STOICON ’16: Bill Irvine

IrvineHere it is, the next entry in our limited series of posts leading up to the STOICON 2016 conference, scheduled in New York City for 15 October. (More info? Here. Tickets? Here. Looking for cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic? Here.) The idea is to briefly feature each of the scheduled speakers for our talks and workshops so that people can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give their reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

This week we feature Bill Irvine, author of the popular and influential A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

Bill grew up in mining towns, mostly in Montana and Nevada, as his father was a construction engineer for Anaconda Copper Company. He began his education in a proverbial two-room school-house, with one room for grades 1-3 and the other for grades 4-6. Eventually, he got a BA in Mathematics and Philosophy at the University of Michigan and an MA and PhD in Philosophy at UCLA.

Bill then began his career as what he describes as “an academic gypsy.” He taught briefly at Cal State, Los Angeles, at Pacific Lutheran University, and at the University of Cincinnati. He has been teaching at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, since 1983.

In graduate school and shortly thereafter, Bill’s research interests were like those of most philosophers. He was into “pure philosophy” — that is, in topics that are traditionally dealt with in philosophy and that are of interest primarily to professional philosophers. His doctoral dissertation was on phenomenalism, and his first publication was “Russell’s Construction of Space from Perspectives.”

Since then, however, he has lost interest in “pure philosophy.” Instead, his research can best be described as hybrid of topics that lie on the border between philosophy and something else. Bill looks, in a philosophical manner, at things philosophers don’t normally look at.

Many of his articles, for example, are on the ethical issues involved in finance. His first two books were on the ethical and political aspects of parenting. His book on desire has a philosophical component, but also a scientific and religious component.

Besides this shift in the focus of his research, there has been a shift in the target audience for his writings. Bill is not interested, as most of his philosophical colleagues are, in writing primarily for other philosophers. Rather, his intended audience can best be described as intellectually-upscale general readers who have a minimal background in philosophy but who are interested in carefully rethinking the assumptions of everyday life.

At STOICON ’16 Bill will talk about “Becoming an Insult Pacifist.”

The Stoics spent a lot of time thinking about insults. Their goal in doing so was not to become proficient in inflicting them, but to lessen the harm they experienced when they were the target of them. As a result of their research, the Stoics advocated insult pacifism: when insulted, we should do nothing in response. We should simply carry on as if nothing happened. Alternatively, if we are feeling clever, we can respond to an insult by insulting ourselves even worse than our insulter did. We can, in other words, engage in self-deprecating humor.

Bill has experimented with both of these strategies and in his talk will report on the results of these experiments. Insult pacifism, he has found, is effective because it catches insulters off guard. Insults can harm their target only if the insulted person has chosen to play what Bill refers to as the social-hierarchy game. In playing this game, you are careful to cultivate a certain image of yourself in other people. You do this because you measure your own self-worth in terms of how others value you. It is a foolish game to play, say the Stoics, because if you are a thoughtful person, you will reject many of the values by which other people live.

In his talk, Bill will also explore the psychology of insults. What is it that causes us to insult others? And how can insults — mere words — cause so much pain? It is an exploration that leads us to one of the core dilemmas of the human experience: it is hard to live without human companionship because we will experience loneliness; and it is hard to live with human companionship because we will thereby become the target of insults. The Stoics thought they had a solution to this dilemma: live among people and enjoy their company, but refuse to play the social hierarchy game.

One thought on “STOICON ’16: Bill Irvine

  1. As it so happens, I just had an exchange with another in which I refused to play the social-hierarchy game and refused to answer insult with insult. I was having a discussion with a cardiac surgeon about the merits of a procedure, who immediately launched an attack upon me personally instead of the argument, and even doubled down after I called him out on what he was doing. I couldn’t help but chuckle.

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