Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Freedom and Resentment (Strawson)

I don't read much in action theory, but had a hunch that it was time to take a look at Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment." (File this under "classics that perhaps I should have already read"?)

There's much to appreciate in the paper. One the one hand, I find myself thinking, "Ok, so maybe I can live with compatibilism." But then Strawson offers some good criticisms of some types of compatiblist thinking. And then I find myself thinking, "Ah, maybe the point is not to settle on a camp, but just to see that I can walk away from the 'free will problem' without guilt." And although it's a nice line of writing, I find myself unsure what to think about Strawson's remark about "the obscure and panicky metaphysics of libertarianism."

However, I came to Strawson's paper for a particular purpose, in the midst of trying to think about the relationship between patience, tolerance, and forgiveness, and revisiting some ideas from Buddhist sources I've discussed earlier in the manuscript on patience as tolerance. This relates to the problem of determinism insofar as Shantideva's argument for cultivating tolerance depends upon what looks like a commitment to what we (Westerners, I suppose) would call determinism: every action is caused, and coming to understand the causes of a person's harmful deeds or words toward me can help (he suggests) foster a more tolerant, or patient, attitude toward this person.

This looks like a matter of adopting the "objective attitude" toward the person, in Strawson's terms. And one thing that Strawson is good on is the idea that taking the objective attitude is not a way of relating to another, if I can put it this way, as a person. So it might seem that there's something somehow inhumane (insulting, etc.) about the perspective Shantideva recommends.

Strawson also characterizes forgiveness as a reactive attitude that operates from within a personal perspective. I take his implicit point to be that it makes little sense to forgive someone from the position of the "objective attitude" in which we simply view the other as an object of social policy, etc. Although tolerance and forgiveness are different, I'm inclined to think that there's a connection in our typical thinking about character--that a tolerant person tends to be, for that, a forgiving person. But in the case of Shantideva, if tolerance (patience) is fostered by adopting a more objective attitude, then there seems to be a conflict--at least, I'd need to return to a more personal attitude toward the person in order to forgive the person. Perhaps, as Strawson seems to suggest (and this is an idea Thomas Nagel develops in some of his pieces in Mortal Questions), we can't think of either perspective as the "correct" one? So we can remember that--if something like determinism is true--there's a whole slew of causes acting on a person, but we also have to remember that we can't avoid relating to people, in general, as persons, and not merely animate objects.

This might suggest that the problem with the quip, "To understand all is to forgive all," rests on the mistake of conflating two available perspectives: understanding of the sort that comes from the objective perspective can't justify forgiveness; whether forgiveness is right depends upon considerations from within the personal perspective. (Hence discussions about whether forgiveness is required when a sincere apology is made, and whether forgiveness without apology is either reasonable or even required in some cases, etc.)

What I'm trying to get a handle on is how far a recognition of the value and virtue of patience can take us in sorting out questions about when or how much to tolerate, and what the task of cultivating patience might tell us about when and what to forgive. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Nietzschean Patience Again

Here's a first draft of my efforts to say something about Nietzsche's various remarks about patience. I've yet to look at some sources others (thanks, j. and Rob Sica) have pointed out to me. The conclusion feels a bit weak, but I need to let it sit. In the mean time, perhaps others will have some thoughts and suggestions.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Nietzschean Patience

Nietzsche's various remarks on patience and virtues have lurked in the background of my thinking as I've worked on my papers and book about patience, at times as a kind of warning, questioning voice, that asks things like, "Are you covering up what is weakness as strength? Are you thinking like a 'slave'?" But Nietzsche himself also has positive things to say about patience (Geduld). I'm trying to write some on this now, and am currently trying to think about how the following two passages fit (or fail to fit) together.

First, from The Gay Science §336:
One must learn to love. —This happens to us in music: first one must learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate and delimit it as a life in itself; then one needs effort and good will to stand it despite its strangeness; patience with its appearance and expression, and kindheartedness about its oddity. Finally comes a moment when we are used to it; when we expect it; when we sense that we’d miss it if it were missing; and now it continues relentlessly to compel and enchant us until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers, who no longer want anything better from the world than it and it again. But this happens to us not only in music: it is in just this way that we have learned to love everything we now love. We are always rewarded in the end for our good will, our patience, our fair-mindedness and gentleness with what is strange, as it gradually casts off its veil and presents itself as a new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even he who loves himself will have learned it this way—there is no other way. Love, too, must be learned.
Second, from Twilight of the Idols, "What the Germans Lack," §6:
People must learn to see, they must learn to think, they must learn to speak and to write: the goal in all three cases is a noble culture.—Learning to see—getting your eyes used to calm, to patience, to letting things come to you; postponing judgment, learning to encompass and take stock of an individual case from all sides. This is the first preliminary schooling for spirituality: not to react immediately to a stimulus, but instead to take control of the inhibiting, excluding instincts. Learning to see, as I understand it, is close to what an unphilosophical way of speaking calls a strong will: the essential thing here is precisely not ‘to will’, to be able to suspend the decision. Every characteristic absence of spirituality, every piece of common vulgarity, is due to an inability to resist a stimulus—you have to react, you follow every impulse. In many cases this sort of compulsion is already a pathology, a decline, a symptom of exhaustion,—almost everything that is crudely and unphilosophically designated a ‘vice’ is really just this physiological inability not to react.—A practical application of having learned to see: your learning process in general becomes slow, mistrustful, reluctant. You let foreign things, new things of every type, come towards you while assuming an initial air of calm hostility,—you pull your hand away from them. To keep all your doors wide open, to lie on your stomach, prone and servile before every little fact, to be constantly poised and ready to put yourself into—plunge yourself into—other things, in short, to espouse the famous modern ‘objectivity’—all this is in bad taste, it is ignobility par excellence
Nietzsche's patience seems significantly more circumspect in TI; there's not the seeming optimism in GS that patience always "pays off" or that anything and everything will, with enough patience, reveal to us its hitherto hidden beauty. In TI, the idea seems mainly to be that we need to be able to sit still and be calm, unjudging, long enough to arrive at a better judgment. But that might well be, so it seems, that this thing or person doesn't deserve a whit more of my patience (or forbearance, etc.).

Perhaps Nietzsche is worried about different things in each of these passages; in GS, there is a general theme of being adventurous and open. But TI reigns that in at least to remind us that, as it were, a mind that is too open is like a parachute with a hole in it. Splat. The "always" in the GS passage ("We are always rewarded in the end...") might seem out of tune with the caution and distrust and "calm hostility" in the TI. But maybe not, if the reward of patience is just that we come better to see what there is to be seen. If TI is supposed to show us the perils of decadence--as Ridley suggests in his introduction to the Cambridge edition--then is there still the issue that there is perhaps some decadence in the optimism--that there is beauty to uncover in everything--in GS? (Or: we can't even assume in advance what the particular "reward" of our patience will be? And some things might just be irredeemably ugly, stupid, monstrous, etc., in which case we'd better be careful about being forbearing lest we get squashed or sullied, etc.)

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Patience in Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms

I came across Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms during my time home in Arkansas. Upon reading through them, I had some recollection of having seen some of the remarks about patience somewhere before, though I'm not sure where. Kafka writes:
2. All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.

3. There are two cardinal human vices, from which all the others derive their being: impatience and carelessness. Impatience got people evicted from Paradise; carelessness kept them from making their way back there. Or perhaps there is only one cardinal vice: impatience. Impatience got people evicted, and impatience kept them from making their way back.

109. […] It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.
I also found the following passages in Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kafka:
After the first hearing of my parents’ divorce case, I visited Franz Kafka.
                I was very distraught, filled with pains and therefore—unjust.
                When I had exhausted my complaints, Kafka said to me:
                ‘Just be quiet and patient. Let evil and unpleasantness pass quietly over you. Do not try to avoid them. On the contrary, observe them carefully. Let active understanding take the place of reflex irritation, and you will grow out of your trouble. Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness.’

(p. 189): ‘Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forebearing,’ Kafka said to me, when we were walking one crystalline autumn day through the leafless Baumgarten. ‘There is no such thing as bending or breaking. It’s a question only of overcoming, which begins with overcoming oneself. That cannot be avoided. To abandon that path is always to break in pieces. One must patiently accept everything and let it grow within oneself. The barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love. One must, in the dead leaves that rustle around one, already see the young fresh green of spring, compose oneself in patience, and wait. Patience is the only true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true.’
                This was Kafka’s fundamental principle in life, and he tried to impress it on me with never-failing understanding. It was a principle, of whose truth he convinced me by his every word and gesture, every smile and every look of his large eyes, and [p. 190] by all his long years of service in the Accident Insurance Institution.
It has been too long since I've read any of Kafka's fiction carefully enough to comment upon how any of this connects to his work, though it seems to me that there is some kind of dissonance between the remarks above and the futility of waiting in a book like The Trail (as I dimly remember it; perhaps I'm not remembering enough). Nevertheless, these ideas about waiting and patient acceptance seem to make sense in the context of Kafka's art as a master observer. But then I find myself wondering whether this idealization of patience might seem too passive. Is this a way we should want to live? Just waiting for things to come to us? Not leaving home? (The complaint: doesn't this sound boring on the one hand and voyeuristic on the other?) Surely Kafka is right that to realize any grand plan we must persevere, often with patience, and that in impatience we can ruin things, break them into pieces, and miss the significance of what is right in front of us. (So perhaps: the complaint above itself belies impatience?)

Just thought I'd share these findings. My own writing plods along toward a tentative conclusion, with the hope that I can then start editing and revising what I've been writing into something worth calling a book on patience.