Core


What is the value of a philosophy which has no power over life?


And so I return to Virginia.

I have been thinking much about the value of philosophy -- going again through the morass of difficulties I have with doing this study and this work in an academic setting. I have also been reading Bernard Williams' brilliant and infuriatingly tortuous book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. I have been thinking about how I want, above all, to live and to live well, and how I have learned that this living well is not done by holding firm to some project or pinning down some fact or isolating some discovered relation. This living well is an immersion and it is difficult and nuanced and elusive -- but it can be done, and I have had glorious stretches of time where that is exactly what I have (miraculously) managed to do.

I have also been thinking about how rare it is to read a philosophy -- or, to keep it simple, a work of philosophical interest and intention -- which has power over life. It happens of course. There is something in Spinoza which does this and I love him for it. There is something ascetic and yet amiable about Spinoza -- the amiability of the misfit perhaps, but the asceticism of the genius who saw too far and was not able to communicate what he saw. There is something about Williams which has this power -- or at least promises it. He has to first cut through the weeds -- has to show which philosophies have no power over life -- which assumptions confuse us -- which theories turn us away from living in the first place, or set up life as some path toward immunity or slow refinement of the personal into the ideal.

And so I have been thinking about philosophy and life and about how I have a sense of what I want to do -- how I have a sense of what philosophy would have to be for me -- and then I found a paper by Martha Nussbaum on To the Lighthouse and felt that familiar frisson of connection and assent and the joy of discovering something in a text -- something which is important and hard and far more nuanced and complex than others have taken it to be. The problem of how we come to have knowledge of other minds and how this problem is epistemological when philosophers approach it and can be ethical when people approach it -- people who are immersed in life -- in the interests of individuals in a nexus of relations.

Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey know one another. They seem closed in and off like everyone else -- they seem sealed, like the buzzing hives that Lily Briscoe thinks of when she imagines what it must be like to be Mrs. Ramsey -- and to be Lily Briscoe wanting desperately to know exactly what it would be like to be the beautiful, powerful, mysteriously private Mrs. Ramsey. They seem sealed, but they are not, and they are not because of the love that they share, the love which is different from one to the other, but is the same in accomplishing the same intention -- to know the other, and to respect the other. As Nussbaum says, they have each learned the other. They have each learned the mannerisms, the idiosyncrasies, the wishes and the unspoken desires, the little frustrations, the deeper, hidden sadnesses -- they have each read the other, each thought of the other, in times of togetherness and in times of solitude. It is their love which motivates this great work of learning to peer in to another, and it is their love which respects the boundedness and privacy of the other. Their relations are not symmetrical in content and yet they are in intention, and in their utter importance.

Nussbaum says in concluding her paper,

It is the distinguished contribution of this novel to show how a problem that philosophy frequently cordons off from the messy stuff of human motivation and social interaction is actually a series of human problems of great complexity, many of them ethical and social, which can't really be adequately described, much less resolved (where resolution is possible) without reflecting about emotions and desires, without describing a variety of possible human loves and friendships in their historical and social setting, without asking, among other things, how love, politics, power, shame, desire, and generosity are all intertwined in the attempt of a single woman and man to live together with understanding.


It is an incredible paper and reminded me of my own nascent ideas about the incredible philosophical work that a novel like Orlando can do -- and the even more staggering philosophical work that a masterpiece like The Waves can do. There is so much to be said and read and written about these books -- and about others as well, about Robert Musil and Pessoa and so on. This is the work that gets to the heart of living and it's the work that takes the reflective stance and does not destroy the wealth of emotion and imagination and mental activity that buzzes beneath the surface.