Monday, June 11, 2007 • 9:12 AM Comments (6)

The Limits of Reflection

posted by Joe Cruz

By Joe Cruz

In the wake of half chagrined confessions that I am a philosophy professor, not infrequently — and positively reliably on cramped airplanes — I’m asked what my personal philosophy is. It’s not an entirely unreasonable question. Philosophers are expected to have developed, or at least be on the way to developing, an articulate view of the world, of right conduct, and of the good life. Moreover, having come to expect it, it would be easy to think that I would by now have honed my response into something precise and stable, even if not necessarily pithy.

I could, of course, say something about my political views or my feminism or my vegetarianism or my admiration for Buddha. But this is not what the question aims for. Indeed, the question is as deliciously ambitious as philosophy is. Philosophy is reflection on fundamental, abstract, humane questions pursued with tenacity enough to challenge easy or dogmatic answers. It is not science, but it asks whether and how science can shed light on the universe. It is not debate about policy, but debate about the ultimate ends policy ought to aim for. It is not painting or poetry, but it is inquiry into what beauty itself is. And so, when someone asks whether I have a personal philosophy, they are not asking what my views are on this or that question, they are wondering whether there is a unity or coherence or elegant superstructure within which my views arise and which makes reasonable and compelling my conduct and beliefs.

Alas, I have nothing to offer, and I usually jest that I’m too young and unwise for that. Putting aside the impressive Socratic pedigree of pleas of ignorance, what this tepid reaction evades is not only that I think I have no personal philosophy, but also that I do not think I could have one. I shouldn’t pretend to speak for everyone on this matter, but it seems to me our lives do not unfold solely or even primarily in response to principles or conviction. We’re embedded in communities and traditions that substantially guide our choices, and we’re embodied beings adapted to one another and to our environments in such a way that we unfurl according to forces and factors that do not reach the threshold of reflection. This seems the glorious truth about us, and it is a source of resilience, resolve, and tranquility. Thus, I’m not resigned or pessimistic, no matter how much having a tidy, reasoned framework might seem desirable.

Our actions in the world seem from the inside to originate from an executive self that is able to contrive a plan for life and then to follow that plan. Some of the time, this may be right. Those will be the times when we consciously and conscientiously reflect on how we ought to conduct ourselves, on what we believe is right, and on how to move forward. But much more of the time, doesn’t it seem that we live via motivations that are complicated, and that do not stem from articulated principles? Mightn’t it be a conceit — a conceit that yields, for instance, Kant’s hyper-rational reconstruction of moral obligation, or, ironically, certain kinds of rigid fundamentalisms — that we are primarily agents of reason?

Thinking of the contrast between my principle-guided self and the kinds of beyond-reflection forces that shape me reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short essay, “Borges and I” (a Spanish version can be found here). In it, the narrator (the “I” of the title), a vibrant, conscious voice alive in the moment, distances himself from Borges, the person with a history and a trajectory defined by properties and external events.

…I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.

Our immediate, insistent, waking experience is our “I.” Nothing can be known more intimately, and that proximity and resulting comfort may well give us the misimpression that it is the sole determinant of our lives. To be sure, our reflective conscious selves play some role in determining who we are. As Borges says later, “…I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him.” That role is a part — but only a part — of our sustained narratives as it leaves a mark alongside the marks left by the myriad other forces.

I worry that we underestimate the crucial part played by our sentiments, our habits, and by biological and social pressures. There are times when acts of compassion are not the product of reflecting on principles to live by, but rather result from something just as human: the welling up of emotion inside oneself. Or there are times when an explicit personal philosophy is mute with respect to what to do. In those moments we might look to the advice of a parent, or follow religious tradition, or see where our own creative spontaneity takes us. Borges ends with, “I do not know which of us has written this page.” The flicker of immediate, conscious reflection is assimilated into our rich selves, and those more vexed complexities seem the origin of our actions.

I suppose some people may find this unnerving or depressing, but, in my view, recognizing the variety of sources for self is liberation from a narrow conception of our nature. Through this liberation we see more clearly how so much of what is studied in the humanities and the sciences reveal us. Literature, great and ordinary, encodes human responses, some personal philosophies but many not. In its resonance literature possess the power to evoke in us rich reactions by not demanding that we pass through the fiction of a personal philosophy. History and political science sharpen our vision on how we came to be who we are without insisting on a mythical self-coherence. And both the natural and social sciences tells us something about the vectors that guide us. Their explanations aim to be elegant, systematic and structured without masquerading as accounts of individual personal philosophies.

On the other hand, what this view must not liberate us from is the responsibility for critique. Just because our actions originate non-reflectively does not mean that we can’t reflect on them. Reflection itself will be an alloy made of conscious principles and the underlying humanness that escapes reflection, but the fact that we revisit and defend our individual or cultural ways reinforces and reinvigorates them.

Retrospectively reconstructing our actions in order to make sense of them might well appear to extract a personal philosophy. Does it accurately reflect who we are? I would be surprised if it did because we are ourselves, not our rational reconstructions of ourselves. Perhaps living according to a personal philosophy is nothing more than an ideal, then, something to aim for. I’m not persuaded of that, either. Were we, through some heroic effort of transformation, to become agents of reason alone, it seems to me that we would lose something lovely. We would lose our humanity.

I am content to go forward viewing myself as a composite of that which I can reflect on and that which I can’t. Maybe I have something to say on airplanes after all.

Joe Cruz is Associate Professor of Philosophy & Chair of Cognitive Science at Williams College.



Comments (6)
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An eloquent and well thought out statement of the role of philosophy in our lives, and not just philosophers' lives. Thanks you Professor Cruz. I would only take issue with the assumption that living by a "personal philosophy" makes us a slave of reason. Doesn't that depend on what our personal philosophy is? Perhaps that's true if it's some kind of utilitarianism (a la Peter Singer), but there are even deeper problems involved in living a consistently utilitarian existence (a la Peter Singer). But why can't our personal philosophy be grounded in emotion -- in love, say, or empathy? Eerily relevant to Professor Cruz's post is Richard Rorty's obituary in today's Boston Globe: /www.boston.com/news/globe/obituaries/articles/2007/06/11/richard_rorty_philosopher_probed_limits_of_pragmatism/
Posted by David Tebaldi on 6.11.07 at 6:53
It is undeniable that "our lives do not unfold solely or even primarily in response to principles or conviction". I would say instead that our principles and convictions are the very human result of being carried on the waves of emotion, and our reactions to everything around us. It is our nature to review and question our past - not simply the pretension of academics. Inevitably we develop a framework based on our experiences, and for it to hold up, it must be fluid like the world around us. Even the most oxygen starved airline passenger won’t expect their seatmate to have All The Answers. A personal philosophy does not get us out of the ocean, but helps us to swim.
Posted by Melissa Wheaton on 6.11.07 at 12:25
Also, although individuals may not posess coherent life-theories that guide them reliably in action and thought, certain drives may affect a large enough percentage of populations so as to make certain conclusions inevitable. But I suppose that drives are not philosophies. Melissa, I like the adjective "fluid" to describe our personal frameworks for reality.
Posted by Hayley on 6.11.07 at 15:57
This post reminded me of a recent article in the NY Times Magazine about a new book: "Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has attracted notice for raising a pointed question: Do voters have any idea what they are doing? In his provocative new book, 'The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,' Caplan argues that 'voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational -- and vote accordingly.' That, combined with Al Gore's newest, has made me wonder about rationalism -- it's limits and what precisely fills the void when reason fails (or is absent). Thanks for more food for thought.
Posted by Jack Cheng on 6.11.07 at 16:38
The question asked of me in airplanes most often is “do you have children?” Perhaps the idea of Philosophy, as presented when you confess to your professorship in that branch of learning in which many of us hold doctorates without being all that conscious that Philosophy is, after all, that what makes our degree a degree, is a bit overwhelming to that unfortunate class of straw figures called Airplane Companions, and so they come back with the obvious question. (Award to the decipherer of runon sentences.) But of course, my dear Broz, you live by a Philosophy! It is most likely a version of Empiricism mixed with Darwinism, with an added flavor (like Pernod in water) of Relativism to murk up the sentences. I would assert that your Philosophy is most likely those beliefs which you do not articulate on a daily basis, and therefore not at all influenced by reason. And that is exactly what separates Doctors of Philosophy from Professors of same: we can expect the latter to Profess, no? Even in public and on short notice... which puts you in an untenable position: either you do not earn your stated keep, or you profess that which is so basic that it is perhaps by definition unprofessable other than in murky sentences, punctuated by a cartoonish “hmmm” and the kind of lengthy chin-scratching that puts off Airplane Companions. Does that, then, therefore mean that you have nothing to talk about with your platonic Airplane Companion? That I have nothing to add after I answer “no I do not have any children”? There’s exactly the rub of the Profession of Philosophy or, to give it its proper name, Civic Discourse. What if I were to be less than my usually very polite airplane self: “I do not have children, and I never wanted any, and you?” Or you, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, were to add, “I don’t believe in Philosophy as different from myself at the kitchen sink with coffee in hand at 7 am on a Thursday morning, listening to the deafening sound of nothingness on the radio. And yourself, what do you think about when standing at the kitchen sink/drinking coffee/listening to the Radio?” Perhaps only when we finally learn to do away with our middle class niceties and platitudes, born from the nineteenth century itch to express sincerity through obfuscation of that self-as-melting pot (whether reasoning or executive self) you mention, that we may open up the civic discourse – civil but not polite – this most excellent blog looks for. And who better to try it out on than Airplane Companions? Respectfully submitted Agatha
Posted by Agatha O'Sullivan on 6.12.07 at 10:57
I really like this, Joe, and you're on a track with which I'm largely sympathetic. Your sense of self is, to my mind, a sense emergent after the famed "death of God." The death of not only a certain theological formulation of the divine, but, more, of the idea that something binds our lives together - the "religio" of religion, that Latin root that reminds us how a religion is really just the name for what binds together our fragmented parts. Methinks Nietzsche would be pleased. So, I wonder what this means - i.e., what other Gods are there to be slain. I'd propose this: the aspiration to think universally about ultimate "humane" (as you put it) matters has to give way. This changes a lot of things, especially when philosophers join the conversation about the relation between intellectual expression and national/regional or other identities. Without the aspiration to the universal, philosophy doesn't lose, even as it gives up its old claim to be queen of the sciences. Rather, philosophy is set free into an ocean, without a map, but really, really enjoying the view. There is a lot of work about this sort of thing, but most of it is taking place outside of philosophy. Walter Mignolo's notion of interculturalidad or various thinkers employing the notion of hybridity come to mind. I think that's the real future for philosophy, and maybe the humanities as a whole: engaging in that space where one owns one's ideas as specific and particular, yet is exposed to paths not open in one's own specific and particular context. That means overcoming a long, long history of insisting on "our" narrative as everyone's narrative (where "our" points to the Anglo-European tradition, of course). A tough sell, but, as you nicely argue here, something rooted in how we in fact live our lives.
Posted by John Drabinski on 6.12.07 at 13:45
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