On living out indirect proofs: Not the vocation, the career, or the project but the life-work

1. We might say that life is one long indirect proof. We have to live a conception out before we can rule it out. In ruling it out, we come upon a more hopeful conception of a well-lived life.

2. Throughout the history of western civilization, we have lived out a number of conceptions of the good life: most recently, the vocation, the career, and the project. The first has been ruled out, the second is holding on by its long fingers but, by my lights, is coming to an end, and the last is getting a try-out which, on its own, it is likely to fail.

Can the life-work do the trick in the early twenty-first century? Let’s see.

3. Embedded within every social order is an ideal of the well-lived life. I have written elsewhere that “the medieval order was divided into those who prayed, fought, and worked,”  ancient regime into “the four noble professions” of law, medicine, religion, and military. But we do not belong to either of these social orders anymore.

Particular to the religious understanding was the idea of being called to become a man of the cloth. It is difficult to conceive of how a “vocation” can be held onto without also holding onto the concept of a higher being who “does the calling.” For those who doubt that God exists, the vocation cannot be an intelligible concept.

The concept of the career, therefore, has seemed more suitable for a secular age. Elsewhere, however, I have suggested that the conception of a career has also lost or is losing its sense. It is going the way of the ruins.

Suppose I’m right. Then “vocation” is out and “career” is also out, and there’s no going back. One of the terms now taking the place of the career is the notion of the project.

4. The trouble with the project, i.e., as a conception of a well-lived life, is that it is discrete. On its own, it lacks a sense of inner and outer cohesion (integritas), and it cannot bring a life into unity. How the projects fit together into something higher or larger: about this freelancers remain agnostic. But that also means that their lives, under the “project dispensation,” must also feel pulled apart.

5. In order to retain some sense of the vocation (to wit, being called for a higher purpose), to let go of the career (that nasty, brutish thing), and to get beyond the one-off projects, we may find that the life work is a workable conception. Here’s how I want to parse “setting out to make life work”:

i. “We set out to make life work.” That is to say, we need a form of life that is workable, individually and collectively. Think of the following expressions: “Well, it seems to me that this will work. This works! This is good enough.” Making life work is a provisional, ongoing, good enough, well-designed undertaking.

ii. “We set out to make life work.” That is to say, we are looking for a kind of work that is intrinsically valuable, i.e., valuable for its own sake. Hence, good work must not just be non-evil; it must also be non-trivial (where trivial = frittering away one’s talents.)

iii. “We set out to make life-work.” That is to say, to make our life INTO a form of life that achieves unity and wholeness.

6. Can a project fit into the schema of a life-work? Yes, provided that project X fits into or contributes to one’s life-work. If it does not, then it will pull you apart at the seams.

Pinning down philosophical counseling: Short & long & elliptical answers

One of the questions I get quite often is what the hell is philosophical counseling. To be honest, I probably have this conversation just about every day. Here’s one example from an editor who will be publishing one of my essays on child-rearing and moral education. He tells me that I need to attach a brief bio to the article. And he adds, “At the moment all I know is that you are a philosophical counselor. Never heard of one of those, to be honest.”

The dodo bird. The unicorn. The parakeet. The philosopher.

To be honest, I could say that this website has become one of my longer replies, and that would not be untrue. In fact, it would be quite true,

too true too true.

But perhaps you were looking for a shorter reply. Well, then, I’ve now got an epigram under the Life Work section of my new public bio.

Or perhaps you fancy an elliptical riposte? The answer to the question, “What is a philosopher?,” is the nature and shape of the life one leads. (Oh, my dear, the play’s the thing.)

Or perhaps you ludic fiend, you queen of the fairies, perhaps you prefer an aperitif (so to speak)? Here’s a little bit of (a small bite from) a forthcoming paper called “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise.”

Paper Abstract

My conversation partners and I are trying to lead philosophical lives–self-reflective, meaningful, fully integrated existences. For us, philosophy is best understood as a practice undertaken asymmetrically between a guide and a pupil, between one friend and another: we are fellow inquirers and in this sense we are equals, yet the educator is farther along on the path of wisdom than the pupil. As part of our ongoing practice, conversation partners and I engage in what the ancient scholar Pierre Hadot has called “spiritual exercise” (askesis). Spiritual exercises are rigorous ways of thinking, living, and acting, all of which are aimed at transforming the self. Letter writing happens to be a genre that is particularly well-suited to spiritual exercise. The following six letters, which were written approximately six months [i.e., in August of 2011] after A. and I started working together, are a brief but revealing glimpse into our essays at becoming better acquainted with ourselves and each other. In the provisional conclusion appended to the letters, I seek to clarify our understanding of spiritual exercise and to inquire further into the generic relevance of letter exchange for philosophical practice.

[The introduction, letters, and conclusion are included in the forthcoming paper. The Update below is also included.]


October 21, 2011

We might say that the aim of philosophical practice is to put our lives in order. Since August, A. has been showing how to make life work. About a month ago, she and E. decided, amicably, to file for divorce; she has taken it in stride. A.’s children are growing up well. On two occasions, the first time in Central Park, the second time over dinner, I met and played with them: both are warm and sprightly, both look out for each other, and both, on most nights, are sleeping on their own till morning time. And in the past week, A. accepted a generous job offer from a well-respected company. The position pays considerably more than the one she will be leaving, and it will allow her more financial stability, more creative license, and greater autonomy.

I am looking at a pair of swans. They are in the foreground of a photograph A. took of Lake C. a few years ago. It is the last in a series now hanging on the wall. The first swan looks stately, complete and entire unto itself. The second has plunged its long neck into the water. Presumably, he is in search of food, but it could also be that he is trying out a new way of seeing.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise,” Philosophical Practice, forthcoming.

Friday meditation: Curating Tao Te Ching

The following are excerpts from Tao Te Ching. All have something to say about the  nature of wisdom. Enjoy this Friday’s meditation.


To speak little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning;
heavy winds do not last all day.


The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate the people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.
When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.


Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

On the discipline of eating: Open questions

What is it like to put food in your mouth? To chew slowly? To look around and see warmed others beside you? To look down and find long-limbed wine in your glass? To have picked the vegetables, now in your mouth, thick from your garden? To have cooked the masticated sinews for hours beside those friends listing leftward beside you?

Is there a hearth? If so, what is it like? And the rituals–what of these? What actions? What words? What chants? What libations?

And what–shall we reference Braudel here? Yes, let’s–what longue duree is here–or not here? What form of life  is this after all? Does it exist, or is it all conjured?

What, ultimately, would a “discipline of eating” (see David E. Cooper) actually be look? How to make food into “cuisine” (Cooper again) just as we make grapes or tea leaves into practical arts?

I’m not sure what a “discipline of eating” would look like in the early 21st C.–after the rise of industrial civilization, after the Green Revolution, after we moved en masse to the cities. I’d like to gather together a few thoughts, though, as a kind of background to the questions.

1. From my short essay, “Wistfulness in These Strange Times”:

In the early 21st century, can we, as Epicurus insisted we must, do more with less? Can we examine our set of desires in order to distinguish the natural and necessary (good work, aesthetic appreciation, leisure) from the non-natural and unnecessary (excessive wealth, high status, extreme vulgarity)? Can we surround ourselves with friends for whom food is not just energy but that which is mouthed and tongued, for whom books not just fetishes but textures and shadings, land not just resource but earth and soil, home more than refuge, hosting a venerable art of welcoming? And can we, for a time at least, turn down the volume on all the buzzing and all the hurrying, all the anger and the strife, and can we, in this stillness, relearn self-sufficiency and self-reflection as well as the social virtues of honesty and sincerity?

2. My dissatisfaction with environmentalism with respect to food conceptualized in utilitarian terms. Industrial farming is bad–yes–but food only as calories? Food understood only in terms of health? Food only as good or bad treatment of animals? See, e.g., Jonathan Safron Foer’s unhelpful book Eating Animals.

3. My recent conversation about food, spirituality, and rituals with one conversation partner. The place of food at the center of a well-lived life. (But how?)

4. My recent edits of a forthcoming set of letters for the journal Philosophical Practice. Entitled “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise.” Spiritual exercise: the reference is to askesis and to the work of the ancient scholar Pierre Hadot. (Hadot is dead now. What libations?)

5. My foray into the work of the farmer-poet Wendell Berry.

6. My recent reading of David E. Cooper’s articles about “discipline of eating,” the importance of gardening and home cooking. Necessary conditions these, but are they sufficient?

He opens the tin and mixes the cool fish with the warmed green beans. (Fish slide out of tins.)  His fork clinks against the bowl. He reads the news on the screen.

He knows this is not a meal.

Open questions, then: What would a phenomenology of “cuisine” be like? And what kind of literary account could one give that might capture the experience of living with others in this way?

Any suggestions?

Further Reading

David E. Cooper, “Food and Spiritual Reflection: The Daoist Example.”

On what I learned from fasting

  1. Removing the inessentials is not a form of punishment; it is an act of joy.
  2. “He who knows that he has enough–is rich” (Tao te Ching).
  3. “The highest goodness is like water” (Peter France, Hermits: The Insights of Solitude).
  4. My defects have been pride and prejudice. I grew up with an overvaluation of my own self-worth and with an undervaluation of the worth of others. Then I felt shame and a sense of injustice. These–admonitions–have shown me the way forward.
  5. “The monk’s fast dries up the stream of voluptuousness” (France, p. 35).
  6. “Abbas Macarins used to say that a bad word will make even a good person bad, but a good word will make even a bad person good” (Anecdote in France, p. 29).
  7. The corridors of the past are wider than we think. On Monday, I dwelt in the walking memory of my childhood home for all eternity.
  8. A tree shimmering in the wind is too much to take in. To do it justice, one must adopt a new way of seeing.
  9. It has been held, not least by me, that self-control is wanting in the present age. This is no doubt true, but it is also untrue. It is untrue because one thinks nothing of self-control when the environment in which self-control had mattered has changed. I thought nothing of checking my email or of fulfilling my worldly affairs when I existed in the physical/supra-physical space of the sanctuary. The lesson is that self-control is not a question when one’s environment is conducive to something higher.
  10. Practical affairs do come calling: sometimes in the guise of a UPS man ringing the doorbell with a sidelong glance.