Bewilderment and the art of inquiry

For the foreseeable future, the focus of my philosophical practice and my work with organizations will be on the art of inquiry. One aim of the art of inquiry is to lead the inquirer into a state of mental confusion (aporia) or bewilderment. The bewilderment implies that the inquirer can no longer say for sure what is true, right, useful, or necessary to do. The pain is the pain of not-knowing.

Before, the organization was sure (or sure enough) where things were headed, what was to be done, what was worthy of thinking, what vision it subscribed to. At this stage, one hears from individuals at organizations:

  • This is how we do things, have done things here.
  • We have adopted this set of procedures, subscribe to this approach, apply this method, follow this script.
  • There is no question but that we ‘must’, ‘have to,’ ‘need to’ follow through with this.

Questions tend to be ‘technical’ in genre: how to do something or other, how to bring about a particular effect, what steps are to be taken if the desired outcome is to be reached.

A good inquiry may call into question any or all of the following: whether this is the right or best way of doing things; whether there are irresolvable problems built into the very structure of the organizations, problems that will compel the organization to collapse in time; whether the highest aim is actually worth aiming at; whether this theory or approach is open to devastating anomalies, exceptions, and counterexamples; whether the vision makes sense and can be affirmed; whether the words ‘must’ and ‘have to’ are covering up important questions of a broader nature; whether–and this in the most general sense–many of these statements are actually unformulated  philosophical questions.

After a good guided inquiry, one notices that fellow inquirers are confused and bewildered, recognizing that what they thought they knew is not actually the case but not knowing what really is the case. This state of confusion ‘purifies’ things and opens the inquirers up to the possibility of asking a novel question: “After the most important things have been shown not to be the most important and have thus fallen away, what now?” Now, we inquire in earnest, in search of greater clarity.

From Boston to New York

On the bus ride home from Boston, I was seated across the aisle from a man who was illustrative of the complexity of this human, all too human ethical life. He let one woman have the window seat. Some women spilled cookie crumbs on him and he reacted calmly. Throughout the ride, he spoke on his cell phone but not obtrusively. Yet when he got up to leave, he was one of the first to step into the aisle. So, the man showed deference and calmness (in lieu of irritability) but also exhibited a lack of courtesy and a sense of impatience.

We seem to have in mind that a man is good period or bad period, but in reality a man is good (or virtuous) in some respects at some times and bad (or deficient or excessive) in other respects at other times. The point of our moral judgments should be to seek clarity about the overall nature of a man such as this. (When is he calm and for what reasons?) In so doing, we exercise compassion. The aim of our lives should be to seek understanding about our own virtues and vices and to try as best we can to achieve a harmony of the virtues.

A beautiful soul in a beautiful world: Toward a better understanding of sustainability

On my run yesterday, I dreamed up the title of the informal talk I’ll be giving at the Future Perfect Festival to be held in Stockholm at the end of August. It is: “A Beautiful Soul in the Beautiful World: Toward a Better Understanding of Sustainability.”

It may seem a non-starter for a festival on sustainability, one attended by urban designers, architects, business leaders, and economists, to insist that beauty be the point of departure for a discussion of sustainability, but so be it. So be it.

How might this talk go? To begin with, I may be examining whether speaking about sustainability in terms of measurable quantities–natural resources to be depleted or maintained–or in terms of the ‘health’ of the planet–a healthy ecosystem, a ‘sick’ planet–is leading us astray. In addition, I may be wondering whether the concepts of an ‘issue’ (to be addressed), an ‘agenda’ (items to be put on and then checked off), a ‘problem’ (to be solved or fixed) are the right concepts for a sustainable collective way of life. I doubt whether these general conceptual frameworks are the right ones and I will be urging that beauty is a better one.

Here I turn to my hobby horse: the virtues. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, in After Virtue, that we moderns are living “after the virtues.” He means “after the loss of the Aristotelian virtues.” This seems right yet partial. I think I want to argue that each epoch valorizes a particular set of virtues. The Homeric warrior ethic valorized manly virtue and a life of glory. The Christian medieval ethic held that the good life was lived according to humility, chastity, and fidelity. An aristocratic ethic, evident still in a novel like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, exonerated nobility, honor, and gentility. And so on.

It seems reasonable to claim that the modern world upholds the virtues of the market: prudence, resolution, industry, discipline, among others. Now, if we are indeed inculcated in the virtues of the market, then perhaps our conceptions of sustainability (scarce resources on the one hand, health or sickness on the other) are already ‘infected’ by our admiration of these virtues. Perhaps this is right.

So I want to say that all this–the whole thing, I mean–is a non-starter for talking about sustainability. And I want to return us to a far simpler understanding in which we seek to live according to nature. “Living according to nature” was a formula that Epicureans, Daoists, Stoics, Cynics, and others all subscribed to.

Well, and now I want to introduce the beautiful soul as a being who lives according to nature. Specifically, a beautiful soul is a person who has achieved a harmony of the salient virtues. This definition needs to be analyzed.

First, I’ll be exploring what these salient virtues are. They may include openness, compassion, courage, patience, humility, and impartiality. (I’m not sure, as of yet, about the precise list of the salient virtues.)

Second, I’ll want to say something about what it means to exercise these salient virtues, as opposed, say, to the Homeric virtues or market virtues or whatever. What kind of life is this anyway? I’ll try to make this way of being perspicuous.

Third, I’ll want to show that a beautiful soul has achieved a harmony of these virtues and I suppose I owe the listener a few words about the concept of harmony.

I’m hoping that what will ‘fall out’ of this account of the beautiful soul is a novel conception of sustainability. Am I warranted in concluding that a beautiful soul just is someone who lives a sustainable life as a matter of course? I don’t know.

Enough first musings for now.

‘A heaven in a wildflower…’

Photo credit: Alexandra Dawn Lauro

I said, I am looking at a photograph. In the photo, there are green meadows and there is the silhouette of a tree draped across the summer grass. In my fingers which are stained with chalk, I am holding a clementine. I hold it up roundly, delicately, offering it to you. We are not looking at the same full moon together, I said. We are looking at the same world, orange and whole. I did not say aloud until later that evening: a world as beautiful as the beautiful world can be.

On resilience and postulates

Living by making postulates has helped me, even in the darker moments, not to fall into despair. Individuals in failing marriages despair that their lives could go otherwise. Institutions in free fall have lost the capacity to wonder whether they could be organized in some other, more robust fashion.

Despair marks a defect in logic and imagination. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant offers that the scientist who wishes to investigate nature must postulate that it is organized in a such and such a way despite the fact that he does not know (yet) whether it is organized in such and such a way. The logical point seems to be that in order to inquire seriously we must first posit some hitherto unknown possibility that is as good as, if not better than the reality we are living through. Do we have reason to think that there is some better embodiable possibility? Certainly not if we draw our reasons only from the fund of past experience, history, and the current evidence of the senses. Certainly yes if we dare to imagine that there must be something, if only we look in the right way.

Accordingly, a postulate is inquiry-guiding yet, importantly and as the inquiry gets underway, it does not run contrary to the mounting evidence. A postulate thus dares us to think seriously even while it cautions us to keep our eyes on the evidence of the senses. It provides us with two kinds of ‘looks’: the well beyond and the right here.

It is fashionable today in social entrepreneurship circles to speak about resilience. What, it is asked, is involved in a system’s being resilient in the face of change and uncertainty? Or–to change the scale–what explains why one person can sail through the end of a marriage while another is brought low and is inconsolable unto death? Is it constitution or general temperament? Possibly. Luck (tuche)? Quite possibly. But it could also be that one has cultivated his imagination and a lived logic and, by means of both, has become adept at formulating postulates. Even though he does not know that a new life is possible, he sets his course according to the ‘must’–and then feels his way through to the end, wherever the path should take him.