Self-ignorance, friendship, and love

We are all ignorant of some things some of the time inasmuch as we do not know of the properties of some things, the existence of some things, a certain range of facts, etc. In most cases, our ignorance about something or other is not pernicious. That is not true, however, of our ignorance about what we claim to know yet do not actually know.

These statements can be deadly:

  • I know what is going on.
  • I know how to do something.
  • I know what to say and/or how to say it.

Deadly because I may be wrong and the results could be disastrous, catastrophic. If I do not know what is going on but believe that I do, then I may pursue some course of action that causes harm. If I do not know how to do something but believe that I do, then I may destroy the tool with which I am working, the machine I am operating, the program I am overseeing. Lastly, if I do not know what to say or how to say it but believe that I do, then I may ruin my (or our) prospects or damage my relationships. In the above, the assumption is that these acts are one-off yet far worse and more likely is that they occur on a regular basis, carrying with them the possibility of horror.

Self-deception, arrogance, or both could be the culprits, yet it stands to reason that other, more seemingly benign factors could also be the sources. One’s ignorance could arise out of lack of curiosity or inquisitiveness (one simply isn’t interested in getting a grip on what he knows and does not know), lack of thoughtfulness (one caring not at all about thinking X through to its logical conclusion), carelessness (one point-blanketedly not distinguishing between ‘I believe that P, though I may be wrong’ and ‘I know that P’), and the like.

I am tempted to write about our responsibility toward those who are unknowingly ignorant, but, on second thought, I think it more fruitful and more truthful to turn this thinking back on those doing the inquiring. Better, that is, to begin with investigating our own ignorance about what we think is yet may not actually be occurring, about excellences and abilities we think we have yet may not, and about our own lack of facility of speech than it is to continue to peer at our colleagues, our friends, and our neighbors with squinting eyes.

Vigilance and self-reflection of the kind we did not learn in school: these are what is called for. Alone, we may still go astray, however. For this reason, we need friends not to reassure or comfort us but to take us to task, pointing out with ‘grandmotherly kindness’ where we are blind, mistaken, overshooting the mark, callously drawing blood. We need lovers to do even more than this, holding our feet to the fire in order to help us–the hard way, the only way–to slowly reforge our characters.

All along (have you deduced?), I have been writing of Socrates, of the Socratic way of life, of its relevance to our lives today.

The Big Question and Self-surrender

It is unavoidable that the Big Question will come and, in the beginning, churn you into it like an obsession that is not one. No grand event need have precipitated it, nothing excitable have incited or occasioned it, no divorce, no infanticide, no screaming war have blighted one’s face or picked clean one’s fields. Horrors you may never have known, bliss either, truce either: all no matter.

Unavoidably, the Big Question comes, stunning, churning, ripping through you whether you are young or old: it makes of you a boy or a man. While giving up in the first breath or in the last is a fool’s errand, giving in, surrendering, bowing openly is an adventure, the first embarkation, the nearest to a godsend. The Big Question stands to you as you to it: accursedly or blessedly your own, a mark, and therefore no one else’s, not even possibly or ever. You take it where it takes you since wherever it takes you is the place where you may change even if such change is always up for grabs like a pledge from a Trojan.

The Big Question–what makes it such? A first confrontation wiith that which had never occurred to you, not in this way or at all, but had always lain beneath all your thinking, its very being of your being. Then O it appears, asking you in that very instant, Will you face me? How–tell me–could you have avoided me for so long, thinking over me until now? How foolish have you been and how for so long?

Humility is gravity, the greatest kind, and too a cheerfulness or at least its promise. The Big Question testing, rousing, jostling you with ferocity and utter ruthlessness, with–say it: madness–to make your new life an answer it can receive and accept. Do not be a weakling now. Go with me.

Letting others be: A fictitious admonition

No words must needs be addressed to him if what he is doing does not accord with what I think he would be better off doing. Let him be. That there may be other ways of doing something, some incontrovertibly or demonstrably better than this one he prefers or seems to anyway: what of it, man? Am I to concern myself each passing day with the details of this man’s affairs by sticking in a finger–a pointer, a probe, a dull knife? Must my tongue be fastened to his business or to hers? Come now: let it pass.

Or stay. Turn. Turn around. What urges my this way when I say what I do or, if I don’t, seethe in it all or if I wait until the pot falls and then tighten my heart in frisson, in torqued satisfaction? Shall I have a deep look–at myself, at this ugliness?–for ugliness it is. Looking, looking closely, if I dare, I see: self-righteousness…

With this, I cannot let myself be. No more nonsense now. All this time lost exhorting, lost chastening, spent correcting others! No letting be for an instant! All this stupid incorrigibility! The arrogance, the futile ignorant arrogance! What a roundabout!

Shocked? Horrified? Revolted–with myself? A good entry point from which to investigate myself: only, careful, unincriminatingly.

Stumbling Blocks in the Active Life

Suppose we begin with the person who has renounced four prominent pursuits: the idea of leading a comfortable life (bourgeois), that of leading a pleasurable life (hedonism), that of doing whatever he feels like whenever he feels like doing it (the wastrel), and the idea that there is no sufficient reason for living (nihilism). It may be out of a sense that something is to be done and he, among others, is to do it that he senses that these four pursuits are empty. Having renounced all four, therefore, he will declare a statement analogous to this one: ‘I want to make a difference with my life.’

This declaration tells us that he is devoted to the active life, to the life in which an agent seeks, in all his actions, to fulfill some social good or the common good. It implies that he is not committed to the contemplative life, which life would turn his gaze, his soul, his being upon the eternal stillness or the immeasurable fecundity. Therefore, we know where this young person stands: he stands above the ordinary and is devoted to an active conception of what is higher.

Where might he stumble? There are two places. The first place is at the beginning since his declaration, ‘I want to make a difference with my life,’ is (as I argued yesterday) vague, so vague that it fails to reveal in what way it would be best for him to do so. Therefore, he would have to learn to articulate and specify.

The second place would be located somewhere in the middle. Suppose he has found the path–the right path–that calls to him. Even so, at some point or another, he is bound to get stuck. Stuck how? He may face burnout; his ideas may cease to be interesting; his projects may be frustrated or endlessly delayed; his partners, colleagues, or teammates may turn fair-weather; he may drift about restlessly, unnervingly; he may be paralyzed for any number of reasons. As an elementary part of his education, then, he would need to learn how to unstuck stuckness.’

For someone committed to the active life, there is, in brief, the question of how I am specifically to make a difference, and there is the further question of how I am to persist whenever I am lost and get confused.

Vagueness and Inaccuracy: The Case of ‘Making a Difference’

Vagueness and Inaccuracy

I am intrigued by how the philosophical problems of vagueness and inaccuracy are played out in laypersons’ experiences of everyday life, particularly in the lives of those pursuing the active life. Vagueness pertains to two different sets of issues while inaccuracy, at least of the kind I’m often presented with and especially concerned with, with only one distinct issue. Someone is being vague, let’s say, when (a) the concept he uses does not apply to one or more objects to which it is meant to refer and/or (b) there are ‘borderline cases’ where it is unclear whether or not the concept applies in terms of its extension. Inaccuracy, unlike vagueness, calls us to doubt whether the concept being applied actually is the right concept under which to subsume this phenomenon.

To illustrate the concepts of vagueness and inaccuracy, let me consider someone who says that he is feeling guilty. If he were asked, ‘What sorts of things do you feel guilty about?,’ he might answer  objects X and Y. However, upon closer inspection it may seem vague whether guilt should be attached to these objects since the latter may not be those amenable to the application of guilt. (E.g., ‘I feel guilty because my child, whom I’ve properly tended to, happens to have a cold today.’) Alternatively, he could be applying the concept of guilt in such a way that it ranges beyond the bounds of the typical extension of the concept. (E.g., ‘I feel guilty because it is dark and stormy outside today.’) Now, it’s also possible that he is being inaccurate. He may think that it is guilt, and yet it could be another concept: shame, disappointment, worry, remorse, etc.

In philosophy, in brief, we are learning to ask,

  • Which objects are within a certain range of the application of concept X?
  • Which objects fall outside of the extension of concept X?
  • Might there be some other concept that fits the phenomenon or phenomena in question?

A Test Case: ‘I want to Make a Difference’

My introductory remarks above make it seem as if vagueness and inaccuracy have to be errors only and are therefore unhelpful for someone learning to think well. This assumption is not true. Better to say that vagueness and inaccuracy can be starting points for a philosophical inquiry into what is actually going on and why. For when one is brought to an awareness that there is a dialectical misfit between concept and object, he is thereby driven to inquire about how the two could be brought into harmony. Thus is he carried forward in his thinking in the hope of pinpointing with the utmost precision what is the case.

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