Friday, January 23, 2015

Sublime swimming (Psychology Today)

Wading into the sublime: Mordialloc beach
My new How to Think About Exercise blog is up on Psychology Today: 'Why Swimming is Sublime'. Here's a sample:
Midsummer Melbourne. After almost three hours sitting on trains and buses, and then a walk along a shadeless highway, we made it to the nursing home. Ruth—my wife—and our two kids shuffled into the clinical foyer with sweat-wet clothes and dry tongues. We took five minutes to cool and calm ourselves, then looked for my grandmother, Dorothy.
She is not who I remember from childhood; not the vibrant golfer who served me toast with sprinkles and milky coffee with heaped sugar spoons. She forgets. She weeps. Walking is threatening. But she remains my grandmother, and the trip is as necessary as it is quietly gutting.

Over the afternoon we share photos, watch the kids' antsy shenanigans, give Dorothy chocolates. We talk knitting and beautiful music. A gifted pianist, she can still entertain a room with decades of big jazz played with big hands. Without a moment's hesitation, she names her favourite work: Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat. 
Before long, it is time to leave again. Dorothy, who of course misses her late husband and their home, wants to leave with us. And, of course, she cannot. This realization, which occurs regularly between Dorothy and my mother, is merciless. And the feeling leaks into me: I feel cruel as the doors close behind me. 
Halfway into our train trip, we stop at the beach. The kids are cheered and, for all the bile in my gut and heat in my face, so am I. The water will make things right—for a little while. 
I strip down to my underpants and dive in. Immediately the world is gone. Instead of sun and sky there is just the bay's murky to-and-fro. I swim out, and the sand gives way. I cannot stand, and I am enveloped by water. I grew up by the beach, but this first descent still frightens: as if the world has fallen away. Yet I am also ecstatic. It is sublime. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

You're thinking about fitness all wrong (Washington Post)

I was interviewed by writer Mike Plunkett for the Washington Post about exercise and philosophy. His feature, 'You're thinking about fitness all wrong', discusses the ways in which our ideas influence our fitness and health. A sample:
In his book “How to Think About Exercise,” Australian philosopher Damon Young offers a foundation to fulfill that resolution. As part of the School of Life book series that had its U.S. release this month, Young uses philosophical inquiries to explain how we in the West came to think about exercise and fitness and how that way of thinking is a major barrier to being fit. 
“This is one of my motives: How can exercise become a normal part of everyday life?” Young said to me via e-mail. “Exercise is often a fad for buffed twentysomethings or a spectator sport. How can ordinary people reclaim the pleasures and rewards of exercise, over a lifetime?” 
Young argues that much of our thinking comes from the philosophical separation of mind and body, a dualism that permeates Western thought. We as a society put more value on intelligence and mental ability than the body and its improvement, he says. When the body is worked out, it’s to fix a deficiency. Combined with the stereotypes of dumb jocks, it creates “an outlook that sees physical and mental exertion as somehow in conflict,” he writes in his book. 
“People are living sedentary lives and trying to overcome this by treating their bodies as machines needing a tuneup,” Young told me. 
So what should be the purpose of exercise? According to Young, exercise is striving toward wholeness and a fuller life. Fitness is a quest for character, virtue, beauty and pleasure. The point of intelligent exercise is full embodiment of that, a commitment to working out the body and the mind together. 
Young looks to the ancient Greeks, who saw fitness as the way to push themselves physically and mentally and to reap the rewards of that effort. “This is the Greek lesson,” Young writes in his book. “What we get out of the gym is more than a buffed body — it is a more defined version of ourselves.”
(Photo: hegemony77/Flickr Commons)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Darwin's daily walks (Psychology Today)

With the American publication of How to Think About Exercise, I'm writing regularly for Psychology Today.

The first of my blogs is up now: 'Charles Darwin's Daily Walks'. It's on walker's reverie, and the mental benefits of exercise more generally.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The cultures of whisky

My recent column for the Canberra Times is on whisky: 'When it comes to quaffing whisky, 'authenticity' has no taste'.

Prompted by the recent win, by a Japanese distillery, of a coveted single malt prize, I'm discussing ideas of 'authenticity'. A sample:
it is naive to expect whisky to stay local. What became whisky was once a monastic product, used ostensibly for medicinal purposes (wink-wink, nudge-nudge, hiccup). Distillation, in turn, was passed on from mediaeval Arabs (often making perfumes), who reportedly learned techniques from Alexandrine Greeks, and so on. The point is not that whisky is therefore Hellenic, but that these cultural products are, in the long term, constantly shifting. And likewise for scholarship, art and craft: these pursuits are only minimally stable, with techniques being forgotten, renewed, altered and rejected. 
We do not know what will happen to Western civilisation, but it is naive to expect "Western" goods to remain tied to specific countries or languages over the centuries. Philosophy, for example, was a Greek innovation, which is now global: there are Chinese, African, South American and Australian philosophers. English is a melange of various continental languages. No one is quite sure where exactly baklava was originally from. Perhaps the notion of "originality" is itself suspect, with its overtones of single sources and specific instances. 
The point is that these goods – and make no mistake, single malt is a good – are the briefly stable products of constant flux and ambiguity. They seem singular and fixed, but meanwhile the vague tangle of culture is shifting imperceptibly.
(Photo: Bowmore whisky, by Sansvase)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to Think About Exercise (NHPR)

I was interviewed about the US edition of How to Think About Exercise on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Word of Mouth host Virginia Prescott asked me about dualism in fitness, virtues and new year's resolutions. You can listen here.

(Illustration: Flickr)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

How to Think About Exercise (Boston Globe)

There's a short review of my How to Think About Exercise in the Boston Globe.

Jan Gardner writes that, instead of 'hectoring the couch potatoes among us to rise and shine,' I stress the broader mental benefits of exercise. Gardner also picks up on my discussions of Charles Darwin and novelist Haruki Murakami. Gardner ends on this note:
...if, the next time you get stuck on a problem at work, you get up and move, you’ll be taking Young’s message to heart.
You can read the full review here.

(Photo: Roberto Ferrari from Campogalliano (Modena), Italy (La lunga strada))

Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas, civilisation and Hemingway's new year

Ernest Hemingway at Finca Vigia, Havana, Cuba, 1955
I've written a few Canberra Times columns recently, chiefly on seasonal themes:

'Sixty years on, we can learn from Hemingway's grim New Year's resolve': thoughts on creativity and mortality, riffing on Hemingway.

'Civilisation and how to cultivate it': on the subtler signs of civilised life.

- 'Meeting the challenge of Christmas': on the holiday as a regular intellectual challenge.

(Photo: Raul Villarreal)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

In praise of gardens (LA Review of Books)

My Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies has been reviewed by David E. Cooper in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Cooper is the author of the excellent A Philosophy of Gardens.

In 'In praise of gardens', Cooper takes issue with my selection of authors (among other things), but engages carefully and fairly with many of the ideas. A sample:
The claim that the garden is a fusion of the human and the natural is not the dull one that a garden is the result of natural processes, such as photosynthesis, and of human effort. The point, rather, as Young indicates, is that gardens make explicit the interdependence of culture and nature: they exemplify it and render it salient. This interdependence exists even in the case of playing the cello or solving crossword puzzles – but not in the salient way it does in the case of gardening, which therefore serves as symbol and reminder of the inextricable entwinement of human practice and natural process. What the garden shows is that we could not be what we are except through the grace of nature: but nor could nature be experienced as it is except through the cultural and creative practices in which we engage. 
This is a truth that some, at least, of Young’s great writers appreciate. Orwell’s gardening was “a realist’s enterprise” not least because of “the practical candour”of recognizing the dependence of the enterprise on “soil, sunlight, humidity, acidity.” At the same time, he knew how the practice of gardening – its delights as well as its toil – could correct the false perceptions of the world that abstraction, convention, and an impoverished language have helped to create. Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Woolf were certainly men who were acutely sensitive to – and either celebrated or bemoaned – the severe constraints that nature placed on human endeavours, but were aware too how these endeavours shaped perceptions of nature. Rousseau’s “noble savage,” Nietzsche’s “natural aristocrat,” Woolf’s Ceylonese farmer in his novel The Village in the Jungle, experience the natural world in a manner quite unlike that of urban sophisticates belonging to a very different kind of culture. 
Candide’s custodianship of his garden, writes Young, “nurtured the community as well as the soil,” while Voltaire’s own garden, or estate, demonstrated the mutual dependence of the human good and the good of the earth. A community cannot flourish that does not respect the soil, while the soil becomes barren without the care of a community. It is another aspect of the fusion between culture and nature that Emily Dickinson exposes when she writes of her poems as “blossoms in the brain.” The poems are not autonomous creations, but grow out of the poet’s experience of nature, while this experience, in turn, is informed by a distinctive poetic sensibility. Here we have an example of the way in which, as Young describes it, writers “have made the garden their intellectual and artistic collaborator.” 
Time was when the garden was a subject of significant interest to French philosophes, English Romantic thinkers, and even German metaphysicians. (Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer all discussed gardens.) After two centuries of neglect, there has been, over the last 20 years, a welcome revival of philosophical attention to the garden. Professors of Aesthetics, for example, who once confined themselves to art works or “wild” nature, now write about “human” or “hybrid” landscapes, gardens included. But there is revived attention as well to questions about the modes of meaning that gardens express, their contribution to well-being, and the virtues (and perhaps vices) of gardening as a practice. These are questions that – through the prism of the great writers he portrays – Damon Young has, with style and lightness of touch, invited his readers to consider. The book could have benefited from a more rigorous criterion of selection of its subjects, and perhaps from a more discursive concluding chapter that brought together, and brought out, themes implicit in the essays. Despite this, Voltaire’s Vine is an enjoyable and erudite addition to a burgeoning literature. It is also a testament to the fascination of places whose “mystery,” as the author concludes, is “rarely far away.”
(Photo: Guilfoyle's Volcano, Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens, courtesy RMBG)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy sixth birthday Sophia

The joyous science (note copy of philosophy/religion journal "Sophia")
Today, Sophia celebrates her sixth year of training: in global takeover and drama.

She is on. And big: ideas, voice, hair.

A typical day might include:

- dressing up as Wonder Woman, taking me down with a sweep, and punching me in the nose;
- kindly resolving disputes over cake (in her favour);
- singing, singing, singing, all while shaking her bum and waving her finger like 'nuh uh';
- collecting butterfly and dragonfly wings, leaves and flowers; and
- writing and illustrating her own book, crying, throwing it in the bin, and starting again.

Happy birthday, my little Übermädchen.

Philosophy Salon: Nietzsche

Moustaches and shiraz for everyone
On Friday I hosted the very first Philosophy Salon at The School of Life, Melbourne. The topic was Friedrich Nietzsche.

I gave three lectures on key Nietzschean ideas -- the will to power, Übermensch and the eternal return -- and we had discussion after each. Some great conversation about the contemporary relevance of Nietzsche, and what exactly a Superman looks like. For example, if the Overman is more a process than a single ideal, might an Übermensch be a 'liberal' Republican? Also some good discussion about Nietzsche's relationship to community, and the difference between power and might.

This salon was sold out, but I believe there are still tickets for my next one: on Hume, on 22nd January.