Sunday, January 8, 2012

A preface to tortoise philosophy

For a time when I was young, I brooded on an issue within political philosophy discussed noisily at the time by radical philosopher Robert Paul Wolff. As I recall, it was the conflict he found in, on the one hand, recognizing an individual’s political obligation—perhaps it was an obligation to accede to the state’s demands (paying taxes, adherence to law, etc.)—and, on the other hand, the individual’s moral autonomy, which he conceived as, among other things, a disinclination, arising from competent moral agency, to hand authority (to act on one’s behalf ) over to others (e.g., the state).
I’ll have to get up to speed on that, but it was something like that.
I was intrigued by the issue, but I was never convinced that Wolff had fully made his case (he seemed to leap from the reality of this conflict to the necessity of embracing anarchism!). Years later, when I worked with the late Professor Greg Kavka (he was one among my advisors), he briefly mentioned to me his take on Wolff’s point: it was a simple reductio ad absurdum. I think it all happened within two or three steps as we walked. Typical Greg.
I think I understood Greg’s point—as I say, he only mentioned it to me—something to the effect that, if Wolff’s understanding of the moral implications of autonomy were correct, even promises would be verboten. Absurd.
Well, yes, I supposed. I suspected that something was wrong with Wolff’s account. Maybe Greg nailed it. But I was equally convinced that there was something there in Wolff's worries and that Greg’s reductio utterly missed it. I’m sure I didn’t try hard enough to articulate the “something”—to Greg or to anyone else.
I’m sure I couldn’t have, anyway. It was nearly thirty years ago, and I was what I was.

* * *

I’ve always been attracted to a loose doctrine or set of doctrines that one might call “communitarianism.” I am referring (I suppose) to those philosophies that give to “community” and membership in a community an important, perhaps central, place in thinking about individuals and society. Maybe it would help to note that, in communitarianism as I conceive it, individuals have a “sense of community” and routinely view the actions (etc.) of the community as their own. This way of thinking has always made sense to me (and, by that, I do not mean that it isn’t ultimately cracked through and through) and, it seems, led me to sense, albeit nebulously, big, fat issues at the heart of politics as it concerns the individual. Something—or some range of problems—concerning the communitarian individual and the state has stuck in my craw at least since I was a third-year student at U.C.I. (c. 1976-7). At this moment, I feel some pride in this fact, for, at that time, I had not been exposed to any systematic treatment of political philosophy or of “a” political philosophy. I was pretty much just thinking my own thoughts in my own way. That I took such thoughts seriously and kept brooding amazes me now. (I won’t even mention here even greater obstacles to my progress as a thinker originating in my peculiar membership in a strange and blinkered northern wolf clan.)
Naturally, this communitarian tendency in my thinking, which, as I say, extends back at least to my undergraduate years—and seems to have predated my college-era philosophical influences—is generally foreign or worse to liberal theory, especially liberal theory that tends to the right (libertarians). It is unfortunate, I suppose, that I generally learned of political philosophy in the Analytic Philosophy milieu, and, within that, a generally liberal/libertarian environment (of the kind exemplified by Wolff, more or less), one that never seemed to take community seriously. It was only later, in grad school, with the rise of Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and his political ideas, that I came across some communitarian thinking, though I believe that my professors were ultimately bewildered by that man. Not sure. (I was bewildered, too, but mostly because he was just difficult, like quantum physics, not because he was deeply foreign, like Scottish haggis; I heard the man speak once at a local college. I stared at him. It didn’t help.)
I can tell you now with some amusement that I have a mind like a popcorn machine. Or perhaps I have such a mind if you imagine a world of youthful popcorn machines that grow old and that eventually settle down to some staunch cooking (of corn, I suppose). So I’m this older corn-cooking gizmo looking back at some seriously youthful poppery. It is very nearly a useless mind that pops as mine did (and still does, mostly). I would have some flimsy (or sadly profound) grasp of something good and important, but it was utterly undone in the world as it is by all that crazy popping that went on around it in my head. Imagine a painter who is determined to paint something fine and great and who would do so were it not for his endless finger-brush spasms, peppering the canvass with riotous color and texture that really and truly amount to nothing but lurid disorder and wanton chemical wastage.
Imagine a nurseryman trying to sell his odd trees that, he says, are wonderful and beautiful, really they are, but that undergo a very lengthy development entailing ugly branches and leaves and even an offensive odor. But one must have faith, he says, that such trees will come through in the end, exploding into bushy and majestic and fragrant glory, but only after growing stolidly and hideously in the corner of one’s garden for twenty or thirty years, stinking up the place and scaring children.
I am such a tree, I think. Not that I have anything beautiful to offer. Perhaps I should adjust my metaphors a bit. (In truth, the old machine still pops, hideously, like those super-heated kernels in the daring extra seconds of the popcorn bag in the microwave.) It isn’t beauty or glory or genius that I offer. What I offer is, rather, simply that which I have to offer, and have had to offer all of these years, such as it is, but a thing only newly available, after a lifetime of inarticulate blatherings and unpleasant passionate scribblings and lunatic monologues.
I am quite serious about this. I am happy not because I have anything special or deep to say, but because, after all this time, I can foresee settling my mind long enough to finally say “it,” the “something”—that thing I have, in some sense, always needed to say. It may be rubbish, this “something,” though I doubt it. It is what it is. It is important to me. I give no thought whatsoever to whether it is important to you, dear reader. (Read on, you fool, if you must.)
This, of course, is only a preface (you may now burst out with laughter). I have no intention of revealing the “something” to you, for I cannot, since I only sense it, and I only sense that it is time to begin to work it out. I’ll say this: the feeling of the reality of this problem for the individual—in such times as ours—is, for me, strong still. It is the same feeling, and, times being what they are, it is a feeling worth working out and affixing to the expansive white wall, thus revealing all of its parts and the fine whole it creates across one’s living room and down one’s hallway and in one’s mind and throughout one’s life.
Now, more than ever, my society (my community, my state, my colleagues, my people) seems a monstrous thing, an idiot, a maker of disasters and pain (but not only that). Individuals generally, though not universally, seem utterly oblivious to this monstrous quality as I see it. And, no, I don’t claim to have special insight here. It is, rather, the odd acuity of a tortoise who persists in noting a puzzle in the sky or trees or grass, day after day, throughout his lengthy and unassuming tortoise life. And because only he has devoted such time and energy to this subtle mystery, it eventually dawns on him what sort of thing it is. It’s inevitable. His is the victory, not of genius, but of obsession, or perhaps, to be more charitable, of some mild intellectual virtue wedded to an absurd willingness to keep staring at those trees, those clouds, that grass, each day, decade after decade, generation after generation, absent any guarantee there is anything there at all, but only wind and mundanity and a tortoise life ill spent.
The tortoise will now lay out his idea. Slowly. In his own time, in his own way. We must find a way (says the tortoise) to think about what it is to live in this society, such as it is, populated now, more than ever, with lunatics and liars and thoughtless bleating lambs. Where are we? What ought we to do? What could anything we do mean?
I realize now that I have misdescribed my project, for it is only a subtle help that I hope to offer, no great answer. In fact, I feel now that it is not that I have come to some answer to an old problem; it is more that I see that I have refused to think about that problem, to really think about, despite its being so obvious a problem. And I’m getting older. And I am among young people, and that helps me to see my younger self and to like the silly, clueless but earnest guy. And I have these fleeting recognitions of the calmer, mirthful thinker inside; he’s the wise, old uncle who cannot help but love those wacky kids with all their folly and energy; and who, perhaps, can now at long last manipulate himself into some brief articulateness and clarity of thought.