Two basic philosophical questions: Perfectibility and self-understanding

There are two sorts of philosophical questions that, though related, are actually separate, with the first question gaining unwarranted authority over the second. One is: how can I improve myself? The other is: how can I understand myself?

When I ask, ‘How can I improve myself or my life,’ I am thinking in some such terms:

  • How I could perform some task better;
  • How I could be more excellent at some craft;
  • How I could achieve what I set out to do;
  • How I could have what I presently lack.

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Two mistakes hidden by ‘meaningful work’

Number of Hours Spent Working

Imagine you spent a millisecond working every day. Imagine further that this millisecond was the length of time required for you to meet your material needs. Would you think at all about a concept such as ‘meaningful work,’ a concept that, according to Google Ngram Viewer, only came into prominence during the 1970s?

‘Meaningful work’ may be a sign of a widespread cultural ideological blind spot. ‘If I’m going to spend the largest part of each day as well as most of my adult life working,’ one reasons, ‘then wouldn’t it be crucial for me to pursue and secure meaningful work?’ In this accounting, what falls out of focus is concrete historical reality: the fact that people are working longer and longer days, and this fact has been taken both as a given and as a starting point for the further questions they raise about careers, fields, and so forth. I call ‘meaningful work’ an ideological blind spot, then, because it hides the fact that there is (or so I would conjecture) a clear correlation between the greater length of time one works each day and the more intense desire for meaningful work.

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The riddle of meaningful work

A Misplaced Desire

The desire to do meaningful work or to do what one loves needs to be brought into question. I too once made the assumption that meaningful work stretches most of the way across a good life. I don’t think so any longer. Further philosophical and historical reflection reveals that the desire for meaningful work may be a riddle and one that is leading us astray.

Aristotle’s argument in the Politics shook free from me some basic assumptions about modern work. He writes,

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Movement and rest: The modern vs. the ancient view

The Modern Picture: Movement Before Rest

1. We moderns believe that movement is metaphysically prior as well as superior to rest.

2. To move is chiefly to act.

3. Action is goal-oriented.

4. An act is the means by which something other (a goal, an ideal, a target) is realized.

5. Action is governed chiefly by the will.

6. The will is an instrument of effort: of resistance against the non-goal (obstacle, enemy, temptation, impulse, etc.) and of strenuous commitment to achieving the stated goal.

7. Rest is the derivative of movement. It is the absence or lack of movement.

8. Stronger: rest is idleness; it is doing nothing.

9. As such, rest is not just the sheer absence of movement; it is one Great Impediment to the exercise of the will.

10. Worse, idleness is the enemy of the will.

11. Therefore, the will must resist or vanquish rest (= idleness). And when the will is in doubt about itself, it becomes Restlessness.

12. The will is never satisfied. Such a life is full of busyness, exhaustion, tedium, overwhelmingness. In a word: Protestantism.

The Ancient Picture: Stillness Before Movement

1. According to the ancient view, stillness is metaphysically prior as well as superior to movement.

2. The aim of the aspirant is to achieve stillness.

3. What enables the project of achieving stillness is leisure.

4. Meditating, contemplative reading, philosophical discussion, the study of nature, aesthetic creation and appreciation, theurgy, and others: these are the modes by which stillness is realized.

5. Action is derived from stillness as water flows from its source. It is, that is to say, out of stillness that right action comes. Daoists speak of wu wei, Zen philosophers of spontaneous action.

6. The force opposing stillness and the right action flowing therefrom is restlessness. But restlessness is the desire to fill up empty time with tasks, busyness, and work.

7. One lets restlessness fall away by turning to, re-turning to, turning around to meditation and to other meditative activities.

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Let go of the modern and return to the ancient.

Socrates contra dogmatism, skepticism, and agnosticism

How, in all things, does one steer clear of dogmatism without being a skeptic or becoming an agnostic? The dogmatist is anyone who claims to know for certain, the skeptic (of the kind I have in view) being doubtful about what we can know for sure. If we are neither dogmatists nor skeptics, then aren’t we committed to being the agnostic or a Rortyian ironist, the kind of person, that is, remaining lukewarm or caring not a wit about matters of truth?

The dogmatist affirms the certitude of his statements. One way he remains dogmatic is by avoiding the questioning or testing of his beliefs. Specifically, he may unwittingly subscribe to some version of the Myth of the Given whether it be intuition in Romanticism, the sense datum in empiricist epistemology, the actualizing tendency in humanistic psychology, a miracle in Christianity, or some other. Thus immunized from doubt, the dogmatist can, when asked about his version of the given, reply, ‘It is what it is.’ Or: ‘This is just how things are. We just receive unconceptualized packets of sense data.’ Brute facts.

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