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.