‘I Know the Most Beauty There is…’

Love of another human being adds density, real heft, gristle, girth, to a human life, i.e., mine.

A life without love is only “rather nice.” A few pennies in a drawer, a thought before bed about washing.

The worst fate is not that of a loveless life, but it is the least beautiful and therefore the least lively. A loving life riptidescrackles, and we feel that even if we cannot say it.

Lovelessness fosters habits that fill up a life-cupboard: teatime twice a day, eagerness for the mailman, unstated satisfaction in hearing your knuckle pop.

I have been waiting for you and you have not arrived. This is what lovelessness feels like. Waiting for you, abiding, biding, refreshing a bookmarked webpage. Not deadening, deadness, just that sedentariness, that being at rest, you know it, an unused guest room that was once a playroom.

Grand Causes are no substitutes for love. Nor drugs or successes. Nor the piquancy of fame. Compared to love, these are mere whispers in the ever unbounded.

I know the most beauty there is. The fact that you are alive and you told a joke. Within earshot. Next time I’ll laugh. Doesn’t matter. I promise. Doesn’t matter.

Unstucking ‘stuckness’ (1)

Near the end of our conversation yesterday, John Thackara, co-founder of Doors of Perception, used the word “stuck.” So had a man in Switzerland, students at Kaos Pilots, a woman in Berkeley… For nearly two years, “being stuck” or “feeling stuck” may be the phrase I hear most often to describe an individual’s or an organization’s predicament. Arguably, the noun form “stuckness,” rather than “lostness” or “disorientation,” is the right word for capturing our general malaise. Indeed, once a neologism (around the late 1960s and early 70s), “stuckness” is now a readily accepted noun, a noun the man on the street would recognize and use himself.

We might inquire why stuckness (a word, interestingly, that my Mac still flags as being unacceptable by drawing a dotted red line beneath it) has become the modern condition. To be stuck, by my lights, involves

1. being unable to go forward toward a future state of being;

2. being unable to go backward, to return to a prior state of being;

3. having the desire to move one way or another;

4. wanting to will something to happen but recognizing, if only dimly, that one’s will is inconsequential;

5. hence, repeating the same gestures or remaining paralyzed while becoming half or fully aware of this repetition or this state of paralysis.

It is said–and John said as much yesterday–that we know that our current way of life is unworkable, but it is also said that we have no idea how to live otherwise. My thesis will be that our “being stuck” is a consequence of our failure of imagination and of understanding, not that of a failure of volition. Now more than ever, to understand (in a speculative sense) is paramount; to will is mere obfuscation. Tomorrow, I wish to show that the aim of philosophical inquiry is–to coin a word–to “unstuck” us.

Whither moral education?


“In “Whither Moral Education?,” (World and I, November 2011), I argue that American education has for far too long set aside the questions of the good and the meaningful–or, what is the same thing, the moral and intellectual virtues. First I attempt to identify what factors gave rise to this phenomenon and then in the final pages to explore how the situation might be improved. The essay ultimately seeks to provide a good justification for the role of the humanities in the “spiritual” lives of Americans and this at a time when the humanities seem to have lost their way.

Opening Paragraph

Even the most cursory glance at the first-person columns published regularly at The Chronicle of Higher Education –those sentimental epistolary novels about the ups and downs and ins and outs of academics working in higher education–will make plain how very little erudition teaches one about the art of living.

During the month of November, the essay will be available to non-subscribers on the World and I website.

Back Story

I can remember writing this piece in March or April of 2009. I had deposited the dissertation in January and the economy, NPR said, was then in free fall. And while I was not in free fall, I was not doing so well. I had finished the Ph.D., had rent to pay for 6 months, had no financial support and no “life skills” transferable to the business world, had scrawled my first general interest essay in January for God knows what reason, was becoming more and more alienated from academic life, and wasn’t sure–I think I was 30 then, yes, 30 and a few months–what to do with my life, let alone what to do with the morrow. Or the morrow after the morrow.

How could I be sure that I wasn’t wasting my life?

Oh, I could relate tales of Craigslist woes, of schlepping, of drudging and mucking and fledging. I could speak of a quiet despair. I could write of the iciness of that Madison winter or of the woman who, at the bus stop, told me about her cancer. But I won’t.

Clipped and abridged as this back story is, it nonetheless reveals something already seeded in the essay, something about the education that I’d never gotten, that others in the academy were not getting, and that we must long for just as we long for love and virtue and wisdom. The last sentence of the essay, I now see, led me to where I am today, though it was far from where I’d imagined I’d end up. For this, I’m grateful.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Philosophical Biography”

Todd May on the meaningfulness of lives

In his New York Times The Stone blog “On the Meaningfulness of Lives,” Todd May seeks to rescue the concept of meaning from Sartre’s pronouncement that in a godless universe the concept is unintelligible. A worthy endeavor.

Here’s how the argument goes.

1. Distinctions. Meaningfulness is not morality (good or bad, good or evil). Meaningfulness is not happiness (feeling good).

2. Valuations. Meaning is something that is valued (objective) and something that I value (subjective).

3. Narrative Condition. A meaningful life is one that follows a narrative trajectory. It is a life “intensely” lived.

The first two claims are unobjectionable; the third is where things start to get dicey–and fast.

The Problem of Subjectivism: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

It is at this point that theologians have traditionally appealed to God, the transcendent, an objective dimension because they worry that “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” In other words, they see that they must provide an alternative is subjectivism.

Subjectivism means that I do not have access to anything outside the circle of consciousness (call it epistemic subjectivism), or it means that I have no access to value outside that to which I ascribe to objects (call it valuational subjectivism). The trouble with subjectivism, epistemic, valuational, or otherwise, is that it cannot avoid the charge of arbitrariness. I may lead this life because I value it, but should I value it? Do I have good reasons for valuing it? Just because it “feels good” or “seems attractive” or “suits me” will not remove the objection that I have no standard by which to determine whether or not I should be leading this life (as opposed to some other). Hence, I cannot be reasonably certain that I am making much of my life.

And how does Todd May respond to the problem of subjectivism? Well, not so good so far. Suppose, as May thinks, that my life actually does follow a narrative trajectory. How might this, on its own, solve the problem? Nick voices the objection quite well:

You need to say how “narrative values” map on to or allow us to access objective values. Switching to talk of “intensity” totally muddles the issue. If this is the best we can make of an objectively meaningful life, then I think we have no choice but to fall back on some kind of subjectivism. Hand-waving at “intense” “narrative” values does nothing to solve the problem of what objective limits we can reasonably place on a person’s subjectively meaningful pursuits (Comment 8 at The Stone).

May could appeal to some (objectively) shared understanding of literary genres but if so, which in particular? Is a tragic life objectively meaningful, or must it be epic? Comic? In the article, he is mum.