Monday, April 13, 2015

The Value of Not Knowing and Not Doing

It is also not Being ...
 So one of my philosopher friends posted this quote by Adrian Johnston (who I don't know), and it provoked quite the discussion, enough that I felt I ought to spell out my thoughts more clearly on my own blog. 
“Like the Romantics and Pietists before them, numerous post-idealists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries end up promoting a facile mysticism whose basic underlying logic is difficult to distinguish from that of negative theology. The unchanging skeletal template is this: There is a given “x;” This “x” cannot be rationally and discursively captured at the level of any categories, concepts, predicates, properties, etc.; Yet, nevertheless, the only true task of authentic thought is to circle endlessly around this sacred void of ineffability, repeating ad infinitum (and ad nauseum) the gesture of grasping at the purportedly ungraspable. The names of this empty “x” vary while the pattern stays constant: Will, Life, Power, Temporality, Being, Other, Flesh, Difference, Trauma, and so on (up to even certain pseudo-Lacanian versions of the Real). Not only is this boringly predictable negative theological cookie cutter an all-too-easily grasped conceptual scheme of its own—even if one were totally to concede the truth of one or more of these ineffabilities as they are held up by their numerous enthusiastic advocates, there is so much more of greater interest and urgency for thinking to do than to remain absorbed in the sedentary meditative exercise of doing nothing but fixedly staring into a dark abyss.”

Now Johnson is published and I am not, and he is engaging in a longer polemic for philosophical materialism, which doesn't particularly tempt me. But I am definitely one of the “enthusiastic advocates” “of these ineffabilities” that is being sneered at here, and several of the other philosophers in the discussion expressed similar disdain for ineffabilism, calling it a “pet hate” or not to be confused with “real work.” My own stance is that Johnston is more or less right in this passage about the post-idealist pattern, but that his tone leaves a lot to be desired. Some people thrive on chasing after doing and thinking that feels urgent to them, and some people thrive on sedentary meditative exercises that involve a lot of staring into a dark abyss. Philosophy has room and roles for both types, and most lives should probably have at least a little of each style in them. So I want to do a little bit of a discussion and defense of the value of negative theological approaches, of contemplation, of staring into the dark abyss, on not-knowing and not-doing, as opposed to more positive philosophy approaches, activities, theory-building and system building, striving to know and do.

At the most basic level, theory removal clears space for new theories to emerge. My wife had a great analogy. Before she cooks, she clears away the stuff on the counter so she has space to set up what she's doing, so she can see what's what. Skepticism helps clear away weaker theories, but contemplation can help clear away theories that might be fine in some contexts but aren't necessarily helpful or relevant to this particular task. When we clear the counter before cooking, some things get thrown away, some things get composted, but some things go into the wash for later re-use. But not-knowing, starting over as much as possible from emptiness or openness, rather than cluttered pre-conception helps us to begin-knowing, instead of always being stuck in continuing-our-pre-knowings. We “clear away” our pre-conceptions of Being or Difference, in part to begin to strive to form more genuine conceptions of Being or Difference. Perhaps in a sense the negative theology moment of “clearing away” IS more boring than the positive theory-building moment of “cooking” but they are properly allies in joint project.

Even if we are thinking more of personal life examples than philosophical theory-building, the contemplative work seems to help with being able to cultivate a detached observation of our own behaviors or patterns in our life that allows us to then begin addressing them productively. It is especially helpful when ego and psychological defenses would otherwise interfere with the process. When I think about my eating habits, or why I'm always behind in housework, or why I shy away from certain topics in conversation that seem like I'd be interested in them - a step of negative philosophy, of clearing away old theories, or letting-things-happen-without-yet-building-theories-about-them, or refraining from judgment or conclusion, is often key to getting past places I've been blocked, especially if I've been block their many times before. When knowing doesn't work, sometimes refraining-from-knowing does. When doing doesn't work, sometimes letting-happen does.

If contemplation taken to the extreme looks like facile mysticism, lazy, depressing accomplishment of nothing, then active thinking and doing taken to the extreme looks like mental busywork, the perfection of anxiety, a spasm of ambition thrown upon a meaningless canvas. Both are caricatures. But people need a balance of work and rest, of stress and relief, of theory and mystery. There are plenty of lives that are out of balance and need more of one side or the other than they are actually managing to get. I ain't here to promote a “facile” mysticism, but I know plenty of Americans who sure seem to me to need more mysticism than they are in fact getting, and you start off on the easy stuff before you tackle the more difficult stuff.

More to the point, I find that my contemplative, ineffabilist, skeptical, aporeticist work has made me personally more compassionate than I used to be. I look at someone's situation, and I admit that I don't really understand what it is like to be them. I have guesses not answers. It is harder to look down on people than it used to be. It is easier for me to feel solidarity. When I identified with particular theories, it was easy to see others as divided from me by our differences at the theory level, as opponents, as deluded, as wrong or lesser or others. Now as I feel uncertain and questioning before wondrous complexity, others feel like allies before the vastness, even if they use different words to try to express themselves. I stare into the dark abyss, and I feel a continuity with countless other folks, full of many differences, who stare into the dark abyss from time to time whether they want to or not. Our frailty unites us.  Ellen Feder had a complex thought on frailty and dignity that I need to post more about in the next month or two, but for now, it is enough to say that our frailty unites us.

I struggled with arrogance a lot when I was younger. I was right about so many things, that it was easy to think I was right much more than I actually was. I knew what was right and what was wrong, and could be pretty annoying self-righteous about it. And I knew how the world should be, and had confidence that humans could make it that way, and were in the process of doing so. But knowledge is more non-monotonic than I gave it credit for. We learn new things and they call into question old conclusions that we thought we knew. Science progresses in part by rejecting past conclusions. And so does legal reasoning, or artistic work, or knowing in our daily lives. It was fun when I focused on knowing, instead of the limits of knowing, but I wasn't as good of a person. Similarly, I thought I had a lot more power than I actually did. Both in knowing and doing, I over-estimated myself.  I enjoyed using my power and freedom, rather than exploring the limits of my power and freedom.  As I worked on negative philosophies: negative theologies, negative ontologies, anti-epistemologies, un-logics, a-porias, and so on, I came to have more appreciation for the give and take and non-static nature of the limits of knowledge, and for the real, but complicated limits of my own ability to know and do things. Had I been able to impose my Utopian dreams on the world, it wouldn't have been as glorious as I once thought. Many of my ambitions were not just overestimations, they were misplaced. I am a smart person, and I have been wrong about the central things in my life more than once. The negative paths humble us again and again, often unpleasantly. We are wrong more often than we like to admit. We are often guessing when we pretend at knowing. We are selfish, or privileged, or fail to understand, or have poorly thought-out goals. Or a thousand other frailties and limitations. And the negative philosophies, the philosophies of our limits, help us to overcome our own arrogance.

It's also more than that. It is frustrating to lives within our limitations. I want soooo many things for my world, my nation, my state, my community, my family, my loved ones, myself, that I cannot achieve. I want answers to big questions that I have not been able to suss out. I want LOTS of things that I have failed at. And living within those limitation, those frailties, I find it perennially difficult. But the negative philosophies are a balm, and constant aide for me. The Pyrrhonists say that they avoid belief on weighty matters that are not forced upon them, so as to reach “freedom from trouble” (ataraxia) to the extent that they can, and moderation in feeling even on feelings forced upon one. Buddhism, Taoism, Negative Christian Theology, Pyrrhonism, many other philosophical traditions, even this post-Idealist stuff Johnston is reacting against, they hope and sometimes claim to be able to help us to live within our limitations. I want lots of things. But I no longer think that actively striving for them is always the best response. Some wants ought to be worked towards, but some ought to be checked, some let go, some allowed to happen as they will. Our world is too dialectical, sometimes by striving we only strengthen the opposition. We are too limited. We can't achieve all the things we want, and it would turn out horrible if we could. We need to be held in check, and to hold each other in check. And we need to find ways to make peace with our limits. Philosophy of exploring our limits is one classic way to work on this, and staring contemplatively into the void is another. I was just talking with a lady who feels that she does not matter, and her problems don't matter, and her life doesn't matter, because no one can give her solutions to her fucking medical problem instead of trying to give her consolations. She is dying, and raging, and flailing at the stark limits of her power and the power of those who love and care for her. She is not alone. This is how we are. And we need, we need the ashen never-enough of consolation … We need to struggle against our limits, and we need to find ways to be consoled within our limits.

I'm not trying to belittle knowing and doing either, or the styles of philosophy that focus on them. Theory building, system building, trying to do things in the world, these are sane approaches too. If you want to do, you will never do enough. If you want to know, you will never know enough. That's OK, try anyway if you want. In my account, these approaches fail; no theory is adequate, the truth surpasses all system, the world cannot be fixed via action. But these strategies and active philosophies and life-paths of active work, they accomplish other things of value in the process of trying and failing at their main goals. That is actually how contemplation and negative philosophies and un-theorizing work too, they fail to speak of the ineffable they try and fail to speak about, but accomplish other worthwhile goals in the midst of their failure.

Vonnegut says
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

For us, the urge to theorize is very natural, but so is the urge to step back from theory into questioning and wondering. Both are parts of philosophizing. My wife is definitely more active in her approach to life and philosophy, and I am definitely more contemplative. That's OK.  At least that's how things seem to me, if you disagree, tell me about it, maybe we can hash through things together ...

1 comment:

  1. So much to love in this, BP! I struggle all the time with how much I want to know and do - the result is often an unpleasant inertia, one that is neither productive nor contemplative.
    Your writing is beautiful, poetry & clarity. Thank you!