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How to Live an Examined Life

We talk about a dozen great philosophers, from Socrates on, and how they actually lived.

The School of Athens, or Scuola di Atene, by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, painted between 1510 and 1511. (Wikimedia Commons)

For long, great ages, people looked to philosophers to ask how to live and what our priorities should be. Our principles. Our guiding stars. And they looked not just to what philosophers said or wrote, but to how they lived and even died.

When Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, he laid out the fundamental philosopher’s view. When he calmly accepted a death sentence in a cup of hemlock, he left a story of philosophy in action that’s been repeated and celebrated for eons.

James Miller has gathered the teachings and life stories of a dozen philosopher greats. From the ancients to Kant, Emerson to Nietzsche, we look at what they taught, how they lived.

-Tom Ashbrook


James Miller, professor of politics and chair of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. His new book is Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzche.”

Excerpt from Miller’s “Examined Lives”:

If, like Plato, we define philosophy as a quest for wisdom that may prove unending, then what is the search for wisdom really good for?

What is the relation of reason to faith, of philosophy to religion, and how does the search for wisdom relate to the most exacting forms of rigorous inquiry and “science”?

Is philosophy best pursued in private or in public? What are its implications, if any, for statecraft, for diplomacy, for the conduct of a citizen in a democratic society?

Above all, what is the “self” that so many of these philosophers have sought to know, and how has our conception of the self changed in the course of history, in part as a result of how successive philosophers have embarked on their quests? Indeed, is self- knowledge even feasible – and, if so, to what degree? Despite years of painful self- examination, Nietzsche famously declared that “we are necessarily strangers to ourselves, we have to misunderstand ourselves.”

If we seek, shall we find?

Here…are brief lives of a handful of philosophers, ancient and modern: Socrates and Plato, Diogenes and Aristotle, Seneca and Augustine, Montaigne and Descartes, Rousseau and K ant, Emerson and Nietzsche. They are all men, because philosophy before the twentieth century was overwhelmingly a vocation reserved for men: a large fact that has limited the kinds of lives -stubbornly independent, often unattached, sometimes solitary and sexless - that philosophers have tended to lead. Within these common limits, however, there has been considerable variation. Some philosophers were influential figures in their day, while others were marginal; some were revered, while others provoked scandal and public outrage.

Despite such differences, each of these men prized the pursuit of wisdom. Each one struggled to live his life according to a deliberately chosen set of precepts and beliefs, discerned in part through a practice of self- examination, and expressed in both word and deed. The life of each one can therefore teach us something about the quest for selfknowledge and its limits. And as a whole, they can tell us a great deal about how the nature of philosophy -and the nature of philosophy as away of life -has changed over time.

Excerpted from EXAMINED LIVES: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller, published in January 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by James Miller. All rights reserved.

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  • Wm. James from Missouri

    As I am writing this post prior to the airing of your show I can not be sure of the topic exactly, however I ask if your guest would also mention some “not so well known” philosophers, that are still living.

    I also ask that your guest speak about the influence of Alan Turing, (mathematician, enigma code breaker, etc.) and Kurt Gödel (( umlauts may be omitted ) , he was a logician / mathematician)). It is my personal opinion that Alan Turing will someday rank in or near the top 10 in terms of being the human with the most influence on our species. His concept of a universal computing machine laid the groundwork for all the tech. we see around us today, and continues to influence cognitive science. Cognitive science now challenges philosophy with every new discovery.

    Kurt Godel, may someday be viewed with the same distinction. His idea of using Meta-mathematics to “prove” the validity of a proposition is profound !
    It is a shame that we are not schooled, daily, in “how to use this idea” ! In fact, it is difficult to get any useful information on his methods, short of a view books that only deliver a cursory overview.

    I stress that, understanding the Gödel Turing possibility, may be the key to true artificial intelligence. One can only imagine the effect on philosophy of true artificial intelligence, or as I like to say, true Real Intelligence !

  • Wm. James from Missouri

    Please excuse my spelling error. “View”, should of course read “ few”. In payment for that error, I offer the following philosophical humor.

    First philosopher:

    If a philosopher fell in the forest, would anyone hear him yell ?

    Second philosopher:

    That’s not correct. You should ask, “ If a philosopher fell in the forest, would the trees hear him yell ?” .

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    I studied a lot of philosophy and religion in college, and before it all hits the fan this hour I’ll offer up what I’ve surmised in the 40 years since: Philosophy as a lifestyle is a curse, and those philosophers not actually confined to their minds by various physical malfunctions (Voltaire’s indigestion comes to mind, but I think of Samuel Johnson and Nietzsche as similarly afflicted, for some reason; what was the medieval name for migraines?) — those philosopher might be found to be “confined” by psychological “dysfunctions” of maybe guilt or confusion (minds derailed by not buying into the mainstream; Buddha might be an example of that).
    How then a philosopher lives as a practical issue becomes a high-wire act similar to that of the poets: how to be in many ways rebel/remaindered and yet be allowed to live, if not thrive. Who is the “following”? Who is the “patron”?

  • http://Facebook Kevin Kennedy

    With few exceptions such as Socrates, the great philosophers failed to live up to the standards they set for others. Still, their work remains invaluable for providing each of us with a vocabulary for the the philosophical examination of our own lives.

  • Brett

    I don’t know too much about Alan Turing; I do know quite a bit more about Kodel, however. He was an interesting man with interesting theories.

    Later in life he developed mental illness. He had a profound fear of being poisoned and refused to eat any food that his wife had not prepared for him. When she was hospitalized for an extended time at one point, he became so emaciated and malnourished he died. Many schizophrenics have delusions that they either have been poisoned or might be poisoned in the future, but Kodel’s was a very extreme fear, palpable and pervasive in his day to day life.

    He also believed God was personally, directly involved in his life; he was a theist, a monotheist who believed God watched very personally and specifically over every aspect of his waking and sleeping days and nights, and “He” (as he thought of the concept) directly intervened at specific moments either to reward him or teach him some some sort of valuable lesson (God as paternalistic), the diametric opposite of what we think of as a deist.

    He was a good friend of Einstein (who was, I’d say, a theist). There are also many philosophical implications to Einstein’s theories.

    Kant is also an interesting character (as are so many philosophers). His relationship with the church was a rocky one. He had a difficult time socially (an understatement) rarely bathed, changed clothes or groomed himself in any way. He took to eating six eggs a day as his only source of nutrition. He would hard boil all six in the morning and eat two at each meal as he felt eating (what we consider proper meals that might also involve some socialization) wasted time and interfered with critical thinking.

    I am as interested in philosophers as people as I am in their ideas, for it is in understanding the person that one can see how/why they developed the ideas they did. We should also attempt to see the value in their philosophical contributions irrespective of who they were/are as people, however it is difficult to divorce oneself from a perception developed in learning/knowing something about the personal lives of the philosophers; this can skew one’s view of their philosophies, both good and bad, both fairly and unfairly. This is also true of artists. Who doesn’t let an understanding of Wagner’s views on racial supremacy color on some level their view of knowing his music? It is difficult to hear his music without some of that permeating the listener. Yet, at the same time, to not know aspects of Wagner, the person, makes him one dimensional and detracts from an understanding that we are all complex and a study in contradiction.

    • Wm. James

      I have long wanted to make a list of the problems and diseases of famous intellects. I find it more that just a little interesting that such people seem to be plagued with demons. It may be that , the / a , human brain can only achieve the thing we call greatness by being abnormal by some measure. This suggest that a statically normal brain will never achieve unusual insights into our universe. Why would it. It sees the world in a statistically average way.

      • Wm. James from Missouri

        Once again it appears my Static brain spelled Statistically as Statically. It may be full of SSSS !

        Gota go, Family Guy is on.

    • Wm. James

      A layperson speculates:

      Immanuel Kant’s hunger for eggs may have been his brains hunger for cholesterol as it is the most abundant lipid found in myelin sheaths. Of course these sheaths are responsible for the speed at which thoughts move through our brain. Was he feeding his philosophy and IQ with cholesterol ? I understand that the country of Austria requires an autopsy for every citizen, today. If Konigsberg ( Russian Kaliningrad ) had adopted the Austria, CSI method and Kant had died today, we might be able to confirm such musings. Ahh, well; If_ then, If_ then : AND, If_ then : AND .

  • Brett

    Oops, I meant Einstein was a deist!!!! Proof reading has its merits, I suppose.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Brett: “I don’t know too much about Alan Turing”

    Turing’s is a fascinating and sad story:


    The Turing Test was the hot topic in AI circles many years ago.

  • John

    Socrates told us that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” At one point many years ago when I was doing lots of psychotherapy it occurred to me that the over-examined life ain’t that great either.;-)

  • Joseph

    Since I do not believe in God or any of the magic and supernatural aspects of various religions, I have always looked upon religions leaders and prophets as philosophers. In this sense Christ was a great philosopher that espoused some wonderful ideas that, given the reality of human nature, have never been put into practice. Instead people have altered his ideas and emphasized certain aspects of his teaching to basically justify what they wish to do or believe.

    • Wm. James

      Even Nietzsche recognized Christ as a great philosopher, in that he lived what he preached, which is the question, in question of this hour’s show. A non believer must certainly recognize the profundity of the Christian story. A child born of light ( Lost Gospels, predating Quantum Mechanics by centuries ! ), yet, King of the Jews, fighting the most powerful force of the Earth ( Roman Empire), teaching to those who cant’ or don’t listen, using cryptic parables and duality ridden messages. Even an atheist must succumb to the power of timeless metaphors that have the power to transform flesh.

  • at

    James wrote: I stress that, understanding the Gödel Turing possibility, may be the key to true artificial intelligence. One can only imagine the effect on philosophy of true artificial intelligence, or as I like to say, true Real Intelligence !

    I personally think that the attempt to develop artificial intelligence is a study in futility. Mainly because it is focused on the development of programming and processing power. This is really a reflection of the misunderstanding tht thoughts arise in the mind. I won’t go into the details of why this is incorrect however I will mention that Carlos Dwa proposes that artificial intelligence will emerge spontaneously from artificial life, when it is developed to a high enough level of complexity.

    • Wm James

      Carlos Dwa ____ thanks for the reference !

  • at, Santa Cruz

    Kevin wrote:

    “With few exceptions such as Socrates, the great philosophers failed to live up to the standards they set for others. Still, their work remains invaluable for providing each of us with a vocabulary for the the philosophical examination of our own lives.”

    Perhaps those considered to be the great philosophers were mainly myopic academics and scholastics that were eventually accepted by others of their ilk who also had no understanding of the authentic process of inquiry that philosophy should be, as opposed to the semantic deconstruction that is has become. Like Dwa said, modern western philosophy is like a withered changling that has been left as a substitute by fairies after stealing the wisdom of mans real possibilities of actual physical conscious evolution within their lifetime.

    I do not consider any of the “great philosophers great”
    I consider them mostly confused. With a few possible exceptions.

    To me a few of the philosophers who knew what they were actually doing, and whose lives reflected this are. Lao Tse, J Krishnamurti, Gurdfjieff, Jan Cox, Maharshi, and a few who are still alive who I will not mention. Persons like Nietzsche were obviously damaged individuals who may have been intelligent but actually were fools who knew nothing real.

  • at


    There are those who said that, “The examined life is NOT worth living.” Jan Cox for one, and I believe it was just exactly the type of unenlightened examination you are referring to.

  • at

    There is a big difference between a philosopher and a scientist, even a genius of mathematics or other such specialists. To mention just one, a philosopher is like the ultimate generalist, but scientists are usually specialists. That is why a scientific genius can be exceptional in their field yet really be very average in their personal life and outlook, or even deranged.

    The belief that genius is one step away from insanity is sometimes true in the field of such specialization but never is so in real philosophy. Those of real philosophical knowledge are profoundly sane in comparison to the consensus worldview of men.

  • at

    Most everyone is a philosophical dilettante in the subject of philosophy.

    Very few realize that real philosophy is not a subject and cannot be approached like a subject of study.

  • Karen from Somerville

    One of the great ironies is that Rousseau, who abandoned his five children, wrote a book about how to raise children, “Emile”
    What’s interesting is that he seems to have done some self-examination. At the beginning of “Emile” he refers to himself as Jean-Jacques (as opposed to Rousseau), and specifies that he has imagined himself as a better, more patient person who has all the capabilities necessary to raise a child.
    He makes a distinction between the Rousseau writing and the Jean-Jacques who is the character of the story, and seems to have realized that he himself could not have done what his character does.

  • Ellen Dibble in Northampton, MA

    Philosophy used to be about how humans think, what is reason, what maybe transcends reason/senses, but if you listened last night to NOVA, you’d hear Neil deGrass Tyson (sp?) explore the evolutionary roots of human thinking in various animals. Scientists are looking at the way dogs and wolves and birds and fish and so on think (and feel). It seems to require a philosophical bent to parse out the mental action for any particular mental/neural function.

    • Wm. James

      Wow , a border collie that can remember the names of a thousand toys ! A four legged crib sheet !

  • http://brainmindinst.blogspot.com Peter Melzer

    Heidegger provided important insights into the mind. Yet, he was not above a several-year flirt with National Socialism. Gadamer acquiesced to the political pressures of the time. Yet, both made fundamental contributions to philosophy that must not be overlooked.

    Philosophy appears ever more relevant at a time, in which the advances of the neurosciences and the advent of brain imaging tempt us to examine the mind through a neuro-prism. Alas, brain-based examination will only be useful, if the underlying nerve cell mechanisms are understood. Here, a new theory of mind could help provide guidance, focusing the research.

    Read more here:

  • Miriam


    Aside from the ancients, who the well-educated may be familiar with, what about contemporary philosophers? Many are/have been musicians.

    John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Simon/Simon & Garfunkel

    I hate rap, but for some folks, several rappers have created an atmosphere of cultural philosophy.

    As far as politicians, let’s leave them out of this!

    • Wm. James

      Are you singing, “Who let the philosophers out ….” ?

  • http://zeitvox.com Citizen Zed

    …odd, I was just trying to answer someone on a forum who inquired about the best start in Plato for a 9 year old – when I heard the topic of todays show. So I will put it here:

    9 yrs old… It would be dicey. Meno, Apology, Phaedo. Perhaps try and focus attention on what is tantamount to constantly asking the question *what does it mean to speak well*

    Important not to veer away from the sheer destruction of Socrates’ elenchus. The sophists also know the art of pure negation and destruction. Anything can be torn up and annihilated – but for the sake of what?

    Think democracy happening for the first time. Think parents wanting their sons to be adept in the virtue necessary to thrive in a new world of rhetorical force before audiences. Think a number of traveling teachers, taking money in order to educate the youth in this art – of how to tear down any thing and build up what you want an audience to buy. Think the danger of a pure appeal to a substrate of emotion, of a sophisticated kitsch aimed at getting one’s way and leaving people essentially exactly where they are (i.e. locked into the absorption of images on a cave wall).

    Socrates appears in this crucible. He’s aware of this awesome power and its danger. His line, often indirectly expressed (via irony and dramaturgy), is an ancient premonition of a phrase I think Sartre coughed up: “Human existence is not what it is and is what it is not”. Which is to say, insofar as it can be said directly, that humanity becomes itself by reaching beyond itself.

    Dialectic is a way of transit, like a flower bursting through concrete, struggling to open to the chance of pollination.

    The sophists work their art of speaking in order to subvert this challenge.

    The Symposium (with its potentially alarming subtext for a 9 year old, i.e.. man boy love) sees this in the story of Diotima as Eros twisting itself into a higher dimension. Alcabiades breaking in to drunkenly denounce Socrates for turning the erotic game upside down and inside out.

    Remember, like a mantra: “what does it mean to speak well”. It will help one to see within the full tissue of the work. And it will help with Aristotle too, a way of seeing an essential connexion between the two. But as we see in the 7th Letter, there are elements here that cannot be said but as Wittgenstein might say …show themselves

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    If philosophy is about knowing, what can we know (and hence how can reason manipulate those facts), then that is about how we live only insofar as mental manipulation of reality is part of that.
    I look to the great ones who shored humanity up against great delusions. Martin Luther against the Catholic Church. He used perception, reasoning, and yes, political awareness. Then there was Galileo, Copernicus, also pitting perception against Given Truth. You have to know human reality well to stand up to its given self-perception.
    Gandhi. Martin Luther King, Jr. Who else.
    They have to have pushed against reality, not just breathed deeply, to impress me.

  • http://ibelieveinbutter.wordpress.com Soli

    In the last few years I’ve become somewhat taken with the Stoics, especially Epictetus. For all that my head is in the clouds and I have a strong bend to mysticism, I am also very pragmatic and find the Stoics speak in a way to which I really respond.
    I also certainly have not read nearly enough philosophers to say much more. Though it’s interesting to me that as I get older and mature I’m actually interested in these greater examinations.

    Soli, rhymes with Julie, New Haven, CT

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    What was Socrates accused of? Of thinking? Of teaching? I never absorbed exactly why he was killed.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Corrupting the youth how?
    That’s what Miller says he was accused of.

  • Ed

    And they found Jesus discussing the Law with the elders. Rational also.

    These ideas anticipated, prepared the world for Jesus.

  • http://ncpr.org stillin

    @Mariam! Absolutely, and don’t fail to mention the legendary, getting bigger every day, Bob Marley. Rappers too, have done more for bringing the races together than any other sole philosopher. As a teacher, I think philosophy should be taught in ALL grades. Lastly, for a real examined life…try writing “morning pages” ( recommended by the author of The Artist’s Way). Take a lined notebook, and when you wake up write 3 pages non stop longhand ( laptops, computers won’t work for this) pen to paper, fill the fronts only…you will be examing your life daily and about a page and half in, you will have an Aha! experience…very addicting, and I love them. ( Yes, you have to use a pen/pencil…no , you can’t type them).

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    “To engage with the power structure of his day,” Miller is saying.
    Yep, I’d say philosophy is a mere hobby unless it is pitted against something. If there is no “national debate” involved, what the heck is the method of thinking all about?
    Take a firm realization such as any culture surely has at any time (like that Mubarak has been wrecking Egypt via imposed cultural “sleep” for 30 years), and figure out how to “persuade” the body politic to take that idea and follow it wherever it leads, be it hemlock for all or the Elysian fields.
    That would be philosophy taken where it needs to go. It takes a lot of guts to be a “practicing” philosopher, in my opinion.

  • Ed

    Your break of religion as alien to philosophy is not accurate: philosophy is preparation for theology, not a replacement of philosophy.

    Of course, Augustine was a convert. You can’t assume that philosophy implies there is no certain truth.

    But Augustine held that no violence would be held against ‘heretics’.

    • Edward Mc

      I must say I strongly disagree.

      While it may be accurate to say that Philosophy does not imply there is no certain truth; one must also acknowledge that philosophy necessarily implies that the truth of which you speak is a greater truth than we have the capacity to understand. In other words, there may be a greater truth but one cannot comprehend that truth, regardless of one’s religion.

      Even the bible instructs this is a fact, right? Ergo, we have philosophy which is the quest for knowledge through the love of wisdom.

      Religion holds no truth beyond that which one finds to be authentic in his or her personal identification and/or experience with the tenets or dogmas of that religion. Therefore, religion is nothing more than a philosophy that has chosen to blindly accept the absolute existence of that which cannot be proven or shown, and which has built upon itself dogmas that may or may not be shown to be reasonable, but must be accepted by followers nonetheless.

      Religion is a backwater of philosophy. It may be a popular backwater but it is a backwater all the same.

  • Samuel Johnson

    One comment regarding the English Samuel Johnson (whose name I share). He had a great intellect BUT his life and intellectual expression was limited by psychological disorders including depression and OCD. So his words were not matched by greatness in life.

    I personally have been challenged and encouraged in the conduct of my own life by such diverse influences as Jesus’s life and teachings (Sermon on the Mount), theologian and activist Clarence Jordan, the writings of M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled), and the Buddhist emphasis on right living in the form of mindfulness meditation and the writings of Thich Nat Hanh. My journey has found challenge and support in the faith communities of the Quakers and Mennonites, which more than many religious groups, give significant attention to applying faith to the way one lives. I think it helps to share the journey with others who are similarly concerned about the question of how we should live.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    I guess some of the early philosophers were the PR department of the ruling elites — as priests via religion or as “advisors.”
    If you are the king and want stability, you want Confucius in your “court,” the regal, not the tennis.
    If there is religion, science, and philosophy, all purporting to have the inside scoop on the good and the lovely, then you want all three.
    Yet the job of philosophy (Augustine might be an example) seems to be exactly to provide a counterbalance to Given Power/Truth structures. A built in dynamism of opposition and support, entwined.

  • Mary in Boxford, MA

    For me, the person whose voice and reason I have continually sought — particularly when I need help in understanding those human behaviors that seem to transcend culture and landscape — is Joseph Campbell’s. He shared his scholarly personal journey with such passion that I find his life as well as his teachings inspiring and exemplary.

    • Wm. James

      Isn’t myth the precursor to philosophy ?

  • Pancake, flat like the ancient world, in NC

    The cry for Turing on this blog illustrates how time changes meaning and relevance. I side with my fellow former philosophy student Ellen when I agree that philosophers as role models can be a dead end or a bad end. Even Alan Turing is way out of date. I think we are beyond assuming that corporate designed computers can be a benevolent thing. Today’s program is almost useless as it jumps from personality to personality examining lives beginning in the remote and unverifiable classic world and moving randomly forward.

    The first thing we must admit is that the society in which we are enculturated is more different from these past social structures than is a alien foreign country.
    We have not had an operant philosophy other than nihilism in America since the Pragmatism of the 19th Century was overwhelmed by the extreme events, mass murders and nuclear weapons, of WWII. Existentialism turned out to be a personal thing and not a social solution even in Europe.

    Miriam gets it right when she observe we can find philosophies in popular culture, but popular culture itself provides a pretty frivolous school of thought. Songwriters gain an audience by being vague, and the listener completes the thoughts. While I have found it valuable to study the history of philosophy (ethical thought) and to try and categorize it systematically I find no personal answers in doing so. (This author’s book is worthless, except for the curious novice.) Lately I’ve forgotten my seminary teachers and the authors of great books and found an understanding of my ethical choices by examining the frustrations and aspirations of admirable poor people. I wish I could know some of the people on the street in Cairo, or find more like them here.

    We don’t know if Socrates was a rel person, and we can’t justify his suicide (voluntary execution) on our terms. The “Apology” primarily illustrates what we can never know. Most people prefer not to know ethics even in their own time. The people who do not question capitalism and our government and perverted business organization have embraced the alternative of wandering through life like hungry dogs, but this show won’t help them. It is a conformist show akin to ranking classical composers. Are they ranking “poseurs”?

  • Mildred

    Is there a reason you haven’t included more recent American philosophers like James, Peirce and Dewey, and being a Lutheran you must have heard of Reinhold Niebuhr, not a philosopher, but in the current stream of thinkers. Were their lives too boring, or don’t experimentalism or pragmatism seem philosophical enough?

  • webb nichols

    I loved the statement of an Irish writer who said “one’s life is actually a series of inconsistencies”

  • Seth

    As others have already said, I think it’s very important to bring up the modern philosophers. They bring relevance into philosophy by taking into account current understanding of science. Talking about ancient philosophers world views is like discussing the relevance of 16th century scientists – it’s interesting, but not so relevant. Philosophy is alive and well as a modern discipline.

    • Wm. James

      Note: I am a little fuzzy on the dates here.

      I disagree ! The four idols of the mind as stated by Francis Bacon still carry weight.

      Idols of the Tribe : are deceptive beliefs inherent in the mind of man, and therefore belonging to the whole of the human race.

      Idols of the Cave : are those which arise within the mind of the individual.

      Idols of the Marketplace : are errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words.

      Idols of the Theater : are those which are due to sophistry and false learning. These idols are built up in the field of theology, philosophy, and science, and because they are defended by learned groups are accepted without question by the masses.

      Great name, by the way. Seth, the beginning of a great story.

      • Wm. James from Missouri

        Is there anyone that could add anything to the “4 Idols post “ ?
        I wonder if it would be possible to find “missed” idols. I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if Francis Bacon, had stated the list differently. I am thinking in terms of S. Wolframs book, “ A New Kind of Science”. Is there some new insight that we could bring to the list that might lead us down a more rewarding path ? Is there something in cognitive science that would enhance the list ? Is there something in ancient philosophy that might challenge this list ?

        On the subject of philosophers and the lives they actually live. It is worth noting that Francis Bacon was a lousy scientist.

        Let’s not forget Newton. His life was inconsistent with what we now perceive as normal or nerdy ! Which brings me to the question of the brain again. Many people have lived a life filled with toxins and poison. Newton and mercury, Rome and lead lined chalices, etc.. ——— What about diet ?

  • David from Lowell

    Tolstoy. He believed it; he lived it.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Miller is saying modern philosophy has become specialized as natural science has made broad command of “knowledge” less likely.
    If you want a “Renaissance man” who knows a bit about everything, you have to look before the modern era. Now that we have the internet, we can eke out our memories at least, but not our expertise.
    I agree with Miller, that it is extremely hard to pretend to the kind of breadth of understanding necessary to feel competent to even the conversation, compared to, say, what a teacher in college would demand.
    What? You haven’t read the entire encyclopedia?
    With vast data out there for everyone, globally, we have to learn a whole new language based on PARTIAL knowledge, always keeping our limitations up front, which is very different from starting out by declaring one’s expertise.
    You look afresh at what others find meaningful and persuasive. It’s not the same as it was 50 years ago.

  • Ken from Norwich VT

    There have been great mathematicians who didn’t balance their checkbooks, chemists who can’t follow recipes, effective world leaders who couldn’t control their own family. I don’t think it’s fair to judge the validity of a philosophical idea based on whether its formulator exemplified it. Philosophy is bigger than the individual.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LLH7SFRBBDZ54YLFVP6POB6XAI ANNA

      I think it’s entirely fair to judge the validity of a philosophical idea based on whether its formulator exemplified it. If you don’t embrace the philosophy yourself, why should anyone else? Philosophers can tell, but never teach, unless they practice what they preach!

      • Wm. James from Missouri

        Consistency may be more difficult to achieve than we would like to admit. Many famous “Holy Men” were meat eaters, right? Were they …. just another brick in the wall ?

  • Mildred

    I’m afraid this discussion brought me back to the old fuddy-duddy college philosophy prof who droned on and on about guys who lived a couple of thousand years ago, or at least not in the 20th century. We all said, “So?” What’s the relevance? We have important choices to make every day, both personally and as citizens, and we don’t have enough training in schools, lower and advanced, to do that important job. It’s left to religion, which is inadequate. Where is the impetus for us in the secular world to live an examined life? We need philosophy in all the schools, but not examining old lives or just our navels. Could there be a course called Philosophy Can Be Fun?

    • Wm. James

      I seem to remember a paperback philosophy book starring Homer Simpson as the provocateur. ( In my entire life, I have never had a use for this word; thank you for broadening my horizons ! )

  • http://ncpr.org stillin

    @Mildred…definately! I think Philosophy can be fun would be GREAT!!!!! Meaingful direction, in today’s, consumer driven world. I would take it! I love to read the Dali llama’s stuff, rasta music’s directions, anything that registers to me in my world, that I think I can use, I will use. I remain open to other cultures leaders, thinkers, musicans, artists and past philosophers from history…I don’t discriminate. Philosphy COULD be fun, in schools. Definately.

  • Graham in Lincoln, MA

    Considering philosophers, forests, and jokes (comment #2 above). If a philosopher is in a forest and a tree falls on him (he doesn’t hear it happening because he’s thinking), would he ascribe causation to the tree or to the whole forest?

    • Wm. James

      His headache may very well make it impossible or impracticable to respond with his usual acumen.

  • John

    philosophy is preparation for theology, not a replacement of philosophy. – Posted by Ed,

    – Theology is philosophy with a faulty premise.

  • Brett

    Musicians as poets, poets as philosophers? This is my realm; as a musician, singer, songwriter, poet, all around attempter to grab at gossamer in the air, pull down a piece of the frequencies floating around us in the universe, and so forth, I wonder where this creativity truly comes from in me and in artists whom I consider farther along a path/beside me (depending on the artist). They (I say “they” because I would rather spend my time creating than putting myself in a category with a title) seem to have a bead on something, and rather than attempt to objectify it or say the human condition is one way or another, they use the tools they work with to present their insights as a gift to be given to others. It is a fragile state of being, and there are less true road maps than what appearances would indicate in how one goes about the process.

    Many songwriters can say things like, “I write the music and words at the same time” or “I dreamed everything then woke up and wrote it down” or “I wrote the song in 5 minutes and it just came out fully formed” or “I struggled with this song for years, and it was part of another but didn’t seem to fit or work” or “I wanted to say something about_______[fill in the blank with some social injustice, essential truth, etc., of one's choice]” or “it was as if the song had already been written and I just pulled it down from out of the cosmos.” And so on, in any variation one can think of. …I would say, yeah, all of the above and none of the above.

    I wrote a song in 2003 called “A Funeral in Old New Orleans.” It was based on a friend of mine who was dying and told me he wanted a New Orleans style funeral…he didn’t get one (family members in dispute; a long sad story); anyway, I decided to write a song about it using an imagistic style of writing. I wrote the song in about an hour after thinking for a week about the images I wanted to emphasize; the images involved things I associated at the time with New Orleans, e.g., street musicians, the “second line,” tap dancing, water, flooding, soul food, a small boat or pirot (cajun word), etc. The song was immediately a hit among the musicians and fans in my circuit of regional musicians. in 2005, just after Katrina, I was forming a new band, and a violin player friend who had left New Orleans just before Katrina was the new violin player in my band…we were sitting around trying to come up with songs to put together for a set list for a gig, and I played some of my songs as possible candidates.

    (I played ‘Funeral’ not realizing that its words perfectly fit what had happened in New Orleans as a result of Katrina; the “funeral,” in a way, had become a funeral for New Orleans.) I looked up after finishing the song and the violin player was crying; I immediately knew that the song had new life and a broader meaning.

    Others tried to exploit the situation; a videographer who shot a video of our band playing various songs for our website at the time, took the video of the song being played and injected images of the devastation from Katrina, etc. I put the brakes on that right away and threatened him with legal trouble if he pursued further ideas along those lines…I didn’t want to exploit the situation. I knew that simply singing the song would do all that could be done to bring a humanity to what was happening. There is no moralizing in the song, only images that tell a kind of story.

    Over the years, I’ve shifted from introducing the song as a song for my friend to a song for my friend AND a song about New Orleans (that’s all I say). It works!

    Sorry…I went off on a tangent. Thanks for reading, if you did!

    P.S.-Have enjoyed the show and the comments here today

  • Brett

    It is always interesting to hear people who obviously have very deliberate and specifically defined religious beliefs talk of “absolute truths.” I don’t believe in absolutes, but I concede that (and this is I feel a more forgiving stance than many religious types on the matter seem to be) semantics play a role in those concepts.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Brett, you have written about that New Orleans funeral piece before. I recall. Note that this James Miller wrote “Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise and Fall of Rock and Roll 1947-1977″ (now in paperback). And a lot of other books — about Saturday Night Live, about ESPN, about game theory, about grief, about death and dying, about grief again…
    Hmmm. What is the link between philosophy and creativity, specifically music, specifically the music of young people?
    I typed a book about that once, for a 35-ish man who had fallen in love, and found all the songs of his teens and 20s suddenly re-blossomed. He thinks there is a window period for meaningful music just as there is a window period for acquiring language. It’s the age of early adulthood, the age of shaking off the brainwashing, such as it might be, of parents, and the age of love. The age of many revelations and much development in the brain’s conceptual ability.
    So it seems we crave philosophy to restructure our world at a certain age, and it’s age that music is creating the beat and the melody that encapsulates the struggle to differentiate and exist. It seems to me songs and music (or other arts?) provide enough structure for most people. The culture can provide enough resonance to let a person feel part of the ebb and flow.
    It’s when there is a fracture and one finds one does not belong in that cultural river that a student might subject herself to Kant and Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre, Plato and Socrates, and endless ethicists and still be thirsty. Nope, nope, nope. All those famous names of people nipping at the heels of meaning, and meaning still outrunning them all. But as they say, the journey not the arrival matters. So in philosophy, it is a pursuit, not an arrival.

  • Wm. James from Missouri

    Graham, I hope this answers your question:
    “ …would he ascribe causation to the tree or to the whole forest?”

    First philosopher:
    If a philosopher fell in the forest, would anyone hear him yell ?

    Second philosopher:
    That’s not correct. You should ask, “ If a philosopher fell in the forest, would the trees hear him yell ?”

    Third philosopher:
    Your both wrong, the philosopher didn’t yell, because he and the forest don’t exist.

    • Edward Mc

      But you can’t possibly know that James and, even if you could, we could never be certain that you said it, wrote it or that it has any cash value at all.

      FYI: I like your post best…as far as you know.

  • http://www.EricStengelArchitecture.com Eric Stengel

    Comments by Eric Stengel,Architect, Nashville Tennessee

    Fantastic Show as usual. I listen every day.

    With regard to today’s topic, “How to Live an Examined Life” I “Examine Life” through my work.

    As a Classical Language Architect, I have gained profound instruction and meaning for life through Plato, Aristotle & Pythagoras.

    In the world of nature, there is a common thread that binds all things together: from seed pods to the spiral pattern of a sunflower’s bloom, to insects, reptiles, butterflies and trees; to all the bones in an animal and to our own bodies. This thread is what allows nature’s progression from the “One to the Many” and is what Plato (428 – 348 B.C.E.) called “nature’s greatest secret”: PHI. (“fye”, meaning the Greater)

    PHI is a never-ending and never repeating number: 1.618…; it is a geometric mean; a proportion derived from a static geometry, the 1:1 square. For the ancients, this ratio was a sacred truth found empirically in all things of heaven and earth. The ancients fully believed it was a gift from the gods, put on earth for man to find and then use to pay homage to the heavens. Its use was considered the literal portal directly to the “soul of the universe.”

    The first evidence of the use of PHI in architecture can be traced back 4,000 years to Egyptian architecture. Fast forward to Western legend that says Pythagoras (570-ca. 495 B.C.E.) was believed to be the first to have discovered the existence of PHI but it wasn’t formally identified until Euclid (325-264 B.C.E.). The phenomenon had many names until the first treatise on the subject – Divina Proportione by Luca Pacioli (1445-1517 AD) gave it its current and most commonly referred to name. In the Proto-Renaissance through the Renaissance, the church required the PHI ratio to be used in all ecclesiastical architecture, much as in the past for temple architecture. The Pope called it “the golden rectangle” and “the Devine proportion.”

    The “secret”, he empirically observed in all of nature, allows man to transcend the bonds of earth through our individual works. Its importance has been recognized, through to modern times as evidenced in its mandated use in the ecclesiastical commissions of the church, eastern temples, Mesoamerican ritual sites, and the list goes on. Its existence crosses all times and cultures; the “secret” was observed, recognized and employed by all cultures at sometime.

    Understanding the intrinsic correlation PHI has within us all, provides a gateway to the geometries of nature and the ephemeral thing we call beauty. When we make things using PHI, we give form to the geometries and the progression of scale that is nature’s soul. These things put man in harmony with the natural world and in doing so, these things, or objects, resonate with us because it’s who we are and how we are made, too. PHI is the fundamental thread binding parts to a whole.

    Scientific observations of nature’s creations continue to reveal “Nature’s Secrets” even today; discoveries point, empirically, to the complex harmonic relationship of parts to a whole.

    For example, scientist studying the propagation of mosquitoes looked at the sounds male and females make during courtship, in particular the sound of their beating wings. They measured the female beating wing sound to be at about 400 hertz cycle, the musical note G4 approximately. The male wing beating sound was at 600 hertz cycle, or the note D5.

    When the two came near each other, both adjust the pitch of their wing beats slightly to make a harmonic resonance. This adjustment does two phenomenal things. First, the two notes made a harmonic overtone, a third sound; the two notes become three. Second, the pitch relationship is what modern musicians call a “perfect fifth.” Meaning one note is 7 semitones above or below the other. The note D is a perfect fifth interval above/below G. That’s a ratio of 2:3=.66, or essentially PHI (.618). That is nature’s greatest secret in a literal life affirming demonstration – making many from the one with harmony.

    As in music, architecture, across all cultures, times and places, embraces these proportions, interpreted and developed through the centuries; making a language rich and complex.

    This is the foundation of the Classical Language of architecture. Its evolution as a language pays homage to nature by sequencing what we make with nature to produce a resonance.

    When people say things like, “that just sounds, or looks, or feels right”. They are really saying, “I feel the resonance of nature in it.”

    That direct connection back to nature speaks to us at a fundamental, immutable level. What we value in the arts and architecture always has PHI at its core.
    It’s a truth like 2+2=4 is a truth.

    Because of PHI’s characteristics that make it an irrational number, its use in the classical language drives the language’s characteristics of endless progressions of scale, variety and transformations. And being an irrational number, never ending or repeating, it inherently allows variation. In a way it says “beauty isn’t and can’t mathematical perfection or a recipe.” Think of the phenomena of the “Pythagorean Comma”

    The real beauty is that there is not an end, just the continued elation of the life long search.

    Every age takes the language’s previous uses and lessons and transforms them to reflect yet a new culture’s identity; and so it has gone for millennia as we “continue the conversation”.

    PHI’s “One to the Many” scale progression accommodates viewer’s proximity; from the Zebra Butterfly’s relative proportions, to the Parthenon’s plan and elevations, to the Milky Way Galaxy.

    In architecture, the Progression of scale is as follows:
    Hand to what it touches, like a knob or railing
    Our body to furniture – like a chair, or a column
    Furniture to the room
    The Room to the building
    Building to street
    Street to geography

    Much of the language’s beauty is in its adaptability and flexibility to respond to the times while maintaining a thread that binds us all to it and to nature. It uses that endless thread that Plato called, “nature’s greatest secret”. Again, the common, singular element found in all things NOT man made. This is the basis of the classical language. The ability to go “simply” from the “one to the many”; allowing the inherent simplicity of complex beauty to emerge; it is NOT the confusion of the “complicated.”

    When understood and employed by man, its use allows our works to have a natural resonance with the nature that’s in us. These works resonate with nature and us because how they are made is how we are made. We are nature too.

    So Plato’s recognition of the “secret” that he and others empirically observed in all of nature allows man to transgress the bonds of earth through our individual works.

    “Nature’s greatest secret” is what the renaissance church called “Sacred Geometry.
    And for the ancients this “secret proportion” was a sacred truth for all things not man made. For them it was placed on earth to be found and used as a literal portal to the gods.

    For me, it is the “Face of God”.
    Eric L. Stengel, Architect

    Note: on a common misidentification.

    Q: Is classicism a style?

    A: No, Style is how you use a language.

    Just like French, German, and Russian are languages for communication, not styles of communication. They have words, grammar and syntax allowing expression. It’s the different expressions that make styles. In English, words can be put together in various styles; a text book of biology, a sonnet by Shakespeare or a technical manual on plumbing. And though we all use the same words in the dictionary, syntax sets the rules of correct combinations and it’s these rules that allow for the different styles to emerge. They allow and enhance the creative process of prose or the practical art of disseminating technical information in a manual.

  • Henry

    I always loved the anecdote, told in the classic book “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel, in which the Japanese zen/archery master seeks to learn more about western thought in hopes of better instructing his foreign student, who is from Germany. The master goes away and reads the works of a bunch of German philisophers, then comes back and flings the books down in disgust, telling the student “no wonder you can’t shoot an arrow straight!” (or words to that effect.) Chortle.

  • http://www.bookofzo.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson, Talent OR

    No less than in the political realm, the realm of philosophy brings out all manner of passionate opinions. I could answer all the comments above that I found challenging or disagreeable, but I think a simple statement of my own, without reference to other posts, will be best.

    My own favorite philosophers are:

    Gosala (ancient Hindu who believed that all souls are destined to essentially go through all possible incarnations, without reference to karma; if reincarnation proves to be a fact, then I think Gosala comes closest to expressing the truth of it.)

    Spinoza (deeply humane ethics married with deeply considered pantheism; Einstein said he believed in “Spinoza’s God”, and if I had to choose a deity whose literal existence was most logical, most realistic, to believe in, I’d choose to be a Spinozan Monist.)

    Hume (still the smartest, most generous Enlightenment atheist; as an atheist myself, I find his ideas to be the best practical guide to life, but I cannot help but be fascinated by the questions raised about possible deities and afterlifes.)

    Berkeley (I think at rock bottom (irony intended) he was right in his insight that material existence is entirely based in the imagination, an idea which modern quantum physics may well bear out.)

    Neitzsche (more than a merely intelligent fool as some propose, his self-knowledge was astonishing, his aphoristic powers unchallenged, and his notion of eternal recurrence deeply moving on a personal level; it is unfortunate that his “superman” theories were so viciously misinterpreted by the Nazis; it is equally unfortunate that some equate his eventual madness with supposed foolishness of thought.)

    As for the ancient Greeks, I favor Epicureans and Stoics. Plato, clever and terrific in dialogue form as he is, seems to me a proto-fascist and wrong-headed in his idealism, though he deserves kudos for preserving (or inventing!) the immortal Socrates. Aristotle’s lack of empiricism leant him too easily to the strict anti-scientific dogmas of the Christian middle ages.

    As for theologians, I dislike Augustine and prefer Aquinas, though I disagree with him as well. Origen, the heretic who believed that even the Devil would eventually be forgiven, seems most vital to me. By the way, I disagree with the adage that philosophy is preparation for theology. I prefer the notion that theology is simply a lack of faith. If one is truly faithful, their mind is by definition at rest (if not frozen or stagnant or simply non-existent), but if your mind restlessly plays with systems of divinity, you may be very smart but you’re not strictly speaking accepting God unreservedly. Of course, considered this way, I find theologians most sympathetic!

    As for twentieth-century philosophers, I cannot get into the semantic games of Wittgenstein or follow the mathematical theories of Russell or Godel. With the exception of the fascinating Gurdjieff, the philosophers of the last hundred years leave me cold.

    Finally: the unexamined life is not worth living, not for me, anyway. I examine my life and filter it through my imagination in order to write my novels. Philosophy is not preparation for death; I don’t think such preparation is possible. Philosophy is not about answers. It’s about asking questions that lead to more and more fascinating questions. The mystery is endless! If I had to propose symbols that summed up the cosmos, I would choose the ampersand and the question mark:


    and wonder and wonder and wonder

  • Edward Mc

    “Is this where they keep the Philosophers now?”
    -F. Zappa

    • Wm. James

      Yes, but watch out for that yellow snow.

  • E Weiss

    Thanks for another great show. As humor chairperson of the local Tea Party, I have saved many of today’s comments for presentation at the humor segment of our next meeting. I mean, honestly, you could never make this stuff up. And Josh, I’ve read all your novels…keep up the good work, buddy. Although I must say the sexual fantasies of your autobiographical novel were a bit edgy, but then you always were a pioneer. Which raises the question: are filter cigarettes better for you?

    So… to a real philosophical question: if a man speaks in the forest, and there’s no woman to hear him…is he still wrong?

    • Brett

      “As humor chairperson of the local Tea Party…”

      Now that’s a joke without a decent punchline!

    • http://www.bookofzo.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

      always good to have a fan … didn’t you just love the part where Gregory rapes the cactus? I mean, the scene just reeks of humane realism, huh?

    • Wm. James

      I wouldn’t know, as I left my wife in the forest.

  • Brett

    I suppose somebody thought this “new” format would improve the forum somehow! At least note the time of the post instead of how many hours ago it was posted!!! I don’t wish to feel as if I’m responding on a Yahoo forum for chrissake!!

    I’ve told that ‘Funeral’ story before? Sorry, I guess I’m starting to repeat myself!! ;-)

    There does seem to be some consistency in the way many people develop their tastes in music, in terms of when those tastes are formed, and so on. Social development, as music has a lot of social elements, seems to play a role. In general, the casual music listener gravitates toward a style/artist type in his/her twenties and dwells there with little deviation throughout his/her life. I’m not sure why that is. Possibly there is a nostalgic element to the way the casual listener approaches listening to music? Perhaps the escape element of spending time listening to music requires the listener to stay in a comfort zone, to stay with what is familiar? I can’t say. At best, all I can do is pose questions without knowing the answers.

    I am continually exploring different kinds of music and styles/forms that are new to me. I will often go back and re-examine music that didn’t quite appeal to me at first listen, too. Often that ultimately has more shelf life and more depth. I also don’t shy away from what is not classically considered beautiful. Harmonic dissonance, frequency distortion, erratic time signatures and tempo shifts, etc., are all part of the expression of music, that expression is not always one of beauty in the classical sense.

    I don’t think that the only objective of music is to make one feel comfortable or to give forth only something pleasing to the ear. However, I view those aforementioned as kinds of musical devices, meant to serve in contrast to the beautiful parts or to harmonic resonance. Music that contains only classical beauty can quickly become superficial, boring, predictable, dulling, and so on. Music that contains only distortions to classical beauty can quickly become tiresome in its own way.

    To further bore you with tales of “A Funeral in Old New Orleans”…It is in the key of A, starts on an A chord then moves to a Cdim for the second chord in the progression. There is a bridge section in each verse progression that starts in F#minor and “walks” a half step down on one note (F#, F, E, Eb) then on to a D chord. The rhythm is a perky 3/4 time that sounds deceptively syncopated but is not, giving it a tired quality, which fits with the narrative (an old Black man in the first person who has been a street performer all of his life; a dancer, but now is too old to really do it but can’t do anything else). He is in a moribund state and just wants to go out in one last blaze of glory being carried down Bourbon Street in a traditional New Orleans funeral. The instrumentation is acoustic rhythm guitar, lead electric (with a volume pedal that gives it a lap steel quality), mandolin, violin, and accordion, with a little percussion on the rim of a drum with sticks, and a tap dancer on a board. You only need to know enough about the emotional feel of differences between major and minor chords to know that minor chords convey a melancholy, major chords convey more optimism. The song shifts back and forth between major and minor progressions; the diminished chord (Cdim) gives it irony. I am putting it on a CD, which only has six songs so far partially recorded…and has been quite a task so far!!!

    What is the link between philosophy and creativity? I think it was Miriam who started me thinking today about people like Dylan and Lennon as poets/philosophers. They are/were artists, creative people who, like most of us, have some interest in philosophy, some interest in gaining/expressing insight and wisdom that can guide us, or at least speak to us in some way about what it means to be human or what it means to be affected by the world around us and make some sense of it.

    Many people think of philosophy as something in dusty books, something from ivory towers, something from inaccessible scholars who, by virtue of their intellect, can alienate some. Artists can at times smooth all of that out and make philosophy more accessible. So, I think of artistic creativity as a bridge between the academics of philosophy and the accessibility of certain ideas/concepts.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Hi, Brett. I didn’t mean I was bored. I meant your story had been memorable ;>).

      As to the new format, I can’t tell from the upper right box whether a REPLY has been entered, in number of counts, though that is entered at the top of the thread. But so I see there are two new posts that are replies, but I have no way to FIND those replies. If the thread had say 125 posts, I’d have to review the ENTIRE thread to see if any posts had actually prompted some DIALOGUE.
      This is very counterproductive.
      ONPOINT producers, you might want to consider this.
      Failing that, let us commenters consider: If you are in a sort of dialogue with VARIOUS people, or indeed with any particular post or some particular individual’s approach, the way to get it “counted” and accessible is apparently NOT to go the REPLY route. That way it gets lost, unless there is a SECOND set of countings, that shows discussions under way and their status (and maybe gathers them at the top or bottom). So I’m thinking of boycotting the “reply” function.
      I’m also thinking of encouraging an underground movement among frequenters of this site: to boost all the one-liner posts that look like they’re parroting Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly right to the very center top of attention by voting Like, Like, Like, until someone screams uncle. I mean, I have a suspicion that Louise (remember) will come swooping in and do just that, because as it is, the Louse-type swoop in at the end of a thread and seem to think that by “voting” last (with one-liners), they have voted best. You win if no one challenges you, and that is most likely if the argument is over and everyone has gone home.

      • Brett

        I know, Ellen, I was just being a little self-conscious, using self-deprecation to compensate for talking about my own creative energies…enjoyed your post…hate this new format!!!!!!!

        • Ellen Dibble

          The way to get attention is to craft your comment so it attaches to a post that has a lot of “likes,” and it’ll float toward the top. On the other hand, if you are writing a very heart-wrenching magnum opus, don’t post it as a reply to something that is clearly not a favorite. It’ll get lost. It won’t show up as new (about an hour ago, at least you could see up top if there were new posts, and click for that, but maybe it only allows access to the most recent, not the two or three or four…). And it won’t show up as best rated. Of course you could vote “Like” to the comment you are trying to argue with, the one you especially do NOT like. You could try voting “Like” several times, in order to get your careful comment where someone might read it.
          And it might be a good idea not to give one’s location anymore along with a name, if there are e-mails being sent to the individuals being replied to. Talk about degrees of exposure.

  • Brett

    Who wants to stage a boycott of this forum tomorrow?

  • Mallory- STL

    I’m a bit disappointed that not a single female philosopher has been mentioned. Men may have ‘dominated’ the time, but that shouldn’t suggest the women’s voices or writings are less significant or important. Though they are not as well known as these greats of Western philosophy, it would be nice to hear a contrasting opinion, and as a woman, a voice to hear in my examination of my own life I realize this issue is not unique to today’s show but is a problem in Intro to Western philosophy classes all over. But it would have been nice to throw in one, even fairly well known Simone de Beauvoir.

  • justanother

    Yeah….. I like this new format! Somehow more engaging.

  • http://www.bookofzo.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

    Thumbs down on the new format.

  • Wm. James from Missouri

    I hope “AT” and others can benefit by this reply.

    Alan Turing helped to solidify the idea of a “state”. If I have a collection of objects, such as the letters, A and B then the possibilities of the two object combo are : AA, AB, BA, BB . There can be no others, except the so called empty set. If each letter represents a thought, then you can see that, this schema represents all possible thoughts. ( It is important that you realize that I am talking about “States” here, in the real world we would also need to include the concept of subset. The argument is similar. ) Now, if we could find a way to use Godel’s concept of determining the “truth” of a statement, using meta mathematics, we would know which thought is “true”. A machine could therefore determine by rules, correct and rational thoughts that conform to reality. I am just a hobbyist programmer, but have written a program that will “write” every possible song, of a given length that could ever be written!
    The problem is that many of these “songs” will be nothing more than noise to the human ear. Now this program I have written could be generalized to produce every mathematical equation that could every be written, or any chemical equation that could every be written or … any symbolic state “set” that could every be written ( of course, all of these are of a given length, as the set of all possible states may well be infinite, as far as we know). By mastering the Godel concept, we humans could finally find all the answers we would ever need. At the heart of the Godel model is the ability to factor very, very large numbers. I you decide to read up on Godel you will see why. I don’t have the posting space to go into this into the detail that it requires.

  • http://www.dogoodgauge.org The Do Good Gauge

    The human species lives in a world where understanding partners with conflict. The natural world consist of contrary forces of interdependence and interconnection.

    The Do Good Gauge deals with the Yin and Yang of communication. It is an attempt to move discourse from the fist of a few to the mouths and ears of the many.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Krystal-Racca-Andrews/1607255823 Krystal Racca Andrews

    Really enjoyed this segment.

  • Capebreton1234

    Montaigne, Montaigne. On Point discussed his work two months ago. His work captures all that is relevant to living an examined life.

  • Wm. James

    NPR Tom A.

    I love your show. You are artful in speech; real words-smith ! You must have an IQ that is only visible by the Hubble. Well, enough of the suck-up.
    My over active imagination is pointing to your comments page.
    Has NPR ever considered doing something more artful ? You have a chance to “beat the completion with this idea.

    Allow users to create avatars from a drop down menu of possibilities. Picture this: Person A makes a comment. Person B rebuts. The comments inspire more dialog along the same theme. Votes are taken. If the votes for or against a particular comment exceed a percentage threshold an avatar is activated which then reacts with a pre-chosen avatar of the person that made the post that created this firestorm. Imagine, let’s say, 30 % of the posters reject a posted comment. This would unleash a mob of angry avatars with pitch forks and clubs banging on the avatar of this ungodly mutant. However, If more than 30% of the participants loved a post, all their avatars would come out to bow at the feet of the new king. Wow, what a scene! With a little imagination I am sure your NPR group could come up with some exciting scenarios. This would make the whole process of positing a little more fun and exciting. Of Course, everyone should be given a chance to redeem themselves. Would not this help to keep people coming to your NPR, posting sights ? What’s that I hear? Ratings are soaring? Ummm?

    PS. I may post this again for a future show.

    • http://www.dogoodgauge.org The Do Good Gauge

      Thank you Wm. James for suggesting a better way for audience participation. It is a topic which few dream of.

      The ideas expressed in this post are a summary of thought incubated over four years. The goal of this incubation was to develop internet technology which encourages civil discourse with higher demographic visibility.

      Here is a summary of the idea:

      Provide a writers work shop. The ownership of a post is the individual. The owner should have the right to edit or delete a post. A thought should not be condemned to grammar, spelling, or illogical mistake when it can be corrected. Understanding is an iterative process. Self understanding or private feedback is ongoing. A poster should have the opportunity to re-articulate a thought.

      Provide a publishing system for each content contributor. Per story line one publication per contributor, but revisions would be managed by the content owner. The content owner would choose which revision is published. By default the most recent publication would be visible.

      Encourage respect and civil discourse. Hone the forum in a manner which encourages focus. One post per viewer. Additional thoughts can be added by editing the viewers existing comment. Remove or greatly increase the word limit per post.

      Provide a system to encourage better articulance of thought. Allow others to comment on a viewer post, but the visibility of a reply is determined by owner of a post. By default replies would not be shown. This is to encourage topic focus and civil discourse. The replies would provide motivation for a poster to improve his or her thought. If some one else has something to say, they can say it in their own post.

      Allow public gauging of viewer post. One or more gauges may be provided. Example. Academic grading scale ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘F’. Relative to the subject scale where -2 is highly relative but counter supporting, 0 not relative, and 2 is highly relative and supportive. A ‘Your Mama Meter’ would rate the respectfulness of an essay. Public feedback could be used for the YMM, though a technology called Natural Language Processing could automate a large percentage of the functionality.

      Provide mechanism for the audience to associate external thought to the program and to each Audience Post. Example:

      1. Constitution Article Sections/Amendment
      2. Case Law
      3. Quotations
      4. Book Reference/Bibliography
      5. External Blogs,Magazines,Newspaper

      Just as this post, a participating audience members post is not expected to by 100% relative to the program content. Provide a mechanism allowing audience participation to determine future program content.

      Visit ‘The Do Good Gauge’ website if you want to participate in the idea. Twelve individuals with a similar passion are being sought for the effort. There is no funding. Determining the path forward will be the first line of business for twelve disciples searching for good.

      Legal: The Do Good Gauge by Scott Nesler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

      • Wm. James

        Overall, I will say I like your ideas. Sounds like you are wanting to hone your writing skills, here. We could all use more skills. The right to edit; Yes ! Your mamma meter; not bad ! ( This is the grading meter. ) Although, if one condemns , one should also have the responsibility to articulate a more “correct” version. ( There is, however, something to be said for speaking in tongues, as it allows inference, double meanings, and thought priming.) What about attachments? I do like the idea of “right to edit”, I make far too many typos and word flip, flops. The old eyes don’t work like they use to !

        PS. Maybe we need a cloud, where we can point to post that are off topic, using links ?

        • Wm. James

          I forgot to mention sorting by dates or most current post. Real time saver.

        • http://www.dogoodgauge.org The Do Good Gauge

          The possibilities are huge. The problem with current blog technologies is it’s a depth oriented system. The path of discussion quickly splinters into irrelevancy. Look, I’m doing it right here. Though, this discussion is more pertinent to philosophy than On Point’s attempt.

          For the rest of the world, have ever seen a blog which solved a problem. That is what Wm. James and I are suggesting. A new forum of communication using collaboration and refinement to solve community problems in a civil manner.

          The idea of one post per person and the ability to edit the post changes the model to a breadth oriented problem solving model. Closer to the intent of the topic at hand.

          Wm. James, I like your idea of adding attachments. Especially if the attachment clarify understanding.

          The association data provides a mechanism to connect and measure similarities of thought. The relevancy gauge, (-2, 0, 2) tied to association provides a measure of magnitude and direction.

          I would like to share an compilation of quotations I put together to express the idea. Democracy, education, and learning from mistakes are key to the compilation:

          A Historical Perspective of Doing Good


          Wm. James it sounds like we share a similar passion. The ideas we express would take some effort to implement. ‘Build it and they will come’ is a fools game. The best suggestion I have received is to find a community problem and solve it building upon the technologies I’ve developed. Sounds easy. It’s not. Civil problems typically have a leadership committee with a predefined process. Few are willing to experiment with an unproven technology.

          I’m open for suggestions.

          • Wm. James

            I would also like to see a schedule of new posts to old shows. Being old is not the same as being dead, or so I am told. Just finished listening to “Iconoclast”, will listen again, I’m sure.

            On your ‘ build it they will come” statement . Let’s not loose sight of the fact that, ratings are measured, in part by the number of posters. Hey, if your willing to post something, you probably spent time listen, once, twice; or more ! It all comes down to cost vs. benefit.

          • http://www.dogoodgauge.org The Do Good Gauge

            Good point about keeping prior content alive. I have a suggestion which flips the model upside down. What if we let the content producers do what the do best? Let them produce quality programs and allow them to broadcast them.

            Just as everyone who reads this post, I have a point of view unlike any other. For the most part, what concerns me will have little effect on humanity as a whole. Though occasionally, my knowledge and experience provides a thought worthy of higher demographics.

            The primary thought of the Do Good Gauge is to approach a civil truth. If only I could stop at those words and it would done. Instead, I labor with associations to reach a parallel understanding. Often programs such as On Point, This American Life, Studio 360, the Diane Rehm Show, Science Friday, … touch on topics tangent to the idea.

            A recent Studio 360 program captured my since of elasticity in truth. Instead of writing about it, I decided to remix the episode to capture the thought.

            The Elasticity of Theoretical Physics.


            I understand this remix may be considered an infringement of copyright. I hope content producers will listen to a suggestion. A suggestion providing an opportunity for a revenue stream higher than the current model. The average citizen cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars to remix quality programs. Through volume your product could be offered for remix at a reasonable price.

            “Argument Theory” is a primary subject matter of the Do Good Gauge. Argument Theory is fundamental to philosophy. It has primary been used as a tool of debate. Though I don’t see argument as debate. I see it as a quest for the truth. Debate is a game with winners and losers. I suggest a rethinking of Argument. An argument is on going and ever changing. The process I describe attempts to tie an argument to a living document with history, statistics, and a higher potential for demographic visibility.

            Wm. James thanks for the suggestion, in your words I was able to express a thought on keeping prior programs alive.

          • Wm. James

            Do Good…,

            You might enjoy the “Teaching Companies” courses on philosophy and argumentation, their catalog is free. I have to warn you, it just keeps coming.
            (Berger is my favorite. Very likable fellow.)

            Mixing ———– Brilliant !

            Something similar crossed my mind as I listen to the Iconoclast segment. A lot of cross talk would have been possible with author, James Miller and the author of “Iconoclast”. In fact, cross fertilization of ideas could be achieved if the listeners to “On Point” could post, weeks prior to a Battle Royal of authors. A hyper- round table if you will… We the listeners could vote on the questions that they would be asked.

          • http://www.dogoodgauge.org The Do Good Gauge

            The possibilities are endless. And so much so do I want to participate. Hopefully others share the desire.

            As you mentioned before cost vs. benefit. Not the cost/benefit of the media producers, but in terms of motivating the individual to participate.

          • Wm. James from Missouri

            Do Good,

            Above you mentioned “Living Document”—- Storyboard ? Walt Disney style ?

            From Wiki….
            Storyboards are graphic organizers such as a series of illustrations or images displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualizing a motion picture, animation, motion graphic or interactive media sequence, including website interactivity

            What would Bugs Bunny have to say about Philosophers. I bet there were some cartoons that touched this concept.

          • Wm. James

            Replying to Sir Do Good ; via Wm. James :

            Here’s a very practical idea. The “Tautology” statement must have created an alpha wave avalanche. Why not have a handy dictionary gadget available, on sight. User just clicks a posted word and gets the definition.

            Don’t forget to read and or buy Mr. Millers book. Better mention the sponsors on this page too !

          • Wm. James

            I don’t like the idea of one post per person. It will only lead to “too” lengthy posting. Besides, sometimes your hot, and have lots to say on a subject, and can come at the subject from different directions. Pointers would allow linking of prior post. Any user could read all the post written by that person. The cloud idea is really nothing more that an “off point” click, a side comment, this could be anything, a joke, a personal story, a web link, etc.. Now back to this On Point:

            We can never know what goes on behind closed doors. Philosophers are people too ! Now there is an American pragmatic tautology for you. Every parent knows that, “do as I say” is wiser than “do as I do” ! Personal failings are not the “thing” philosophers are trying to make immortal.

          • http://www.dogoodgauge.org The Do Good Gauge

            Your probably right. Maybe the idea is not intended to be a replacement for blogs, but an alternative method. Not everything has to be solution oriented. Though when required better tools to facilitate civil solutions should be made available.

            ‘Tautology’, thanks for the word. Never thought to use it. Compact, precise, and to the point. A prime example of shared association with appreciated benefit.

            I suggest the ‘Living Document’ concept provides an opportunity to cleanse an idea. To remove the tautology. It provides the opportunity to clear out the mistakes and express a coherent solution. I image Socrates had his demonstrations of incoherency and irrational thought. We all do, that’s what makes us human. I would rather you not google my handle, in doing so you will find many examples of tautology. What I’m suggestion is supportive network to compact an idea making it available for assembly into a broader community solution set.

            For those familiar with computer programming, I’m suggesting an ‘Object Oriented’ / ‘Design Pattern’ method for public problem solving.

  • Wm. James

    Is an unexamined post worth writing ?

    • Ishmael


  • Wm. James

    The party ends, so soon, so soon. To all I offer some words from my favorite virtual philosopher, Lord Hamlet :

    And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  • Ishmael

    One of the most superficial discussions I’ve heard on air.

    Of course people are interested in details of famous peoples’ lives, for the same reasons News of the World and Nat’l Enquirer are so successful.

    Personal view: the words themselves, rather than the conduct of their author, are the more important phenomena.

    Bringing material like popular US culture into the discussion is unfortunate (contemporary commercial songwriters and trends, and current politics. Who cares?).

    As Tom pointed out, the exclusive emphasis on Western thinkers is regrettable. How much of what is “known” about Socrates, Plato etc is accurate is good topic for its own discussion.

  • Brett

    “Of course people are interested in details of famous peoples’ lives, for the same reasons News of the World and Nat’l Enquirer are so successful…”
    -Ishmael, Saturday, Feb. 12, @10:32pm

    Isn’t there something sort of fraudulent about propping up one’s own opinions by reducing a viewpoint one doesn’t share to its lowest common denominator? By equating what some might find as interest in knowing something about the lives of notable people in history/philosophers with reading National Enquirer, aren’t you doing just that? Are biographies of no redeeming value, for example? To have listed the biography as an example of people’s interest “in details of other peoples’ lives” might not have been quite as dramatic for you, though, I have to admit…I think the broader point some were making is that philosophy should be something that can be applicable, at least something beyond an academic exercise, something more than contained for study behind glass, as it were.

    Within the study of philosophy/ethical theories are the analyses of how and why ideas/concepts exist. Critical thinking itself explores mechanisms like deception, logical fallacies, and bias, for example. Epistemology analyzes justification, belief, and so on, in getting at determining how we know what we know. The connection between philosopher and his/her philosophy can not be fully separated, no matter how much/little the student of any given philosophy might know about a given philosopher’s life/influences, etc. Pursuits such as searching for the meaning of life don’t happen in a vacuum, and they only have true universal relevance to us as human beings as they pertain to living and dying (those things that happen to philosophers, as well).

    Some details of the lives of philosophers (while some being irrelevant) can be central to their philosophy and relevant. I think knowing something about the life of an important thinker, as well as understanding the historical context in which he/she lived, can have some value in understanding his/her ideas. It can sometimes serve to demystify/bring clarity to what he/she was driving at, or at least where he/she was coming from.

    You stated, “Personal view: the words themselves, rather than the conduct of their author, are the more important phenomena.” Your personal view that the importance of philosophy is in “words” and not in the conduct of the philosopher sets up a false argument. Maybe some are looking at philosophers themselves in a comprehensive way and what gave rise to their ideas rather than simply the philosophers’ “conduct”? Maybe what drives their “words” can also have importance. You also do your own viewpoint a disservice by pitting “conduct” (the view you criticize) against “words” (the view you defend). Wouldn’t you rather defend a philosopher’s ideas/concepts than his/her “words”?

    Also, it seems you’ve contradicted yourself when, in the last paragraph of your comment you said, “How much of what is “known” about Socrates, Plato etc is accurate is good topic for its own discussion.” I could be reading this wrong, though; what you meant is difficult to parse due to your poor construction of this sentence. If you feel as though separating out so-called fact and fiction about philosophers’ lives would be a good topic for discussion, yet you find little value in people being interested in the lives of philosophers, then there is a contradiction. If only their “words” matter, as you say, then why concern oneself with their lives at all, whether accounts of their lives are accurate or not? Maybe you were simply saying that is a separate topic from this one in particular? If so, is it up to you to determine the most narrowly pertinent aspects of any topic on this forum and be the self-appointed monitor of what you consider slight violations to discussion parameters?

  • Ishmael

    There’s a lot there, Brett. Was that intended as a “response” to my post? If so then we are violating the intended communicative structure of the newly-dsigned forum … ^/^
    I am of the opinion as it was stated, and a lot of people are interested in the lives of the famous, for whatever reason they are famous. I see nothing wrong in that at all; it is evidently a rather natural phenomenon.

    My intent in the comment about a philosopher’s words being more impt. than conduct (conduct: the story of the “action and stir” of their lives, as Balzac has said (translated)). Intellectual antecedents of philosophical ideas (I suppose that would be your “how and why” behind the ideas and concepts) are tremendously interesting (at least to me), albeit how that might relate to this philosopher doing this or that isn’t always so clear (but sometimes it might be). The philosopher is far more ephemeral than his or her words, I’d stand by that, and it is the idea, the philosophy that endures therefore, not its author. And, when you are attempting to reconstruct knowledge of lives from millenia ago, accuracy is always a pertinent issue. People continue to debate the actual physical existence of some of the major characters in human history, because we really can’t prove anyone’s physical existence at all when we are reaching far into the mists of history … but that statement itself, I suppose, enters its own philosophical realms…..
    I suppose part of my commentary on this program was that I found it (of necessity) entirely superficial (by necessity) in jumping so rapidly from person to person without an opportunity to explore any depth.

    I do, however, see a continuity in peoples’ interest in other people, particulary influential people, in all manner of media, yes Nat’l Enquirer as well as “The Life Of —-” (fill in the blank with any influential person’s name …..). And that’s fine.
    No, I am not attempting to equate popular media with serious endeavor, however.

  • Brett

    Thanks for clarification and your response. I agree with most of what you say and don’t necessarily disagree with the rest.

    Like any show that has an author talking about his/her book, particularly an author talking about such demanding topics as philosophy through the ages, this one fell short. Having discussions on an hour program such as top ten Classical composers, all of the great writers from the last two hundred years, and so on, will generally be nothing more than a confection empty of calories. But, for all of the show’s limitations from the very concept, I took it for what it was.

    The forum broadened the discussion a bit, which seemed would be likely. Obviously people are going to have different familiarity with any topic and relate to any topic based on that familiarity. I was defending, in my response to you, those who were introducing modern artists and scientists into the discussion as philosophers of sorts. While writers, musicians, psychologists and scientists generally are not what we think of in terms of traditional philosophers, they can reach people on a similar level. I was also defending my own interest in knowing something about philosophers as people. Whether putting together an understanding of a historical figure can be assembled easily or with difficulty/questionably by virtue of their proximity to current times, I see much of philosophy as being often as mortal as the philosophers from which the philosophy sprang. I see much of philosophy as being a product of its time, albeit much of it is enduring in value.

  • Wm. James from Missouri

    Trivia questions:

    Little is every said about the families and descendants of famous philosophers. Any thoughts ? Plato came from wealth, what of the others ?

  • Wm. James from Missouri

    Quick after thought…..

    Pythagoras, Plato, Gödel (umlauts), did not all of these people use the archetypical proto-thought —— FORM —– as an axiomatic seed ?

  • milo

    Philosophy is the search for truth using intellectual the tools of logic to direct one’s insight. We search for what we can know about existence, ethics, and how the mind comes to know. It involves almost all other intellectual disciplines–it is at the root of all other intellectual disciplines, even if those other scholars do not recognizethe philosophical principles of their field.

    Philospohers find the truth. They do not make the truth. A philosopher’s personal behavior is not relevant to the truth that they may or may not have found, but it may be interesting from a psychological or historical point of view in trying to understand why the philospher’s thoughts took the path that it did. But personal behavior does not detract from what is true. The truth is independent.

  • christian vargas

    hey can u help me on theis stuppid i have to do in class please by this monday i realy need help on it please can u help me on it has to be on the examined life on chrisvargas89@yahoo.com

  • http://twitter.com/philoec Nora Smith

    Socrates, as a pagan philosopher understood that God is the culmination of the searching heart -beauty and transcendence.
    No life can go unexamined for it is a recipe for chaos, like a ship without a captain or a heard of sheep without a shepherd.
    The great philosopher St Agustin agrees with Socrates -the  ultimate truth is Truth itself. 

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The National Guard and Eric Holder in Ferguson. ISIS beheads an American journalist. Texas Governor Rick Perry gets a mug shot. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

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Aug 21, 2014
In this November 2012, file photo, posted on the website freejamesfoley.org, shows American journalist James Foley while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. In a horrifying act of revenge for U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, militants with the Islamic State extremist group have beheaded Foley — and are threatening to kill another hostage, U.S. officials say. (AP)

An American is beheaded. We’ll look at the ferocity of ISIS, and what to do about it.

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