Bob Schwartz

Tag: philosophy

Poem, Joke, Etc.: Confused Birds

Confused Birds

These birds are confused
Not angry
Wondering where
The cold winds are.
Exulting in
Extended summer.
What’s time to a bird
Or me?

The line “What’s time to a bird” is borrowed from a favorite joke with a surprisingly philosophical punch line. It goes something like this:

A guy is driving along a country road. He sees a farmer under an oak tree, holding up a pig so the pig can eat acorns. The guy stops. “You know,” the guy says, “it would be a lot easier and take a lot less time if you just shook the tree and let the acorns fall to the ground.” “Maybe,” says the farmer, “but what’s time to a pig?”

More about birds:

In the sky a bird was heard to cry.
Misty morning whisperings and gentle stirring sounds
Belied a deathly silence that lay all around.
Hear the lark and harken to the barking of the dog fox gone to ground.
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water.
Grantchester Meadow, Pink Floyd

“Well, then, just what does it mean that everybody has the Buddha Mind?…in the course of listening to my talk, if a dog barks outside the temple, you recognize it as the voice of a dog; if a crow caws, you know it’s a crow…you didn’t come with any preconceived idea that if, while I was talking, there were sounds of dogs and birds, children or grown-ups somewhere outside, you were deliberately going to try to hear them. Yet here in the meeting you recognize the noises of dogs and crows outside and the sounds of people talking… the fact that you recognize these things you didn’t expect to see or hear shows you’re seeing and hearing with the Unborn Buddha Mind.”
From Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei

Zen and Intellectualism: Sit Down and Dance

By inclination and training, I can do some pretty fancy intellectual dancing. There’s a lot of stuff I can understand and learn to understand, a lot of stuff I can talk about and write about in complex and sometimes coherent ways.

Yet I’ve cultivated a view that doesn’t exactly see all that as real, a view that puts every bit of that in perspective.

I was just reading a summary of the development of literary theory, from ancient times to modern. Structuralism. Formalism. Deconstruction. Poststructuralism. On and on. Like all of the sophisticated intellectual arts, this requires real work to understand what analysts and proponents are up to, and even more to get into the conversation and make a contribution. In the end, the aim of practitioners is not only to fill journals and books with these thoughts, but to affect and improve the way we live. Sometimes, they succeed.

Yet there is a part of me that is certain that no matter how cogent and valuable this is, by its nature it misses the target. I am so certain because I am certain of what the nature of that target is, and it doesn’t look, sound or feel like that.

If you think I am suggesting an end to all that as futile and pointless, I am not. There is no point in dancing, but many people love it, and engage in it spontaneously, as soon as they hear the beat. The only suggestion is to consider gaining the perspective that poststrucuralism is poststructuralism, dancing is dancing, and not those are not those.

My intellect loves to dance. Especially when I’m sitting down.

Reason and spirit, wisdom and compassion


as solid
as a rock.
Clinging to it
in the middle
of the ocean.

When I look to friends, colleagues and mentors who have taught and influenced me, I see in many of them a happy and helpful balance of reason and spirit. I thank them, and recommend having such people in your life.

This may be what I might want others to say of me, that I neither abandoned reason nor clung to it too tightly.

Lao-tzu’s Taoteching


“The world is a spiritual thing.”

Taoteching, Chapter 29

Trying to govern the world with force
I see this not succeeding
the world is a spiritual thing
it can’t be forced
to force it is to harm it
to control it is to lose it
sometimes things lead
sometimes they follow
sometimes they blow hot
sometimes they blow cold
sometimes they expand
sometimes they collapse
sages therefore avoid extremes
avoid extravagance
avoid excess

Reading and studying the little (81 tiny chapters) and infinite pool of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching is as valuable as knowing any text from any tradition. Of the dozens of translations into English, all different and many worthy, the one by Red Pine—the translator and scholar Bill Porter—is the place to visit and rest awake. Along with his translation, he includes excerpts from 2,000 years of commentaries.

Aesop’s Fables: Defending a Demagogue

Aesop's Fables

I just began reading Laura Gibb’s excellent and highly recommended Aesop’s Fables. With almost 600 fables, beautifully translated, that’s less than a penny a fable. Please read it for fun, education and enlightenment.

You may or may not have grown up on these tiny tales from this famous real or apocryphal Greek storyteller, but they have been streaming through civilization for millennia. You certainly know some of them from our common culture: the tortoise and the hare, the ant and the grasshopper. Each includes a moral (e.g., slow but steady wins the race), which is how they came to be seen as lessons for children, but they were originally for adults, and you might look to their value as teaching stories for everyone. Also, if you are a writer or other creative, they can provide instant inspirational spark.

When I read this fable of the fox and the hedgehog (Fable 29 in the Gibbs numbering), I couldn’t help thinking of current events:

Aesop was defending a demagogue at Samos who was on trial for his life, when he told this story: ‘A fox was crossing a river but she got swept by the current into a gully. A long time passed and she couldn’t get out. Meanwhile, there were ticks swarming all over the fox’s body, making her quite miserable. A hedgehog wandered by and happened to see the fox. He took pity on her and asked if he should remove the ticks, but the fox refused. The hedgehog asked the reason why, and the fox replied, “These ticks have taken their fill of me and are barely sucking my blood at this point, but if you take these ticks away, others will come and those hungry new ticks will drink up all the blood I have left!” And the same is true for you, people of Samos: this man will do you no harm since he is already wealthy, but if you condemn him to death, others will come who do not have any money, and they will rob you blind!’

Independence Day and STEM Democracy

Thomas Jefferson with Telescope

Is the increasing hegemony of STEM education dangerous to the future of American democracy?

In Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison, Professor I. Bernard Cohen might see it otherwise. As one of the most eminent historians of science, he makes the case that the familiarity of some Founding Fathers with science inspired the new nation, and that the shape of the new democracy was directly based on scientific principles.

One review notes about Professor Cohen’s theory:

The Declaration of Independence, which he [Jefferson] wrote, reverberates with echoes of Newtonian science, as when he invokes “self-evident” truths or “laws of nature.” Benjamin Franklin, far from being a mere tinkerer or inventor, pioneered the science of electricity. Franklin also developed a demographic theory that North America would become a population center of the British world; this led to the policy according to which the British annexed Canada rather than Guadeloupe as the spoils in the war against the French (1754-63). John Adams, who studied astronomy and physics at Harvard, was a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. And James Madison, a devoted amateur scientist, drew on scientific metaphors and analogies in his Federalist articles.

Maybe. But in fact, most of those in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress from which the Declaration of Independence emerged were not scientists or even science fans. And even those whose philosophy was shaped in part by science enjoyed a much broader education, one that gave complete dimension to their thinking, what we now call liberal arts. So that while the intriguing questions that Professor Cohen raises are significant, so is the parallel question: If the Continental Congress had been mostly or entirely filled with 18th century scientists, just what kind of Declaration would have been produced, and more broadly, what kind of nation would we be?

Nowhere can the nexus of Big Science and Big Political Philosophy be better seen than in Richard Rhodes’ magnificent book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It is sort of a fun house mirror of what Cohen claims for the American founding. Rather than world-changing political thinkers with a scientific bent, we have equally historic scientists with a worldly and philosophical bent. They had been educated in the early 20th century, many in Europe, and the standard for education then and there was broad learning beyond the laboratory. In the end, their science was driven by the realities of World War II and Hitler, but that did not stop them from philosophical ponderings and quandaries about the work they were doing and its ultimate impact.

So, yes, it may be that science did help give us what by all measures is a remarkably robust and resilient democracy, starting with the rousing rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. And we should educate scientists, to make progress and to advance the liberty, peace, and security we want. But we should also have many other thinkers, scientists or otherwise, who are capable of leading and having enlightening debates about exactly what we do need and want, and about the means we choose to get there, and about where it might lead. We do need scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. But it is never enough, not nearly enough, at least not in this democracy.