Immersion v. isolation

An insight from Tocqueville came through National Review, specifically on how the French ruling class came to become so detached from the reality of revolution that was stirring around them:

At the almost infinite distance from practice in which they lived, no experience tempered the ardors of their nature; nothing warning them of the obstacles that existing facts might place before even the most desirable reforms; they didn’t have any idea of the dangers which always accompany even the most necessary revolutions. They did not have even the least suspicion of them; for the complete absence of political freedom had made the world of action not merely badly known to them, but invisible. (Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, Book III, chapter 1, “How Around the Middle of the Eighteenth Century Intellectuals Became the Country’s Leading Politicians, and the Effects Which Resulted from This”)

When I walked through the streets of Paris three years ago I saw some of the great monuments created by the French during their earlier periods of aristocracy. I felt a bit sad that the people had reacted so violently to separate themselves from that era.

Tocqueville balances that perspective by underscoring leadership’s responsibility of attentiveness to reality. Immersion rather than isolation is important, along the same lines small v. narrow communities.



Scientism, a sort of bogus sub-genre of legitimate scientific inquiry, often rears its head anytime scientific news is reported. I notice this anytime I see someone say something like “science tells us,” or “because science.” This personification of a branch of intellectual inquiry makes a totem of science. It’s an attempt to turn inquiry and the knowledge derived from inquiry into a holistic explanation of cause.

If the lessons of scientific branches were meant to encompass all knowledge, there would be no philosophy or theology. Science is incompetent to speak to ultimate purpose or meaning in answering the Why? of life in a universe whose entire existence is mysterious.

Fifteen years ago John Searle spoke with Reason about some of this:

Searle: Behaviorism was the idea that when you do a scientific study of the mind, you don’t actually try to get inside the brain and figure out what’s going on, you just study overt behavior.

Reason: Inputs and outputs?

Searle: Inputs and outputs. And the science of psychology on the behaviorist model was you were going to correlate these stimulus inputs with the behavioral outputs. It’s a ridiculous conception of the mind–the idea is that there’s nothing going on in there, except you have the stimulus input and the behavioral output.

The best comment about behaviorism is the old joke about the two behaviorists after they just had sex. He says to her, “It was great for you, how was it for me?” (Laughter) If behaviorism were right, that ought to make perfectly good sense, because there’s nothing going on in him except his behavior, and she’s in a better position to observe his behavior than he is.

Leon Kass has spoken to on these themes too:

The science was indeed powerful, but its self-understanding left much to be desired. It knew the human parts in ever-finer detail, but it concerned itself little with the human whole. Medicine, then and now, has no concept of the human being, of the peculiar and remarkable concretion of psyche and soma that makes us that most strange and wonderful among the creatures. Psychiatry, then and even more now, is so little chagrined by its failure to say what the psyche or soul is that it denies its existence altogether. The art of healing does not inquire into what health is, or how to get and keep it: the word “health” does not occur in the index of the leading textbooks of medicine. To judge from the way we measure medical progress, largely in terms of mortality statistics and defeats of deadly diseases, one gets the unsettling impression that the tacit goal of medicine is not health but rather bodily immortality, with every death today regarded as a tragedy that future medical research will prevent.

A healthy life means a healthy relationship with both knowledge and mystery.


Progress ≠ virtue

Leon Kass once delivered the Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities:

On returning to Cambridge, I was nagged by a disparity I could not explain between the uneducated, poor black farmers in Mississippi and many of my privileged, highly educated graduate student friends at Harvard. A man of the left, I had unthinkingly held the Enlightenment view of the close connection between intellectual and moral virtue: education and progress in science and technology would overcome superstition, poverty, and misery, allowing human beings to become at last the morally superior creatures that only nature’s stinginess, religion, and social oppression had kept them from being. Yet in Mississippi I saw people living honorably and with dignity in perilous and meager circumstances, many of them illiterate, but sustained by religion, extended family, and community attachment, and by the pride of honest farming and homemaking. They even seemed to display more integrity, decency, and strength of character, and less self-absorption, vanity, and self-indulgence, than did many of my high-minded Harvard friends who shared my progressive opinions. How could this be?

In summer 1966, my closest friend, Harvey Flaumenhaft, had me read Rousseau’s explosive Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, for which my Mississippi and Harvard experiences had prepared me. Rousseau argues that, pace the Enlightenment, progress in the arts and sciences does not lead to greater virtue. On the contrary, it necessarily produces luxury, augments inequality, debases tastes, softens character, corrupts morals, and weakens patriotism, leading ultimately not to human emancipation but to human servitude.

Rousseau complains that writers and “idle men of letters”—the equivalent of our public intellectuals, not to say professors—subvert decent opinion and corrupt the citizens: “These vain and futile declaimers go everywhere armed with their deadly paradoxes, undermining the foundations of faith and annihilating virtue. They smile disdainfully at the old-fashioned words of fatherland and religion, and devote their talents and philosophy to destroying and debasing all that is sacred among men.” …

No friend of humanity should trade the accumulated wisdom about human nature and human flourishing for some half-cocked promise to produce a superior human being or human society, never mind a post-human future, before he has taken the trouble to look deeply, with all the help he can get, into the matter of our humanity—what it is, why it matters, and how we can be all that we can be.

If it’s true that “progress in the arts and sciences does not lead to greater virtue” nor “human emancipation but to human servitude,” then we’re well on the path to dystopia.

What can the simple virtues of the heart do against such systemic corrupting influences? We can start by discerning whether what we experience in daily life meets the standard for true progress. We can judge whether it builds up or tears down.


City of Greater Philadelphia

Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City highlights a fascinating idea:

Richardson Dilworth, the mayor of Philadelphia in 1959, testifying before [a U.S. Congressional] subcommittee on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, advocated federal assistance, not in the familiar terms of urban aid and entitlement programs, but in something far more lasting and socially meaningful. He argued for the establishment of a single government for each of the nation’s metropolitan areas, in which a chief executive would have true jurisdiction not only over the city but also over the suburbs ringing it. Such a form of government, Dilworth felt, would unite the city and its suburbs instead of dividing them along social and racial lines. “We cannot continue to set up one class against another,” he said. “That is being done today with the cities against the suburbs. We have to work out some program for the proper allocation of our industry, and … every mayor of a big city would feel that actually there should be one government—one local government—for every great metropolitan area and that this hodgepodge of governments creates conflicts, creates an enormous manner of additional problems, and leads to the inefficient, terrible tax burdens and makes it difficult to have any proper development in the area to meet the problems of democracy.”

At first glance Dilworth’s concept sounded simply like a clever land grab. I’m not a fan of the federal government dictating local integration. If that were to ever happen ever it should be bottom-up and voluntary, but at this point in time I think few would advocate that aspect of Dilworth’s concept.

What I think is still provocative about what I’ll call Dilworth’s “City of Greater Philadelphia” concept is the potential to formalize what “Greater Philadelphia” actually means on the map when it comes to boundary lines. As “Greater Philadelphia” has supplanted the less city-centric “Delaware Valley” descriptor in recent years, there’s no question that companies and nearby communities benefit due to their ability to verbally affiliate themselves with the city that they’ve separated themselves from.

So what if Philadelphia were to offer a certain set of economic benefits for nearby communities interested in being a part of an official “Greater Philadelphia” economic/cultural zone? One example of mutual benefit could be a lessening of the wage tax for city workers residing in nearby communities, in exchange for those communities more formally working to integrate their community and economic plans into that of the city.


Considering public transportation

A little more than three years ago I read Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger. In the book he profiles the public transit infrastructure of major world cities, including Philadelphia. It started me thinking seriously about embracing a different life. This month marks three years since I sold my Acura TL to experiment with life without a car.

What’s the experience been like? Great. Access rather than ownership eliminates a giant financial and logistical nuisance from my life. I’ve taken a lot more Ubers and walked at times when I probably always should have. But more than anything, I’ve come to see cars as just one means of transport rather than the obvious and primary means. Cars are the costliest and truest form of public transport, because they and the roads they require alter our landscapes and dominate our cities, towns, and countryside. When autonomous transport becomes a reality, their place as just another form of public transportation will become more obvious. For now, cars are just privately managed public transportation.

(It has always sort of made me sick to see Philadelphia’s abandoned trolly system tracks and wires still linking the city, but unused and deteriorating due to a basic civic failure of vision. Learning about near-mythical efforts to create a true subway system reaching beyond the city’s core into the Northeast and other areas makes me cringe in longing for the boldness of New York or Chicago. It’s a future we can still have—one with real civic transit infrastructure for more people. Living without a car for the past three years has increased my sensitivity to the need for a broader vision. Autonomous transit might solve these infrastructure needs from both sides of the spectrum.)

I like to think I’ve gained a firmer sense of locality in the process, too—of a sense of distance and place. This was something I really enjoyed in 2011 when traveling Amtrak coast to coast, twice—a deep sense for the sheer size of the American continent and the scope and wealth of its culture, capacity, and climate. When traveling on a slow train through the New Mexico desert, the size of the desert becomes real in a way that it can never be in a climate controlled SUV traveling 80-100 mph. We’ve built ways to avoid dealing with the vastness of the country, whether nationally or in daily local life, but the older and slower America lingers as a living reality for those curious enough to make its acquaintance.

I’m still in love with great cars and classic American car culture’s sense of craftsmanship and excellence. If on-demand, autonomous Teslas don’t become a reality, I’ll probably buy one when they’re affordable for the middle class.

In the meantime, life is good and the experiment works.



Eric Barker relates “four stories from the latest research that can make your job more meaningful and make you happier at the office.”

“Change Your Job Description” is my favorite:

Cleaning the floors in a hospital isn’t anyone’s dream job. Emptying trash cans in patient rooms doesn’t feel special or important. But what if you had the same responsibilities and chose to see your work in a broader context?

I’m helping this hospital run better and my work allows these patients to heal and return to their families.

A study did just that—comparing workers who saw their jobs as merely a paycheck versus seeing it as something deeper. And those who saw their cleaning duties as contributing to the health of the patients felt their jobs were more meaningful.

Via Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness:

Wrzesniewski and Dutton followed a group of hospital cleaners, and found that some of the cleaners experienced their work as a job—as something they did solely for the paycheck—and described it as boring and meaningless. But another group perceived the same work as a calling—and experienced the hours they spent at work as engaging and meaningful. This second group of hospital cleaners did things differently from the first group. They engaged in more interactions with nurses, patients, and visitors, taking it upon themselves to make everyone they came in contact with feel better. Generally, they saw their work in its broader context: They were not merely cleaning the wards and removing the trash, but were contributing to the health of patients and the smooth functioning of the hospital.

How do you see your job? Is there a better—but still honest—lens to see it through that would make you happier?

What would it look like if companies started requiring (in effect) two job descriptions? One traditional job description outlining specific duties and expectations, and another that the employee would have to create to serve as a sort of personal mantra for their vocation.



I’m a fan of routines, although I don’t have as many as I would like. That’s my fault, and hopefully it doesn’t outlast my 20s. One of the routines I do enjoy on a pretty regular basis is evening walks. This was a routine I grew up with, something I think my uncle generally inspired after family dinner.

Evening walks are something I savor now as a way to close out the day. Often I’ll substitute the walk for a run. Either way, the effect is usually the same which is that it reminds me of the life of the rest of the neighborhood or wider area. Usually I’ll overhear some snippet of passing conversation or witness some fun or peculiar sight that in its own way ends up making the day.

Walks can also be a great way to work through audiobooks or podcasts, or tune in to local radio from some other part of the country. I like to listen in to hear how The LION 90.7fm sounds at Penn State, and have also recently enjoyed Ohio State’s student internet station on a regular basis for newer music. Sometimes it will be a little station in Tucson or Savannah or the Pacific Northwest. It helps gives me a sense of place.

I’ll try to think of some other routines over time.



Conor Dougherty’s post on Medium about his mother’s Alzheimer’s and his and his family’s experience is honest and raw:

Last week, while my dad and I sat with her on a park bench, she started complaining that she hadn’t done anything all day, even though she’d spent the morning at the beach. My dad reminded her that she’d been out with Patricia (Patricia is a caretaker), and pointed to the sand and white dust on her shoes. Mom didn’t believe him. She said she wanted to call Patricia. Dad called her. That led to an exchange that went something like Hi Patricia, this is Kathy. Were we out today? OK. Patricia? Is this Patricia?

There ensued claims of a conspiracy, pleas to go home and a fit of tears that prompted a nearby babysitter to shoo a group of kids toward the other side of the park. In between sobs, my mom kept saying something is really wrong. Something is really wrong and I need to talk to my parents. Her parents have been dead for decades.

I learned before I was 10 that my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I was lucky to live in an inter-generational home, and I had grown up with my grandfather as much as anyone. I have my own little vignettes, that as a young kid you can more easily compartmentalize probably because you’re not the one who has to spend 100% of the time with the ailing person, or put him to bed, etc. He was himself for a long time. You always wish you had more time. Gram was a saint. She took care of him in-home until even past when it really became impossible.

Losing my mind to Alzheimer’s ranks as probably my number one fear. I can’t imagine facing that diagnosis. I shutter also because I know the toll it takes on a family. Christianity embraces suffering as part of life. But we also live in a time when medical technology can extend a body far beyond the sorts of limits that would have been possible for most of human history.

I wonder about whether room can ever be made to accomodate a wider range of options for a diagnosis as bleak as Alzheimer’s is at this point.



Last night I met up with an old friend for the first time in years. We drove from Narberth to the Schuylkill River waterfront, climbed a large hill and sat in the thin woods behind Manayunk above the traffic of one of the drives.

It’s far enough into autumn that it got dark earlier than I would’ve liked, so we walked back to the car through Manayunk rather than climbing back down the hill.

Manayunk is one of those neighborhoods that feels timeless to me. Its old working class ethos seeps into the character of even its newest residents. Its homes and streets are tight enough in an elevated enough area to make the place seem like some natural redoubt on Philadelphia’s northwest fringe.

In this redoubt a whole, distinctive village community exists whose inhabitants disperse each morning to do their part of their families and city.


Small v. narrow communities

G.K. Chesterton’s Brave New Family contrasts “small” versus “big” communities. It struck me as very applicable to my experience of places like Ave Maria and State College:

“It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.

The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies, groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls by the divine luck of things there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell.

A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literary sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.”