Years ago, Aleksandra used to joke, ‘I’m a person; I get things done.’ It’s a perfect, timely joke. The joke could be translated into the terms of formal logic. If someone is a person, then he gets things done. And the contrapositive would be: if he doesn’t get things done, then he isn’t actually a person.
What is remarkable about these conditional statements is the fact that someone’s personhood is identified with his completing tasks. He can’t not do anything, and also he can’t simply start something and leave off it. He can’t fail at things either. For if he doesn’t get things done (for whatever reason), he is not (or ceases to be?) a person. Notice how the anxiety over the invention of robots would indeed be warranted were this conception of personhood to be true. If humans are doers and if there is something that can outdo us at doing, then why not replace humans with that outdoing something?
Of course, what makes the joke amusing is that no one would possibly grant that persons are essentially doers; we would want to say that there is something more, as well as more basic, to being a person. (A soul? Ah, but materialists and humanists don’t want to say this. Freedom? Neuroscientists beg to differ.) True, this is a simple example of a ‘category mistake.’ And yet, even though the arguments for this view are not good ones, I submit that most people today believe an only slightly less stringent version of this: namely, that persons are chiefly doers. How else to explain the first questions people ask each other in order to get to know one another:
- So, what do you do?
- What do you do for a living?
- So, what are you working on?
- Have you been keeping busy?
- What have you been doing (since we last spoke)?
- What have you been up to?
A possible answer which could not be heard: ‘Following Aristotle’s conclusions in the Nichomachean Ethics, I have, with the divine element of human beings, been contemplating the unmoved mover.’
What must be underscored is how very strange these questions are. Indeed, they are strange, erroneous, and ‘flat.’ Given that these things are the case, why then would most people today believe that these are the questions to ask of themselves and each other?
I believe the answer is connected to the ‘problematization of the world.’ Yesterday, I showed that the world has become ‘problematized’: every particular thing, in principle, is transformable into a certain kind of problem, and this problem, in turn, ‘yearns’ for a solution. I went on to analyze this specific conception of the problem with a skeptical eye. Conceptual analysis, however, can only be a starting point. What requires further investigation is this Nietzschean-inspired question:
What is the value of problem-solving of the kind I described?
I don’t believe the best answer is that solving certain problems is of social benefit. Solving the problem of food (whatever that means) may, of course, be of social benefit, but that answer does not tell us why one would spend his life caring about it. It has to be instead that for certain kinds of people problem-solving just is a strong answer to the question of the good life, where the question of the good life is reformulated in agent-centric terms. That is to say, what gives credence to problem-solving as a way of proceeding in life is not its epistemic, logical, or metaphysical status but rather its ethical standing. It is the kind of understanding that we believe grounds us in the world, orienting us, giving us a reason for living (a telos), a something as yet non-existent yet toward which to aspire.
As in: ‘What are you doing [not only ‘with’ each day but above all with your life]’? and the answer is, ‘I am working to solve this [massively important social] problem [crime, obesity, water shortage, etc.].’ And putting the answer that way does sound noble, quasi-heroic, even if utterly, conceptually mistaken. Possibly also arrogant.
As to the question of the good life, there seem to be some common replies that I have canvassed and called into question over the years. In 2011, for instance, I spent some time casting a wry eye on the thesis that the good life is identical with having a career. Also indefensible is the thesis that the good life is identical with bourgeois respectability. Now we come to the ‘maverick answer’: the good life–in design, ecology, social enterprise, startup etc. circles–is identical with solving the world’s problems. But this won’t cut it either.
Notwithstanding their typicality, none of these answers, in fact, are good enough since none would withstand the test of rational scrutiny. Clearly, one would still have to know why it would matter to end hunger for good if one does not implicitly believe that the world qua world is good and beautiful and that there is something worthy about human existence. So far as I can tell, all the effort, though, seems to be put into making this world a home for us, one that it is not already, but yet I do not believe that this is possible by force of the will. A joke: ‘I’m a person; I get the world done.’
However, it will not be enough simply to say that these answers are not good enough for there must, at the outset, be a clearing away of all the modern assumptions concerning the ‘fallen person’ as basically the victim, the friend as the ‘witness to pain,’ the (good) person as essentially the doer, and the world as primordially problematic–not to mention the other assumptions having to do with the mind being the kind of stuff that could get ill, the world being in need of saving, and the like.
These posts are examples of thinking through these things. The handful of assumptions that I have been scrutinizing are provided here.