"Do you wish me, Cebes," said he, "to give you an account of the way in which I have conducted my second voyage...?"
Some of my friends have seen a few of my efforts before now, and if the responses I've received are any indication, readers are likely to consider the work dense, meandering, a trifle obscure, and looooonnnnnng. I am not sure how much of this can be helped. I doubt I can honestly rein in my digressive nature without doing real violence to the shape of the thought; and if that sounds like special pleading, well, so be it. Tracing the “hidden roads that go from poem to poem” is how Harold Bloom described the object of literary criticism. My conviction—which may merely make a virtue of a disposition—is that philosophy takes the secret paths that go from world to world (in the sense in which Wittgenstein wrote, “the world of the happy is quite another from that of the unhappy”). Philosophy maps ways among the worlds of the Dadaist ensemble, the biochemist’s Petri dish, the psychoanalyst’s couch, and the stock exchange trading floor. It finds a wormhole between the silence of an undiscovered vein of silver ore, and the unheard roar and crackle of a solar flare; a route between the chemical panic in a fish caught by a sea anemone, and the exhausted hope of a death camp inmate at the approach of the liberating army. Thought is the medium in which philosophy charts these passages, which means it maps them by traversing them; and this can mean a mélange of styles, a shuttling betwixt rigor and risk, and some hairpin apparent changes of subject.
This is not always easy to follow, and I can tell you it isn’t always easy to write. But a few generous people, resisting the temptation to throw up their hands, have graciously asked me (admittedly, less eagerly than Cebes) to explain my explanation. For myself, I know that my worst excesses always arise when I write in the “abstract,” to no one in particular, or to some “general reader.” I have always found my best results, in terms of accessibility, manageable length, and readable style, when writing to a specific person in the context of living inquiry.
Hence this series of Open Letters on Philosophical Praxis. While I propose to work through some established points in a more-or-less established order, my hope is to preserve something of the real-time circumstance of actual encounter by genuinely responding to comments (assuming there are any). This is not a conceit on my part; I am convinced that the best, perhaps the only, philosophy happens when there is a real dialogue between engaged persons. I trust that in this conviction I remain a faithful Platonist. This means that intelligent inquiry and critique in good faith is both welcome and solicited. As is always the case, challenge helps me better than does mere acquiescence; though I aim to persuade, my writing is a form of spiritual discipline, an ongoing cultivation of the Socratic spirit of the examined life, above all in myself. I hope to make plausible the claim that philosophy remains viable as such a spiritual discipline (not an academic “subject,” though it is not cut off from scholarship), in open—speculative and critical—dialogue with the spiritual traditions of the world. Moreover, I hold that this encounter can be seen in the history of these traditions; it needs to be nurtured in our current cultural moment, and offers us real promises in the trajectories we can glimpse ahead of us.
Point of clarification: I'm not posing as an online instructor, and have no pretensions of being a great thinker. I am “only a scholar,” as Leo Strauss (a much greater scholar) wrote, and an “independent” one at that; a generalist who is not ashamed to trespass, with no credentials other than twenty-five years of reading philosophy (literature, history, science, religion...), thinking hard, seeking out good fellow-students, trying to be honest, and praying (all this in between musical gigs, phases of political activism and quietism, travels, love affairs, and playing with children). To lead the examined life, one must live. That’s about all I can offer if asked for my certifications, except that I was once a licensed Emergency Medical Tech.
I hope that out of this experiment will emerge a series of posts that can serve as an exposition, however wayward, of what I think is at stake in philosophy today as always. I anticipate that the result will be idiosyncratic, uneven, and difficult. My hope is it will be worth the difficulty. If I did not fear being misunderstood, I would say, worth the danger.