Making Ourselves Disposable

One use of a term I have lately been fascinated by is Gabriel Marcel’s use of ‘disposable’ (at least that is the word used in the translation I am reading; I have little, really no French).  For Marcel, the term represents a spiritual ideal, a goal to be worked toward as one matures in Christian life.  But it also represents for him a philosophical ideal, a goal of philosophizing—although I admit that he makes this less clear.  Marcel’s use of the term overlaps interestingly with the Authorized Version’s use of ‘humble’ and of ‘meek’. But Marcel does not use the term merely as synonymous with the AV’s use of either. It also overlaps to an extent with the AV’s use of  ‘charity’, both ‘love’ and ‘gift-giving’, and it is connected by important lines of filiation with its use of ‘hope’.

The ideal is to make yourself disposable to others, to be willing to give them not only the first word in philosophical investigation, but also the last word too.  It is to philosophize in a way free of possessions, where possessions are understood as, say, theses, some philosophy or other that guides, indeed requires, my pushing or pulling, forcing or resisting for the sake of some philosophical claim or other.  These possessions make me philosophically non-disposable.  Marcel writes,

I wonder if we could not define the whole spiritual life as the sum of activities by which we try to reduce in ourselves the part played by non-disposability.

And he treats non-disposability as “inseparable from a form of self-adherence”.  Treated as a philosophical goal, being disposable would be to understand philosophy as practiced readiness of response, as a willingness to hear what another has to say and to work through that from the inside, from the side of the person who says it.  Philosophical progress would be made by reducing in our responsiveness the non-disposability that to some degree or other inevitably infects it.  As I read him, Plato’s Socrates aims for a form of non-disposability; as I read him, Wittgenstein aims for a form of it too.  Wittgenstein’s desire for it shows (it seems to me) in the way that he begins Philosophical Investigations, giving the first words to Augustine and speaking himself only in response to Augustine; it shows in his interest in what he calls “the liberating word” and in his willingness to yield wholly to the other prerogative over whether any word is in fact liberating.  (The poet, John Ciardi, somewhere speaks of the aim of poetry as the speaking of “the enlarging word”, an idea that I take to be related to Wittgenstein’s of “the liberating word”. I reckon that the ideas of “the enlarging word” and of “the liberating word” are not merely showings of an aim at being non-disposable, but of an aim at making the other more fully disposable to himself and to others.  The image of being a fly trapped in a fly-bottle (a passage that my talk of Wittgenstein’s aim makes unavoidable) I take to be an image of finding oneself non-disposable, both to oneself and to others.)  Cavell has insisted on this feature of Wittgenstein’s philosophizing, as has Cora Diamond, in her underscoring of Wittgenstein’s desire to philosophize in a way that does not lay down requirements.

Socrates’ desire for disposability shows in his repeated, often deeply frustrated hope that his interlocutor will state what the interlocutor actually believes, whether about piety or about courage or about knowledge; it shows in his understanding of himself as a philosophical midwife.  (Look again at the almost unbelievably wonderful passage in the Theaetetus 148e-151d; it deserves reading and re-reading, with, as Burnyeat memorably says, “feeling as well as thought”.)  It shows in his deference to the Logos.  It shows in his averment of his own ignorance.  Virtually all that Socrates does shows his aversion to philosophical self-adherence.

I will return to this again.

One response

  1. Your talk of ‘philosophizing without possessions’ – a distinctive kind of poverty or asceticism that the philosopher can take on – reminds me of one of my favorite descriptions of Spinoza, due to Deleuze (the opening words of his book “Spinoza: Practical Philosophy”). I’ve always loved this description of philosophy, and your discussion of disposability helps me better understand why. Here’s the passage:

    “Nietzsche understood, having lived it himself, what consti­tutes the mystery of a philosopher’s life. The philosopher appro­priates the ascetic virtues–humility, poverty, chastity–and makes them serve ends completely his own, extraordinary ends that are not very ascetic at all, in fact. He makes them the ex­pression of his singularity. They are not moral ends in his case, or religious means to another life, but rather the “effects” of philosophy itself. For there is absolutely no other life for the phi­losopher. Humility, poverty, and chastity become the effects of an especially rich and superabundant life, sufficiently powerful to have conquered thought and subordinated every other in­stinct to itself. This is what Spinoza calls Nature: a life no longer
    lived on the basis of need, in terms of means and ends, but ac­cording to a production, a productivity, a potency, in terms of causes and effects. Humility, poverty, chastity are his (the philos­opher’s) way of being a grand vivant, of making a temple of his own body, for a cause that is all too proud, all too rich, all too sensual. So that by attacking the philosopher, people know the shame of attacking a modest, poor, and chaste appearance, which increases their impotent rage tenfold; and the philos­opher offers no purchase, although he takes every blow.”

    This is certainly not an apt description of the ‘philosophical troll’ (as Graham Harman has called this all-too-common personality in contemporary philosophy): the philosopher who takes her primary pleasure in attack, dismantling the argument using her mastery of logical subtlety. Of course, logical dismantling is absolutely necessary. But there is the difference between the sculptor and the flame: the flame aims only for destruction, while the sculptor for symbiosis – the wood altering her as much as she alters the wood…

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