Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lucky Find (& Bleg)

I'm working to put together a packet of readings from Nietzsche's The Gay Science for my Honors Humanities classes (as a preface to Sartre), and came across this. I doubt Cambridge University Press would be happy about it. But get it while it's hot (in more ways than one, I guess).

If anyone has any particular suggestions about what I *must* include in my packet, shoot. (Certainly, I'm including the death of God stuff, and some bits that capture his, as the 'all things shining' folks might put it, "polytheism"... I'm also skimming back over for swipes at utilitarian ethics, since I just finished teaching Bentham...)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Conviction & Certainty

It might be said that...to have a conviction is to be subjectively certain—to feel with great confidence that one’s beliefs, values, and aims are correct. Imagine, for example, a theist who admitted that she is not certain that God exists but believes in God nevertheless. We could take her to mean that she has no sufficient evidence or proof for God’s existence, but rather believes it on faith. And we might then suggest that to believe something on faith is to be subjectively certain about it—to feel with great confidence that this belief is correct or true. But this will not do. People struggle with their faith, question it, seek to better understand it—and also struggle to bring their lives and other beliefs into conformity with their faith (or convictions).

If I take something on faith, then I resolve myself to accept it, to go along with it, to let it shape me and to shape my actions around it. In none of this is a requirement that I feel certain that what I am committing myself to is correct (or true). It is possible that I have reservations about going forward. I might have doubts, but my doubts about turning back might be even greater, and I might find myself forced by my situation either to press forward or retreat. To press forward in faith, or with conviction, is to devote myself to that path—to give myself to it. Perhaps I can withdraw later if things aren’t working out. But if I continue to think that, then I am not living with faith or conviction. It is not a lack of certainty that destroys conviction, but rather a lack of devotion.

A person might show such conviction—and devotion—in a relationship such as a marriage. A person might not know, let alone feel certain, that his spouse is his soul mate. One might not put much stock in such fine phrases. At the same time, one can be committed to his or her matrimonial vows, committed to cultivating a relationship in which continued love is possible. Such a commitment is not a prediction of what will happen, that the marriage will not fall apart (or at least that if it does, this person won’t be the one responsible for it). Thus, such a person—without showing any lack of conviction with regard to the depth of his devotion—could say, “I am not certain that things will work out between us.” This is not, of course, the sort of thing to be said on one’s wedding day. It could, however, be said in full seriousness—to a friend, perhaps—during a serious marital disagreement. “Do you believe that things will work out?” “I don’t know.” Such a confession of ignorance and uncertainty has nothing to do with whether one is still devoted to the marriage. Being committed to making it work out—to the extent that this is in one’s control—is not the same thing as being committed to the proposition that it will work out. Of course, if one has no hope that it will work out, then there would be little point in being committed to making it work. Thus, there is a connection between conviction and devotion, and between devotion and hope. If certainty has any role to play here, it is simply that one must not feel subjectively certain that the relationship is hopeless. When that is gone, then one had better get a priest or a lawyer.

(I wrote this before actually looking back over p. 168ff in Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, to which Tommi had quite helpfully referred me. There's definitely some overlap here with Williams, and I imagine I will take up some of what Williams says around p. 169 about conviction being somehow "inescapable" soon, though some of what I said here is a start on that. For what it's worth, I take a similar, though I don't think as well-articulated, position on conviction and subjective certainty around the second page of my forthcoming paper "Moral Conviction.")

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reflection, Take 2

(A little more friendly to Williams this time, and a little bit of a tease at the end...I'm in the midst of the continuation right now...more to come...)

Conviction and reflection might seem to be awkward partners, their relationship constantly strained. Although Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, we might suspect that because reflection tends to undermine our sense of certainty in our own beliefs—since in reflecting we question and critique those very beliefs—that reflection also tends to undermine conviction. This might seem to be especially true of moral beliefs, since a little exposure to the diversity of moral opinion and practice throughout the world may lead us to reflect upon the extent to which our own beliefs are influenced by our own particular upbringing and cultural and historical situation. Bernard Williams has suggested in such cases that “reflection can destroy knowledge,” which is to say that reflection can deprive us of confidence in our own ways of living and valuing, and thereby our convictions. At least, reflection might destroy our certainty that our way living and valuing is the right way.

Destruction is not, it should be kept in mind, always a bad thing. We want to destroy our illusions and false opinions, the biases that prevent us from recognizing truth. However, one might think that if knowledge is good and reflection can destroy it, then something has gone wrong in those cases when reflection does destroy knowledge. But how could reflection ever do such a thing? Shouldn’t what we call knowledge be more durable than that? A short—and somewhat unhelpful—answer is that it depends on what exactly we are willing to count as knowledge.

What is potentially unsettling about Williams’ point does not turn so much on how we choose to use the term knowledge but rather on the fact that reflection—as well as exposure to other ways of living and valuing—can undermine our confidence in our own moral beliefs. We can be led to question whether the certainty we have about our own convictions is justifiable when we consider that others have felt just as certain about the rectitude of various other systems and practices. What is equally unsettling is that simply refusing to reflect on such matters will seem dishonest (or dogmatic or lazy): if we refuse to reflect, then we may well fall (or have fallen) for just about anything. Unless we are foolish or arrogant enough to believe that we have already got everything right, then we will see that we cannot make any progress in our own moral or intellectual life without reflection.

The danger of reflection is not that it unsettles us; sometimes we need to be roused from cheap comfort. Rather, the danger is that reflection can lead to a cramped kind of skepticism that induces paralysis or despair. We can lose our grip and not know how to go on. In having lost our certainty, we may be led to the thought that we have lost everything—that without certainty, we cannot (or should not) allow ourselves to have convictions.

But this is a strange position.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


(A snippet from some further reflections...am I being fair enough to Williams? Update: Read the next post above.)

Conviction and reflection might seem to be awkward partners, their relationship constantly strained. Although Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, Bernard Williams suggested that “reflection can destroy knowledge” by undermining the foundations upon which one’s convictions stand. I have always thought that Williams must be wrong—or at least that he only wins the point by abusing language. Reflection can undermine convictions, for it can uncover bad reasoning, hidden motives, ignorance, and blind spots in one’s sensibility. If that is what reflection destroys, then I would not say that it destroys knowledge but rather the semblance of knowledge.

If reflection destroys a conviction, then it was either a bad conviction or a bad act of reflection. Where reflection destroys a bad conviction there is no loss in its destruction. On the other hand, if one were to destroy a worthy conviction because one had engaged in poor reasoning and reflection, then a real loss has occurred. Perhaps for this reason those who were never taught how to reflect—how to navigate the maze of philosophical questioning without losing their patience or their way—are better off not reflecting. But equally, perhaps those who are better off not reflecting are also better off not having any convictions.

Even better: perhaps one who is inclined toward some conviction should learn how to reflect, so that she can better know what it is she has, and neither destroy what is truly precious nor become accustomed to living with fool’s gold. And the first thing one should learn is that true reflection does not destroy knowledge, but rather unsettles comfortable and merely convenient illusions.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Conviction & Desire

Here is the continuation of the line of thought started in the post "I Must..." (I'm including it as a pdf because I thought it was a bit long for a blog post.) There's a lot of work yet to do here; this is just a start to what I hope to be a series of thoughts/meditations/reflections of this sort, which will ultimately connect with some of the other work (about courage and humility and patience, etc.) I've been doing and posting about here.

Thoughts appreciated. I'm sort of going out on a limb here, and hopefully I won't fall off.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Patience & Slowing Down

Things take time, and things go wrong. For some things, we must wait (like next Christmas). Even those things that are comparatively in our control—unlike how far away Christmas is, or how close we are to getting home—often require patience if we are to do them well.

Joe Kupfer defines patience as “the disposition to accept delays in satisfying our desires—delays that are warranted by circumstances or the desires themselves” (265). He then adds that, “patience is not just waiting, but waiting easily without agitation.” But I’m not sure that waiting is the right word in all cases.

Certainly, I can wait in line patiently or with anger or anxiety. I can wait patiently for my daughter to put on her shoes in the morning, or I can yell at her. But there are other things I do, which I think of as requiring patience, where waiting doesn’t seem to be the whole of it. Writing an essay (or story, etc.) would seem to be like this. I have to develop my thoughts, write, revise, read more, rethink, write, revise, show what I have to someone else, and so on. Certainly, waiting can be involved here. I should wait to submit my essay until I am satisfied with the product. (I’m not always good about this.) But it seems like there is something else here, which I would say takes patience, which is part of the process of crafting the essay. Maybe what seems wrong in Kupfer’s definition is the notion of “delays.” Certainly, I can experience setbacks in writing. But the process of writing itself is not something that delays the final product. Perhaps the slowness of my thoughts delays my progress, but that seems wrong. The pace of my thoughts is the pace of my thoughts. Perhaps I have to wait out an episode of writer’s block. But even when the words are flowing, there is a sense in which I have to take my time. (And this is truer of editing.) It’s not that I have to accept a delay in the emergence of a final draft; rather, I have to accept that writing a good essay takes time. It also requires focus; a person who is easily distracted won’t be able to see the project to its completion. And I associate that focused attention to the task with patience. (I don’t know if it’s patience that enables the focused attention, or the ability to focus that makes patience possible…)

Kupfer alludes to what I would call “patience in process” (as opposed to mere patient waiting, as in a check-out line) in his opening example of a young boy who rushes through the construction of a model airplane. But Kupfer then focuses on features of the activity such as waiting for the glue to dry on one part before moving onto the next step. Here, I think, he misses something important. Applying the glue properly or painting the wings evenly may also take patience, and here it’s not like one is waiting for something to happen. One is in the midst of doing something, which must be done carefully, slowly, and mindfully—if it is to be done well. Kupfer realizes that impatience in such activities ironically leads to a failure to achieve what we want, since the final result will be shoddy. But when he talks about how patience can be fostered by understanding the time various activities take, he still focuses on cases where one isn’t quite fully engaged, but rather where one is waiting for the glue to dry, or the customer service representative to come on the line after putting you on hold, and so on.

Those examples might make it a bit too easy to think that understanding cures everything, or nearly does. But if we tend to hurry things along or get easily distracted, then I’m not quite sure those are character traits that are fixed by more facts. I may know that it’s going to take all day to clean the side of the house, but still find myself rushing along, not scrubbing the siding as diligently as I might, not able to focus on doing it well. This needn’t be because I don’t really care, but rather because I get anxious when faced with an activity that seems, to me, slow in the doing. And when I find myself getting hurried like that, I find myself thinking that I need to be more patient, and this is part of what I think is involved in focusing on the task at hand. It’s not that I need to remind myself that doing it correctly takes time, but rather that I need to refocus and remind myself to slow down.

But maybe what I need here is a more subtle idea about what it means to wait. Perhaps I am waiting on myself to finish one part of the job before I move onto the next? (But then which me is it that moves on? I can wait for my arm to heal before I try playing softball again. But I'm less sure about waiting on myself to finish one thought before moving onto the next one. Maybe if it's a physical activity, I'm waiting on my body to do one thing before I will it to do another. But that's a wee bit too Cartesian for me...at least, I don't quite see how to separate going slow and being focused and mindful from whatever it is that we might call waiting here.)

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Selling Out?

I just watched Morgan Spurlock's (Supersize Me) new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which is an entertaining look into the world of product placement in film, and which was 100% financed by product placements. Funny film. Not sure what exactly I learned from it, if anything.

A minor point explored in the film, as Spurlock recruits Ok Go to write a theme for the film, is the role corporate use of music has come to play in generating visibility for up and coming musicians and bands. Donald Trump mentions that there are musicians who would never take any money for the play of their music in advertising, but thinks they should still take the money and run. As Ok Go suggests, I guess it depends on what one is running from.

At any rate, the Nashville band in which a friend of mine plays bass, Heypenny, recently got some corporate play in a new Honda commercial:

I'm happy for them. Their new album is great, and they deserve some exposure. They work hard, play hard, and are smart musicians. (DJ teaches philosophy on the side.) Fun music. Great live shows. Here's one of my favorite songs by them:

I Must...

(A little something I've been musing over; compare, for example, to the view of morality and desire that DR discusses here.)

“I absolutely must.” How did it ever get into anyone’s head that anything absolutely must be done? Some of the things I must do are things that must be done in order to satisfy other desires and goals I have. I must go to work if I want to get paid. I must take care of my children if I don’t want them to suffer. I must love my wife, and show her that love, if I am to reasonably expect that she love me in return.

Is every must thus relative to some other desire? Suppose I say that there is something I must do, even if it gets me fired, or causes my children to suffer, or alienates me from my wife so that she is unable to love me any more. Does that show that there is something I desire more than a paycheck, happy children, and my wife’s love? If I am acting out of moral conviction, then one might say that what I desire more than these other things is to do what I think is right, cost what it may, and that I have put my desire to be moral (as I see it) ahead of my desires about my livelihood and family.

If that were the right way to characterize my judgment, then we would have to say that the phrase “I must” is no more than a variation of the form, “I want,” and that it expresses what I really, or most deeply, want. But I do not think this analysis will do. I may not want to do what I believe I must do, but I must do it anyway. “But what you want in that case,” so the retort goes, “is to realize the object of your judgment.” Perhaps what I want is to be a moral person, or to preserve my integrity. Or more directly: I want to do what I believe is the right thing to do (to blow the whistle on a vicious colleague or boss, or to advocate for an unpopular cause at the risk of danger to myself and my family, or so on).

Here is the trouble with the attempt to reduce all judgments of what one must do to expressions of desire: if I believe that something must be done because it is the right thing to do—and not simply to achieve some other desire of my own—then what drives the judgment that I must do it is not so much the desire to be moral as the belief that something is required of me and that I must do it. This is because I can believe that something is the right thing to do, even if I wish—to the bottom of my heart—that it wasn’t. I might wish that I was not put in this situation, or that I could talk myself into a way of believing that would relieve me of the judgment that I must do something that may bring great pain to myself or to those I love. A person who has this kind of conviction is not expressing a mere desire: what I desire is not relevant to what I must do in such cases. To believe that there is something I absolutely must do is to believe that I must do it, even if I don’t want to. If I also want to do it, all the better. But my wanting to do it is not what makes it—in my own judgment—something I absolutely must do. What I must do, in this sense, comes from outside of me. Coming from outside the self, it cannot simply be a desire, which arises from within.

(To be continued...)