A philosophical guide to surviving the transition from an old way of life to a new one

The following post is written especially for my conversation partners who are now living through a transition. We know that your old way of life has gone under but you’re not yet able to walk into a new way of life. You know I’m concerned that you’re despairing, concerned that you’ll infer that because this way of life is unsuitable for now life in general must be unsuitable for you.

I assure you that there is a way of life that you can live out. Recall from Wednesday’s post that “The suicide, in the presence of the philosopher, is learning about being radiant by participating fully in a radiant way of being.” This is true, only we’re not quite there yet. Before radiance comes surviving, with surviving leading on to a radiant way of being. Bear this in mind. Be strong.

Let’s turn our focus to the interregnum. During the transition when, for you, despair is stronger and far greater than hope, I’m urging you to be brave–and to be ruthless, ruthlessly brave, unapologetically ruthlessly brave. Ruthlessness is vital (i.e., life-restoring) for a time. Gnash your teeth and be upset. Be ruthless, be as ruthless as you have to be. We’ll come to loving life later.

The guide, below, is for you. The art, from William Blake, is also for you. My gifts to you.

1. Limit contact with stern voices and nay-saying people. Limit physical contact, all contact period. Best to have no contact whatsoever. Fuck ’em.

2. Forget about helping others. You can’t. Plus, they’re dead or dead to you anyway. Time to save yourself by ignoring them, by ignoring everyone but yourself and those in 3.

3. Surround yourself only with those who have survived or with those who are radiant. These and no others. Most of these people should be older and wiser than you. (Know the difference between “old” and “wise.”) Regarding all others, read again points 1. and 2.

4. Give yourself time to grieve for the past way of life. Don’t cry a little. Ball your bloody eyes out. It fucking hurts, this soul pain, this soul wrenching. Feels like a fucking asshole pulling barbed wire out of your body while another feeds it back in through many novel holes.

5. Hope small. Grab like good mad onto any sign that you’re getting closer to a new way of life. We’ll point together, gather the seashells and smell the reminder of seawater.

6. You’re not ready to entertain the question of whether living really matters, so don’t. Just act as if it does. We’ll get around to radiance later, after you’ve taken some steps toward a new way of life. Right now, you’re just trying to survive. Be OK with that.

7. Are you beating yourself up? Then listen to my voice. Listen to the voices of those in 3. Be careful, friend. Regarding all other voices, see points 1. and 2. Also, re-read my post on taking care of yourself. Go on and read. I’m here, I’m not going anywhere.

8. A day is fucking hard, it’s a goddamn wasteland, so fucking long as to be uncompletable. Don’t let that defeat you. From now on, your day is to be cut up like a military schedule: reasonable when it comes to goals, highly regimented in all things, cut into decent time blocks and time chunks, micromanaged down to the bathroom breaks. Learn to love looking at yellow sheets and neatly drawn-up “To Do’s.” Love the small things. Feel your fingers, with frisson, cross that item off. Ooooooooh.

With regard to goals, pick out, however arbitrarily, two things you’re going to get done today and do those two only. You can’t do everything at once, otherwise you won’t make it out. If you finish those two, go out and play or pretend to go and play. Or simply pretend. Pretend life is OK.

9. How do you know which two to complete? Come now, no life-sucking paralysis for you. Simply put your index finger down on a piece of paper and say, “These two today.” Or ask a survivor or a radiant being and let her–allow her–to tell you. Let yourself be allowed. Reread point 3. Avoid nay-sayers: re-read points 1 and 2.

10. In lieu of thinking “It’s all on me, so I had better find the motivation somewhere within, had better get my shit together,” think instead that it’s all about making obligations to others. Hold yourself to your obligations with survivors and flourishers and with those only. Let the other draw you out. (Recall points 1. and 2.)

Remember Ulysses who bound himself to the mast. Learn to love external mechanisms.

Get out of your fucking home. Get out. Your apartment is no good for you. Your apartment is death. Remember that.

Meet people someplace and do work in a library, at a coffee shop, on a park bench. Ask others (remember point 3) if they’ll sit with you while you work. Sit in someone else’s sunny apartment while she’s at work. Tell other survivors and radiant beings that you’re sending them things and then send them the things you say you’re going to send them. Ask them to reply immediately, saying they’ve received the things you sent them.

Learn to get off by crossing things off the list. I’m not joking about the getting off. You’re trying to remember what it feels like to be alive. Learning to desire again is a full day’s lesson. See again point 8.

11. Each day, have something to look forward to, however insignificant that something may be in the grander scheme of things. Yeah? You like Baskin and Robbin’s mint chocolate chip ice cream despite the fact that it tastes like green perfume. Great, then thank yourself for doing the daily things by getting yourself the green funk this very evening.

Repeat 11. tomorrow, every morrow after.

12. Go on and laugh at all this shit. Go on. It’s funny shit, this shit. It’s funny that you’re getting off on crossing stupid shit off of a stupid list. It’s funny that other people are idiots, stupid wankers, fucking pricks, fucking dudes. Go on and laugh because this whole fucking thing really fucking sucks. It sucks. Only don’t go to the “active listener” therapist who tells you she’s heard what you’re saying heard what you’re saying heard what you’re saying and is listening to you to you to you. Don’t get your shit validated. Only go if you’re going to punch that dude in the face, in his stupid graying beardy face, because he totally deserves it. He’s a waste of breath and, by doing this, you’re being a good samaritan. After, go get yourself some green perfume.

13. Move around, call a friend, move your body some more. Your bed is a death trap. Sleep on the floor, on the coach, on the railing. Curl up with a blanket and sleep in the hall. In the morning, learn to love how your back feels, back broken, get up, cold and joint-stiff, and move around. Chant. Yell. Scream your fucking bloody head off, breathe, only keep moving around. Stasis is a temptress and she will kill you.

14. For the love of god, please stop talking to your mom every day. Most (not all, mind you, but most) are dotty or saccharine or both. Dotty as in: they don’t have their shit together, so you better not tell them anything. Or saccharine in that they’re doing the pat pat god has a plan for all of us dear oh you’ll be fine pat pat sort of bullshit. Well, it may not, mum. (Recall points 1 and 2.) You’re not being attentive, never have, can’t talk now, are not good for me. You’re soul-sucking, getting in the way of my surviving. Not letting you, nay-sayer.

In praise of stuttering

I have become suspicious of eloquence. My suspicion reminds me of two very different stories.

Thomas Aquinas is in the chapel, celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas, when he experiences what appears to him as a mystical vision. Formerly a voluminous writer and prodigious scholar and presently at work on his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, he says to his intimate Reginald that he will write no more. Nonplussed, Reginald entreats him to continue, and if he will not at least to tell him his reasons. Thomas, by this time exasperated by Reginald’s persistent entreaties, declares,

I adjure you by the living almighty God, and by the faith you have in our order, and by charity that you strictly promise me you will never reveal in my lifetime what I tell you. Everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.

A straw: all his writings on Aristotle, on the heavens, on the controversies and disputes; all his writings but a straw in comparison with what he has seen and experienced. And the Summa, which was to be the culmination of his life as a Christian scholar, goes unfinished, will never be finished. Not long after, Thomas will fall ill and die, but one imagines that Thomas’s having lived two or three decades longer would have made no difference in the way of his blessed silence.

Thomas’s silence exists worlds apart from Margaret Edison’s drama Wit. In this play, the protagonist, Vivian Bearing, a professor of English literature and a scholar of metaphysical poetry, especially the works of Donne, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and will die shortly. Professor Bearing is a great wit who makes sure that her deftness and facility with language are evident from the first. It soon becomes clear that her eloquence is her way of turning aside from others, a form of insincerity, a barbarous kind of cruelty, an exhibition of cowardice. Her eloquence is foolishness dressed up in cleverness. The truth is far simpler than eloquence belies, the truth being that clever men bleed just as well as less clever ones.

Know that I was once Professor Bearing and now put my lot in with Thomas and with those of Thomas’s kind. “I can write no more,” says Thomas, “for everything I have written seems to me but straw.” The Daodejing also cautions us against eloquence, urging on us stillness and direct speech in opposition to fine discourse and deceit. We read:

Great eloquence seems tongue-tied
If you can be calm and still, you can be the governor of the world (no. 45)
Eloquent speech can be used for bargaining;
Fawning conduct can be used for bribing others. (no. 62)
Trusty speech is not embellished;
Embellished speech is not trusty. (no. 81)


In my life, I had become eloquent, a social aspirant from a middle class background, a person for whom fine words conferred great legitimacy. And they did. I had aspired, by cultivating charm and charisma, to be an eloquent one, to be a master of fine tongues, a paragon of the flowing tongue. In my time, I had learned to master the room, others’ eyes having confirmed my self-importance. And they did. I was alive to this, unalive to others.

And now, as a philosopher, I have slowly let go of the easy eloquence. In a recent conversation I had with Jeppe Graugaard about Dark Mountain Project and about the times in which we live, I said, “It’s almost as though you hear a voice somewhere and you go, “oh, that’s… I’ve never heard that before”, and then… and then… ‘unheimlich’, kind of an uncanny experience, you hear that again somewhere else, and you think “right, well, really?” [laughs].” I said, “And I think it’s in tune, and this is… I’m coming back to institutions, I think it’s in tune with….” I said, “Let’s come back to that for a moment because I don’t think that… that already seems to….” I said, “But surely it doesn’t have to be the case. Uh… and I’d also say one further thing….” And I concluded, “Absolutely and we… so, we’re right now at a point where we’re getting a….”

My pauses are evidence of a desire to think with another, with every philosophical other.

My former posture, one of hubris, had leaned heavily on false eloquence. Too fine words, turned upward, bounding toward the period, were downright vanities. Since my eloquent days, I have had to learn, in hopes of being wise, to put back the stutters in all their appropriate places and also to love them, these revelings, for their intimations of nearby revelations. In so doing, I have come back to my conversation partners who, I told Jeppe, have come to me because they’ve

come unstuck from a social order find themselves–not speechless but in certain forms of stuttering, or they’re not quite sure how to describe their lives, they’re clinging to forms of life that have not really made sense to them, but using the same vocabulary afterward.

They are scared and not wordless but sideways off-worded. And then we go to put words, the right ones. When one says, “What do I mean what do I mean?,” says, “Where am I going with all this?,” when another says something as an aside, as “a tangent,” apologizes for her “digression”; when another can’t find words or looks off in ellipsis; when another gets timid with tinny voice; when another cuts off into the silence; when another… when they (we) do this, I think: “Well, now this is interesting. Here’s the beginning of an interesting inquiry. Let’s hold right here. Stay here with me.”

I have no truck with good eloquence but this is something different. Good eloquence is the lucid conclusion following from a worked-out argument, the final words of a daring line of thought, the most accurate words that replace the inaccurate and esoteric ones, the simplest phrases that bespeak greater understanding, further clarity, mutual insight, mutuality. Good eloquence, discovered at the end of an inquiry, having passed through the stutterings and the dashes, having laughed through all the fine nonsenses, all the fine speeches, good eloquence of the kind lying near the point of death–this kind of eloquence is not so far from stillness, from the silence. And is there anything more to say once we’ve found each other, arriving right here, after all this, in the same place? One more word would ruin it.

On the suicide’s claims and the philosopher’s replies

I want to consider the question of suicide and I think a good place to begin is with a quote from the French writer Albert Camus. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Camus is right. It is not that the suicide wants to die. It is rather that the suicide despairs of finding a reason for living. What can philosophy offer him by way of reply?

Before we answer this question in the affirmative, it would be wise to consider further why the suicide despairs of finding a reason for living where the reason, it should be added, is of the kind that the suicide can live, one, that is, that resonates in a strong ‘vitalist’ key.

The first claim the suicide can make is that the world is not and cannot be a home. The claim cannot be that he does not belong here (say, in New York), for if that were the case, then he would do well to move to, e.g., Boston or Vermont. Nor can the claim be that he does not belong to this family or workplace or social group for a similar reason: namely, because another more suitable family or workplace or social group might very well be suitable. Rather, the claim has to be that he cannot dwell in the world because the world, in some deep phenomenological sense, cannot be a home in which he can find his fit and dwell, in which he can belong, can just let be.

Let’s call this a “phenomenological claim” concerning one’s ill-at-homedness.

The second claim the suicide can make would be that he wants to lead a worthwhile life but no such life is possible full stop or possible for him. In the former case, the suicide adopts philosophical pessimism, the view according to which none of us has any reason for living and certainly no reason for reproducing. In the latter case, he makes an exception for himself, exempting himself from the human fold. That is, the fact that it is possible for others to lead fulfilling lives but not so for him may suggest to the suicide that there is something deeply the matter with him. Consequently, assuring him that this is not the case would hardly provide him with the consolation he needs since he is already convinced that others are so unlike him as to be living, effectively, in another moral universe and we happen to occupy the world from which he is estranged.

Let’s call this a “teleological claim,” a claim according to which there is and can be no final end toward which his life could be directed.

In light of either the suicide’s ill-at-homedness or his profound teleological pessimism, the only humane conclusion, it would seem, would be to appeal to medicine in general and to psychiatry in particular as the institutions of last resort. We must act on his behalf in order to save him from immediate harm. What good, after all, could reasoning with him do?

This will depend on whether the suicide is capable of self-reflection. If he is, then there is hope of the kind to be found in and offered by the philosophical life.

First of all, it must be impressed upon him that human life is the kind of thing that asks, as it were, to be brought into question. To claim this much is to claim that the lives of conscious beings–that is to say, of those beings who are capable of regarding their lives in the form of a question–is just the kind of activity we should undertake if we hope to live well in the first place. The oddity, we will want to inform him, is not that his life has been brought into question but that others have gone on as if living were the kind of thing best taken for granted. I do not say, the philosopher Robert Nozick relates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. I say only that the examined life is lived more fully. Yes, dear Robert, this is true.

Provided the suicide can learn to see life becoming a question in nobler terms, i.e., in terms of the grand epic of conscious human existence, it still befalls us to provide the rudiments of an answer to that question. For surely ours would be a tragic fate if our lot were to be only that of asking questions to which there could not possibly any reasonable answers. Absurdity indeed! Far better, it would be said, to remain bovine than to be an inquirer. Far better also to be a nihilist who says, muttering beneath his breath, “Well, why fucking bother then?”

It is here that a second logical point may open the suicide to further inquiry. The point here would be that the inference from the claim that this way of life is not suitable (in general or for him but doubtless the first) to the conclusion that life in general is not suitable is clearly invalid. From the claim that this way of life is unsuitable and from the claim that other ways of life (still) exist, it follows that some other way of life may be suitable.

The onus now falls on the philosopher to show that the suicide could live out some conception of a good life, i.e., a way of life that would be suitable for any good human life whatever. It seems to me that armchair reasoning has now reached its limits. For the suicide who acknowledges that life can be an object of inquiry and who also grants that some way of life could conceivably accommodate him is now hungry to be shown that this is so. It will not be enough, and rightly so, to grant that logical possibilities exist.

Perhaps only an exemplar could perform this lived demonstration and then too only by virtue of actually embodying a radiant way of being. The last may be misunderstood as saying that it is enough for the suicide to bear witness to the one who is, in his presence, leading a radiant life. But that may only make him feel as if he were the moon and the other the sun. The truth is that he wants to live, not merely to look on and experience secondhand. He does not want to be a hand-me-down, so to speak. Understood rightly, however, the philosopher, being radiant himself, is tasked with leading forth the suicide, with drawing him into a radiant way of life: yet drawing him not in a way that would run contrary to his will or his desires but in a way that would go according to the way. Furthermore, “leading him forth” does not imply “doing such and such for him” but bringing him walkingly alongside.

The suicide, in the presence of the philosopher, is learning about being radiant by participating fully in a radiant way of being. To be sure, it may seem ‘dim’ to him initially what exactly he is doing or why exactly he is doing this rather than that. Yet, if he is wisely guided, then he begins to feel an intimation that this way of life is not “out there” well and ever beyond his grasp but with him, within him, him, the best self that emerges as he learns to inquire further, as he continues to participate and partake and contribute more fully to a way of life into which he fits and in which he flourishes.

It is as if he has found himself for the first time such that the phenomenological sense of not-being-at-home and the teleological skepticism of not having a final aim have gone away, having receded slowly, having lost their shape and grip and fraughtness. They have gone away and are now visible far off in the distance, identifiable now as questions that are well at home in a previous way of life that has passed out of existence.

Indeed, one day it shall dawn on him that he is living an answer to the question of why one should live, and in so doing he is giving the only answer that could possibly be given. And that answer, just because it is so radiant, makes the question he once raised with such fervor come, from within this way of life, to seem almost silly. Once he arrives here with us, he and I and we spend quite a bit of time meditating and being silent and giggling.

On holding converse with myself and on taking proper care of myself

I have been holding two thoughts in mind for quite a while and I now think it’s high time to bring them together. The first thought appears in Book VI of Diogenes Laertius’s The Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius relates that “When he [one philosopher named Antisthenes] was asked what advantage had accrued to him from philosophy [i.e., from leading a philosophical life], his answer was, ‘The ability to hold converse with myself.'” I have found Antisthenes’s pithy formulation so intriguing and pregnant, such a seeming and slight understatement as to entreat further examination.

The second thought is that most of us do not take proper care of ourselves. I can think of at least a handful of conversation partners I am working with now for which this has too often been the case. What would it mean for them to take proper care of themselves?, I wonder. I think this is a very interesting and important question and I admit it is one for which I have no immediate reply.

The key to one good answer might lie in associations, might lie in the fact that when I think of the ability to hold converse with oneself I am ever reminded of the the need to care properly for oneself. Conversely, when I think of the need to take proper care of oneself, I keep hearing myself speak of the ability to hold converse with oneself. How interesting is this connection I cannot say for sure. In light of this uncertainty, I wonder what would happen if I postulated the identity of one with the other. Could sense be made of this thesis?

For suppose the thesis were to run as follows:

The ability to converse with myself just is the ability to take care of myself.

I want to find out what I mean by this and whether it is true. For if it is true and if philosophy just is the ability to converse with myself, then the surprising conclusion would be that philosophy is (also) the ability to take care of myself. (Knowing thyself is taking care of thyself? Being a philosopher just is the activity of caring for myself? How very strange this would be.)

Let’s examine this identity thesis further to see whether any sense can be made of it.

There may be a difficulty at the outset that could prove to be insurmountable. That difficulty might be found in the simple observation that conversing takes place in words while caring takes place in the world. And how could words and worlds be the same? This does sound rather absurd. For example, a starting pitcher who, after the game, ices his shoulder and elbow could be said to be “taking care of himself,” and this claim would be hard to gainsay. But it would be puzzling if instead of icing his shoulder he spoke for hours with his trainer about icing his shoulder without actually doing so. If this were the case, then it would seem that words are actually getting in the way of his performing actions we would normally associate with taking care of an inflamed shoulder and elbow. And it does seem, in our own everyday experience, that we are quite well versed in the game of speaking about something or other at the same time that we fail to do that something or other about which we are speaking. Perhaps, then, the thesis I posited above is a non-starter from the get go.

Perhaps, however, we can alleviate the apparent difficulty that speaking and acting are two very different kinds of activities by making a few related points about the use to which (some) words can be put. The philosopher of language J.L. Austin suggests rather tellingly that not all linguistic utterances are reportages on reality. There are, he observes, certain kinds of “speech acts” whose point and purpose is to bring something about in the very act of stating. To make this case, he draws our attention to such common speech acts as getting married. When I say “I do” in the appropriate context, I am not reporting on a state of affairs. Rather, I am binding myself to you in the very moment of saying “I do”: the saying just is the binding.

There seems to me no reason to confine performative speech acts to marrying and promise-keeping and to a few other activities besides. It could be that saying, e.g., “I love you,” is not a statement that accompanies the act of loving you, is not simply an expression of some (inner) mental state. Rather, in the appropriate context, the utterance could very well be saying what it does: loving words just are loving deeds. So understood, the meaning of the utterance is the sense of togetherness the words thereby enact.

Before I consider the identity thesis in earnest, I want to consider one other rather mundane case about the “magical” capacity for words to be transformative of lived reality. Lately, I have taken to saying that I am going for a “running meditation.” This compound word could be read as saying that my body is running “in parallel with” my meditating mind. It might then be that one is “traveling alongside” the other, the mind “accompanying” the body, rather like a storm cloud follows Charlie Brown wherever he goes. But I do not think this is so because I do not think mind/body dualism, the view according to which the body is one kind of substance and the mind quite another, is a correct picture of being human.I am slowly coming round to the understanding of a human being as a whole person.

In the case of “running meditation,” it seems at least plausible to insist that I qua whole person am in the midst of a single activity that can then be “expressed” fully qua running or qua meditating. It would not be the case, then, that one is miraculously taking place “in time” or “in step” with the other but rather that my way of being in the world can be “expressed” fully as running or as meditating (whichever suits the purpose of the present inquiry). Accordingly, if an observer who is especially fond of running were to ask, “Now what is Andrew doing?,” he might say, “Well, he is running, of course.” And if a Buddhist monk were to ask, “What is he doing?,” he might answer, “He is meditating, of course. What else?” And if God were to ask himself what Andrew is doing, God might say that Andrew is thinking-acting in the way a philosopher acts.

The point I am trying to make, in my references to Austin and to the spiritual exercise (ascesis) of running meditation, is that we may be better off understanding ourselves as whole beings who are involved in a particular kind of practice than as beings with dual natures for whom mental activity and corporeal activity are two different kinds of practices. If this line of thought is headed in the right direction, then the thesis that conversing well with myself just is caring properly for myself might not turn out to be so absurd or off putting after all. We will have to see.

Now let us examine what it could possibly mean to have the “capacity to hold converse with myself,” since what it means is by no means immediately self-evident. One approach, to begin with, could be to understand more fully what the thought cannot possibly mean.

It cannot possibly mean staring idly and wordlessly into the dark; the inability to talk to myself (recall: capacity to…); speaking around or over something; talking past myself, talking at myself, talking down to myself, talking through myself (in all these formulations, recall: converse with…); going round in circles; beating around the bush; being in such a hurry that the words come too quickly (recall: holding converse); hurling stern words at myself (recall: holding converse); and so on.

Undoubtedly, this list could be extended further to include other forms of talking that do not qualify as holding converse with… What is interesting already is that the list reveals, at the very minimum, the many ways that we use harmful and untruthful words, sentences, and poor reasonings throughout the course of our daily lives. (For someone who has spent much of his 33 yrs. holding regular converse with myself, I find others’ lack of facility with this more than simply saddening. In this post, I do not consider the reasons why many have not learned how to hold converse with themselves. The extent to which this lack of facility is the case with most people living today has not gone unnoticed. The problem abounds.) And so, whatever the capacity to hold converse with myself ends up being it must at least have a great deal to do with learning to talk reasonably with myself, talking and sorting things out, moving in my thinking from one (worse) place to another (a better one), doing so in the light spirit of conversation, and practicing this activity often enough for it to count as being a capacity that I can reasonably say I can exercise well.

I notice something else about this list, and this is that it seems to allude, if not to be an expression of, a number of moral defects. I can make out, e.g., meanness, stubbornness, arrogance, circumlocution, being illogical, lack of compassion, anger, hurriedness, and cruelty. Could it then be said that holding converse with myself either requires or actualizes the contrary virtues such that kindness, compassion, humility, circumspection, being logical, soft-spokenness, and so on would have to intrinsic features of holding converse?

If this is the case, then the capacity to talk reasonably with myself might also draw forth the virtues referenced above, as if to say that speaking well summons forth living well. Or perhaps it is that the virtues would be exercised or actualized entirely in and through talking well. To my mind, either of these views, both bespeaking the close knit relationships of the virtues to holding proper converse with myself, would be interesting, if provisional, conclusions.

For now, let us put off to one side the result of our interpretation of Antithenes’s statement about holding converse, and let us to turn to the other side of the equation: to the question of what it means to take proper care of oneself. To begin with, I can think of what I have heard from and observed in a number of my conversation partners. When they do not take proper care of themselves, they are sacrificing themselves for the sake of another (or others); they are courting hubris (well, I thought I would throw my dear old self into the mix!); they are beating themselves up over something, being too hard on themselves; they are flattering themselves (damn: my old self again!); they are feeling their body disintegrate or lose its basic integrity; they are acting according to the understanding that they do not matter or do not matter enough.

In all these cases, we perceive either the problem of one’s not taking enough care of oneself, the harmful results “showing forth” in many basic aspects of living (e.g., eating, health, demeanor, stance) or the problem of caring too much about oneself, with the consequence that the hubristic one is alienated from meaningful social bonds. We also see that, especially in the case of disintegration, the implicit claim that wholeness in a very broad sense must be a key ingredient in (if not the constituent of) taking care of oneself.

And to care for oneself properly–what, therefore, would this mean? In a word, sitting well, standing well, and dwelling with myself, neither fighting myself nor indulging myself but loving myself fully. To care for myself properly is, it seems, to love myself wholeheartedly.

I think we are now in a position to gather together the results from the two lines of thought. So far, I have examined the thought that philosophy is the capacity to hold converse with myself. Then, I considered the thought about the need to take proper care of myself. I now want to say that philosophy, being the capacity to talk reasonably with myself, which talking draws forth or actualizes the virtues, just is the ongoing activity of dwelling with myself, i.e., the transformative activity of loving myself wholeheartedly. Succinctly put,

To practice speaking with myself is to practice loving all myself.

A Not So Final Thought

When I began this post, I had no idea what exactly I was going to write. I had some clues but no more than a few. For this reason, it is best to read the entry as an example of holding converse with myself before others. I am thinking aloud with the idea of following a line of inquiry wherever it may take me.

Bear in mind that I loved myself enough to begin an inquiry that might have gone nowhere. (And to love myself enough to be OK with that. And to love myself enough to post an inquiry that could very well have fallen into the ditch.) I submitted myself to an inquiry in the hope that I would be able to make sense of things and not just (but also not least) for my own sake but also, and most truly, for the sake of those I care about. By the end, I felt as if I understood myself and my conversation partners better, more clearly, more fittingly. I do not mean to stop the inquiry here for good, only to rest here for now. The key, in any case, is to regard this kind of activity as being but one example of a spiritual exercise (ascesis), a moment in any good day that is filled with spiritual exercises.

Good reasoning is good caring; good reasoning, being good, feels good also.

On putting life in order

My article on philosophical practice, “Counselling: Putting Lives in Order,” can now be viewed at The Philosophers’ Magazine website. It appears, appropriately and ironically, in TPM 57, “Philosophy’s Empty Ideas,” after Alain de Botton’s essay on secularists’ need for religion and before Julian Baggini’s interview with Patricia Churchland, a proponent of eliminative materialism. It’s nice to have a piece appearing in the first issue of TPM’s redesign.


In the revision to my article, the Editor James Garvey asked me to provide a formulation for what I do. I hemmed a bit at first, scratching the dead earth with my chicken feet, because I was concerned with “pinning” my practice down with a definition at the outset and because I wanted to avoid all comparisons with psychotherapy. After hawing some, I went with a formula that I hoped would be a reminder of Ordo: a principle of order, an idea of arranging our lives according to the general layout of the world, a Benedictine image of a trellis.

The formula–“putting life in order”–is meant to resonate in many keys, but there is one key in particular that I want to listen to today. It is the ancient philosophical understanding that my life must be lived according to the way of the world. The skeptics, Epicureans, Stoics, Confucians, and Daoists–just to name a few–all insisted that my life couldn’t possibly go well unless it had been put in touch with reality. If you happen to be unversed in modern philosophy, then you might find this general thesis rather uncontroversial. Here, I would only add that you would be wrong.

One approach to understanding the fundamental orientation of modern philosophy would be to focus on the fact/value split. For Kant, for instance, facts were one order of being (an order to be investigated by modern science) while values were quite another (values having been created by human beings). This may sound to you like a rather mundane thesis until you reckon with the ‘vitalist’ implications, a major one being that human beings are “cut off” from the world of facts which is investigated only by modern scientists.

Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities underscores this disenchantment of the modern world. Locke claims that primary qualities are properties intrinsic to material objects–properties such as mass and extension–whereas secondary qualities are extrinsic properties like redness, roundness, and firmness, properties, that is, that are perceived by the senses. On Locke’s understanding, however, only primary qualities are real (which is to say, really real) and secondary qualities–in other words, our experiences of everyday objects–are not actually real. In other words, our sensory experience of rocks and stones and trees and fish does not put us in touch with the world as it is.

Many trends in modern philosophy have taken on board the fact/value split with the consequence that religion, aesthetics, and morality have come to be construed as value-laden activities whereas science (most notably, physics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology) have come to be concerned with facts and physical laws. The further result is that many philosophical problems–e.g., how can we can have a free will despite being material creatures governed by the laws of nature–emerge, become “fraught,” and come to seem insolvable on these terms. It also comes to appear in our daily lives as if we can’t possibly be put back in touch with reality unless we grant scientific naturalism its due.

I am not so keen on this disenchanted picture of facts and values, so I would like to return to the ancient thesis that our lives must be guided by the Way. For a Daoist, it would make no sense to speak of de (the virtues) as being other than dao (the Way); rather, de reaches its full actuality only by following Dao. To live accordingly is to have our lives in order. To make this last point more perspicuous, I would like to tell a story about the early work I have been doing with one young woman whose life is coming to order.


Not long ago, a young woman came to me saying she had been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). As regular readers of this blog will know, I am highly skeptical of the idea that a human life is the kind of ongoing activity that can be captured in terms of ‘mental health’ or ‘mental illness.’ I am equally skeptical of ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’ of ‘mental illness.’

Quite apart from the many doubts I have concerning this dispensation, I doubt very much that a human life is subject to ‘analysis’: that is to say, I think it a non-starter to follow any methodology that would be guided by the idea that a part should be understood as isolable, as set apart from the rest of a life and grasped on its own.

I am far more sympathetic to philosophical holism. On this approach, a life must be understood as a whole and thus anything amiss in a life’s faring well can only be understood once whatever is amiss is put in relation to the rest of a way of life. Considerations would “circle” or “spiral” in increasing levels of generality–from an individual’s life to the social order to the general shape of the modern world. As prima facie evidence for this approach, I would simply point out that someone’s coming to me and saying that her relationship with her lover is now over soon learns that the rest of her life is also ‘out of order.’ Her understanding of family, relationships more generally, home, work, civil society, leisure all seem not to be in order, all seem to be related in this not being in tune with social reality. It seems I have heard this kind of story countless times during the past couple years.

I want to consider this young woman’s way of life further. Yet rather than begin with a general theory that would explain a particular kind of activity (in quotes: “OCD”) by shoving it into a Procrustean Bed, I want to start off with a fairly simple scene: a child who feels bored at school.

Imagine: the child is bored because she does not see how she could participate fully in this classroom activity. So, we might see her rolling her eyes, snorting, scribbling, murmuring, doodling, saying “whatever,” daydreaming. Let’s say that she gets into the habit of daydreaming. The daydream serves the important purpose of ordering her desires, affording her aesthetic pleasure, allowing her imagination free reign–and this is the crux–to create an alternative, more interesting reality than the one to which she was born, an alternative reality into which she can fit. Over time, she might create all kinds of daydreams with intricate plots, interesting characters, and pleasant experiences. Daydreaming, which may resemble her lived reality in many salient respects except that it may also contain important idealizations and revisions, seems to afford her a sense of contentment in a world all her own, in a world of her devising. We could say that she finds it necessary to reject the world she has been given and, in so doing, to construct a world in which she can be free, can imagine being herself.

Let’s go a bit further with this fairly simple scenario. Suppose, over a long enough period of time, the young child has had many experiences of boredom or displeasure with a social reality that has come to seem increasingly as if it were foisted upon her by her parents, educators, and social groups. In due course, we would expect to see her confabulate all kinds of creative activities, such as fantasies, dramas, performances, and the like, many of which would be repetitive, symmetrical, and ritualistic in nature in the hope that they could create a sense of harmony to be found in an alternative reality.

The trouble would come sometime later, when the child–who, by now, is an adept at creating these alternative reality dramas and who had come to relish the eternal time (time out of clock time) opened up there–would have to make the transition back into lived reality. As she got older, she would come to see lived reality as inhospitable to the life she loved, the life in which she could bask without interruption, could revel without disturbance. Perhaps her parents would require her to conform to an overly narrow conception of the good life, one filled with particular roles she deemed unsuitable, a narrow conception that was filled with “should’s” and “must’s,” with demands and high expectations. Perhaps she would begin to dawdle, dragging her feet, always or often late for appointments, because she saw clock time as an embodiment of other people’s commands, demands, expectations, and punishments. (But I am not that, she would surely say, so what now?) Perhaps, too, she would begin to see others as always being in a hurry because social reality, she would come to find out, would be the milieu in which people did on time what was demanded and expected of them. There is cruelty in this, I think.

So, this transition from alternative reality to social reality would come to feel “fraught” and another drama, occurring in the transition, might very well ensue: a drama concerned with delaying or deferring the claims and calls of social reality; with evading or escaping it; with drawing out the time she spent in these daydreaming activities; with making fun of it (a facility with humor would be the trace of her continued social alienation); with resisting all forms of authority embodied in this suspect social reality; with searching for others–friends and lovers especially–also who failed to conform to this understanding; and so forth.

On this elementary account that I am giving, we would expect the young woman to have learned many kinds of “OCD”-like strategies for remaining at arm’s length from an overly restrictive social reality, one to which she feels she cannot possibly be at home. The danger would be that she would isolate herself further from her social peers; that she would have trouble conforming to or complying with the rigid demands of bosses and employers who represented social reality and who lived according to the dictates of clock time and deadlines; that she would have no reason for manifesting her creative talents in social reality because the latter would be, she would think, very unlikely to welcome them; that her ritualistic exercises would afford her less pleasure over time and through experience; that…

Admittedly, this is a fairly crude first attempt at constructing a “local theory” that would show how all these activities served certain purposes and “hung together” in this young woman’s particular configuration of social reality. Even so, it gives us a clue as to how we might proceed with putting her life in order. For what would be necessary, in part and among other things, would be to investigate how a different conception of lived reality could be hospitable to a human life. If the one she has inherited is overly restrictive (and I have no doubt that it is), then it doesn’t follow that the social world en toto, the social world in which all of us dwell, cannot also admit of different, more hospitable conceptions of lived reality. Indeed, it can. I know this because I live it.

The fact that other kindred spirits and I actually inhabit a rich and wondrous reality tells against the claim that the unsuitable, inhospitable one my conversation partner has inherited and feels compelled to reject has to be the only one there is. The case I will be urging with her is that she can belong to this beautiful, inviting, friendly reality. The further claim will be that her creative gifts will have to be refocused, re-channeled on manifesting themselves not as over and against an inhospitable social reality but within this radiant form of existence.

We radiant ones have plenty of room for her here; her creativity is always welcome.

A Final Word on Hermeneutic Circles

The account above is generated from some of the particulars I know already about this young woman. To the extent that it fits the particulars, to that extent it is workable. And yet, the more experiences we share, the more unlikely this first account will ‘snugly fit’ the particulars in question. As a result, the account will need to be modified, adjusted, revised considerably, possibly replaced with a more robust account. Conversely, the more the “local theory” comes to fit the particulars, the more certain particulars come to be seen in the light of this “local theory.” That is, we come to see this novel occurrence as being illuminated properly by this account. The fitting of theory to facts, the ongoing interpretive activity, goes on until we reach good enough walking clarity together.