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, December 11, 2010
How to argue, why & why not
Indelimitability and incommensurability, the two aspects of experience which I tried to spell out here, have a great deal to do with the “style,” or lack thereof, of these Open Letters. Discursiveness and density are the twins born to wonder and the desire to articulate. Superficially resembling indiscipline, discursiveness is a faithful and dogged following of one’s nose—or better yet, following the Tao (philosophy may be the fine art of distinguishing one’s nose from the Tao), over whatever borders may lie along the way. Neither thinking nor experience comes in chunks. The subjects most apparently at odds can be brought into intimate contact with a flick of a sentence. This is a function of an ontological wholeness, not just of discursive ingenuity. This is at least as significant, I hold, as any particular “point” we may address about the construction of Christian liturgy, the plausibility of a given reading of Kant or Plato, the resonance of an Indian myth with musical tuning or astronomical observations, or even about the attainability of shifts in consciousness or the political and ecological future of the planet. Laden with import as any of these specific arguments may (or may not) be, none is especially significant except in the context of the wonder that is the beginning of philosophy. Indeed, I would say that “discursive ingenuity” is a sort of “picture” of the ontological ingenuity of being.
Whatever the issue at hand, there is a deeper, more fundamental concern underneath, to which the more topical matters are merely tributary. This is why I asserted that the relationship between interlocutors is more philosophically crucial than any doctrine. As we meander between ostensibly separate topics, there is almost always more than one thing going on; far from being a mere symptom of a short attention span, philosophy aims to cultivate an ability to navigate among discourses. In fact, I do think that there is something to be said for grand, sweeping, “it-all-comes-down-to-X” theses. But these are not as easy to get to as one might think. Assumptions are hard to see, because often they are what we see by. Discovering them is usually the work of much reflection, of conscious, careful attention not to what we think we think, but at what we actually say and do.
This doing is not what happens when we set out to watch ourselves, but what happens when we are simply in conversation—and particularly, in argument. Argue: from the Old French, arguere “to make clear, to demonstrate,” linguists derive it from a proto-Indo-European base *arg- “to shine, be white, bright, clear”—a form that can still be seen in Latin argentum and French and Spanish argent, silver, and indeed the Old French for quicksilver or mercury. The root is also seen in the Greek Argo, the ship which carried the heroes questing for the shining Golden Fleece, and in the Sanskrit name of the hero Arjuna, the archer.
Philosophy arises in argument, either with oneself or someone else; but it is much easier—and more uncomfortable—to catch oneself at what one does when arguing with others. This means, however, slowing down, and watching carefully: a kind of continual weaving back-and-forth between saying what comes into one’s head, or being absolutely stumped, and (on the other hand) noticing what one has just said, or not said—noticing how one said it, noticing one’s feelings and motives all along the way.
It is easy to think that philosophy is a matter of assertions about the meaning of life, about space and time, about perception and reality, about freedom and unfreedom, the best political regime, the nature of the beautiful. This conception of philosophy is certainly preferable to the analyses-of-grammar one gets on one side of the Analytic/Continental aisle, or to the endless and trivial non-explication du texte on the other. At least in beginning courses on philosophy, one is offered the chance to think about large questions. But we are not philosophers until we allow the questions to shape who we are. We must be confronted by the questions, grasped by them, made to feel that our lives depend upon them.
“Philosophy,” notes Aquinas, “does not consist in asking what men have said, but in asking after the truth of the matter.” (In I lib. de Coelo, lect. xxii; II Sent., D. xiv, a. 2, ad 1um). But the truth of the matter is never an abstract assertion, because the question of (e.g.) freedom or nature or goodness does not offer us anywhere to stand outside of it to ask after it. If we are free or unfree, our freedom or lack thereof is already at play in the asking. If it is good to know what goodness is, this asking is part of its own object. Whether we are part of nature or stand across from it, this too conditions our inquiry from the beginning. It takes time to ask about time, we must be somewhere to ask about space, and in any asking whatsoever, the question of the nature of language arises for us. Philosophy is an exercise in conscious human life, is meant to foster our awakening. The ancient philosophers were quite explicit in their conception of philosophy as a spiritual discipline; one cannot read any of them of whatever school—whether Parmenides or Heraclitus, Plato or Aristotle, Epictetus or Lucretius, Plotinus or Marcus Aurelius—without the sense that they are speaking of experiences and not merely “doctrines.” Plato expressly says this in the Seventh Letter, for instance. Parmenides relates a vision of a goddess. Socrates goes to his death in genuine tranquility—not mouthing the word tranquility nor expounding the concept thereof, but having cultivated the state of mind. Aristotle speaks of generosity, bravery, equanimity; Lucretius of being delivered from fear.
And the most compelling way for this to happen is to be met by someone whose answers are not ours. It takes some time to get to these “answers” because they are usually operative assumptions and do not lie on the surface in our own or in the other’s thought. One can often see them (or think one sees them) in the other person first. After a while of being baffled by how they can be so wrong (or better, so right and yet so wrong), one eventually diagnoses the “problem,” the one big thing from which all their other errors stem. (E.g., “Dawkins’ fundamental error is that he cannot grasp that God is not an entity.”) And this is not just a diagnostic for individuals; it gets applied to social and cultural ills all the time. (Think Marx, think Freud; think radical Islamism, or Radical Orthodoxy.) But as we cast about, it is easy to see that there are many competing notions today—as there were for the ancients—concerning the One Big Thing that’s fundamentally wrong. Some see it as atheism; some as belief in God at all; some as belief in the wrong sort of God; some as that we think of time as linear, or that we believe values are relative, or that we believe values are absolute. Some think we should just get the hell out of science’s way; some that a few Timothy Treadwells and Julia Butterfly Hills and Theodore Kaczynskis are all that is keeping science from running our planet into the sun. We place too much faith in the free market; we place too much faith in the state. We waste all our time on video games; we don't play video games nearly enough. We are sexually repressed; we are sexually promiscuous. We are all brainwashed to think that existence is better than extinction; we have all already decided extinction is better, but we don’t know it yet.
What I am interested in is how to navigate (not arbitrate) these (and less-radical) disagreements, without demonizing each other, and without minimizing the non-negotiable gravity of the matter. Not, please note, how to show how "both are right," but to show how it is possible to account for really living according to these conclusions, and then to see what happens when one experiences the world as the context for all of them.
The method is first to seek the basic faultline—for instance, the “metaphors” that shape our thinking, as Lakoff & Johnson, among others, have suggested. This involves a good deal of skirting about over different subjects, in pursuit of the unifying theme. Next is frank and risky confrontation—genuine argument, but conscious argument. This is a vision of philosophy as a sort of irenic agonism. Genuine conflict is, as Empedocles saw, of the essence of thinking (for him it was even the essence of existence)—the contention between rival assertions. Such conflict offers a chance for the experience of freedom to leap up, like a flame from friction; but the friction sometimes has to get quite high first. One might compare work on koans. (It is often not appreciated that in the Zen tradition there is a right answer to a koan.) Or again, consider the crushing dilemma Paul names in Romans, “the good I would do, I do not, and the evil I would not, that I do,” a dilemma which alone allows the sudden inversion of law and grace that highlights for Paul the true freedom of the Christian. Sartre said that the most free he ever felt was when, during the Resistance, he might have been arrested and shot at almost any time; Koestler broke though and had one of the best-described experiences of transcendence more or less on the eve of his scheduled execution. I believe that the opportunity argument presents us as philosophers is to raise the pressure—to free us from our conflict-avoidant fear of fighting—which can offer a chance for seeing things whole, in a way that simply glossing over differences does not (for nothing is gained by muddy thinking and denial).
If this seems a strange claim--that a debate, raised to a sufficient pitch, can spark a mystical experience, or something like it--I can only rejoin that while I do not believe anyone was ever argued into (say) a religious conversion, philosophy that is not oriented towards the fundamental questions of who I am, what God is, what the world is, and these at a far deeper than theoretical level, simply does not interest me. But if "mystical experience" seems too high-pitched, try something like "concpetual breakthrough" or "paradigm shift," or (more riskily) "falling in love."
At the same time, it matters how one argues; the most important thing is not the content of the assertions but the process of the confrontation. “What kind of disagreement, my friend, causes hatred and anger?” asks Socrates of Euthyphro. Philosophy does not merely cultivate conflict, but seeks to channel it. It is, in this respect, the careful use of the irascible element in the human soul. (“I have never met a poet worth a damn that was not irascible,” said Ezra Pound, who surely ought to have known.)
To fall into the passions of hatred and anger is to fall into unfreedom; to be able to be in the midst of the contest without being controlled by it is the aim. This poise is extremely hard to attain except for brief moments, at least for a beginner like me. The drive to be right is all too easy to fall into, and avoiding it is not the child’s-play one might think; and most pernicious are those ploys which seem to allow eating the cake of being right and having the cake of arch indifference—the “going meta” that Morton sees as a refrain in Harman’s work. Because one is certain of one point, it is very easy to think one is certain of a related but separable point. This makes all the more seductive the impulse to defend “the truth of the matter”—not my feeling of being right, I tell myself, but the truth!!—with methods whose disingenuousness is so slight as to be almost unperceivable to myself. I dismiss some point I disagree with as a “long-discredited error,” especially if there is an excuse for me to claim a sizable majority of opinion on my side; or I slip into a rhetorical flourish with a sense of satisfaction that I am honoring the truth, not betraying it, though the rhetoric has nothing to do with the point. All the better if my allies and I can share a laugh at the opponents’ expense.
Socrates might say that these dangers, of forgetting the real point of argument, are the most pressing; but it would be facile to ignore others, namely, that one’s opponents might be riled into even more debilitating behavior than these. If “defending the truth” (as one sees it) with a misleading oversimplification is unfortunate, somewhat more so is such defense by harnessing legal or state or military apparatus. An “argument” by a cutting word is bad; one with a weapon is worse. Socrates went to the hemlock because his opponents were less level-headed and even-handed than he in their choice of argumentative strategy.
Philosophy is dangerous, then, in part simply because it is a kind of conflict. It can easily turn upon one; it can degenerate into scapegoating. The various moves that Straussian exegesis unfolds are employed, Strauss claims, as shields against such backfiring. As I mentioned, I have a different take on these moves; while I believe Strauss was correct both in diagnosing these “esoteric” strategies, and in the functions he claimed for them, I tend to see them more as intended to indicate to the insightful reader that the overt content of the philosophical argument is not always its most important aspect. Above all, they serve to show the philosopher that there is always another way—sometimes another way no one has thought of yet—a new way both to think the matter at hand, and to connect it with matters hitherto unsuspected. These trapdoors are like escape routes into different discourses, and though the philosopher cannot avail himself of them bodily in the courtroom or jail cell, they are a way of consolation even there. Of course, to the enemies of philosophy, they will be hard to distinguish from merely changing the subject. But this only indicates that the real subject has not been understood.