Plutarch's Table

Challenge 2011: be intellectually brave

January 20, 2011

Here is a challenge for the New Year, one that I think could be highly rewarding for almost anybody: be intellectually brave.

I have been thinking about this because of a phenomenon that has come out of the salons.  Many people, curious enough to come out to a salon but nervous about their ability to contribute, have confided in advance that they don’t think they will be smart enough.  I think that our society’s erroneous sense of a clear divide between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘lay people’ is to blame for the fact that many people who have a great deal to contribute to intelligent conversation hold back out of fear that they will find themselves in over their heads.  While the objective of the salons is precisely to demonstrate that everybody can participate in philosophical conversation without any explicit training, I think that you only see this if you can find the courage to just go ahead and offer up your own thoughts, especially when you’re not entirely certain.

For the sake of those who regularly find themselves too nervous to contribute to supposedly ‘intellectual’ discussion, I am going to share a secret I learned in grad school: when you’re not involved in the conversation, you always think everybody knows something you don’t, that there’s some big picture that everybody else gets, a shared understanding about which you’ll prove yourself ignorant if you speak up.  But what’s really going on is that those on the inside are doing something you aren’t doing, and that is really the only important difference, which you learn when you just dive in anyway and quickly discover that there is no shared idea at all, just a particular group of people controlling the discourse.  It only sounds like everyone is on the same page when you are not on that page yourself, and when you are you see that people are flipping through different pages without any real consistency, sometimes missing each others’ points entirely, sometimes picking up on what wasn’t really meant, but not suffering for any of this.

A discourse is not a smooth navigation around a transparent idea, but is more like a collective improvisation where pieces get put together and come apart and sometimes align in surprising ways and sometimes get diverted off topic – but sometimes it is the diversions that can lead down especially interesting paths.  If I knew more about jazz I would offer an improvisational jazz metaphor – I’m pretty sure it would work.  The point is that simply participating can be a huge revelation about ones own intellectual capacity. Getting something out there is the first step to being brought in, and as soon as you’re in you’ll know you’re worthy of being there.  I promise – and it took me a very long time to learn this for myself.

My own view is that those who are a little nervous have the potential to be the very best contributors to intelligent conversation.  Socrates was thought to be the wisest man because he alone was aware of his ignorance, and there is great merit in coming into a conversation with the sense that you have something to learn rather than something of which to convince your audience.  I always admire the person who asks the question that everybody else wants to ask but is too afraid.  This is what it means to be intellectually brave – not to pretend to know more than one does, but to be confident about ones capacity to engage in intelligent conversation while being candid about ones ignorance.  Any conversation where the only people talking are those who think they know a whole lot is not a genuinely philosophical event.  Our public discourse, and any good conversation, needs the bravery of those who know they don’t know with any certainty, and are willing to learn and contribute all the same.  And here’s one last insider’s tip: sometimes when ‘intellectuals’ are discussing something that sounds very heady and esoteric – sometimes they are talking total shit.  Sometimes.

So get out there and be brave.  Ask questions, offer comments, venture an opinion, get in over your head.  You’ll discover that fear makes intelligent discussion look far more intimidating than it really is.


Philosophy as Self-Help: Response to Alain de Botton

January 11, 2011

I just read an interesting piece by Alain de Botton on the BBC, on the much-discussed topic of the value of the humanities.  His claim that academics ought to be doing a better job of explaining why they matter seems right, and echoes what I have previously said.  Of course many academics are now, at this point of crisis, doing just that (see, for example, Martha Nussbaum’s recent book “Not For Profit”), but de Botton’s central point seems to actually be that they don’t teach as though the humanities are relevant for anything outside of academia itself.  Although I agree that philosophy can and should be applied to “the problematic areas in people’s lives”, I also think that if this kind of direct application were all that philosophy did, then philosophy would no longer have much to bring.

The difference between philosophy and self-help is enormous, and I remember attending a class on contemporary continental philosophy where a lecturer was offering what I called the self-help version of Nietzsche and Heidegger – which to me meant the absolutely unphilosophical version.  Instead of challenging students’ familiar views of the world by making them grapple with ideas that required real mental struggle and highly theoretical exercises, this instructor was translating the texts into the kinds of formulas for personal fulfillment in which the self-help genre specializes.  If Nietzsche can be reduced to  “reject mediocrity!” and Heidegger to “live as though every day were your last!” then philosophy is dead, because philosophy is exactly that which exhorts us to live without formulas and using the creative and responsive power of our own minds.

I am not in the habit these days of defending the ivory tower and my doing so would surprise the students that I have taught, because I am always working to get them to see the real-world relevance of what they are studying.  But I need to emphasize this in the classes I teach, I think, because I see myself as working against an academic culture that de Botton rightly identifies as at times hostile to the notion that the ultimate value of philosophy is to help us to lead better lives.  But de Botton’s suggestion goes somewhat further than I would be willing to go with this:

How should universities be rearranged? In my view, departments should be required to identify the problematic areas in people’s lives and to design courses that address them head on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies should be properly explored.

There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

The problem with structuring courses around conventional problems is that asking conventional questions gets you conventional answers.  Thinking that sets out with a clear idea of where it wants to end up is not philosophical in nature, but is something more like the ‘calculative’ thinking that Heidegger contrasts with the ‘meditative’ thinking of philosophy.  Meditative thinking is indeed the best thing to apply to the existential questions about why we are here and what we should do, but the highest power of philosophy is that it offers us better questions that enable us to see what we hadn’t already anticipated.  In interpreting the work of Gilles Deleuze, Todd May suggests that the genius of this great philosopher lay in his asking not the usual questions philosophy poses about what things are or how we ought to live, but in asking “how might one live?”.  This is a great example of how philosophy is a constantly self-overcoming discipline, and this is what allows it to open itself to the unfamiliar, the as-yet-unthought, by looking beyond the ought and the is with which our lives are regularly constricted.  A course structured around the works of Deleuze, or around the concept of, say, metaphysics, might be restrictive in its own ways, but at least it refuses to begin with the answer.  The best courses in metaphysics, ethics, etc., problematize and keep open the very notion of what these words mean in a way that courses that translate philosophy into a ready set of guiding principles couldn’t begin to fathom.  And there are many great philosophy professors out there who teach in just this way, without closing down the possibility that what they teach might be useful.  It’s just difficult to see from the outside.

So I am finding myself stuck in the middle here.  I believe very passionately in the real-world value of philosophy (and the humanities generally) and am making my own attempt to use philosophy productively and towards the possibility of helping people to lead better lives.  But I think that the reason philosophy is equipped to do this as no other study can depends upon its sometimes highly esoteric activities.  The ivory tower is the place where academics need to begin their work, because it is (supposed to be) safe from the need to conform to the status quo, to be in line with the political powers, and to respond to current trends or the desires of the consumer.  Above all philosophers need the rarified air of that tower in order to think independently and without any restrictions on what real-world problems need to be solved by their thinking.

Using philosophy to help people to lead better lives, then, is not about telling people what answers to our problems we can glean from Nietzsche.  It is about demonstrating how philosophy can open up new and better possibilities for human life by teaching us to use our highest capacities to question and reflect upon what we might otherwise take for granted, to experiment and to aspire to something more than the given.  It is about teaching us how the human mind, in engagement with a world that is always in the process of transformation, can turn difficulties into challenges that incite us to greater forms of existence.  But until you encounter Nietzsche’s thinking itself, until you are laid flat by the extreme difficulty and the struggle of grasping what he is trying to do, this just sounds like another self-help formula.  A good philosophy teacher takes the student along that difficult journey and lets her find out for herself how to make a better life, so that it is her better life, and not the one currently in fashion.  Maybe this is why philosophers have such a hard time explaining themselves.

In Praise of Levity

December 4, 2010

I went to a great party a few nights ago.  It was in support of a wonderful cause, the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund, so everyone was feeling good, and in addition to great music, food and drink, there were some really interesting people to talk to. I am pretty sure that I didn’t engage in any small talk at all, since everyone I met seemed to be passionate about something really important and eager to share their ideas and their visions.  But it was a party, and appropriately during all this talk about important things everyone was having fun.  This got me thinking about Nietzsche’s critique of seriousness, of the heaviness he sees as such a destructive part of the legacy of Western thought and civilization, which is a large part of my inspiration for the salons.   His view is that if you think that everything you do and say will have consequences for your eternal existence, then living becomes a pretty serious business.  What is important – grown-up matters for mature people – absolutely cannot be fun to talk about.  I think we can agree that what is never fun – at a party or anywhere else – are fanaticism and dogmatism, and these just aren’t an option for those with a light-hearted attitude to life, the laughers and the children.  For Nietzsche the extreme nihilism that is the modern predicament can turn with the flick of a switch – a radical change of perspective – into the recognition that life has no transcendent meaning, and that it waits for us to affirm it.  In contrast to the denial of the value of this life in favour of that other (true and eternal) life that Nietzsche sees as having saturated our thought with such heaviness, nihilism can lead us to affirm this life, to love the earth and our bodies and temporal existence in all its fleeting richness.  When the shepherd in the vision at the climax of Thus Spoke Zarathustra finally bites off the head of the snake that is choking him, he is transformed into a “dancing, laughing being”, a powerful, healthy and unserious but philosophical sort of creature such as the earth has not yet seen.  Zarathustra is a prophet for the coming of this new creature, preparing the way for humans to live less seriously and with more substance.  The superhuman lives kinder and smarter and has way more fun doing it.

If it goes without saying that we could all stand to be a little less serious some of the time, it can be hard to imagine being less serious when it comes to those things that we hold to be of the highest importance.  What if you are fighting for social justice?  Is there any sense to the claim that you should be less serious about this endeavour?  Perhaps not, but my guess is that there would be a lot less injustice in the world in the first place if there were less gravity.  We are serious, I think, when our positions involve our own vested interests.  Henry Miller talks about the “ferocious gaiety” of a certain philosophical indifference that comes with the recognition that “all is flux, all is perishable”.  This refusal of attachment has a very Buddhist element to it, but in Miller’s more Nietzschean view it is very much a sense of dying to moralistic gravity in order to be born to a genuinely celebratory love for the temporal.  Miller as he describes himself is certainly capable of some reprehensible behaviour, but I always think he is the kind of person who would be utterly incapable of real baseness on the scale we now see it every day on the news, and just because of this lightness, this lack of personal investment in anything but expanding his perspective as much as he can.  The very thing that makes him seem cruel to the overly serious – he seems particularly talented at bringing impious hilarity to funeral scenes in Tropic of Capricorn, for example – is what makes him relatively harmless, as well as enormously fun and full of life.  Making light of things, and its concomitant irreverence, seems incompatible with genuine cruelty.  I wonder – if we take some position to be of great importance and are passionate about it without any personal interest whatsoever, would it not necessarily be a good, affirmative position?  Or put another way, is it even possible to be passionate about something that is negative and destructive without some personal interest guiding us?  I suspect not.  Of course, it must be nearly impossible to be entirely free of personal interest in anything.  But we can aim for that, and can aim to be less serious people, without having to let go of the notion that some things really are more important than others.  Some things call for our commitment and passion and dedicated attention, and may be harder to laugh about, but in this short life if we begin to take anything too seriously we may get stuck in the trap of dogmatism.  Since even good causes can turn dogmatic, I think it is imperative to practice philosophy in the spirit of levity, and to make a clear distinction between the important and the serious.

Philosophy and its Relevance

October 18, 2010

Among the opinions about philosophy (and the humanities in general) that has surfaced in the debate about funding for education is one that holds that philosophy is superfluous, the hobby of a handful of eccentrics or geeks that has nothing to do with real life.  The logic behind cutting so many departments in the humanities seems to be that these subjects are not able to sustain themselves economically, but what I am interested in is a slightly different argument that says that the humanities do not really contribute in any essential way to the full development of the human person, or society as a whole.  In my own experience with the various reactions I get when I say that I do philosophy, this seems to be a common view.  Along with the standard “I took a philosophy course once and had no idea what was going on” response, the more ‘positive’ (I am doing WILD finger-quoting here) reaction generally comes from people who took a course or two and loved it, but then went on to do serious things with their education.  This kind of attitude prevailing out there in the world outside of the academy must surely have led to a current horde of governmental and university administrative powers thinking very little of taking the axe to so many humanities departments and promising more of the same to come.  And yet I can’t help thinking that, although there are significant cultural forces to work against, when a student walks out of a philosophy class with either of these attitudes towards the subject, it is the instructor who has failed.  We may lament the fact that philosophy departments now have to try to justify their existence, and it will be in my opinion irreversibly damaging to everyone if we stop funding them, but if it means that philosophy professors are now asked to care about their general relevance, I can’t see it as all bad.

This summer I read Anna Karenina again after many years.  I had forgotten about the final chapter, where Levin has his epiphany about religion and philosophy.  It is a remarkable chapter, which comes from what I think is a healthy intuition about a certain kind of scientifically minded philosophy. Throughout the novel, Levin has been tortured by his atheism, by the absence of a monotheistic God as the source and end of all, has been driven nearly to suicide because such an absence seems to strip his life of all possible meaning or value.  As an enlightened philosopher he cannot in good conscience believe in this so unscientific notion of God, cannot be satisfied by the easy way that religion explains and justifies the world as it is, but as a deep thinking man he cannot let these questions rest.  His despair is the discovery that atheism has nothing at all to say in answer to our questions about life.

The quiet resolution of this intensely dramatic novel comes when Levin notices that those who believe do not do so philosophically, that the faith that so comforts them does not come in the form of a proposition that they hold about the state of things.  The faith of the uneducated peasants he so admires is not any kind of answer to a philosophical question, in other words, but is something more like an innate (so Levin calls it) knowledge of the good that is only manifest in practice.  In other words, they know how to live in the right way, without the help of philosophy.  Levin’s resurrection from the nihilism of his scientific view of the universe comes not through some new revelation but through the realization that he has in fact known the good all along and has been living for this good and it alone.  It was the misleading questions put by philosophy, questions that led him to look for a clear and rational way to conceptualize what could in truth only be lived, that tortured him.

Levin’s own crisis describes a more extreme form of the view that philosophy is superfluous, that holds that in superimposing its formal questions on our lived existence, philosophy is in fact distorting and harmful.  The way that philosophy has traditionally focused on notions of essence and absolute truth leaves us with a world whose supposedly real nature is accessible only to the most learned philosophers, and for the most part these keepers of the truth speak in a language that the rest of us haven’t learned.  Furthermore, philosophy has been asking the wrong kinds of questions.  The question about what something is often leads us to place ourselves outside of the lived world and our necessarily perspectival ways of experiencing it, inventing notions of things such as we imagine they would appear to a pure and transcendent mind (God or pure reason) that could take it in at a glance.  It is these kinds of approaches to philosophy that leave students thinking of it as either an indecipherable language or a fun set of questions that will entangle us in puzzles about life, but that amount to no more than intellectual exercises that we must put aside in order to live life.

But where did I learn to criticize philosophy so mercilessly?  From Husserl, from Nietzsche, from Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze, etc.  Philosophy is the discipline that constantly asks about its own value and limits.  And if any other discipline is able to be critical of itself in this fundamental way, it is only insofar as it is thinking philosophically.  So if I think that philosophy should in fact try to think more about its own relevance, I also think that philosophy is absolutely necessary to all aspects of education if it is going to be sufficiently progressive.  The thing that worries me most is that the kinds of philosophy that seem to be poised to survive the axe are those that fall in line with the traditional program and the general conservatism in our academic institutions, not the ones that alone can help us ask the important questions about the value and limits of our institutions themselves.  There is a whole world of philosophy that cares about its own relevance, that is relevant, and that should be taught to everyone in the interests of healthier democracies, the flourishing of individuals, and – I would go as far as to say – the future of the planet.  These philosophies have long ago learned to ask better questions, to concern themselves with life as it is lived, and to help us to find more productive and healthy ways to see, think about and experience the world.   But most people outside of the academy, and some people within – even in philosophy departments – don’t know about this.  Whether we like it or not, we can’t expect this to be acknowledged if we don’t teach it.

and check out this blog post on New APPS that makes an excellent case for the value of all the social sciences.


A Meaningful Prosperity

October 5, 2010

In this excellent TED talk, Tim Jackson discusses his book Prosperity without Growth, and proposes the idea of a meaningful prosperity.  We are caught in the trap of economic growth, where “people are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about”, he argues, and this can only continue to contribute to poverty, environmental degradation and economic crisis, as well as the nurturing of our selfish elements at the expense of our altruistic capacities.  I really like this notion of a meaningful prosperity – a prosperity that is not primarily materialistic in nature, but that includes the ability to feed ones family and enjoy the fruits of ones labour.  I assume he elaborates on this concept in the book, which I’ll have to add to my list, but in the meantime I am very interested in thinking about what this meaningful prosperity model would look like.  As Jackson points out, it’s not a new idea, but it is certainly unfamiliar for many of us who have grown up in a world where what you have is what you are.  More to come…

Unlikely Pairings: dinner guests and the art of conversation

October 3, 2010
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I got an invitation to dinner last week from a woman I have never met before, the partner of my friend Marta.  This was nice in itself.  What was even better was that the invitation was also addressed to a friend of hers who shares my name, with the explanation that they wanted to bring together both of their favourite people named Joanna.  I am a huge fan of social experiments, and a dinner party balanced on the axis of something so arbitrary as two people whose parents gave them the same name fills me with glee.  It also happens to be the case that I’ve never met a Joanna that I didn’t like.  And I’ve never been to an experimental dinner party that I didn’t like, since it is almost always either full of tension, or a house on fire.

Why would I enjoy tension in social settings?  Because in my experience it usually leads to something – a real or imagined confrontation between people who don’t mix comfortably.  Even if the tension doesn’t lead to outright conflict, everyone gets to feel the social force of conflicting views or sensibilities.  Last summer in Italy I stayed a few days at the house of a very close friend of some very close friends, assuming that this American woman (who had married an Italian) and I would naturally fuse the link joining our mutual friends and ourselves become very close.  It didn’t turn out that way.  And one night, the last night before the day I would cut the visit much shorter than planned, there was a dinner party on the terrace of their lovely Tuscan villa.  I chatted briefly with a couple of the guests, happy at the thought of meeting new people and getting the chance to speak a bit of Italian, but once we were all seated this group of ten childhood friends and their partners completely ignored the eleventh person at the table.  A great deal of their conversation was about people they knew and our hostess’ new Tom Ford sunglasses, both of which were subjects on which I had nothing to contribute, so I suppose the fault is not all theirs.  In any case, as I turned from humiliated to amused I realized that there should always be an eleventh person at these sorts of gatherings.

The eleventh person should prevent a group of friends from becoming a horribly obnoxious circle that simply stews in its own juices, never learning anything new about itself or about the world outside.  That night I felt like Sartre’s Roquentin: “I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices. All these creatures spend their time explaining, realizing happily that they agree with each other. In Heaven’s name, why is it so important to think the same things all together”.  I remembered that earlier, during cocktails, I had disagreed with something the professor of poetry had said to me about translation and this had been met with stony silence.  Of course there is nothing wrong with a group of old friends getting together to speak their own shared language and to agree with one another, presuming that they are at least capable of breaking rank to accommodate an outsider.  I think what my presence demonstrated was that they valued their collective certainty more than anything.  It wasn’t what I would call fun, but it seemed better to me to be forced to feel that tension than to be one of those happy people explaining and agreeing.  What I enjoyed that night was the very feeling of discomfort that reminded me of the value of hospitality, and the value of being open to people who are not like me, and of how easy it is to find a world where one fits comfortably and forever avoid challenge and dissonance.

Challenges are not always constructive, of course.  Too often conversation is about winning the debate, each side coming to the table with a view that they will themselves never consent to question.  In being faced with a sparring partner, we tend to become more defensive, less open-minded, and less willing to concede gaps in our logic – which we all have all of the time, I would suggest.  But all power struggles are like this: each partner is unlikely to give up any ground in the fear that the other, rather than seeing it as an invitation to soften their resolve, will annex the ground the other has relinquished and declare victory.  So a good conversation, one where something is actually achieved, requires trust – which is why it is unlikely that political discourse can ever be anything but this defensive war of words leading to ever more entrenched and unyielding positions.  But those of us who don’t have to worry about being accused of ‘flip-flopping’ when we actually consider an issue from another perspective and modify our view of it, can remember that even where our trust turns out to be unjustified we have won something in the valuing of our own ideological flexibility over a sense of victory.

I went to another small intimate dinner party with people I didn’t know at all recently.  Actually I kind of crashed it – long story.  Most of the guests seemed to do one of two things for a living, so I assumed they were all old friends.  The conversation was lively and interesting and the warmth and hospitality they extended to the eleventh person was overwhelming.  It turned out to be a birthday party, and at this one I felt like Grégoire Bouillier as the mystery guest at Sophie Calle’s birthday party (in his fabulous book The Mystery Guest), that person who makes a dinner party an unpredictable event.  Only unlike Bouillier I wasn’t invited, and because I was feeling a little under the weather that night I am afraid to say that I did not deliver much in the way of surprise.  But the host and the birthday boy showed no distress at the prospect of this unpredictability, and I later even had my privileged status revoked when I learned that they did not, in fact, all know each other well.  Birthday parties are where people who may only have one friend in common come together, and from a collective love for that one person the trust is usually there.

Dinner or cocktail parties are where a lot of conversation happens and they can be important components of social movements and the development and exercise of the engaged mind.  Like the food that is almost as important as the guests, unlikely pairings usually fare best.  If the ambiance inspires trust and flexibility, then rather than stewing in its own juices a company gets to see the unpredictable results of new combinations.  I have always assumed that this is what our eccentric contemporary chefs mean when they talk of ‘deconstructing’ food: things we thought we knew are revealed to have hidden attributes that are brought out only by putting them in new contexts or juxtaposing them with unlikely partners that have no use for their more customary and predictable talents. I can only hope the other Joanna, who for obvious reasons I already trust, will disagree.

Literature and the Universal (including comments on books I have and haven’t read)

October 1, 2010

I’ve decided to give Jonathan Franzen’s wildly popular novel, Freedom, a miss.  I am trusting the critics – the critics who I like to read and tend to agree with on literary matters, that is – rather than Time magazine, who featured Franzen on a recent cover celebrating him as “The Great American Author”.  Two recent reviews seem to agree that Franzen does a fair enough job of portraying middle-brow America, but urge us to expect more from art than a mere portrayal of what is (Ruth Franklin “Impact Man” and Evert Cilliers “Are our Writers as Lousy as Our Bankers?“).  A third review warns that my investment would be wasted on a “576-page monument to insignificance” (B.R. Myers “Smaller Than Life”)  There seems to be consensus, then, from writers whose reviews I like to read, so I’m thanking them for their contribution to my time management and moving on to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, which I taught twice last year in my Philosophy and Literature class at the University of Toronto and am re-reading now for a third time, which like the second is an almost entirely new experience.

But these reviews raise an interesting question for me, a question about novels and their relationship to the universal.  The complaint is that Franzen’s work speaks a language that will not survive very long, both literally and figuratively.  Literally, because Franzen is so concerned for his characters to sound like contemporary middle-brow Americans, and figuratively because he doesn’t have anything to offer in the way of universal resonance.  We are taught that to be readable a story must have something to say outside of its context.  Apparently, Franzen’s novel not only doesn’t have anything to say about poor or uneducated or even fabulously wealthy Americans or anyone who is not American, but it sounds as though he doesn’t have anything to say to anyone at all.  To have something to say to any audience, a writer has to not merely hold up a mirror, which is allegedly all that Franzen does, but must smash that image and stab the reader with the shards.  This seems to me to be one important element in distinguishing good from bad art, and yet if this lack of resonance is the result of a work that is too much of its context, I think that there are also works that commit this crime of mere reflection by being too universal in scope.  They may speak about everyone at all times, but there is nothing that can be said about everyone that is going to change anyone.

I used to think that my favourite contemporary novel was Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. As a poet, and a very good one in my opinion, Michaels can craft a sentence that knocks the wind out of me.  Her words are so hauntingly lovely to read that it is no understatement to say that I fell under their spell, lost in the beauty and ease of the language.  But a strange thing happened when I put it down – my world was not changed one bit.  It remained on my list of recommendations nonetheless, until recently when I started reading Miller rather obsessively and figured out why a work like Fugitive Pieces has no real lasting power for me.  Michaels is a stupendous writer but her writing is only universal in scope; it speaks a timeless message that in its transcendence of the truly gritty details of life speaks to nobody in particular of nothing that we aren’t already capable of understanding.  It captures nothing of the real.  I would still read anything Michaels writes, and anything Michael Ondaatje (who I would describe in a similar way) writes, and I think that the ability of these writers to put into beautiful and lofty words some penetrating insights into how humans have been for a very long time is admirable and gratifying.  But to change us, to be a novel worthy of being called great literature, I think a work has to offer more than a portrait of what all humans can recognize in all other humans under the right circumstances, more than insight into the essence of humanity as it is and always will be.

In fact, I don’t happen to believe that there exists anything so absurd as the timeless essence of humanity.  The life on earth of this species is in constant flux, and it is best captured by exploring the ways in which it resists our attempts to capture it.  Maybe great art can help us glimpse those resistances, and in this lets us see something of the real.  The fragmentary and disturbing in literature always performs an actual experiment on life in a way that the great sweeping treatises that peddle a theory of everything cannot (in my mind this is Dostoevsky the agitator vs. Tolstoy the portraitist).  The universal message is the message about what we are, when Nietzsche (and possibly even Plato) long ago taught us that what we are is nothing but a creature that is constantly becoming something else.  So to say that a novel should speak beyond its context is undoubtedly right, but this is not rectified by speaking a universal language.  The greatest capacity of the literary is that it has the power to undo the image of the human as something static.  In this I don’t know of a great American writer since Henry Miller.

Examined Life

September 29, 2010
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I finally saw Examined Life.  Something in me had been resisting it, even though a film that attempts to ‘bring philosophy back to the streets’ should be right up my alley.  Every time I had seen it in the video store and had felt obliged to rent it, I would tell myself that I was in the mood for something more entertaining, or gripping, or dramatic, or suspenseful, or funny.  Not surprisingly Examined Life turns out to be none of these things.  I know that philosophy has a reputation out there for being boring, but I happen to think that it doesn’t have to be that way and that this represents a misunderstanding about philosophy that Examined Life is not helping to dismantle.  In my minority opinion, philosophy can and ought to be – and sometimes is – entertaining, gripping, dramatic, suspenseful and funny.

Nobody in their right mind could claim that Cornell West or Slavov Zizek are boring philosophers, but although there were good moments in each of their monologues, watching them yapping in taxis and garbage dumps was a big yawn.  I couldn’t agree more that philosophy should get out of its tower and into the streets, but talking heads is clearly not the way to do it.  I am a particular kind of philosopher, it’s true, and my opinion surely does not represent the academic orthodoxy, but for me the great moments of philosophy happen in that instant when we discover something new, something we hadn’t thought of before.  Philosophy should be active, learning as it goes, rather than simply reporting to the audience what it has discovered back in the armchair, back in the age of Socrates.  In a university lecture this happens very rarely nowadays because of enormous class sizes, but when it does happen it is when the students get to see the professor engaged with a text or a question or a new thought and actually thinking with it out loud.  Wherever it happens it is active, a moment when some outside force pushes its way into our familiar view of things.  Students (and those people in the streets that according to Cornell West have nothing at all going on in their heads), learn philosophy by watching it happen and not by taking down information output that might as well be online.  As Gilles Deleuze says, philosophy is an apprenticeship.  Bringing philosophy to the streets should not be about philosophers telling the people down below what to think, as they seemed to be doing by using the cityscapes as mere backdrops or props for their clearly rehearsed speeches.  It should be about dropping those philosophers into the urban environment and making them interact with it and learn from what they come across or are confronted by.  The philosophers shouldn’t get to do all the talking, either.

Judith Butler’s segment was the one exception, as she was navigating the streets in dialogue with a disabled friend.  Not only was Butler getting flashes of insight from her friend’s responses and observations, but the audience got to see what it might be like to negotiate the city streets in a wheelchair as these two women used this situation to guide their thinking.  This indeed was philosophy on the move, living and breathing and responding.  On the other side of the spectrum was a feminist Derrida-spouting philosopher who I admit I had never heard of, and who suddenly made me see why all my fellow students had made fun of me for studying Continental Philosophy.  Lord please tell me that I never sounded like that.  It wasn’t that she wasn’t saying anything smart in her post-modern jargon that no non-philosopher would ever be able to decipher, but it seemed to add absolutely nothing valuable to the world – and nothing that hadn’t already been written by the 1950s.  Peter Singer was delightful just because he is delightful and everything he says is so perfectly spot-on, and Nussbaum and Hardt and Zizek all fared better, I thought, than Ronell and West because they were presenting really new ideas, ideas that at least were new when they wrote them in their books.  But then this is really just bringing books to the streets – where they can already be found – rather than creating an opportunity for philosophy to be confronted by the reality on the street or for anyone on the ground, or in the audience, to be given a chance to learn what it means to be philosophical.

About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.