Posts Tagged Weislogel
I am thinking of believing in angels.
The question I have is whether there is anything at all in occult philosophy, hermeticism, mysticism, theosophical ideas, magic, Kabbalah, angelology, Rosicrucianism, or any of that kind of thing. People study it, of course, and some people study it in mainstream academia — but as a matter of historical or cultural interest. Some few of those academics get caught up in it, such as Guénon, who became a Sufi, but generally people get an interest about these ideas without coming to hold any of these ideas.
Why don’t they hold them?
Because alchemy is not as effective in the “real” world as chemistry. Because astrology allows fewer accurate predictions of future events than astronomy. Because physics has been more testable than metaphysics. Materialism and naturalism are seriously successful.
How do you define “success”?
Success means being able to do things in the world, to predict future events from current conditions, to control the outcomes of situations more effectively than leaving things to chance. Our world was not built based on our knowledge of spirits, past life regressions, the vibrations of crystals, or the formation of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. If you want to know something, then the methodology of science is the way to go.
Is science our Platonic cave?
If so, the cave is air conditioned and heated, has hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, electric lights, refrigerated food, and the internet.
You are making a good case.
Yes, I think so.
But do you think that there is any kind of knowing that is not empirico-logical knowing? Or, in other words, are there alternative modes of logic or rationality?
I can’t see how. One can have an opinion on anything, but knowledge is that which can be demonstrated or rationally justified.
Can I know my wife loves me?
Do you mean, can you prove it beyond any doubt? I don’t think so. Can you prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? I think that is entirely possible. Proof does not have to mean mathematical proof in every case, but that admission does not entail that there are alternative rationalities.
What about things you cannot prove? What about the claim that Bach made better music than Justin Bieber?
Again, even though there is an element of taste (about which there is no disputing) involved, there is still a reasonable argument to be made that, assuming by “better” you mean (at least) more enduring, more culturally influential, that Bach made better music than Justin Bieber.
Not a completely knock down argument, though.
No, but a solid, reasonable claim.
Should I believe in angels?
Why should you? Have you ever seen one?
Did you see how little damage happened to my car last Friday when I hit a dear an near full speed on the interstate? I can’t help but think my Guardian Angel saved us.
You could help it, if you tried. You could say that your own quick reaction time and cool head, coupled with the geometry of the impact, etc., minimized the damage to your vehicle.
I suppose I could. But what if I really think an angel intervened on our behalf in that situation? Am I being unreasonable?
It would seem so. You are adding to the explanation more than is sufficient to explain the event.
I am not sure it is explainable.
We’ve just explained it. Look, if your Guardian Angel helped you out of the jam you were in, how did he…I’m sorry, is it a he?
No. It’s not like that. But you can say “he”.
Okay, if your Guardian Angel helped you out of the jam you were in, how did “he” do it? He did it by phenomenologically slowing things down for you, thus increasing your reaction time; by keeping you calm; by engineering the geometry of the impact in such a way to mitigate the damage to your vehicle. So why not just subtract the angel part? You’d have the same thing anyway.
Look, as you well know, I am not the most calm, cool-headed person you’ve ever met. My eyesight, especially at night, is not what it used to be. I was traveling fast. The deer was just there, all of a sudden. My vehicle by all rights ought to have been near-totaled. And my wife and I should be injured. But we are not.
Hey, talk about believing things that are not susceptible of scientific investigation!
Okay, you are right. How about coincidence?
Again, not empirical, right?
Right. So I will stick with this claim: If we had the whole thing on tape, had you and your car wired to sensors and analytical devices sufficient for the assessment, we’d be able to completely reconstruct the event and causally explain every aspect of it.
“Sufficient for the assessment.” But what if there are no instruments sufficient for the assessment?
Maybe it is all an effect of quantum uncertainty, but quantum uncertainty, itself, is an empirical and rational framework for understanding. No angels. No ghosts. No gods.
What if it is just way more enjoyable to understand the world around me as filled with spirit beings of various sorts.
You mean, besides, angels, sprites, nymphs, faeries, demons, ghouls…that sort of thing?
Really! You’ve never seen any of these things.
I’ve never seen an atom, either.
I’ve never seen a quark.
No, I could only see effects of the purported quarks. And it gets worse with superstrings. But scientists talk about them all the time.
Because they fit with the mathematics.
And you are absolutely sure that mathematics explains everything? Are there not qualitative aspects to reality that do not reduce to the quantitative? Is mathematics the only true language? Does mathematics really mirror reality?
It does seem fairly amazing how talking about the world mathematically helps you to predict, control, and do a lot of things you could not otherwise do if you talked about the world in another language, for instance, English.
A lot of things, yes. All the things we do? Hardly. In fact, the current craze to computer analyze every creative work misses the point of those works entirely. Physics didn’t explain why Socrates sat in prison awaiting his fate, and “digital humanities” will not help us engage any better with the Bard. Even gematria, the ancient practice of numerological analysis of texts, was not an end in itself. Even if it were to be mere projection, it still sparked reflection and insight. And even more simply, the stories of ancient myths were probably never meant to be taken literally (although some people did take them that way and some still do). They were heuristics to insight and wisdom.
They were a load of rubbish. They were attempts to explain the world that, as it turned out, were much worse than the way we explain the world now. It’s that simple.
So the imagination should be suppressed? But wasn’t it the imagination that kick-started the quest to understand in the first place?
Okay, if you want to put it that way. But we’ve moved on from those ancient stories. They perhaps were a ladder we needed to climb up, but now that we’re up we can safely kick it away.
Do you think we’ll ever find we can kick away science?
But if our scientific, technological framework is — and this is undeniable — threatening the very existence of the planet, i.e., if we’ve come to a crisis point, would you agree that we might need another way to think and understand if we are going to get through this ecological disaster?
No. Science will find a way out.
That is a risky bet. Science — and it is very complicit with capitalism — has organized the world in such a way as to foreclose — as you are doing now — on alternative frameworks. And that, in itself, bears a significant responsibility for our present disaster. There is — by definition — no morality attached to either modern science or capitalism. And why not? Because real morality cannot be quantified, algorithmized, or productized. And what goes for ethics, goes double for spirit.
Yeah, listen, you may as well throw out this computer you are working on because it was science that gave it to you.
Well, I very well may have to when the power goes off for the last time.
Such a pessimist!
You think I am crying “wolf”?
Yep. Well, no. You aren’t making it up. You believe it. But then again you believe in faeries and sprites.
I didn’t say I did. I was asking.
Well one thing I do know: if you are right about the impeding apocalypse, it won’t be faeries or sprites that save us.
I know. Only a God can save us.
So, anyway, I’m thinking that I am missing something.
Yeah, okay, I am missing some things. But I mean “missing” like “nostalgic” for something. There was something that used to be but that now is not. And I miss it.
What is it?
I don’t remember.
Well, I mean, that’s just it: I am missing something that once was but now is not, but because it is not, I don’t remember what it is. That’s how much I miss it.
So how do you even know you miss it?
Well, I don’t know I miss it, but I feel I am missing it. I feel the nostalgia. A longing, a yearning. It is philosophical. It is…mystical? Is that the right word?
You tell me…it’s your yearning.
Okay, so, religion: I miss it…but not actual religion, which I don’t miss.
You miss virtual religion?
Yeah, I virtually miss it. I just don’t actually miss it. I want what was “inside” but I don’t want the husk.
Is there an inside without an outside?
Is there an intimate without an “extimate”?
What really matters?
Nothing really matters? Or nothing really matters? Or nothing really matters!?
Well, I’m just trying to get at what you mean when you say that “nothing really matters.”
What I mean is this: we are born, who knows why; we live for a while—maybe a short while, maybe a long while, but only a while; then we die, leaving it all (whatever that will have been) right where we left it. So, given our lack of immortality, nothing ultimately really matters. Things might matter or seem to matter during our sojourn here. But that is about it.
Should I feel negatively about this insight of yours?
Feel whatever you want.
Well, okay, but I am soliciting advice. Assuming that your insight is correct, then what’s life all about? If it doesn’t really ultimately matter what I do, whether I help or hurt others, whether I am ambitious or lackadaisical, what would you advise me to take up as a stance, if you will, towards life?
Well, how about this: This life might be best thought of as a play or a game in which you are a player no matter whether you like it or not. It seems to have a way or at least some finite number of ways about it in which you can make your play in it not completely unbearable. Find those ways, go with that flow. Don’t misunderstand: I mean go with that flow, not just the way any flow happens to go. Find the way, then go with that flow as best you can.
Vague advice. Thank you.
You’re welcome. But it’s a vague game.
So absurdism? Surrealism? Existentialism?
Maybe, sort of…but I wouldn’t look at it quite like that. That way of trying to look at things implies that one of those ways is the best or most valid or most accurate way of thinking about life. I don’t really think that’s right, even given my profound insight that nothing matters. Nothing matters, but everything is important…or at least it can be important. To me, to you, to people we love. Cosmically, of course, it just is all going to go the way I said. Me, you, all we love…all will be gone in the blink of an eye. But why should that matter? It matters not at all to our way while we’re all here. That fact, in other words, matters just as little as whether I become a great scholar, the President of the United States, or a bull-fighter…cosmically speaking. If you are waiting for some external touchstone to make itself known so you can know how you are doing, forget it! In fact, that is more than just futile. It’s bad. Bad for you, bad for me, bad for the ones you love.
I don’t get it.
Look, let’s say you want to do well by the ones you love – of course you do! What would that take? A deep relationship with the cosmos and eternity? Wow! If those you love have to wait around for you to get settled with that, they may find it better to push on without you. What it takes, rather, is a deep relationship with them for no further reason at all! In fact, if you do have some “reason” for that relationship, then, well, it’s all a little suspect, don’t you think? Is it because they pay your rent or do your laundry or look good on your arm at cocktail parties? How profound!
Okay, love is without why. I get it. But I can’t just sit around gazing at those I love and just emote love in their direction all day long. I have to do something. Right?
I guess. Sure…you have to do something.
Okay, so what do I do?
Why are you asking me?
I am asking you because that’s what we’re having a conversation about. A conversation about life’s direction.
Can life have a direction regardless of what you do? Is life waiting around for you to do something so it can have a direction?
Are you saying that our choices of actions have no bearing on life’s direction?
But what if life’s direction is about the fact that we choose and not about what we choose?
That cannot be right. Whether I choose to be a scholar or I choose to be a thief matters.
It won’t matter is 100 years…or 500…or 100,000 years.
No, but it will matter now. It is not just that I can choose one or the other. It is that I choose the one and not the other.
What about this choice: What if you had to choose either to be a physician or to be a painter? Would that matter?
Yes, I suppose.
Okay, so what do you choose?
Well, what am I good at?
Are you saying that one should always do what one is good at?
It can be a guide towards bliss, can’t it.
I guess. But couldn’t it also be a pathway to servitude?
Suppose you are good at math. Everyone always tells you that you are good at math. They always buy you a nice gift when you come home with an A in math. You are recruited to become an actuary because you are good at math. Actuaries get paid well and have excellent job security. Why would you not be an actuary? Except, you’d rather be a dancer. You are not as good at dancing as you are at math. The job prospects for dancers are horrible compared to those for actuaries. But you love dancing. You want to be a dancer. What do you do?
I see your point. I guess you have to have a job.
You have to have a job?
So long as you are living in this NON-utopia, you need a job.
Okay, physician or painter?
Painters don’t have the best job prospects.
Let’s say you have a patron who will provide for you. You might not get as much as a physician makes, but you will not starve. Which do you choose?
Am I a better doctor or painter?
You are equally talented.
Then I guess I become a doctor. Wait! I like being a doctor, right?
Yes, let’s say you like being a doctor.
Okay, I would pick physician.
I would help more people.
So one should always pick the path that helps more people.
What if you love to dance but can only tolerate being a physician, even though you are very good at being a physician?
I pick physician.
What if you love to dance but can’t really say you like doctoring at all, except that you are still good at it?
I pick physician.
So no matter what, one should take the path that helps the most people.
Does dancing help anyone?
Not like a physician.
Physicians help sick people (or at least they try). Don’t dancers and other artists help people, both sick and well, to enjoy life, to see more deeply into reality, and so on?
Are you saying that artists are just as “socially useful” as physicians?
Yes. And trash collectors and farmers and firefighters. I am saying that your measure for determining which path to take is flawed. It might help you choose physician over thief, but it is no use for almost every other choice.
So how does one make the choice?
Talent, bliss, fellow-feeling, care and concern, worldly comfort (loosely construed), concrete possibilities. But there is not really any big-picture stance from which to judge these situations.
I think you are depressing me.
Oh, I hope not! I think I am trying to get you to feel liberated. The depression that you think you feel is coming from a removable source. Remove it, and you will feel freer.
What is the source?
I should write the CorpScrew Letters. What would it be good for the corporate devils to have us think, feel, believe?
Here’s a thought it would be good for Uncle CorpScrew to advise his younger Tempters to promote: That politics doesn’t matter, that it is, in fact, evil. That would be very Orwellian. It would get people thinking that politics = government, and government = pernicious meddling in our lives, and thus by the transitive property of equality, that politics = pernicious meddling in our lives. Because if we can believe that, then we will find ourselves defending CorpScrew’s minions around the world, helping to “keep government of our backs” and by “our backs” I mean “corporations’ backs” and not our backs. We will be useful idiots.
It would be good to get people to think that “useless” means “worthless.”
It would be good to have people be confounded by, at turns, thinking the world they see is exactly the world as it is and is meant to be AND that we have no access to the world as it is and as it is meant to be and so what anyone says about it is simply mere opinion. They wouldn’t know whether to cry or wind their watch.
It would be good to get people to think that there are only big problems.
It would be good to get people to think that there are either no solutions to big problems or that there are only big solutions to big problems.
It would be good to get people to think that there is nothing beyond death and that death is bad. This will get a lot of people killed.
For those who persist in thinking that there is something beyond death, it would be good to get them to think that this means they need take no notice of what’s happening now. This will help get a lot of people killed, as well.
Sometimes, it starts to seem simple.
Everything. All of it.
Yeah. Sometimes I think I see the simple pattern of all the struggles that our common life together seems to bring.
Yes. Let me explain. I read the following sentences in a book:
In what measure and by what means can individuals accept themselves as mortal without any imaginary instituted compensation; in what measure can thought hold together the demands of the identitary logic which are rooted in the Legein and the exigencies of what is (which is surely not identitary without becoming for that reason incoherent); in what measure, finally and especially, can society truly recognize in its institution its own self-creation, recognize itself as institution, auto-institute itself explicitly, and surmount the self-perpetuation of the instituted by showing itself capable of taking it up and transforming it according to its own exigencies and not according to the inertia of the instituted, to recognize itself as the source of its own alterity? These are the questions, the question of revolution, which not only go beyond the frontier of the theorizable but situate themselves right away on another terrain…the terrain of the creativity of history. [Cornelius Castoriades, cited by Dick Howard, The Marxian Legacy, 298-299.]
Say what, now?
Yeah, dense, isn’t it? But what is the simple meaning? To me, this goes back to Aristotle, at least. What is the good life? It is the life that is best for us to lead. How do we know it? How do we learn it? We learn it by watching others and forming habits. But what if the habits we form by watching others whom society says are worth imitating, what if that leads us to vice, not virtue? What if the whole society is corrupt? Is there any hope? Yes, because although moral virtue is very important, there is more to being a human than moral virtue. There is what Aristotle calls intellectual virtue, which is being able to see what is—even past the habits and practices and institutions of our own society. With those intellectual virtues, we always have access to the other, to the unexpressed, to the not-now visible possibilities. Indeed, this goes further back, to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which the prisoner somehow slips his bonds (but how?) and gets out of the darkness of illusion and can see what is in its truth. But the prisoner does not—cannot—live in this “realm” because he is human. He needs his institutions in order to live. Those institutions make life possible AND impossible at the same time. To say this in a formula: I am in society, but not wholly of it. I carry my alterity with me. I need the bonds of identitary logic to live AND I am always more and other than how that logic “identifies” me, how it turns me into a (mere) identity.
Perhaps that goes even further back to the very edge of thought: the many and the one, identity and difference, analysis and synthesis.
Indeed, it does. The truth is in the middle and the margin, in the in-between and at the edges.
But is what you claimed, right? Is what you just tried to say simple?
Yes. It is just that simple.
You know what your problem is?
No, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me.
I am, indeed. Your problem is that you are incoherent. Or inconsistent. Or inconsistently coherent. Or something like that.
Well, I’m glad you cleared that all up for me.
I’ll demonstrate: What are you, conservative or liberal?
Do I have to be one or the other?
See what I mean?
Isn’t there a third (or fourth) choice?
I’m a nonarchist.
No you’re not.
Yes I am.
Nope. That’s just a word you made up because you simply couldn’t decide what you are.
A nonarchist believes in no first principles (archai). He differs from the anarchist in that the anarchist thinks there are no first principles. But that is his first principle, so to speak. It is not mine. I believe in no first principles, not even that one.
Isn’t that just saying there are no first principles?
No, it’s not the same. The reason anarchy is so often tied to violence is that the anarchist is usually a true believer. He believes that whatever is going on is bad and that blowing it up is a moral imperative. I do not believe that.
All anarchist are bomb-throwing maniacs?
No. In fact, I very much object to that characterization because it’s the one used by The Powers-That-Be to make anarchistic thinking seem “beyond the pale.” However, because there are in fact anarchist principles, it is possible for there to be true believers, and true believers can be very dangerous.
Is non-archy like casuistry? Are you a casuist?
Okay, yes, I suppose I am. I think there are only events, cases, and that each case has something that uniquely distinguishes it from every other case.
You know the knock on casuistry, right?
Something about inconsistency or incoherency or even hypocrisy…something like that?
Right, well the thing is, if you aren’t a casuist, then you think there are real governing patterns, forms, principles, or whatever, that take precedence over persons, places, things, and times. To me, that is hypocritical—literally, not critical enough. For the sake of your blessed consistency (the hobgoblin of tiny minds, it has been said), you are willing to neglect or deny the uniqueness of persons, places, things, and times. I am unwilling to be so sub-critical.
But if you nonarchist casuists were to win the day, then would we be absolute relativists? And if we were, wouldn’t morality go right out the window? All we’d be left with is “what’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for you is right for you and there is nothing we can really say to each other.”
Do you think so? I don’t. Or at least, I don’t think it would turn out like that. I think we human beings have a lot in common—a whole lot, in fact—even though each of us is unique.
Well, then, are these commonalities the first principles of ethics?
Not like some people think. You can’t just read off these commonalities and develop an algorithm to solve all our problems once and for all. But we are real people with real commonalities in real situations, and from within them we can try—no guarantees—to solve our problems. Or maybe even find that what we think are problems really aren’t problems at all.
What do you mean?
Well, for instance, “religion” seems to have been a longstanding problem for us human beings. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.
If we didn’t have to be so consistent and coherent and all that, maybe each person could be religious (or not) in his own way without that seeming such a scandal to others. And, at the same time, the person living out this “religious” expression won’t be so damn certain (coherent, consistent) that he lets it bring him misery or to wreak misery on others.
That’s a lot to hope for.
I am a religious man.
You are a nonarchist, casuist, religious man.
Yes, for starters. I am also a man who likes pizza. Consistently, you’ll be pleased to know.
There’s hope for you….
I’m all about hope!
It happened again on Monday. We were talking in class about the importance of the body in Christian theology — not in any rigorous way, but I was pointing out that many Christians think that when you die you go to heaven and stay there forever. But then what about the Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? If the body is the principle of individuation, then you will need a body (perhaps a “glorified” body) in order to be you. According to Christian tradition, dying and going to heaven is not the end of the story.
Anyway, prior to this discussion students were giving their opinions as to what happens after you die. Some said that you will come back in another body, perhaps even as an animal. Some thought you would come back, but only as some other human being. But, as usual, most thought when you die (if you’re good) you go to heaven forever. By the way, only a few thought some other people (bad people) would go to hell forever.
Then a couple of students asked me what I thought about it. As usual, I punted. I said, “Who cares what I think? I’m just some guy.” They insisted. I replied that I have a certain power relation to them, and that if I were to give my views either (a.) students would believe it was true because it was my view; (b.) students would not believe it, but would regurgitate it on the test in the hopes of getting a better grade by appearing to believe what I believe; (c.) students would just fixate on my beliefs to the detriment of our learning the views of some really important thinkers. One student, however, asked, “Well how about (d.), simple curiosity?”
All this brought to mind a piece in Chronicle of Higher Education by my good friend, Paul Sracic, entitled, “Teach Only What You Know,” (10/11/2007). Sracic, a professor and Chair of the department of political science at Youngstown State University, was asked during one of his government classes whom he intended to vote for in the presidential election. Sracic refused to answer. Indeed, he took the fact that his students did not have any idea who he supported to be a sign that he was doing his job well. He said the college catalogue description of the course didn’t say anything about his sharing his political views, and, besides, he was no more qualified to answer that question (as an academic matter) than anyone else in any other department. He argued that in cases where knowledge (as opposed to opinion) was available, then we ought to consult the person(s) holding that expertise. But in cases where such knowledge is lacking, let everyone decide for himself. No one is an expert.
When we are all equally ignorant, we might as well vote.
His piece elicited a great deal of commentary and criticism. While many applauded his professionalism, many others took him to task for cheating his students of something they came to college particularly to get: the informed views of teachers and scholars who’ve done some real legwork in the questions that we all face. Students, the critics argued, are not sheep, and they will not mindlessly ape their teachers. Why not tell them your views? They asked.
The more intense criticism tried to make analogies: What if they asked you your view of torture? Would you simply coyly demure? Is there not a moral imperative attached to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom? And would it not be a moral failure to refrain from making moral judgments (no matter how unpopular).?
I may have mentioned that I am no fan of the comments section of websites. However, back in the day I felt compelled to toss in my two-cents’ worth on the matter. I have reproduced those comments here, but the gist is that, while I am sympathetic to Sracic’s concerns, the university – especially in the humanities – has lost its way in exploring the great questions of existential and spiritual concern in its obsession with “professionalism.” Being a professional is important, of course, but can we professors not put ourselves as well as our learning into our work?
So today, I had to decide what to say – if anything – to my students who I put off on Monday. I was not sure what I was going to do even up to the point I opened my mouth to begin the class. But I told them about Paul, about my response, and how I did not think I was consistent with my otherwise deeply held views. I then asked them if they would like me to share my opinions about such things as life after death and other questions about which no one has any expertise – certainly not I.
For the most part, they said yes they would. One student preferred that I did not because he had had an experience with another prof who always gave his (or her?) personal view, and then students who got bad scores on papers chalked it up to their disagreement with the prof. Another student pointed out that, in effect, they trust me not to be like that. I think I can say that they really can trust me on that point.
So I told them what I think. And now, with the same trepidation, I will tell you, dear reader: What I think is both (a.) that when you die, you’re dead and (b.) that Kellie (my wife) and I will be together somehow forever and ever, that we are far more connected than physics can explain or comprehend. I have no reason to think people come back. I believe that each and every human that has ever lived is unique, a singularity as Caputo would say, and when we die the world – the cosmos – loses something. I don’t keep a scorecard for beliefs vs. knowledge. I know I don’t know what happens after death. The question for me is whether the answer to that question matters now, in this life, and if so, how? But, for what it’s worth (and it’s not much), I told them (and now you) what I think.
They asked me my religion. I told them: “Heinz 57 Varieties.” They asked me if I go to church. I told them I go to brunch or go birding. They asked my why I had trouble with the RC church. I told them I felt abandoned when I went through a crisis. They asked me if I am an atheist. I told them that I am definitely not, but that I usually act like one. They asked me a bunch of questions. I do not mean to say that anyone was truly prying, and I did not in any way “over-share,” as they say. But for a few minutes I did feel unusually vulnerable.
I found it was a bit difficult for me at times. Maybe that’s because I hide behind my persona too much. Maybe it is because I know that as today’s discussion was oriented, it was not the purpose of our class meeting. Maybe I was uncomfortable not knowing (and exhibiting that non-knowing). Maybe I didn’t like my own views, or didn’t like that I couldn’t articulate them well or explain them satisfactorily.
These kinds of questions, as you can easily see, are either personal questions (and not really part of the curriculum at all) or broadly philosophical questions that cannot be managed in soundbites. One student – one of my very good ones (in a whole class-full of very good ones) – noted that the questions raised today were “too big” and would be better discussed “over coffee.” She is right, of course. Good philosophical method dictates one should try to analyze the big questions into more manageable bites and certainly to give arguments for those views. I freely admitted I had no good arguments (although, maybe I have “arguments” of some sort…).
I will never be the guy who comes into class and wastes a lot of time talking about sports or my hobbies or spouting off my political views (I have a blog for that!). But I suppose if in the future I am asked for my opinions about such things as I usually refrain from addressing, I should consider answering if there is some way to tie it into what we’re doing (as I tried to do a couple of times even in today’s session). I think it might help deepen the trust relation that I am fortunate to have with my students. I had to trust them, or I would not have had that kind of conversation with them today.
Every class I collected a notecard from the students which includes their understanding of the key points of the day’s class and a question or two that arose for them. I read today’s notecards with particular attention. I would say that the overwhelming majority of students who offered their opinion of the day’s session as a whole indicated that it was a positive experience.
I am grateful to them, and I would not want to cheat them in any way.
Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.
[Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 63, trans. Walter Kaufmann]
[The following is a comment I made in October of 2007 in response to a piece written by my friend Paul Sracic (Youngstown State University). See this post for the context.]
Like most of us most of the time, Professor Sracic is partly right. He is certainly right in attending to an underlying scruple to teach his students with prudence and fairness. Full disclosure: I am a long-time friend of Sracic, I’ve observed his teaching, and Respondent “dah” [one of the commenters to his post] is wrong: Sracic is a very fine teacher, indeed, and I believe popular and well-respected by his students. If I understand Sracic’s position correctly, his intentions are noble. He wants to be careful to teach his subject to students in such a way as to inform them of the relevant information about his subject but also (and especially) to help hone his students’ critical thinking skills. He hopes to teach his students in such a way as to respect their autonomy and freedom in crafting their own lives. He does not want to cheat them.
Part of his commentary here is a response to reports that surface from time to time of professors rambling on about political views instead of teaching the subjects they are paid to teach. For instance, if my kid is trying to take a course in intermediate calculus, the instructor should not spend three-quarters of the time talking about, say, the merits or a Kucinich or Keyes administration. I’ll want my money back. That non-intermediate-calculus discussion could (and even should) be held over coffee after class–extracurricular discussions between faculty and students being a not insignificant element in a rich educational experience.
So Sracic is trying to do what he’s paid to do: teach a subject in which he has developed an expertise. Any hint that he might be violating his code of ethics strikes him as unacceptable.
But would he really be violating his code of ethics by answering his student’s question about his personal political views? I think the answer in the context of a course on American politics is: not necessarily. If he were to fail to teach about the structures and processes involved in American polity, and instead tried (emphasis on try..students aren’t sheep, and Sracic does not think they are, by the way) merely to sway his students to cast their vote in a certain way, then I would think that he did not perform his job well. If, on the other hand, he were to answer his student and provide his student with his reasons for supporting Kucinich or Keyes (or whomever), this could easily constitute a teachable moment–especially if he were to encourage his students to do the same. It would then be a manifestation of an element of the democratic process: debate and deliberation.
However, there might be good pedagogical reasons for not sharing a personal view. When I taught the history of philosophy, students would often ask me which philosopher we studied I thought was “right.” I would frequently (and flippantly) answer: “We’re not here to talk about me.” It is not that I do not have views on the question. It is not that I was (merely) being coy. For pedagogical reasons, I was trying not to make things too easy for my students, trying not to let them let their guard down concerning the rhetorical force of authority and expertise. Don’t misunderstand: both I and my students knew I knew more about the various philosophers than they did. They knew I was the expert and their hard-earned money was going to pay for my expertise. But, asking “which philosopher was right” is, in itself, especially at that stage of the learning process, the wrong question to take up. And I should mention that a refusal can often incite further curiosity, which of course is pedagogically very valuable.
So for at least one (and probably both) of these reasons–some version of a professional code of conduct and pedagogical strategy–Sracic may have been right to not answer the question. But then again, he could have easily answered it for the same reasons. Either way, a teacher senstive to both the ethics of his or her profession and the techniques and strategies for success can hardly be called “not a very good teacher.”
But there is a much larger question that haunts this discussion: What is the role of the humanities in the contemporary university?
I commend to readers Anthony T. Kronman’s new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. His analysis can shed light on Professor Sracic’s dilemma, along with that of his critics: Does the humanities professor have the authority to teach about profound questions that do not admit of “objective” answers? Sracic might feel that he does not. Those who do often face as much (or more) criticism as some of Sracic’s respondents have leveled at him. Why is this?
Kronman, in a Boston Globe piece, writes,
Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life’s meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.
But the encouraging news is that there is, today, a growing hunger among students to explore these topics. As questions of spiritual urgency – abortion, creationism, the destruction of the environment – move to the center of debate in our society, America’s colleges and universities have a real opportunity to give students the tools to discuss them at a meaningful level.
What our society now desperately needs is what it once had: An alternative approach to a college education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to answer them in a doctrinaire way.”
The question of who should be president is important. The answer will involve people’s understanding of the nature of government and politics, which in turn involves an understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. The issues raised by Sracic’s editorial and the discussion it has spurred are critically important for both the university and society.
I have always referred to what I call the “anarchist temptation.” It is always so tempting to think we can just do away with the state, have no gods and no masters. I have been leery of that temptation in light of all the concrete questions that anarchist and intentional communities have failed to solve. It has not worked so far. But now it seems I have to give into this temptation. I realize, if I am honest with myself, that I simply subscribe to left-libertarian views, even as I cannot always think them through consistently. I am certain that the capitalist world system does and will continue to threaten the very existence of the human race. I believe that governments exist as the means of violent imposition of the will of capital and/or kings, and not for the well being of the people or the planet.
I am, though, very skeptical about the idea of the innate goodness of human beings. I am not convinced. I see massive stupidity, venality, greed, and meanness all around me – of course not exclusively, but more than enough to make me suspicious of any grand program, party, or plan.
Thus, although I am sympathetic to socialist goals in the abstract, I am too skeptical to be an outright advocate of hitherto existing socialisms. I certainly do not believe in “state capitalism,” central command and control, or any other totalitarian structure. But our U.S. “democracy” is fake. Everyone knows it. People just aren’t courageous enough to admit it outwardly, except for the freaks, left and right. And those people scare regular folk (and not without justification, by the way).
So if there is no such thing as “good” government, maybe anarchism turns out to be the least bad bad form of government (as Aristotle thought about democracy, which to him was dangerously close to anarchy, which to him was a bad thing). Maybe, however imperfect a mutual aid society would be, its problems would be less bad than the problems caused by capitalism (both the so-called “laissez faire” and the state-monopolistic kinds). Maybe, despite whatever drawbacks there would be with localism and subsidiarity, they would represent an improvement in human relations, both among themselves and with nature. But anarchism just scares people. Folks hear the word and they think of mask wearing, bomb throwing, window breaking, dumpster diving, mayhem producing vulgarians who violently act without thinking and who have no idea of the good.
Is that all there is to anarchism? If it really is the least bad bad form of social arrangement, then maybe we need a new way to say “anarchism,” a new way to think it, a new strategy for living it.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.