James Mahoney

I just returned from spending three days in New York on a museum trip with students from the Humanities elective, Paris and New York in the Twenties and Thirties.  Perhaps what I have to offer in this entry is not traditional philosophy, but it might be fun anyway.  We spent some time looking at works by Kandinsky – colorful abstract pieces, intersected by seemingly random lines sometimes forming curved shapes.  These are not at all the rigid tile-floor spaces of color by Mondrian.  Caught among the throngs and jostling for a good view, some caught my interest, others were inscrutable.  I overheard many comments of impatience and the sighs of those who could now say they had witnessed the show, found it silly, but satisfied the obligations to whoever had dragged them there.  I thought about Gertrude Stein, who took upon herself the task of interpreting Picasso’s cubism to any who would listen.  She of “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

In her essay, Composition as Explanation, Stein says, “Those who are creating…authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead…that is the reason why the creator of the new…is an outlaw until he is a classic.”   But she warns us that a first rate work of art becomes a classic precisely because it becomes “accepted.”  And once it is accepted it is possible for people to see its beauty.  But that very process can lead to indolence and dull our perceptions.  Instead, she celebrates irritation.  “Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it.”   (Note how her bending of grammar and repetition can be irritating.)  We need to pay attention to the way artistic expression and to philosophical ideas irritate us, especially in our time when we are so bombarded with stimulation that it is hard to focus on any one target of significance.  We listen to a song that flooded our ears in high school and now we just need a few bars and we “have it.”  It is a classic, and further attention is not necessary.

When we entered the Museum of Modern Art there was a natural rush to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  What could be better than that?  But it is too bad that during his life-time this opinion was not shared.  Look quickly and move on, there are lots of other “classics” to check off of our list.    Stein was motivated by defending Picasso.  Not everyone who is irritating is actually worthy of renown.  But perhaps we need to be more patient with what irritates us.  And perhaps we need to look again at what has become accepted and classic.  Stein cautions, “Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful.”

Which philosophers of the tradition have become the “classic” ones?  I am still learning to look at Kandinsky.  Which philosophers are worth overcoming the annoying suspicion that they are making things unnecessarily difficult?  Which are worth a new look?  Foucault, Wittgenstein? Aquinas?  Who are your classic classics?

The members of the Philosophy Department were asked which book they thought would be important to teach to students in an introductory philosophy course. Their answers are below. You can listen to them all at once or you can click on the name of the individual professor below to listen to each professor’s answer.

All answers in one mp3 file.
click the link to play or right click to download.

-Professor Robert Anderson

David Hume-An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding


-Professor Robert Augros

Professor Augros argued that the dialogue between teacher and student was more essential to the philosophical process than any book.

-Professor David Banach

Euclid’s Elements


Albert Camus- The Stranger


-Professor Montague Brown

Plato- The Republic


Online edition


Saint Augustine’s Confessions


Online edition


-Professor Drew Dalton

Marcus Aurelius-The Meditations


Online edition


Slavoj Zizek



-Father John Fortin

Saint Anselm- Monologium




-Professor Susan Gabriel

Bertrand Russell- The Problems of Philosophy


Online edition


-Professor Sarah Glenn

Sophocles- Oedipus Rex


-Professor Matthew Konieczka

Leo Tolstoy-The Death of Ivan Ilyich


Plato- The Apology


Online Edition


-Professor Thomas Larson

Plato- The Republic


Online edition


-Professor Max Latona

Josef Pieper-The Philosophical Act


Professor James Mahoney
C.S. Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief”


Michael Novak, Belief and Unbelief


-Professor Joseph Spoerl

Plato- The Gorgias


Online edition


Plato- The Republic


Online edition


Plato- The Apology


Online Edition


-Professor Kevin Staley

Plato- The Euthyphro


Certainly it is important to distinguish genuine Hope from wishful thinking.  But how does one avoid the paralysis of things looking hopeless?   That is, especially if an individual aims at being honest, where does the energy and focus of Hope come from?  There certainly is not any easy answer to that one.  But, since I am currently reflecting on a couple of literary examples that I use in class, let me suggest a direction.  The key to hopefulness, it seems to me, is imagination.  One must be able to imagine a course of action or the achievement of a self – identity outside the boundaries of the oppressive situation one is stuck with.

In my experience, the philosopher best able to marshal this use of imagination was William James.  And he was most insistent that the enemy was the smothering impact of the Absolute.  In some contexts he was using this as a covering term for metaphysical idealism, but it also applied to the psychological syndrome of turning every problem or difficulty into THE ONE OVERWHELMING factor.  Some aspect of one’s situation would become so dominant that obsessing about that difficulty literally cancels the effort to seek alternative solutions.  This could be described as “The Absolutizing Instinct” (cf. William Lynch S.J.) or an instinct toward losing oneself in an absolute.  It drives that individual into at least one manifestation of what Sartre called “Bad Faith.”  Once again, as with James, we have a category that describes both a metaphysical condition and a psychological experience.

I think the most fab literary examples of Sartrian dynamics of consciousness can be found in Malraux’s Man’s Fate.  But I suspect many of you are familiar with those, so let me suggest one great example from a less often read source.  In Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos, the most important female character is Ellen Thatcher.  Her life is a series of deceptions and strategies that are expressive of both ambition for success in the theater, but also fear of facing life on her own.  Toward the end of the novel, but perhaps not of her journey, she steels herself for a grand gesture, a compromise that will result in a direct submission of talent and imagination to the service of comfort and security.

        Ellen stayed a long time looking in the mirror…She kept winding up a hypothetical doll self and setting it in various positions.  Tiny gestures ensued, acted out on various model stages…

        Through dinner she felt a gradual icy coldness stealing through her like novocaine…An invisible silk band of bitterness was tightening around her throat…Beyond the plates…his face above the blank shirtfront jerked and nodded….

His taught lips moved eloquently over his yellow teeth.  Ellen felt herself with her ankles crossed, rigid as a porcelain figure under clothes, everything about her seemed to be growing hard and enameled…His wooden face of a marionette waggled senselessly in front of her…

         “Well what about it?” he said as they got up from the table…

         “I guess I can stand it if you can George, “she said quietly.

He was waiting for her…Mechanically she squeezed the hand that helped her into the cab.

         “Elaine,” he said shakily, “life’s going to mean something to me now…I‘ve been like a tin mechanical toy, all hollow inside.”

         “Let’s not talk about mechanical toys,” she said in a strangled voice.

Manhattan Transfer   pp.374-75 (1925)


Dos Passos ends this scene with George kissing Ellen in the taxi, but she is looking through the corner of her eye at the “nickelglinting” wheels in the streetlights.  For Dos Passos it is always “the machine” or “the system” that grinds the life out of people.  Her hope is “strangled” precisely by the process of becoming a certain sort of mechanical doll.  She has given up her freedom in exchange for the “absolute” need of financial security and the guarantee of praise for her fading charms.  She is Elaine now, and will never go back to being Ellen from Hoboken again.  But that image of Elaine, that construction which took such mechanical calculations before the mirror, strikes the reader as so limiting precisely because Ellen had such talent and promise.  But the fear of poverty grinds the capacity of her imagining other possibilities out of her.


Well, perhaps the reader has a new illustration of Bad Faith to think about.  One way of attempting to snuff out “etre pour soir” is to make oneself into a toy object with its motions defined.  It seems to me that it is the strangling of the imagination that leads to the submission of free will here.  If Hope were the equivalent of mere wishful thinking it would suffer from the same surrender of free will, and the same failure of imagination, that makes Bad Faith a dead end.

A Bloggy Thought

Some of the discussion around political candidates and officials these days has centered around issues of loyalty.  What actions can be expected of supporters or subordinates if they are loyal?  What if loyalty is the sole criterion of appointing someone to a position?  This introduction of the discourse of loyalty into recent controversies has led me to recall a few salient thoughts from Josiah Royce.

Royce was a Californian who taught at Harvard from 1871 to 1916.  He sought to build an entire ethical theory around the virtue of loyalty.  I do not think that broad claim can be sustained, but he gave a normative definition of loyalty as essentially a willing, practical, loving, thorough-going commitment of a person to a cause.  I just want to focus on one aspect of this.  When Royce considers the process of reflection that develops when one contemplates which of different courses of action will be genuinely loyal, he points out that this virtue itself requires integrity.   To act without intelligence, without following one’s own best judgment, but especially in any way which risks distorting the truth, are ultimately each detrimental to the cause which one wishes to support.  The parent who lies to a child is at risk of never regaining a loyal trust.  The explanation that the reason one acted unfairly was because of a slavish devotion to a friend, only reveals a self-serving inability to challenge that friend to be his or her best self.  Pushing this submission of one’s power of will to unjustly serve the interests of one’s friend can often be seen to anticipate the descriptions someone like Sartre would assign to “Bad Faith.”  Genuine loyalty, practical and consistent, never serves merely as an excuse.  The whole point of seeing loyal actions as distinct from behavior forced by an external compulsion would be lost if this would work.  Test it out.  Some authority might force conformity of behavior from you, but cannot force your feeling and commitment of loyalty.

Perhaps some would think this is building too much external moral content into the direct experience of the virtue.   But it seems to me that “blind” loyalty is not loyalty at all.

In the essay An Absurd Reasoning, Camus defines the sense of absurdity that applies to the human condition by specifying that it is not in the world alone or in human beings alone, but in the relationship between them. Human beings have a “nostalgia for order,” an expectation of meaningful pattern, that is inevitably frustrated by the actual messy condition of the world. This category of the absurd becomes for Camus a codeword for all that is disordered and evil that human beings must confront.

Camus had a powerful literary skill for evoking the awareness of the absurd. But if all that he could do was to describe alienation and frustration we might consider him merely a skillful whiner. You might think about contemporaries who articulate this “absurdity” in film or music. Do they have any proposals about the way out? Despite his reticence to use the term, Camus offers a path of hope. Consider how this is set out in slightly different ways in his early and later works.

The early stage: How can I confront the absurd and be honest? How can I, as an individual, maintain my integrity and not give in to the temptation to ignore the absurd or pretend it is not real by escaping into a transcendent standpoint that rescues me from it? The central question is suicide. If life has no plan or values written into it, is it worth the effort to continue to live? Camus responds that (a) If I commit physical suicide I give in to the absurd and surrender my existence. And (b) If I commit philosophical suicide I stop paying attention to the reasoned evidence. I execute my mental self by a leap to an absolute. Camus’ answer is to live, to live guided by three virtues: revolt, freedom and passion. It is the prideful, narrow happiness of the defiance exhibited by Sisyphus.

The later stage: What happens when the individual who wishes to take a stand against the absurd realizes that he or she is not alone? How shall I act toward others around me? If there are no absolutes that I can trust, is it permissible to dominate and use those others who may be less observant, or unsuspecting that their “rules” are not accepted by everyone? The central question is murder – is there any basis for constraint against this? Once again his skill as a writer makes the question come alive. But, he argues, we are not alone. I rebel, therefore WE exist. The very capacities of intellect and self-directing choice which mark us as having human dignity lead us to notice, if we are consistent at all, that our hopes and dreams are not the only ones that count. We cannot pretend that our metaphysical identity as a person is achieved in isolation, or can be sustained in isolation. Instead, there is an essential solidarity against the forces of the irrational and the absurd. It is demanding, and often inconvenient to our selfish inclinations, to remember this. But the realization that we are not alone is the path to our hope. One powerful symbol of this in his writings is the character of Dr. Rieux in The Plague.

Finally, if the path away from bitterness and isolation is one of a “realization” then there is a special role for creativity. The challenge is to expand our imagination. To not settle for what is merely routine or comfortable. To celebrate what is different among us, to reach out to one another in precisely the way that Clamence in Camus’s The Fall fails to do when he passes the suicidal woman on the bridge. Camus always resisted the claim that humans could not succeed at this unless they were guided by a supernatural grace. But he also knew the difference such a grace would make. What would it be like if we gave up our usual defensive positions of holding to comfortable traditions, and we started to pay attention to the actual events and people around us? In The Rebel Camus offers us a challenge. It sounds like too unambitious a move to some, but it is, in fact, not so easy to accomplish. Can we live so that at least we do not contribute to the absurd? Can we live without doing harm?

(November 7 was the 93rd anniversary of the birth of Albert Camus)

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas.

Professor James Mahoney is the first profile in the series.

He talks about how he got into philosophy, its role at St. Anselm, and topics from Camus to Calder and from Picasso to Josiah Royce.
Saint Anselm Podcasts can be found here.

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