"Seeing what Emet sees," oil on duralar, 2020 by Misty Morrison.
This piece is cross-posted from the Blog of the APA, with thanks to Nathan Eckstrand, editor-in-chief.
Part 1: Real Philosophical Communities
Long enough ago that it is almost ancient history, I had a disturbing experience. It was negative at first, but later it made me think, and the upshot was interesting. In this brief post, I’d like to share it with you, with apologies in advance for not nailing down the issue technically in this short space.
Here was the experience. I had been looking forward to a new book about to appear. I admired the philosophical imagination of the author and what I took to be their moral sensibility. But when I read the book’s preface, I was jolted. The author fabricated a story of their intellectual itinerary, subtly but surely, erasing what I had known to be the presence and role of a real philosophical community out of which the author’s philosophical vision had developed. This community had supported and encouraged the author. Not just a few of the imaginative directions in the book could be traced back to the community and the preoccupations, work, and style of many of the people in it. Instead of recognizing this community and bringing what it had to offer into discourse, the author painted a picture of themselves as individualistic, intellectually precocious, and daringly original.
Although my sense of the author’s honesty was shaken, the interesting thing that emerged over time was the question of whom and what we recognize when we narrate our own work and its development. It is common in academia to name-drop or to tell a story about oneself so that one secures the kind of recognitional position that one wants or needs. But it’s not clear to me that academics regularly recognize the real philosophical sources of their development. Even more interesting than why we might not do that is the question of what we might gain by doing that. What could it mean for philosophy to make a practice of recognizing the real philosophical communities that form us in philosophy? It would mean, I think, a subtle but real shift in our sense of philosophy and so of our practice of it.
By a “real philosophical” community, I mean a community in which the people involved care for each other and each other’s “searching” through their “sense of life” (two expressions I take from the introduction to Love’s Knowledge by Martha Nussbaum). “Searching” is more prosaic than “philosophizing,” but it seeks insight. “Sense of life” is more capacious than “reason,” although it involves making sense. A real philosophical community, like love, is known by its fruits: we come to search better through our sense of life, or we develop a fuller, finer sense of life. Real philosophical communities leave us as we age with memories of having actually gone somewhere in our sense of life, of having grown up, or of having come to appreciate how to live well in a more insightful way. They mark our time in real philosophical time.
What would it be to recognize real philosophical communities in our teaching and writing? Asking this might be said to beg the question of whether real philosophical communities deserve a place in philosophical teaching and writing. One might think that real philosophical communities are really philosophical and so could have many connections with philosophical teaching and writing. But academic philosophy often follows one of two paths: either (1) it teaches critical thinking, or (2) it contributes to knowledge as research does. These each give us pause to recognize real philosophical communities in our teaching and writing.
- It’s common to understand critical thinking as a set of skills. A community where people care about each other’s searching through their sense of life hardly seems needed for it. Such a community might even interfere with critical thinking. Real philosophical communities sound touchy-feely, not critical.
But how can I subject premises and the logic employing them to withering scrutiny if I do not search through them intensely even to the point of abandon, losing my ego a bit (or a lot) in the process? Searching seems needed, and a community that supports it seems deserving. How, too, can I deal with the many tricky ways that people frame arguments rhetorically, often manipulatively, if I do not have much of a sense of life? The big picture, the live sense of living seems needed to put things in context and to see what is really going on with speech-acts. But if that is so, communities cultivating our sense of life seem important. Even if we think philosophical teaching and writing are basically about conveying critical thinking, real philosophical communities seem deserving of a place in philosophical teaching and writing.
- The case may seem harder to make with research university practice. Philosophical research isn’t personal, and it isn’t remotely about my life. One’s not searching; one’s researching. There’s a difference. Knowledge, not living, is the quarry. How to resolve this objective problem, not how to involve this subjective person, is the query.
Yet what is philosophical research about? It’s about such things as how we should live, how to think about how we should live, how to think, how to think about how we think, what knowing is, how to know what knowing is, etc. The things we research concern and depend on the way we search in our sense of life. At the very least, many – if not all – topics of research could use our developed sense of life and our being in touch with searching. The communities that actively develop these in us would be needed.
So let us say that real philosophical communities do, on a first go, deserve a place in how we think about the life and practice of philosophy even when teaching critical thinking or writing up our research. The question then is, what place?
To recognize real philosophical communities in our teaching and writing would do, I think, some subtle and powerful things. Let me start with teaching. When a classroom works, it is for a semester a real philosophical community, one that often lingers on in some of its members for years, even decades – sometimes for life. Many philosophy teachers are already good at helping the class see that what we are doing here, right now, is the real thing, philosophy! Philosophy is not out there in the books and we are in here, subservient to the golden wisdom of the authorities. No! We are together actively helping each other search in our sense of life.
Less common is for teachers to ask of students to turn to their real philosophical communities outside of class and to draw on these to inform the substance of class. When I studied early childhood education, something like this was common: the work inside the classroom explicitly called on involving families outside the classroom. Except for some practices in feminist philosophy and cultural studies, however, it’s not common to see “school-family relationships” in philosophy classrooms, neither in discussions, nor in assignments.
Think about assignments first. What would it be to weave real philosophical communities into assignments? One thing it might do is to bring philosophical texts and arguments into contact with philosophical life (and vice-versa). Another thing it might do is to hone relating as a mark of good writing and thought. Not simply analytical acumen or scholarly thoroughness would make for good writing or thought for class. No, the ability to relate what we analyze or study to the texture of our lives would become equally important.
Or think about discussions in class. Bringing real philosophical communities into class discussion would emphasize the relatedness I’ve just highlighted. But it would also expose everyone in the class to a myriad of ways to search in our sense of life, each conveyed by those relaying them with “knowing emotion” (to use Rick Anthony Furtak’s expression). Asking students to draw on their real philosophical communities would make class more social and less cut off from everyday life and student experience. It wouldn’t do these things by watering down philosophy to make it more palatable. It would actually increase focus and rigor by considering what exactly makes something philosophical. This critical pressure would be exerted not just on each other and on ourselves but also on the vaunted texts and arguments we read together. Could this go some way to undermining epistemic erasure in high Eurocentric philosophy as well? (It might.)
Recognizing real philosophical communities in writing is possibly more interesting. I suspect that this is because philosophical writing has often indulged in its own mythology, projecting a refined community elsewhere than where and how people actually search in their sense of life. Recognizing real philosophical communities might imply demythologizing philosophy by way of the quotidian. It might also undermine academic pretentiousness by leading us back to vital subcultures. Here’s how:
To write involving real philosophical communities could affect what we focus on. It would bring us closer to sociology. Would we write about great philosophers or entirely difficulty and important problems and arguments? Yes. But we’d also write about these things in relation to the places where we actually sort out some of their connections, premises, or logic. We might write about political theory, but also about our role in community politics. We might consider thorny problems in epistemology, but also how they appear when we raise a child and see their mind bloom. We might think about Plato in his life and put it alongside politically traumatized teenagers in our lives seeking esoteric knowledge, if not the Pythagorean occult.
Writing involving real philosophical communities could also change how we write. Perhaps we would write in such a way that we share what we do with our real philosophical communities as part of the compositional process. Perhaps their view would matter when we compose our texts and would become part of the critical review process for us. Or how our real philosophical communities speak might enter into our language, diversifying academic speech. Our audiences might change, too. We might begin to write so that real people are addressed while we nevertheless try to explain the universal significance of a problem to an imagined public.
Most of what I’ve sketched are subtle and complex shifts. Still, they seem grown up, emotionally and intellectually worthy (or so says my sense of life). In rereading them, I am happy that many people in philosophy already regularly do some version of these things I’ve advocated or something very much like them. I guess I’m just asking that we don’t keep real philosophical communities on the low down anymore.
Part 2: Anything Can Be Philosophical
About a quarter century ago, I was part of a community that took seriously the idea that anything can be philosophical. A dozen years ago, I began to recover how finding anything philosophical can be rigorous. Today, there seems to be a subculture in our discipline set to explore that rigor and to bring it into teaching and learning, if not writing and research. In this short essay, I’d like to explain the idea as my community understood it a quarter century ago, touch on my recovery of it over a decade ago, and point to the small-scale movement to approach how we might teach that anything can be philosophical.
Certainly, ancient philosophical schools taught that anything can be philosophical, for philosophy was a way of life and anything we come upon in living could be filled with sense. But in late twentieth century, American academia inside a research university, the community in which I first studied came to the idea that anything can be philosophical through phenomenology and deconstruction.For all I found dissatisfying about phenomenology’s pretension to being a “rigorous science” and for all that I found objectionable about deconstruction’s indulgent vagaries, the way each differently charged the sense of everything with excessive meaning made the world alive with potential insight. Whereas the razor-sharp critical thinking we learned in analytic philosophy could find conceptual problems in anything someone said or wrote, it didn’t seem organized by an orientation to search into the world and our lives so as to grow. It wasn’t remotely vulnerable, and it was entirely discursive. Music, painting, dance, sports, even common craft (plumbing, carpentry, cleaning, cooking) were left out of it. Ordinary language philosophy, or least the Vienna Circle, might have linked analysis to demythologization and to recovering the plain sense Orwell praises rightly in his “The Politics of the English Language.” But that’s not how we experienced analytic philosophy. It seemed invested in its intellectual power to judge claims or implied arguments as bad or wrong.
In phenomenology opened up by deconstruction especially, the idea appeared that a good part of philosophical life is coming to appreciate, even to feel, the wide range of ways in which people make sense out of life by finding sense within it. This was moving back upstream behind arguments to intuitions coming through many different forms of life and their sensibilities. It was paradox (going against belief, back upstream, as Jean-Luc Marion once said in class). Paradox in this sense paradoxically made sense. It didn’t exclude analytical argument down the line. It began closer to our origins in practical, relational, and aesthetic life and in embodiment too. It wasn’t just in the head to start with.
Moving upstream to intuition was exciting, because it meant that philosophical work had to be much broader than analysis of arguments. Any “register of sense” could be life-guiding if we were faithful to its intuitions and then thought through them (including analyzing arguments involving them). The sense of our intuitions made our lives and arguments richer.
By a “register of sense,” I mean some way that we might see the sense of life. In a register of sense, intuitions about the sense of things are registered, able to enter reflection, conjecture, argument, even theory. Paintings are registers of sense. So are dance works. Or sports practices. Meditative arts. Religious rituals. Community traditions. Craft practices – even what some master plumber tells another they can learn from working adhesives and metals together, how doing so time and time again develops a habit when approaching the disconnection of things in life.
Registers of sense become philosophical when we make explicit the sense of life available through them and when we search our sense of life with their imaginative and practical aid. Anything can be philosophical once registers of sense open up around us in the world.
And so, a quarter century ago, we lived accordingly, not one of us just doing scholarship or hammering away at arguments. Rather, we had to be alive first. We had to be people in media res. The thing we fled was being dead to the world. The thing we sought was life’s complexity. We did this, not so that we could lord it over people intellectually, but so that we would not miss out on living.
When I went to graduate school, a lot of this sensibility faded. I had to become narrowly professionalized. It sucked, although it was good to learn how rigorous and deep scholarship and systematic argument are. It was good to be in a community where not infrequently ego was checked at the door when it came to objectivity. All that was clean, even if it felt dead too often. I picked up rigor, but lost many registers of sense.
Not surprisingly, after graduate school, my soul needed to recover the sense it had lost. Like a plant once trampled underfoot, I began to spring back into shape with each tumultuous year after my formal studies ended. I wanted to figure out how to incorporate registers of sense into formal education in philosophy through a mode of rigor that would be simple, clean, and open to intensification when one focused on things through it.
I found my way to some approximate rigor through constructing assignments in my philosophy classes that combined registers of sense with analytic and scholarly demands. I developed a formula. I constructed every major written assignment for the semester by joining the personal with the analytical and the scholarly with the practical. When students at American University of Sharjah became focused on modern identity in our early evening conversation circles between students and faculty, I offered a class called “Modern Identity” in which students had to figure out who they were by analyzing their responses to canonical ideas about liberty, equality, and abstraction. This involved extensive journaling combined with scrapbooking, time spent soaking up abstract painting and listening to modernist music, but also close, detailed arguments analyzed in classic philosophical texts and the statement of their own position in argumentative form. The entire class had a practical and relational point: to emerge from the class more confident and reflective about who you are in relation to “modern identity” so that you can live more easily in the rapidly modernizing world of the United Arab Emirates.
Gradually, I came to boil down my formula to something simpler. I realized that what I must do whenever I construct a major assignment is to make sure that students have to articulate their “relation to life.” By our “relation to life,” it turns out I mean something similar to what Dewey meant by “relevance” in his Experience and Education. But my focus wasn’t retrospective – looking to what students bring to class. It was prospective – asking how we might use class to help us live well, starting with living more fully. I came to the view that when added to conventional academics, the relation to life makes for classes that must implicitly recognize registers of sense. After all, how we relate to living depends on the many registers of sense by which we actually live, and nothing short of these will satisfy us in our hearts and bodies.
Several years ago, I co-created a workshop that wanted to explore how to bring ancient philosophy as a way of life, contemporary social practice art, and the history of radical pedagogy together, for it seemed to me that there were useful analogies between each and the others. What I tried to convey at that workshop was my simple formula. I focused on the idea that the relation to life is the key to making social practice art actually philosophical. At the same time, I sought to affirm that social practice art and radical pedagogy (especially early childhood education) open up registers of sense.
That workshop was a one-off event, and so I wasn’t sure where things would go with developing some kind of rigor in approaching how anything can be philosophical. But last year, I found that there is small movement afoot in our discipline to bring back philosophy as a way of life. It is rooted at the University of Notre Dame through an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. Last summer, the project gathered nearly a hundred people from our discipline in order to share and to experiment with bringing the ancient philosophical spirit of the art of living into our curricula. The idea is to create a network of people who design classes and curricula (such as common cores) in this vein and to strengthen philosophy as a relevant discipline against neoliberalism’s dismantling of the humanities. Although this coming summer’s conference had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, a conference is planned for late June, 2021.
One of the issues emerging in the network is how to understand rigor when approaching philosophy as a way of life. To that end, I have been working on a simple combination when I think about how I can contribute. I think about how students can learn to develop rigor in working out any class’s relation to life. How can I construct assignments and discussions that bring texts, problems, arguments and the philosophical tradition in relation to our sense of life?
To that end, I often think about how a classroom community can become aware of the many different registers of sense in our lives. After all, photographs are registers of sense. So are postures we consciously or unconsciously adopt with our bodies. Or parties (and can they be more creative than a keg?). Martial arts. Mundane, private rituals of the morning, the week, the family. Informal friend traditions. And many labor practices worn into living – as when an arborist hawing a limb reflects on how a philosophy of cautious pruning relates to how we admonish each other.
 As Nathan Eckstrand points out, some communities that appear to have a view about what wisdom is often corral their members into conformity. “Follow our wisdom!” they imply with every correction, omission, avoidance. True enough. But to be able to search shatters conformity eventually. How can I search if I am not free enough to try things out? And to have a sense of life depends on room to roam enough to develop that sense (so we can intelligibly say of someone very young or very rigid, “they do not have a sense of life … yet”). A real philosophical community cannot be a view where wisdom is settled, one way or another. True to the kind of thing Kierkegaard said pseudonymously in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (well, until his confession of authorship at the end), the searching is the truth of philosophy even as one searches for the Truth.
 I encourage people who read this blog to see if their institution would be a good fit for this network. Members come from as far as Singapore (Yale-NUS) and South Africa (Rhodes University) and include community colleges, liberal arts colleges, research universities, universities with a religious mission, and non-profit community organizations that do public philosophy. The meetings last a week and are convivial. I’ve never felt the same spirit in another philosophy conference. It is collegial, open to trying new things, down to earth, and sincere.