Friday, March 16, 2012

When the going gets good, it's harder to be patient?

In Book 32 of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, On Patience and Thankfulness, al-Ghazali approvingly cites Sahl al-Tutsarī: "Patience in well-being is more difficult than patience in tribulation" (33). This seems rather peculiar, but perhaps less so if we understand al-Ghazali's conception of patience:
Let us call this quality that makes man different from the beast in [his] appetites and in their subjugation ‘religious impulse’…Let us call the pursuit of the appetites and their requirements ‘impulse of desire’…Let us understand that the struggle and warfare between the religious impulse and the impulse of desire are alternately successful. The battleground of this struggle is the heart of the servant….patience is the steadfastness of the religious impulse in confronting the impulse of desire. (15)
It may be tempting to think that al-Ghazali is talking about self-control, given the contrast of the "religious impulse" with the appetites, but given his allowance that in the struggle between these two impulses, each is sometimes successful, I think it is clear that what he's really talking about is not self-control so much as constancy, or as he puts it, steadfastness.

The distinction between self-control and constancy/steadfastness is, as it seems to me, a contrast between external and internal, a lapse in momentary behavior and a lapse, as it were, in the heart. A person might fail to live up to his or her own standards or commitments in a particular instance without having inwardly forsaken those standards or commitments, and the person who remains inwardly steadfast resists the temptation to fall into despair, to forsake those standards or commitments, in the face of his or her own momentary failure. Of course, we may wonder how often, or how severely, one can fail and it still make sense to believe--about another person or oneself--that a genuine commitment to those principles or standards exists. I want to put that aside for now.

So, back to the idea that, "Patience in well-being is more difficult than patience in tribulation." The point seems to be that steadfastness to a religious (and perhaps here we can also include a moral) standard can be more difficult when one is the beneficiary of much good fortune. I guess the idea is that it can be tempting to "go soft," to relax and enjoy one's good fortune, to give in to "appetites" and to forget about one's loftier religious or moral aims and ambitions. We can drift "off message." There's something interesting about this idea that I've been trying to extract from the specific religious context of al-Ghazali's work, as my suggestions above that this could be applied to moral ideals in addition to religious ones is meant to suggest. And maybe in other contexts, too. Readers of this blog may know (or have heard tell) of a professor who, after receiving tenure, "went soft" or "quit trying" or whatever. There may be various reasons for this (some of them acceptable, some of them not), but in some cases, it seems like failure, or a loss of drive, or disenchantment with teaching (or research), etc. This isn't normally what we mean by lacking patience, but patience does have something to do with steadfastness/constancy, and this inversion--that the good times can threaten our ability to stay focused in the pursuit of an ideal, even more than the bad times--seems like an important reminder.

On the other hand, I'm less sure this point is right when applied to other matters requiring patience. I'm much more patient with my children when I'm in a good mood and had a good day, than when I feel crappy and things didn't go well. Maybe this can be chalked up to the idea that patience, like willpower, as Baumeister understands it, is a resource that can be depleted (and needs "recharging" as it were, or rest).

Of course, al-Ghazali doesn't deny that patience is tested by adversity as well, and maybe the way of reconciling these two points would be to imagine circumstances in which my fortune is so good that I am tempted to "lose patience" with my kids in that I simply spoil them with stuff, fill their every desire (to avoid having to deal with temper-tantrums), and thus deprive them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with some adversity, denial, and failure every now and then. This makes me a bad parent, a parent who lacks the patience to allow his (or her) children to encounter and face the struggles necessary for growth into a mature, unsheltered, unspoiled human being. Arguably, that would be worse in the long run than merely yelling at them when I'm tired (which isn't good itself), would be a greater abdication of my responsibilities as a parent.

So, then, I suppose that the idea is that when fortune is good, it can be tempting to try to buy your way in (or out), rather than to earn it (whatever it is) fairly and squarely. The lack of patience in this case consists in a failure to put forth the right effort, an effort that adheres to sound principles and standards. This is the temptation in sports, I suppose, that manifests itself in players who think they no longer need to practice. They are so good that they can just show up. (And they're so rich that they can afford to pay the fines for missing practice.) But that can only last, if it ever does, for so long before things start to fall apart. Right?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Moral Courage Sermonized

Today I gave a talk about moral courage at the local Unitarian Universalist church. After preparing a written talk that distilled some of the main ideas of my paper, "Moral Courage and Facing Others," it occurred to me that reading a paper in this context might rather violate the spirit of "facing others" (since I would have my nose buried in my text). So, I ended up winging it, and it went fine. The discussion was very nice (a church where there's open-ended discussion after the homily, as part of the service?!), and I was thrilled to be invited and glad that I agreed to do it (despite the added pressure of my dean being there).

Here's the text that I worked from, in putting together some more streamlined notes for the talk, for the sake of posterity (I guess). If you've read the long paper, there's nothing particularly new, but some may find it of interest.

P.S. The longer paper, forthcoming in International Journal of Philosophical Studies, should be published in April and should be freely available (I'm told). I will post an announcement as soon as it is available.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Thinking for Oneself & Not Caring What Others Think

There’s a quality that we could call “independence of thought” which seems to be often regarded as praiseworthy. We refer to this quality as “thinking for oneself,” and it seems that one who shows independence of thought must not be too beholden to what others think. We say we want students, for example, to learn to think for themselves rather than to parrot back what they have been taught (or to merely repeat what they’ve read on Wikipedia, etc.). To think for oneself might thus be connected to what writers (and musicians and composers) call “having a voice.”

To think for oneself, to have the courage to follow one’s own thoughts and to explore them, may involve not being too concerned with what other people think. The independent thinker has to follow his or her own leads, and something like intellectual integrity involves not rejecting one’s own conclusions or convictions just because others disagree. So there’s a sense in which the independent thinker should not care—too much—about the opinions of others. The tricky part here is that if the independent thinker is to remain grounded in reality, since his or her own paths of thought could lead to mere fantasy or delusion, he or she has to care—to some extent—about the opinions of others. This has the air of a paradox.

It’s clear enough that someone who doesn’t care at all what other people think is not what people have in mind by independence of thought, because someone who doesn’t care at all would seem to be a sociopath or psychopath. And from a Wittgensteinian perspective, the notion of completely independent thought would seem to be necessarily incoherent for the same reason that a truly private language is incoherent. (Feminist critiques of the Cartesian method approach similar conclusions—we learn to think in a social context, and so our patterns of thought could never be entirely free of that social origin.) So is the notion of independent thought really just an illusion, thoughtless praise of a condition that, if it could be attained, would just be a kind of insanity?

I suspect that the answer has something to do with finding one’s “voice,” and having the courage to speak for oneself, to speak one’s mind (even if one should also bear in mind that one’s mind is shaped by others). And so perhaps the language of “not caring what other people think” is misleading. We need to care about what other people think, at least some people, and at least some of the time, or else we risk losing touch with reality. But we need not to care so much that we are afraid to speak or to explore thoughts other than the ones that the people around us happen to think. So, again, independence of thought may just be another way of talking about intellectual courage. Marilyn Frye, in “In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love,” draws a connection between courage and imagination which is probably worth thinking about in this connection:
"There probably is really no distinction, in the end, between imagination and courage. We can’t imagine what we can’t face, and we can’t face what we can’t imagine" (in The Politics of Reality, Crossing Press, 1983, p. 81).
The intellectually courageous person, the independent thinker, must, in some sense, be willing to go to the brink. Maybe part of the difference between such a person and the insane person is that the courageous person is able to come back and cares enough about “what other people think” to attempt to communicate it to others, in ways that can be reasonably expected to create some level of understanding.

I wonder then whether a person who claims not to care what other people think could really coherently care about his or her own thoughts, and perhaps even whether—assuming this claim not to care isn’t just a lie or a self-deception—such a person could think clearly at all.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Clarity & Metaphor

I just took notice of (though I'd previously been aware of) the call for the annual essay prize at The Philosophical Quarterly. This bit of the theme description ("Philosophy and the Expressive Arts") caught my attention:
Some philosophers insist with Wittgenstein that “whatever can be said at all can be said clearly”. In that case, are artistic uses of language such as metaphor and imagery just "colour", as Frege called it - just ways of dressing up thoughts that philosophers, by contrast, should consider in their plainest possible form?
It struck me quite at once that metaphors can arguably be clearer than their non-metaphorical equivalents. Compare:
1. I got very drunk last night.
2. I got hammered last night.
For my money, (2) shows more. The "colour" adds something. It seems that this idea is something (at least the later) Wittgenstein would have readily acknowledged, though I don't have any passages at hand to support that suspicion. (This is all a quick thought.)

If I can find the time, this might be the right time to re-visit Coetzee, as well, as I think his work speaks volumes to some issues that are worth exploring under this theme, such as the limits of language (and of rationality to contain and/or make sense of things that "wound" us, as with Elizabeth Costello, and also David Lurie).