Rehearsing a line of thought

Rehearsing a line of thought has its place in philosophical life. Saying this seems, however, to present us with a puzzle. If a philosophical inquiry is “an unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined,” then how could rehearsing a line of thought play any part  in a philosophical conversation?

Let us rehearse a line of thought, paying close attention to what we already know.

1. A necessary (but not a sufficient) condition of a philosophical life is that it consist of philosophical conversations.

2. A philosophical conversation consists of at least one philosophical inquiry. (Definition from The Guidebook for Philosophical Life)

Attend to the second thesis, since it leaves room in any philosophical conversation for other genres to come forth. In this meditation, the genre under consideration I am calling ‘rehearsing a line of thought’ or sometimes simply ‘rehearsing.’

I can think of two reasons why rehearsing a line of thought might be valuable. The first reason is that my conversation partner and I may need to establish what it is we already know. Knowing what we already know opens us up to the possibility of inquiring into what we do not already know but are looking for. Knowing what we already know thereby draws forth the virtue of openness (without which we would not be able to inquire into what we do not know) at the same time that it allows us to perceive that something specific and significant is missing. What is missing is precisely what we do not know but have some inkling of. Hence, the purpose of ‘rehearsing a line of thought’ is to call us back to what we know in order for us to to inquire properly about what it is that bewilders us.

The second reason rehearsing a line of thought might be of benefit to us (provided, of course, it occurs at the right time and in the right way) is that it reminds us of the conclusions we have reached in some prior inquiry, conclusions that we must ensure are ‘tied down’ before we can hope to go any further. The rehearsal is a memory device (rather like a chant or song or meditation) as well as a call to resolve, to gentle vigilance. (I have been told that some conversation partners reread old blog posts perhaps for this very reason.)

Speaking of rehearsing, I have been rereading Hadot’s book on Plotinus. Hadot writes, “Knowledge, for Plotinus, is always experience, or rather it is an inner metamorphosis. What matters is not that we know rationally that there are two levels of divine reality [Hadot is referring to the Intellect and the One in Plotinus], but that we internally raise ourselves up to these levels, and feel them within us as two different tones of spiritual life.”

From argument above, we can conclude that rehearsing a line of thought does not tell us something new about ourselves (as inquiry seeks to do) but rather deepens our experience of the ‘different tones’ of self-understanding.

The relationship between direct speech and philosophical inquiry

Direct Speech and Philosophical Inquiry

I believe we creatures of habit, we too-clever beings have learned all forms of indirect speech. To overcome indirectness, I have sought to teach direct speech. Indeed, I have insisted that a philosophical conversation cannot begun unless the philosophical guide and the conversation partner engage exclusively in direct speech.

In my manual The Art of Inquiry, I write that

[philosophical] inquiry matters because it teaches us direct speech. Most of our lives have been spent partaking in indirect speech. We have become well-versed in grandiloquence, circumlocution, subterfuge, deception, evasion, omission, ellipses, hyperbole, self-deception, avoidance, insincerity, flattery, cunning, politeness, complaints, offenses… Direct speech partakes of none of these locutions. In direct speech, I say what is the case; I speak in good faith; I care for truth.

Inquiry, as a carrier of direct speech, teaches us directness, simplicity, parsimoniousness (love of the fewest words necessary), and awareness. We speak to, not around; we speak with, not over; we speak about, not away from. As inquirers, we have nothing to hide, so we speak plainly to and with each other.

I think this passage is good, but the nature and importance of direct speech could be clarified even further. I try to do this below.

What Direct Speech is

Direct speech is the thought-act of (1) saying what you mean or (2)  figuring out what you mean when you say, and seem to believe, something. Saying what you mean provides us with key ‘resting points’–possible points of departure, good pauses, profound and unforeseen conclusions–whereas saying something whose meaning is unclear to us gives us reason and motivation to inquire further about what it is you mean, whether what you say is accurate, whether saying this matters even if it is true. The second speech act is the nub or gnawing of ‘hunger,’ is already ‘turning into’ a question to which you are ‘alive’ or about which you are ‘fraught.’ Things, at this point, are beginning to get serious and significant such that we might learn something about ourselves, something that we could not have foreseen, imagined, grasped or conceived of at the outset.

What Direct Speech is Not

Direct speech does not consist of (1) jargon. Large, rare, foreign, or lesser known words or phrases seem to be, more often than not, ways of muddying the waters. Without jargon, one is more apt to speak straight to something in hope of getting a clearer view of oneself.

Direct speech involves no (2) stratagems. (Perhaps psychoanalysis is the genre and hermeneutic of indirect speech.) Hence, one does not resort to speaking around something, to evasions, to misleading jokes, to asking how the guide is doing, to changing the subject, etc.

Lastly, a speech act is not direct if the utterance is said with the intention of exhibiting (3) vanity (focus on the narrowed self), expressing flattery (focus on the narrowed other), or saving face (focused on not being ashamed of oneself).

Direct Speech as Risk-Taking

As a result of clearing away the jargon, the stratagems, and the vices of vanity, flattery, and face-saving, we can enter into the genre of direct speech. And direct speech makes it possible to impartially follow a line of thought to the very end. Of course, there is no guarantee that this will be the case, that getting to the very end will yield greater self-awareness or self-understanding. But, in following a line of thought to the end, both guide and conversation partner involve themselves in danger, commit themselves to taking a risk without the possibility of reward.

While writing this short meditation, I have been struck, just now, by what I think I may be trying to do. Perhaps all of this, I now think, was simply another attempt to understand more clearly and fully what would allow for a philosophical inquiry to spring forth. For unless what I have said above is true, we cannot possibly have an inquiry, cannot get around to ever having an inquiry–cannot partake in and learn from that

unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.

A beautiful soul in a beautiful world: Toward a better understanding of sustainability

On my run yesterday, I dreamed up the title of the informal talk I’ll be giving at the Future Perfect Festival to be held in Stockholm at the end of August. It is: “A Beautiful Soul in the Beautiful World: Toward a Better Understanding of Sustainability.”

It may seem a non-starter for a festival on sustainability, one attended by urban designers, architects, business leaders, and economists, to insist that beauty be the point of departure for a discussion of sustainability, but so be it. So be it.

How might this talk go? To begin with, I may be examining whether speaking about sustainability in terms of measurable quantities–natural resources to be depleted or maintained–or in terms of the ‘health’ of the planet–a healthy ecosystem, a ‘sick’ planet–is leading us astray. In addition, I may be wondering whether the concepts of an ‘issue’ (to be addressed), an ‘agenda’ (items to be put on and then checked off), a ‘problem’ (to be solved or fixed) are the right concepts for a sustainable collective way of life. I doubt whether these general conceptual frameworks are the right ones and I will be urging that beauty is a better one.

Here I turn to my hobby horse: the virtues. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, in After Virtue, that we moderns are living “after the virtues.” He means “after the loss of the Aristotelian virtues.” This seems right yet partial. I think I want to argue that each epoch valorizes a particular set of virtues. The Homeric warrior ethic valorized manly virtue and a life of glory. The Christian medieval ethic held that the good life was lived according to humility, chastity, and fidelity. An aristocratic ethic, evident still in a novel like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, exonerated nobility, honor, and gentility. And so on.

It seems reasonable to claim that the modern world upholds the virtues of the market: prudence, resolution, industry, discipline, among others. Now, if we are indeed inculcated in the virtues of the market, then perhaps our conceptions of sustainability (scarce resources on the one hand, health or sickness on the other) are already ‘infected’ by our admiration of these virtues. Perhaps this is right.

So I want to say that all this–the whole thing, I mean–is a non-starter for talking about sustainability. And I want to return us to a far simpler understanding in which we seek to live according to nature. “Living according to nature” was a formula that Epicureans, Daoists, Stoics, Cynics, and others all subscribed to.

Well, and now I want to introduce the beautiful soul as a being who lives according to nature. Specifically, a beautiful soul is a person who has achieved a harmony of the salient virtues. This definition needs to be analyzed.

First, I’ll be exploring what these salient virtues are. They may include openness, compassion, courage, patience, humility, and impartiality. (I’m not sure, as of yet, about the precise list of the salient virtues.)

Second, I’ll want to say something about what it means to exercise these salient virtues, as opposed, say, to the Homeric virtues or market virtues or whatever. What kind of life is this anyway? I’ll try to make this way of being perspicuous.

Third, I’ll want to show that a beautiful soul has achieved a harmony of these virtues and I suppose I owe the listener a few words about the concept of harmony.

I’m hoping that what will ‘fall out’ of this account of the beautiful soul is a novel conception of sustainability. Am I warranted in concluding that a beautiful soul just is someone who lives a sustainable life as a matter of course? I don’t know.

Enough first musings for now.