“Must Life be Tragic?”

The second 2012 Berry Lecture in Public Philosophy last night featured my old friend Rob Talisse, co-author of Reasonable Atheism and author of eight other books in his first nine years at Vanderbilt, according to John Lachs’s introduction). His topic: “Must Life be Tragic?”

It is, of course, for us humans, if we just mean that we’re going to die and we know it. None of us will achieve all that is worth achieving. We can dream of far more than we can ever attain, in a finite lifetime.

But Talisse meant to say more than that. He is a quick, aggressive, insightful, iconoclastic thinker. His thesis was in part that pluralists (like me), who hold “value”to be varied and incommensurable, make life even more tragic for ourselves by acknowledging a greater plurality of uncompensated unique goods than does the non-pluralist who thinks that “value is one big thing.”

But note: as Talisse is defining the term, a philosopher like John Stuart Mill is a non-pluralist: value for him is one big thing, namely utility (or pleasure, or happiness). The way I typically use the term, Mill is a pluralist. How could he not be? He was William James’s hero, an exponent of liberty and eccentricity. They always entail variety, often of the incommensurable type.

But that’s another conversation. What most intrigues me this morning is the implication that I make my life more tragic because I acknowledge that I might have traveled other roads in life, might have pursued other goods than those available to a professional philosopher. Those other goods are whispering to me: “I ought to be pursued by you.” But I’m a finite human, I can’t have it all. And that adds a layer of tragedy beyond the impending loss we all must anticipate, by virtue of our intrinsic mortality.

I find it strange to think of merely hypothetical (though possible) goods laying claim on how I apportion my days. It’s the other way around, seems to me: we all make claims on the world. Claims are mirrors of desire, which the world apart from us entirely lacks. But Talisse says that view commits a kind of “value phenomenalism” he finds objectionable. Still another conversation.

So, let’s pretend I could have become a great St. Louis Cardinal. But instead I chose to stay in school and eventually became  an academic who occasionally writes and talks baseball but will never fulfill that old childhood dream of playing it at the highest level. I’ll not make it to Cooperstown, not even as a writer/sage. A few have, but I’m no Grantland Rice. And there are no plans to open a philosophy wing at the Hall of Fame. They do host an annual academic symposium there, in which I did participate once, but that’s not the same. I’ll do my thing again this month at the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference, but that’s not the same either.

So my life is thus, on Talisse’s telling, more tragic than if I were to renounce the pluralist line. I could then silence that annoying, nagging whisper: No, I’m pursuing my highest good right here in the philosophy department. I ought not to have chased that illusory baseball dream.

Instead I have to say that philosophy and baseball were for me incommensurable, heterogeneous goods. I can never know that one was my optimal good. I must always fret that my choice cut me off, permanently and ineradicably, from my best life. So whatever life I’ve lived or might have, was inevitably going to be tragic for its renunciations.

But: is the hypothesized fact that I could not be a philosopher and a great ballplayer, but had to choose and may have chosen the wrong incommensurable good, really so tragic? Isn’t the greater tragedy of life, beyond mere mortality, the fact that many of us fail to achieve many complementary goods that we need not renounce, that were “compossible,” but that we’ve simply and contingently failed to secure?

I can be a good philosopher, spouse, dad, friend, neighbor, humanitarian, philanthropist, amateur athlete, whatever… but for whatever failures of will or imagination or industry or ambition, I end up achieving only a subset of those goods. I never really lose a moment’s peace thinking about the games I haven’t played. I do sometimes fret about missed opportunities I can’t possibly blame on my choice of vocation.

But it’s March, it’s Spring Break, it’s Spring Training! It would be a personal tragedy not to enjoy it at least as much as I enjoyed Rob Talisse’s lecture last night.



3 Responses to ““Must Life be Tragic?””

  1. Dave Wilson Says:

    Dr. Oliver,

    Great thoughts and well said!


  2. osopher Says:

    Thanks, Dave.

    As another reader put it: there’s no real tragedy here, for non-Platonists who give up the futile search for demonstrably pure objectivity. Our good is sustained by intersubjective relationships, not objective proof; and the better we tend those relationships, the more secure we become in the choices we’ve made and in the lives we consequently are living.

  3. osopher Says:

    Exchanged an interesting series of tweets with Rob last night, worth preserving for whatever light it might shed. It began when he tweeted,

    “@RobertTalisse: Now thinking that value pluralism is not only false. It’s self-effacing.”

    I responded:
    No, selves-exalting. My version, anyway.

    A few back-and-forths led to his observation that
    “We agree on substance, diff on terminology. I think pluralism must involve irreducible, heterogeneous values.”

    And he shared this link to an essay he and Scott Aikin published recently on the subject of pluralism: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2012/01/the-pluralism-test.html

    And he said “But seems to me what you call pluralism is monism, since it holds that all values have common prop (=value for some individual).”

    So he thinks I’m a closet monist. I think that by any other name, the correct view (which I think is mine) is still respect for persons.
    He may be right, but

    I share James’s view that “neither the whole of truth nor of good is revealed to any single observer,” whatever we call it.

    He said monists and pluralists can all agree with that statement. “That’s not thesis about nature of value (or truth), so not a statement of plur or mon: Ps and Ms could agree w James there.”

    And that seemed like a good place to table the discussion, especially with my wife at the door saying “let’s go!” So I said to Rob:

    Good, we’re in agreement! Going to eat sushi now.

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