Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Analogy and pedagogy
Philosophy is originally a pedagogy, and indeed a counter-pedagogy. It is not separable from the drive to communicate, foster, teach; but it is a very specific sort of teaching, a teaching which is almost a non-teaching. (A “letting-learn,” Heidegger said.) It arises from mystery-religions and rites of passage, from initiations and secrets. It is no profanation of the mysteries, not a tearing-open of the curtain, nor yet a mere substitution of one set of mysteries for another set that has worn thin, but a re-institution of mystery per se in the face of a set of pseudo-mysteries. It is not a reaction against the critique of mystery, but is in fact a re-institution by means of critique. It clashes with this other set of mysteries, a set of norms of homage to family, cult, polis; above all, with the apologists for that order who will shrug off objections. In The Clouds, Aristophanes’ caricature depicts Socrates’ students as mouthing off to their parents under Socrates’ tutelage. As if in response, Xenophon preserves a teaching of Socrates to his own son about respecting his mother, and Plato shows us Socrates attempting to dissuade Euthyphro from prosecuting his father in court. Thus philosophy intertwines with power well before Philip of Macedon entrusts young Alexander to Aristotle’s care. Philosophy is engaged with power, and so with politics, because it is a teaching.
Philosophy’s primary polemic, however, is with the sophist; even, especially, with (to appropriate a coinage of pop-psychology), one’s “inner sophist.” The teaching of the sophists is, as Badiou notes, a perpetual shadow of philosophy, and it cannot be dealt with once and for all. The philosopher’s uncanny double, the sophist teaches that truth is relative, as indeed it is in the realm of the relative—the realm of the cave.
The besetting danger of teaching is condescension, a casting of oneself as the one who knows; to adopt willy-nilly the relativism of the cave (which confers authority by virtue of arbitrary marks, such as one’s age or social role). This is a danger to ones students, who may idolize too quickly, or conversely refuse to learn; but it is a greater danger to oneself. Socrates continually eschews this picture of himself, as we know, but always ambiguously. Socrates was not just a teacher, but a continual learner, and this learning was a consciousness as well as a passion. It is essential, to be immediately engaged, but this passion by itself remains insufficient, because it is possible to be immediately engaged and still enslaved. The aim of a philosophical education is to live an interested life, an examined life—a life engaged both immediately and consciously, that is, freely.
The matter of participation (in the sense I use the word) in philosophy’s pedagogy is double. On the one hand, philosophy cultivates participation, for this is a synonym for lived interest. On the other hand, philosophy makes use of participation, as a way of instilling interest. Thus philosophy must assume what it aims at. It is an enthymeme, a supreme question-begging; “weak thought” itself, as Vattimo might say. Voegelin was irked at Marx and Comte for their dismissiveness towards those who do not share their premises, and took it as a sure index of their having set up a “second reality” in place of the real world. But Voegelin is only half-right. Marx, Comte and others may have been wrong in dismissing “idle questions,” but their philosophies are gedankenexperiments in just the same way as are poems. All philosophy insofar as it is philosophy is “without consequences” in this sense. It is a continually revisable thought-experiment, with always-shifting premises. “We said, did we not…?” is always Socrates’ refrain. But this is always rescindable in favor of some other guess, another “likely story.” “It’s like this…”
The claim that underneath every “like” must be something that it is is as old as philosophy, is almost synonymous with philosophy; this is philosophy’s continuous peregrination to and from ontology. But allude to it though we may and must, what is proves recalcitrant to every “it is like…,” and each lapse spurs a new likely story. Badiou’s aspiration to be done with interpretation is an impatience, an abrogation of every “it is like,” for the sake of the bare “it is,” which he finds in the mathematical. But here too the “it is like” is found already, like the hedgehog in Montaigne, for the assertion that the “is” is matheme is another likely story, and indeed is supplemented or complemented in Badiou by three others. Nagel is closer when he asks what it is like to be a bat, for “what is it like” is precisely the analogical structure of experience, and as Aquinas taught, analogy is of the essence, or as close as may be.
“It is like” has a further application in the pedagogical field: it is a curative for boredom. Boredom is the unbroken unfolding of the already. It is by no means an incidental discovery of truly egalitarian teaching, that is, teaching which eschews condescension, that the student experiences and wrestles with great expanses of boredom. This boredom is very close to the insomniac hostage which figures at the beginning of more than one of Levinas’ expositions, a consciousness captive to itself. It is an ontological and not a psychological state. It is true that boredom is also encountered in the traditional teaching model, which distinguishes itself precisely in construing boredom as psychological. Contemporary education is an incarceration, and every analysis of incarceration must treat the experience of boredom. (So too every analysis of modernity, which begins with Baudelaire and the demon ennui). Philosophy is original and radical in that is refuses to treat the student as hostage. This is the site, too, of an intersection of philosophy with contemporary (and not only contemporary) politics, as well as a critique of every spirituality that hinges upon the magical interpretation of the sacrificial victim (as Ivan Karamazov saw)—for the victim is a hostage.
The it is like offers a hinge, a fingerhold, a tiny schism in the absolute symmetry of boredom, for the similarity is also a difference, but not an alienating one. The right analogy means a possible way forward. Science has a name for the way analogy functions in its method: the word model. Every scientific experiment seeks a broken symmetry: the one altered parameter that will bring about an altered outcome, out of the desert of invariability. The experiment, in turn, is intimately linked with the model, as its proving ground and crucible. The experiment hones and refines and sometimes breaks the model; the model being simply the ruling analogy, the it is like…
The example of the dialogue with the slave boy in the Meno is (notwithstanding Popper’s anti-Platonic arguments) a good place to start. A boy who knows nothing of geometry is led, step by step, to answer simple questions until he can confidently describe the procedure for doubling a square. One could argue here at length about the frame-story or rhetoric; the implicit approval of slavery, for instance; or the yes-or-no parameters of Socrates’ questions. In fact, it is rare for a real non-coercive dialogue to proceed along merely yes/no lines; real equality between speakers implies an ability for each of them to address questions to the other. And to be sure, Socrates turns out to welcome questions himself, though he disclaims any expertise and always casts himself as a fellow-inquirer.
In general, those who get befuddled in a Platonic dialogue voice some suspicion that Socrates is trying to trick them; that is, they do not trust Socrates. There is good reason for this. They correctly intuit that the Socratic project will entail something they do not want—a choice between changing their conduct or continuing to live as they were but under the inchoate impression of grievous inconsistency. Socrates says that he consistently urges his fellow citizens to concern themselves about what matters most of all: the soul. (If you want a measure of how far our time has diverged from Plato’s, just ask yourself how many of our contemporaries who are called philosophers could, with a straight face, urge concern about the soul). It should be underlined: this matters, for Socrates, most of all, so much that he prefers a death sentence rather than stop publically philosophizing. For Socrates, the stakes in a philosophical dispute are quite explicitly the highest stakes that could be.
And yet, when Socrates disputes, he maintains a dispassion that is nearly infamous. Philosophy is, as it were, an irenic agonism; it readily enters, and even courts, disagreements of all sorts, but its conduct and manner of engagement in every conflict is always impassive.
The Good, the True, and the Beautiful do not comprise the Platonic triumvirate by accident. It is to these three that are all human disputation comes down. Philosophy is an urgent engagement: the unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates maintained; a verdict of considerable ferocity. And yet, Socrates is often seen to laugh, to shrug, to admit defeat over and over, even to fall silent for vast stretches of the dialogues; while his opponents frequently get angry, denounce him, storm off. The paradox is that one cannot contend for the soul in any way except dispassionately; one must know that the stakes are of the utmost gravity, and yet engage as with as light a touch as that of “a child playing draughts.” Philosophy is, and is about, a decision, as Socrates knew, as Heidegger knew, as Gödel and Lonergan and Badiou each say in different ways; and yet that decision, of the gravest significance, is and can only be undertaken in a manner that is lighthearted and even joyous. This is also the secret of philosophy’s patience, and its “scandalous” lack of progress.
The higher the stakes, the more investment in them feels like fear. But Socrates goes to his death unafraid. There is a secret link between this fear and the boredom we spoke of earlier: boredom secretes fear as a kind of attempt at self-cure. One can see this quite clearly in contemporary western culture, which has grown more fearful as it has grown more secure, for the periodic upsettings of security become more traumatic and they leave a viral half-life of unsettling phantoms, traumatic enough to drive one back into the arms of a comfortable boredom, in a terrible cycle. Heidegger and Kierkegaard articulated angst, but they did not discover it. Philosophy is as unavoidably concerned with fear as with ennui, in an effort to break this vicious circle. But its efforts, paradoxical as always, find the exit by entering into the circle more deeply.
One often meets a flippant dismissal of disputes considered “merely philosophical,” to the effect that they have no consequences. But the consequences of a true philosophical contest are the most far-reaching precisely because they allude, because they are indirect; such debates clarify the consequences of ideas already in play. An argument about politics, religion, education, economics, etc., becomes philosophical as it turns both more urgent and more dispassionate. A debate over the status of a discourse—‘science’ versus ‘pseudoscience,’ ‘history’ versus ‘revisionism,’ ‘education’ versus ‘propaganda,’ ‘art’ versus ‘kitsch’ or ‘decadence,’ ‘true religion’ versus ‘heresy,’ ‘realism’ versus ‘ideology’—is at once the most intractable and (potentially) the most fruitful. One is very close to a real breakthrough, if one can slow down enough to discern the values actually in play; for one can then apprehend one’s values as exempla of value and as definition or essence. But of course, once this happens, the status quo is unsettled. It is precisely this unsettling that provokes Socrates’ most intractable foes, who in their defensiveness see the Socratic dispassion as (i.e., project upon it their own) condescension, superiority, game-playing, indifference, or relativism. Philosophy is accused of “leaving everything as it is,” of “merely interpreting the world.” In the Phaedrus, Socrates indeed says he is perfectly willing to provisionally accept the popular wisdom concerning the myths, rather than strive after convoluted reductions to plausibility, since he does not yet understand himself. Likewise, the best teaching always starts with where the student is already engaged—that is where the energy is—and is in no hurry to wrest this into a new direction. This is indeed a kind of “relativism” or even quietism (rather close in fact to the advice of the Delphic oracle regarding how to best please the gods: heed the local customs and be humble). And yet, Socrates acquires the reputation for being a constant arguer and is condemned for not honoring the gods of the city.
Speed is heat, and slowness cools. As I have said, philosophy is a matter of patience. I said there that there are conclusions that work only as conclusions, not as premises, and I might even say that philosophy is the articulating of such conclusions, conclusions that cannot be turned in to axioms and indeed, paradoxically, cannot be reached by any axioms. Philosophy, true to the Red Queen’s maxim, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” is still engaged with Zeno after all these years, for it will not dispense with this running nonetheless.
To think coolly about hot matters, but without cooling them. A very strange alchemy—and perhaps a secret of why or how philosophy and alchemy are related.