Stumbling Blocks in the Active Life

Suppose we begin with the person who has renounced four prominent pursuits: the idea of leading a comfortable life (bourgeois), that of leading a pleasurable life (hedonism), that of doing whatever he feels like whenever he feels like doing it (the wastrel), and the idea that there is no sufficient reason for living (nihilism). It may be out of a sense that something is to be done and he, among others, is to do it that he senses that these four pursuits are empty. Having renounced all four, therefore, he will declare a statement analogous to this one: ‘I want to make a difference with my life.’

This declaration tells us that he is devoted to the active life, to the life in which an agent seeks, in all his actions, to fulfill some social good or the common good. It implies that he is not committed to the contemplative life, which life would turn his gaze, his soul, his being upon the eternal stillness or the immeasurable fecundity. Therefore, we know where this young person stands: he stands above the ordinary and is devoted to an active conception of what is higher.

Where might he stumble? There are two places. The first place is at the beginning since his declaration, ‘I want to make a difference with my life,’ is (as I argued yesterday) vague, so vague that it fails to reveal in what way it would be best for him to do so. Therefore, he would have to learn to articulate and specify.

The second place would be located somewhere in the middle. Suppose he has found the path–the right path–that calls to him. Even so, at some point or another, he is bound to get stuck. Stuck how? He may face burnout; his ideas may cease to be interesting; his projects may be frustrated or endlessly delayed; his partners, colleagues, or teammates may turn fair-weather; he may drift about restlessly, unnervingly; he may be paralyzed for any number of reasons. As an elementary part of his education, then, he would need to learn how to unstuck stuckness.’

For someone committed to the active life, there is, in brief, the question of how I am specifically to make a difference, and there is the further question of how I am to persist whenever I am lost and get confused.

Vagueness and Inaccuracy: The Case of ‘Making a Difference’

Vagueness and Inaccuracy

I am intrigued by how the philosophical problems of vagueness and inaccuracy are played out in laypersons’ experiences of everyday life, particularly in the lives of those pursuing the active life. Vagueness pertains to two different sets of issues while inaccuracy, at least of the kind I’m often presented with and especially concerned with, with only one distinct issue. Someone is being vague, let’s say, when (a) the concept he uses does not apply to one or more objects to which it is meant to refer and/or (b) there are ‘borderline cases’ where it is unclear whether or not the concept applies in terms of its extension. Inaccuracy, unlike vagueness, calls us to doubt whether the concept being applied actually is the right concept under which to subsume this phenomenon.

To illustrate the concepts of vagueness and inaccuracy, let me consider someone who says that he is feeling guilty. If he were asked, ‘What sorts of things do you feel guilty about?,’ he might answer  objects X and Y. However, upon closer inspection it may seem vague whether guilt should be attached to these objects since the latter may not be those amenable to the application of guilt. (E.g., ‘I feel guilty because my child, whom I’ve properly tended to, happens to have a cold today.’) Alternatively, he could be applying the concept of guilt in such a way that it ranges beyond the bounds of the typical extension of the concept. (E.g., ‘I feel guilty because it is dark and stormy outside today.’) Now, it’s also possible that he is being inaccurate. He may think that it is guilt, and yet it could be another concept: shame, disappointment, worry, remorse, etc.

In philosophy, in brief, we are learning to ask,

  • Which objects are within a certain range of the application of concept X?
  • Which objects fall outside of the extension of concept X?
  • Might there be some other concept that fits the phenomenon or phenomena in question?

A Test Case: ‘I want to Make a Difference’

My introductory remarks above make it seem as if vagueness and inaccuracy have to be errors only and are therefore unhelpful for someone learning to think well. This assumption is not true. Better to say that vagueness and inaccuracy can be starting points for a philosophical inquiry into what is actually going on and why. For when one is brought to an awareness that there is a dialectical misfit between concept and object, he is thereby driven to inquire about how the two could be brought into harmony. Thus is he carried forward in his thinking in the hope of pinpointing with the utmost precision what is the case.

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Choosing the Right Spiritual Path

The Scene of Bewilderment

One is soon bewildered after one awakens to the realization that there must be more than this. The realization comes, comes surely and painfully, and cannot be taken back. Despite the realization striking home with the force of conviction, one does not know what one means when one says and believes, ‘There must be more than this': what is the ‘this’ to which I’m referring? More than what? Where is this more? And why ‘must’ there be?

This much is for sure: one is making a cut between how one lives and how it would be better for one to live, and one is pronouncing the former to be pale in the radiant light of the latter. To say ‘there must be more than this’ is to mean, at least, that ‘There must be more to human life than the life I am currently leading. And whatever this surplus is, it promises to make human life better somehow: to overcome this restlessness, this disquiet, this strife, this vacuity and to make it fuller, truer, realer, more splendid. In the light of that which is namelessly, enigmatically higher, I could be transformed into that, or a part of what, I seek.’

Existential Choice as Devotion

Now comes the existential choice concerning which spiritual path to take, for that is what it is: an, perhaps the, existential choice. This sort of choice is not a choice without matter or consequence but is, as Pierre Hadot says, a ‘choice of life.’ To say this is to say that it is not the sort of choice that one can easily renege upon or back out of in an instant; it is devotion, a fundamental and ongoing act of commitment, a something to which one is related, tied, wedded. It is rather like choosing a spouse. Granted, one can seek separation or get a divorce later on but not without considerable consequences, lifelong implications, uneasy disentanglements, the painful waves of severance. Furthermore, this existential choice, unlike the garden variety decisions one makes on any given day, is that in the light of which one lives, values, appreciates, affirms, confirms, or denies, rejects, disconfirms certain facets of everyday life. Without this orientation toward others, the world, events, oneself, one is scarcely the same person, barely known to oneself. Thus, the existential choice of life is far more serious than a matter of life and death since in it lies the very possibility of, the delicate key to my life’s going well. It is a gossamer thread I wish not to break.

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Kaos Pilots: A Comprehensive View (Part 2)

I mentioned a second method that, if applied, could help Kaos Pilots or a school like it to make sense of a wide array of phenomena by bringing that wide array into a single, comprehensive view of things.

In Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observes that there come times when competing traditions confront each other. Quite often, tradition B will do no more than reject tradition A, claiming simply that A’s views are incompatible with its views. Occasionally, tradition A concedes that some of B’s minor claims may be placed at the outskirts of A yet nothing else need be modified. In MacIntyre’s telling, most medieval theologians before Aquinas simply rejected Aristotelian cosmology on the grounds that it wasn’t compatible with the Augustinian theology they had inherited and were committed to espousing.

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Kaos Pilots: A Comprehensive View (Part 1)

Kaos Pilots is a fairly unique school in that its students are taught by a wide array of guest lecturers who discuss a vast array of subjects. The latter include courses in business strategy, process consulting, and appreciative inquiry as well as workshops on personal development and theories of narrative–just to name a few. Over its 20 year history, the school has not had an overarching vision of what the school is about (its telos) nor has it had a curriculum in the old-fashioned sense of a relatively unchanging course of study the primary aim of which is for each student to acquire a specific body of knowledge.

Over the past three years, one of the remarks I have heard from students is something that has also struck me: it is that they can have a hard time coming up with a comprehensive view of how all the diverse items they have learned over the three years can be fit together in one picture. The project concerned with achieving a synoptic view is, without question, a philosophical one.

In the past two posts, I have described what could provide Kaos Pilots with greater cohesiveness and unity: an explicit emphasis on the cultivation of character as well as a clear commitment to the articulation and specification of the statement, ‘I want to make a difference.’ I believe the third element would be to supply the school with some philosophical methods for bringing seemingly disparate phenomena into a single whole.

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