On education as ‘going along with the flow’; on choice as the offspring of distrust


One of my fondest college memories is of proving Euclidean theorems all the way up to the precipice: the Parallel Postulate. Until one arrives at the Parallel Postulate, one can derive Euclidean geometry from 5 scintillatingly simple axioms. Each theorem can be clearly formulated, each proof can be neatly arranged according to the steps in the argument, and each conclusion can come with the utmost logical necessity: the Q.E.D., or quod erat demonstratum, a period at the end of a finished thought. All along the path, you see the system emerging slowly by following the clearly laid out stepping stones of theorems, corollaries, and lemmas.

I was 19 then, and I loved this course especially because the professor was bald, pale, and a loving hardass. Jerry Wagenblast had yellow orange skin, liver spots, a long clicking slappy tongue, and eyes that turned askew, more often when he drew inferences and accented points. He was right much of the time but self-righteous almost never. And the beautiful thing about mathematics is that there is no smarmy coddling.

Actually, I loved mathematics because it was full of loving hard asses: with men, mostly, who were socially inept, intensely curious, and impressively loving in their own way. They were loving, most of all, in their desire to work with you on mathematics provided you showed the curiosity, the aptitude, and the patience. (One professor from Holland taught me about set theory; he wore wooden clogs. I met with him every Wednesday.)

I had not elected to take this course on geometry. I was a freshman at the time and rather farther along in my studies in mathematics than other freshmen. I had spoken with the Head of the Department, Patrick Sullivan, about my love of math and about what course would be suitable for me. He recommended this course in Absolute Geometry which after the Parallel Postulate diverges into Hyperbolic Geometry, and I followed his recommendation. I took it also because it was a required course, one I would have to take anyway if I were to graduate with a degree in mathematics. The course was deemed a junior- and senior-level course, a keystone of the curriculum. (I’ll come back to these fitting italicized words later on. Clearly, I’m sweating profusely to make a point.)

Sullivan, who had a habit of staring madly off into the distance as if seeing some visionary gleam had caught his eye or as if grasping some Platonic truth and who, as a result, rarely looked at you, was an excellent guide. I trusted him. I didn’t know any better, and my ignorance was never tested. In addition, the course he recommended appealed to me, and–to be frank–that was that. That, to me, is how an argument reaches a conclusion without any doubt or moment’s hesitation.

Mathematical reasoning, as Plato well knew, is an elegant and rigorous form of reasoning. Through practice, you learn how to follow steps in an argument, steps not of your devising or choosing or selecting. (What would it mean to “choose” the answer to 2+2? Only 4, for the properly trained, would come to mind and that immediately, clearly, and distinctly.) Professor Wagenblast, who started us off by teaching us some formal logic, gave us assignments–here, Andrew, do theorem 15–that followed from those that came before and that pointed to those that would come after. We were clearly enmeshed in an inquiry, none of which was chosen, and all of which led to only one (or a few) logical directions. There may be a couple ways to prove a theorem, but the way that was best was the most parsimonious, elegant, and straightforward. The criteria for success were clear: formal beauty and Ockham’s Razor.

We loved it–or I loved it. (I don’t know whether they loved because I was socially inept.) The course was hard, I struggled initially, I was engrossed entirely, and I loved it all from beginning to end.

I don’t recall the long, painful hours I spent in the library shot through with thinking about doing otherwise, imagining other pursuits, dreaming up other options, concocting other alternatives, drumming up counterfactuals, or involving myself in opportunity costs. The thought never occurred to me because I was committed to a worthwhile inquiry and because I was in love with the beauty of a well-crafted proof. I did it very well and I muddled.

I muddled and I did it well. The two are deeply intertwined.


At the risk of being overly hasty, I want to draw a conclusion based on this perspicuous experience: here we have a picture of good learning, and there is no room in it whatsoever or in any ‘family resemblance’ picture of good learning for choice, choosing, or its cognates. No room period. No room. End of story.

Recall your best educational experiences. I’ll wait here for a minute…. Go ahead…. I’ll still be here when you get back…

What terms did you use when the experience came to mind? You might have said: you were passionate, involved, focused, in love, all in it, enraptured, in the flow, in the zone. You could have thought: you lost track of time. You forgot yourself. You gave yourself up to it. You couldn’t imagine doing anything else with your time. You were drawn to it. You were pulled by it. You felt compelled to do it, but it was a compulsion that was peculiarly liberating. You were called. You were attuned. You attended. You were drawn. You were inspired (a term derived from a religious background). You just did it. ‘You’ weren’t ‘you.’

If you’re feeling the itch to carrot in “I chose to…” before any or all of these, then I think you’re making a category mistake. Or, with Bernard Williams, I would say that you’ve had  “one thought too many.” (You don’t choose to save your lover; you save your lover.) Choosing, being free to choose, and letting so-and-so be free to choose: none of these have anything to do with the activity of learning proper.


Ah, point well taken, you say. But but. But here’s the but. Sometimes it’s said that we choose an activity and then, from the inside, we feel passionate about that activity which does not involve choosing. (Ah, my friend, but I never chose to love math.) Suppose, you say, you ask your child, “What book should we read for bedtime tonight?” The child points to the book, picks it out from the others, and then is passionate–in other words, “really into”–this book. Arguably, the child is especially passionate because she chose the book.

The general line of thought seems to be that there is a salient distinction to be drawn between the external (the frame) and the internal (the activity), a distinction between which game the child would like to play and the game playing proper.

My reply (you see, reader, we’re playing without choosing: your choice would be stop reading: to turn away from this blog and to stop reading) would be that this scenario starts “too far along.” What really happens is that a child is introduced to a game or activity with love and due care. Through exercise and discipline, the child moves from pain and disquietude to respect and love. This would go by the simple name of education. In another blog I wrote also about fond memories:

One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father playing catch with me. In my mind’s eye, I can see him showing me how to rotate my glove through a sundial of positions. A basket catch won’t always do. You don’t stab at the ball with pinchers; you let it in. A good outfielder gets under the ball and uses two hands. A great fielder moves to where the ball will be, not where it is. The drop-step, the first five steps, a keen eye, a clean read, quickness rather than breakaway speed: all of these the outfielder’s weapons.

During the summer, we played catch after he got home from work while it was still light out. Sometimes he could be a prick and I could be mopey, but usually this was our time to figure out what being a father and a son was all about. During winter, I stood sideways and caught footballs. Or I did out-and-in’s, out-and-down’s, down-out-and-down’s. I learned how to catch the ball over my shoulder in stride. I dove and leapt for balls when I had to. Many an imaginary cornerback lost his jockstrap.

This is a story about good education, about letting ourselves ‘go with the flow.’ Contrast this image with school choice in New York. Erg. A few years ago, one former friend of mine, then in her early 40s, was talking about her seventh grade son. Where should her son go to high school? She told me that she and her former husband would speak with her son, but in the end, of course, the decision was up to him. I think he was 12 or 13 at the time.


What happens when you distrust a school?

You argue for school choice. (Consensus on Left and Right)

What happens when you distrust teachers?

Generally, you reject the possibility that good authority can ever exist.

Specifically, you turn teachers into ‘facililators’ (On the Left, this was John Dewey’s solution. Me: weeping.)

You speak of teacher accountability in terms of value added metrics. (On the Right. Me: frowning.)

You move to another school district or enroll your child in another school. (So much for settlement.)

What happens when you distrust food?

You turn a school cafeteria into food a la carte. (A charming corporate vision here.)

What happens when you distrust curriculum?

You speak of ‘child-centered’ learning. (Erg: that darn John Dewey again)

You move from ‘requirements’ to ‘electives.’

End of the story, a contradiction in terms: you offer an ‘open curriculum.’ (Here’s Hamilton College.)

What happens when you have doubts about any subject matter?

You let the student pick. (Or, um, you let the kids run the school.)

What is the end of the story?

The trenchant skepticism regarding a common vision (telos).

A nation of Choosers without commitments. We can always opt out. (Me: sighing heavily.)


The common thread running through the litany above is an abiding sense of distrust. Our first premise is that we live in a hostile world. Our second premise is that our child will likely be harmed. One of the ways of harming her is by “coercing” her to do what she doesn’t want to do. From premises 1 and 2, we draw the inference that choice will serve as a form of protection against harm. (Cf. talk of rights as a bulwark against the power and scope of the modern state.) Arguably, all the talk of choice and school choice is a recoil from the prospect of harm.

(NB: What could have happened so far in our inquiry about education? Well, I could have lost you. Maybe you’ve not been able to follow me because I’m going too fast, too slow, or skipping steps. It’s possible that I’m being unclear. If you still trust me, then you could, in due course, ask questions that put us back on track, that bring us back together. And I’ll reply as best I can. If this works, we’ll continue with the inquiry.)

But this picture admits of no tertium datur between ‘is’ and ‘ought,’ between ‘can’ and ‘must,’ between freedom and coercion. Strange because most of a good life, I submit, is spent inhabiting this vast savanna in which we are called to follow someone else’s lead (be it Kant’s, Sullivan’s, or a good parent’s), yearn to meet someone’s need, conduct inquiries that lead to reasonable conclusions, live according to everyday logics (the idea of choosing to be a philosopher never occurred to me: what an odd thought that would have been!), make dinner for hungry children, finish homework assignments out of habit and love… The list could go on.


Let’s try to imagine education once more, this time by telling a different story. Let’s suppose we’re highly skilled golfers. When things are going well, we look at the green, assess where we are, draw conclusions, grab clubs, and hit the darn ball. Then we walk to the ball, whack it nicely again, and repeat. Things are going well! It’s fun! We’ve learned to reason well, to see clearly, and to go on, as if we were doing things naturally.

That was a good day. Here is a bad one. We hit the ball, and it goes every which way. Perhaps, at first we’re still “self-forgetful,” still “naive” and “unconscious” for a few more strokes, but after a while we’re in a terrible muddle. We have no idea what club to use, how hard to hit the ball, we’ve lost our sense of reasoning, lost our bearings, and we’ve no idea how to calculate. In this fog of doubt, we glob onto the discourse of choosing: weighing up, deliberating, hemming and hawing, and deciding. We think that choosing will do away with the fog of doubt, leading us to the land of quiet certainty, but thinking in terms of choosing only makes matters worse. Like Chuck Knoblauch, we’ve come down with a nasty case of “the yips.” On these terms, we can’t possibly win. It’s as if we’d never felt love.


We think choosing is the starting point to most of our conversations about education and life, but in truth it is a much later step in an argument that, more often than not, has already gone awry. Most disconcerting is that we have, in our national conversations about education and education reform, forgotten that this is the case and then begun the conversation at the point of crisis. In light of this, we need to first remind ourselves of what good education looks and feels like (e.g., constructing arguments, writing poems, falling in love, playing golf flowingly), second to begin by building educational institutions based on intimations of blessed visions of education, and third to inquire about the source of our disquietude when it arises. In most cases, we don’t solve choices; we “back off” of them, as though we were stepping out of a trap. (We back off of dilemmas; we don’t try to force our way through them.)

The last, for now, shall be first. When you begin thinking in terms of choosing, you might examine the doubts that led you to speak and think in terms of choosing in the first place. Thus:

  • I don’t truly know this person. In my eyes, Jane is opaque.
  • I don’t truly know what Jane wants or needs or likes.
  • I don’t want to hurt Jane, and I don’t want Jane to be hurt.
  • I don’t trust Jane, and, for all I know, Jane doesn’t trust me.
  • I’m not sure where to go next in this argument. I’m confused and possibly scared.

So we’d start to see a choice question would come after any of these statements. If I don’t know what Jane wants, I ask her choice questions. I’m uncomfortable, a little wobbly. If I knew what Jane wanted, I’d simply give it to her. (Cf. giving a gift with giving a gift certificate.)

It’s scary how we’ve built our educational institutions on the prospect of not being harmed. To me, this doesn’t exactly meet my demand for a radiant social world.


A quick summary of a very long and windy argument.

1.) When life’s going well for us, then we’re ‘in the swing’ of things. We rarely choose. Rather, we’re ‘going along with the flow.’ To me, this is a beautiful story about education’s going well.

2.) When life’s not going so well for us and when life has become hostile or doubtful or uncertain, then our talk turns to choosing. (I remain agnostic for now about the metaphysical question of whether free will exists. Throughout this post, I’ve been focusing only on the ‘practical implications’ of choosing.)

3.) Choosing normally appeals to us when a way of life has gone under and when something’s amiss. Now, we look for the exit. We say (and it can be assuring) that we have alternatives.


The following is an excerpt from an email exchange that took place between one conversation partner–I guess I’ve renamed her “S.”–and me from this past weekend. I pick up the thread about education in Tuesday’s post. Till then, A.

Dear S.,

There’s a rock on my desk. (A fine opening line!). It’s black. Away from the light and on the desk it’s black still. I turned it over in my hands, thought for a moment of Beckett’s sucking stones, and then put the rock to the light. By this time, it was morning. I brought the rock to the window and held it in my hands and turned it over again. Then…  The flowers were like henna, were like bundles of fruits, were like the purple leaves that grew freely in my mother’s garden.

It was a gift, we know this because you told me so, but a gift of a kind that threw light on its being a gift. The gift first lures us, as it were, allowing us to see it as if it were an ordinary object that conforms entirely to our expectations. But then it entreats us to take a second look. When we do, we are surprised that it was other than what we had thought or expected. A good gift humbles us, revealing to us that our ordinary ways of perceiving won’t do it justice, implying also that our ordinary ways of being do life a grave disservice, taking the breath from life.

I think there’s something here about error being inextirpable from being human. Hegel insisted that modern philosophy got off on the wrong foot, with the idea that, since Descartes, doubt must be introduced in order for it to be vanquished and replaced, in turn, by absolute certainty. We think of life certainty as being not just the desideratum but also the default setting and yet, so long as we think this, we err doubly.

We err doubly and, in so doing, fail to learn. Hegel’s approach would be to show us how we started off in error because our conceptions of life and the way that life revealed itself may be discordant. Hegel, ever stern-browed, was on the path to telling a joke. Error in judgment, reason, and conduct must come first (so far, so good) as if we leaned into our perceptions, so that learning may come after, arriving with our whole person acknowledgment of our errors together with the object’s ‘demand’ that we make amends to it and to life.

The troubling implication is that education today, and parenting by extension, presumes that error is anomalous, perfection being a worthy and unquestionable ideal, and that good parenting is about getting along nicely, without any hitch. Perfection, the unfulfillable, external ideal lying beyond all too human existence, throws light on our very human blushes, as if our blushes arrived from elsewhere and could never be our own. Perfection is the fear of error captured as a frieze.

But good parenting is not like that. Parents get angry, they melt down, they yell, they almost lose it; they try one thing and then another; they get nothing from self-help nonsense; they err and err again, thus grasping the pain and release of the gift. The important point, however, is that they “show their errors” to their children, show their strengths as well as their weaknesses, but also that they are able to get the hang of putting their hand–just so–on the back of the neck, of brushing their child’s hair–just right–at the right moment, how–in sum–to set things to right. “Come here, old lady–thank you for putting away my bonnet–kiss me.”

This is the path of wisdom. Error, which must come first, won’t always have the final word; love will, love being (in this context) the strength to make and perceive errors and to make amends during the pianissimo moments. Love of children: a montage–a cat cozying up gingerly, rubbing her head against one’s hand.



Dear Andrew,

My cat is rubbing his head under my chin, after having sat for a while in front of the window sill, where she gazed longingly at the morning doves cooing on my fire escape. I love the sound of those doves because it reminds me of my adolescence in Florida: the heavy humid mornings and swaying Spanish moss…

Children are incredibly forgiving. With them, if a parent is honest and brave enough to acknowledge her errors, amends can be made and love accepted wholeheartedly.

I think there’s so much pressure today surrounding the conceit of being the “perfect” parent. The other day P told me how, years ago, he had received this nasty 16 page letter from a professor somewhere in the Midwest that she had  CC’d to 65 people in the company, because they had run an article saying that it was OK for a mother not to breastfeed her child if it wasn’t working out; suggesting that formula was OK as well. The professor accused P of supporting the formula industry. I wonder what she would have said about the anecdote that P told me of the time when he playfully tied his 7 year old to his chair with masking tape after having asked him 20+ times to sit down during dinner. His son giggled and wiggled the whole way through dinner. Would she have called it abuse?

When I first started working on the stone, it wasn’t so black, more of a dark gray, which got darker and darker as I worked on it. At first, I was annoyed, but then I surrendered to it: my hands and the stone clearly had more in mind than my pen. The stone wove its mystery on its own: through me but not without me.


On making amends: Scenes from Forster’s A Room with a View

The following are two excerpts from E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View (1908). Midway through the novel Cecil asks Lucy if she will marry him. She says yes. In the first scene, Cecil and Lucy, recently engaged, are walking home through the woods; they come upon the Sacred Lake. In the second scene, Lucy is quarreling with her mother Mrs. Honeychurch about her pedantic cousin Charlotte. Where the first scene does away with the friendliness of life, with the last tenderness of youth, the second intimates that all things can be set to right.


‘Up to now I have never kissed you.’ [Cecil says to Lucy]

She was as scarlet as if he had put the thing most indelicately.

‘No–more you have,’ she stammered.

‘Then I ask you–may I now?’

‘Of course you may, Cecil. You might before. I can’t run at you, you know.’

At that supreme moment he was conscious of nothing but absurdities. Her reply was inadequate. She gave such a businesslike lift to her veil. As he approached her he found time to wish that he could recoil. As he touched her, his gold pince-nez became dislodged and was flattened between them.

Such was the embrace. He considered, with truth, that it had been a failure. Passion should believe itself irresistible. It should forget civility and consideration and all the other curses of a refined nature. Above all, it should never ask for leave where there is a right of way. Why could he not do as any labourer or navvy–nay, as any young man behind the counter would have done? He recast the scene. Lucy was standing flower-like by the water; he rushed up and took her in his arms; she rebuked him, permitted him, and revered him ever after for his manliness. For he believed that women revere men for their manliness.

They left the pool in silence, after this one salutation. He waited for her to make some remark which should show him her inmost thoughts. At last she spoke, and with fitting gravity.

‘Emerson the name was, not Harris.’

‘What name?’

‘The old man’s.’

‘What old man?’

‘That old man I told you about. The one Mr Eager was so unkind to.’

He could not know that this was the most intimate conversation they had ever had.


‘Yes. I really can’t stop now. I must dress too.’ [Lucy says to her mother]

‘How’s Charlotte?’ [her mother asks.]

‘All right.’


The unfortunate girl returned.

‘You’ve a bad habit of hurrying away in the middle of one’s sentences. Did Charlotte mention the boiler?’

‘Her what?’

‘Don’t you remember that her boiler was to be had out in October, and her bath cistern cleaned out, and all kinds of terrible to-doing?’

‘I can’t remember all Charlotte’s worries,’ said Lucy bitterly. ‘I shall have enough of my own, now that you are not pleased with Cecil.’

Mrs Honeychurch might have flamed out. She did not. She said: ‘Come here, old lady–thank you for putting away my bonnet–kiss me.’ And, though nothing is perfect, Lucy felt for the moment that her mother and Windy Corner and the Weald in the declining sun were perfect.

So the grittiness went out of life.

On first words, last lines, and final thoughts

It was while lying in bed beneath the flowered sheets that I’d read to her the opening line of Mrs. Dalloway and we’d loved. “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” And it was while lying on the grass beside the northern spring lake that she’d read, less enthusiastically, the opening lines of To the Lighthouse. “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

I can remember lying on top of the sheets and reading that line to her. On the beach, we opened the book and already had in mind the idea that the next first line must shimmer, must shimmer as radiantly but also in its own way, had all this mind and then found Mrs. Ramsay’s words wanting by comparison. I think we had wanted to love those lines just as much as we’d loved Clarissa’s, but then we couldn’t work ourselves up to the business.

In the years since we parted, I’ve mused about those opening lines: the invitation to a dinner party, the unforeseeable end of childhood. Here are cut flowers, stalks stout, eyes raised up from the table, welcoming all, and there the lark flying, its extravagant song, its flitting farewell to boyhood. In the years since, I’ve read the first lines of stories, essays, and books with an eye to… well, with an eye to an inexplicable something.

She said she’d pick up the flowers herself. Yes, but you’ll have to be up with the larks. Compare with Gopnik (Adam–not his sister) from his book on winter for which I am to write a review: “I recall my first snowstorm as though it were yesterday, though it was, as it happens, November 12, 1968.” After that sad start, it took some courage to read on.

(A note: the awkwardness of first lines: to be lived with, smiled about. An image, a real one: clinking teeth for a first kiss.)

The delicacy of first lines, like warm greetings, has led me to think about the pallor of last words. On his deathbed, Wittgenstein reportedly said, “Tell them it’s been a wonderful life.” Before then, nobody who knew him could have had any idea that Wittgenstein could manage to tell a joke. Though maybe, after having tried to build the perfect house–white, sharp, without eros–for his sister who’d spared no expense and after having failed miserably, he finally–I don’t know–felt maybe that lives were nothing like modernist buildings or engineering projects. Or maybe he wasn’t telling a joke after all; perhaps he really meant it.

Whatever it is he said or meant, I realize that, in interpreting his words, I am, as it were, talking over him, not letting him have the last word–his final words. And this all along has been my weakness: the desire to put in the last words. The desire to get in there in the nick of time, to be so clever till the very end. The stillborn dream of the clever one is to make the end his own. These, my dear, are my terms. Don’t you love my mastery? Can’t you see that this world I have made, with these words, my own?

Only a few days ago, I wrote to a beautiful woman about this problem: “Something I’ve learned over the past year or so is how to let the other have the last word. When I’ve done this, sometimes I’ve heard the other’s last word resound. I think there’s a restraint involved, at least initially, but after a while a learning to listen and let be.” All well and good apart from the fact that I’d managed, once again, to talk over her when I’d written these lines about final lines. (Open parenthesis. In this case, I wanted to give her praise. Is this exculpation by another name? Close parenthesis.)

In my philosophy practice, I am now, or so I would like to think, much more attuned to letting the welcomed one have the first and final lines. At least I want her to have them. Want to give her the opening she needs in order to say the opening words and make the parting gesture. (Do you see how alluring that idea is? And do you see a radiant life just here: in all the giving all others the first and final words and in the not feeling as if you’ve merely settled for a few good words in between?)

Maybe the idea is to let every other have the first words and the last lines. And then, when it comes time, to be silent, letting the gods have the final thoughts.

A picture of a philosophical way of life followed by a medium-length rant

An anecdote: Yesterday, while strolling through the grocery store, I heard a young mother say the following to her young son: “Honey, you just have to be happy with the music they play for you. Bon Jovi’s OK.”

Human Anthropology

1. Human beings are thoroughgoing social animals. I.e., social life is ‘metaphysically prior’ to the life of any individual. (Pace the picture of liberal society where individual is ‘metaphysically prior’ to social life. Recall Margaret Thatcher: “Society does not exist.”)

2. No human being can meet all its basic needs and wants. (NB: If social life “fails” us, then we are on the way to social tragedy.)

3. Human beings are  mutually dependent on each other in order to persist and flourish.

Sociality and Human Development

4. Simplifying to the extreme, social life is comprised–to be sure, of many groups, organizations, etc.–above all of institutions.

5. Good social institutions supply individuals with livable, inhabitable, suitable social roles. E.g., a good father, whatever his particular shape or form, etc., sees to the care, nurturance, and overall philosophical education of the young. E.g., a good host sees to her guests. Etc. (Cf. Ibsen’s middle tragedies like Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, Enemy of the People, and Doll’s House: all social tragedies in which individuals have come “unstuck” from their social roles. There, society is to blame.)

6. Institutions are the “trellises” upon and through which individuals, like vines, can grow, develop, and flourish. I.e., institutions help nurture and guide growth in particular, flourishing-promising directions.

7. Trellises are such, let’s say, as to only permit of certain kinds of growth (hence, not every logical possibility will be actualizable). Human growth, guided by trellises, will fall into a vague “range” of good or good enough answers to what it means to lead a good life.

Final Ends

8. Good institutions also and at the same time supply good final ends. E.g., the final end of the market is to contribute to general welfare, i.e., meeting the basic material needs and basic desires of all.

9. Human beings, qua social animals, engage in practices that are embedded in social institutions.

10. Good practices–which is to say, ongoing activities–are undertaken for the sake of the final ends supplied by good institutions. (An image: that of a dancer, perpetually in graceful motion.)

11. Final ends must, in the final analysis, be “answerable to” some objective dimension beyond the institutions themselves. The old answer, which was also very short, was: God. But this no longer. The new answers I propose: a sense of mystery or blessedness as well as a sense of wholeness (integritas), both of which are discernible in or can be “read off from” radiant lives.

12. Practices consist of virtues (arete) such as courage, judgment, and patience, all of which are actualized through particular spiritual exercises (ascesis). E.g., writing this blog–much to your surprise!–is, for me, a morning exercise in good, whole person thinking-living. E.g., good humor is ascesis, the lightening of human frailty. E.g., manners are “codified” ascesis.

13. Good institutions, conjointly, are aimed at the common good. E.g., family, market, and state all aim at the common good, the life we hold in common.

Yearnings for Reconciliation

14. Each individual must ‘see’ how he/she fits into this picture. (Cf. educare: the lifelong education of the soul)

15. This picture must be made to ‘fit’ each individual. I.e., the unfolding of the philosophical story in a commodious, welcoming way. (Philosophy, as it were, as invitation)

A Medium-Length Rant

In his NYT Stone blog “Philosophy–What’s the Use?” (January 25, 2012), Gary Gutting writes about the “uses” to which professional philosophy can be put.

As ever, what’s unpalatable to me is that someone as intelligent as Gutting can go on to defend philosophy by saying a few choice words about what professional philosophers do and about why that ought to matter to non-philosophers. He’ll then go on to show that logic is important (because we want our basic beliefs to be coherent) and conceptual analysis is important (because we want to use concepts properly).

Points well taken: it would be good if more Americans held coherent beliefs and grasped the contours of the most fundamental concepts (e.g., happiness) they use.  However, both points are also woefully inadequate.

The trouble, first off, is that few laypersons will care much about the inapt and too facile distinction between professional philosophers and non-philosophers. It smacks of pedantry. Indeed, Gutting seems to be missing a very broad range of middle categories: everything from the “philosophically minded” to “philosophical practitioners.” That’s terra cognita, the vast savanna of lived experience, for sure.

Second, he fails to show how there is any genuine ‘vitalist concern’ connected with one’s facility with logic and conceptual analysis. To be sure, there’s a world of difference between giving one’s rational assent to the conclusion of a knockdown argument (ho-hum) and giving one’s (for lack of a better word) whole person assent to the letting go of beliefs that one had hitherto lived by. The first is nothing much, nothing apart from an academic exercise, truly; the second is exceptionally, stunningly, palpably, enormously painful and moving and wondrous. Grrr.

The whole enterprise–the defense of a few feet of professional philosophical astroturf juxtaposed with the stony silence over a very broad, but unremarked upon swath of human experience to which philosophy ought to be answerable–is maddening. Straight up, out and out maddening. Grrr once more.