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

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Sometimes it happens


As months pass without a post, the labor of breaking silence becomes more and more onerous because of the weight that would implicitly be placed on whatever the post is that breaks it.  This post will not be the one -- if there is one -- to shoulder the (imaginary and yet felt) burden of justifying either itself or the preceding silence.  It is just a vignette about what I do.  But this really is about what I do

A huge portion of my work is about showing and calling attention to the unceasing, always-available capillary breathing between the mundane and the supposedly "deep," i.e., "the next level" of reflection; as I sometimes say, between the questions "where should we eat lunch?" and "how must we live?"  In a recent installment from Peter Limberg, he remarks that among those who have recently discovered philosophy that there is usually a stage at which they seize upon "any conversational opening to turn 'shallow' conversations into 'deep' ones," usually to the consternation and annoyance of friends and family.  Though I do not at all endorse Limberg's account of these "stages," nor the moral he ostensibly draws, I suppose I could be thought of as more or less plateauing in this condition, at least internally; I do not force the turn upon my loved ones nearly as often as I might, but my own mind is working like this without a break -- not because I am looking for such "openings," but because these mental habits are so second-nature that the openings simply are the path of least resistance.  Nor would I say I try to "model" this kind of turn. I simply try to be who I am, always in response to those with whom I find myself, and this "who I am" inevitably entails a bent towards this ostensible "depth," though not without a good deal of humor (ironic, silly, or crass as the case may be), and whatever the day's exhaustions. God knows this "being who I am" is difficult enough, given my insecurities, mistakes in understanding, and various other besetting temptations.  Still, it is what I aspire to, and when I manage it I suppose those around me are pretty much continually being subjected to the razor's edge that separates any other question from the triumvirate of "Why?," "So, What if...,"  and "But -- Really?" 

One might well compare Limberg's worries to the hesitation of Plato, who remarks in a letter that too-early or too slapdash an introduction to philosophy can make students think they have got hold of some tool for aggrandizing themselves at the expense of their peers (or, as Aristophanes satirized, their elders). I take Plato seriously -- far too seriously to take him literally -- and I have honed my pedagogy accordingly. I teach no "doctrines" and no method either except what I see being used in conversation already. But I do go -- with students -- where the logos leads. I'm following them; they are following the logos. I'm just showing them how to follow. It's by following them that I show them.

The other night, after my philosophy class had ended, I stood out on the curb with a couple of students as they awaited their ride. We called goodbye to one of their classmates, who called back goodbye by name to the two of them, but (naturally enough) not to me -- I am the teacher, not their peer. (These are middle school students, remember.)  My student S. remarked upon it, and I joked, "Yes -- now there is an imbalance, and extra goodbye out there in the world."  S. paused for just a moment, that beautiful electrical telltale moment when I know something is about to happen in a conversation, and then said: 

"Well -- probably the real imbalance is the other way, don't you think? because we say way more Hello's than we do Goodbye's, don't we?  I mean, just like walking down the sidewalk, people say Hi to each other, even to people they don't know, but it would be weird to say Bye to random people, right?"  

This struck me, and still does strike me, as rather a novel observation (to me, at any rate), and moreover, as it turned out, a fruitful one: it led on to a fifteen-minute improvisation among the three of us, imagining counterfactual social mores (and trying a few of them out as people passed us on the sidewalk), and thinking about the meaning of greeting and parting, about opposition (hello and goodbye), convention, and what it means to know another person; and finally reflecting on the fact that this whole conversation had followed upon a moment of levity that followed from a simple social interaction. 

Is it obvious that this is a "deeper" direction in which the conversation had been "taken"? Would it have been "shallow" had it not gone there?  I am not convinced that the spatial metaphor is the most apt. What does seem clear is that it is an instance of logos turning upon nomos, asking after the reason for the nomos; there is an assumption operative here that there is some reason why greeting and farewell work as they do; that we can get enough distance to see both how they operate and to make surmises about why. The most important thing about this step is not the specific question that gets asked or answered (however speculatively or inadequately), but that it happens

And once it has happened, no matter the apparent triviality of its occasion, it can happen again. Sometimes the triviality is actually an aid, because reflection on a weightier matter can seem like just more of the weightiness. It is far easier to slip into counterfactuals and "what if we didn't?" and actual suspension of presuppositions about saying Hello and Goodbye, than about sacred cows like voting, or vague "values" like equality, or supposedly edgy things like the freedom to be offensive, or technical questions like artificial intelligence, the nature (if any) of dark matter, or what counts as evidence in general when it comes to vaccines, epidemiology, or the efficacy, wisdom, and motives of governmental oversight. We can think we are asking the bold questions about all of these, when really we are operating well within established nomic boundaries. We do this -- slip into thinking we are being far more revolutionary than we are -- precisely because the stakes are high; we don't notice what we don't question because we can't (at that moment) possibly question it. But when the conversation is just about some low-stakes throwaway moment, we can let ourselves go there; and if we get into the habit of going there, it gets easier and easier. It is not "automatic" (and would it be a good thing if it were?); but one comes to sense the openings more readily, and tell the true ones from the false.

I felt a great warmth of pride and affection swell in my heart as I watched this fourteen-year-old boy stretching his mind, finding his way into the space of reasons, his smile growing as he felt it open up before him and he sensed his footing was secure -- at least for the moment -- using the only orienting tools that have ever been available: the willingness to ask Why, So What If, and But Really?; to let himself take this playfulness seriously, with the confidence that it is a space of reasons and not of arbitrariness; above all to notice that it is always right here, that every moment sings with a thousand invitations to enter. I feel it each time, and I felt it then. 
This is why I teach. This is what I do. But -- what is it, this teaching, this doing?

It was a small moment. In talking about it this way, have I overblown it? Who do I think I am, Obi-Wan Kenobi? "You've taken your first step into a larger world." Well, in a word: Huh, interesting question. Is that one word, two, or three? I'm not above laughing at myself to deflate some of the excess gravitas, but make no mistake, this laughing is itself part of the way. The examined life is the life worth living, and for holding this, I do not, cannot, apologize.  Whether S., or any student will go on to "be a philosopher" I don't care to speculate; I certainly don't care a whit whether they will go on to "major in philosophy," unless it would be to urge them to be very sure they want to. But I do know that when a student can "go there" in those moments, I feel met -- on that even ground whereon, before the perennial questions, we are all equal. I recognize the light that comes into their eyes, an eros; I recognize it because I feel it (and by virtue of feeling it) in my own. It's a look of two silent realizations arising fast on one another's heels -- a thrill: I can do this! ; and then, a different thrill, or an adumbration of the same: What is this I'm doing? 

The spark leaps. But must there be a "direction" in which it leaps? 


  1. "Every moment sings with a thousand invitations to enter." That's lovely, as is the essay itself.

    In a blogosphere (sorry, dated term) overstuffed with words usually operating like bullets that don't penetrate paper, it's refreshing to read your words again. You're DOING philosophy with these kids, and you're a genuine writer. Please keep doing that.

  2. I'm delighted to hear that you have still been actively engaged with philosophy as a teacher - and that your students have learned to question actively. That was something I had really hoped to instill when I taught at Stonehill, and it's great to hear your story of doing it in high school.

    And one way or another, your silence has now been broken, reducing any potential burden of following up. Is it too much to hope we'll hear more from you soon?

  3. I suspect "deep" and "shallow" are insufficient because people dance on the tension between the extremes. I think it is great that you allowed S. and the other student to explore directions in thought and word in order to hone in on their voices.