I'm Jim Donovan PhD, aka JD. As you can see from my bio at
I'm a science geek. I came to Shimer to complete my education. I'll probably chime in from time-to-time with something about science or how science relates to other fields.
I'm Jim Donovan PhD, aka JD. As you can see from my bio at
I'm a science geek. I came to Shimer to complete my education. I'll probably chime in from time-to-time with something about science or how science relates to other fields.
From time to time, we hope to post the thoughts of some of Shimer's great faculty members on this blog. Some may even join the ranks of our regular contributors. For now, Harold Stone, who you can read all about here, has shared these notes originally composed for the Gadfly, Shimer's newsletter for Weekend College, a program which allows adults to complete their undergraduate education in the Great Books here at Shimer.
Notes from the Director
Welcome to the Fall Semester of the 2009-2010 academic year. The Weekend College is approaching its thirtieth year. At one time, the rule of thumb was not to trust anyone over 30. I don’t know if the same skepticism was or should be applied to institutions. As we approach the end of the Weekend College’s third decade, I can tell you the Program is strong, our continuing students have made remarkable achievements in one of the most challenging programs of undergraduate instruction. Congratulations to those who have completed their Area Comprehensive examinations and to those who passed the Basic Studies Examination. Welcome to our new students. I think you will agree as you get to know them that they are interesting individuals full of promise. If reaching and passing the thirty year mark is a passage perilous, I advise you to be confident because of the quality of the company engaged in this venture and the nobility of its purpose.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th of the publication of his best known work, On the Origin of Species. As we continue our contribution to the life of the mind and the development of our own intellectual and spiritual resources, it is right to think back on what binds us to and separates us from this past. To enter the world of 1809 requires a far greater imaginative leap than that of 1859, or so it seems to me. There is something seductive about “The Masterpiece Theatre” presentation of the novels of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell or Charles Dickens that makes each of them so approachable even palpable. This immediacy of the past can be deceptive. To understand most things we need to withdraw from our immediate context and radically slow down the pace of what we experience. This isn’t primarily because ‘back then’ life was slower, though that may be true. The primary reason to slow down is to allow us to stop, to pick up objects, and to explore them in their complexity. You should use the same standard when it comes to your class preparation and your writing. Set aside more time then you think reasonable to get your reading done and your papers written. Call it time to think, time to day dream, your understanding of your readings will only improve the longer you allow yourself to wander and wonder with them. Great authors and great books often have the unsettling effect of making you think they are speaking directly to you, and often that is true. When you think you are succumbing to the power of an argument, beware that you are loosing your critical judgment! Slow down.
On other matters, remember that after the next Weekend College meeting on Sunday we will have the first meeting of the Assembly, the governing body of the College. All staff and students are members of the Assembly. Be sure to attend, consider serving on one of the committees that govern the College. If you have any difficulties with your ID or have any other problems be sure to contact me.
Director of the Weekend Program
Fact Checking: The Perspective of the Great Books
Among the polymaths we study is the seventeenth French writer Blaise Pascal. We read Pascal’s scientific treatises on air pressure and the vacuum in Natural Sciences One; his Pensées are a required text in Humanities Three. In 1656 Pascal began a project which perhaps really began as a series of actual letters to an unnamed friend. In any event, in their published form they are presented as a series of loosely connected letters which describe the state of theological debate in Paris to someone remote from the capital city. In their published form we know them as The Provincial Letters. In this compact volume of 18 or 19 letters one reads a withering analysis of the state of the moral philosophy and of the theological speculation practiced at France’s leading center of religious thought, the Sorbonne. Not only does his work deal with fundamental questions of integrity and moral purpose; his irony is sublime, his wit is never merely corrosive or abusive, and some of his passages will make you roar with laughter.
The recent debate concerning what actually is being proposed in the healthcare legislation being considered by Congress reminded me of the initial issue that begins The Provincial Letters. What got Pascal started was what might seem an obscure and insignificant matter. A couple of decades before a theologian named Jansen had written a Latin treatise seeking to make a coherent explanation of the various remarks of St. Augustine concerning grace, and especially the saving grace God might give to individuals. This was an important matter of contention between Protestants and Catholics at this time as those of you who have already taken the class know from your reading of Max Weber in Social Sciences One. It was also an internal dispute between the different religious orders of the Catholic Church. In the rush to discredit Jansen and his followers (whom we might regard as conservatives), a group led by the Jesuits (whose position might be called liberal) asserted that Jansen’s book contained four heinous propositions. The Pope, on seeing the propositions, agreed; he condemned the propositions and the book as heretical. Pascal and his friend Arnauld had the further effrontery to point out that not only were these statements not contained in Jansen’s text, the text clearly said the opposite. To be sure, they agreed, if they had been in the text they would have been heretical. The response of some of the Jesuits was to argue that Arnauld and Pascal should be condemned for pointing out that the passages couldn’t be found!
And, as you might suspect, this argument, while it looked like it concerned theology was in fact a political quarrel involving the prestige of the French King Louis XIV and the Papacy who were allied to the flawed scholarship of the Jesuits. While these connections are interesting, what Pascal goes on to show is the moral bankruptcy behind the sloppy and unethical behavior of those who deliberately misrepresent what they read, or worse what they claimed to have read. He goes on to show that those who sponsored and affirmed these fabricated propositions were part of an institution that promoted a rotten moral code. Pascal did not hesitate to ridicule his adversaries and succeeded in making them not only look silly but he also showed they were merely petty men who were attempting to be bullies.
Not that this normally happens at Shimer, but because my various classes were spread out across the spectrum of possibilities here, my semester was a series of: this-is-over-but-this-isn't, now-this-is-over-but-I-have-another-essay-due, now-the-last-reading-is-the-last-comp, wait-one-more! And so forth.
In case you're unfamiliar, we don't have exams here at Shimer at all. (Well, they'll tell you this and then you might find yourself looking at a series of questions from IS2 or NatSci1/2. But those aren't tests, we promise. They're more like take-home assessments.) Instead, the semester usually ends with everyone trying to finish all the essays they meant to do over the semester in the last week of classes (because as long as you turn in an essay on time, you can rewrite it as you please until the end of the semester. This goes for pretty much every class. Hence the number of previous blog posts about Hell Week). And you aren't finished then. After classes end, Writing Week takes over: work on your own project, pass a comp or do your thesis, pick your poison. No, really, Writing Week tends to be a lot of fun, because you're working on your own time on your own idea (that is, if you do a project). You are supposed to work on it the whole week, but it's usually not that hard to find something that interests you to do for a week. I've seen people do a week of silence, a week of sculpting, a week of music-making, glass-blowing, back-packing, book-making, or even the more traditional essay-writing. I've done Writing Week projects two semesters in a row... that is, last year. This year was the year of the comps.
Comps are... okay, I'll admit it, they are exams. But they are the only exams that you take at all during the course of your studies at Shimer. They are week-long intensive reading, writing and discussion sessions. Generally you get a long-ish work to read that makes the theme of the rest of the comp. Then you write an eight to ten page essay on a question about that work. Then you have a discussion. Then an in-class essay. Then perhaps another essay or two, taking different forms (such as short answers or letters; they can be more creative, I've heard). It may sound really hard--and I don't want to delude anyone, it's intense--but it's also a crazy amount of fun.
My Basic Comp (which is what you need to pass to take upper level courses and tutorials) was centered around Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. If you have not read this play, put it on your reading list. It is possibly one of the best modern plays I have ever read. It manages to mix philosophy with science and raw human emotion in such a way as to create beautiful and intricate patterns and stories without even trying. There are so many things to be gotten out of this play. With this kind of subject material for a comp, writing ten pages about it, discussing it and then writing two more essays did not take nearly as much painful effort as I thought it would. The anticipation was the worst part.
That was last semester. This semester was my Area Comp, which is a comp you can take in any of the three basic concentrations: Humanities, Natural Sciences or Social Sciences. I was taking the NatSci comp, so we read Richard Feynman's Six Not-So-Easy Pieces (thanks, Jim). Admittedly, I did not get it the first time through. But after discussing it with the other person taking the comp (there was only two of us, which made it all the more personal and fun) and reading it again, I felt little fireworks of understanding exploding in my brain. This comp was a little different, though, because I was taking it with Weekend College, so I had two weeks to write a eight-page essay, and then come in on Sunday (yes, Sunday!) to do the discussion session, short-answer and in-class essay parts.
Backtrack a few weeks. I've taken classes in Weekday College, Weekend College, and Vandercook College of Music (choir!). These all end, naturally, on different days. So my end of semester went something like this:
End of April: Classes end! No, wait, just my Weekday Shimer classes. Actually, the only tutorial I took on the weekday ended several weeks before. So it's not really Hell Week for me.
Relaxing while everyone else isn't.
First week of May: Writing Week! Wait, but not for me, since I still have Weekend College, and I'll be taking the comp. I put off doing work for Weekend College. Instead, Vandercook classes end, and I get to sing in Vandercook's commencement ceremony. They have their own students play their own music at commencement--too cool.
Second week of May: Oh, crud, there was THAT essay I forgot? This is my own personal Hell Week before the last weekend session. Also I have to move out of the dorms on Sunday right after classes end (approximately an hour after the move-out deadline. I ask for an extension).
Third week of May: I'm home and working on my comp. There have never been so many other things to do as when I'm supposed to be doing this essay.
Fourth week of May: Panic! My essay isn't done! Discussion session, fueled by several late nights of coffee, fixes that mistake.
Sunday, May 31st: I come in to do the comp, and-four hours later-it's DONE! My semester's finally OVER! And I can say that I've completed two years at Shimer.
June 1-2: Break. Ahhhhhhhh. Wait...
June 3: Summer internship starts.
So while the end of the semester was insane, it was also a lot of fun (now that it's over). And my internship is amazing... more about that later.
All I can say is: I miss Shimer already.
I was asked recently what my favorite books are in the Shimer curriculum. Of course, that's as easy a question to answer as: So, have you stopped beating your wife yet? (Just try answering that yes or no.) But I have given the matter some thought, and after a lot of painful agonizing and trying to ignore sighs and indignant yells of other titles on my bookshelf, I've come up with a top five list.
This is entirely subject to change of opinion, time, experience, etc.
1. Godel's Proof. This is the culmination of Integrative Studies 2, and, I would argue, one of the most important books you'll ever read at Shimer. It refuted the idea of absolute mathematical truths and essentially proved that you could not have a non-axiomatic system. I translate that in practical terms to say that you will always have assumptions in an argument; you cannot prove everything. It's a challenging read, even the summary of it that we do cover (the full proof is too complex to get into in the amount of time that we have to read it), but I feel its implications appeal even to the non-mathematically minded. I have been thinking of things in terms of systems and axioms ever since I read this. It applies to any analysis of reading that I care to do.
2. Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway. One James Joyce and one Virginia Woolf, I include these together because they were both parts of an elective that I took last year. My mind exploded with implications for fiction and literature after I read both of these. They've inspired thoughts about how human minds work, and how, as an author, I can communicate this in literary characters. Both novels do stupendous jobs of chronicling one day of ordinary life in such a way as to celebrate that; as much as we as human beings strive for something "special," often our day-to-day life is fuller than any extraordinary event we can possibly imagine.
3. What Is Life? and Mind and Matter. This is part of the Natural Sciences 4 course, and you read it towards the end of the class. Erwin Schrodinger is an amazingly readable scientific author, and while I enjoyed reading his explanations of cellular processes as connected to chemistry (part of What is Life? and the only thing we were actually supposed to read), I found his writing in Mind and Matter to be absolutely brain-blowing. He talks about the separation of mind and body as the inherent assumption in modern science--and how that doesn't exist, and what the implications of that are in terms of how we approach the world and the ideal of "objectivity" in science. It's the best reading I ever read by accident as I thought it was assigned.
4. The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Another Natural Sciences reading, this one from Nat Sci 2. Maybe it seems odd to have Jane Goodall on my top five list, but the study of chimpanzees for me holds a lot of clues as to how we evolved into the human beings we are today. It fits for me the way Shimer studies ideas from the past in order to understand the present; I feel I gained insight into possible interpretations of human nature from reading about chimpanzees. The most interesting speculation I had, that Goodall mentions at the end, is that it was primarily war that caused chimps to evolve into human beings: the chimps that were better-organized and more able to fight and kill off rivals were the ones that survived. If human beings evolved by conflict, what does that say about our current course, and what we can do in the future?
5. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. This choice is equal parts pleasure as much as impact on my thought. It's the first thing you read in Humanities 2, and you spend a week or two discussing selected poems from the anthology. I wish we read more poetry, but this part of Hum 2 was blissful for me. While it's all western poetry, of course, it's got a huge range of authors and dates (including a lot of modern poetry), and we picked from all over the spectrum. I believe in poetry as much as expository writing as a mode of communicating philosophy. But unlike exposition, poetry deliberately lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations, and in a way stimulates the thought in a way that straight-out philosophical prose does not.
These are what I've read so far that have either blown my mind away or changed the way I think. I am always up for discussion on any of these.
So, last semester wasn't the best of semesters for me. I didn't do as well as I could have, but I passed all my classes and learned a thing or two. And with the memory of my struggles last semester fresh in my mind, I came back for my second semester of college.
That seems to be a fairly frequently asked question, and it's one that I've wondered about myself. The stereotype is unfortunately one of Western books written by DWM ("dead white men"), and for the most part the traditional Great Books curriculum (if there even is such a thing) includes some 450 odd-works that whose authors fit that category.
I say this spurred by the interest of a book someone recently brought to my attention called A Great Idea At the Time: The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam. Now I haven't read it, yet, but I did read the reviews of it and it mentioned the two people who were instrumental in starting the Great Books program in the University of Chicago back in the 1950s: Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler. Both of those names are familiar to me because Shimer still follows a large part of the Hutchins plan in its curriculum (in fact, one of our classrooms is named after him) and Mortimer J. Adler (along with Charles Van Doren) wrote a book called How to Read a Book, which I very much enjoyed. (It is an odd sort of thing to read a book about reading books, but it bears reading more than once. Sometimes older, "classical" books are frustrating because we haven't the slightest clue how to approach them. How to Read a Book gives you all that and more.)
Hutchins and Adler put 443 books they named the canon of western literature into 54 volumes, which they then published and sold door-to-door, trying to spread knowledge to the greater population outside of academia. (An interesting connection I found: my calculus teacher, from IIT this past semester, sold these volumes as a door-to-door salesman when he was younger.) A Great Idea at the Time chronicles that history and its apparent demise. Reading the review brought to my mind a great deal of arguments that have been made against pursuing the Great Books education:
1) It's not practical in the least.
2) Everything's outdated. I mean, who reads Newton and Fourier nowadays? Their achievements are embedded into our scientific history, but no one needs their experiments anymore.
3) They don't promote the cultural diversity that's the vogue nowadays. As mentioned above, the authors are almost all of them DWM.
4) They are difficult to approach and sometimes near impossible to wade through. I dare you to read Kant without once ranting at him.
My defense of what has arguably become my life in the past year and a half:
1) Practical is admittedly one of the arguments most thrown against four years of reading books. But our definitions of practicality usually align with learning the skills and facts that will enable us to get a job. Reading the Great Books, by contrast, will not help one get a job. This is not true. If you want to fight facts with facts, I could say there's a lot of studies out there that have shown that employers in the scientific and medical fields are actually looking for applicants with prior degrees in the liberal arts (going on to specialized and graduate school afterward, of course) because they know that these people are better critical thinkers, better analyzers, open-minded and aware of what's going on in the world. Or I could say that the better the books that you read, the better your writing becomes: Great Books have launched the career of many a journalist, a writer, a reporter. Others have gone on to become lawyers, teachers, business owners; just about anything you can imagine. The Great Books education is not "practical" in the narrow definition because no, it does not teach you the latest in computer science, nor does it require you to memorize the periodic table or quantum formulas. But it teaches you to see the connections between things, the evolution of ideas across the ages, and knowing this you can more easily see how our world works today. It gives you the critical eye needed to cut through a lot of the information pills that our media force-feeds us today and pay attention to what's actually going on in the world, to make your own decisions based on primary sources rather than second- or third-hand sources. And, one thing that I feel is uniquely Shimer--and I freely admit my bias here, as well as lack of experience elsewhere--it helps you to discover what it is you really want to do. Many colleges that you enter are specialized to some degree or another, and you have to choose a degree about halfway through. Shimer's education is general all the way down the line, and you don't have to choose what you want to do so quickly. Reading what I have, both in and out of Shimer's curriculum, has pointed me down a lot of avenues I might not have otherwise explored. But that's for another post.
2) Outdated, yes. Useless? No. Much of science that I was taught throughout my public school years involved memorizing formulas, with little emphasis on how the ideas actually came about. Reading the really, really old scientists, even the ones that seem ridiculous (the pre-Socratics: the world is made out of earth, air, fire and water? Hah!), allows you to trace the evolution of ideas and really know why we are where we are today in science, politics, humanities and so many other areas. I think about it in the same way I think about math: if you know how to derive a million formulas from a single base, then you really only have to remember one thing.
3) Now, while this charge is true of some Great Books curricula, it is certainly not true of Shimer's. I'll name a few authors I've read here that are definitely not D, W, M or otherwise: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Mary Wollstonecraft, W.E.B. DuBois, Jane Goodall, Ruth Benedict, Carol Gilligan... and many others I have not yet had the chance to read. Shimer doesn't stick to the Great Books of the Western World canon outlined fifty years ago; it constantly challenges and updates itself. We read modern, female, minority authors that few, if any, other Great Books colleges include. The importance of that? The Great Books are not dead. The conversations and the writings continue still.
4) This is why we approach the books as a group. I admit, the first time I read through Jame Joyce's Ulysses I was hitting my head on the nearest wall. But when I came into class and we were all equally confused, we came out of our confusion together to some kind of understanding, and the effort it took to work through it made it seem even better: my mind was stretched, and my world expanded. I believe that the basic mentality towards many books written today is that they should be automatically intelligible to everyone, and books written a long time ago are only for smart people to read. Neither statement is true. It's the book that you struggle with before understanding that sticks with you the most, and I really think that almost anyone who puts their mind to it can, with aid, get through a lot of the classical books written centuries ago. It doesn't mean that you have to enjoy all of them (I certainly don't). But there is so much to be gotten from them that you can't simply not try.
Reading these is what brings the Shimer community together as a whole. Whatever other differences in views and opinion we might have, we've all read the same thing. That, to me, is one of the greatest aspects of Shimer's education.
I've mentioned already that I am a junior at Shimer, however most of the other Shimerians here with me in Oxford are in their last year and are thus working on their Senior theses. The idea behind the thesis is that it affords Shimer students a culminating opportunity to really do substantive work on a project or idea that we are passionate about in a way that draws on everything we've learned while at the college. Among some of the really interesting things my comrades here are doing are theses involving research projects, recording music, or translating poetry. All of this puts me in mind to start pondering what I think I'd like to do for my own thesis next year and just this week I think I've begun to develop an idea that I am really excited about.
I've always been really interested in vision, the visual arts and all the fertile connections there are to be made between them and philosophy. I am especially interested in the way that our ideas about seeing get used as a kind of metaphor for both knowledge and illusion. These kinds of associations can be traced back at least to Plato, who, in his famous “Allegory of the Cave” in the Republic used the play of shadows cast on a cave's wall to illustrate the deceptive world of appearances on earth and the symbol of blinding sunlight to represent the eternal truth of the forms.
But I think what I would particularly like to explore in a thesis is the way slightly more modern philosophers use the model of sight to try to understand the problems of human consciousness, or, more specifically what many 19th and 20th century German philosophers would begin to call 'false consciousness' or 'ideology.'
Take, for example, Ludwig Fuerbach's musing on the eye in his book The Essence of Christianity.“The eye looks into the starry heavens [and] gazes at that light [and] sees its own nature and its own origin. Hence Man [sic] elevates himself above the earth only with the eye.” Without going into to too much detail about his philosophy, I can say that Feuerbach uses this model of the human eye, seeing it's own divine nature in the heavens, to propel an argument that challenges Christian doctrines. Not that he wants to get rid of religion, in fact, he actually places a high value on it, because he thinks it expresses, though in an inverted form, humanity's idea of its true essence. Feuerbach argues that though religion represents human creativity as if it depends on God, in reality God is just the projection of an ideal image of humanity's own capacities. Feuerbach goes back to optical metaphors to try to explain this inversion and the projection of human potential into the idea of God saying it is like “the double refraction of the rays of light.” Feuerbach thought that if he could get people to change the way they interpreted their own nature—to stop inverting their own potential through a prism of false consciousness—then many of humanities problems could be solved.
Karl Marx, who came along shortly after Feuerbach, thought all this talk about ideals and essences was flaky. Writing about Feuerbach, Marx famously said “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” For Marx, the character of human life doesn't come from contemplation of starry abstractions; it comes from real-world activity. Marx thinks that Feuerbach makes a big mistake in trying to improve human conditions by simply getting people to think differently. In fact, for Marx putting ideas before action (or in the lingo of philosophers, theory before praxis) obscures our consciousness of our relationships to the world and each other. To summarize the disagreement more succinctly: Feuerbach thinks that abstract ideas determine human the nature of human existence; but Marx thinks human actions produce all our ideas. The problem of false consciouness as Marx see it, is that people (and I think he would include Feuerbach here) fail to see the role active production plays in the formation of our ideas. But what is so interesting to me is that Marx picks up, and even elaborates on the optical tropes used by Feuerbach to make this point. In The German Ideology Marx writes that “men [sic] are the produces of their conceptions, ideals, etc. [...] If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera-obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”
Wouldn't it be really interesting to trace these and other strains of thought linking vision to false consciousness in relation to the development of optical technologies such as the lens or the photograph or film?
I think this kind of thesis would raise another question: is there something fundamentally deceptive about seeing? Or on the contrary can vision, or different visual technologies, ever reveal things about our existence that are otherwise hidden? (Walter Benjamin makes a really interesting argument to this effect in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction when he claims that film can reveal an “optical unconscious”... more fodder for the thesis, I guess)
Anyway, just in case this post isn't long enough already, Marx's mention of the camera obscura lets me segue neatly into something really cool here in Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum of Science.
They have a whole collection of neat optical devices ranging from ancient telescopes to early microscopes and primitive photographic projectors. The coolest thing they have, however, is a functioning camera obscura.
The name is Latin for 'dark chamber,' and it's basically
a way to project an image onto a surface. Lots of Renaissance artists
used them as drawing aides and Aristotle used a primitive form of the
principle to watch an eclipse, the old pinhole in a dixie cup from
grade school. This is a more advanced application of the same idea,
using lenses and mirrors (which is why in the image I show below isn't inverted in the way Marx mentions).
This is the aperture:
It looks out the window on to Broad Street.
And to see the image, you poke your head under the sheet.
I really dig the ghostly quality of the camera obscura image. I feel like its a bit of a precursor to the appeal of sitting in a dark theater and watching a movie. If you ever get a chance to get into one, I recommend it.
The opinions expressed by the Shimer bloggers are theirs alone, are subject to change upon each blogger's reflection, and do not reflect the opinions of Shimer College. Shimer is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of any of the information supplied on this blog and strongly encourages you to contact the Shimer Admission Office directly if you have questions about Shimer. The entries on this blog belong to their authors and to Shimer College. Shimer encourages and deeply values discussion, but the college is not responsible for what is posted by commenters and reserves the right to delete any comment for any reason whatsoever. Deletions will likely be made if commentary is commercial, irrelevant, abusive, profane, rude, or destructively inaccurate. Shimer students on the regular staff of this blog are modestly compensated for their efforts.