Giving an honest self-inventory; or, how to be post-ironic

The literary scholar Christy Wampole has called ours an “ironic age” in which “directness has become unbearable to us,” and in “How to Live Without Irony,” her New York Times Stone essay that appeared in this Sunday’s Review, she provides some clues for how we could live in a post-ironic manner.  These clues include

saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

Saying these things in print is only a start, however, and the genre of the essay–whether personal or academic–ends just as the art of self-transformation begins. As Pierre Hadot argues in his interpretation of Thoreau’s Walden,

the true problem was not to write, but to live in the woods, to be capable of supporting such an experience, as difficult in its ascetic aspect–life in the woods–as in its contemplative aspect and, one could say, mystical aspect–this plunging into the heart of nature. In other words, the philosophical act transcends the literary work that expresses it; and this literary work cannot totally express what Thoreau has lived…

In the email I sent to Wampole, I touched upon the need for “honest self-inventory,” an account the Pythagoreans ask us to give daily in the Golden Verse. In my philosophy practice, I try to set out (what I take to be) the four necessary conditions for self-inventory in and through dialogue. I insist that, during any philosophical conversation, a conversation partner

(1) prepare himself to have a philosophical conversation,

(2) speak with me outside of clock time and in the time of eternity,

(3) engage with me only in plain speech, and

(4) that he say “I don’t know” when he really doesn’t know the answer to a proper, well-formulated question.

Under these conditions, we can get on with the business of making an honest self-inventory of our lives.

But this is not all. What must be remarked upon further, as is alluded to in Hadot’s words about Walden, is the act of self-knowing, which is not rational assent solely but a spiritual exercise.

Yesterday afternoon, I happened upon an excellent passage from Ilsetraut Hadot’s essay, “The Spiritual Guide,” an essay included in a book called Classical Antiquity. Ilsetraut Hadot, like her late husband Pierre Hadot, claims that knowing is a resonant, resonating habitus and that the role of the philosopher is to be that of a spiritual guide and friend. She writes that in the ancient philosophical schools

the widening of knowledge occurs very gradually, and the fundamental dogmas have to be memorized [p.452] again and again after, or simultaneously with, every advance in knowledge. For what is desired is not knowledge, but rather knowledge as habitus, the transformation of the individual through knowledge. The heterodox Stoic Ariston, who, in the statement cited here, agrees with all ancient philosophers except the Skeptics, states: “Philosophy is divided into knowledge and state of mind. For one who has learned and understood what he should do and avoid is not a wise man until his mind is metamorphosed into the shape of that which he has learned.” (Ariston in Seneca, Epistulae Morales 94.48)

First of all, the elements of knowledge must be appropriated, which is a purely intellectual process. Then, knowledge must be impressed upon the mind in such a way that it is always at hand and that it cannot be limited or lost on account of any external circumstances—in other words, in such a way that it becomes one with the individual and a constituent part of the person’s being. This second stage can be attained only through practice and habituation with the incorporation of one’s emotional components. Let us take as an example the dogma ‘Death is not an evil,’ which was professed by all the ancient schools of philosophy. The philosopher-spiritual guide knows that it is not sufficient to know this and to be familiar with and to have grasped intellectually the philosophical proofs that are the foundation for this statement; one must be convinced to such a degree that one’s whole inner nature is penetrated by it.

Knowing itself just is knowing oneself, just is coming to know oneself through the difficult work of transforming one’s whole nature. If you wish to be post-ironic, then far more will be required of you than reading an article: more than retweeting it, more than studying it, more than writing about it, more than teaching a course on it, more than publishing a book on it. All of this may be an invitation to philosophical life but it may also be a distraction: a labor of ignorance, error, and habit.

Responsibility as a child of time

The Pythagoreans were the first, perhaps, to insist so doggedly that one give an account of oneself at the end of each day as if it were one’s final hour. What is responsibility for the entirety of one’s self but taking this thought to heart not at some late date but in each of one’s living breaths? It is as if we were always held to account in the eyes of the Other, holding a child of time in calloused hands, observing the papery ending of autumn.

On eating properly and ‘two kinds of quantity’

I don’t believe that calories–this unit of measure–is a good way of talking about food in general, of talking about ‘how much’ I need to eat or how I go about conceptualizing what it is I eat. My doubts about ‘the calorie’ are born of my wholesale rejection of what goes under the header of ‘food science.’ In order to reach this conclusion, I have been helped, in much different quarters and by much different routes, by the work of Michael Pollan and George Taubes.

But if the food I put in my mouth, the food that passes into my belly and through my body is not reducible to a quantifiable number of calories, what is it I am eating, and how do I know whether I have had ‘enough,’ ‘too much,’ or ‘too little.’?

This question invites me to draw a distinction between a mathematized conception of quantity and a qualitative understanding of quantity. I am taking my cue from Sajay Samuel who, in an interview with Dougald Hine, states:

I find a potent argument in Plato, for instance, where he says, look here–I adapt this–the distinction, quality and quantity, not be that between irrationality, emotion, etc., and rationality, thought and so on. Rather there are two kinds of quantity–numerical, which we can call arithmetic, and then, ‘too much’ and ‘too little.’ By definition, ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ are quantities, but they’re not numerically measurable. What we have done in the modern world is to privilege 1, 2, 3… as the only quantity. But I can relativize, I can put under epistemic brackets, that kind of quantity by insisting on the superiority–and showing the superiority–of the second kind of qualitative understanding, ‘too much’ and ‘too little.’ For example, we can ask: have you gone too far, by measuring love in terms of numbers? A perfectly legitimate, perfectly sensible question, I’m sure you would agree. Number cannot provide an answer to the question of ‘too far.’ The measure of going too far by measuring love in terms of numbers is six… is self-evidently asinine. (“Rehoming Society: A Conversation with Sajay Samuel,” Dark Mountain: Issue 3, p. 103)

A qualitative understanding of quantity compels me to turn my attention toward the ‘feeling’ of my body, my body’s empirical way of knowing: what it feels like to put ‘this much’ in my body now and after I eat? At this time, under these conditions, what kind of food will raise my powers of acting, of strength, will enhance my overall sense of sober joy, and how much do I need to put on my tongue and chew with my teeth and savor so that I am left feeling more powerful now than I was before?

This is a spiritual exercise (ascesis) in proper attention (prosoche) to the ‘claims’ my body is making on me.

Spiritual exercise and metaphysical experience: A birthday meditation

Yesterday afternoon on my birthday, we knocked on the door of a secret meditation room in Soho and no one answered. She knocked a second time and still no one answered. And yet why weren’t we disappointed? “Maybe this is the meditation,” I said as we walked away and laughed.

The incident calls me back to a paper I published, five years ago, on Adorno’s account of metaphysical experience. The incident Adorno relates is, I would now say in a Hadotian spirit, a spiritual exercise (ascesis) in humility.

I wrote,

In his final lecture on metaphysics delivered in 1965, Adorno states that there are two main features of metaphysical experience: the priority of the object (the world’s fundamental exertion on thought) and fallibility (the mind’s openness to the “misfiring” of its concepts vis-à-vis any object of possible cognition). Such features already point to the idea that metaphysical experience is indeed the realization of Adorno’s philosophical model of experience. To make his case more perspicuous, Adorno seeks to establish the actuality of metaphysical experience by calling our attention to certain instances that meet these general requirements while also inhabiting the space between logical possibility and full-fledged empirical actuality.

Adorno thinks that metaphysical experience is instantiated in Proust’s work—specifically, in his allusion to certain place names. To a child, certain place names such as Applebachsville, Wind Gap, or Lords Valley can be pregnant with the promise of great happiness as though being there were tantamount to being at home in the world. Nonetheless, it soon becomes clear that “[b]eing really there makes the promise recede like a rainbow. And yet one is not disappointed; the feeling now is one of being too close, rather, and not seeing it for that reason.” Oddly enough, this child, the Proustian child who conjures up this empirically based fantasy only to have it “recede like a rainbow,” is not overcome by pathos—why not? Because, to put matters too quickly, she is happy in spite of, or rather because of, the way things have come about. In the first instance, the place names example comes to life on account of its metaphysical orientation. For the child who, in keeping with a hazy memory of fulfillment, first casts his imagination beyond his present surroundings, there is a necessary element of fantasy, a magical, imaginative force that colors and enchants the empirical world, the world of ordinary things. At the risk of sounding redundant, it must be stressed that the subject matter is as ordinary as it is arbitrary; it is this factor that gives this fantastical act a turn toward the place names themselves, gives it a certain aura of mundane arbitrariness, even grittiness.

This, then, is the set-up: a partially enchanted world of ordinary things (and hence a world of more than ordinary things) so conceived. It must be understood that the child’s going there is just as important as her so imagining it. I take it that Adorno’s aim is to deflate the idea of finality or utter bliss (the bad Hegelian reading of absolute knowing) when he writes that the world turns out not to be the same as the child’s fantastical conceptions of it. Call this the “weak” critical moment in any emphatic experience. If it is necessary for a child to conjure up a world with which she can be entranced, then it is equally necessary for the world to disabuse her of the absoluteness contained in this very notion, to disabuse the mind of its autarky, and in so doing to show her just how the object takes on substance. And yet, if she is not exactly at home, then she is not lost entirely either.

Whether brought to the consciousness of the child or not, this deflationary moment is immediately followed by, or is conterminous with, our realization of his fallibility. Fallibility, as the “condition of possibility of such metaphysical experience” in general, is registered in the child’s acknowledgment that he is “too close,” too much immersed in things mediated by a cognition that is receptive to an empirical world that is now unfolding before her: a world that is either dazzling or humdrum, but in either case is a cause for her attending to it as it is. Perhaps even more curiously, the child silently accepts that she was “in the wrong” in conceiving of the world in the way that she did. Of course, her original conceptions played a crucial part in activating her imagination and in bringing her fantasies and desires into the realm of empirical reality. But she cannot fail to see, here and now and however dimly, that her adjusting her conceptual repertoire to the empirical world is an indication of her “guilt” and her desire for reconciliation with what she has “injured.”

(Perhaps it is no coincidence that we picked up a copy of Cavell’s In Quest of the Ordinary yesterday. I’ve never read Cavell.)