Outside looking in


Briefly--quickly -- for the cat is yowling that we're up too late.

Tonight in the new sort of seminar -- feeling at ease -- surprisingly. Feeling that I had some abilities -- to follow an argument, to know which questions to ask of it, which questions to ask of a group. To know how to ask those questions and how to respond. And most of all -- actually knowing Kant -- knowing the philosophical arguments to which all of these contemporaries are responding.

The discussion was different in speed and ease -- many silent voices and quite a bit more presenting. It was also different in that there was so much reliance on outside sources -- even me -- speaking of Aristotle's Ethics, having to check if people actually knew what I was speaking about. But how can one read a paper by a contemporary philosopher who seeks to turn from Humean and Kantian morality and toward an Aristotelian system of virtues and 'hypothetical imperatives' without having read Hume, Kant and Aristotle?

Setting that aside -- I asked what I thought was a valid question -- namely, how does one proceed from establishing a system of morality that is based on hypothetical imperatives and not some internal principle of objective rationality (Kant) or subjective rightness (Hume). Or, how does one proceed after one has said that moral content is not inextricably linked to moral motivation -- that knowing what one ought to do does not give a reason for acting in accordance with that 'ought.'

And I was met with incredulous faces -- oh, we teach moral motivation -- we teach people to care about acting morally. And how is that moral content decided upon? Oh, that's still objective in many ways -- it's what is best, it's what is classically virtuous -- honesty, goodness, justice... But how do you teach someone to care about what is good? Do you expect them to discover its goodness somehow? It seemed I was the only one that thought this was not easily decided -- or at least I was the only one expressing this confusion.

And then I came across two pieces of writing -- one was an open-ended question in a friend's letter -- about whether all wisdom is achieved through suffering -- and the other is this quote found at Zolius, from a 1996 interview of David Foster Wallace by Laura Miller at Salon:

It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like "It's really important not to lie." OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you. I feel that I'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't figure out why. Then I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie." The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.

I think that is the heart of the problem -- and I don't really know how to talk about it at all. I just sat in front of this keyboard for far too long -- waiting for something to come to me. And I don't know what to say about his death -- someone who explored the questions of existence -- the Rhoda-problems of being and acting.

And the only thing I can think of is that today when I walked home the light was golden and slanting and I kept letting my eyes go out of focus so that I could see the light-shadows on the sides of buildings. And I saw two crows sitting on the wires above me and that the tips of one of my favorite trees were shriveling up. And that's no response at all -- but it will have to do.