Writing Blog Tour: My Life as a Philosopher

The Writing Blog Tour consists of two parts: answering four questions having to do with the process of writing and introducing some friends who, in turn, will do the same the following week. So far as I can tell, this collective project began sometime last summer and has since continued apace. In some respects, the idea resembles an old-fashioned chain letter; in others, an invitation. For my part, I have taken this assignment as a call to think further about the various ways in which my conceptions of the philosophical life have changed from 2009 to the present.

It was Jeppe Graugaard who invited me to participate. This occurred about two weeks ago. A little over two years ago, Jeppe first got in touch with me in order to have a conversation with me about Dark Mountain Project, the subject of his Ph.D. thesis which is now nearing completion. Our conversation, which was very improvisational in nature, was recorded, transcribed almost verbatim, and is still available here.

Rather than treat these questions as if they were discrete and posed in an interview format, I have sought, to some degree, to craft a narrative stretching from beginning to end. Afterward, I introduce Christopher Brewster, Eldan Goldenberg, Ian Prinsloo, and John Thackara, each of whom has graciously accepted my invitation to continue the Writing Blog Tour on March 31.

Here, I submit myself to the questions.

Question 1. What am I Working on?

I am currently writing a book entitled Radiance: An Essay for Unsettled Time. The book seeks to draw out the connection between the good and the beautiful while ‘leaning on’ the true. I take my cue from the thought that the best life is lived according to nature (this being the true), and I advance the general thesis that radiance is disclosed only when goodness is elevated to the point of beauty. This, I believe, is the path that the philosopher sets foot on, and it begins without his having answers in hand.

Completing this book presents me with something of a conundrum. Each of the books I have written so far have been conceived in the form of a gift. The Art of Inquiry and Cultivating Discipline Lightly were both offered to Kaos Pilots students in 2012 and 2013, respectively. A Guidebook to Philosophical Life (2013) was a gift to a particular ‘community of inquirers.’

The general formula is: I offer book X to addressees Y on occasion Z in the hope of educating Y. ‘And by ‘education,’ I mean with Pierre Hadot ‘conversion’: that is to say, a transformation of one’s overall perception of the world. In the present case, I am bewildered because I have no idea to whom the book is written, for what occasion, and with what final aim. One needn’t write a book on radiance in order to be radiant: the important thing is to become so. Another would have to ask one to do so, as one story has it of Laozi, and the words would have to flow forth in time. Shall I say I am ready?

Question 2. How does my Work Differ from Others of its Genre?

My philosophical writing differs from that of others principally in that I am seeking to lead a philosophical life. I am not seeking prestige, honor, status, fame, wealth, glory, or tenure. There are no social ladders to ascend, no recognition or esteem to secure. To say these things is to suggest that philosophical writing is only justified when it is an ‘outpouring’ of philosophical thinking. Otherwise, it is unnecessary chatter, as pointless as ‘having to make a point.’ As I put it elsewhere,

A philosopher does not speak or write except to make philosophical life manifest. Gentle, flowing art is thus not an end in itself but a spilling-forth of philosophical thought.

But surely I have written too much. But then I have had to learn along the way without the aid of a living guide. In order to ‘bring out’ philosophical life when ‘bringing out’ is called for, I have therefore resorted to writing in ‘many keys’ to a broad range of addressees (about which, more below) in a wide variety of genres. Sometimes, the words issue forth in meditations, sometimes in arguments, sometimes in jokes. Over time, they have become terser, more sober, more impersonal.

As for other living philosophers, I doubt that I have anything new to say about analytic and continental philosophers. As it is said, the former tend toward analytic clarity and rigor yet fall into a narrowness in their approach, the latter leaning toward bold, creative, sometimes beautiful questions yet also a slackness, a fuzziness regarding sound argumentation. Analytic philosophers typically write academic treatises to colleagues in their field in order to make sound arguments about some academic puzzle or field-specific problem. The style tends to be rather ‘precious,’ shading slightly toward smugness (point-scoring) or a peculiar cuteness (excited exclamation points here and there, the use of colloquialisms such as ‘well’ folksying the prose). Whereas continental philosophy, while creative, is also hyperbolic to the point of histrionics. The continental philosopher writes to his colleagues or to interdisciplinary academics, not uncommonly believing that he is addressing a wider public, though it is unclear whether such a public can make it through the dense prose or genuinely cares. Apart from the avant-gardism of this post-60s writing, the style inclines toward pomposity: full of grandiosity with some hand-waving through the difficult stretches of an argument.

Often unstated, though, is the thought that both traditions share in common the peculiar claim, despite recorded history since the Presocratics telling us otherwise, that the philosopher is a figure who only dwells within a university. That is odd as well as inaccurate.

Question 3. Why do I Write What I do?

By my lights, writing comes from a question voiced from afar. One has to orient oneself to be able to listen. For the past decade or more, the general form of my question has been, ‘How does one lead a good life in the modern age?’ During the early stages of writing my dissertation, I recall reading an epigram from Adorno’s Minima Moralia–‘There is no right life in the wrong one’–and being taken with it. The wrong one he alludes to is the ‘wrong world,’ and this ‘wrong world,’ he implies, is in need of improvement before right life can appear.

Since then, I have changed my mind about this political orientation to life, one commonly held in the humanities and abroad, no longer believing that world-improvement is what our age calls for. I agree with Adorno that ‘there is no right life in the wrong world,’ but now I wish to think in metaphysical terms about what sorts of exercises are necessary for one to practice, among friends of virtues, in order to attune oneself to the good and beautiful world. I doubt that Adorno would recognize the gist of his epigram in this form. In this respect, then, I am reformulating the thesis that living the most excellent form of life in modernity just means ‘living with accordance with nature.’

Each piece I write–be it a note to a philosophical friend or something else–is an attempt to answer this question in the sense of living it. And so, each specific question that comes to me is rather like hearing this more general question, the one to which I orient myself. The question flows from different sources.

In order to bring out further this change in self-understanding as a philosopher, below I want to chart the course I have followed so far.

That course began, around 2009 when I moved to New York City, with the conception I had of myself as a public philosopher. The public philosopher is a kind of public intellectual who addresses his discourse to the ‘generally educated reader’ with a view to providing him with a synoptic vision of the shape of our time. A synoptic vision is concerned with widening the reader’s conceptual repertoire so that he can come to regard himself from a wider standpoint: as a being who stands in a certain way within his age.

By 2011, I began to reconsider this conception both because I had my doubts that the public sphere still existed in much the way that it had, say, during the eighteenth century when it first arise or up until just after WWII and also because I found this notion of education lacking inasmuch as it could not, from this lofty height, change another’s character or vision of the world. So it was that A Guidebook to Philosophical Life, written in the spring of 2012, performed quite an ‘axial turn,’ revealing to me that I was a philosophical guide writing esoteric books to be handed as gifts to specific individuals then in my philosophy practice. This group was to constitute a ‘community of inquirers,’ a community not unreminiscent of a ‘lay monastic’ order whose purpose was to further the philosophical life. The book was not only written to specific individuals; it contained the ‘trellis’ for such a common life.

During this period, when I write, then, I wrote letters and posts to these persons in particular in order to cultivate a shared way of life. What I discovered, however, in this monumental shift from exoteric public philosopher to esoteric philosophical guide was that, despite the cultivation of certain salient virtues, the community was undone by  vices such as arrogance, jealousy, envy, indirectness, and dishonesty. I realized that I had overly ambitious, too generous, not sufficiently discerning. There was no way it could go on as it was, and so I backed away.

The beginning of 2013 proved, therefore, to be the right time for me to say farewell to this specific community of inquirers and to retreat from this conception of the philosopher entirely. Then it was that Aleksandra and I moved from New York City to Appalachia. Withdrawing from city life, we meditated amid the calm mountains and fields of sheep, and I tried to figure out, as if from the beginning, what kind of person I was trying to educate.

For a time, my writings were conversations–sometimes appearing in public but not addressed to anyone or any group in particular–I had with myself. What was coming into being was the notion that I was a Daoist-inspired philosopher who was focused on self-cultivation. And self-cultivation got underway and was enhanced through ongoing spiritual exercises (ascesis) that I submitted myself to: those having to do with measure, with holding my tongue, bravery, gentleness, and the like. I wrote, when I wrote, chiefly to live at my best, at my finest amid ‘unsettled time’: better yet, to hold myself to account for the life I wished to lead.

Slowly, since moving to Southern California, I have observed another change occur. In addition to the ongoing spiritual exercises I undertake with myself, I am now a philosopher who answers the quaestios, as these come up, of my current conversation partners and philosophical friends. Something may be left bewildering or unthought-through after a morning or afternoon philosophical conversation, and thus I write to him in order to puzzle something out.

In short, the path I have been on has led me from ‘world-improvement’ to self-understanding: to humbly holding myself and those who come before me to account for however long this is so. I would not be surprised if something were to call this present conception into question and set me to thinking again.

Question 4. How does my Writing Process Work?

My writing is a process of reasoning that begins with a properly formulated, well-specified question concerning the ethical-metaphysical orientation and the figure of the addressee. Generally speaking, the latter means: ‘Who is seeking to be educated? Who is the pupil, and what does he come to me to learn?’ To recall: this education conforms to the shape of leading the most excellent life in the modern world.

In tune with the above, a specific question on a particular occasion voiced by a particular person asks to be answered. (In some instances, I may be this person.) What I have learned from Hadot’s writings about ancient philosophy is that a pupil’s question is posed at a particular moment with a particular reason for a certain aim. Hence, the teacher’s reply is, first and foremost, a reply to this pupil in whatever way is most suitable. In this respect, the reply is ‘timely,’ particularist, and not immediately reproducible or intelligible out of context. This specificity of the teacher/pupil relationship is in key part what gives the relationship its educational resonance and its sense of care.

Thus, we can revisit what I wrote in Section 3 and see how I have come to pass over addressing myself to the generally educated reader, a particular community of inquirers, and have instead write in view of those who come into my life, here and now, and ask these questions of me and in order to hold myself to account.

‘Yet for what reason,’ I ask myself, ‘was this post written? To whom it is addressed?’ This post is a natural example of examining my life with the aim of understanding myself better. It is like speaking to myself aloud. St. Loyola urges us to examine our conscience as if we were standing before others. It is a good exercise.

*

Introductions

It is my pleasure to introduce four friends whose paths have crossed mine over the past couple of years. I first met Christopher through a mutual friend Dougald Hine in June of 2012, and we have corresponded since. Through Twitter and also via New Public Thinking, a collective experiment concerned with deepening the breadth of public conversations, Eldan and I got acquainted. A mutual friend Pete Sims of Kaos Pilots introduced me to Ian perhaps a year or so ago, and since then we have been working on a philosophy and drama workshop on surprise. Come to think of it, Dougald also introduced me to John at Future Perfect, a sustainability festival held outside of Stockholm, in August of 2012.

Now I have the chance to return these favors and introduce these friends to you:

Christopher Brewster is a Lecturer in Information Technology at the Aston Business School. His day job as an academic strangely enough involves far less writing than he was led to expect at some rose-tinted stage in his youth. He has lived in several countries in Europe, but his heart resides by the rivers in the mountains of Greece. He is still learning to put pen to paper.

Eldan Goldenberg is a freelance researcher, writer, and data analyst in 5508763254_d6f0631f2csearch of interesting systems to tell the stories of. He chiefly works on things that promote sustainability in a thoroughly humanistic sense: making life better for people alive today without making things worse for those in the future. There are many ways that can work, but if your project doesn’t make the world a better place in at least some small way I don’t want to hear about it. Among other things, he has advised a faith group on how to evaluate the impacts of its own practices and was responsible for survey and indicator data at The Happiness Initiative, an alternative measure of national well-being.

Ian - electronic version

Ian Prinsloo is a creative inquiry facilitator, helping individuals and organizations discover the space of possibility. Having worked for over 20 years as a professional theatre director, Ian’s work focuses on how the alternative ways of knowing developed through actor training can be used by people outside of theatre to meet organizational challenge and change. This worked has been applied across both the private and not-for-profit sector through projects at the Drop-In Centre in Calgary, Enviros Wilderness School Association, Calgary C-op, Thoughtworks Inc., Shell Canada, and in program and consulting work through Leadership Development at the Banff Centre (where he is a faculty member). He lives in London.

John Thackara has spent three decades traveling the world in search of JohnThackara2013photoUrosAbram-440x292stories about the practical steps taken by communities to realize a sustainable future. He writes about these stories online, and in books; he uses them in talks for cities, and business; he also organizes festivals and events that bring the subjects of these stories together. He is the author of a widely-read blog at designobserver.com and of the best-selling In the Bubble: Designing In A Complex World. As director of Doors of Perception, John organizes conferences and festivals in which social innovators share knowledge.

Advertisements