The Art of Inquiry: Bewilderment and the virtues

Excerpt from the end of Chapter 2 and the beginning of Chapter 3 of The Art of Inquiry. Enjoy.


2.6. Bewilderment, Redux

So far, our itinerary has taken us a good ways: from our basic commitments (alive to X, fraught about Y) to a confrontation with our thinking in general to a space of possibilities. On the one hand, our plans have been thrown into the wind and we seem without direction. On the other hand, we know what didn’t work, have some clue as to why it didn’t work, and are now so hungry that we want to discover something better.

There is a nice quote from Samuel Johnson about the meaning of bewilderment. To be bewildered, he writes in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, is to “lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” The bewildered person, having been led astray, is lost, turned about, and disoriented, generally lacking a good sense of his bearings. By letting his basic commitments to be drawn into question, he has lost his place in the world. What is of great value? To what can one assign significance? What sign points the way forward?

The truth of bewilderment is an acknowledgement of the great complexity of the modern world. Fewer paths than ever are laid out in front of those of us living in the developed nations; the future seems as illegible as ever; regardless of how important our work is, it may founder for any number of reasons. Bewilderment allows us to face up to uncertainty in the proper spirit: namely, the spirit of honesty. What will be required of us in order to live through this time of confusion will be to cultivate the virtues of openness, courage, and patience.

Interlude 2: Living Meanwhile–The Time of the Virtues

Provisional definitions

Virtues are easier to live than they are to define. Still, we can provide some provisional definitions. We can say that being virtuous is performing an action over and over again in the right way (manner) for the right reason (justification) for the right end (final cause). Or we can say that a virtue is a ‘semi-permanent’ disposition of the good soul. Or we can say that it is a habit underwritten by reason. Or, lastly, we can define virtue as the identity of doing what is best with doing what we want. (E.g., being kind is the best thing to do and in the same breath I want also to be kind.)

Whatever their differences may be, these definitions share the characteristic of manner, way, fashion, and appropriateness. A virtuous man does not simply offer a guest tea. He does so in the right manner. A compassionate woman smiles at the hurt one and puts her hand on him with lightness and strength. There is thus a felt quality to a virtue that can only be experienced ‘from within.’

A second characteristic should be not be passed over. This is that a virtue is learned through the right kind of exercise. The philosopher who cultivates patience has exercised being patient when he is observing a young dallying child while tying his shoe; when he is scheduled to meet a friend who is running behind; when he is learning a new craft and has not yet got the hang of it; etc. It seems there is no dearth of occasions or circumstances in which patience can be exercised in just the right way and, in consequence, strengthened and supported.

The third characteristic is that virtues, once learned well enough, become ‘second nature.’ It is not as though I look at a drowning child, deliberate long about the best course of action, and then decide to jump into the water. Quite the contrary, I see him drowning and I immediately jump in after him. This is true of the virtuous man: he acts like water, not unthinkingly so much as undeliberately. If need be, he can adduce reasons for acting thus and so post facto.

Austen’s ethical vision of wholehearted love

My essay on Jane Austen can now be read at World and I. Typical among Austen readers and academic scholars is the claim that she was keen to cast a critical eye on genteel society, and yet she entertained no thought of going beyond its inequalities and class distinctions. My suggestion is that this nay-saying–the satirical notes as well as the supposed limitations in Austen’s politics–misses what is truly radiant about her novels: namely, the ethical vision of wholehearted love evident throughout her work but most especially in the final pages. “There,” I write,

her stylistic coolness and her raised eyebrows give way to a soft warmth felt by friends and lovers, by friends for lovers, who, once separated by misperception and injustice, have by the end returned to each other. Having paid their dues and having learned to perceive themselves and their beloveds more clearly, they are now prepared to live blessedly together. Austen’s blessed vision of the good life is revealed, and so beautifully at that, in the embodiment of Marianne Brandon née Dashwood’s highest ethical ideal of “never lov[ing] by halves.” (1)

Hope you enjoy the rest of the essay. –A

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Never Love by Halves”

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”

Wendell Berry on the proper education for young people

The following is an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” Orion Magazine (Autumn 2001). The article was published shortly after September 11, 2001. As far as I can make it, we have made little progress on devising a “proper education [that] enables young people to put their lives in order.” My friends and I are working on it.

XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a “new economy”, but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.