On Charity in Philosophy

On Charity in Philosophy

Prescript: On the Accuracy of Memory

I wrote a sentimental essay in college about riding joyfully on the back of my father's bicycle as a child.

My parents loved it. They did not correct me on the facts. Perhaps they could have. Perhaps they could have said, "We remember that day. You were miserable the whole ride. Your dad had to ply you with candy to stop you from crying. You were terrified."

Should they have corrected my memory? Why didn't they?

Perhaps because for my parents there is both a fact about "what happened on September 3, 1967" and a fact about "what David wrote about his bicycle ride with his father." And you might think, "Well, those facts don't square up. And they should be made to square up, no matter what it does to David's essay-or David's attitude about his father, his trust in his own memory, and whatever else the consequences might be."  Only now there is an additional fact at play, namely, "the fact that David remembers the bicycle ride in a sentimental way and feels positive enough about it to share it with his father." And correcting the facts in the story could alter this latter fact in some degree and then that, too, would be a fact.

Perhaps this fact about the way facts are used to revise one another-(and the way they can change the future course of events)-influenced how my parents chose to respond to my story. In deciding on how much "literalness" to apply to my reminiscence, they followed a norm not drawn from literalness, but from a pragmatic judgment about which possible future would be better-the one where my happy memory is corrected versus the one where my happy memory is taken up, discussed, added to, and celebrated.

But notice, in following the latter norm, they have chosen to respond to my story as more than just a "factual report" but as an act on my part to remember something, write and revise it, and then share and discuss it with someone else. So, you see, there is nothing so narrow as "the fact" of what I wrote. A piece of writing emerges from a living context with living results, and every reiteration of it happens , too, in another context, and plays a role in creating further, living results.

As readers and listeners, we are compelled to make such interpretative choices with everything we read. The facts in any written piece need to be interpreted in light of  the larger contexts we can imagine for the author, his time and place, as well as for our time, place, and future. His aspirations are part of what he writes, and ours are part of what we read. To read is to write-to advance a new narrative-of the meanings we chose to ignore or attend, emphasize or downplay, press hard upon or let alone. Our duty, it seems to me, is that we interpret in a way that demands that we invest in our texts the largest possible sense of the future and the past.

On Charity in Philosophy

How should we examine phenomena in our lives which are already part of what we do, aspire to, or hope for? We would like to know better the nature of friendship, but we already have a long list of friends--and of being a friend. We'd like to know justice and fairness--but we're deep into habits of giving and receiving, of hearing and ignoring the pleas of others. We would like to reevaluate food and eating, playing and working, perceiving and dreaming, and yet these activities have both made us and been made by us all along. Finally, we would like to appreciate the meaning of the signs and the tools we use--our media and technologies--and yet here, too, we have established patterns of behavior that have sustained us, comforted us, amused us, and informed us.

As a practice, philosophy has no intrinsic subject matter. While some philosophers might claim that "truth" and "being" and "goodness" are philosophy's subject matter, this claim betrays too much hubris. There always needs to be a further connection established: the "truth" of what? the "being" of what? Philosophy has "topics" to raise and discuss because it is a practice which we philosophers do, which we engage in with others, about the issues and concepts and habits which we human-beings-who-have-learnt-to-do-philosophy have ventured to analyze, synthesize, and converse over. Only by discussing the ethics of abortion do we come to understand more carefully and deeply the meaning of abortion and the meaning of "right" and "wrong," "privacy" and "state's interest," "person" and "thing." Only by arguing about the habits of media consumption do we come to reveal the complicated effects that television, for example, has for the meanings of "debate" and "argument" and "recreation," to name just a few. And only by examining, through discussion and study, the meaning of "technology" can we bring out the manifold meanings that guide, motivate, and surround our "tools," "devices," "programs," and "practices."

How should such discussions proceed? If you wished to get someone to consider--and since we're already adults, "reconsider"--the meanings of abortion, media, and technology or love, fairness, and art what would you do? If you wanted to induce someone to not only recount the meanings they knew but imagine other possibilities and perspectives for what these terms might mean, what would you have them do? What would you say to them or show to them? What would you put them through?

These questions can be summed up in one philosophical question: How should one educate? And philosophers have trodden black a number of beaten paths. One, of course, is dialogue aiming toward definition. To name a thing--and then define it--is the key, some have thought, to inducing in the conscious mind of others the fullest and richest set of meanings which encircle, concentrically, a concept embedded in the webs of action and belief that make up our daily lives. Others have embraced the geometric forms of demonstrative proof, laying out the rules and premises and then pointing--don't you see! don't you see!-to the conclusions which must follow. Still others have used narrational methods to tell a compelling story--of a concept's history, its genesis, the way it manifests itself to the author. Such stories rely on rich description and even poetic devices to draw in the listener so that they find themselves following along (i.e., "caring") and opening up, therefore, to what the author thinks the important meanings are. Some philosophers, such as Descartes, have combined story and demonstration with explicit autobiography into the "meditation," which hopes to bring readers in touch with the deepest convictions of its author. Finally, for my purposes today, I'd mention a technique I'll provocatively call "enchantment," which uses words, sounds, rhetorical performance (in some cases) to create for readers or listeners a trance-like state which, once experienced, provides a standpoint (a promontory with a new vista) never before available to the hearer. Medieval authors and, I think, some of Derrida, use this gambit. One who sticks it out with the text or speech comes out of their enchanted state with something new: an altered sense of what reality is and can be.

So, there are a lot of tricks available to an author to convince, entreat, inspire, and  inveigle readers to journey along similar paths towards similar conclusions. But no author ever succeeded without a properly equipped listener. An author has to count upon a reader who is adequately prepared--one who possesses the patience, intelligence, and charity that is equal to the enterprise of that author. There must be a rough parallel between author and listener (or reader). The more complex the message of the author, the more patience, intelligence, and charity are required of the listener. The more universal and deep the subject matter, the greater the risk posed to communication by the reader's lapses into distraction, fragmentation, or irreverent quibbling. Again, the reader must have patience, intelligence, and charity; and of these three virtues, the greatest is charity.

Charity is most important because every good philosophical story (or "argument" if you like) lies somehow beyond us. It brings to bear facts which are new to us, a history we've not heard before, a perspective different than our own. It may reinforce or challenge beliefs we cherish, but it does so from a standpoint of difference. To understand an author, we are called to try to stand outside ourselves, to be more than who we are at the moment. This can be difficult, especially when the issue is personal to us. I'm reminded of how Euthyphro runs away from Socrates at the end of their dialogue, or how Alcibiades admits how philosophical discussion so frequently led him to feelings of shame. And yet Alcibiades keeps coming back to Socrates.

Why does Alcibiades keep coming back to Socrates? What motivates someone to return to a situation which has produced such feelings? A love of wisdom, a desire for knowledge, a need to grow. What enables us to return is more than charity for the author or speaker. Charity, by itself, is not enough; courage is also required.

Why is courage important to reading and listening charitably to philosophical argument? It is important because it takes courage to suspend judgment and hear the whole story--to suspend ourselves and see what it would like to be the person who believes the words we have just heard. It takes courage, then, to take a genuine risk: the risk we might have to change our minds and our habits if we're given good reasons to do so.

Courage is obstructed, of course, by cowardice. This is nearly an analytic truth. But surprisingly, courage is also obstructed by rationality. For rationality is not so much a faculty but a set of habits; an identity and a source of pride. I say (to myself)

"Because I am a rational person, I am always wary of all claims--especially philosophical ones. My rationality protects me from ambitious philosophers, especially those who make grand claims about reality."

As readers and speakers who wax philosophical, we all pride ourselves on requiring from others more than just "persuasion." Indeed, we take as our right an analysis and assessment of what we're hearing. It must be "logical" and "well-founded" and "based in empirical fact." Yes, yes, and yes.

But just as no  one who requires a complete understanding of the path ahead ever ventured very into the wilderness, we too need to temper our skepticism with a sense of adventure and a sense of reverence.

Adventure requires that we let go of the fear of being made uncomfortable, of being steered around a cherished habit. Adventure means setting out to place oneself in new surroundings, amidst strange and possibly dangerous flora and fauna.

Reverence is an attitude of humility and respect, of deference, of veneration. It is not blind submission, nor is it genuflection, groveling, toadying, or boot-licking. To pay reverence to an author, a professor, or a colleague requires that one strike a balance between deeply held needs. On the one hand, there is the need to champion one's self-reliance. To stick to one's stalwart commitment to carving a unique way forward and deciding, for oneself, what is true or false, real or merely apparent, good or bad. "No one can choose for me," we say.

On the other hand, there is the need for help. A purely self-made world is a fiction; a world which has walled out new influences is petty, trivial, mean, and cheap. The economy of our imagination flourishes through the ideas and interactions with others. What regulates our economy--what staves off depression--is reverence, an attitude of deferential respect to those who have come before us and enlarged the universe. It is reverence not to the authority of these persons, exactly, but to their careful methods, their wide scholarship, their earnestly detailed descriptions, and to their vigor (of often a monkish sort) in extensively criticizing what other authors have said. Such persons are due our reverence not because they made the universe itself but because they have made it meaningful. Their labor has constructed the resplendent vistas and fecund opportunities that entice us to offer our two cents. And so, reverence places before us both a duty and an opportunity.
We do have a duty to be skeptical, though not hyper-skeptical, so that we improve what can be improved and don't mistake wheat for chaff among the things we hear and pass along.

We have the opportunity to receive what we've been given and create new things with it; to strengthen it, adapt it, even reject it as we assume the awesome responsibility of projecting into the future-with all the imagination we can muster-those vistas we find meaningful.

We act with the hope that those who come after us treat our expressions with sincere reverence.
David L Hildebrand
University of Colorado Denver
Copyright 2010          
Posted 5/6/10

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