Dangerous knowledge

Paul Goodman reflecting1 on a group of campus hecklers in 1967:

I realized that they did not believe there was a nature of things. [To them] there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge. They had learned so well that physical and sociological research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they were doubtful that there was such a thing as simple truth, for instance that the table was made of wood—maybe it was plastic imitation.

To be required to know something was a trap by which the young were put down and co-opted. Then I knew my guests and I could not get through to them. I had imagined that the worldwide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions, and I was sympathetic to this. But I now saw that we had to do with a religious crisis. Not only all institutions but all learning had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon…

  1. From New Reformation, p. 70-71

Ideology is the enemy

In the course of answering how philosophy can make itself more relevant, Nancy Bauer writes:

Good philosophy of all stripes fosters in the practitioner the virtue of epistemic humility.

The best philosophy teachers are the ones who are able to model this virtue. They show their students, à la Socrates in at least the early Platonic dialogues, how the right kind of conversation can bring to consciousness the utter preposterousness of something that one has always taken for granted and then how to survive finding oneself turned around in one’s shoes. Epistemic humility sometimes takes the form of humbleness, but not always. It can be intensely empowering for people who have always assumed that the systematically poor way the world treats them is fundamentally the way they deserve to be treated.

The worst enemy of the best philosophy is ideology in all its forms. Philosophy at its best evinces deep skepticism about the stories powerful people and institutions tell about How Things Are. It models the virtues of not knowing what one thought one knew. The natural home of philosophy is in the agora, not the ivory tower. The question is whether the academy can bear to confront that truth.

Finding oneself

Ben Hewitt on urgency, control, and finding oneself:

There’s something addictive about the urgency of the season. I feel it year after year after year, though perhaps it holds a somewhat finer edge this spring, simply for everything that must be done to ensure our well-being come the return of cold and snow. But still. Even the force of a typical spring and all that depends on it is enough to hold me in its sway. It is times like these that my gratitude for this life runs deepest. I am grateful for the wood to be split, for ache in my shoulders after splitting, for the fencing to be strung, for the soil to be turned, for the protective husks reforming over decades-old callouses, for the cows fat with May calves, even for the snarl of the sawmill, each board I lift from its bed another piece of the puzzle that will, when finally assembled, result in my family’s shelter.

I know it’s somewhat illusory to believe we have control over our destiny; there are simply too many forces above and beyond our control, and there are many ways in which we are reliant on these forces, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.

But that’s ok. I don’t need to be in control. It’s enough to be participating. It’s enough to help fit the pieces of the puzzle together, to see how the whole is formed, and within it, how we come to know our place.

I admit that the phrase, “know our place”, makes me feel a little uneasy. It just seems too close to the command, “know your place”, which is often used to bludgeon people into suppressing themselves or their beliefs (opposite to its literal meaning).

That being said, it’s naturally important to discover where we fit in the scheme of things. After all, “know your place” can also be understood as related to the old dictum, “know thyself”. Learning where you fit in can inform your understanding of who you really are, and learning who you really are can suggest how you might fit in.

But over the years, I’ve come to believe that the first of the two is more effective. Simply asserting your identity can be gratifying, but it’s also very prone to error and fluctuations in mood and environment. To try things, to try a lot of things, and to try a lot of things some more — this seems a surer way to discover who you really are and where you fit in.