On our obsession with careers and career changes: A reconsideration


I’ve been observing that the term “second career” is gaining in popularity and I’ve been baffled by this. Only yesterday, someone considering becoming a yoga instructor pointed me to an article she’d read on why yoga may be a good “second career.” To confirm the upward tick in usage, I entered the term into Google Ngram Viewer and noted that “second career” began being employed more widely around the late 90s and has continued apace ever since.

When I wrote about moving away from New York City in the future, a man I didn’t know congratulated me on my “planned career change.” More bafflement. Why would the idea of a “second career,” let alone that of a first, have any appeal to anyone living today?

Perhaps it’s time to reflect. A year ago, I wrote an article on the end of the career in which I argued

that we may be witnessing not the stopping and stalling of some careers but the more far-reaching conclusion that the very idea of a career may be coming to an end. In what follows, I tease out the social implications of the end of the career and then provide some prima facie evidence in support of this speculative thesis courtesy of Google Ngram Viewer.

My concern today is rather modest. It is to offer a definition of the career that might be broad enough to include most (but not all) of the cases in which people speak of a career or of ‘having a career.’

The first reason I’m intrigued by the concept of a career is that it invokes many distinctions–skilled vs. unskilled, non-career job vs. career, blue collar vs. white collar, unstable vs. stable, low paying vs. high paying, manufacturing vs. service and IT, etc.–that seem to be breaking down. The other reason I’m intrigued by talk of ‘having a career’ or of ‘changing a career’ is that it seems to preclude the emergence of philosophical questions. Let’s say that it is one particularly good strategy for refusing to bring one’s life into question.

Throughout the week, I’ll then try to say some things about why the career is a false start for doing good work.


A career is a (a) decent, (b) respectable way of making a living that (c) is realized over time, that (d) tends to require some formal training, and that (e) tends to take place in an office setting.


(a) Someone with a career expects to make a decent living. The idea behind a career is that I am well-paid (where being “well-paid” falls into a certain range). The migrant apple picker and the high school student working in retail, then, do not have careers; both of them have jobs.

(b) Respectability (about which more in future) seems to be the crux of the definition. A farmer could, in principle, make a decent  living but, notwithstanding the Back to the Land apologists, is not seen as being respectable. To be respectable, the career must be valuable by one’s peers, by individuals one knows and by strangers one may not know. John can say that he is a lawyer working at a high-powered law firm and be respected by most people throughout the developed world.

(c) There is continuity to a career. One cannot be tending a garden on Monday, filing reports on Tuesday, raising children on Wednesday, etc., and still say he has a career. A general handyman, however good he may be, does not have a career. This sense of continuity through time allows us to distinguish between part-time jobs and one-off projects and long-term work doing the same kind of thing.

(d) The distinction between formal training and other forms of training (e.g., apprenticeships, on-the-job training, etc.) holds in many but not all cases. Typically, one must pass through college and earn a degree in order to be licensed to practice law or medicine or be an accountant. A plumber has not received formal training, and it is not clear that a plumber, despite the fact that he may make a very decent, stable living, is warranted in saying that he ‘has a career.’

(e) Most people with careers work in offices. They do not work in fields or factories or out of their homes (cf. cottage industry).

Even if (a) through (e) are conjointly sufficient conditions for something’s counting as being a career, it’s still not clear how a yoga instructor or a writer can have a first career, not to mention a second one–unless conditions (d) and (e) are not necessary. That could be. Perhaps the thought is that yoga instructors and writers can make decent, respectable livings over time–but then why don’t plumbers and farmers have careers? Ah, it must be that plumbers and farmers are not respectable. Something more seems to be going on here…

Is it possible to have a plan for life?

Attention is the rarest and purest forms of generosity.

–Simone Weil (the quote from Weil was brought to my attention by my friend Carolyn Veith)

This past week, one new conversation partner told me, “I had a plan for my life and I didn’t stick to it. Now I feel awful.” Her assumption is that a meaningful life would have to be one that was realizable in the future and, in the meantime, that the present will require of her immense fortitude, serving as a means for this external end. Her implication in the second sentence is that she lacks the willpower to follow through on her plan for life. She fears she lacks the strength or resolve. I want to show her that something else is at stake.

But wait: here come the experts! Enter first the cognitive therapist who will claim that she must train her will to act more effectively at the same time that she learns to be “more reasonable,” to “lower her expectations.” Habits and expectations, he will say, mind your habits and expectations! Enter here the life coach who will troubleshoot the plan for bugs and micro-manage the means she employed with a view to determining whether some more effective means might instead be implemented. Chew more vigorously, take more bites, but by God plan well you must!

Ahem. Tap, tap. Let’s bring the philosopher on stage and let him have a go. A bit of swagger here, some swagger music please for our longhaired hero. He begins:

All parties at the table assume that the idea of planning for life falls well within the ken of the faculty of volition: to will or not to will; to choose prudently and to avoid obstacles; to be motivated always by the consciously free will;  and to persist, as ever, in willing till the end is fulfilled. In addition, they assume that instrumental reasoning does and must hold sway. This is the form of reasoning according to which the means and ends are analytically separate, the one occurring in the present, the other manifesting itself in the future, the acting and acted upon means serving to bridge the gap between the two. (An example of instrumental reasoning: Tom exercises for the sake of having hypertrophic muscles. An aside: Tom is a dolt. A further aside: Andrew was once Tom. Ergo…)

I doubt all of this very much. My hypothesis is that “having a plan for life” is a conceptual and logical error because, by my lights, it is not possible to have a plan for life, a plan for the future. In place of a “plan for life,” I wish to put a “way of life.”


To see why we can’t possibly have a plan for life, let’s consider some  garden variety cases where we typically talk of planning.

Case 1. “I am planning a meal for my family.” I take it the concept of “planning” involves, at a minimum, arranging certain kinds of food in a certain sort of order. My plan may include making some kind of a salad, bread, pasta, and desert for dinner tonight. Saying that I am “planning” to make this kind of meal seems to me perfectly reasonable.

Case 2. “We are making plans to meet at the movie theater at 7 p.m. on Saturday.” “Planning,” in this case, means something like “agreeing to do whatever is generally necessary to meet each other at this place and this time.” Here, planning could well be synonymous with making a promise. “Planning” also seems to presuppose the qualifier: “under normal conditions.”  Under extraordinary conditions, it would be utter madness for you to meet me at the movie theater when your mother had just been hit by a car. The basis for a good Monty Python skit, though.

Case 3. “It is likely to be cold in the morning but get warmer throughout the day, so I am planning on dressing in layers.” “Planning,” in this case, seems to mean “preparation for foreseeably changing conditions in order to protect oneself from, e.g., being too cold or too warm.” Reasonable enough.

Right. So far, so good.

It would seem, e.g., that wedding planners, event planners, and caterers get paid to make the proper arrangements for an upcoming event. Front office workers, e.g., get paid to schedule appointments. And various forms of “storing up”–savings accounts, CODs, investments, etc.–are “set by” in the event that X should be befall one, where X is something very bad indeed.

And what do all these cases have in common? There are at least three shared features (there may certainly be more):

1. Planning has to be very finite in scale, i.e., in terms of time (Wednesday at noon) and place (this coffee shop near Central Park). Some examples of possible jokes: a wedding planned approximately 31 years from now; we plan to meet on Tuesday around Australia.

2. Planning has to be concerned with what is generally foreseeable or likely. A weather report saying that there is a 70% chance of rain today tips us off to the idea that we would have reason to prepare for rain by wearing a raincoat.

3. The plan must lie within our human capacities. I cannot, even in principle, plan to become a Martian tomorrow or ever. I spent the first 5 years trying to be one, only to spent the next 25 sitting fairly pretty with the idea of being all too human.

Now then: does a concrete plan for life (or a concrete plan for the future) satisfy these 3 features? It does not. A plan for life is indefinite in scale. It falls beyond the range of the foreseeable or likely. (Try planning for Judgment Day. Pack galoshes and kevlar vests.) It lies beyond the scope of our human capacities, as if we could make the indefinite future sit and heel before our all too human wills.

But if a plan for life is a conceptual error, what motivates us to hold onto it?


I am of the view that claiming that a concept such as planning is overextended, misapplied, or misunderstood can be, and often is, a vital spiritual exercise. Conceptual analysis can be vital, to be sure, inasmuch as it may show us in what “native soil” a concept is at home and in what transplanted soil it is bound to die. However, conceptual analysis only goes so far, since it fails to consider what reasons we might have for wanting to create and stand steadfast by plan for life in the first place. Why, in other words, do people hunger for life plans, why are they gripped by them, and why do they pay copious amounts of money to people who promise to make these life plans into a reality? (Damn me. In a former life, I would have been an excellent swindler.)

I can imagine two very basic reasons for holding to the concept of a life plan.

1. We long to lead meaningful lives, but we posit (the German here is good: setzen–to place or put over there) the essential or meaningful out there, over and against the life we lead here. Hegel wrote insightfully of this form of life which he called “unhappy consciousness.” The basic setup is that our inessential lives are separate from the essential (God, the meaningful, plentitude, fulfillment, utopia, the afterlife, the summer home in Maine, the perfect family, and so on). It is also important that the inessential does not partake at all of the essential, and yet, being inessential, it is put in the service of providing access to the essential. The inessential is, as it were, the “slave” of the essential.

In these terms, the puzzle is insolvable, not to mention a source of continual strife. For how can one kind of substance (the inessential) “be put in touch with” another kind of substance (the essential)? That would be bizarre! Hegel’s first proposal is this could happen through work. In his phenomenological investigation, he observes how the one who works strives toward the essential, only to find that the essential continues to fall just outside or well beyond his grasp. This realization may lead the striver to think that it is not the general structure that is at fault but the level or extent or amount of his efforts that is to be blamed. Best to work harder then. No? Nothing? Still no good? Then best to try a different means. No? Nothing? Hmm…

Unhappy consciousness is now frustrated and so thinks it better, after all, to wait for the essential to approach it. He waits, does unhappy consciousness, getting older all the while, yearning for the Messiah to return. He waits for Godot but without signs of his arrival. No? Nothing? Pointless?

The puzzle, once again, is insolvable in these terms, for the essential either recedes as I strive toward it or it does not approach as I wait for it to arrive. Perhaps, the problem lies not with the will but, as I suggested at the outset, with the understanding. Sorry to say, there is no way to win in the terms set by “unhappy consciousness,” no matter how hard we have tried or are willing to try again. We can always fail and fail harder, but this is the way of madness and despair.

 2. The second reason is far scarier, however. We fear that the lives we are currently leading are not actually worth leading. This fear drives us to reason thus: either we continue to lead this form of life and hence fall into despair (the terminus is suicide or, simply, “soul death”), or we make a plan for life and stick, come what may, to it. Yet if it is true that to make a plan for life is to fall into a conceptual error, per point 1 above, then it seems to follow that we must fall into despair. And this is indeed quite scary. What to do now?

We needn’t be tempted by this conclusion since the argument is valid but unsound. The first premise, either A or B, either this way of life or a plan for (another) life, should be rejected. Care to go with me in search of some lovely and loving third option: a way of life, here and now?


Let’s remind ourselves of a simple fallacy. We tend to infer from the claim that way of life P has gone under that (our) life full stop has gone under. The suicide’s claim is that the end of this way of life is the end of life period; thus it is best to kill oneself. Not so.

Our horror stems in large measure from drawing this erroneous inference. The truth is that way of life P’s going under can very well open us up to the idea that way of life P was not that good after all and so there may very well exist a way of life Q that could conceivably fulfill our basic life needs. I know there is.

The temptation, at this point, is to posit way of life Q as being “over there” and then to return to “unhappy consciousness” for another go around. We can learn; let’s learn together. We need to remind ourselves, therefore, that however way of life Q is to be it mustn’t be posited in a space and time beyond the here and now. It follows that way of life Q must be one that we can inhabit, one we can live out in the here and now. Way of life Q must allow for the mundane cases of planning sketched in 1-3, but it mustn’t get caught up in that old saw about planning for the future, giving all for the sake of some impossible future plenitude.

So far, so good. It’s nice to know that way of life Q must be with us and we must be with it. (Reader, are you still with me?)

You have no doubt already picked up on the line of thought I am following. To spell it out further: a plan for life seems to be concerned with invariant arrangements–with having a sense of ‘finishedness’ and possessing that ‘finishedness’ for good and with holding what we have forever–whereas a way of life is focused on a way of being in the world: on our comportment toward the world, on the qualities of our lived experiences, on our generous attentions, on the way in which our life “hangs together” in the long present.

At this point, it will be said the I am urging us to “live (only) in the present.” But this is true only if “living in the present” allows for a specific understanding. It does not mean “maximize pleasure!” nor does it mean “treat each moment as if it were a discrete instant unrelated to past or future.” What, then, does it mean?

It means be a good friend now, where attending to your friend’s needs is both full (all there is) and a culmination of a past inquiry (all our experiences with her friend up to now). When I reply to my friend, I can only attend to her fully, here and now, if I have no desire to be elsewhere than with her for as long as we are together. But attending to her, here and now, is also the “memory” of all the conversations, exchanges, and interactions we have had up to now. She is not an atom posited before me but a flow of overlapping pasts rolling into the now that we two inhabit.

Extend this line of thought to any activity that actualizes entirely our way of being and the result would be that our lives are faring well. Extend it to doing meaningful work, here and now; to having good relationships (friends, neighbors, lovers, children), here and now; to tending a decent home, here and now; to being attuned to nature, here and now; to inhabiting a hospitable world, here and now; and so on.

But how do we ensure that the future is in keeping with this fullness, this fecundity, this experiential plenitude? Easy enough: we keep attending, perceiving, acting, working gently, and attuning every day of our lives. In this way, the future, so to speak, will take care of itself. Besides, we are going to die someday and there is no sense in planning for that.

On the concept of anxiety: A reconsideration

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; 
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

–T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


First a detour through the Dia Trip (good pun fun) for a visual inquiry into tranquility, the opposite of anxiety. In case you missed it, Morning Glory, here’s the story. In the first photo, you can just make out the friendly bees which, as it happens, were just about everywhere.

Exhibit A: Attention to blooming nature.

“Home of the Busybodies”

“Homebuddies,” I replied. “Homebuzzies?”

Exhibit B: Attention to burlap windows.

“Amor Mundi, Burlap Woods: A Still Life”

“Oh Cloudforest, just another day at work,” I thought. “Good old philosophical life.”


My thesis consists of two parts. First of all, I seek to show that the concept of anxiety is obfuscatory. The ‘diagnosis’ or ‘explanation’ it seeks to provide of a certain set of lived experiences lacks sufficient explanatory power. Second of all, I set out a better philosophical approach–one informed by a more poetic understanding–for understanding and examining our lives. Throughout, I imply that talk of anxiety does human beings a grave disservice by ‘treating’ a wide range of wondrous, if trying, life experiences as if they could be subsumed under the category of ‘illness,’ of ‘having a condition,’ and so on.

A precis of the argument. To begin with, I provide a survey and analysis of the concept of anxiety. From this, I seek to offer the most basic definition of anxiety. I conclude that this definition, despite its being ‘the most basic,’ actually covers a disparate set of lived experiences. We’d do well, I suggest, to start our inquiry anew: with simpler words, more vivid experiences, and more particular understandings and local theories; most of all, with good practices.


By my lights, the concept of anxiety has always been fuzzy. Freud seemed to gather this when he sought to distinguish Angst (anxiety) from fear. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which he wrote in 1920, he insists that fear is associated with a determinate object (say, the dog with its bloody bark) whereas anxiety is an expectation of danger from an indeterminate object or a preparation for danger from a source unknown. I am reminded of Harold Pinter’s plays which are said to evoke a general, pervasive sense of menace. To the characters and to the audience, there is something dark and foreboding but what exactly remains offstage, out of sight, sensed but never grasped.

What Freud’s definition appears to capture, indeed builds into itself, is the all-encompassing dimness of the uneasiness. The person said to be anxious does not know exactly where the anxiety comes from but may sense it more in some quarters of his life and less in others, more at some times and less at others.

Still, I can’t make out why indeterminacy isn’t anything other a pre-philosophical stance toward oneself, a stance summoning us to further inquiry whose immediate aim would be to transform indeterminacy into determinacy, dimness and vagueness into clarity and distinctness. And I can’t understand how Freud’s definition could help us distinguish between, e.g., some especially surprising and serendipitous experience from one of menace or anxiety. For if the object is, according to Freud, indeterminate, then how would we determine whether X would likely bring about joy or suffering? Would there not be something about my relation to particular objects, as yet not well understood, or about my relation to the world more generally that may be calling, urging, enjoining me to inquire?

So far, anxiety is (i) fear together with indeterminacy. Now, let’s turn to other candidate definitions:

(ii) The Stoics. Anxiety, they claim, arises from the belief that what we deem valuable will soon perish or what we care most about will never come to pass. (I used this definition in my post on Hurricane Irene. As will become clear shortly, I have come to regret using the term.)

The phenomena this definition “saves,” so to speak, are those like a parent saying that he is anxious about his child (the thought that a valuable entity might perish) or the job candidate who is anxious about getting a good job (the thought that it will never come her way).

The trouble with the definition is that the panic some feel, intuitively a case of anxiety, is neither about losing something valuable or, only tangentially, about the incapacity of gaining something valuable. She may, quite simply, feel existentially alone, the idea of absence near crippling.

(iii) Pop Psychology. “Anxious people,” Lisa Miller writes in New York Magazine, “dwell on potential negative outcomes and assume (irrational and disproportionate) responsibility for fixing the disasters they imagine will occur” (“Listening to Xanax,”  New York Magazine, March 18, 2012).

On this definition, which certainly has a few things going for it, it is impossible to distinguish between a meditation on worst case scenarios, the goal of which is to bring us to a state of tranquility, and the preoccupations with negative outcomes. It could be said that one exercise is undertaken for the sake of reminding us of our powers while the other, the “dwelling on” kind, is done for the sake of returning us, over and over again, to what ails us, and that would be true. However, it begs off the question of what kind of thinking would train us in the former and remove us from the latter. How, simply by observing these two activities, do we distinguish one from the other?

The trouble is that only philosophical training can do the former, teaching us to reason logically, sequentially, and moving us, like following steps on a path, toward clarity and insight. Yet this author, Lisa Miller, chillingly concludes that she would prefer foolishness to genuine truth. She writes in the final line, “Because the truth is, and I’ll speak for myself here, I want tranquillity once in a while. But I don’t want a tranquil life.”

That is horrible. For the pre-philosophical, nothing much can be said or done.

(iv) Diagnostic and Stastistical Manual (DSM-IV). We read,

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about everyday things that is disproportionate to the actual source of worry. This excessive worry often interferes with daily functioning, as individuals suffering GAD typically anticipate disaster, and are overly concerned about everyday matters such as health issues, money, death, family problems, friend problems, relationship problems or work difficulties. Individuals often exhibit a variety of physical symptoms, including fatigue, fidgeting, headaches, nausea, numbness in hands and feet, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, bouts of difficulty breathing, difficulty concentrating, trembling, twitching, irritability, agitation, sweating, restlessness, insomnia, hot flashes, and rashes and inability to fully control the anxiety.

To its credit, DSM does put its finger on the thought that anxiety is concerned with “worry” and that worry is associated with fairly run of the mill, “everyday things.” I take it the reference to “everyday things” is intended to distinguish anxiety from catastrophic fear, fear of really, really bad and large things happening. The problem is that this worry is so spread out over so many different kinds of examples, experiences, and scenarios as to be virtually meaningless. And notice the range of everyday matters DSM mentions–virtually the whole gamut of our lives–plus the exceptional number of ways that anxiety ‘manifests’ itself in ‘physical symptoms.’

Quite apart from the philosophical question of what anxiety is, the great danger here is that most pre-philosophical people living in the developed world could be diagnosed with anxiety.

(There is a rider about the person’s having experienced these symptoms, together with these thoughts, for 6 months or so, but I can’t see that that rider does much good, in terms of our understanding. A life may not go well for a while or for a shorter period of time. The length of time may only indicate that the person has yet to learn how to examine his life.)

(v) Existentialists. Anxiety, Kierkegaard wrote, is the “dizziness of freedom.” But the dizziness of freedom, spinning in the abyss, just is the fear of death. I suppose it could be the crippling or dizzying or paralyzing fear of my death or of those I care ownmost about. In “Kierkegaard, Danish Doctor of Dread” (New York Times, March 17, 2012),”  the academic philosopher Gordon Marino expounds on this Kierkegaardian line of thought concerning the abyss of freedom:

It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless, we can do what we want — jump off the cliff or, in my case, perhaps one day go into the class I teach and, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, say absolutely nothing.

The existentialist conception seems especially fruitful as a way of understanding one kind of anxiety–namely, the idea of panic, the metaphysical sense of utter aloneness–but one is hard-pressed to see how it applies to other, more garden variety experiences such as those mentioned in DSM or by the pop psychologists or Stoics.

In sum, the concept of anxiety appears to apply to the most mundane and the most existentially primitive, the most indeterminate to the most determinate (e.g., money), the most intense (spinning or falling in the void) to the least so (shaking hands before an important presentation).

Before I conclude that we are far better off not thinking of our lives in terms of anxiety, I want to offer a simpler definition that will, I hope, gather together many (or most) of the elements in play in the definitions above.


I propose the following conjunctive definition of anxiety:

Anxiety is (1) the fear of not having (enough) of what is good; and/or (2) the fear of not being (here, around, alive, or entwined with another); and/or (3) the fear of not knowing the general layout of the social or natural world.

Consider (1). The thought is that I may not have enough of what is good speaks to our basic human needs and desires. Let’s call this “lived human anthropology,” where anthropology is concerned with the question, as Kant put it later in his life, “What is Man?” The child who is ‘anxious’ about not having enough of what is good (love, food, etc.) is growing up with a deep sense of this insufficiency, this idea of scarcity.

Consider (2). The thought is that I may be afraid of someone’s not being around: a beloved, myself, etc. Perhaps it could be stated even more simply: it is a fear of absence in a very deep and primitive sense. On this understanding, ‘anxiety’ points to our human vulnerabilities, our carings or lacks. Let’s call this “lived sociality,” following Aristotle’s first principle that human beings are, and cannot otherwise be, social animals.

Consider (3). The thought here is that I am in the midst of epistemic doubt bordering on epistemic nihilism. It seems as though I can’t really know others, that I can’t know the everyday world of experience. Let’s call this “lived epistemology,” on the understanding that I am living with a sense of doubt about my standing and place in the world.

And what do we notice about 1-3? We notice, it seems to me, that they are concerned with different experiences and would therefore invite different kinds of considerations, different sorts of inquiries. But if that’s the case, then what good would this definition of anxiety do when what we’re after is understanding, say, why the idea of insufficiency is on our minds, or what reasons we have for believing that our beloveds might leave us, or what grounds we can give for thinking that others are “opaque” to us.

My provisional conclusion is that this is not one river, so to speak, with three different tributaries, but three different rivers entirely. In which case, we’d do well to follow the river in question toward its logical end.


The assumption in much of the ‘therapeutic understanding’ above, one that I am challenging root and branch, is that our lives should be ‘analyzed’ in parts. For example, the cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT), one of the most common in the US and UK today, presupposes that there is this single bit over here that is amenable to ‘analysis’ on its own.

I admit that conceptual analysis can be useful, when the time comes and our conceptions get hazy, but I submit that our lives must be understood in holistic terms. I remember working with a woman–beautiful, intelligent, brave–who told me, during our second or third conversation, that she was an ‘introvert.’ I smiled to myself (we were talking over the phone). It seemed as if the label ‘introvert’ was helping her explain the kind of person she was, but in reality the label functioned as a way of ending an inquiry about herself. Through a lengthy and stirring Socratic dialogue, we concluded that she was not, after all, an ‘introvert’ but neither was she an ‘extrovert’. She was subtracted, as it were, from these psychological categories, from all of them.

We arrived, together, at the place of not-knowing what or how she was, and from here we have since inquiried further. With time, our conversations have only gotten better, more vibrant, more loving.

There are three important points to make. The first is that we have inherited a set of psychological and psychotherapeutic categories that do not enhance understanding but rather close off further inquiry. “Ah, well, so-and-so just is a narcissist.” Bump. End. Stop. The second is that we have inherited the assumption that we really understand a person when we can provide that person with such a label. To say that I’m feeling very sad seems, at first blush, to say something insufficient. But when I say that I am “clinically depressed” or “moderately depressed,” then I feel as if I’ve gotten to the bottom of something. I think I understand something deep about myself, but I don’t. I’ve simply re-described myself in different terms, once again shutting off further inquiry. And the third is that I think something’s going awry (you see I’m even trying, ever so hard, to avoid the use of the word ‘problem’) should be ‘treated’ in analytical terms, as if it could be ‘cordoned off’ and contained in one small sector of my life. “Really, I think, the problem has to do with family.” Nonsense. Whatever is awry, I’ve learned, is not a this or that, not one thing or another, but a way of being in the world, a whole form of life.

(We want to be like cherry blossoms, beautiful, graceful, and light.)

The last point reminds me of a conversation I had with one dear conversation partner. I was telling her that one could, in principle, learn about the whole of a person’s way of life by inquiring about the most mundane of experiences. If someone says that she is shy or that she is always late, then assuredly, like a thread of a sweater, all this needs is a gentle philosophical pull and the sweater will rather nicely come unraveled.

Lives also unravel. Through practice, the good ones come together, flourish, harmonize. And so begins a philosophical inquiry into the nature and possibility of a radiant life.


In this final section, I want to provide a very short sketch of what a philosophical inquiry might entail. I’m afraid, it’s a very short sketch indeed, but at least it provides an intimation, a glimmer, a vision of what examining our lives together actually involves.

The first thing we’d want to do would be to “bracket” the concept of anxiety (etc.) in order to undertake a phenomenological inquiry into the qualia (the individual feel) of the lived experience. Supposing you couldn’t avail yourself of anxiety (etc.), let’s look further into what this experience is like. Let’s provide thick descriptions, let’s write a poem, let’s get some metaphors and analogies in front of us. How about a picture? An image? An image and an explication? Recently, one intelligent woman said that the experience of ‘anxiety’ was rather like having your thoughts ‘captured’ by a glass cube attached to her forehead, with the glass cube spinning around and around with those thoughts.

The second thing we’d want to do would be to build a “local theory” of what’s going on. We’d want to build a framework that would be unique to this person’s experience but also general enough to be communicable to other philosophical souls, other kindred spirits. A local theory would provide the necessary conceptual scaffolding, showing how this experience hangs together with other experiences, how she sees her life ‘fitting’ into a broader scheme of things.

What needs to be emphasized, though, is that a local theory is not a Procrustean Bed. It is not, that is, some General Theory that I have ready to hand and into which every new conversation partner’s experience must then be jammed. The General Theory approach does a grave disservice to the range, diversity, and irreducible complexity of the human adventure.

The third thing we’d want to do would be to develop good practices. To lead a radiant life is to practice well, over and over again among kindred souls, the way of living well. It is here that philosophical friendships, good neighbors, and caring others provide us with ongoing exercises the imminent end of which is living flourishingly. On this understanding, learning to be tranquil and calm is like learning to see the world, time and again but also for the first time, as if it were a cherry blossom in spring, a window becoming a burlap tapestry. By means of practice, we learn to attend.

Further Reading

Supposing I haven’t exhausted your patience and attention already, I want to add that during the next year or so I’ll be trying to show that many so called ‘psychologistic’ and ‘therapeutic’ understandings and problems are actually failures of philosophical self-understanding. One post where I began to discuss this shortcoming, on CBT, can be read here.

In this endeavor, one of my influences was the science fiction writer Ursula Guin, who, in her short story “She Unnames Them,” invites us to examine what life would be like without certain taxonomies. Though I knew it only inchoately at the time, I had begun this line of inquiry here, which led, like a lovely river, to the post above.

On Pinterest folk

In the Start-up section of the March 11, 2012 issue of The New York Times, I glanced at an article devoted to Pinterest. The headline runs: “Pinterest Aims at the Collector Hidden Inside All of Us.” According to its website, Pinterest is a “virtual pinboard,” a place where you can grab and pin up photos, images, color swatches–hence, a publicly visible scrapbook or commonplace book of sorts. Strikingly, Pinterest was a company that I’d only heard existed the day before, but I was now coming to find that it was, as Jenna Wortham of the NYT was informing me, being touted as one of the hottest start-ups of 2012. Indeed, it was the darling of South by Southwest. If there is an It Girl and an It Drink, then there should also be an It Start-up. The pun alone makes it worth it.

Reader, I am already leading you astray because my focus actually lies elsewhere. My attention was caught not by the conceit of the start-up but by the founder’s remarks about folks. Quoting:

“We showed it to folks from all walks of life, lifestyle bloggers, crafters and hobbyists,” said Ben Silbermann, a founder and the chief executive of Pinterest. “The early people were from the area where I grew up, in Des Moines, and the site grew very organically from there.”

A few paragraphs later, more folksy Ben:

“It’s like, when you go to a friend’s house, you’re always excited to see what’s on their bookshelf,” he said. “Behind Pinterest was the idea that if you can put that online, it’d be really exciting for folks.”

Hey, they’re those folks again!, those folks getting excited about collecting things and being folksy and whatnot. But who are those folks anyway? By this, I don’t mean: what consumers make up Pinterest’s target market, and I don’t have in mind how the start-up will manage to become monetizable or achieve scale. My philosophical question, rather, is: what are folks anyway?


To find out, I took a trip to Palo Alto, California, the rural outpost of Folksyville. When I got there, Ben was dressed in a flannel shirt and a beard. I sat down with him, and we spent the afternoon talking, over our lunch of hearty potatoes, about his growing up in Des Moines and my growing up in rural Wisconsin. We spoke about our fond memories of hay bailing and apple picking. Afterward, as I consulted my notes at the home where I was being hosted, I thought how uncanny it was how much Ben and I had in common.

I kid. I didn’t meet Ben or Mr. Silbermann in Palo Alto, and I don’t know how much flannel he is wearing these days. I write to you from my urban tree house in NYC.

It is true, however, that Pinterest is based in Palo Alto, and it is worth noting that the latter, alongside Austin, Boulder, Portland, Seattle, and Brooklyn, is a start-up hub. I ask: how could there be anything folksy about Palo Alto (or Brooklyn or Seattle)? And what would explain our desire to speak, for those who (I’ll argue) aren’t folks at all, in folksy terms?


When I think of “folk,” a few characteristics come to mind. (I am not sure whether these qualify as necessary or sufficient conditions. I am only thinking aloud.)

1. Folk live in the country, in a rural setting, in a small town.

2. Folk are commoners and laypersons.

3. Folk have kith and kin. A nice quote, from 1833, in the Oxford English Dictionary speaks to this sense of folk: “Your young folks are flourishing, I hope.”

What is especially revealing about the above list is that most of us don’t embody any of these characteristics. To wit,

1. Most people live in the city, in an urban setting, in a metropolis. (Think of Richard Florida’s many references to the “creative class.”) According to the latest statistics, only 1% of the US population today is involved in or associated with farming.

2. We are “elites.” I am reminded of Judith Shklar’s book Ordinary Vices. Her list of modern democratic vices includes cruelty, hypocrisy, betrayal, misanthropy, and snobbery. With regard to the last, her question is, “What is wrong with snobbery?” The wrap is that snobs reject the very idea of mass democracy, reinvoking or holding fast to outmoded aristocratic notions of social distinction, rank, and birth in order to shore up a sense of power. Granted. Yet another sense of “elites” would simply key into the fact that most of us are college-educated and engaged in some professional (not I, said the fox, but most) activities.

3. Most of us no longer have, in the blood sense invoked above, “kith and kin.” We have friends, acquaintances, co-workers. Most of these attachments we “acquired” over time. Few of us have hay bailing neighbors.

It follows that we’re simply not folks. So what gives?


My first inclination is to appeal to Marx’s early notion of ideology as false consciousness. We are calling ourselves “the folks” in order to hide from ourselves the extent to which we are not folks. My second inclination, however and more in keeping with the spirit of Hegel, is to ask what we yen for, what we desire ownmost when we call ourselves folks. What about being folks is appealing to us and what, by implication, is wanting in our social lives?

Not knowing much about the history of folks, I speculate rather freely, as is my wont. I imagine that–again, I’m thumbing through the OED, fairly rapidly at that–words like folk, folksy, folklore, folk-music, folk-song, folk-dance, folk-blues, and folkfest (in the 60s and 70s) were evocative of a time (or of times) of great social unease and of great social cohesion. Some prima facie evidence: Google Ngram Viewer indicates that, from 1900-2008, the word folk was used most frequently in the 1930s. If this is right, then it implies that American citizens living through the Depression would have had reason enough to conceive of themselves as folk: they were indeed countrified, they were quite poor, they were mostly commoners, and they had, and stood by, their kith and kin.

As a pin-up note: we could imagine the hippie movements in the 60s and 70s as drawing on this tradition, though now in an “alchemized” and “spiritualized” form.


Why folk now, why now during the beginning of the second decade of the 21st C.? I think our folk fantasy bespeaks our sense of social alienation and our nostalgic yearnings (from the Greek: a desire for home) for meaningful social bonds. The trouble is that we can’t return to “folk talk,” as if saying made us so, as if social reality were so malleable as to bend to our language and our will. In addition, by invoking “folk,” by engaging in conceptual deformation, we shortcircuit the heady philosophical inquiry into what would be necessary for us to re-imagine forms of togetherness that would be “post-traditional” but just as closely knit. We need “metaphysical compensation” for the social unraveling; we yearn, and rightly so, for this.

Let us try to be candid, honest, and courageous. Let us look social reality in the face. There is no such thing as city folk, and there is no such animal as Pinterest folk. Let’s get over this, get over all this nonsensical folksy talk, so that we can start working toward bringing into reality a more fitting understanding of our shared social experience.

Letter writing as spiritual exercise

Aperitif the First: Yesterday around noon I was running in Central Park. It was unseasonably warm–mid-50s I want to say. I was rounding Lasker Rink and Pool when I caught something out of the corner of my eye and belatedly, unpoetically jumped out of the way. I looked down and began to laugh. It was a snowball.

In New York, there’s always something being thrown at you. Playfully or hostilely.

These amusements recollected in tranquility…  More anecdotal evidence in support of delayed decoding

Aperitif the Second: I had a keen recollection of a Mr. Yuk sticker stuck to the dial-up phone in the foyer of the old house I grew up in. It was faded and, in my memory, much less expressive than the picture that appears below.

The voice in my head would have it that “Mr. Yuk says ‘yuck!'” And then, finger dialing a friend, the child would have felt a qualia of harm and frisson.

Apertif the Last: Erich Auerbach writes, apropos Rabelais and Montaigne, “It is as much a style of life as a literary style.”

Entree: The following is the last section that happened to get cut, for reasons of length restrictions, from the final version of my paper, “Letter Writing as Spiritual Exercise,” Philosophical Practice 6.3 (2011), 856-68. The paper, I’m afraid, is located rather snugly behind a pay wall. If you’d like an offprint copy, you can drop me a note in my Contact form, and I’ll send it to you as a .pdf file. Enjoy.

A Provisional Conclusion: Notes on the Meaning of Spiritual Exercise

When Kate Mehuron, the Managing Editor of Philosophical Practice, sent me the comments from one of the referees, I began to see how much care would be required to uproot these letters from their original context and replant them in fresh intellectual soil. The referee, who was otherwise warm and receptive, asked me to discuss the generic relevance of epistolary exchange to philosophical practice, to disentangle the various threads in our conception of spiritual exercise, and to provide a “clearer, more developed supporting critical apparatus.”

At first, I wasn’t sure what to say or how to proceed. Whereas before there were but two of us who had been making intimate claims discernible in the face-to-face, now there were two heterogeneous contexts and new addresses making an entirely different set and order of demands that, though less pressing, were no less legitimate. Worse, it was not inconceivable that, in revising the paper according to the referee’s reasonable suggestions, I might be meeting the demands of one interlocutor at the expense of another: turning the exchange into a case study or casting the letters in the armature of a worked-out argument might entail losing the texture of the experience or turning my conversation partner into a stage prop. Nor did it seem to me any small matter to seek to define concepts such as “the spiritual” or “spiritual exercise” in hopes of “tying them down” (cf. Plato 1997: 97e-98b) where once they had roamed free. To define these terms—might this already presume that they have an essence, and would it not run the risk of ending an inquiry too soon and in the wrong place, as if theoretical insight were the long sought after desideratum? Then there was the question of self-deception. Contrary to my self-presentation in the letters as someone who professes to be humble, would I not now be purporting, petard-hoisting, to be wise? If the questions persisted in the form of questions, the reason could very well be that Anika and I were trying out answers and that those answers were our lives.

Here, in short, were multiple questions, multiple genres, and heterogeneous responsibilities, all of which demanded some form of higher reconciliation. Not unlike the first-order questions between Anika and me, the second-order questions posed by my new interlocutor would not go away. For weeks, I wasn’t sure that I could even formulate them intelligibly, much less respond to them coherently, and so I set the paper aside and sat painfully with the project, uncompleted and stuck halfway in.

It was not until I returned, as much by accident as by design, to the work of Pierre Hadot that I made any headway in this endeavor. Once I started re-reading his books in the spirit of the lectio divina, it was as if I had found a guide who was addressing his discourse to the very questions I had raised, as if his thoughts were letters written to me with my confusions in mind.

Much of Hadot’s work is devoted to showing how ancient philosophers adopted rigorous spiritual exercises to shape and transform themselves and their pupils with a view to realizing a particular way of life. What, for Hadot, began as a methodological problem concerning the most judicious way of interpreting ancient texts, especially those that had come down to us in the form of fragments and citations, resulted in insights about the close-knit relationship between the genres of philosophical inquiry and the practice of ancient philosophy.

In an interview with Arnold Davidson conducted in what was to be the final decade of his life, Hadot relates that spiritual exercises are “voluntary, personal practices meant to bring about a transformation of the individual, a transformation of the self” (Hadot 2009: 87). The “view from above,” an ascent from my first-person perspective to a cosmic perspective; premedatitio malorum, a meditation on the worse things that can befall me and, from there, an intense concentration on the freshness of the eternal present; epilegein, the daily repetition of a school’s maxims, precepts, and dicta; hypomnemata, personal notes that consist solely of “efficacious thoughts” intended to transform one’s “way of living” (Hadot 1998: 31); examination of conscience, an awareness of one’s moral defects and a commitment to moral progress (Hadot 202: 198-202): among Hellenistic philosophers, these and other forms of inner discourse were meant to strengthen the practitioner’s resolve and to bring him moral uplift.

And theoretical discourses were principally acts. The philosopher’s investigation of metaphysical doctrines or logical operations were always situated in a context, often, Hadot writes, presenting itself “in the form of an answer to a question, in connection with the school’s method of instruction” (Hadot 2009: 88), always also a mode of education—of bringing out the pupil, of leading him forth into the light of reason, of shepherding him from doxa to truth. The words they used, the lines they mumbled, the thoughts they followed all were aimed more at “forming” than at “informing” self and other through friendship, insight, and diligence.

I came back to the problems at hand with a new way of seeing. What, I wondered, are we asking for when we ask for conceptual clarity and intellectual scaffolding? Such requests often come only after we have lost our way in a dialogue or an essay. The request follows a sense of frustration and intends to point us in the right direction, to get us back on track. Maybe we’ve said something such as “I can’t quite follow you,” “I can’t see where we’re going,” or “Honestly, I think we’re stuck.” “What do you mean by ‘mood’?” is meant, for instance, to get us one step further in our inquiry concerning better moods, richer practices, and higher forms of life. It follows that we undertake conceptual analysis in situ not as an end in itself but in order to overcome our sense of unstuckness and to walk along again together.

A first clue to letting go of my disquietude might be to regard the questions of genre and conceptual clarity as being integrally related. I began to see that I could prize apart the genre of the letter from the genre of this note. The latter, which is addressed to fellow philosophical practitioners, to you, is a meditation, a second-order discourse on spiritual exercise, as well as an exhortation, an act whose purpose is recommend a certain form of philosophical practice. It no longer seemed contradictory or presumptuous to propose that the letter exchange was indispensible for bringing some provisional conceptual clarity regarding the ways Anika and I spoke about spiritual exercise nor to think that you, the one I’m addressing here and now, and I might get on better in this conversation once we can see more clearly our way about.

It seems to me, then, that “the spiritual” and “spiritual exercise” can be understood in three different, albeit related senses. For Anika and me, the “spiritual” is first a form of contemplation on what it means to live after Kant in our fragile secular age. As Kant showed in the First Critique, all rational proofs for God’s existence, the immortality of the soul, and the ex nihilo creation of the universe have failed, and yet from these results we have no grounds for concluding that a God can’t exist, that the self can’t perdure in some form or another, or that the universe can’t have a beginning “from without.” As a result, religious and metaphysical questions have persisted well into our time and have been raised with no less force or weight today because they can’t so easily be put to rest.

Spiritual exercise is also and at the same time a practical exercise in reasoning well in our daily lives. In my second letter, for example, I mean to instruct Anika in the movement from worse to better reasoning, from hasty conclusions to care and circumspection (eulabeia). As Ivan Illich would have it, there is beauty as well as justice in our capacity for and the cultivation of second thoughts (Illich 1989). Indeed, even events as insignificant as summer ants or as mundane as missed appointments can be occasions for training ourselves in good ways of thinking, can be invitations to reason well with just generosity.

My recent conversations with David E. Cooper have helped me to see the third sense of spiritual exercise as a “spiritual dispensation” (Cooper 2009: 1). In “Food and Spiritual Reflection: The Daoist Example,” he writes that the “discipline of eating” once consisted not just of food prohibitions, rituals, customs, and taboos but of a certain manner or ethos of partaking of food (Ibid: 1). It is also the manner that matters in the Japanese tea ceremony which, in the seventeenth century, “offered the only opportunity possible for the free communion of artistic spirits” (Okakura 2001: 44). The “spiritual dispensation” captures the graceful or careful or delicate way of drinking water, of putting food in our mouths, of sharing our only bowls with our guests and neighbors.

But why letters? There are a number of reasons, not the least being that they are rooted in lived experience and responsive to life needs. One does not choose to write them; one feels called to do so as if by necessity and in order to speak honestly. Then, too, in the space opened up by letter exchange, Anika and I are acting in the spirit of conviviality. The mood created by the genre, the style revealed in the tête-à-tête is intimate, meditative, lyrical, and ludic. Most important, letters are dated and provisional, suggesting that our lives are incomplete yet, for all that, not imperfect: incomplete since there is more living to be done, more conversing to be had, yet not imperfect since, through our investigations, we have arrived at some conclusions about ourselves and each other. We affix dates to letters, reminding ourselves of our time together but also of absence, transience, death.

Ultimately, I think the transplanted letters have been alchemized, as it were, into an exhortation. As such, they entreat you to be as experimental as possible in your philosophical practice, to be willing to try out what works and to let go of what doesn’t. They invite you to treat a particular topic—be it work life or family life, trust or selfhood, God or nature—not as an end in itself but as that which is intelligible only within the larger context of an overall way of life. They enjoin you to think seriously about all aspects of your philosophical practice—everything from the mundane to the divine, from the practical to the theoretical, from the food we eat to the loves we affirm. And they encourage you to think of humor as a shared experience that, at its best, can serve to draw us closer together.

One final note about spiritual exercise. As I write this, I am told that my computer may go at any moment. I am told that the video card on this model, which is now almost four years old, is and has always been defective. My computer could last for years, or it could stop working while I am in mid-sentence. Death kindly stopping by. In the morning, I found this unsettling; by evening, it seemed enlightening.

A.T., October 2011

Dessert: “In Rome, for the first time in my life,” writes Robert Hughes, “I felt surrounded by speaking water.”