Newsletter: August 2023

[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]

Hello everyone, and welcome to the month of August!

I’ve been enjoying a low-key summer, happily working away at various writing projects while also getting out for some hikes, visiting with friends, and taking kayaking classes.

I’m slowly gearing up for a busier autumn, which will include another one of my ten-week online courses. I hope to make an announcement before the end of the month. Many thanks to those of you who responded to my annual survey—your responses have helped me reflect on what course offerings might most engage you. And if you haven’t yet responded to the survey, you’re not too late!

If you can’t wait until autumn, may I remind you that I also offer a self-guided course that you can begin at any time?

A little over a week ago, we held our monthly philosophy happy hour gathering. On this occasion we discussed L. A. Paul’s influential idea of transformative experience. How can you rationally make a decision about whether to undertake a dramatic change in your life—having a child is the obvious example—that will thereby transform you into a different person with different values? If you’d like to participate in next month’s discussion, just let me know by replying to this email. I can’t promise the experience will be transformative but the discussions have been pretty good.

I also added a second blog post on the topic of “What Is Existentialism?” I’d originally intended it as a two-part series but I realized in writing it that I’d need to stretch it to at least one more. Stay tuned!

The photo above comes from a hike I took up Brandywine Mountain just last Sunday. The peak of Brandywine Mountain is 2213m (7260 ft) above sea level and the trailhead where the hike starts is at 749m (2457 ft). With an elevation gain of nearly 1500m, you pass through three distinct ecosystems on the way up.

The hike begins in the temperate rainforest that blankets the lowlands of the Pacific Northwest. These forests have the densest concentration of biomass on Earth—far more even than the Amazon and other tropical rainforests. The ground is springy underfoot with the accumulated humus of centuries of fallen tree needles. Moss abounds and large bracket fungus sprouts from dead wood.

These forests blanket the lower reaches of the coastal mountains. To get to the highlands, you hike a punishing series of switchbacks over tree roots and around fallen trees, zigzagging up the mountainside until the trees start to thin out and get shorter.

Brandywine Meadows, at about 1450m (4750 ft), is an exquisite example of the alpine meadows of southwestern BC. As you emerge from the forest, the views become more expansive, opening up clear views of the surrounding mountains. Wildflowers bloom in streaks of yellow, purple, and red. The slow melt of mountain ice fields through the summer months feeds waterfalls that converge on streams that burble through the meadows. It all feels like a blessed vision of the afterlife from Nordic mythology, except fallen Viking heroes likely don’t have to put up with quite so many mosquitoes.

The meadows would make a suitable destination in their own right, as scattered groups of tents attest. But the mountains beckon. That means another uphill slog, first across a large stretch of talus, a field of loose rock that was first deposited when glaciers scraped this landscape into its present form. Beyond the talus, you wind up a gradually ascending ridge toward the summit.

Vegetation becomes very sparse here. Patches of heather or grass find toeholds where they can, but mostly it’s just splotches of lichen clinging to the rock in shades of white, pale green, and black. The shaded north slope of the ridge is covered in a layer of icy snow. In these exposed areas, the wind is sharp.

Conversation falls to a hush at these altitudes. Living things aren’t welcome here. I can’t shake the feeling of being an interloper. Some combination of fear, awe, and reverence keeps us from talking too loud, not unlike the way it feels uncouth to speak above a whisper when visiting a church or other holy place.

In the European tradition, that combination of fear, awe, and reverence coalesces in an aesthetic of the sublime. (I bet you were starting to wonder what any of this had to do with philosophy.) Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant both drew influential contrasts between the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is the realm of pleasing forms. The sublime also brings pleasure of a kind, but it’s a colder pleasure, which comes not from delighting us but from overawing us.

The austere upper reaches of mountains are one classic example of the aesthetics of the sublime. You’re in the presence of something that exceeds human understanding or control. No one’s going to pave a road to the top of Brandywine Mountain or open a wine bar there. The mountains evoke this mixture of reverence and awe because they’re too great to be subjected to human purposes. We have to proceed carefully up there because small mistakes can quickly turn into fatal errors.

Kant distinguishes between what he calls a “dynamical” and a “mathematical” sublime. The dynamical sublime is the kind you encounter in nature: mountains, storms, and earthquakes that make us feel puny. The mathematical sublime presents us with a conceptual loftiness that we can’t fully wrap our minds around. Contemplating the infinite whorls of the Mandelbrot set or the bigness of Graham’s number are examples (not Kant’s) of encounters with the mathematical sublime.

Philosophy offers its own instances of the mathematical sublime: ideas so huge and austere that they stun the understanding. One aspiration of philosophers is to grasp reality in its most fundamental and essential form and here they come up against what I might call the philosophical sublime. Plato conceived of a domain of abstract and universal Forms that are purer and more perfect than anything in empirical reality. Nāgārjuna was so rigorous in his investigation of emptiness that he concluded that emptiness itself is empty. Medieval philosophers of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths struggled to find language adequate to indicate the greatness of God.

This philosophical sublime historically overlaps with the kind you find in the mountains. The image of the guru in the mountain cave has become a cliché. Nietzsche used mountain heights both as metaphors for elevated understanding and as sources of solace and inspiration on long walks in the Swiss Alps. Spiritual seekers like the Tibetan sage Milarepa and the desert fathers of the Christian church sought refuge in austere landscapes.

The most sublime piece of philosophical writing I’ve ever read is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He composed most of it in an isolated hut above a Norwegian fjord—another case of the philosophical sublime converging with the dynamical kind. The bulk of this short book traces out the relation between language, logic, and the world in the most abstract terms. Gradually it becomes clear that the most profound and abstract matters—the kind the Tractatus seeks to explain—cannot be put into words. Wittgenstein concludes that the words of the Tractatus themselves are nonsensical and ends with philosophy’s most famous mic drop: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Wittgenstein completed the Tractatus on the eastern front of the First World War and sent off the finished manuscript from a prisoner-of-war camp. Facing near daily artillery barrages, he worked out a philosophical vision that transcended petty human concerns.

In the decade that followed, Wittgenstein gradually became disenchanted with the vision of the Tractatus. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he developed an alternative approach to philosophy, one that didn’t try to rise above the field of human concern but that found its nuggets of insight from within ordinary human life. You might say he came down from the mountain of the Tractatus and discovered a different kind of insight in the lowlands.

A hike into the mountains confronts you with the limits of what life can endure. The experience gives a renewed appreciation for the regions more hospitable to life—you can see more clearly the conditions that are required to support life, and be grateful that those conditions obtain. The point of climbing a mountain isn’t so much about reaching the summit as in what you bring down from it. Once you’ve caught a view of the limits of what’s possible you can explore the domain of the possible with greater freedom and understanding.

There was a feeling of buoyancy as I descended back into Brandywine Meadows. The late afternoon sun cast the greens of the valley in a warm light. In a couple of hours I’d be back in populated areas, enjoying a hearty meal.

Eleven Things I Learned in July
  1. The hammer-like head of hammerhead sharks works as a kind of electricity sensing metal detector. The shark’s head is sensitive to the electric fields created by all living organisms and moving its head over the sea floor helps it detect creatures hiding beneath the sand. (source)
  2. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, spent some of his early adult years in Vancouver. (source)
  3. The word “anthology” derives from a Greek root meaning a collection of flowers. (source)
  4. There’s good reason to think that the “Little Ice Age” that struck Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was due to anthropogenic climate change. The catastrophic drop in population in the Americas caused by the arrival of European colonizers and diseases led to a significant re-wilding of previously cultivated spaces, which in turn caused a reduction in atmospheric carbon. (source)
  5. Nearly half the cells in your body aren’t “human” cells but diverse archaea, bacteria, fungi, and protists. Because they’re much smaller than human cells, these non-animal cells constitute only about 0.3% of your body weight. (source)
  6. In what may be the most punk rock move in the entire animal kingdom, some birds have taken to building nests with anti-bird spikes. (source)
  7. If Hispanic Americans were their own country, it would have the third fastest growing economy of the last decade, after only China and India. (source)
  8. Ship anchors are at the bow of the boat and act as pivots in the water. That means you can tell which way the water is flowing—and hence whether the tide is ebbing or flooding—based on the direction the stern of the ship is pointing. (source)
  9. Humpback whales have been observed intervening, at considerable risk to themselves, to defend seals and grey whales against attacks by orcas. (If you’re a humpback whale, you have good reason to really hate orcas.) (source)
  10. Although it’s a liberal state with fairly strict gun control laws, Massachusetts manufactures more guns than any other US state, accounting for 16% of all US gun production. (source)
  11. The difference between a fen, bog, and swamp is how these different wetlands end up getting wet. Fens are fed by rivers flowing in from higher ground, carrying mineral deposits with them, making them more alkaline. Bogs are fed by rainfall alone and so tend to be more acidic. Swamps, like fens, are fed by rivers but also tend to have a lot of trees. (source)

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