Thursday, September 27, 2012

Patience and Wisdom

[Putting this together has been a struggle, perhaps as it should be. But have I said anything?]

Simone Weil wrote that, “We do not have to understand new things, but by dint of patience, effort and method to come to understand with our whole self the truths which are evident.” [1] This is reminiscent of the suggestion in Plato’s dialogue Meno that acquiring knowledge is a matter of recollecting truths innate within the soul—knowledge involves a search within the self, rather than an investigation of the world beyond. Of course, if we think of the mind at birth as a “blank slate,” or even if we think that what is innate in the mind are capacities (or dispositions) rather than propositions (a store of sentence-like truths written into the brain by our DNA), then both Weil and Plato’s ideas will seem peculiar. Similarly, if we think that scientists make discoveries about the world that add to our knowledge, then it will hardly seem that we can construe what they do as recollection. We do not learn about penguins or electrons by probing the recesses of our own minds.

Even so, “patience, effort and method” would surely have a place in our coming to learn about penguins and electrons. Research in both the field and the laboratory takes time, and it is not hard to see how patience is relevant to such undertakings—not only because one must wait for the results, but also because one must be prepared to endure the frustration of failed experiments or adverse conditions in the field. However, I do not want to dwell on the obvious here, but instead to consider what kind of knowledge and understanding Weil might have in mind, and why the achievement of such wisdom depends essentially—and not just accidentally—upon patience.

We can begin to grasp Weil’s point by imagining someone with a photographic memory who accomplishes the feat of memorizing an entire encyclopedia but who cannot tell us what any of it means and who is incapable of making sense of such questions about what the encyclopedic facts mean. The facts are one thing. What we make of the facts—and in that sense what they mean, or ought to mean, to us—is another. That is, there is a difference between knowing a great deal of information and being able to say in what ways that information is important and how that information should be incorporated into our lives. What I am imagining the human encyclopedia above to lack is what we sometimes call insight, and insight—like the kind of understanding Weil discusses—is not something that is achieved by learning more and more facts—as in the Gradgrind school in Dickens’ Hard Times. For if we lack any grasp of what the meaning of the facts are, or which facts are more important than others, or how the facts inform practical questions about how best to live, then facts alone cannot make us wise. Wisdom and insight are reflected in what we do with, what we make of, the facts.

For most of us, most of the time, there is not much to make of facts about penguins or electrons. That is, rarely do questions of meaning arise here—questions about how these facts fit into our understanding of ourselves, our values and goals, the people with whom we live, and the everyday world in which we live with them. Perhaps if we have just watched March of the Penguins or read a book about the strange world of quantum mechanics, we do find penguins and electrons touching our lives and the sense we try to make of life in a more direct way. But let us consider a more straightforward example in which a simple, commonplace fact often raises serious questions of meaning for those about whom it is true: the fact that one is a parent.

To wonder what it means to be a parent can hardly (if at all) be understood as a request for a dictionary definition (unless one is learning the English language). Often, such questions can be understood as ethical questions about what the role of a parent entails, what one’s responsibilities are, and in general what is involved in being a good parent. But wondering what it means to be a parent, perhaps especially as the birth of one’s child draws near, or as one holds the child in one’s arms for the first time, can also be coupled with a sense of awe, perhaps anxiety, or pure dumbfoundment.[2] Creating a child, from a dispassionate biological point of view, is a relatively straightforward phenomenon; there are no “miracles” here from the scientific point of view. To be awed, amazed, or to see the birth of one’s child as miraculous—or to find oneself confused, stupefied, or anxious—is simply not to see the event from that point of view.[3] Such reactions are all ways in which we express the meaningfulness of the child’s birth for us, and they are the background against which we begin to make sense—and even recognize that there is sense that must be made—of questions about what it means to be a parent. If the birth of our own child left us entirely cold, and indifferent to our own coldness, such a reaction would simply indicate that being a parent has no meaning for us.

The new parent finds himself or herself thrust into a new role, a new identity. Yet there are various ways in which we can assume this identity, different ways we can integrate the role of being a parent into our lives—different ways, that is, in which we can understand, or demonstrate by our actions, what it means to be a parent. Of course, cultural norms, circumstances, and our experiences with our own parents (and other parents, etc.) shape our understanding of the parental role and our sense of what being a good parent involves. However, cultural norms shift (and are neither infallible nor determinate guides), circumstances change, and our determination to do or never to do what our parents did is often belied by our failure to fully grasp or anticipate the nature of certain challenges (and joys) in parenting. As with the human encyclopedia above, we can arm ourselves with parenting books, fill our heads with all sorts of advice, and make all sorts of preparations and plans and yet still fail to be good parents, fail to have any real insight into what it means to be a parent and what being a good parent involves. The books and advice and plans may make it less likely that we fail miserably, but that also depends upon whether the books and so forth are any good, the degree to which we are actually capable of following the advice and our own plans, and the extent to which we have some understanding of why we are doing what we are doing. Speaking for myself, I often have too little idea, as a parent, what I am doing or what I ought to be doing.

To grow in wisdom about what it means to be a parent involves coming to better understand what being a good parent involves. It would be difficult to see how one who is content to be a mediocre parent could at the same time be moved by concerns about what it means to be a parent. The desires for wisdom and goodness go together, and essentially so, if we are drawn to a view like Weil’s. Consider this further remark of hers:
The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do—that is enough, the rest follows of itself. [4]
The truth necessary to bring about a proper sense of care for the hungry and thirsty man is, if Weil is right, deceptively simple, and yet all kinds of rationalizations, intrusions of one’s own ego, and inattention to others can prevent us from thinking and acting with the understanding that every other person really exists as much as we do, that each is a fellow human being. Loving others, for Weil, depends essentially upon our ability to keep the reality of particular others in full view, and it is through such attention that we learn what is necessary—for this particular person, in this particular relationship—in order to love that person well.

To apply these ideas to the question of what it means to be a parent, the simple, fundamental truth to be kept in view is that the child really exists as much as we do. Of course, this may seem painfully obvious—or, wonderfully clear to the new parent. But as children grow and develop their own personality and sense of self, it can be challenging at times (speaking from my own experiences) to keep the reality of one’s child in full view, especially as one seeks to balance parenting with other roles and responsibilities. It can be hard to pay the right kind of attention—not only to our children, but also to our own actions (and how they affect our children). On the one hand, we can all too easily forget that our children are not miniature adults, and treat them in ways that fail to keep in view their own limitations and needs. On the other hand, we can smother our children, and fail to give them the necessary space to learn and grow on their own. Practically, the wisdom we seek as parents involves a need to navigate between these two kinds of errors, which, in Weil’s manner of speaking, we could call failures of proper attention to the child, failures to see the child as a child (and not a miniature adult on the one hand or a possession to be mollycoddled on the other).

We know already that children grow and change. We do not need to know anything “new” here, but instead to be prepared to pay (loving, patient) attention to the ways in which our children change. Of course, we do need to know how to respond to these changes, how to adjust the ways in which loving attention to the child is translated into action. (If we treat our teenager like a toddler, something has gone wrong.) This is where our handbooks and the advice of others may help, but we also have to be prepared for this bookish wisdom to fail us, and to put the books aside so that we can attend completely to the child. Put simply, all the “wisdom” in the world will be of no avail if we do not understand our own child.

Again, if all of this seems obvious, we should reflect upon the moments in which we forget the obvious. (Of course, you, dear reader, may not need such reminders as much as I do!) Keeping the obvious in clear view is an act of patience precisely because, as I have discussed in various places above, the capacity for steadfast attention—in the midst of potential distractions, frustrations, and uncertainty—is itself an outgrowth of patience. No doubt, becoming a better, wiser parent depends upon more than patience, but what I have tried to show is that we cannot begin to make such progress without it. Furthermore, this is not some special fact about parenting, but applies to any role in which we measure our progress against an ideal standard of excellence. For in every case, approximating the ideal will involve some kind of steadfast, patient attention to the particular activities and relationships which are constitutive of that role or practice. We inhibit our ability to learn when we do anything only halfway, when our attention is divided.

Thus, there can be no wisdom without patience. This is not merely because developing the capacity for insight takes time and experience (or because experience itself only increases over time), but also, and perhaps more essentially, because wisdom involves requires patient attention to that which one is trying to understand.

It may, however, seem that I have traded one mysterious concept (wisdom) for another (attention), and so have not helped us to become any wiser. Weil warns that what is meant by attention is easily misunderstood:
Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one’s pupils: “Now you must pay attention,” one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles. [5]
In contrast with this wasted “muscular effort,” Weil suggests that attention involves a kind of getting ourselves out of the way:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it. [6]
The difficulty of attention thus understood is twofold. On the one hand is the difficulty of getting ourselves—and all of our busy thoughts—out of the way, of making ourselves, our minds, empty—that is, receptive. On the other hand is the difficulty of remaining in such a receptive state without returning to our busy thoughts or simply daydreaming (or checking our email, our Facebook account, our text messages, etc., etc.) As soon as we find ourselves making a “muscular effort” to resist those distractions, then we are already distracted—the spell has been broken.

The idea of wisdom is mysterious because it is not something that can be forced or willed into existence. This is why Weil stresses that wisdom is something upon which we must wait, and why the proper form of waiting is patient attention to the object (or individual) we are trying to understand. We have to be willing to let that object—or person—speak to us. And genuine listening is itself an act of patience.

[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 2002 [1947]), p. 116.
[2] Of course, people who become parents through adoption may have similar experiences and reactions.
[3] Compare to what Wittgenstein says about miracles in the "Lecture on Ethics."
[4] Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 119
[5] Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting For God (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001 [1973]), p.60
[6] Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies," p.62

Friday, September 21, 2012

Weil on Attention

I'm grinding it out right now in my classes, and struggling to find time to write, let alone write here. (Family life is busy, too!) I've recently finished a few papers, and am getting back to work on patience. (I'm not sure I ever quite stopped that work, but it feels like it.) In the mean time, for the teacher-readers especially, here's something from Simone Weil:
The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do--that is enough, the rest follows of itself.
     The authentic and pure values--truth, beauty and goodness--in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object.
     Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.
     All the other advantages of instruction are without interest.

-- Gravity and Grace, p. 119-120.
(See also Weil's "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God")

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Ring of Gyges

In preparing to discuss the section of Plato's Republic in which Glaucon tells the story of the Ring of Gyges, I was struck by the abrupt way in which Glaucon stops talking about the ring: "Enough of this." What is the Ring of Gyges story supposed to prove? Glaucon's reaction sounds as if he's no longer convinced that the Gyges story is the right approach. This is significant since it's this story that is often mentioned--in ethics and philosophy classes (like mine)--in discussions of egoism.

Socrates and Glaucon had begun by considering what kind of good justice is, and Glaucon defends the common view that justice is only an instrumental good--or better, a necessary evil (because we must deal justly with others because we cannot get away with dealing unjustly with them).

People who think that way presumably would abandon any commitment to justice (or fairness) if they got hold of a Ring, and as Glaucon surmises, would think anyone who didn't was foolish. Importantly, the Ring of Gyges story does not prove that everyone would abandon the commitment to justice upon stumbling upon such a ring. (Glaucon seems aware that there is not much of a proof here that psychological egoism is true.) Perhaps he then abandons the story because the question he and Socrates are after is whether the people who think this way--in a moral and not merely a psychological sense--are right. Thus, he proposes the more powerful thought experiment in which we consider who has the better life: the perfectly unjust person who appears perfectly just, or the perfectly just person who appears perfectly unjust.

I don't have a grand point to make here, beyond the observation that, although it captures the imagination, the Ring of Gyges turns out not to be the main attraction. On the other hand, perhaps I'm selling it short: what's important about it is that it helps Glaucon clarify the idea that perhaps all that really matters--or all we actually (if mistakenly) care about--are appearances. And one way to get at that is to consider how we would act (or think) if we could disappear.

Friday, September 07, 2012

3QD Philosophy Prize: Vote!


The entries are impossibly diverse, both in subject matter and in their various implicit conceptions of what a "blog" is, from posts that are essentially feature magazine-style articles or academic essays published on websites called "blogs" to much less formal, but no less interesting, reflections of thinkers working through an idea or problem on their personal "blogs."

(FWIW, I voted for this. Thanks for doing the translation, vh!)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012