In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (I think, I haven’t had time to check), an old acquaintance accosts Johnson to tell him that he (the acquaintance) had tried, like Johnson, to be a philosopher. “But,” the man went on to say, “cheerfulness kept breaking in.”
Stanley Cavell, writing of Wittgenstein’s philosophical work, notes that Wittgenstein writes to create change in his readers, to deliver them to self-knowledge. And, Cavell adds, “self-knowledge is bitter.”
I want to address a few words about Thoreau’s worry about Walden being mistaken for an “ode to dejection”. I will not finish with the topic in this post.
Philosophy sounds in a minor key. At least, it does when it undertakes the living of a human life. Its lessons are of the need to change: to rethink, re-look, re-tell: Thoreau’s first chapter is Economy. If we were already leading the life philosophy would tell us to lead it would lack illocutionary space in which to speak. It sounds in the margins, narrow or wide, between what we are and what we should (and might) be.
Thoreau will tell his readers that he writes for “poor students”. He will tell them that most idle in “quiet desperation”. Even without exploring the linguistic densities of these two phrases, two of the densest in all of the book, it is easy enough to see why Thoreau worries that his reader will mistake Walden for an ode to dejection. The reader is a poor student, lives in quiet desperation. Not good news. Not big on uplift. If this is gospel, it is not the Prosperity Gospel.
To read Walden as an ode to dejection is to turn it into a metrical set piece. A bit of lofty sentimentalizing on a grand topic. Kierkegaard somewhere underlines that it served the Athenians to treat Socrates as a genius. Because, as a genius, he was eccentric, not really one of them, and, as such, his life had no claim on their lives: Socrates was a different form of life: his was not the form of Athenian life.
To treat Socrates as a genius was to (functionally) banish him from the city, excommunicate him. Teachers discover their own form of this banishment when they urgently recommend a book to students and the students take the recommendation only to reveal (more of) the eccentricity of the teacher. Thoreau writes Walden because he believes the life he led at Walden makes a claim on his reader’s life, on the discordant lives of the citizens of Concord (Everywhere, USA). That life exerts the pressure of an exemplar.
An effective means for escaping this claim, reducing its pressure, is to recategorize Thoreau’s communicative act (a kind of excommunication). “Ah! I see! An ode to dejection! Isn’t it fine? Highflown, lovely turns of phrase, — fighting ants, — splendid!” The reader aesthetisizes the book, as if its aim were to please by its magniloquent descriptions. Perhaps what it describes displeases, but the focus is not on the object of the description but on the description itself . And so Thoreau’s cannot discomfort his reader — everything has been rendered comfortable. “Write on, Thoreau, write on! Beautiful! Oh, look, a pun,” the reader mutters, reclining. “Write on!”
A strategy for refusing Thoreau’s Walden-life as an exemplar…
I was standing in front of the library wishing for the old days, a smoking campus, a campus that had not banished Lady Nicotine, when I saw him approaching: Socrates.
He had on his usual garb, a dark knit cap, a green flannel shirt under ancient bibbed jeans. His heavy work boots had soles with peculiar wear — no doubt the product of his awkward duck walk, each foot falling as though pissed with the other and determined to find its separate way. He grinned when he saw me, a Socratic grin, half-ignorance, half-knowledge, and he waved.
“Kelly,” he started, the rare cold morning air in Auburn making his exhalations visible against the threatening dark sky, “what are you doing outside the library? Wouldn’t you be better off inside?”
I eyed him cooly. He was always asking questions with multiple meanings but he would never own up to it. He just smiled a Cheshire Cat smile while the question, with its hidden questions, vanished away. I wasn’t sure what question I wanted to answer so I kept my mouth shut and endured the vanishment.
He laughed at me, as he often did, but there was a dollop of frustration in his laugh, since he couldn’t work his magic if I wouldn’t give him words. He waited for me to speak but I took off my backpack and unzipped it, hunting around in the bottom. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just looking, just hoping he might let his question suffice and move along.
After a moment, the silence seemed to move him to further speech instead of a change of location. “So, are you writing these days?”
I looked up at him quizzically. This had always been a sore spot between us. I wrote. He didn’t. I had tenure. He didn’t. Never would. He could wipe the floor with me philosophically, but I had a windowed office while he had a darkened carrel in the library, if he was lucky. I knew he had written a little poetry, but he resisted my one request to see any of it and I never asked again.
“I am — but mostly fiction. I have written no philosophy. Not lately.” I stood up and glanced down at my tennis shoes, “Maybe never again. Who knows?”
He grinned again at that. “Not me,” he noted, “I’m not one of those teachers who knows things. And how goes the fiction? Are you troubled by the thought of writing about what-is-not instead of what-is?”
I groaned and only afterward realized I groaned aloud. He seemed tempted to smile and then did, and I smiled back. “Let’s not have that conversation again, Soc, okay? You studied with Elias Stranger at Princeton — and you did that plenum post-doc at the Parmenidean Institute. You can tie me in knots of what-is-not or knots of what-is, maybe even knots of what-is-and-is-not.”
A flash showed in his eyes. “Is there anything that is-and-is-not, or is there not?”
I donned my backpack instead of answering. After a moment, I gave him a teasing glare. “You know, there’s a reason why the other profs hate you.”
We both laughed at that. “So,” he added, after the laugh disappeared, “how do you keep yourself at it, fiction writing? I’ve never been able to get myself to stick to the blank page, to screw my philosophical courage to that sticking-place. I like conversation — philosophy with no pretensions to draw the limits of things, or to occupy their center, or to have achieved some War Eagle-eye point of view. I like the on-the-spotness of conversation, the circumscribed, improvisatory exercises of a kind of human wisdom.”
I nodded. I’d been improvised on often enough, shown to lack a kind of human wisdom, dragged dizzy and dithering from Socrates’ vortex of dialectic. But even so, I couldn’t help liking the guy, even if he was a pain in the ass.
I threw caution to the wind— it’s that tendency that made me into a philosopher — and I bit: “I guess I keep at it because I’m disciplined.”
He smiled and leaned in. “You know, I have often wondered about discipline…”
I groaned but kept it wholly internal this time. I set the hook in my own jaw: “And…”
He leaned further, one of his eyes drifting outward as it often did when he concentrated, as though he was focused on me and lost in thought. It was disconcerting. I braced myself for a beating.
“And I wonder — is discipline just habit or is it more than a habit, or is it habit at all?”
We stood for a moment in low-hanging cumulus clouds of our visible breaths.
I yielded. Spoke. “Well, I guess it depends. If you compare my discipline in writing to, I don’t know, a habit like smoking or nail-biting, it seems distant from that, but if you compare it to something like map-reading, it seems closer to that.”
“Yes, but map-reading is a skill, that kind of habit. Nail-biting, unless it is a tip of the finger form of topiary, isn’t. Some habits you just have: you can’t be good or bad at them. Others, skills, you can be good or bad at.”
I considered myself. “But if you are bad enough, can you be said to have the skill?”
His eyes shined — or at least the one focused on me did. I couldn’t quite describe what happened with the other.
“Good question. I think the answer is that only someone with the skill can be said to be bad at it, but that’s a discussion for another day.”
I blew out a breath in relief, hoping that maybe he had to be somewhere else. I had heard some gossip about him being called to the President’s office — some parent had accused him of uprooting her son’s faith in the God of the Presbyterians. Maybe I would be spared a long conversation after all.
He rocked back on his feet. Then he leaned in again. Shit.
“But isn’t it true that discipline is required to learn a skill?”
“Um, yeah, I guess, usually. Unless the skill is really easy.”
“Ah, yes, but if it is easy enough, does it count as a skill? You can zip your backpack; I just witnessed it. Is that a skill?”
I shrugged. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, it is something I know how to do, but not every knowing-how counts as a skill, does it?”
He gaped at me. “You’re asking me? Me? Why? You know I don’t know. I am an ignorant man.”
Jesus, I think, sometimes I want to punch him right in his good eye. Ignorant! He’s like an X-Man mutant. Doctor Ignorance. Maybe he could borrow half of Cyclops’ visor!
I realized I was being mean-spirited.
He believed all that ignorance mumbo-jumbo, I think, as much as he believed anything, or at least as much as anyone could tell he believed anything. At any rate, it was no overt parrot belief, no mere ventriloquized form of someone else’s words. It meant something to him; it was rooted in him. He said once it had something to do with his mother, but I couldn’t tell if that was some darkling Freudian comment or a was claim about the family business.
“Can’t we say, at least provisionally,” — and as soon as I used that phrase I sank a little inside, because I knew he had me — “that there are kinds of know-how that are skills, things we do well or poorly, and forms of know-how that are not skills, things we can just do, but where evaluation seems otiose.”
He stared at me for a moment. “Provisionally? I would rather like to know what you really do believe.”
“Yeah,” I added, and gave him a defensive, one-shoulder shrug, “I’d like to know what I really believe too, but I don’t. You’re going to have to deal in half-measures. No full-scale, ad hominem, you’ve-refuted-yourself in the offing today, Soc.”
He let me slide. “So, operating a zipper doesn’t seem like a skill even though it is a kind of know-how?”
“Yeah, at least around these parts.”
“So, is a skill then a kind of know-how that you need discipline to gain?”
“Let’s say, yes.”
I could tell he wasn’t happy about my flippancy, but, hey, no one — except him, apparently — could spend the day in argument.
“Ookay. So, could we say that discipline is the habit needed to gain skills?”
“Would that make it the habit habit?”
He chuckled. “And you complained about my is and is-not.”
He gave me a flat look, hard to do with one eye straying toward the heavens.
I sighed. This is how it always went, no steps forward, countless steps back, a marathon to the starting line.
“I dunno,” I murmured, finally, putting all my higher learning to work, “how can there be a habit habit — short of a nunnery?”
“Isn’t discipline taught? That was what I was taught back in my Marine training. Oohrah.”
I winced. I couldn’t seem to keep in mind that he was not always an academic, that he was a military man once, that he somehow tucked that lifetime into his other lifetimes as a bricklayer and as a programmer for Oracle Corporation before he became a professor. He seemed younger than his seventy years, didn’t seem to be unhappily married, though I knew he was, didn’t seem to be a father, although I knew he was that too.
“So, if I understand, you mean that my discipline, if I have it, started as someone else’s discipline?”
He shrugged. “Yes, although when you put it that way it seems more paradoxical than it is. If you are lucky, your parents were disciplined people and instilled that discipline in you, raised you to be disciplined, rewarding and punishing you when you were too young to be reasoned with concerning the need for discipline, later explaining to you why the brief displeasures of discipline were key to life’s durable pleasures.”
My childhood had been about discipline; I was unconvinced that ‘brief displeasure’ was quite apt as phrases went, but I left it alone. I got the point, his point, as I got my father’s.
The point was that we have to internalize external discipline — that’s the making yours mine part of it — and all too often, parents didn’t have enough of it to pass it onto their children. Luckily, there were other sources, but it was still unlucky when that normal source turned out to be empty.
“This all sounds like Aristotle to me,” I finally said, a non-sequitur of truly non-stunning non-grossness.
He blinked. “Aristotle? Must be a new guy. Should I read him?”
Another shrug, my gesture of the day. “I don’t know. He’s a student of that student of yours, Plato.”
Socrates shakes his head. “Don’t blame me for Plato. Like you,” he says, glancing at me and narrowing the eye focused on me, “he can’t decide if he is writing fiction or philosophy. I tried to beat the fiction out of him, you know, dialectically, but he’s hard to pin down. Who knows what he actually thinks?”
“But in that,” I say, and somehow felt the gleam in own my eye, “isn’t he a chip off the old brick? After all, he says he’s your disciple.”
Socrates shook his head more emphatically. “I don’t have disciples. How could I? I have got nothing to teach.”
I pressed my lips into a line, sealing in a string of curses.
He seemed to expect a comment. “Well?”
“Well,” I echo, pausing, “isn’t your sort of ignorance itself a discipline? It’s not like you just don’t know, like a child just doesn’t know — and you know it.”
He closes his eyes and seems to drift off into existential abstraction, communing with his Unknown God. I waited, no interest in interrupting his moment, glad for a moment to recollect myself.
It took a little while, but Socrates returned to where he was. “I suppose,” he said in a slightly concessive tone, “that you are right. I know that I’m ignorant, I’m not just ignorant.”
“Yeah,” I added, “but even that’s not enough. You know it and you…embrace it, or something like that…Anyway, you don’t seem alarmed by it or ashamed of it…Being ignorant the way you are requires discipline, right, is itself a discipline?”
We stood there for a moment. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, an externalization of some inward motion. “You can’t learn if you think you know.”
“True,” I say, nodding, “but you won’t learn if you think you can’t.”
He seemed to agree with that, and I fought down a sudden desire to follow-up my remark with, “It must be so, Kelly,” to philosophize with myself in the third-person.
“But you shouldn’t confuse my ignorance with skepticism; I’m no skeptic.”
“No, you aren’t simply ignorant and you aren’t a skeptic. You’re in-between.”
He seemed to like that phrase although his quick grin turned down just as quickly. “Yes, but don’t plot me in two dimensions, I’m both in between them and behind them.”
“Thanks for that, ” I say, thanking him for nothing, “it’s a big help.”
He ducked his head a bit and shrugged and smirked — a mockery turtle. “I guess I have to go. I have to meet with President Gogue. Some well-meaning parent claims I made her son impious.”
We stood there for a moment, him delaying, me unsure what else to say. I glanced at him.
“Do you ever tire of philosophy?”
He scratched his scraggly beard, shaking his head. “I have to be about my father’s business.”
“Your father?” I asked, confused.
“Apollo.” It occured to me for the first time in several minutes that I could see his answer and not just hear it.
“Hell, Socrates.” I shouldered my backpack into a more comfortable position. “Good luck with the President. I’d…um…keep the Apollo stuff to myself.”
We parted company. I headed toward Haley Center. He headed toward Samford Hall.
As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.
Reading serious philosophers is demanding, but it is ultimately worth it. But you have to read with a notebook and a pencil, working to write out what you take passages to mean, providing illustrations (literally, pictures), asking yourself questions, making notes of connections with other texts–whether that philosopher’s or other philosophers’. You cannot read passively. You have to push back against the text as hard as you can. It will whip you soundly, but if you are game, and keep coming back, the volleys will last longer and you will begin to understand more and more.
Suggestions: Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly the Euthyphro, the Euthydemus, the Ion, the Charmides, the Apology. Read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Read St. Thomas (Aquinas Ethicusis free online and a great place to start.) Read Descartes’ Meditations. Read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile. Read Kant’s Prolegomena. Read Kierkegaard’s The Present Age. Read F H Bradley’s Ethical Studies. Read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy. Read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book. These are all wonderfully written, central works, that are written for an educated reader, but not necessarily someone with much formal training in philosophy. If you can find someone to read with, that is a huge help. Best if it is someone you can talk to face-to-face, but online is better than nothing.
Expect to be baffled. Expect to be confused. As I tell my students, philosophy requires a high confusion threshold. To read philosophy, you have to be willing to be confused, know you are confused, but nonetheless to read on. Much of what is necessary in philosophy is the right intellectual habituation, and you can only get that by frequent active reading and frequent conversation.
Philosophers have many a pleasure — known–
Felt — by themselves — which to the vulgar world
They rarely express : and when they do, how seldom
Do the hearts of men respond ! — Ay, at this moment
There is a rapture in this sunshine — spreading
Its hot o’erwhelming lustre over Athens,
Which they conceive not ; —
Unto me it is Symbolic of the incommunicable flame
Of Deity ! It seems to embrace me, like
The beatific vision of Olympus,
Transforming what it shines on, to its likeness ;
It enters into my very soul, and makes
A summer of my conscience! — I rejoice
To anticipate the eternity when I
Likewise shall be as a sunbeam.
Johnson, recall, complained of Milton’s great poem that no one ever wished it longer. I doubt Johnson believed such a wish was rejected as early as the first few of Milton’s lines. Here, however…
Ed Mooney, over at Mists on the Rivers, has been mulling over the Heidegger passage I posted yesterday, as have I. The passage fascinates me in part because so many paths intersect in it: one from Socrates and his avowal of ignorance, one from Eckhart and his working-out of contemplation, one from St. Thomas and his condemnation of curiositas as a form of cognitive intemperance, one from Neitzsche and his linking the will to knowledge to the will to power, one from Husserl and his plying of the reduction, one from Marcel and his ideal of secondary reflection, and one from Wittgenstein and his contrast of explanation and description.
I cannot rise to the level of Ed Mooney–but let me say a bit more about the line from Marcel. Marcel distinguishes primary from secondary reflection by distinguishing between what we might call their ‘objects’, problems and mysteries. There is a lot to say about that distinction, and I have toyed with it on the blog a time or two (here for example). But a key idea is the idea of investigations that are, as it were, self-willed, where the investigator stands above, over and against, what he investigates, and one where the investigator is ‘object-willed’, moved to consideration of what she stands enmeshed in, alongside, and which calls out to her for consideration. We might say that in the first case, the investigation proceeds in light produced by the investigator, in the second, in light produced by the ‘object’ investigated. (Marcel works a far-reaching change on the popular understanding of mystery, which he regards, not as a darkness that overwhelms, but as a light that is blinding, –at first, but that becomes eventually the light in which we see light: think of Christ on Mount Tabor.) Heidegger seems to understand some things as worthy of thought, as calling out to us to think them, and to think in relationship to them. Curiosity all-too-often is something that we project upon the world–we think about what we regard as worthy of thought, instead of what calls us out of ourselves and into thought.
There seems to me little doubt that Walden (to hook up with Ed’s reflections) is not only a book about but a book that exemplifies secondary reflection. And I think that secondary reflection is at play too, albeit in different ways, in Socrates’ unknowledge, Echart’s contemplation, St. Thomas’ studiositas (the contrast to curiositas), Husserl’s reduction and Wittgenstein’s descriptions. It seems likely true even in Nietzsche’s transvalued knowledge. For all of these, the relationship between the investigator and the investigated transforms the investigation, and that must always already be on the mind of the investigator. The world does not bumble around us, a flattened pother of objects indifferent to their investigation and that we investigate willy-nilly as we choose, but instead structures and variegates itself around us, featuring objects that call us to thought and objects that do not. And what they reveal to us is not a matter of what we take from them but of what they give us, sometimes only after we have earned it by abiding in hope before them, listening even to their silence, waiting for them to speak.What we ‘know’ of them in such moments is not something that we can commodify, something that we can learn by banking on our own conceptions of reasoning about them, our own ability to wring answers to our questions from them.
Didn’t Aristotle push us this way, too, long ago, when he noted that the problem of method is entirely (note that word) determined by the object?
In monastic tradition, a monk makes four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Most people are familiar with the first three but not with the fourth. In classical monastic practice it meant that a monk stayed put: he did not move from monastery to monastery. It was not a new idea. Before this vow was formalized in various Rules, there was already the saying from the Desert: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
I have been lucky to have been able to stay put. Perhaps, if I had been more talented or more ambitious or both, I would not have stayed put. Perhaps I would have aimed more seriously at career upward mobility. But I was not more talented and was not and am not more ambitious. So, here I am. So, here I stay. Here I hope to stay–until I stay put permanently, resting, I hope, in peace.
When I got my job at Auburn, my teacher, Lewis White Beck, was very pleased. He grew up not far from here. His brother still lived (in those days) just north up 85, in Westpoint, Ga. (I used to visit him to hear stories of Lewis’ childhood.) Beck counseled me about Auburn: “Don’t go and leave. Stay and make it the kind of place where you want to be.” The philosophy department at Auburn has become that, although I deserve little of the credit. But I do think that staying has made me more of the person I have wanted to be. I do not mean I am not deeply flawed; of course I am, of course. Still, staying put has been a revelator and tutor: I have learnt something about fidelity and commitment, about what it means to work with others to build something bigger and better than the builders. I have learnt something about being unknown and unremarked, and about first being restively reconciled to it and later accepting it and still later coming to desire it. “Live hidden” is good advice. (Beck was once asked by the NYTimes (if I remember correctly) if they could do a feature on him, a sort of Elder Philosopher at Home bit. He declined, telling them that he was determined to enjoy “the beneficent obscurity of senectitude”. –Is that a line from Gibbon?) I guess I still have a few years before I enter my senectitude, but it is not too early for obscurity to be beneficent.
As I grow older, my classes and my students fascinate me more than ever before. Philosophical problems incarnate are now my meditation. Philosophical problems disincarnate no longer exert much pull on me. Perhaps what I have come to appreciate more fully is that there is a strict specificity about philosophical problems–they exist only in a specific person and they can be grappled with only in conjunction with that person and they can be solved–in whatever sense they are solved–only by that person. Where I am not that person, I can help or hurt (from the lectern, from the page); but I can only help or hurt; but I can no more solve the problem for him or her than I can be prudent for him or her. Philosophical problems arise from and are finally only responsive to the living experience of a specific person. I believe I have learnt that from Socrates–himself a master of staying put.
As Robert Frost once recommended: “Don’t get converted. Stay.”