New Podcast Episode: The Black Hills – Mt Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and Crazy Horse Memorial

The Disneyfied, Las-Vegased Main Street of Deadwood.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Journal: Horsethief Campground North, Black Hills National Forest, Saturday evening, July 22nd, 2017

It’s a little before 10 pm, the last vestige of the sun’s light has left the sky. The starlight is somewhat obscured by the slight haze and the ambient light from this bustling, heavily populated campground. The children’s shouting and crying are finally quieting down but the teens and adults are still chatting, and some are partying. I chose this site, one, because it was available (it was the last one) and two, because of its proximity to the hike I have planned for early tomorrow, I’ll tell you about that after it happens. My tent is pitched for the night, my clothes are ready for the morning. I’ll be glad when the night is over and I can leave this campsite. … Read the written version here

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Happy Birthday, Confucius!


In honor of Confucius’ birthday on September 28th, 551 BCE*, I’m republishing a piece originally published here last year by one-time regular contributor Eric Gerlach. Following his interesting piece, you’ll find a list of great online sources and articles for learning about this seemingly timeless sage: so many of his words of wisdom seem as pertinent today as in his own time.

Confucianism & Daoism: The Basics, by Eric Gerlach

The following is a lecture I composed for teaching Confucianism and Daoism to my sister’s 6th grade History class at Star of the Sea School in San Francisco.

Confucius and Laozi, the philosophers who founded Confucianism and Daoism, lived just before the Warring States Period of ancient China (476 – 221 BCE), a time of war, tragedy and interest in philosophy.  Unfortunately, people’s lives are full of problems, but fortunately problems make people think about their lives, question the answers of authorities and experts, and reason beyond their understandings.


Each of us, as individuals, should use both belief and doubt to become better, wiser people, but how should we go about doing this?  Confucianism and Daoism, the two great philosophies of ancient China, gave people opposing ways to gain wisdom.  Many in ancient and modern times used both to compliment and extend each other.

The Confucians say we should build ourselves up to be educated, compassionate and civilized, while the Daoists say we should clear ourselves out to become open-minded, patient and peaceful.  The Confucians say we should learn from others, reason for ourselves, and do what we know to be right.  The Daoists say we should seek less for ourselves and gain perspective beyond our own interests, reasons and actions.

Confucius, the Golden Rule & Learning from Everyone

Confucius Latin

When Catholic Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the 1600s, they were astounded to find that Confucius, the most influential and central Chinese philosopher, was incredibly similar to Jesus in his sayings and teachings.  First and foremost, like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and other revered teachers, Confucius taught what has been called the Golden Rule: Do for others what you would want them to do for you, and do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.  Confucius said that this was the single thing that should guide one’s life, and that compassion is the central thread running throughout his thinking.


Confucius’ student Zigong once told his teacher, “I do not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me.”  Confucius replied, “You have not come that far yet”, probably because none of us want others to simply tell us that they are amazing. Another time, Confucius heard Zigong criticizing other people, and said, “Zigong must have already reached perfection, which affords him leisure I do not possess.”  Confucius is being sarcastic, as he often said that no one is perfect, but anyone can be excellent by continuously working to become better.


Not only can anyone be excellent, but we can each learn from anyone about how to be better ourselves.  Confucius taught that when we see great people, we should seek to be like them, but when we see horrible people, we should seek how we are like them by examining ourselves.  Confucius said, “Put me with any two people at random and they will always have something to teach me, as I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning.  Clearly, Confucius believed that we all share the same set of strengths and faults, no matter how talented (or horrible) we happen to individually be or where our talents are.


Because no one is perfect and everyone can learn from anyone, there is no one who is above criticism, not even the prince of the state.  When asked by a duke if there is a single thing that could ruin a country, Confucius said that if the prince is never told when he is in error or contradicted, it could be the ruin of everyone.  About himself, Confucius said, “I am fortunate indeed… Whenever I make a mistake, there is always someone who notices it.”



Daoism, Perspective & Less is More

The legendary Daoist sages Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi taught that human perspectives are limited, and we should always keep this in mind.  Because we only have partial perspectives, we should keep in mind that others have their own perspectives which may not be the same as ours.  In one famous story, a turtle comes across a frog living in a well, and tells the frog about the sea, water that goes beyond the horizon with no walls in sight.  The frog refuses to believe the turtle, arguing that he has lived in water all his life and knows perfectly well that it comes in wells that are only so wide and have walls.  In Zhuangzi’s book, it says:


You can’t discuss the ocean with well frogs.  They’re limited by the space they live in.  You can’t discuss ice with summer insects.  They’re bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the greater way of things with cramped scholars.  They’re shackled by their doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, and so you realize how small you are.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the greater way of things.

japanese monkey painting

If someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and they ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp?  If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey?  Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live?  We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice.  Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste?  Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish.  Men claim that Mao-Qiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run.  Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?


Daoists also teach the idea of wu-wei, or non-action.  This does not mean that one should not act at all, but that often doing less is doing more.  Being patient and paying attention can save us from doing too much or having to do things over again.  In a Japanese story that illustrates this well, a local lord has three sons and must decide who should inherit his position.  He tests them by placing a pillow on the door to his room and calling them one at a time.  The eldest son enters and annihilates the pillow in a frenzy of skilled sword strikes.  The middle son draws his sword but sees the pillow in mid-air and catches it.  The youngest son sees the pillow on the door, tucks it under his arm and enters the room to the joy of his father.  The youngest son was paying attention, and so he did not even need to pull out his sword.


There are many passages In the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, the two central texts of Daoism, that similarly teach that wanting too much and trying too hard is the wrong way to be:

Sages do not boast, and are thus admired by everyone, do not want to shine, and thus will be enlightened, do not seek excellence, and are thus excellent, and because they do not argue, no one can argue with them.


Those who know do not speak.  Those who speak do not know.

Whoever knows how to lead well is not warlike.  Whoever knows how to fight well is not angry.  Whoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them.  Whoever knows how to use others well keeps themselves low.

Those who divide fail to divide.  Those who judge are bad at judging.  What does this mean, you ask?  The sage embraces things.  Ordinary people judge between things and parade their judgements in front of others.  So I say, those who judge fail to see.


When you’re betting for cheap prizes in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.  When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim, and when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.  Your skill is the same in all three cases, but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind.  They who look too hard on the outside get clumsy on the inside.


Learn more about the great Confucius:

Confucius ~ by Jeffrey Riegel for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Confucius ~ by the editors for the Encyclopædia Britannica

Confucius (551—479 B.C.E.) ~ by Jeff Richey for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Why Is Confucius Still Relevant Today? His Sound Bites Hold Up ~ by Simon Worrall for the National Geographic, March 25, 2015

*By the way, it may seem rather amazing that we’d have an exact date for Confucius’ birthday. I’m just guessing that there might have been a cultural reason to assign this date to his birth later on. Here’s the source for that date: Confucius: A Guide for the Perplexed by Yong Huang, 2013, p. 3.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Trump Embraces a Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017

President Trump’s speech to the United Nations was well delivered. But it was a strange mishmash of topics and tones, in parts celebrating realpolitik but then also asserting the importance of freedom and democracy. There was, however, one overriding theme — the embrace of nationalism. And in striking that chord, Trump did something unusual, perhaps unique for a U.S. president: He encouraged, even embraced the rise of a post-American world.

First, the mishmash. Early in his speech, Trump asserted, “In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” But then, a few minutes later, Trump proceeded to castigate North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba for their undemocratic political systems, virtually demanding that they all become Western-style liberal democracies.

The danger of this kind of lofty rhetoric is that it has been selectively applied, so it is seen cynically…

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Springfield, Illinois, in Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

1880’s Italianate building at the former site of the American House Hotel at 6th and Adams, Springfield, Illinois, renovated and restored by its current occupants, Delano Law Offices

Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017, continued

After my visit to the Old State House, I notice one of those Looking for Lincoln historical placards on a building to my left as I walk towards my next destination. It’s an attractive three-story red and yellow brick Italianate building from the later 1800’s, too late to be from Lincoln’s time. I draw near and read the placard and the small house-shaped bronze plaque near it.

This building stands at the southeast corner of 6th and Adams, on the former site of the American House Hotel. It was the largest hotel in Illinois, admired for its huge size and praised for its lavish, exotic, ‘Turkish’ interior design. Despite its reputation and the fact that it was the hotel of choice for dignitaries and the better-off, there doesn’t seem to be any easy-to-find photos of it. There’s one on the placard of the Old State House with the plain white walls of the three-story, rather plain Hotel in the distance, but that’s about it. I can find no photos of its splendiferous interior either. It stood here from 1838-1870, a little too long ago for me to find a postcard image of it, my tried and true source type for images of historic buildings.

Battle of Stillman’s Run Site in Stillman Valley, Illinois, USA, by Ben Jacobson, 2007, via Wikimedia Commons

The American House Hotel was built by Captain Elijah Iles (who was also buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery), who also had the distinction of being the owner of the oldest house that still stands in Springfield and of being Abraham Lincoln’s commander in the Black Hawk War. Lincoln was also elected captain in that war for a time, of which he was very proud, but the lanky 23-year old youth never saw combat. He did, however, help to bury some of the men who did and died for it. There’s a monument at the site of the Battle of Stillman’s Run that memorializes the men who died and that particular man who helped bury them. I find the words on the monument rather interesting: ‘The presence of the soldier, statesman, martyr Abraham Lincoln assisting in the burial of these honored dead has made this spot more sacred.’ Lincoln himself said in his address at the battlefield of Gettysburg ‘…We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.’ So if Lincoln saw the words on this monument, he would likely look at them askance. But as the Stillman Run’s monument says, Lincoln is himself among the slain, slain in another struggle perhaps, but no less a patriotic one. So it seems he does qualify as a consecrator of sacred ground, too, according to the terms he laid out in the Gettysburg Address.

Looking for Lincoln placard at the former site of the American House Hotel at 6th and Adams, Springfield, Illinois

Lincoln may have visited the American House Hotel on at least two occasions, though there’s no evidence that I could find, again, besides local lore repeated in blogs and in the Looking for Lincoln book and placard. One purported occasion was the November 1838 grand opening dinner, which served 200 people. The other was the time that former president Martin Van Buren came to Springfield for a visit in June of 1842. Van Buren was on tour seeking to revive his political career. According to that legend, Lincoln was called upon to help welcome and entertain Van Buren while he was visiting his cousin in the vicinity of nearby Rochester, Illinois. He spent a day there tickling Van Buren and company’s ribs with his jokes and anecdotes. (See what I did there? That’s my own little joke, leaving the sentence constructed that way so that you’re left with the weird mental image of Van Buren being tickled.) The next day, the tradition goes, Lincoln escorted him to the Hotel.

The Tinsley Building, aka the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office Historic Site, Springfield, Illinois. You can just see the Old State House in the background to the right. It’s currently closed for renovations, but historically it’s been open for tours.

I turn towards the destination I was initially headed for: the Tinsley Building, now called the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office State Historic Site, right across the street. This large, handsome Greek-Revival red brick building was built in 1840-1841 at the southwest corner of 6th and Adams Streets. S.M. Tinsley & Co’s retail business occupied part of the two lower floors, which were also occupied by the U.S. Post Office (1st floor) and the U.S. Federal Court (2nd floor). The third floor was rented out as offices.

William Henry Herndon, 1818-1891, halftone reproduction of photoprint by L.C. Handy Studios, Library of Congress

When this mixed-use building was only about three years old, Lincoln and his senior law partner Stephen T. Logan moved their successful practice to the grander accommodations in the Tinsley Building’s large third-floor front office. Their joint practice here only lasted from the summer of 1843 to early winter of 1844, when Logan opted to practice with his son instead. Lincoln kept the large front office while the Logans moved to another in the same building, and he offered a partnership to William H. Herndon, a relatively inexperienced but intelligent, studious young lawyer. Herndon jumped at the chance since by this time Lincoln was very well known and respected. In fact, many were surprised at Lincoln’s choice: at this point, Lincoln could have had his pick of many distinguished local lawyers. But Lincoln wanted to be the senior partner this time. As Herndon and many others described him, Lincoln had great confidence in his own abilities and his own unique way of doing things. So it’s no surprise in that regard that Lincoln preferred to take the lead role this time around.

Two views of the Lincoln-Herndon Historic Site / Tinsley Building

Lincoln and Herndon knew each other for a long time. Herndon’s father Abner G. Herndon was one of the Long Nine, the 1836-37 Illinois State Legislature which was responsible for moving the state capital to Springfield. Lincoln was twenty-seven, young Herndon seventeen when Lincoln became one of his father’s co-legislators. After the legislature adjourned that spring, Lincoln moved to Springfield on April 15th, 1837, and lived for a time in Joshua Speed’s room over his store. Herndon roomed with them for a time, too, and worked for Speed as a clerk. While Lincoln was serving in the legislature, he was also teaching himself law and had obtained his license the previous fall. Lincoln came to Springfield to establish a practice and inquired about the cost of a bed, a mattress, and their accouterments. He couldn’t afford the named priced so Speed offered to let him share his bed and room upstairs since Lincoln didn’t have a home yet either. The awkward, unrefined, autodidact, perennially broke Lincoln and the handsome, cultivated, well-educated son of wealthy parents Speed became very close friends. I’ll return to that story soon.

Lincoln the Circuit Rider by Fred M. Torrey, 1930, bronze sculpture at the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Illinois

Herndon and Lincoln also became very good friends, Lincoln with a fatherly affection, Herndon admiringly. Their partnership was successful and harmonious, despite the fact that neither of them were orderly with their paperwork or tidy in their office. Perhaps their harmoniousness was enhanced by the fact that Lincoln was often away ‘riding the circuit.’ Most practitioners of law, in order to make a sufficient living, found it necessary to travel throughout their judicial district to argue and hear local cases. Lincoln was the public face of Lincoln & Herndon, meeting with clients, arguing their cases in court, and writing the most important legal documents. Herndon did the research, wrote the minor documents, ran the errands, and did whatever other odd tasks which arose. Lincoln, however, insisted on dividing all of the practice’s income equally between the two of them.

Their Tinsley building office was somewhat sparsely furnished, the tables covered with green oilcloth and strewn with papers and books, mostly Herndon’s. Lincoln, famously, frequently had his nose buried in a book when he was a boy. According to Herndon and to my surprise, however, Lincoln read far less often in his adulthood. In fact, wrote Herndon, ‘Lincoln… read less and thought more than any man in his sphere in America.’ What Lincoln did read, however, he remembered. It seems, then, that Lincoln’s considerable ability was based at least as much as what he did with what he read than with the amount. He enriched and expanded the knowledge gained from what he did read with the greater amount of time he spent in thinking, in writing, and in conversation.

First Street Presbyterian Church at S 7th St and E Capitol Ave, Springfield, Illinois. The Lincoln’s pew from the church’s location in their time is preserved here.

I zigzag southwest a couple of blocks to the First Presbyterian Church at 321 S. Seventh St at E. Capitol Ave. The Lincolns attended services at First Presbyterian from about 1850 to 1860, when the Lincolns left for Washington, D.C. But there are two details to note. One, they never attended services at this exact church, since it was built two years after Mary died, but this church does contain and preserve their original pew from the old location. Two, though Mary formally joined the congregation out of enthusiasm for its new minister, Reverend Dr. James Smith, Abraham never did. Lincoln paid the yearly rent for the pew, attended at times with his family, and became good friends with Smith, but he did not join.

Lincoln’s religiosity has been a subject of much debate during his lifetime and up to the present day. Atheists, agnostics, and deists often emphasize the strong skepticism he evinced during his younger years and his admiration for Thomas Paine, who was notorious for his Age of Reason attack on Christianity and all organized religion. Lincoln rarely alluded to Christ in word or in writing, or to God in any denominational sense, and he was unwilling to join any church. In fact, he never did. His friend, law partner, and later biographer Herndon also emphasized Lincoln’s freethinking ways, to the dismay and anger of many of his friends, family, and supporters. On the other hand, Christians often emphasize his frequent Biblical quotations, the fact that he did go to church with his family somewhat regularly when his schedule allowed, his regular allusions to God in letters and especially in public speeches, and his frequent Biblical quotes. He also seemed to become much more religiously inclined in his later years.

So each of these groups likes to claim the great Lincoln as one of their own, each minimizing evidence from the other side of the argument or dismissing it altogether. The truth is, Lincoln was very private about his religious beliefs. I think this is because one, he was a canny and ambitious politician in a religious age, so he was loath to make overt statements of unorthodoxy or of strict adherence to one particular creed and thus hurt his chances of election to public office; second, though he did not ascribe to any particular creed, he often had feelings that were generally considered religious and over the years, he increasingly felt the need for religious comfort and became convinced of the truth of some religious arguments; and third, he was a private man about his inner life generally, and it’s clear he believed that matters of conscience and belief belonged to this category. Because he was private about his religious convictions, because he was a complex and subtle thinker, and because his views changed over time, I think it’s a mistake to try and fix Lincoln in any category of belief, with the possible exception of ‘freethinker.’ Though ‘freethinker’ has connotations of hostility to religion to some, the term’s literal meaning, and the way it was used more then, most closely reflects what we do know about Lincoln’s beliefs, and can include the ways this changed over time. Freethinker can encompass Lincoln’s early skepticism, his religious questioning, and his later status as a religious believer who nevertheless refused to align himself with any system of religious orthodoxy as a matter of principle.

First Presbyterian Church, Springfield, Illinois, at the southeast corner of Third and Washington, Springfield, Illinois, which the Lincolns attended from 1850-1860.

In his published eulogy for Lincoln, U.S. Representative Henry Champion Deming wrote: ‘[Lincoln] said, he had never united himself to any church, because he found difficulty in giving his assent, without mental reservation, to the long complicated statements of Christian doctrine, which characterize their Articles of belief and Confessions of Faith. “When any church,” he continued, “will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership the Saviour’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and Gospel, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself, that church I will join with all my heart and all my soul.”‘ Presumably, since there was no such established church which had a formal membership, he never joined one.

I zigzag a little farther southeast to a particularly significant site to get the lay of the land, so to speak. It’s early evening and open hours are ended, so I’ll be returning tomorrow for a proper visit. I’ll wait to tell you all about it in that account.

Former site of the Globe Tavern, Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s first home together, at about 306 E Adams St, Springfield, Illinois

I head northwest, this time zigzagging a little haphazardly, to E Adams between 3rd and 4th Sts. On the north side of E Adams, at 315 where a parking lot is now, is the former site of the Globe Tavern. This is the first place the newlywed Lincolns lived in Springfield. They moved in on their wedding night on November 4th, 1842, and lived there until May 2nd, 1844. Their first son, Robert, was born here almost exactly nine months after their wedding, on August 1st, 1843.

It was a very nice tavern, and contrary to the common view that these accommodations would have been too humble for Mary Todd’s accustomed lifestyle, it was the first place that many newlyweds in her family stayed. According to the journal article ‘The Lincoln’s Globe Tavern’ by James T. Hickey and his co-authors,

In starting their married life at the Globe Tavern, the Lincolns were in fact following a precedent set by other members of Mary Lincoln’s family. John Todd Stuart, her cousin and Lincoln’s first law partner, had taken his bride there in November, 1837; Dr. William S. Wallace and Mary’s sister Frances also lived there after their marriage, on May 21st, 1839. The Wallaces stayed there more than three years, and it was into their recently vacated rooms that the Lincolns moved. These rooms were in the addition that fronted on Adams Street.

The Globe Tavern, former residence of the Lincolns and Robert Lincoln’s birthplace, photo by S.M. Fassett 1865, Library of Congress

Myers Building at former site of J. Speed’s store & Lincoln’s last law office, Springfield, Illinois

I head next to the Myers Building at the southwest corner of E Washington and S 5th Streets. In April 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield. The legislative session had ended and Lincoln was ready to get going on practicing law, for which he’d been preparing the last two and a half years. He arrived here at A.Y. Ellis & Co’s store to inquire about the cost of a bed and its trappings. The clerk he found there ready to help him was not his old New Salem friend Ellis he had come to see, it was Ellis’ business partner, Joshua Fry Speed. Speed must have seen something he liked in Lincoln, and besides, there was a housing shortage in Springfield. So he offered to let Lincoln share his bed and his room upstairs. Lincoln accepted with alacrity and settled right in, and Lincoln and Speed became the closest of friends over the next almost-four years until Speed moved back to his native Kentucky in January of 1841. For a while, these two close friends stayed in contact, especially about their respective uncertain love lives, and then they mostly fell out of touch until Lincoln became the Republican Presidential nominee. Speed, the son of slaveowners and a conservative Louisville Democrat, wrote a warm letter of congratulations to Lincoln when he was elected President, and placed himself firmly on the side of his dear old friend. He worked with Lincoln and others to make sure that Kentucky, a border state split between Union and pro-slavery factions, was not lost to the Confederacy.

Buildings which included Joshua Fry Speed and Abner Y. Ellis’ grocery store on the ground floor. Speed, Lincoln, and Herndon’s living quarters were in a second-floor front room (with another man, Charles Hurst) and later, the second Lincoln & Herndon office was in a second floor rear room, at S. 5th St / SW Old State Capitol Plaza and E. Washington St, Springfield, IL. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Louisville, by the way, was the native town of my grandfather, within whom that old battle was still raging. Though I had never seen it manifested in the way he interacted with people, I had always been convinced of his entrenched and intractable racism because of his political and social views. I was convinced, that is, until I beheld the tenderness and affection with which he held and regarded his black great-grandson, just as he did with all the other kids in our large extended family. That’s when I became convinced that the racism I had perceived for so long was an ingrained habit, a cultural residue that could not overcome his natural kindliness and deep sense of family. I like to think that it was just so with Lincoln, except that for him, his ascendency to the Presidency made the entire nation, in a very important sense, his family, black, white, and all.

To be continued…

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Sources and inspiration:

Abraham Lincoln Online: The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln Timelines and Highlights

Andreasen, Bryon C. Looking for Lincoln in Illinois: Lincoln’s Springfield. Southern Illinois University Press, 2015

Bakke, Dave. ‘Springfield Man [Randy von Liski] Focuses Photo Hobby on Classic Barbershops.’ The State Journal-Register, Oct 15, 2010

Brink, McCormick & Co. ‘Springfield Township, Springfield City.‘ from Atlas of Sangamon County, 1874.

Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003

Central Springfield Historic District‘ National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Prepared by Nicholas P. Kalogeresis for the National Park Service.

Deming, Henry Champion. ‘Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln: before the General Assembly of Connecticut, at Allyn Hall, Hartford, Thursday, June 8th, 1865.’ Hartford: A.N. Clark & Co. State Printers, 1985

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

Elijah Iles‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Hart, Dick. ‘Lincoln’s Springfield: Hotels and Taverns.’ Lincoln’s Springfield blog

Havlik, Robert J. ‘Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr. James Smith: Lincoln’s Presbyterian Experience in Springfield.Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) Vol. 92, No. 3, A Lincoln Issue (Autumn, 1999), pp. 222-237

Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889

History of Sangamon County, Illinois; Together with Sketches of its Cities, Villages and Townships … Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Representative Citizens. Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co.,  1881

Illinois, Springfield: Tinsley Building. Excerpts from newspapers and other sources compiled by the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1993

Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Confidential Agent in Kentucky.The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 52, No. 179 (April, 1954), pp. 99-110

Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

The Lincolns’ Globe Tavern: A Study in Tracing the History of a Nineteenth-Century Building‘, by James T. Hickey, George W. Spotswood, C. G. Saunders and Sarah Beck, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) Vol. 56, No. 4 (Winter, 1963), pp. 629-653

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois. Website, National Park Service

Looking for Lincoln: various historical/informational placards throughout the Springfield, Illinois and surrounding areas about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln at their associated sites

Martin Van Buren meets Abraham Lincoln.SangamonLink: History of Sangamon County, Illinois, Apr 13, 2013

Temple, Wayne C. ‘Herndon on Lincoln: An Unknown Interview with a List of Books in the Lincoln & Herndon Law Office.Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) Vol. 98, No. 1/2 (Spring – Summer, 2005), pp. 34-50

von Liski, Randy. ‘Commercial Building (American House hotel site), 200 S. 6th Street, Springfield, Illinois.‘ My Old Postcards Flickr page

Who is the Expert on Your Well-Being? by Anna Alexandrova

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Consider a syllogism:

There is now a science of well-being.

Scientists are experts in their field.

Therefore there are now experts on well-being.

I submit this argument is sound–which is to say the premises are true and the conclusion follows validly. But it does not imply that there is a scientific way to live your life and does not imply that science should supersede your own judgment or the judgment of your therapist, rabbi, or wise friend. There are different ways of knowing well-being and none is superior to another in every way.

The “science of well-being” (aka positive psychology, quality of life or happiness studies) applies scientific method to what was previously personal, inscrutable, philosophical–happiness and good life. These scientists say that today measures and methods are so much improved, that happiness and good life are no longer hidden, no longer elusive. They also tout great practical payoffs–typically evidence-based therapies and truly scientific self-help. Increasingly the discoveries of this field are picked up by businesses, human resources managers, life coaches, and indeed governments.

As citizens, employees, and clients we would be wise keep our eye on this new development–knowledge is power and power over happiness is far from innocent. But here I pose the question purely from an individual’s point of view – is it wise to arrange your life in accordance with the findings of this science?

Consider some things scientists of well-being claim to know:

“Unemployment and loss of mate are the hardest to adapt to.”

“Rise in income only predicts rise in well-being in the presence of other factors.”

“Pro-social behavior increases the givers’ subjective well-being.”

If you want to know whether to avoid unemployment and loneliness, pursue better income, volunteer, or do whatever else the science recommends, you need to notice two things. First, these claims are value-laden. Second, they are about kinds of people, not individuals. These two features imply two ways in which this knowledge might fail to fit you – first, because you reasonably disagree with the value judgments these scientists make and, second, because their claims are not about you. Let me take each in turn.

When I say that the claims of this science are value-laden, I mean simply that a value-judgment about good life is needed to identify a questionnaire as valid, or a given data point as relevant. ‘Answers to a life satisfaction questionnaire are valid indicators of well-being’ is a value judgment because it presupposes that it is good for a person to judge her life as living up to some ideal she has adopted.

The process of arriving at a good measure of well-being is the process of making such judgments at many stages: what questions to include, to whom to pose them, which other questionnaires are related, and so on. Following much statistical testing, questionnaires that emerge are complex amalgamations of the factual and the evaluative. This is totally normal and legitimate – there would be no science as we know it if scientists did not use metaphors, analogies, judgments – all seats of commitments about morality, politics, beauty, and culture.

But scientists are not the only authority on values. Judgments about good life are familiar to all of us. My nine year old wants to make YouTube videos and wants help to record his gaming sessions and upload them online. I want to encourage his creativity, but worry about exposing him to the world of ‘likes’ and anonymous comments earlier than need be. Many of my everyday decisions are decisions about well-being: mine, my family’s, my students’. Sometimes I make a mess of things but I still have some expertise about living my life. Classic liberals, such as John Stuart Mill, held the extreme view that only the individual is an authority on their own well-being. This flies in the face of facts – we can be blind to things that people who know and care about us can plainly see. Equally scientists who validate questionnaires of well-being can also make decent value judgments on this matter – clinical researchers usually go to great lengths to ensure that when they measure, say, frailty they define this value-laden concept properly and comprehensively. Most likely there is more than one authority on values, including on well-being.

It follows that claims about validity of a given well-being measure can be challenged by challenging the value judgments on which they depend. ‘You used life satisfaction data in your study, Dr. Scientist, but I have reasons to believe that life satisfaction is not well-being’. No special expertise is necessary to raise such challenges. They need to be made in good faith, with attention to why scientists choose a given measure, and with due reflection, but they can be made. And this is one way in which the claims of well-being science can fail to be relevant you.

The second way stems from the inevitable and justifiable focus on kinds rather than on individuals. My point is not just the familiar idea that scientific hypotheses are about averages and any individual may deviate from average (of course most of us often wrongly believe we are well above it). This is true but unsurprising and can only justify ignoring science if you have strong evidence regarding which side of the distribution you are on. Rather when checking that a given claim of science is properly about us, we should check whether ‘the kind’, that is the class of people, about whom this claim is made, is the kind to which we belong.

Positive psychologists who write books with happiness formulae sidestep this issue and advertise their findings as applying to humans in general – pick a job you love, maintain positive relationships, do your gratefulness exercises, volunteer, find meaning in life. But such vague generalities only take you that far in life. Better grounded is research that zeros in on people in specific circumstances – caretakers of the chronically ill, single mothers on welfare, refugees, adopted children, psychosis patients, and so on. People in these similar circumstances people tend to face similar challenges, or at least more similar than when you consider humanity as a whole. As a result they yield more informative evidence. Clinical research and social work is a treasure trove of knowledge about how to live well with a particular illness, particular disability, or particular challenge. In contrast with positive psychology, these are more modest and more local findings.

To make the same point with pictures, science that promises this:

Is far less reliable for individuals than science that promises this:

Image courtesy of the author.

If there are findings on well-being relevant to the kind to which you belong, good, use them. Nevertheless, because each of us is a member of many different kinds, the authority of these findings will again quickly run. What do you do when you have psychosis and you are a single parent, and when studies exist about well-being of each, but not at the same time? You think for yourself and you ask for advice (of which science is but one source).

Mine is not a criticism, just an observation that well-being as an object of science is not well-being as an object of personal reflection. Living well is as big of a riddle as ever, even in the age of positive psychology.

This article was originally published at OUPBlog

~ Anna Alexandrova is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College, having previously taught at the University of Missouri St Louis. She writes on philosophy of social sciences, especially economic modelling, explanation, and the sciences of well-being. She was a recipient of the Philosophy of Science Association Recent PhD Essay Prize. Her book, A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being has recently been published by OUP.

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O.P. Recommends: Five Approaches to Intellectual History, by Chris Cameron

I came across this excellently clear and succinct piece by Chris Cameron on intellectual history, which discipline I’m currently studying at the University of Edinburgh:

‘My view of what intellectual history, as I noted in the chat, is that it is the sub-discipline of history that deals with the ideas and symbols that people use to make sense of the world. A guiding assumption of this sub-discipline is that human beings depend upon the use of language, which gives meaning to individual lives. Another assumption of intellectual historians is that human beings cannot live in the world without theories about what they are doing. These theories may be explicit or implicit, but they are always present and make up our cultural construction of reality, which again, depends upon symbols and language. So intellectual history is not about what people did, necessarily, but more about what they thought they were doing.

By nature, intellectual history is an interdisciplinary field, and there are many approaches that scholars take to studying the history of ideas. I would like to outline five of the most prominent of these approaches…’

Read the full essay here at the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog Black Perspectives

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


New Podcast Episode: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant, at the Little Bighorn National Monument museum.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Friday, July 21st, 2017

Early morning Friday, I awake to a most spectacular view: the Beartooth Mountains from the top of Beartooth Pass, at about 10,900 feet above sea level. As you may remember, I had to pull off the road to sleep last night since I encountered a road block in the middle of the night between Yellowstone National Park and my next destination, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Beartooth Pass drive is incredible, a worthy destination in itself. I’m very glad I chose this longer route, I can’t imagine any other northern route would come close to its beauty.

The drive from the pass to the Little Bighorn is a happy and thoughtful one. I have the deep glow of satisfaction from reveling in the spectacular natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and Custer-Gallatin National Forest combined with the physical afterglow which follows vigorous exercise from my fast hike up Mt. Washburn. But during the long drive, I also think a lot about the events which occurred at the site I’m approaching, so I’ve grown a little somber as well… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!