Cultivating Discipline Lightly: A Weeklong Course at Kaos Pilots

‘Cultivating Discipline Lightly’ is a weeklong course running during the second week of September 2013 at Kaos Pilots in Aarhus, Denmark. This course offering grew out of the need for Kaos Pilots students, who will be on their own during their final year as they work on their social business project, to learn how to respond well in the face of great uncertainty. Last year, Pete Sims asked me to come in and put on a workshop on the art of philosophical inquiry entitled ‘Confusion and Clarity: The Art of Inquiry in the Context of Social Enterprise.’ Learning to inquire proved helpful and necessary but not sufficient. What was wanting still was the cultivation of a kind of discipline–one requiring good guidance, one invoking the right set of virtues, yet one also honoring the lightness and humor of things–that would see them through the unsettledness. Hence this course: cultivating discipline lightly.

What follows is a layout of the guide I’m writing for Kaos Pilots students. Enjoy.


Rip Van Winkle: A Parable

Story: Rip Van Winkle falls asleep in one world and wakes up in another. What now? What does this mean for us?

Chapter 1. Raising and Lowering Our Eyes

Argument: I discuss the concept of authority, the structure of authority, types of authority, and–most importantly–our present need for legitimate authority.

Chapter 2. Acknowledging Our Unsettled Time

Argument: I ground my account of unsettled time on three related theses:

i. All claims to legitimate authority appear suspect in our eyes and have failed to gain our approval. ‘Who is to lead whom and by what right?’ seems impossible to answer wholeheartedly. (Halfhearted answers there are aplenty.)

ii. Skepticism has saturated our daily lives to such an extent that our words have become seeded with doubt and our attitude toward others has become starched and blanched with distrust, uncertainty, and reticence.

iii. Despite the crisis of authority and the near universality of our skepticism, we as socially dependent beings who need to act in concert with one another, to figure out what is unknown about ourselves, and to find a way to reach mutual understanding.

Chapter 3. Building a Sturdy Trellis

Argument: I draw from the work of St. Benedict to provide a beautiful vision of a different kind of organizational life. A trellis is the metaphor for the framework upon which an individual can grow by means of philosophical friends and a philosophical guide. A trellis, accordingly, is an answer to the question of good authority.

Chapter 4. Learning to Inquire

Argument:  How does one grow in and through good guidance? Inquiring, I argue, is the kind of activity that takes place between guide and conversation partner. Specifically, philosophical inquiry is an ‘unrehearsed genre whose chief aims are to reveal to us what we do not know but thought we did and to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined’ (definition from The Art of Inquiry). It is rather like saying, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find out.’ Inquiring begins in some state of confusion (bewilderment, puzzlement, or bafflement); proceeds in a state of mind that is wholly dispassionate; requires the virtues of courage, patience, openness, and humility; and ends in a state of clarity (illumination, laughter, lightness).

Chapter 5. Becoming Lighthearted

Argument: The best form of education is one that cultivates one’s character. My philosophical guide Pierre Hadot suggests that character is cultivated by means of ongoing spiritual exercises (ascesis). What sorts of exercises, apart from and together with inquiring, will allow one to become lighthearted in the face of unsettledness?  In this chapter, I explore a handful of spiritual exercises whose purpose is to bring about the kind of character that is properly, energetically, and lightly responsive to ordinary surprises. It’s only an apparent paradox to say that inquiring teaches us to be prepared for responding well–lightheartedly rather than stoically or resiliently–to we know not what.

Appendix: Getting the Hang of Being Surprised

Argument: In Part 1, I discuss the importance of being surprised, arguing that philosophical inquiring presents us with two kinds of surprises: perplexities and illuminations. In Part 2, I discuss the cultivation of lightness in the presence of surprise. In the final part, I explore the difference between other states of mind and an inquiring state of mind.

‘I don’t know… Let’s find out.’

Earlier this week, one conversation partner asked me to give him a better account of the art of inquiry. I replied that a certain genre of discourse would arise and would be suitable for a certain age. Panegyric and encomia would arise during, and be suitable for, a heroic age, since the poet’s job would be to praise the victor. During an age of victimization, in which many are given to accusations of having ‘been offended,’ one might expect to find the apology as the dominant genre of discourse.  I argue that the art of inquiry springs forth during, and is especially fit for, unsettled time.

But why is this genre, rather than some other, ‘no longer a luxury’? In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein shows that there is a ‘multiplicity of language-games,’ a diversity of ways in which words and sentences can be put, so that one would like to have a reason for believing that inquiry is the most proper genre for our time. In paragraph 23, Wittgenstein writes,

But how many kinds of sentence are there? [His interlocutor replies:] Say assertion, question, and command?— [Wittgenstein:] There are countless kinds:

Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:

Giving orders, and obeying them—

Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements–

Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)—

Reporting an event—

Speculating about an event—

Continue reading “‘I don’t know… Let’s find out.’”

How the art of philosophical inquiry leads to self-knowledge: A schema

A philosophical inquiry aims at a desideratum. That desideratum is announced or implied in the statement: ‘This is it!’ The ‘this is it’ is the conclusion of the inquiry and the end of the philosophical conversation.

The diagram below seeks to shed some light on this moment of self-knowledge. What distinguishes self-knowledge from other modes of investigation (e.g., scientific investigations) is that it seems to require a dialogic structure. What distinguishes self-knowledge from other intersubjective genres (sharing, chit chat, active listening, validation, etc.) is that it involves inquiring into we know not what in the hope of making some discovery that had hitherto been unknown to both guide and pupil.


Continue reading “How the art of philosophical inquiry leads to self-knowledge: A schema”

The magical coat room

You hand the man your ticket but either the ticket, which looks pretty ratty, coincides with some other performance, or else its matching partner to this performance is nowhere to be found. Either way, your coat is gone and the coat check man has no recollection of having seen the coat you describe. Try as you might, he shakes his head. You resign yourself to its absence.

Still, you’re perturbed by this recent turn of events. You reckon you could leave without a coat, but you realize that it’s very cold outside, one of the coldest days on record. For an instant, you imagine yourself living the rest of your life in the coat room–this place where others come and go, drop off and return for their wearables. You then imagine tricking yourself into believing that your coat never existed. Or perhaps you steal another’s and are better off (or worse off) in the bargain. Or, no, you’ll dash off into the winter night and, since you’re hardier than the common lot, beat the cold at its own game.

Continue reading “The magical coat room”

Finding your lost coat, finding a better life

Here’s a thought experiment for you: suppose you gave your coat to the man working at coat check and the man gave you a ticket. Upon returning from the performance, you go to hand the worker your ticket, only to realize that it is nowhere to be found. The man asks you to describe the coat. It is long and black, you say. He looks around at all the long and black coats hanging up. What kind of fabric? You tell him. What designer? You tell him. Size? You tell him. Still no such luck. You begin pointing him in the general direction where you believe he may have hung it. He looks.

Continue reading “Finding your lost coat, finding a better life”