Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Living Questions

In response to Alf’s suggestion—a post on some philosophical problems that interest me currently—I will make a characteristically evasive response, but I hope not out of sheer perversity. The philosophical problems that interest me are the ones that are most contentious! “What sorts of disagreement cause hatred and wrath?” And of course, how can one skirt this danger and transmute them into occasions of understanding?

I have more than one motive here. Obviously, the contentious subjects are “hotter”—more “current”—and this generates a certain energy which can be put to use for philosophy. Intelligent Design? Globalization? Ecological stewardship? Multiculturalism meets Fundamentalism? The ethics of abortion? Nothing like an intervention in one of these to get the blood flowing.

For similar reasons, I am also interested in “new” movements. I’ve already mentioned Speculative Realism. I am also interested in the so-called Philosophy Cafés, though like Roger-Pol Droit, I suspect they are often more café than philosophy. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”) There is Radical Orthodoxy, a theological approach with which I am much in sympathy, founded by the work of John Milbank, which is (to risk overstatement for the sake of brevity) an attempt to outflank philosophy with theology by insisting on faith over against nihilism. And of course, there’s the converse movement—a recent spate of critique of religion, with the inevitable rejoinders by believers. At worst, of course, this is not very deep belief or disbelief, but happily not all critics or defenders are shallow. While I don’t have much good to say about Dawkins’ or Dennett’s acumen on the subject (aside from the trivial observation that the “meme” meme is a promising avenue of approach on any subject at all), AC Grayling’s and Michel Onfray’s seem a little more worth responding to qua philosopher, and André Comte-Sponville’s work is positively pleasant to read in its civility. As for the defenders, I won’t go into them right now, but the literature is at least as uneven.

In both of these interests—the contentious and the current—there’s an admitted danger of opportunism. One can be fairly sure that the currency will pass before the contention is resolved. What happens usually is that some sort of practical compromise is jerry-rigged. This is of course a matter of politics, and philosophy just has to stand back and shake its head. We might provisionally decide that home-schoolers can teach their kids that the world was made in six days or that it floats on the back of an infinite stack of turtles, but public schoolers must put up with the latest news from the Biology department. If they don’t like it, well, there are private schools, and if they can’t afford those, we’re still discussing charter schools and vouchers, none too politely. All of this dumps the conversation into the churning bin of opinion. So if our motive is to philosophize, our interest cannot be in currency or controversy for their own sakes.

But my interest here is not in straining to construe philosophy as “relevant.” Nor is it in seeking in philosophy for guidance in resolving the dilemma de jour. In a certain sense you will see that I dispute whether philosophy ever offers us “practical” guidance. It is rather that wherever the dispute is, is the opening for realization. That’s where the itch is. “Where the danger is, grows what can save” Hölderlin writes (Patmos). These are the Living Questions of the moment; the place where you can find the pulse.

This is one reason I value Vehemence (in the sense I used it before) so highly: Strongly-put positions tend to raise the stakes. Within certain parameters, this means that participants’ investment in the dialogue is higher. Those parameters are important: outside of them, investment can fall off quickly.

Example: three people are talking about the 9/11 attacks. Dan claims that 9/11 was an “inside job,” a false flag operation carried out by parts of the U.S. government; foreign operatives may or may not have been involved. Walt holds that it was a case of “roosting chickens;” legitimate grievances against the U.S. were bound sooner or later to result in just such an act, and the U.S. can hardly be justified in complaining when its own violence is turned against it. Ted maintains 9/11 was more or less what the official Commission Report says it was: an unwarranted terrorist attack, planned and executed by members of Al Quaeda.

But, you may say, the nature of 9/11 is a historical, not a philosophical question. Likewise, one could say that the question of “whether (or why) global warming is happening,” is a climatological question; that the question of what will be the likely fallout of government intervention (or lack thereof) on behalf of teetering banks, insurance companies, and brokerage firms is an economic question; or that the question of whether to buy from a grocery store or a farmers’ market is a nutritional question, perhaps informed by your own private budgetary considerations.

But follow the inquiry far enough--and it's really not so very far--and you find that all of these questions also come down to philosophical premises, and have philosophical ramifications. And, most importantly, the act of asking them and disputing them contains in that moment the opening to philosophical comportment. In fact, the conversation won’t even start to make any progress beyond “that’s-what-you-think,” until we do get to the philosophy—either by backing up or moving forward. "Who do you trust?" is an example of the sort of philosophy I mean. (It is exactly the sort of question Socrates asked; if you go to a specialist for shipbuilding or carpentry or cooking, why not for moral advice? But what makes a specialist and how do you know one?) If I am shown two different accounts of how and a building falls “into its own footprint,” then unless I am myself an engineering expert in demolition, I have to make a choice: do I believe expert A., upon whom Ted relies and who says that a building could well collapse straight down after being hit by a plane; or expert B., whom Dan cites to the effect that the only buildings that fall that way are those that are brought down by controlled explosives? What is it that disposes me to believe one or the other? And can I evaluate that disposition from outside?

The conversation between Dan, Walt and Ted is likely to get very heated, but it is perfectly possible for it to remain civil, and even for it to issue in one or more participants being persuaded. Even over so volatile a topic, manners and reason can inform our discourse. But there are limits. If Walt puts his case so strongly that Ted begins to suspect that Walt would happily see or sponsor a further attack if he could; or if Dan begins to suspect Ted not only of having “bought” the “official version” but of having participated in the “cover-up,” then a threshold has been crossed beyond which reactiveness is likely to swamp reflection.

Similar difficulties attend other debates—say, over the “life of the unborn,” or the “right to choose” (even the shorthand betrays a subtext of pre-commitment), or of the status of “fringe science,” or the competing claims of “civil liberties” and “security.” Up to a point, the debate can proceed more or less openly, but there comes a moment when one has to choose to stay engaged, or else to regard the other as enemy.

Now what I’m interested in is: How do we decide? Why are the parameters such as they are? How can we expand them (and should we)? What happens if we stay engaged and don’t run away? What is engagement? What are its limits? And what is the nature of the realization it brings?

I hope it is clear that here we begin to move from the mainly meta-philosophical considerations with which my postings began, towards ethics, in a way which I mean to be consistent with Levinas’ claim that ethics is first philosophy.


  1. Let me briefly note that I am following the argument as you have been framing it and find it all very interesting. However, I would like to interject that I have another, much less grand view of philosophy as something entirely practical. I guess I would like to demystify the philosopher much as I would remind that before we had the artistic genius of the Romantic Era we had the much more Roman concept of the artisan. By showing us how to reify ideas and concepts Plato may have indeed made the reification of God inevitable and stirred up an unending metaphysical debate, but he also gave us some very useful and powerful tools. I don't know if I believe that a triangle is ever a "real" thing but assuming it is can be pretty useful when you're building a bridge. The pinnacle of our educational system is still a doctorate in philosophy whether it be in music or math or engineering. That isn't just vestigial language, it reflects the reality that wisdom is often mundane and common. Loving execution of mundane wisdom is not only true philosophy it can also be a thrilling spiritual event. I follow that the would be architects of society may be trying to engineer a peace between warring elites and see themselves in a central role but really only they themselves and their followers would ever conceive or believe such a narrative. Nietzsche may have dismissed the importance of the bench scientist but in my opinion he is no more qualified to place value on that philosophy than I am to divine the inner spiritual life of Mozart. Common science will never find a cure for nihilism (nor I might add ever be a cause of nihilism) but it will eventually find a cure for cancer and frankly that means more to me. Ultimately the question of nihilism is a personal one that is being projected onto the world, the cause and cure remain locked in our own heads.

  2. di0genes,

    The question arises-- which is more nihilistic: the valuation of a 'cure for nihilism' over one for cancer, or vice-versa? I am not at all sure that the answer is obvious. It may even be that it's more nihilisitc to *pose* the question at all. While I doubt the value of any game of 'more-' (or 'less-') '-nihilisitc-than-thou' that goes on for very long, I confess I am troubled by the suggestion that nihilism would be a *merely* "personal" question. I really do believe it matters what collective narratives we have available to us--even if *where* this matters most is at the individual level. Whether or not I can find the 'cure' inside my own head depends in large part upon my access to the deeper language that has stood as a bulwark against meaninglessness. Trouble is, of course, that language itself eventually generates its own meaninglessness & must be renewed. (you see me cycling through speculation, critique, and tradition, over & over).

    I think you are quite right to point to the Roman example. I know you were mentioning it primarily as an example about art, but it reminds me that for all their differences from them, the Romans were closer to the Greeks than we are, and our notion of the old philosophers is indeed mediated to us by the rippled glass of the Romantics. (Not that I think the Romantics were merely wrong, or have nothing to say to us-- after all, *we* are far closer to *them* than to either Romans or Greeks!)

    In any case, I second your point that we still say "PhD" for the high-point of educational accomplishment, no matter what the field, not out of mere habit but because "wisdom is often mundane and common." I don't believe the ancient mode of philosophy *was* divorced from the mundane. I don't see philosophy as some skeleton key to 'the right answers' for any given question-- I think it is rather the *conscious* and reflective mode of asking any question whatsoever. In an earlier comment you said, "I... am sure that whether it's being a husband or a parent or a clinician or a snow shoveler, I do it all better because of philosophy." I think this is *exactly* right. Philosophy that doesn't do this is a parody of what it was. But of course it doesn't always look this way to the City; Socrates was not the only teacher who was accused of corrupting the youth, though he claimed to be concerned only to make people (himself most of all) better. Badiou warns somewhere that it isn't easy to tell the philosopher from the sophist. Well, I suppose he's just citing Nietzsche, isn't he.