Philosophical horror: Making the world anew

Perceiving political disorder, religious strife, social unrest, or economic collapse, philosophers have not infrequently regarded themselves as saviors who could, from out of the resources of the mind itself, create the world anew. This, argues Stephen Toulmin in Cosmopolis, is what occurred to Descartes who, upon witnessing the Thirty Years’ War, believed that he could provide a new philosophical foundation upon which the modern world could stand firm. It is also the lure that ensnares Plato whose Republic could quite possibly have been written in response to the political debacle that led to the trial and death of Socrates.

Not refashioning the world, not an incendiary apologia for the philosophical life, but another, humbler path could have been taken and sometimes has. In Book VI of the Republic, Plato’s Socrates describes a moment when philosophers, few and rare, go into exile from the unjust city. Because they see the ‘madness of the majority,’ because philosophy is generally regarded by the majority as being useless, and in order to safeguard philosophy from corruption or dissipation,

they [go away and] lead a quiet life and do their own work. Thus, like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind, the philosopher–seeing others filled with lawlessness–is satisfied if he can somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope, blameless and content.

This passage, however, reads too much like a case of sour grapes–here, philosophical resignation–and not enough like genuine humility. Daoism, though itself sometimes overly critical of political intervention and of Confucian righteousness, provides an account of quietism that sounds lovingly quieter. Fung Yu-Lan, in A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, writes that removing oneself from social conventions in order to live more quietly satisfies ‘the desires of a people living in an age of disorder and confusion.’ One’s powers are set so that they are in tune with the Dao.

At his peril, Plato passes over this moment. We know that Plato goes on to consider the philosopher’s engagement with the majority in the first instance by seeking to change its mind (this being a reform project) and in the second instance by wiping the slate clean so that the just city can be molded according to a Theoretical Model (this being the utopian project). The twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper, keying into such moments of utopian fervor, accused Plato of totalitarianism. Such, in any case, is the horror spelled in thinking that one can re-make the world and thereby save it…

Yen Hui’s progress

We read in The Inner Chapters of Yen Hui’s progress. He had given up ‘doing good and being right,’ but Confucius tells him this is ‘not quite enough.’ He goes away and returns. He had given up ‘ceremony and music,’ which is also good but ‘not quite enough.’ Sometime later, he comes back to Confucius, relating that ‘I just sit and forget.’ Confucius is surprised. Sitting and forgetting?

Continue reading “Yen Hui’s progress”

On my becoming cozily parochial

I believe that the modern moral question concerning what one should do is off the mark, and I believe the ancient ethical question of how my life is to fare is apropos and wisely worded. I am getting settled with the thought that self-cultivation is what matters to me most such that I have become happily quietistic about a morality grounded on a simple principle (or on any principle for that matter). I stand aside from principle, turning my head, walking away, keeping my mouth for breathing.

Modern moral philosophers have taken quite a liking to thought experiments concerning our moral lives. Here is how the experiment is supposed to work. The hypothetical scenario is meant to motivate the underlying principle, revealing to us how our moral intuitions point us toward greater moral commitments and obligations. (Or, as in the trolley problem, it is supposed to show us the muddle in our moral considerations, as we puzzle through our vacillations between Kantianism and consequentialism.) The idea is that if this is the sort of thing we are obliged to do in this scenario, then it is also the sort of the thing we are obliged to do in any similar scenario. The experiment therefore hinges on the movement from particular case to universal principle, from “at least once” to “always so.”

Peter Singer, one of the most prominent utilitarian philosophers living today, has come up with a particular thought experiment to make more perspicuous our broader commitments to supporting international aid efforts. In one version of the story, Singer asks you to suppose that you have recently purchased a pair of expensive shoes. You are now walking along the road and come upon a shallow pond. You see that a young child has fallen into the water and that he appears to be drowning. If you jump in after him and rescue the child, you will ruin your expensive shoes. He asks, “Do you have any obligation to rescue the child?”

Surely, many of us would nod our heads in agreement. Of course, we would say, the cost of ruining the shoes would be small in comparison with the benefit of saving the child. Very good. But does it matter, Singer asks further, whether the child lives in this town or country, or could he also have lived halfway across the world or wherever? He answers,

Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world. (my emphasis)

So it seems that we are all obliged to help any child who is also facing certain but preventable death, wherever that child may be.

I do not think so. I have become baldly literal-minded, altogether unclever and mildly daft, during the early years of the third decade of my life. I want to ask a simple question: “Who is this child? Do I know him?”

Or, rather, with the late Bernard Williams I want to say that this is all one thought and perhaps one question too many. I see this child of mine and I jump right in. I do not ask whether I would rescue him and I certainly do not think, within the scenario or afterward, whether I have an obligation to save him. I save him.

I needn’t remind myself that t am walking through my neighborhood. (I am living simply, so I did not purchase expensive shoes in the first place.) I see this child–her name is Marilynne–this child who is the child of my friend Sarah. I know her, know them both. I see that Marilynne is in trouble now; I jump in to save her.

Did I have an obligation to save her? How dare you ask me that. Do I have obligations toward strangers, that is, toward those whom I have never met and do not know? I do not think so. Or, rather, I remain silent when faced with the question. If this child from Botswana is drowning in the Jackie O. Reservoir not far from where I live and if I see her drowning and if I can do something about it, then I will jump in to save this child, this child here, this child of mine, as surely as I will greet my neighbor with a smile.


I do not know whether you are following me. It may seem that this is all for the nonce, but there is rather a lot at stake. For I am becoming quiestic about all questions of a universal stamp: about the legitimacy of the state, human rights, civil rights, international treaties, climate change, species extinction, Occupy movements, universal health care, carbon footprints, oil reserves, you name it. I am not becoming quietistic out of callowness or cynicism (a side note: the ancient Cynics were the first cosmopolitans, i.e., citizens of the world) but rather out of a desire to live according to nature. I am becoming lovingly parochial, loving myself and my own, my friends and lovers, my neighbors and guests alone. About the rest I remain uninterested and agnostic.

I have stopped reading the paper, and I think this a good thing.

I do well by this friend here, to this tree out my window, to the large park over yonder. If John comes to my philosophy practice in the right spirit, then I mean to do well by him. If Karen, a guest, knocks on my door in the spirit of humility and in need, then I mean to be hospitable to her. When this woman on this street asks me for directions to that location, I walk her to her destination. Beyond this my mind no longer strays or ambles, no longer considers or puzzles.

I have no (or, more likely, only a few) principles, but I do exercise good judgment. I follow few rules, relying mainly on rules of thumb. Do I keep my promises? Yes, but that is an oddly formulated question. I suppose, as a rule of thumb, I keep these promises to my friends. But something could come up and the world, being so precarious during this unsettled time, could change its course. And then also I do not make promises to strangers or enemies.

Tell me then: is the general principle to “love your friends and ignore your strangers”? No, I love this friend in this way for this reason today. I hope to do the same tomorrow, come what may, should I be around another day. From this perspective, it could be said that I am all loving all day.

In my rising parochial un-worldview, my polis consists of friends, lovers, conversation partners, and neighbors. They have become my common good, my cares, my reason for being.