A picture of a philosophical way of life followed by a medium-length rant

An anecdote: Yesterday, while strolling through the grocery store, I heard a young mother say the following to her young son: “Honey, you just have to be happy with the music they play for you. Bon Jovi’s OK.”

Human Anthropology

1. Human beings are thoroughgoing social animals. I.e., social life is ‘metaphysically prior’ to the life of any individual. (Pace the picture of liberal society where individual is ‘metaphysically prior’ to social life. Recall Margaret Thatcher: “Society does not exist.”)

2. No human being can meet all its basic needs and wants. (NB: If social life “fails” us, then we are on the way to social tragedy.)

3. Human beings are  mutually dependent on each other in order to persist and flourish.

Sociality and Human Development

4. Simplifying to the extreme, social life is comprised–to be sure, of many groups, organizations, etc.–above all of institutions.

5. Good social institutions supply individuals with livable, inhabitable, suitable social roles. E.g., a good father, whatever his particular shape or form, etc., sees to the care, nurturance, and overall philosophical education of the young. E.g., a good host sees to her guests. Etc. (Cf. Ibsen’s middle tragedies like Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, Enemy of the People, and Doll’s House: all social tragedies in which individuals have come “unstuck” from their social roles. There, society is to blame.)

6. Institutions are the “trellises” upon and through which individuals, like vines, can grow, develop, and flourish. I.e., institutions help nurture and guide growth in particular, flourishing-promising directions.

7. Trellises are such, let’s say, as to only permit of certain kinds of growth (hence, not every logical possibility will be actualizable). Human growth, guided by trellises, will fall into a vague “range” of good or good enough answers to what it means to lead a good life.

Final Ends

8. Good institutions also and at the same time supply good final ends. E.g., the final end of the market is to contribute to general welfare, i.e., meeting the basic material needs and basic desires of all.

9. Human beings, qua social animals, engage in practices that are embedded in social institutions.

10. Good practices–which is to say, ongoing activities–are undertaken for the sake of the final ends supplied by good institutions. (An image: that of a dancer, perpetually in graceful motion.)

11. Final ends must, in the final analysis, be “answerable to” some objective dimension beyond the institutions themselves. The old answer, which was also very short, was: God. But this no longer. The new answers I propose: a sense of mystery or blessedness as well as a sense of wholeness (integritas), both of which are discernible in or can be “read off from” radiant lives.

12. Practices consist of virtues (arete) such as courage, judgment, and patience, all of which are actualized through particular spiritual exercises (ascesis). E.g., writing this blog–much to your surprise!–is, for me, a morning exercise in good, whole person thinking-living. E.g., good humor is ascesis, the lightening of human frailty. E.g., manners are “codified” ascesis.

13. Good institutions, conjointly, are aimed at the common good. E.g., family, market, and state all aim at the common good, the life we hold in common.

Yearnings for Reconciliation

14. Each individual must ‘see’ how he/she fits into this picture. (Cf. educare: the lifelong education of the soul)

15. This picture must be made to ‘fit’ each individual. I.e., the unfolding of the philosophical story in a commodious, welcoming way. (Philosophy, as it were, as invitation)

A Medium-Length Rant

In his NYT Stone blog “Philosophy–What’s the Use?” (January 25, 2012), Gary Gutting writes about the “uses” to which professional philosophy can be put.

As ever, what’s unpalatable to me is that someone as intelligent as Gutting can go on to defend philosophy by saying a few choice words about what professional philosophers do and about why that ought to matter to non-philosophers. He’ll then go on to show that logic is important (because we want our basic beliefs to be coherent) and conceptual analysis is important (because we want to use concepts properly).

Points well taken: it would be good if more Americans held coherent beliefs and grasped the contours of the most fundamental concepts (e.g., happiness) they use.  However, both points are also woefully inadequate.

The trouble, first off, is that few laypersons will care much about the inapt and too facile distinction between professional philosophers and non-philosophers. It smacks of pedantry. Indeed, Gutting seems to be missing a very broad range of middle categories: everything from the “philosophically minded” to “philosophical practitioners.” That’s terra cognita, the vast savanna of lived experience, for sure.

Second, he fails to show how there is any genuine ‘vitalist concern’ connected with one’s facility with logic and conceptual analysis. To be sure, there’s a world of difference between giving one’s rational assent to the conclusion of a knockdown argument (ho-hum) and giving one’s (for lack of a better word) whole person assent to the letting go of beliefs that one had hitherto lived by. The first is nothing much, nothing apart from an academic exercise, truly; the second is exceptionally, stunningly, palpably, enormously painful and moving and wondrous. Grrr.

The whole enterprise–the defense of a few feet of professional philosophical astroturf juxtaposed with the stony silence over a very broad, but unremarked upon swath of human experience to which philosophy ought to be answerable–is maddening. Straight up, out and out maddening. Grrr once more.

On murmuring, alienation, and institutional failures

The philosopher David E. Cooper’s massive doorstop, World Religions: A Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), does have a leitmotiv. It is the “problem of ‘alienation’ or ‘estrangement.'”

By these terms, they [Hegel and Marx] meant the sense which many human beings–all of them, perhaps, at times–have of being ‘strangers’, of not being ‘at home’, in the world. Reading philosophers from all times and climes, I am struck by the accuracy of this perception of the central inspiration behind philosophical speculation, by the constant recurrences–from the earliest Indian thinkers recorded to twentieth-century existentialists–of the theme of alienation. We can ask of our primitive ancestors, ‘Staring at the sun, the sky, were they aware of their own being, and if so, what did they think?’, but without much hope of an answer. We might, though with rather more confidence, guess that when people did become ‘aware of their own being’, they became conscious, at the same time, of its strangeness, of respects in which, for all their affinity with the animal and wider natural world, they were also set apart from it. For with self-awareness, there would also have come the emergent appreciation of being a creature that can reason and deliberate, make free choices, enjoy beauty and feel resentment, care about the past and the long-term future, string meaningful noises together, depict the world of nature in coloured powders or movements of the limbs, and perhaps receive intimations of a purpose lying beyond the world: an appreciation, in short, of the many ways in which a human being belongs, or seems to belong, to a unique order of life. (5)

You, dear reader, have been patient, having listened to me speak aloud for over a week about St. Benedict’s concerns with murmuring. The reason that an individual murmurs, we can now see, is that he is alienated or estranged from that institution to which she belongs and not in spirit alone.

For a time, the murmurer will perform like a zombie, going through the motions after having lost her faith. There are only 3 possible explanations for her zombie-like state: 1) she has been poorly educated; thus, the task of re-educating her with the view of overcoming her sense of alienation; 2) her superior has been mistreating her, so the superior must be dealt with in some reasonable fashion; or 3) “something is rotten in Denmark,” the result of which is that the institution must be reformed or pulled down.

Today I have my eye on the third case, the case in which something is, as a matter of fact, rotten in Denmark. More often than not, the murmurer becomes so alienated from the institution that he must leave it behind. On occasion, however, his murmuring rings loud enough to bring down the house.

The Failures of an Institution: A Synoptic View

In rough and ready terms, institutions can be alienating accordingly.

1. They can be either ‘too sticky’ or ‘too runny.’ Earlier this summer, I summarized Francis Fukuyama’s observations about the problem of “stickiness.” At that time, I wrote,

Institutions are conservative with respect to change. They are “sticky,” writes Fukuyama: i.e., risk-averse, change-resistant.

Changing external conditions can cause unadaptive institutions to decay or collapse. “[T]he fact that societies are so enormously conservative with regard to institutions means that when the original conditions leading to the creation or adoption of an institution change, the institution fails to adjust quickly to meet the new circumstances. The disjunction in rates of change between institutions and the external environment then accounts for political decay or deinstitutionalization.” (452)

Too-sticky institutions cannot meet head-on the challenges posed by changing social, economic, and material conditions. Conversatism with respect to change, which in the past had been an abiding virtue inasmuch as it had secured the institution’s vital link with the past, with its traditions and customs, can also be the cause of its downfall in the present. If the world is changing for the better and the institution can’t keep up with emerging life needs, then it is bound to fall apart.

On the other hand, an institution may be “too runny” in the sense that it lacks the “social glue” or “integrity” to maintain the institution as an institution. For any number of reasons (not least being insufficient funds), the entity may be here today, gone tomorrow. Perhaps we could dub the “runny” case the Tale of the Towheaded Start-up!

2. They can lack intrinsically worthwhile final ends.  Business terms such as  “mission statement” or “company vision” may not be suitable substitutes for teloi if only because they may neglect the question of whether the final end is of independent weight and importance. Poor final ends may be any number of things ranging from evil to trivial, from deceptive to deleterious. Given time and further reflection, the murmurer can account for his alienation. “I can’t see that what I’m doing makes any contribution to the common good. The reason is that this institution’s actions do not aim at satisfying basic human needs or higher desires. So far as I can tell, there is no way in which we can go on like this. I must leave, or the institution must change.”

3. They can fail to support good social practices. Good institutions are seed beds for good social practices. The institution of marriage is the soil in which particular marriages can grow and flourish. An institution such as marriage may have a fine and beautiful final end–call it love–and yet, in its current instantiation, it may neither permit nor encourage all the activities we associate with being a good couple, all the planting, observing, cultivating, and harvesting, all the practices that are necessary for the possibility of this marriage being a good marriage.

On first acquaintance, the conclusion may be puzzling: it is not the case that this marriage is rotten, but it is the case that the institution of marriage can lack the right spirit.

Summary of the Series

Day 1: “Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of disaffection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.