Unstucking ‘stuckness’ (2)


Yesterday I argued that “stuckness” is the best single word description of the ‘place’ in which many people find themselves. Specifically, I said that being stuck involves

1. being unable to go forward toward a future state of being;

2. being unable to go backward, to return to a prior state of being;

3. having the desire to move one way or another;

4. wanting to will something to happen but recognizing, if only dimly, that one’s will is inconsequential;

5. hence, repeating the same gestures or remaining paralyzed while becoming half or fully aware of this repetition or this state of paralysis.

Today I want to provide a sketch of how philosophical inquiry can “unstuck” us.

Definition of Inquiry

In The Art of InquiryI define the latter as “an unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.”

Three Conditions

In late August, I put on a two-day workshop on the art of inquiry at Kaos Pilots, a school based in Aarhus, Denmark. On the second day, I put two cushions on the floor and asked someone, who was prepared to inquire about her life, who was willing to answer in direct speech, and who agreed to say “I don’t know” when she really didn’t know the answer, to sit down in front of me. The rest of the class was seated above us, only a few feet away. The conversation was slow moving and was punctuated by many long and important silences. In this way, we got somewhere together.

In sum, the three conditions for philosophical inquiry are (1) readiness to inquire about one’s life, (2) willingness to speak plainly (without jargon, subterfuge, avoidance, or circumlocution), and (3) a willingness to say “I don’t know” when one really doesn’t know.

The ‘Place’ of Inquiry

Inquiry begins where the claim to knowing ends. Yet it does not amount to ignorance. It resides, instead, in the ‘place’ between ignorance and wisdom. Hence it requires one to take risks without the guarantee that the risks will bear fruit.

‘Stuckness’ Revisited

We inquirers agree with premise 2 (above) that there is no going back and with premise 3 that there is a desire to make progress. However, we reject premises 1, 4, and 5: pace 1, we postulate that another way of life exists; pace 4, we believe that inquiry is concerned with self-understanding, not with volition. Therefore, we do not conclude that paralysis or repetition are the only ‘possible motions.’ We want, as it were, to put thinking in motion.

Unstucking ‘stuckness’: An Example for Future Inquiry

With one conversation partner who has been ‘stuck’ in the legal profession for about a decade, we know that working in law is simply untenable. It would seem, however, that no other form of work would meet his material needs as well as the needs of his children. It would seem as if he cannot–but must–stay put, cannot go back, and yet cannot go forward. What then, except despair?

We undertake one inquiry with the goal of setting the right specifications for another, future inquiry. These specifications would tell us how any line of work would have to look in order to count as being a good form of work period. The answer to our next inquiry would be a line of work that may exist or may not exist (entrepreneurship) but would, in any case, be one with which we are, at present, unfamiliar. We will have to make it up, so to speak, as we go.

The specifications would go as follows. In order to count as a good form of work, it would have to

a) Be a part of stable organization(s)

b) Have stable work hours

c) Have a good mission

d) Offer reasonable or good-enough pay

e) Be reconciliatory rather than adversarial model/atmosphere

f) Be creative–specifically in terms of the craft of writing.

Inquiry, accordingly, is not about ‘keeping searching’ or about ‘casting a wide net’ or even about applying for jobs. It is about thinking seriously in order to reach a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.

Unstucking ‘stuckness’ (1)

Near the end of our conversation yesterday, John Thackara, co-founder of Doors of Perception, used the word “stuck.” So had a man in Switzerland, students at Kaos Pilots, a woman in Berkeley… For nearly two years, “being stuck” or “feeling stuck” may be the phrase I hear most often to describe an individual’s or an organization’s predicament. Arguably, the noun form “stuckness,” rather than “lostness” or “disorientation,” is the right word for capturing our general malaise. Indeed, once a neologism (around the late 1960s and early 70s), “stuckness” is now a readily accepted noun, a noun the man on the street would recognize and use himself.

We might inquire why stuckness (a word, interestingly, that my Mac still flags as being unacceptable by drawing a dotted red line beneath it) has become the modern condition. To be stuck, by my lights, involves

1. being unable to go forward toward a future state of being;

2. being unable to go backward, to return to a prior state of being;

3. having the desire to move one way or another;

4. wanting to will something to happen but recognizing, if only dimly, that one’s will is inconsequential;

5. hence, repeating the same gestures or remaining paralyzed while becoming half or fully aware of this repetition or this state of paralysis.

It is said–and John said as much yesterday–that we know that our current way of life is unworkable, but it is also said that we have no idea how to live otherwise. My thesis will be that our “being stuck” is a consequence of our failure of imagination and of understanding, not that of a failure of volition. Now more than ever, to understand (in a speculative sense) is paramount; to will is mere obfuscation. Tomorrow, I wish to show that the aim of philosophical inquiry is–to coin a word–to “unstuck” us.

On eating properly and ‘two kinds of quantity’

I don’t believe that calories–this unit of measure–is a good way of talking about food in general, of talking about ‘how much’ I need to eat or how I go about conceptualizing what it is I eat. My doubts about ‘the calorie’ are born of my wholesale rejection of what goes under the header of ‘food science.’ In order to reach this conclusion, I have been helped, in much different quarters and by much different routes, by the work of Michael Pollan and George Taubes.

But if the food I put in my mouth, the food that passes into my belly and through my body is not reducible to a quantifiable number of calories, what is it I am eating, and how do I know whether I have had ‘enough,’ ‘too much,’ or ‘too little.’?

This question invites me to draw a distinction between a mathematized conception of quantity and a qualitative understanding of quantity. I am taking my cue from Sajay Samuel who, in an interview with Dougald Hine, states:

I find a potent argument in Plato, for instance, where he says, look here–I adapt this–the distinction, quality and quantity, not be that between irrationality, emotion, etc., and rationality, thought and so on. Rather there are two kinds of quantity–numerical, which we can call arithmetic, and then, ‘too much’ and ‘too little.’ By definition, ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ are quantities, but they’re not numerically measurable. What we have done in the modern world is to privilege 1, 2, 3… as the only quantity. But I can relativize, I can put under epistemic brackets, that kind of quantity by insisting on the superiority–and showing the superiority–of the second kind of qualitative understanding, ‘too much’ and ‘too little.’ For example, we can ask: have you gone too far, by measuring love in terms of numbers? A perfectly legitimate, perfectly sensible question, I’m sure you would agree. Number cannot provide an answer to the question of ‘too far.’ The measure of going too far by measuring love in terms of numbers is six… is self-evidently asinine. (“Rehoming Society: A Conversation with Sajay Samuel,” Dark Mountain: Issue 3, p. 103)

A qualitative understanding of quantity compels me to turn my attention toward the ‘feeling’ of my body, my body’s empirical way of knowing: what it feels like to put ‘this much’ in my body now and after I eat? At this time, under these conditions, what kind of food will raise my powers of acting, of strength, will enhance my overall sense of sober joy, and how much do I need to put on my tongue and chew with my teeth and savor so that I am left feeling more powerful now than I was before?

This is a spiritual exercise (ascesis) in proper attention (prosoche) to the ‘claims’ my body is making on me.

Cavell on the skeptical moment

Excerpt from Stanley Cavell, “The Philosopher in American Life,” In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.


I came to the idea that philosophy’s task was not so much to defeat the skeptical argument as to preserve it, as though the philosophical profit of the argument would be to show not how it might end but why it must begin and why it must have no end, at least none within philosophy, or what we think of as philosophy.

Here my thought was that skepticism is a place, perhaps the central secular place, in which the human wish to deny the condition of human existence is expressed; and so long as the denial is essential to what we think of as the human, skepticism cannot, or must not be denied. This makes skepticism an argument internal to the individual, or separate, human creature, as it were an argument of the self with itself (over its finitude).

Philosophy as metanoetics

Excerpt from Tanabe Hajime, Philosophy as Metanoetics, trans. Takeuchi Yoshinori, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.


[L]ife consists of the continuous practice of “death-and-resurrection.” Metanoesis is practicing, and also being made to practice, this “death-and-resurrection” according to criteria of the value and meaning of our existence, or, more correctly, of the valuelessness and meaninglessness of our existence. It must begin with a casting away of the self that is no longer qualified to exist because it is forced to recognize, through suffering and sorrow, that its being is valueless.

This means that metanoesis (zange) is the exact opposite of despair in the ordinary sense, which consists of getting discouraged at ourselves, asserting our negative self, and growing increasingly vexed to the point of forgetting the fact that we have been condemned to original sin. In contrast, zange is a true self-surrender that consists not in a recalcitrant despair but in a submissive one, a despair in which we renounce all hope for and claim to justification. Submissive despair thus preserves the permanent wish that our being be as it ought to be. Through such despair we suffer from the serious discrepancy in our being that which “ought to be” and that which is “as it is.” Through zange we regard ourselves as truly not deserving to be, and thereby enter fully into a state of genuine despair leading to self-surrender.