed toward the San Jose State administration, that dealt thoughtfully and charitably with the administration’s own words and positions, and treated each distinct issue independently would better exemplify Philosophy in practice. It might also lead the letter’s audience and authors alike to a greater understanding of this fraught moment in higher education, and even indicate some ways forward that would make effective use of new instructional technologies while preserving the aspects of the current system most professors would like to retain.

That may be setting the bar too high, but I do think that a more Philosophically rich letter than the one the San Jose Philosophy Department wrote could conceivably have such effects, bringing us at least a glimpse of the deeper truths of this situation rather than, in effect, just saying, “No!” to a perceived threat. Yet in that alternate universe, would anyone read such a letter? And would it persuade anyone who read it?  Those seem to me the relevant questions because the letter that appeared in our own universe is not only “sophisticated” in the three ways I listed, it is also highly effectively  so. By publicly targeting Michael Sandel, dismissing the motivations behind offering this MOOC, and layering their arguments one upon another in an emotionally resonant way, the department created a powerful piece of public persuasion. People are talking about it – at least as much as anyone ever talks about Philosophy departments. The bullet to bite here is this: let’s assume that this trade is necessary, and persuasiveness in this case comes at the cost of Philosophical rigor. Is the trade worth it? And how should we answer that question?

Cut to the house of a friend of a friend down in Portland, Oregon where I attended a barbecue last weekend.

Portlandia isn’t really making anything up.

At one point one of the attendees, a union organizer, told a story about being at a hotel in Washington D.C., realizing that the next hallway was full of demonstrators with, let us say, somewhat different political views from her own, along with their unattended homemade placards and signs, and being sorely tempted to engage in a little sabotage. When her six year old daughter started asking questions about this, she clarified that it’s never right to take someone else’s things without permission – “unless it’s politics,” in which case sabotage can be OK. My first thought was Philosophically smug: as a good Socrates-inflected liberal, I believe in free speech, particularly of the sort I disagree with – since, after all, that’s the only time that belief is tested (Why would I want to suppress speech I agree with?). Then I had my second thought: is that the right attitude for politics? This union organizer runs campaigns. She’s helped people. I still can’t agree with her on this issue of sabotage, but I also sympathize with the people she supports, who want decent wages and some job protections in an iffy economy, and who when faced with the choice between a little more wisdom or a little higher pay probably don’t hesitate long deciding.Go too far down this road toward political expediency and you can justify anything, which surely can’t be right. But do we really need to go all the way in the other direction, putting truth and reasoning and all that jazz ahead of persuasion and effectiveness?

I’ll answer this way: Philosophically the San Jose State Philosophy Department’s letter earns a C. I expect more from Philosophers. But politically it gets an A. I still long for the kind of analysis this group probably could write, that would honor their interests and values while also giving equal attention to the motivations of their opponents, some of whom sincerely want to provide students with good educations – and in the humanities no less – without leaving them with crippling loans. But I also know enough about how higher education makes decisions to know that no one’s waiting around for such analysis to help them make up their minds. I can long for the sort of debate Socrates would lead, but that may just not be feasible. Politics may necessarily be more like sausage-making. And the letter this Philosophy department actually wrote is pretty good sausage. If it earned a Philosophical F, I would reject it on those grounds. But it’s good enough Philosophically to pass, so I will cheer their political coup. Then I’ll root for this situation to work out well for everyone, including the students. Maybe even the orcs.

Picture credit: Jacques-Louis David, UC Santa Cruz, Portland Backyard Chicken Keepers.

Communities and Individuals

My Dear Ben,

Yes, Modern Individualism has its problems. It has made us more self-centered. It has made us less connected to others, maybe even colder towards others. It is possible that, as your question suggested this focus upon ourselves has given us a “decreased threshold for discomfort, pain and suffering.”
It seems to me the implied part of your question is to move away from our “increased individualism,” and towards an increased emphasis upon community. Well, community is good, more or less, but it can have its flaws as well.
The individual culture we have produced…

Wait a minute: are we actually individualist? We are such a mass consumer culture marked by group trends and fads that we are constantly conforming to, so much pressure to be part of a group, are we really all that individualistic?WT-black-white-blue2.jpg


Sorry, Wode Toad. You’re right; I’m getting off track.

The individual culture we have produced has its flaws, and might have made us more self-centered, perhaps even selfish, but individualism has its strengths as well, especially for those of us who are individuals.

By this, of course, I mean all of us.

There is a core to each of us, something that is our self, which lies outside of the embrace of the community, even outside of the formative powers of our social environment.
If community really does shape us, then why is it that so many of us fit so abysmally into those communities?

I’m thinking of a young man I know who was raised in the verdant fields of the American mid-west, part of an extended family, an active participant in his schools, member—an active member—of his community of faith. He grows up trying very hard to be a part of this community, and working to do what the community needs. He is committed to the values and goals of his community—family, God, soybeans, heaven—whatever it is that Midwesterners believe in.
Yet he still might, and did, grown up to be someone the community has at every step actively worked towards preventing him from becoming. That core within him that can’t quite be explained by genes or environment finds itself attracted to other men, and by the disconnect, the psychic pain, he is aware of two things: the power that the community exerts over him, and the resistance of his own individuality that can not conform to the demands of that power.

So, what am I to say to him?

Should I extol the virtues of community and preach the moral bankruptcy of modern individualism?

What should I say to the High School student whose teachers discipline her when she colors her hair or whose classmates taunt her when she wears black finger-less gloves? Should I talk to her about the nurturing power of community?

What should I say to the 13-year-old Afghan girl whose family sells her to be the wife of a 70-year-old man from the neighboring village? Should I talk to her about how our identity is derived from the community that raised us? Should I talk to her about ubuntu, and how “I am because we are?”

Given the choice between Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s individualism on the one hand and MacIntyre’s and Hauerwas’ (or Pope Benedict’s) communitarianism on the other, which should I recommend to any of these human beings? Philosophies that say choose who you want to be, but accept the full responsibility for your choices, or philosophies that say find your value within the community?
I would most certainly say read Sartre. Read Nietzsche if it gives you strength. Read Thoreau. Read Virginia Woolf and find a room of your own. Read Carol Gilligan or bell hooks and find a voice of your own.

I would say that Socrates should have left Athens before his noble community killed him, even if that meant facing the world alone.