“Be Still a Man”

So writes the philosopher David Hume, that (in)famous empiricist, after tearing apart our notions that we can “know” anything outside of our sense experience.

I find his stance fascinating. At the beginning of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he makes clear that his goal is to establish what we can know, and how we know it. In doing so, he defines mankind:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: but so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions.

Section 1.3, emphasis added

Hume sees his goal as relatively modest one. He is not interested in building up a system of knowledge and truth like Descartes. Rather, he is looking for the bare bones of human knowledge, giving us a springboard for exactly how and what we can know. For Hume, we know “impressions,” which are the content of our immediate experience, and “ideas,” the mental pictures that come from impressions. This means — generally speaking — that knowledge of the physical world (i.e., our direct observations) are relatively reliable. Relations between ideas are not necessarily knowable — especially, for Hume, cause and effect, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion. The rest is simply not knowable with certainty.

That limits us significantly, and that’s exactly Hume’s point: we’re extremely finite, and it’s our inescapable position in the world.

All well and good, but that’s not what intrigues me about his point. What intrigues me is his personal attitude towards all of this. Where Descartes displays a heavy amount of obsession about building up a complex system which will give us certain knowledge about the world, Hume essentially says, “Nah, we really can’t know much at all. But don’t worry too much about it.” Later, in section 1.4, he writes:

Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: bt neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them… Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let our science be human…

Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Section 1.4

I disagree with Hume on some significant points. But of the philosophers that I admire most at the moment, I find that I am interested in those that force us to look back on ourselves, and point out the silliness of our abstract thinking. We ought to philosophize, we ought to discover, we ought to think critically and rationally. But in the midst of all that, and even more so, we ought to be human beings, living in the world.

A Better Individualism

Much has been said recently lamenting the rise of individualism — in fact it’s quite popular in Christian circles to make a specter out of individualism as the bane of both true Christianity and as the leading cause of our current condition (anxious, separated, afraid, lonely, etc., etc.).

What if this isn’t really the case? That is to say, what if individualism itself is not the problem — it’s the false individualism that we’re sold that is a problem.

The reality is that we cannot escape our individualist stance. We are bound to it, no matter what we do (thanks Descartes!). We are, before anything else (in the order of being, anyway), individuals — individuals before the world, individuals before our social contexts, individuals before the infinite.

So, perhaps, rather than deriding individualism, we ought to reclaim it as a viable understanding of our human condition. We should reclaim it from the secularists who use it to uphold individualistic autonomy (necessarily leading to consumerism, and a free-for-all libertine stance towards economics and the political realm. We should also reclaim it from those who think it has brought about the downfall of civilization and the end of true Christianity. We need a better individualism.

What do I mean by that? I’m not exactly sure — I only really know that I’m convinced the either/or that we currently experience is a false binary. It’s not individualism or communalism. We are already and always individuals. What we need is a robust understanding of what individuals are made to be.

Perhaps, then, we should work with defining individualism by running through my two-question test in helping define the telos of a thing:

  1. What is an individual?
  2. What is an individual for?

Inherently, this allows us to approach the question without judgement. No longer is it a debate about whether individualism is a bad thing or not. It’s about recognizing that we are already, necessarily individuals, and determining the best way to understanding our stance as individuals in the world.

Capitalism, Too

John Lanchester: article at London Review of Books

In recent decades, elites seem to have moved from defending capitalism on moral grounds to defending it on the grounds of realism. They say: this is just the way the world works. This is the reality of modern markets. We have to have a competitive economy. We are competing with China, we are competing with India, we have hungry rivals and we have to be realistic about how hard we have to work, how well we can pay ourselves, how lavish we can afford our welfare states to be, and face facts about what’s going to happen to the jobs that are currently done by a local workforce but could be outsourced to a cheaper international one. These are not moral justifications. The ethical defence of capitalism is an important thing to have inadvertently conceded. The moral basis of a society, its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’

Kyle Williams: article at Comment Magazine

A lot hinges on whether capitalism has a history. To read about capitalism’s origins, to mark its inner logics, and to learn about how human beings assembled political economic structures over time—this is to be on the cusp of critique and maybe even action. But if capitalism is not an artifact of particular people in particular places and times, then it is much more like an object of nature. Its origins recede into myths about ancient markets and primitive exchange. If capitalism is an object of nature like gravity, then it is impossible to critique or change. To attempt it would be like tilting at windmills, or worse.

These are both reminiscent of what I just said yesterday about the Enlightenment. Lanchester’s article is a sweeping history/analysis of the Great Recession and its effects — basically, an economic analysis of the West from 2008-2018. Williams’s article is a review of The Moral Economists, and its critique of capitalism as the ‘natural’ manner that humans organize economies. I can’t help but wonder if Enlightenment thought (the capitulation to rational thought as the ultimate source of authority in determining truth) and thinking of capitalism as “just the way the world works” are somehow intertwined.

But if both systems have a history, as Williams says, then both are open to critique. Because this would mean that neither are flawless — that they were birthed from and owe a debt to prior systems of thought and action. And this kind of indebtedness is also a sort of nestling — there was something before, and there will be something after.

The question is: what follows?

Charitable Thinking, Charitable Living

One of my favorite reads this year has been Alan Jacobs‘s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Jacobs’s purpose in this (short) book is simple: the reintroduction of the reader to rational, intentional thinking in our present age, which is often marked by irrationality, and the unwillingness to engage in civil, thoughtful debate and conversation with those on the other side of the aisle — whatever aisle that might be. I don’t even need to present an argument about why this book is important — we all have a sense that something is seriously wrong in current political, religious, and cultural discourse.

This book has proved significant for me, both in the ways I have attempted to re-order my thought life and in how I understand my relationships with others. His best (and perhaps even overarching) point of the entire book, is that good thinking requires charity. That’s not a word he uses, but it shows in how he encourages his readers to interact and dialogue with others. In a passage where he quotes Kierkegaard (my boy!), Jacobs says:

In his book Works of Love, Kierkegaard sardonically comments, ‘Neighbor is what philosophers would call the other.’ And it is perhaps significant that Kierkegaard, who spent his whole life engaged in the political and social conflicts of what was then a small town, Copenhagen, can see the the degeneration involved in the shift from ‘neighbor’ to ‘other.’ He is calling us back from disinhibition, and accompanying lack of charity, generated by a set of technologies that allow us to converse and debate with people who are not, in the historical sense of the term, our neighbors. (82)

What is Jacobs saying (that Kierkegaard is saying) here? Philosophizing — and even more than that, engagement with others — requires that we not automatically ascribe negative intention or stupidity to the persons with whom we are conversing. If we want the potential for a better society, one in which good quality thinking is a virtue, we have to be charitable about the intentions and logic of the people with whom we disagree. Of course, this entails risk, right? It means that we are admitting that the person we think is wrong may actually have valid reasons for thinking the way she does. Further, it means that we must accept that our reasons may be fundamentally flawed or illogical, and our posture must therefore be open to a changed perspective.

I’ve also been thinking about this in relation, not to thinking, but in relating to others. What does a healthy marriage look like, for instance, if openness and charitable thinking are virtuous characteristics? It means that when my wife and I reach a fundamental disagreement about something, I need to step back for a moment and open myself up to the possibility that her reasons are possibly better than my own. It means that, when her feelings are hurt by my actions, even if I know my intentions were not to be hurtful, that her understanding of my actions as hurtful is still valid (and, perhaps, her understanding of my actions is a better interpretation of my actions than my own). That can be difficult, because it requires me to suspend my limited rationality and admit that I ought to shift my perspective and change my future behavior.

Either way, charity, in both thought and relationship, requires risk.

“Living in the Present” is Myopic

We live in a cultural moment wherein “living in the present” is the clarion call for leading a richer, fuller life. While the intention here is often good — living in the present frees us from worry about the future and guilt over the past — we live in the most extreme version of this vision of the good life. This is what Alan Jacobs calls “presentism” in a recent article in The Guardian on “temporal bandwidth.”

Right now, we are only capable of knowing and thinking about what is happening at the present moment. Everything we think, say, or do, must be in response to whatever crisis is happening at the given moment. As I type this, my Twitter timeline is filled with outrage at the Trump administration’s unjust treatment of families that illegally enter the southwest U.S. border. And rightly so! Politicians on the left and right recognize that separating parents from their children, regardless of the legality of their entrance into the country, is nothing less than immoral. This is a major problem that needs to be addressed (and, frankly, has needed to be addressed for a long time), but there will be something else next week, and the week after, and the week after that.

In other words, we no longer just “live in the present” — we are presentists. There is nothing but the present, and anything we say or do, for our words and actions to matter right now, must be related to extinguishing whatever dumpster fire is on people’s minds (ignoring the fact that there are one million other dumpster fires in the background). There is a solution to this problem, but it’s not an easy one. It will make us look uncaring and irrelevant, and will potentially send us to the margins of the public square, if we’re even included in it at all.

We must back away. We must expand our view of humanity, of time, of the world and its history and future. To do so means to read old books and simply sit and think about them, about the world that existed before we did, and the world that will exist after we are gone. It means, perhaps, not responding on Twitter to the latest outrage — not because we do not care, but because we are aware that the truly caring thing may be to continue to cultivate a life that is lived betwixt the past and the future, and that culminates in the present. As Jacobs says,

To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing. Watching the latest social media war break out, I often recall Grace Kelly’s character in High Noon, a Quaker pacifist, saying: “I don’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live”… The suspicion that there’s got to be some better way has the welcome effect of suppressing the thoughtless, kneejerk reflexion that is a byproduct of our age.

Rejecting presentism, even if it looks uncaring to the outside world, can be a more nuanced, thoughtful way of caring for those around us, those experiencing oppression, those who are lonely and anxious. It can also help us to rightfully situate our present moment in the ongoing history of the world.

The Demands of Orthodoxy

One of the tragedies of Western individualism is the creation of a climate in which we think it is not our responsibility to acquiesce or adhere to a system of thought, practice, or belief that causes us discomfort. A system that perpetuates this kind of thinking, however, essentially causes us to “believe” in anything that makes us feel good and at peace while rejecting any system that does not align with our (positive) emotions on any given day. As an example, if I call myself an orthodox Christian, but suddenly become uncomfortable with the Christian sexual ethic associated with orthodoxy, my immediate tendency is to find a way around the ethic itself or to desire to reject the system of belief outright. What does this say, however, about where we find and place authority? Ultimately, if I’m allowed to simply reject a system of thought, have I actually allowed that system of thought to have authority over me? The answer, of course, is no.

This is likely a result of what Charles Taylor refers to as “the immanent frame” — the conception we have of reality that simply doesn’t include transcendence. The immanent frame is stifling for two reasons: 1) humans within a immanent frame (even those who adhere to a belief system that does include transcendence) can no longer automatically affirm a transcendent authority as valid, which leads to 2) the placement of ultimate existential meaning on individual “authenticity.” In other words, the only way to maintain personal meaning and significance within an immanent frame is to stay true to one’s emotions and desires (fickle though they may be).

This further leads to the lack of a stable “selfhood.” We cannot help but define ourselves by the systems of which we are a part. But if we define ourselves by systems, and our trust in those systems as ultimately authoritative wanes the moment our subjective desires and emotions change, we can’t ultimately trust that we have any kind of purpose or that our lives carry significance in a meaningful way. Orthodox Christianity (and other religious systems like it) demand our allegiance, despite the rejection of transcendence within culture. In exchange, it offers both a stable self and significance.

The Paradox at the Core of Being

The great mystery in which we have all been invited to take part is the same mystery that existed from the very beginning. It, in itself, is not transcendent (i.e., out of reach) or lofty. No – rather, it is right here, in our midst. We spend our time theorizing, abstracting, and objectifying that reality in order to gain an understanding of it, to attempt gaining a purer knowledge of reality “as it is.” But the mystery of existence – the reality of which we desire to catch a glimpse – is right here, and cannot be objectified!

Kierkegaard says of a mystery like this, “The news of the day is the beginning of eternity!” (Philosophical Crumbs, 128). What he means to say is that that the reality of the incarnation, or God-in-time, is the reality we find in the particulars of our day, the moments that seem so ordinary as to be insignificant. But it is in those very moments of insignificance that we catch a glimpse of the significance of reality. Thus, at the heart of reality, in the very core of the miracle of being itself, we find a paradox.