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GIF Minutes for November 14, 2003

Prepared by Judie McCoyd

Attending: Roland Stahl, Paul Grobstein, Tom Young (Widener), Sam Glazier, Corey Shdaimah, Anne Dalke, Judie McCoyd

Readings: The Metaphysical Club by Menard, continued

We opened with the observation from our recent shared experience with Catharine Stimpson at the Explorations of Teaching workshop. She asserted that boundary-spanning (to steal Toba Kerson's term) of graduate education disciplinary boundaries leads to a more complete graduate education. We commented that this seems to be the premise of both James' life and work as described in Menand. Corey commented that it seems that this boundary crossing relies on feeling confident in one's "disciplinary home" prior to striking out into new territory. Although most agreed with this notion, some challenged her further assertion that our own privilege (time, financial resources) are what allow us to pursue these thoughts (this seems in retrospect, the beginnings of the gender split that occurred often in this meeting).

Roland wondered about the historical context as a time when new disciplines were coming into existence, and possibly making boundary crossing easier. Paul asserted that there were very clear disciplines with tight boundaries at the time, leading to discussion of whether tight boundaries are more characteristic of newer or older disciplines, funding issues connected to boundaries, and what sort of student/scholar might be inclined to cross disciplinary boundaries- with no consensus on any answers to these issues.
Paul discussed pragmatism's history as a philosophy broadly embraced during James' time but "disappearing in the 50's by virtue of becoming embedded in American culture- it was no longer a subject of its own." He believes it was co-opted by the establishment as a way of justifying all behavior. He ended with the assertion that he "hates pragmatists," later clarifying that he is referring to those who came to call themselves pragmatists, but really use the term to justify poor behavior that "works" under the guise of being pragmatic. We all recognized that this returns us to Sam's earlier questions (from Pinker) about the origins and implementation of morality.

The morality questions were discussed at length, particularly as to where morality derives- ie is it really just defined by where you are located culturally and by virtue of past behavior (Paul) or should we adhere to post modern notions of a total lack of absolutes and assume that means there are no set values (Roland), or must we take Anne's suggestion that we must re-claim the word to provide guidelines, not absolutes.

Corey suggested that maybe the true source of values/guidelines/morals is not in any of the contexts above, but in the process of grappling and agonizing over difficult decisions with moral implications. Roland contested this wondering what human grappling adds to the development of morals. Judie suggested that grappling is the opposite of certitude, a characteristic we discussed last meeting as leading to death via wars, stifling of thought etc, and therefore, grappling indicates a healthy lack of certitude. Anne suggested that there may be amoral imperative of struggle to all big decisions.

This led to Roland's examples of draft resistance and his experience of maintaining a moral stance in the face establishment pressure to conform to authorities wishes. Sam responded to these questioning "Isn't this what pluralism was trying to solve?"

Paul responded that pluralism relies on one's willingness to allow accommodation of other's views- to which Anne summarized "So anyone can believe anything until their behavior gets in the way of your opinion that there are no absolutes?" Roland reminded us that Judith Butler claims that there can be no function without certitude. From there, we digressed into a discussion of use of guns to enforce one's belief under circumstances of threat and the pacifist position was held in opposition to a hypothesized pragmatist position (though there was contention among the group about whether pragmatists are characteristically pacifist or gun-toting)- with all finding support for their view within various aspects of words by Holmes, James, Addams etc. as cited in Menand..

After much contentious discussion (ending with Paul's assertion that "Jane Addams is a sissy" and strong negative reaction to that by most of the women present, Tom stated that he felt uncomfortable with the notion that action requires certainty, and that his experience teaches him that most of us are acting in the face of uncertainty much of the time. Corey suggested that this is really what the concept of "bet-ability" raised in the book is all about. Roland asserted that the moment of action still requires some certainty. Paul raised the construct of separate levels of consciousness as possibly solving this in that the conscious may act with certainty, while the unconscious must question the certainty. Corey suggested a "contingent certainty" and questioned if this is where the Coin-flipping of decision-making may come in.

Paul provided an example of frogs "flipping"and used the example to question whether "flipping" is genetically encoded and inherent, to which Tom asserted that it's not in humans (with many others concurring). Tom further suggested that the frog example may support the idea that there is no need for certainty after all, just action. Paul then said that he was not supporting Roland's assertion of need for certainty, but arguing that there is no certainty. He cited Camus stating that one "wishes there's order, knows there is no order, and can't lose sight of either beginning point."

We agreed to continue discussion, adding Goodwin Liu, Ken Richman and Robert Tucker articles to promote discussion. We raised the question of whether discussions of pacifism and pragmatism, non-violence and Israeli rusniks might yield interesting further discussion.

Next meeting scheduled for Dec. 12, 2003


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