Archive for category On the soul

The Self Under Capitalism

I am reading a little book entitled, The Anarchist Revelation. It has me thinking about a number of things concerning the kinds of selves we are shaped to be under capitalism. In one passage, the book’s author, Paul Cudenec, discusses television and the role of advertising (as forerunner and adjunct to our “screen culture” today). What he says is familiar; you have heard this critique before. But if we can stand to hear the tv ads repeatedly, surely we can stand to hear an alternative view more than once. It is the capitalist system that praises novelty above every other criterion, never once asking if new is always better.

 Television, Advertising, Capitalism vs. Our True Identity

Elements of Cudenec’s critique include the following. When we are engaged, if that is the right word, with television, we are lost to ourselves. Citing Guillame Carnino, it is that “we become what we watch.” It is either an escape from ourselves or the active prevention of our becoming our true selves. The default position is immersion in a television (and now more broadly “screen”) culture, and opting out is no easy struggle.

In addition, television is 100% advertising, the shows being only a draw to the commercials, meant to make our minds receptive to the message. And what is that message? You need things. But capitalism works in a way opposite to the natural relation between needs and good. The system first produces the goods, and then it generates the needs. In fact, the system functions on the proviso that it can generate wants that it can turn into needs.

We thereby are molded into selves that are a function of external objects and stimulations – the objects and stimulations generated for us by the system. Cudenic complains that there is a lack of “real individuality.” What passes for individuality is just another persona produced by the marketplace. We are, as Cudenic puts it in the words of Joseph Campbell, “men who are fractions (who) imagine (our)selves to be complete.”

The market promises to satisfy all our wants, but in fact it operates on the principle of creating an infinite series of desires (masquerading as “needs,” of course) that cannot be satisfied. The satisfaction of desire would be the end of the capitalist system.Cudenic cites, as two examples of the absurdity of the generation of false needs, the fact that advertisers have convinced girls and young women to spend massive amounts of money for skin products meant to counteract the problems (if that’s what they are) of much older women, as well their having sold the notion that simply to take a walk one needs expensive gear in order to do it “properly.” All of this puts us on a never-ending treadmill of ultimately meaningless busyness and acquisition that prevents us from coming to be our real selves. Gustave Landauer (cited by Cudenic) put it this way:

Progress, what you call progress, this incessant hustle-bustle, this rapid tiring and neurasthenic, short-breathed chase after novelty, after anything new as long as it is new, this progress and the crazy ideas of the practitioners of development associated with it…this progress, this unsteady, restless haste; this inability to remain still and this perpetual desire to be on the move, this so-called progress is a symptom of our abnormal condition, our uncultured.”

There is an ever-expanding distance between ourselves and the reality of the world around us. Our meat simply “comes from the store” — we have no awareness of the process by which it arrives at our table. This disconnect doubles back on us, preventing us from having a true sense of our own identity.

 Some Reflections

There is much to be sympathetic with in this passionate critique — and I have only touched the surface, reflecting on just a few pages of this book. It is difficult to argue with this analysis, yet I wonder if there aren’t some subtleties that need to be brought to light. It is always tricky to try to sum up either human nature or the times in which one lives. Attempts often end up as caricatures, capturing some core truths but lacking a comprehensive balance. I found myself reflecting on a number of points:

 Individuality

What does it mean to say we have a “true” self that is being suppressed or blocked by the world system? What is that true self and how are we to discover it? If the capitalist system is truly totalitarian, as François Brune puts it, how is one ever even to recognize that one’s true self is in peril of being submerged? There must be some “space” for critical reflection, even in this all-pervasive capitalist system (or any other totalitarian regime). This also implies that we can at least catch a glimpse of or have an intuition about what one’s true self must be like, even under the conditions of the non-stop onslaught of advertising.But is it right to say that that self is an individual? There is a tendency for Cudenic (and maybe for most of us) to equate who we really are with a unique individual. But I wonder sometimes whether the idea of the “unique individual” is not, itself, a creation of the capitalist system. Does this idea not smack of that obsession with novelty that is elsewhere criticized in Cudenic’s account? If there turns out to be truth in that possibility, then we human beings are in a more complicated position than this account lets on. For what then is our true self? Is it really something unique? And, if not, how will we distinguished between a mass-marketed self foisted on us by the world system and a self-in-solidarity, a self-in-communion that inevitably draws its identity from others and which is, therefore, not unique? What if the anguish of the soul longing for uniqueness is not a revolt from consumer society, but just another manifestation of it, perfectly poised to be sold yet another solution-for-profit?I am simply raising the question. I am convinced that much of our identity is an off-the-rack model and that we are missing the chance to get at the marrow of life because of it. But I am concerned that we have uncritically adopted either a typically modern or post-modern view of the self. The former would see us first of all as isolated individuals. As such, the distinguish mark of each one of us is how we are different from each other, i.e., unique. If the latter, we see ourselves as an infinitely malleable “text” whose “true” nature is that it has no nature at all. Both views leave us well-open to the siren calls of the marketplace. There is nothing within either view that provides us with adequate resources to critique and resist. I could put it this way: this particular critique, which is by no means Cudenic’s alone, may, itself — despite its best intentions, have bought into the capitalist arch-criterion of novelty.

  Things

Part of this critique challenges the idea that our identities are best formed by the things that we have — more accurately, the things that we buy and consume. Aristotle already challenged this notion a couple of millennia ago, noting that happiness (which for him is not an emotion or a feeling but the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being) must be something other than the fleeting pleasures afforded by external goods. But Aristotle also noted that in order to be happy — even in his profound understanding of the term — one had to have a share of external goods.

Human beings are, among other things, creators. We make things. We use things to enhance our abilities to do more things. Thus it ever was. Cudenic criticizes, not without justification, the idea that we have to have superfluous things (preferably expensive things) in order to engage in the most simple, natural activities. Do I need expensive walking shoes, an expensive hat, an expensive walking stick simply to take a walk? Do I need them? No, of course not. People are walking all the time without them, and I can (and do), too. But is it not really more comfortable walking in a good pair of walking shoes? May I not walk much further in good shoes? Might that not keep me outdoors and away from the television? Wouldn’t a good hat protect me from sunburn, thus keeping me less likely to get skin cancer? Might a good walking stick take a little pressure off these aging knees? Is there not something in — dare I say it? — true human nature that seeks such improvements? Are we not naturally tinkerers and experimenters? I ask these questions because I wonder if the capitalist generation of infinite needs is as artificial, let’s call it, as the critique makes it out to be. Again, there is definitely something to the critique, to the insight that we are fooling ourselves if we think that accumulation of material things equals genuine happiness. We are wrong if we think we are solely what we own. We are not solely what we own, but we are in part what we possess.There is a sense of this critique which somehow sees us as disembodied. I am certain, of course, that neither Cudenic nor the cloud of other critics of capitalism would admit this. Still, I think it should be considered. There is an undercurrent in these critques that see us as somehow poluted, disfigured, and falsified by consumer goods. Consider this passage:

The possessions in which we invest so much value, from cars to washing machines, are, as scientist and writer Kit Pedler sees, ‘symbols of despair and failure: surrogates for achievement, which encourage us to live on the outside of our senses and actually diminish the quality of life.’ Carnino points out that ‘having, and no longer being, is the sole source of our desire,’ and there is a horrible sense of us having abandoned our own selves, our own destinies, under the hypnosis of mass exploitation.

Is my having a washing machine to clean my clothes a sign of my despair? Would I be more my true self if I took my pants down to the river, soaked them in the running (and no doubt at this stage polluted) waters, and beat them on a rock to clean them?I think we need to look at ourselves as materially extended beyond our own bodies. I am certain that there are risks involved in such a self-conception, but only because I am certain there are risks involved any time one tries to pin down what it means to be human.

 Provisional Conclusion

None of these questions should be construed to constitute a gainsaying of Cudenic’s critique. I find him to be, in fact, a kindred spirit (at least so far in the book). And, on that note, I remind us that this is not actually a review of this book (maybe later…). I was simply provoked to thinking this morning by some of the insights of this particular chapter in The Anarchist Revelation. In any case, I still am struggling with what is really going on in the capitalist culture, the system in which I am thoroughly implicated and enmeshed.

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With the Whole of the Everyday

Lectio Divina: A thought (or two) for the day (and everyday):

God can be beheld in each thing and reached through each pure deed. But this insight is by no means to be equated with a pantheistic world view, as some have thought. …[T]he whole world is only a word out of the mouth of God. Nonetheless, the least thing in the world is worthy that through it God should reveal Himself to the person who truly seeks Him; for no thing can exist without a divine spark, and each person can uncover and redeem this spark at each time and through each action, even the most ordinary, if only he or she performs it in purity, wholly directed to God and concentrated in Him. Therefore, it will not do to serve God only in isolated hours and with set words and gestures. One must serve God with one’s whole life, with the whole of the everyday, with the whole of reality. The salvation of man does not lie in his holding himself far removed from the worldly, but in consecrating it to holy, to divine meaning: his work and his food, his rest and his wandering, the structure of the family and the structure of society. It lies in his preserving the great love of God for all creatures, yes, for all things.

[From Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, (1958, 1988) 41-42; slightly edited.]

Gloss in the form of a question: What is meant by “purity”?

Martin Buber

Martin Buber

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In praise of uselessness…

A student and I were chatting for a few moments after class on Friday.  She told me that she enjoys our class because she gets “to think about and discuss some important things,” things that don’t seem to come up over there in the business school where she pursues her major.  She wondered whether she should consider changing her major from something she doesn’t like (business) to something she does (seem to) like (philosophy).

Now, I sharpened up this brief conversation to make a point:  this is the moment that any honest and self-aware philosophy professor dreads more than any other.  What do I say next?

Do I go on and on about how the humanities are not respected in academia (despite the lip-service paid them), about the miserable job prospects for one who wants to pursue humane learning in a professional capacity, about the viciousness of campus politics (because, as they say, so little is at stake), that academia seems to breed negativity, etc.?  Who’d recommend to a young person that way of life?  And do I say that the humanities are just something we do for a while, now, while we (at least you) are young, that getting a job is the main thing because so much else in our lives hangs on our economic circumstances, about how the humanities are seemingly useless to living in a consumer society such as ours, about how just because we do not enjoy something does not mean it is not good for us—I teach (about) Aristotelian virtue, after all—etc.?

On the other hand, how do I tamp down the obvious enthusiasm—even love—that I have for philosophy and for what I do with my life?  The students can’t miss it.  And they want that or something like that.  It doesn’t have to be academic philosophy, but they want something that will produce the effusive joy in living and doing in them that they see coming from me.  They know I’m not doing it for the money (Lord knows).  They know I had a career in business that brought in a very nice income.  They know I got to see a little of the world—maybe more than most do.  But they see that, after all, here I am.

And they see that how I experience the philosophical life generates a joy in me that is akin to the joy someone else might find in stamp collecting or ice hockey or cooking—but that it’s also more than that.  The philosophical life is about life itself, about us, even all about me in a non-superficial, non-egocentric sense.  Students in college (and even—maybe especially—the “non-traditional” students, the returning adults) are at a point in their lives where it seems to be “all about me”—again, not just in some superficial, selfish sense.  In fact, you might say that the superficial, selfish manifestations of “all about me” arise just because there is no authentic arena for thinking about, wondering about, imagining what “me” means for most of these students.  When students find such a space, they gravitate towards it.

And yet, the self-aware, honest philosopher would have to ask: This “joy” you’re referring to—is it genuine?  Is it coming from pursuing philosophy itself (if it has an “itself”)?  Or does it come from being in charge in the classroom, from being on stage, raptly attended to (if you are any good at performing), from being the know-it-all in the room, from not having to meet payroll anymore, or deal with neurotic funders or board members or troublesome employees, or the bottom line?  Is philosophy, for me, “all about me,” in a superficial sense?  And am I in any way encouraging the same quest for selfish ego-gratification in others, in perhaps impressionable young people?

Just asking oneself these questions is—inescapably—philosophical, an occupational hazard of the philosophical life, the price to be paid for a joyous pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  It’s all in the game.  And the answer is:  Sure, it’s selfish.  But it is not only selfish.  When my students drive away in better cars, I know it is not only selfish.  What I do is fun, but it is also serious.  It is to me, and it is to the students around me.  I should really say fellow-students, because (selfishly, yes!) I am still learning, yearning for learning.  I know that I do not know.

Knowing computer programming, accounting, or animal husbandry is useful.  Not knowing is useless.  Constantly examining one’s life is useless.  Philosophy is useless.  It gets in the way of the useful, upends efficiency and effectiveness, makes trouble where no one noticed anything troubling.

I think this truth about philosophy infects academic philosophy.  I would be willing to bet that most departments might frown upon taking philosophy personally—or at least worry over when it gets “too personal,” as if it is not really about persons, teacher-persons and student-persons.  Departments, I would imagine, tend to worry about confusing eros with philia.  It is a fair concern.  If philosophy is personal—about persons—then some sense of intimacy might develop.  And then, call the lawyers!  It wouldn’t be useful to make education be so personal—not just for these reasons, but also because we’ve made education all about certification.  We have tests and grades and such in order to be able to certify.  So a “good” philosophy student is one who knows about philosophy—which one might be even if one is not a philosopher—does well by knowing names and dates, how to define terms, the stock arguments, who influenced whom, etc.  Making philosophy to be knowing-about-philosophy is very useful for academic philosophy because you can assess it.  If you teach virtue ethics, for instance, you could ask questions about Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre.  But you could never follow a student around the rest of her life trying to assess how virtuous in living she’s become.  That’d be creepy.

Knowing about philosophy might be useful outside the academy…it is hard to see how, though.  What would you do…open up your own little philosophy shop?  I guess you could engage in interesting cocktail party conversation.  You could win big on Jeopardy!, I suppose, being able to ring in fast with, “Who was Descartes?”  But it won’t come up on a regular basis in corporate headquarters.

I could try to re-describe philosophy—academic philosophy—in terms that make it appear as if it were useful.  In academic philosophy, you learn the art of careful, close reading; argumentation; debate; critical thinking; seeing the “big picture;” etc.  All these are eminently useful skills to develop.  My students know, for instance, that a big part of the reason I made a buck or two in the business world was simply because I developed these skills.  I never had business, information technology, or manufacturing courses, but I ended up having a bunch of people who did have these courses work for me.  It would be impossible for me to argue that philosophy—at least academic philosophy—has been useless to me.

But all of that makes up the form of academic philosophy, not the content.  You should be learning all of those skills across the liberal arts curriculum.  But for me, the content—what philosophy is all about—matters.  It would be better if conversations about Aristotle, Kant, and Mill came up on board rooms and shop floors as much as in lecture halls.  But they usually don’t.  So, for many reasons, philosophy happens intensely only on college and university campuses (if it does at all).

Speaking of Aristotle, he defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.  Happiness is not a feeling or emotion, but an activity, an actualization, a way of being, a state once achieved that is permanent.  Aristotle says we do all things for the sake of happiness.  What this means is that everything we do we do because it at least seems useful to us for getting what we ultimately want:  happiness.  But this means that happiness—in the sense Aristotle means it—is useless.  It is not for the sake of anything.  There is no “in order to” that follows happiness.  On the contrary, everything else is “in order to” be happy.

If happiness—again, not to be confused with mere pleasure, although it includes it—is what we want, then what we want is, itself, useless.  What students see in me—someone taking joy from the ultimately useless, i.e., someone pursuing genuine happiness, someone working on being happy—is just exactly what they are looking for.  I don’t mean me, that it is peculiar or specific to me.  There is no cult of personality going on here.  I mean they see something in me and what I’m doing that goes way beyond me, that, in fact, makes them forget all about me (in both senses of that—forget about EW and forget about their own superficial “all about me” attitude) and start to be able to grasp who they are and what happiness means to them.  And they start to question whether “getting a job”—the most useful thing in the world—will mean happiness for them.

But—again—the problem for me, their teacher and somewhat reluctant advisor—is what to say to them about all this.  If I say the most important things are the most useless things (i.e., they are goods in themselves, regardless of whether they are useful for anything else), I don’t want them to think there is nothing useful for getting to the “useless.”  Aristotle would be emphatic about this.  There are many things that are useful for getting to happiness (even as they should not be confused with being “happiness” itself).  But if I emphasize just how important the useful things are (like accounting and computer programming, engineering and law, architecture and culinary arts), I don’t want them to think that we’re just wasting time, then, on this useless philosophy stuff.

So my student friend was wondering, in effect: Should I trade useful for useless?

Now what kind of advisor would I be if I simply were to say:  Yes, go for it!?  Part of me thinks I ought to be sued for nonsupport were I to do so.

My academic advisor answer is:  “You know, philosophy is a great minor.  Goes great with business management.”

It’s a useful response.  Still, I want to give them something a little more useless because, well, useless is more….

 

(from the archive: originally appeared October 4, 2009)

 

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Respect public opinion just so far…

Bertrand Russell: “One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.” http://bit.ly/9OmxwH

Journey to Ithaca – World Hum


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John R. Searle – Beyond Dualism

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-3295448672203577230&hl=en&fs=true

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The End of Wisdom???

It’s discernment, stupid!

The attribute of discernment must be acquired to reach wisdom. Discernment is the ability to discriminate, to distinguish different levels of knowledge and to apply understanding in a prudent way. Discernment comes largely from experience, learned as we move through life acquiring the ability to weigh what is more or less meaningful in a particular context.

More.

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A few words in praise of uselessness…

A student and I were chatting for a few moments after class on Friday.  She told me that she enjoys our class because she gets “to think about and discuss some important things,” things that don’t seem to come up over there in the business school where she pursues her major.  She wondered whether she should consider changing her major from something she doesn’t like (business) to something she does (seem to) like (philosophy).

Now, I sharpened up this brief conversation to make a point:  this is the moment that any honest and self-aware philosophy professor dreads more than any other.  What do I say next?

Do I go on and on about how the humanities are not respected in academia (despite the lip-service paid them), about the miserable job prospects for one who wants to pursue humane learning in a professional capacity, about the viciousness of campus politics (because, as they say, so little is at stake), that academia seems to breed negativity, etc.?  Who’d recommend to a young person that way of life?  And do I say that the humanities are just something we do for a while, now, while we (at least you) are young, that getting a job is the main thing because so much else in our lives hangs on our economic circumstances, about how the humanities are seemingly useless to living in a consumer society such as ours, about how just because we do not enjoy something does not mean it is not good for us—I teach (about) Aristotelian virtue, after all—etc.?

On the other hand, how do I tamp down the obvious enthusiasm—even love—that I have for philosophy and for what I do with my life?  The students can’t miss it.  And they want that or something like that.  It doesn’t have to be academic philosophy, but they want something that will produce the effusive joy in living and doing in them that they see coming from me.  They know I’m not doing it for the money (Lord knows).  They know I had a career in business that brought in a very nice income.  They know I got to see a little of the world—maybe more than most do.  But they see that, after all, here I am.

And they see that how I experience the philosophical life generates a joy in me that is akin to the joy someone else might find in stamp collecting or ice hockey or cooking—but that it’s also more than that.  The philosophical life is about life itself, about us, even all about me in a non-superficial sense.  Students in college (and even—maybe especially—the “non-traditional” students, the returning adults) are at a point in their lives where it seems to be “all about me”—again, not just in some superficial, selfish sense.  In fact, you might say that the superficial, selfish manifestations of “all about me” arise just because there is no authentic arena for thinking about, wondering about, imagining what “me” means for most of these students.  When students find such a space, they gravitate towards it.

And yet, the self-aware, honest philosopher would have to ask: This “joy” you’re referring to—is it genuine?  Is it coming from pursuing philosophy itself (if it has an “itself”)?  Or does it come from being in charge in the classroom, from being on stage, raptly attended to (if you are any good at performing), from being the know-it-all in the room, from not having to meet payroll anymore, or deal with neurotic funders or board members or troublesome employees, or the bottom line?  Is philosophy, for me, “all about me,” in a superficial sense?  And am I in any way encouraging the same quest for selfish ego-gratification in others, in perhaps impressionable young people?

Just asking oneself these questions is—inescapably—philosophical, an occupational hazard of the philosophical life, the price to be paid for a joyous pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  It’s all in the game.  And the answer is:  Sure, it’s selfish.  But it is not only selfish.  When my students drive away in better cars, I know it is not only selfish.  What I do is fun, but it is also serious.  It is to me, and it is to the students around me.  I should really say fellow-students, because (selfishly, yes!) I am still learning, yearning for learning.  I know that I do not know.

Knowing computer programming, accounting, or animal husbandry is useful.  Not knowing is useless.  Constantly examining one’s life is useless.  Philosophy is useless.  It gets in the way of the useful, upends efficiency and effectiveness, makes trouble where no one noticed anything troubling.

I think this truth about philosophy infects academic philosophy.  I would be willing to bet that most departments might frown upon taking philosophy personally—or at least worry over when it gets “too personal,” as if it is not really about persons, teacher-persons and student-persons.  Departments, I would imagine, tend to worry about confusing eros with philia.  It is a fair concern.  If philosophy is personal—about persons—then some sense of intimacy might develop.  And then, call the lawyers!  It wouldn’t be useful to make education be so personal—not just for these reasons, but also because we’ve made education all about certification.  We have tests and grades and such in order to be able to certify.  So a “good” philosophy student is one who knows about philosophy—which one might be even if one is not a philosopher—does well by knowing names and dates, how to define terms, the stock arguments, who influenced whom, etc.  Making philosophy to be knowing-about-philosophy is very useful for academic philosophy because you can assess it.  If you teach virtue ethics, for instance, you could ask questions about Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre.  But you could never follow a student around the rest of her life trying to assess how virtuous in living she’s become.

Knowing about philosophy might be useful outside the academy…it is hard to see how, though.  What would you do…open up your own little philosophy shop?  I guess you could engage in interesting cocktail party conversation.  You could win big on Jeopardy!, I suppose, being able to ring in fast with, “Who was Descartes?”  But it won’t come up on a regular basis in corporate headquarters.

I could try to re-describe philosophy—academic philosophy—in terms that make it appear as if it were useful.  In academic philosophy, you learn the art of careful, close reading; argumentation; debate; critical thinking; seeing the “big picture;” etc.  All these are eminently useful skills to develop.  My students know, for instance, that a big part of the reason I made a buck or two in the business world was simply because I developed these skills.  I never had business, information technology, or manufacturing courses, but I ended up having a bunch of people who did work for me.  It would be impossible for me to argue that philosophy—at least academic philosophy—has been useless to me.

But all of that makes up the form of academic philosophy, not the content.  You should be learning all of those skills across the liberal arts curriculum.  But for me, the content—what philosophy is all about—matters.  It would be better if conversations about Aristotle, Kant, and Mill came up on board rooms and shop floors as much as in lecture halls.  But they usually don’t.  So, for many reasons, philosophy happens only intensely on college and university campuses (if it does at all).

Speaking of Aristotle, he defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.  Happiness is not a feeling or emotion, but an activity, an actualization, a way of being, a state once achieved that is permanent.  Aristotle says we do all things for the sake of happiness.  What this means is that everything we do we do because it at least seems useful to us for getting what we ultimately want:  happiness.  But this means that happiness—in the sense Aristotle means it—is useless.  It is not for anything.  There is no “in order to” that follows happiness.  On the contrary, everything else is “in order to” be happy.

If happiness—again, not to be confused with mere pleasure, although it includes it—is what we want, then what we want is, itself, useless.  What students see in me—someone taking joy from the ultimately useless, i.e., someone pursuing genuine happiness, someone working on being happy—is just exactly what they are looking for.  I don’t mean me, that it is peculiar or specific to me.  There is no cult of personality going on here.  I mean they see something in me and what I’m doing that goes way beyond me, that, in fact, makes them forget all about me (in both senses of that—forget about EW and forget about their own superficial “all about me” attitude) and start to be able to grasp who they are and what happiness means to them.  And they start to question whether “getting a job”—the most useful thing in the world—will mean happiness for them.

But—again—the problem for me, their teacher and somewhat reluctant advisor—is what to say to them about all this.  If I say the most important things are the most useless things (i.e., they are goods in themselves, regardless of whether they are useful for anything else), I don’t want them to think there is nothing useful for getting to the “useless.”  Aristotle would be emphatic about this.  There are many things that are useful for getting to happiness (even as they should not be confused with being “happiness” itself).  But if I emphasize just how important the useful things are (like accounting and computer programming, engineering and law, architecture and culinary arts), I don’t want them to think that we’re just wasting time, then, on this useless philosophy stuff.

So my student friend was wondering, in effect: Should I trade useful for useless?

Now what kind of advisor would I be if I simply were to say:  Yes, go for it!?  Part of me thinks I ought to be sued for nonsupport were I to do so.

My academic advisor answer is:  “You know, philosophy is a great minor.  Goes great with business management.”

It’s a useful response.  Still, I want to give them something a little more useless because, well, useless is more….

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On Superficiality (For Johnna M.)

“Superficial” is a swear word for most people.   To fire this supposed epithet at an intended victim is to trivialize him, demean him, denigrate him.   What is worse than being called “superficial”?

Where does the power of this word come from?   Superficial can only be bad in comparison to its opposite, depth or profundity.   We’d like to hear from a deep thinker, not a superficial thinker.   We’d like to learn from a profound philosopher, not a superficial one.   We all crave deep relationships (they are “meaningful”) rather than superficial (“meaningless”) ones. Of course.

But let’s check our thinking on this. The word superficial refers to surfaces, of being on or above the surface.   Let’s assume there is something to the binary opposition of “surface” and “depth.”   But why do we always privilege depth over surface?   There are historical and philosophical reasons.   In the beginning of our story of Western philosophy, 2500 years or so ago in Ionia, some thinkers were wondering about what’s “behind” the way the world appears to us. Most of the ancients–just like most of us–experienced trees, rocks, people, animals, buildings, music, colors, smells, food, etc.   But some–a very few–wondered whether there was something that tied all these various appearances together, something behind or underneath that despite the apparent diversity at the surfaces of things bound things together as one. This is the birth of the problem of the many and the one, perhaps the single driving force in philosophy.   The one was thought to be reality; the many to be (mere) appearance.   Profound, deep thinkers wanted to get to the one, lusted after it, perhaps even came to love it.   Philosophy–the very word–means love of wisdom, and love is a powerful thing.   And this power was tied for evermore with the deep, the profound, that which was beneath the surface.   The goal was to leave the world of surfaces, of (supposedly) mere appearances, and venture into the depths of reality, to the Truth-with-a-capital-T.

Some of the historical fallout of this venture led to the birth of modern science.   We’ll bypass for now the question of the split that developed between philosophy and science (between wisdom and knowing).   We’ll simply note that science–the science we all learned in school–teaches us that the reality of things is in their deep structure, the molecules, the atoms, the quarks and charms, the basic particles that make up all the varied things we experience.   We are all taught, for instance, that the table on which we work is “mostly empty space,” according to physics.   And we believe it (after all, we believe EVERYTHING that bears the sacred imprimatur of SCIENCE, don’t we?).   We don’t fully grasp this “truth,” but we believe it.   And then we go on with our lives using the table “as if” it were a solid thing, suitable for working upon.   But we never forget that it is the deep, rather than the surface, that is the Truth-with-a-capital-T.   Despite the fact that we never encounter the table otherwise than a very useful solid plane upon which to work.   Never.

What about superficiality regarding people?   We might be forgiven dealing with our world in a “superfical” way, such as writing at our desks and talking about trees and rocks and buildings, etc., as if they were “real.”   But what about people?   Now we’ve arrived at a moral and not just an epistemological problem (i.e., not just a problem of knowing but of being responsible, able to respond appropriately).   What do we say?   “Beauty is only skin deep.”   “Looks don’t matter.”   “Hey, I’m up here!” (Said by well-endowed women when having a “conversation” with some wondering-eyed, scurvy dog.)   We want to be loved for who we are, not what we look like.   Right?   We are not simply what we look like.   There is depth to us, below the surface.   We are frustrated when things remain at the surface level, left hanging, unfulfilled.

I think all this is true.   Nevertheless, I would like to offer praise for the surfaces.   I am tempted to say: not in a superfical way, but in a deep way.   A deep appreciation for surfaces.   I am not going to argue that we should only have relationships based on surfaces.   I am going to argue that we cannot have any relationships were it not for the surfaces of things.

I can only come to know things by their surfaces.   Without surfaces, there would be no sense to speaking of depths.   There is something to the binary opposition of surface and depth, but it must not be forgotten that it is binary, that both surface and depth are inextricably bound together.   Further, we might rethink privileging–at least all the time–the deep as opposed to the surface.   It’s via the surfaces that we come to the depths.   We cannot go the other direction.   It is only because there are things like tables that we can have physics at all (think about it!).   We cannot start our knowing and, indeed, our loving from the depths. The surface, the superficial, is profoundly, deeply important and meaningful.

I don’t know about you, but I like my surfaces.   The largest organ of the human body is the skin–the surface.   I am grateful for my surfaces, and I especially like when there is a lot going on with my surfaces.   My surfaces love the feel of a cool breeze, of desert heat, of ocean waves, of strong fingers, of tongues, of aromatic oils, of being wrapped up in other people’s surfaces, of muscles at work, of flavors, of scents, of music, of talking, of drinking.   Don’t you?   Is a person to be called “superficial” who loves these things?   Rather, a person who didn’t love these things would be debilitated or deranged.

But am I confusing the issue?   Of course we like these things, but don’t we want something more, something deep and profound?   Yes, of course we do.   But what usually happens when we are deeply and profoundly in love with another person?   What is the expression of that love?   Isn’t it usually expressed through the surfaces:   in eating and drinking together, talking together, enjoying music together, getting our bodies as close together as we can?

Yes, but what about people who “stop” at the surfaces?   Aren’t those the ones we are referring to by the term, superficial?   No doubt, we want the whole thing, the whole enchilada, so to speak.   In short, what we really desire is wholeness.   Like that dopey line in that dopey movie, we want to say (and have said to us):   “You complete me.”   However, we have to get there, don’t we?

Let’s take “superficial” talk.   I know a lot of people who say they hate small talk, and by “small” I assume they mean that it is talk that is superficial.   Think about the people you know who say something like that.   What do you think about those people?   Aren’t they a little off-putting, a little less pleasant to be around, a little more crabby, a little too intense?   I like small talk.   It is the grease of the social machine.   I happen to know a little (usually very little) about a lot of stuff.   I used to beat myself up because I wasn’t an expert on any one thing.   I had surface knowledge, not deep knowledge.   However, as it turns out, I have found a great pleasure in being able to wander the world and strike up a conversation on just about anything.   This has led to further not so superficial conversation, and, occasionally, in the old days, even the baring of additional surfaces, if you catch my drift.   There used to be a wine called Cella (maybe there still is, but I’ve moved on…).   The wine was hawked by a character they called Aldo Cella.   There was this great commercial with Aldo–short, chubby, balding, with oily Italian features–sitting at the head of a long table with a great feast spread upon it, wine all around, outdoors with a fantastic background, with Aldo surrounded by some fabulous babes.   The voice-over said:   “He is not tall.   He is not pretty.   But Aldo Cella knows what women like.”   Now aside from the oily Italian features (I have oily non-ethnically-descript features), I am Aldo Cella.   But despite appearances (the surface of things), I’m not really talking about me.   We are all–if we let ourselves be–Aldo Cella (substitute genders where appropriate).   I think we do know what each other wants and we all enjoy getting it and giving it too each other.   Our surfaces aren’t all we are, but we are not unless we have surfaces.   Our goofy features, our pedestrian looks, don’t look goofy or pedestrian unless that’s the way we’re looking at them.   [Don’t get me started on my objections to commercially, industrially manufactured ideas of beauty!]

Do you flirt?   It’s totally superficial, right?   But don’t you flirt?   Or, if you are a shy person, don’t you enjoy it when someone flirts with you?   A little bit?   C’mon, you know you do.   I’m not saying   you have to look at it the way Zorba (the Greek, from Kazantzakis’ great novel) does, as he recounted to his boss the time he failed to sleep with a woman who wanted him. Zorba was warned by a wise man:   “…he who can sleep with a woman and does not, commits a great sin.   My boy, if a woman calls you to share her bed and you don’t go, your soul will be destroyed!   That woman will sigh before God on judgment day, and that woman’s sigh, whoever you may be and whatever your fine deeds, will cast you into Hell!”   Zorba accepted his fate with remorse.   He says, “If Hell exists, I shall go to Hell, and that’ll be the reason.   Not because I’ve robbed, killed or committed adultery, no! All that’s nothing.   But I shall go to Hell because one night in Salonica a woman waited for me on her bed and I did not go to her….”   All I’m saying is that even our superficial desires for each other, manifested in flirting or even in just idle banter, have a deep impact on our souls.

Don’t you hate it when a clerk at the grocery store never even looks up from his shoes when you are going through the line?   What about a simple Hello?   What about eye contact?   Would we be satisfied with his answer if, when questioned about this, he says he can’t stand “superficialities”?   Some would argue manners are merely superficial custom…but they would have a completely unsupportable argument. If manners are superficial, that only means that the superficial is incredibly important to living our lives together.

A word about the inspiration for this little unpolished, probably superficial essay:   Facebook (and other social networking activities).   I posed a question about the value of FB that–surprise!–got some people thinking (see earlier post).   If FB is as superficial as its (mere) surface appearance might suggest, then why did a post on FB get some people thinking?   One friend thought the following:   “i’m a pathetic woman for enjoying the many facets of facebook, including sharing what male features are a turn-on and my favorite drinks.   therefore, i’m leaving facebook in hopes of a better quality of life…”   Well, then I’m a pathetic woman too (so to speak, ahem)!   I enjoy (some of) the many facets of FB.   I enjoy sharing what male features are a turn-on (well, sharing which of my male features I like to have turned on–just so’s ya know, just in case it were to come up, so to speak…).   I love sharing my favorite drinks–although how someone did that on FB is beyond me, but maybe talking about them virtually on FB might well lead to sharing them actually.

So, my little point here is that leaving FB in the hopes of a better life might not work out.   Instead, what I think we should desire (I know, “should desire” is a problematic saying…) is a better quality of life, FB or no FB.   And to get a better quality if life, I am suggesting that we not overlook the profundity of the surfaces, the deep and abiding value of so-called superficialities.

What do you think?

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How dare you do metaphysics?

Just listen to William Desmond in the “Preface” to his book, Being and the Between:

We philosophers ask for bread, and what stones are we handed?  Commentaries on commentaries on commentaries….  What is the matter itself?…

I think that a philosopher is a seeker, and that any genuine philosophy is an adventure in thought.  As an adventure, it cannot be judged before the search has begun.  There will be many who scoff on the dockside as the ship heaves off.  They will congratulate themselves on their prudence in valuing the security of safe harbor, and the solid land.  They will even feel superior to those who launch out into the unknown, those who risk their thinking.  They feel sure in advace it will come to shipwreck.  But perhaps these wise homebodies are the already defeated.  How dare you do metaphysics?  I do dare.  But you must also dare, if you want an answer to your question.

And if we philosophers took to heart these prudent discouragements, we might never stir from the spot.  Alas, we too seek for home, but we must seek for home to be at home.  We are fools, no doubt, to dream of something more.  But since the world is so wise, and since the standing army of its sages is always swelled with new recruits, the stray folly of metaphysical adventuring will perhaps be excused in us.  We have been told not even to try, so we will not blame the fashionable commentators for the outcome–be it what it may.

Sound like we might have an interesting book here?  Want to read it?  Better get ready, because this is who Desmond wants for a reader:

Let the wise read as the philosopher writes.  I do not ask for uncritical readers, but I do ask for disciplined readers–readers who have studied hard and long, who can take their time to think; readers who have not shunned solitude; readers suspicious of themselves before being suspicious of others; readers patient when demands are made on them; readers themselves adventurers; readers who ask for more than the rhetorics fashionable in academic philosophy, and who hate the substitution of ‘relevant’ ideology for the seriousness of truth; readers with souls full of an intellectual, indeed spiritual generosity, beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion; readers who desire to hear fundamental questions addressed with a genuine intellectual, not to say, spiritual seriousness; readers philosophically rich enough in themselves as to be able to laugh at the pretensions of what sometimes passes for ‘philosophy’; readers who long for a simple human voice to speak again about the essential issues that perennially perplex us.  I do not ask for the impossible.  I do ask for what now is rare.

I’d like to be worthy to read this book (yes…some books we might just have to merit the privilege of reading, and maybe this is such a book…. Who knows?)

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True metaphysicians are rare…

No wonder true metaphysicians are rare.  Common sense does not rise above the level of imaginable realities, and , when it is a question of metaphysics, the vulgus includes many a mind eminent in other fields. Scientists, artists of genius, great statesmen–all those who like to proclaim:  “I only know what I can see and touch,” even though in other respects they may be eminent specimens of the human kind, are nevertheless unfit for metaphysical speculation.  Let us add, for their consolation, that they are perfectly normal men.  Anyone who says, “I understand nothing of what you call metaphysics,” is quite justified, and there is for him nothing to feel ashamed of.  But he should stop there.  That one does not see any light, may be a fact; to infer from it that there is no light, is a non sequitur.

–Etienne Gilson, The Spirt of Thomism, 1964

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