Kissing a ‘thing which is human’


At bedtime, I lie on my side, facing her. Her hand is so warm, rough from climbing.


After I go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I lie back down and listen. There: her breath.


Epicetus says, ‘If you kiss your wife, say you only kiss a thing which is human. Thus you will not be disturbed if it dies.’ His words sound cruel, but they are not that at all.


One hand is firmly around the middle of her back, feeling muscle and vertebrae. The other wide-pinches the nape of the neck. Her lungs fill. Her ribs fall.

A philosophical surprise and a philosopher by surprise

A philosophical surprise has the following structure:

  • While I was on the road to my destination, something happened that stopped me and held me in amazement.

Unpacking this statement:

1.) ‘While I was on the road to my destination’: I was proceeding absentmindedly, and I was bent on getting somewhere in particular. I may have been in a hurry, but even if I wasn’t in a hurry, I was concertedly moving toward a goal.

2.) ‘something happened’: in this instant, I do not know what this ‘something happening’ is or means. It is not clear to me what it could ‘turn out to be,’ and I have not ‘turned it’ into something recognizable or intelligible yet.

3.) ‘stopped me’: this sense of ‘stopping me’ is not the same as its being an obstacle, hurdle, or impediment for me. Though I do not know what it is or means, for some reason I do not regard it as something to cross, get around, slip past, sidestep, etc. It seems that I cannot help but regard it, inspect it, focus my attention on it.

4.) ‘held me in amazement’: in the context of a philosophical surprise, my inspection is of a certain special kind. Naturally, I can regard, inspect, and take notice of many things around me. But there is something unspeakably perplexing about ‘what is happening here’ and about what it could mean for my life. So much so that I am at a loss: I can neither pass it by or brush it off nor grasp and possess it in an instant. It is holding me and it is as if it were speaking a foreign language that I shall have to learn. I can’t not.

Here, I would add:

  • A philosopher (in the true sense) holds others gently so that they can give him a considered account of their lives.

Thus, a philosopher comes upon us by surprise, doubling and doubling the surprise we experienced from having already been dislocated from the set path in life.

Corollary: philosophical surprise as the opening onto conversion (epistrophe). Pierre Hadot: ‘Education is conversion.’

Retreating from the genre of deliberation

I’ve been thinking from time to time about the genre of deliberative inquiry. When one thinks of the genre of deliberation, one is inclined to take the first question to be: ‘Well, what is to be done?’ Or: ‘What shall we do?’ Over the years, I’ve become disenchanted with this question; it is rarely the right one.

For starters, I’ve learned that so-called volitional questions having to do with the will (willing, deciding, choosing, abstaining, restraining, and so on) are, in most cases, ways of avoiding the more fundamental cognitive-metaphysical-epistemic questions concerning knowing oneself and the world. On this score, my reasoning tends to run:

If I can come to know myself more generally and understand the world from the right point of view, then it would likely follow, first, that ‘What is to be done?’ would not show up for me and, second, that right action would come easily and spontaneously.

What my philosophical friend and I found today, then, was just this: we wanted to know not whether he should do X or Y but rather:

  • What would it mean for him to be closer to what is higher?

In this connection, I am reminded of the arguments of the philosopher Charles Taylor. In A Secular Age, he wants to ask about the ‘place of fullness’ in an excellent life. This ‘place of fullness,’ he writes, is one to which we ‘orient ourselves morally or spiritually,’ seeking to come into contact with it. And yet, there is also the experience of exile or severance when we cannot make out from whence this fullness arises, what this fullness is (or whether it is), or whether we are in touch with it. Beyond this experience of exile lies a ‘middle condition,’ which places us in closer proximity to this source.

The question would then turn on (i) specifying what is higher, (ii) determining what the constituents of this higher (or fuller) are, and (iii) letting come into view what sort of activity or activities would bring one into closer proximity to this sense of the higher.

And this is precisely what my philosophical friend and I did today with the result that he felt a profound sense of calmness by the end. This kind of calmness, which is achieved by good philosophical reasoning, is rather like coming to mathematical certainty.

Withdrawing from Ultimate Tests

Dear Philosophical Friend,

I thought my claim about the impossibility of ultimate tests was too rushed and unclear. Let me try again here.

Let P be an Ultimate Test for some question Q. Let question Q be, e.g.: ‘Is Smith trulyultimately trustworthy?’

There are three ways that P can go awry:

1.) P can be so overly demanding that no human being could possibly pass P. (Overdemandingness Problem)

2.) P could test something other than Q. (Wrong Test Problem)

3.) Smith could pass P, yet P may still prove not to be ultimate. (The Ultimacy Problem)

The Overdemandingness Problem reveals that this is not a test for humans but for superhumans. That is, it is logically impossible for any human could to pass the test. This suggests that so long as one believes in an Ultimate Test one is bound to be overly ambitious. Striving to get beyond the bounds of human understanding, the striver will have to come up short.

The Wrong Test Problem reveals a certain sense of arbitrariness. ‘I set P in order for Smith to provide me with final evidence that he is trustworthy, but now I doubt the test’s ability to test this.’ And the speaker may be at a loss to say what test could prove satisfactory to determine Smith’s ultimate trustworthy.

Today, I drew our attention to the Ultimacy Problem, which occasions infinite regress. Even when Smith passes P, I keep setting more tests for Smith because I am still in doubt, still suspicious of Smith, and so each test in turn proves not to be ultimate.


I believe the source of the error lies farther back. No human test can get us the ‘truly,’ ‘ultimately,’ ‘finally.’ This question as well as questions such as this one, therefore, we need to let go of. ‘Is Jones truly courageous?’ We cannot possibly say. We can only say that Jones exhibited courage on occasions X, Y, and Z. If we observe him acting courageously often enough, then we would be warranted in saying that Jones is courageous. But ‘being courageous’ is a disposition: a tendency to be such-and-such or to do such-and-such over a range of cases and over a long enough period of time. It doesn’t hold for all cases or for all time, and it certainly cannot tell us anything definitive about Jones’s future actions.

What is already taken on board, then, are two fatal assumptions:

1.) That error itself (mistake, foible, guffaw, misunderstanding, etc.) is to be gotten rid of from the start;

2.) That absolute certainty in human affairs (e.g., that Smith is ever-trustworthy and could not be otherwise) is not only desirable but also achievable.

We need to withdraw from the idea of the Ultimate Test in order to return to our experienceable, very human scenarios: person A is interacting with B, and both of them need to figure something out about the world and about themselves. Their understanding of themselves and the world will be provisional, will be better or worse, yet it will never be final.

In friendship,