Prospective, hypothetical inquiry

Most of the work in my philosophy practice is focused on making sense of what has happened to someone where this “making sense of what has happened” involves fitting this event into a conceptual framework. Elsewhere, I have called this ‘philosophical holism’–a part is only intelligible in relation to a whole–and the insight into how this part fits into this whole seems to reveal to both inquirers how the past can be put into order with the present, how the diachronic can be wedded to the synchronic. In other contexts, I have spoken of ‘lived logics’ and have urged that their primary purpose is to show us how something will likely play out given the requirements and constraints already set into place. A lived logic, on this understanding, is a demonstration of how a way of life, given these conditions, will have to unravel, is fated to do so. The first kind of inquiry is retrospective and speculative while the second kind is prospective and actualizable.

To me it came as a surprise, then, to find myself ‘brought to the question’ two nights ago where this ‘bringing my life into question’ was of a different mode entirely: the genre was hypothetical and prospective. That is, if X were to be true and X’s being true brought about–some steps much further into the argument–some possible future state in which we might live, then what would be the conclusion that we would reach? In this case, my inquirer and I felt fear, incredible horror at the place we could not see coming during the carrying out of the inquiry but which we came to, like an intimation of death, as an unforeseen result of our inquiring. She was visibly shaking; I was speechless and lightheaded.

We need to examine the relevance of this hypothetical, prospective mode of inquiry for leading a philosophical life. My thesis–in what follows, only posited, hence unproven–will be that the goal of hypothetical, prospective philosophical inquiry is to guide us, by means of the dramatic performance of the conversation itself, to the brink of death. By this means, we have a dramatized experience of death (my death which is not hers, hers which is not mine, but both individual deaths grasped as a feeling of loss of everything that matters most), we recognize the pain we feel in relation to the other’s death, we note the following morning that life has become urgent and new and flush. Provided we are vigilant, the experience lingers on, in the weeks and months ahead, as a reminder of what matters most to us.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou has spoken of truth as living “in fidelity with” an event. Similarly, the living results of a prospective, hypothetical inquiry are that we want to be otherwise than we could end up being not primarily so that this possible future state be avoided but in the hope that we will remain faithful to this insight, become attentive to and aware of our daily peccadillos, be open to the smallest apertures for the possibility of world-sundering, be vigilant through and through, and remain joyful in this life from dawn onward.

‘One feels wonderment upon witnessing a life transformed…’

One feels wonderment upon witnessing a life transformed. What is expected is that life will stay the same in its essence or get worse with age. We get used to the idea of our burdens, are counseled to ‘manage’ or ‘cope’ with them. Sameness is our ailment, our life affliction once we have come of age. What is to be wondered at, then, is that a life transformed is and is not possible, is and is not explicable. On the one hand, a detailed record of accurate observations can be given, revealing the gradual turns, the granular gradations, the minute shifts. On the other hand, the transfiguring event or events remain unobserved, sorites paradox asserting itself, shrouding in vagueness the very moment when grace was bestowed upon one. Is it that transformation, puncturing and punctuated, occurs but only as what is unseen: unseen, unverbalized, yet experienced inasmuch as it is shown? Is it that transformation is revealed unspeakably to the one least expecting it, unawares yet fortunate, affirmed, redeeming the whole of my life?

Some reflections on the Dyson NYRB review and on the place of philosophy in public life

The physicist Freeman Dyson has written a book review (“What Can You Really Know?,” NYRB) that, at least in professional philosophical circles, has proved to be controversial. Near the end of the review he asks, “[W]hy did philosophy lose its bite?” and attributes the answer, in large measure, to modern science’s recent usurpation of philosophy as well as to philosophy’s becoming an academic discipline. Following Pierre Hadot’s argument in What is Ancient Philosophy?, I have argued in “On the Need for Speculative Philosophy Today” (Cosmos and History) that the conception of philosophy as a way of life lost its hold first during the end of the medieval period and then during the rise of the modern research university.

In the email I wrote to Dyson I concluded, “Still, however we tell the story of philosophy’s decline, the need for philosophy as the activity in which a layperson’s life is brought into question is no less vital today than it was in Socrates’ time. In my philosophy practice, which is based in New York City, I seek to make this case (or so I humbly hope) through my lived example.”

In my experience, most professional philosophers living in the US and England are staked to the (very modern) picture of philosophy as a profession. In two phone conversations with Bob Frodeman and Keith Wayne Brown, both at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity (CSID) at the University of North Texas, the ‘disciplinization’ of philosophy was roundly criticized. Frodeman’s aim, as he writes in “Philosophy Dedisciplined” (Synthese), is to return philosophy to the field and to public life. Daniel Kaufman, a professor of philosophy of Missouri State University, would concur with Frodeman, remarking in his support of Dyson on the blog Leiter Reports that “Philosophy has not benefitted from becoming a professional, academic discipline. It has narrowed our focus, distracted us with needless technicality, and turned us, frankly, into a bunch of pedants. The style and substance of professional academic writing is one indication of this.”

This recent episode has brought me back to a short article that, to my mind, marks a historical turning point. It is the Harvard philosophy professor W.V.O. Quine’s article, “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?,” which was penned for Newsday in 1979. In this short piece (which was written as a reply to–or, rather, dismissal of–the Great Books popularizer Mortimer Adler), Quine means to show that scientific philosophy tracks the insights into the modern world revealed by natural science: that natural phenomena, those discovered and described by natural science, have become so complex that the words we use to describe such phenomena have become jargon-ridden by necessity; that formal logic since Frege has made for some dense but, in his view, rich philosophical prose; and that the profound interest in the workings of language has led to an important, albeit insular conversation about sense and reference. Has scientific philosophy lost contact with people? Quine implies without actually saying: “Well, yes, and rightly so.” It seems that in Quine’s picture there is no room for philosophy as a way of life.

Nowhere does he wonder whether this endeavor may be heading down the wrong path. Instead, he soberly concludes, “Philosophers in the professional sense have no peculiar fitness for it [namely, edification, public instruction, etc]. Neither have they any peculiar fitness for helping to get society on an even keel, though we should all do what we can. What just might fill these perpetually crying needs is wisdom: sophia yes, philosophia not necessarily.” What Quine fails to realize, though, is that there is a long tradition of “public philosophers” in the US in the twentieth century (and indeed centuries before then), a tradition that ends (according to the historian of American philosophy Bruce Kuklik) more or less just after WWII. Shouldn’t there be room in this picture for the figure of the philosopher who speaks with individuals regularly about subjects of ultimate importance, who seeks to bring life into question, who submits himself as well as others to philosophical inquiry?

Yesterday evening before the winds picked up, before the morning storm came, I read a private email about an uncle I barely know who is about to pass away. The son spoke, in relation to hospice care, about “getting the ball rolling,” and I was stunned–gadfly-like–into thinking that philosophy may find its reason for being when cliché loses its hold on speech.

Metanoia and radiance: A morning meditatio

We are speaking again, as if for the first time or final day, about the puzzle of self-transformation. We say that self-transformation is final yet ongoing. We say also that it has an aim yet that its aim is not external but rather internal to the practice of philosophy. This makes self-transformation out to be something mysterious. In one sense, the mystery will remain with us, since we will be unable to provide a sufficient reason (cf. the principle of sufficient reason) for why this person was transformed, was able to be transformed, but not that one, or why it happened at this time as opposed to some other, or why with these people and not with those… In another sense, however, the mystery can be solved because we can unravel these paradoxes as much as reason will allow.

In The Guidebook for Philosophical Life, I write,

We [i.e., those committed to philosophical life] are in search of wisdom, and this search is metanoia: a change of heart, a change of life.

On the one hand, the change in our way of being will indeed be gradual, incremental, almost imperceptible, each day the becoming of the one before. On the other hand, the change will be dramatic and ‘final’ such that, retrospectively, we will be able to say that our current self becomes absolutely incomparable with our previous self, a non sequitur as it were. The key is to see that the previous selves are the coming-to-be of our current self even as we comprehend that the current self is of a different order of being from all previous ways of being.

The new self is impossible without the death of the old self, yet the death of the former is simultaneously the seed or seedbed of the latter. Change not in degree (B is ‘more than’ A) but in order (B is heterogenous to A) is therefore possible.

Now, to say that the change is ‘final’ as well as ‘provisional’ is to make two related claims. Firstly, there is the need to exercise vigilance lest one return to a former way of being. As Pierre Hadot writes in Philosophy as a Way of Life, “Attention (prosoche) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind…” (84). The habits of mind and hand that have accumulated over the course of unphilosophical life–inattention, lack of compassion, shortness of temper, miserliness, coldness–can show themselves without an introduction and especially during difficult, unforeseen circumstances. Vigilance, therefore, as a spiritual exercise maintains us in this state, serving to fortify us against moral slackness. Secondly, a transformation is also, as St. Benedict everywhere assumes in The Rule, a path consisting of steps. These steps are not ordinal (first, second, third), not those of an amateur chef following a recipe, but rather those of a dancer. They too are an ‘art.’ Consequently, self-transformation brings one into philosophical life but, once there, once within philosophical life, ‘change of heart’ is ongoing.

Let’s now turn to the second puzzle. It would seem that the final aim of radiance lies at some great remove, exists–if it does–as some vanishing point beyond our understanding. But this mistakes what it means for an aim to be immanent to a practice (cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue). For instance, the gardener who aims at making good food is cultivating the virtues that already manifest the end that is already in view. It is not the case that the means are distinct from the end. It is also not true that the means are only of the ‘more efficient’ or ‘less efficient’ kind, as if some other means could be employed. (In a word, the gardener is not a manager.) It is rather the case that growing this good food is an aim internal to what it means to be a good gardener.

By analogy, the same can be said of radiance. Exercising the virtues of compassion, openness, patience, and courage–providing these are exercised in the right way–manifests beauty in the demeanor of the practitioner. We say that this person radiates. The manifestation occurs in the present, not in some possible future. As David E. Cooper and I have argued, radiance (or, what is the same thing, beauty of soul) is the achievement of the harmony of the salient virtues, where this achievement is envisaged in the demeanor of the beautiful soul. Consequently, radiance is already here yet also ‘more’ and ‘again.’

We should regard this post as a morning meditation, a rewriting in ink, a protestation and prayer, a vigilant reminder of what we have already said and thought many times before. This time, hopefully, with more illumination of spirit.

The puzzle of self-transformation (metanoia)

Self-transformation (metanoia) is something of a puzzle. On the one hand, self-transformation is ‘final,’ final in that it carries us into a completely new state of being. From this vantage point, we are different persons, more whole and more fulfilled. On the other hand, self-transformation is ongoing, not quite reached, always underway. Thus, philosophizing is like starting, again, from the beginning. Then again: on the one hand, self-transformation is an aim and insofar as this is the case it seems to be something we strive for. On the other hand, self-transformation must be already here, with us, for it not to be a vanishing point beyond us and afar.

How can this be? Tomorrow I disentangle the Gordian Knot.