It’s not enough for an inquisitively industrious species merely to understand, we seek transformation. “We” includes Marxists and pragmatists and eco-activists and maybe even some (pragmatized) stoics. So we turn to John Lachs’ second chapter in Stoic Pragmatism today in CoPhi, and to Ecotopia in EEA. Final report presentations begin as well.
“It is unseemly to question one’s heritage.” I don’t think Lachs really means that, not fully. Philosophy questions everything, especially what’s been passed along without critical assessment. But he’s right to notice that there’s no shaking our origins, even when we manage to rise above them. “You can take the boy out of the country,” the midwest, etc., but if he’s been steeped early in (say) Hegel, as Dewey was, he’ll have a hard time entirely letting go.
My first philosophical collaboration was with undergraduate peers at Mizzou in the ’70s. We hung out on Friday afternoons at Michael’s pub on campus (long gone) and tried to settle the universe’s hash (including one memorable occasion when one of us thought he could prove free will by doing something really stupid with a beer stein). We called ourselves “The Hegel Society” (possibly aping the St. Louis Hegelians of local memory), and in spite of my developed preference for pragmatism I still can’t help thinking in terms of geist. (But, I no longer think progress is inevitable, or that history often isn’t simply one damned meaningless thing after another).
So… sometimes we reflect our heritage most when we’re trying hardest to distance ourselves from it. Might as well own our starting places, then move on. That’s real growth, the “progressive enrichment of experience and improved control over circumstances” that comes from deep self-knowledge.
Lachs acknowledges his own growth in moving on from his earlier epiphenomenal phase. You can’t change the world if your very consciousness is an ephemeral by-product disengaged from events. He distances himself as well from Hegel’s detached, owlish, spectatorial stance towards history, and steps up to offer guarded support for Peirce’s focus on the future while holding on to a special fondness for luminous “firsts,” immediacies, and non-verbal experiences. “Delightful absorption” in the present is hard to beat, and “much of what is interesting and truly important in life cannot be put into words.” Philosophers don’t like to admit that, for obvious vocational reasons. We must continually “fire our volley of vocables,” after all. But silence can be golden.
I don’t think, with Lachs, that pure non-verbal presence is “the only spirituality open to nonreligious people”– I still hold a brief for Dewey’s “continuous human community,” in that regard– but it’s right up there.
Lachs is also a friend of progress. “If we do not permit ourselves to suppose that we progress, we ban pragmatism as a mode of thought and a way of life.” Progress is not inexorable or inevitable, as Hegel and some Marxists would once have had it, but it is real. A pair of Steves, Pinker and Johnson, have lately been making this point.
Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) says violence has been in steady decline for quite some time, while Steven Johnson (Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age) says the “networked” present marks the high-water mark (so far) of human achievement. When Sully Sullenberger landed his plane safely in the East River, well, he didn’t land that all by himself. Many humans, many technologies, many evolved support systems were his co-pilots. [Pinker on Social Science Bites with Nigel]
Only time will tell for sure, of course, but I’ll bet not many of us would volunteer to go back and live in an earlier century when medicine was primitive, human intercourse was fierce and brutal, and longevity was predictably brief. What does that tell us?
Such a rich chapter, and I’ve not yet even mentioned Lachs’s mention of my two favorite James essays (“Blindness” and “Moral Philosopher“). Tomorrow, and tomorrow. Speaking of which…
Is “ecotopia” our glorious Tomorrowland? Can we ditch the fossil fuel burners, get off the grid, give up heavy consumerism and the forty-hour workweek, and get on with better lives in the great Pacific Northwest? Doubtful, but for some of us irresistibly alluring (except for the war-games and some of the emotional histrionics and cringe-inducing male casual-sex fantasies). But even if the late Ernest Callenbach‘s vision is all a pure fictional fantasy,
Ecotopia still poses a nagging challenge to the underlying national philosophy of America: ever-continuing progress, the fruits of industrialization for all, a rising Gross National Product.
Well… there’s progress, and then there’s real progress. We need not “give up any notion of progress,” just the debilitating and self-destructive one we’ve been burning at both ends. And we really should give up our traditional and habitual greed, short-sightedness, superstition, ignorance, and fear. Just listen to JL. Just read Callenbach’s last letter.
Will we ever get there, to a genuine and sustainably “stable state” in balance with nature? Surely so, if we can plausibly imagine there will be a flourishing and recognizably-human civilization still here in a century. Surely not, if we’re committed to keeping on doing what we’ve been doing. We need to commit to something better.
That’s my prediction. Please don’t wake me if I’m wrong. And maybe don’t wake me period. As John Lachs says, there is “something deeply appropriate in dying when our purposes are fulfilled.” And as the other JL would agree: if we want to progress, we really must “clear the field for the next generation.”