Generosity and Critique

In North America, we commonly buy gifts for our close friends and associates at Christmas and on birthdays, and anticipate in return that a similar group will send gifts our way at the appropriate times.  We can feel it, probably as a slight, when we do not receive a gift from a close friend, and we anticipate a bit of shame if we fail to give a gift to an appropriate other.

What is striking about this situation is that our behaviour is scripted in advance.  On a date specified independently of any of us individually, a game of reciprocal exchange is enacted.  The rules are fairly clear, and successful (or unsuccessful) playing of the game determines in a significant way how we are understood by others.

This structure, though, sits uncomfortably with the very notion of what a gift is.

Normally, we would think that a gift should be given because of the other person and the unique response that other calls up in oneself.  When we give because of the rule, though, our motivation is to play the game right: it is the game that has captured our enthusiasm and commitment, not the person.

Again, we would normally expect of a gift that it be spontaneous: the gift should, effectively, be pulled out of me by your impact upon me.  Instead, Christmas shopping is a kind of machine, a premeditated calculation in response to social pressure.  For this reason, too, the structure of a rule fits oddly with the notion of a gift.

Finally, giving gifts according to the rule is doing “what one does.”  “One” gives a gift, and, similarly, “one” receives a gift—for rules always make a generic address to “one”—and inasmuch as this standard gift-giving is a matter of “one” giving to “one,” the gift does not mark a reality uniquely constituted by our specificities.  But, again, the notion of a gift is precisely the notion of something that I specifically want for you specifically.

For these three reasons, then—institutionality, calculation and impersonality—the regularized practices of gift-giving that we typically rely upon run afoul in principle of the very nature and meaning of a gift.

There are at least two important things to learn here.

The first lesson is a simple, personal one: we should note how much we rely upon the rule of gift-giving, (which, as we’ve seen, paradoxically means precisely the rule not truly to give a gift), and in fact do very little in our lives to carry out a more authentic attitude of giving—“generosity”—with our friends.  We should be more generous.

The second lesson is more complicated.  To understand it, we must ask, “And what will a gift be, then, if I give for real, rather than relying upon the standard rules?”

Whereas the “gift” in the Christmas-game is a playing piece in a system of reciprocal exchange according to which what one gives to another is supposed to be met with an equivalent return “gift,” the gift that is the spontaneous offer of oneself or one’s own to another expends itself entirely in the giving and seeks no return.  And, indeed, no reciprocal gift would be possible, for the uniqueness of the giving—its unique responsiveness to the specificities of the situation—make it incomparable to any other.  A different gift could be given, but that would simply be another unique event of generosity uniquely defined by its situation and in no way “compensating” for the original gift.

The generosity of the true gift does not seek to be “paid back”—indeed, to give is precisely to renounce relating to the other according to the rules of reciprocal exchange—but in a sense very different from that operative in the gift-game, to receive the gift is to take on an awesome “debt.”  The gift does not require to be paid back, but what it does is call one to embrace the relationship authentically.  This is the second, more challenging lesson.

A true gift is a great challenge, for, at the same time as it is a gesture that breaks out of the rule of reciprocal exchange, it is a call to the other not to live according to those rules.  The gift expresses that persons should spontaneously give themselves to each other in response to their unique specificities, and thus the gift is in fact a form of critique—it effectively accuses one of behaving badly if one does relate to others according to the rules of institutional, calculative impersonality.

True generosity is an insistence on authenticity and thus, though it asks for no “payback,” it imparts an imperative to the other to rise to the demands of relating to others authentically.  To participate truly in gift-giving is to hear the call to give up treating the other as something that fits into well-defined, pre-scripted roles; it is the call to be open to having to define unique ways of relating to unique others rather than relying upon the comfortable terms of our established social expectations.

So the gift that is really without price is the one that has the highest price-tag of all, for to receive it is to receive the call to hold oneself responsible for caring for the unique worth of the other, a worth that is infinite in that no limit set from without can do justice to it.

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A Sensitive Matter

Hurting another person is a very easy thing to do.

We often think of “hurt” in terms of the pain induced by bodily injury.  This obviously is an important kind of hurt, but we should be careful to construe it rightly.  The harm is done to the body, but the hurt is a matter of feeling—a matter of experience—and noticing this should alert us not to jump too quickly to using the body as our primary point of reference in trying to understand what hurting is.  We can indeed hurt a person through assaulting her body, but there are many other, deeper, and more subtle ways in which we can hurt another.

People are very sensitive beings.  Again, they are of course sensitive in that they have an immediate sensory vulnerability to things through touch, sight, hearing and so on.  They have deeper sensitivities, though, than these matters of immediate bodily stimulation: people are deeply and intimately sensitive to matters of personal and interpersonal success and failure, of aspiration and accomplishment, of hope and fear, and these are the sensitivities that primarily define and colour our experience.  Mostly, we are sensitive to the question of who we are and whether we are worth anything.  And, though we can and do frame our own personal ideas about these matters, we mostly depend on the behaviour of others to establish for us how we should evaluate ourselves.  It is around these most basic sensitivities that we are most vulnerable to others, most able to be hurt.

These sensitivities in ourselves and in others are basically what make life worthwhile.  Caring for them well is quite challenging.  Mistreating them is extremely easy.

Responding to sensitivity with brutality is an easy answer.  Deciding that we “don’t care” about another’s cares and feelings can make us feel powerful, in part because we can feel the power of our own ability to have an impact [a hurtful one] on another, and in part because we can feel autonomous in recognizing that we do not have to be controlled by another’s concerns.  Deciding that we “don’t care” about our own sensitivities can again give us a sense of liberation as we feel ourselves freed from the vulnerabilities that trouble us, or it can subtly gratify our desire to punish ourselves for being so “weak.”  In each case, though—this sense of freedom won at the expense of others, or this sense of strength won at the expense of one’s own human vulnerability—is ultimately just a failure to respect what is most important in our lives.

If we think further about what form a human life takes, we can see more fully the forms this hurt can take beyond the simple and direct feelings involved in immediate exchanges.

People live complex and highly developed lives in which, through their projects and practices, they become highly invested in, and inter-related with, other people and things.

Our involvement with other people means that we depend upon those others first to allow us to rely upon them and second to live up to the commitments they thus make to us.  We must be attentive to the ways we are offering ourselves to others and telling them that they can depend upon us, for our failure to follow through on these commitments is one of the most serious ways we hurt another.

People also invest themselves in things, whether these are the “tools of their trade” that are the basic materials (chair, computer, bedroom, camera) through which they carry out their characteristic practices, or the clothes and ornaments through which they present themselves publicly, or the sentimental objects that are the means by which they hold onto their past and their emotional attachments.  These things embody the person, and the person is thus vulnerable through them.  Whenever we treat the materials of the human world as “just things,” whether as a parent manhandling a daughter’s possessions or as a business-person forcing a dollar-value on the goods by which a community establishes its life, we are hurting someone who has something deeply invested in those things.

Through things and through other people, persons are stretched out far beyond the limits of their immediate bodies.  People also live long lives, and this temporal endurance again brings with it particularly possibilities for hurt.

Lives are hard to plan for, and they’re hard to live through.  As the years pass, we reap the benefits of the good choices we made for cultivating a rich and rewarding personal and interpersonal environment, and we dwell ever more painfully in the consequences of the different forms of personal and interpersonal damage we’ve done or suffered.

It’s easy, in the flash of a moment, to be brutal in dealing with another person.  This can be true in how we handle a simple conversational exchange, or in how we decide about the future of our relationship.  Decisions that look appealing in the charged and narrow perspective of a moment can damage a friendship or a life for a long time to come.  How we handle our sexual intimacy with each other is especially charged: it is easy to treat this tender and difficult domain casually, callously or defensively, with the result that we turn our sexual life into a site of alienation rather than intimacy.  The pressures and demands of handling these situations of friendship and sexuality well can seem at times too hard to face, but those demands are ultimately small in comparison to the enduring hurt of handling them poorly.

At the same time as we remember the importance—indeed, the urgency—of handling these sensitive matters carefully, we must always remember that it is unavoidably the case that we will always hurt others.  No one can act in a way that adequately respects the needs of another, and therefore we will always be giving each other grounds for dissatisfaction and complaint.  Here, too, in experiences in which we feel legitimate in adopting the stance of reprimanding another, we find an invitation to brutality.  And so, finally, we must remember to be sensitive to each other’s need to be forgiven for our failings.

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On Negation

There is something to be learned by reflecting on the simple expression “not here.”

Notice how the words in “not here” function.  The first word, “not,” needs the second word in order to be meaningful.  The second word did not have to be “here,” but it had to be something, because the “not” is always the negation of something.

“Not,” then, is an interesting word, for it has to step outside itself, so to speak, in order for its own meaning to be established.

The expression “not here” is interesting, then, for it actually expresses the very nature of the “not” itself: in other words, it is as if the word “not” says “not here” whenever you look at it.  The “not” effectively directs you to “look away from me,” “look there.”

“Not,” then, is a word, a notion, of something that is inherently an “other,” that is, it must always be one of a pair of words: it functions only when there is another word to which it is itself another.

But now let us consider the word “here.”  The word “here” seems to be precisely the opposite of “not,” in the sense that it announces that it is the place: it is the point of reference to which others are oriented, but it itself does not defer to some second co-ordinate, some “other,” like the “not” does.

But though “here” seems thus “self-present,” so to speak, further reflection reveals a more complex situation.

First, notice that one only says “here” when one wants to pick out the correct spot from a range of other possible locations.  In that way, “here” always implies “there,” even if it doesn’t explicitly say so.  In this sense, this, the very meaning of “here” is “not there.”

Second, notice that the picking out of this location “here” from “there” also requires that there be the field of possible locations upon which one is now directing one’s attention.  The word “here” this also differs, (by being a word), from the field of real possibilities that it serves to articulate.  The word, in short is not the thing named.

This second point is important because, whether “here” is an actual word we say out loud or whether it’s just the “sense” of the attitude we bring to bear on a situation, that articulation is always a way of taking up a field of possibility—it is a change, an interpretation, or an actualization of the situation.  Such a change, interpretation or actualization is a negating of the situation, not in the sense of a denial or destruction of it, but in the sense of a transformative engagement with it.

So “here,” then is itself a form of “not”!

(Incidentally, various others words I’ve used, such as “first,” “this” and “now,” could also be thought through in this same way.  And the word “is” . . .)

Initially, we noticed the essential “othering” character of “not.”  We can now see that what initially looked simply like the peculiar meaning of this word is in fact the essential character of our spatial experience, (for our inhabitation of space is inherently a navigating of “here” and “there”), language as such, (for the sign that articulates is inherently differentiated from what it names), and experience as such (for our attitude is always shaped by a way of interpreting and articulating).  (And if we had explored words like “now,” “first” and “this,” we would have found the same to be true of temporality, quantity and quality.)

Surprisingly, then, the expression “not here” seems to hold the key to understanding just about everything.  In being “not here,” it’s actually everywhere.  (And then, again, if we tried to take on “is” . . .)

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An Appropriate Corrective

The issue of “getting it right” is an important one in human life.  This notion of “right” however, can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and it makes a great deal of difference how we understand this notion.  It makes all the difference whether we “get it right” about “getting it right.”

If you give the clerk a $10 bill for an article that costs $3.99, the right change for you to receive is $6.01.  If the clerk gives you $7.01 or $5.51, he has given you the wrong amount.  In our small, day-to-day transactions, we often don’t notice or care about small mistakes like these.  The same mistake in a larger transaction, however, makes a big difference.  If the bank claims that I still owe them $70,100 dollars after I pay off $39,900 on my hundred-thousand dollar debt, that is a serious error.  Fortunately, mathematics is there to guarantee unambiguously that the bank made a mistake, and it will thus be easy to demonstrate to the bank or anyone else concerned that the numbers need to be adjusted.

(Incidentally, we shouldn’t be fooled by this issue of large and small transactions.  In our day-to-day transactions, we often don’t care about a few cents missed here or there, but such matters of “small change” are in fact what astute business types rely upon to make fortunes.  A single text message may only cost you a nickel, but that amount, which seems negligible when taken in isolation, is in fact added to a pile of millions and millions of other such small amounts, and it makes the phone company rich.  You may consider a few pennies here and there “nothing,” but the phone company knows better.  Similarly, the same bank that is responsible for calculating the state of your hundred-thousand dollar debt properly is, like the phone company, intensely attentive to the exact details of number, such that they calculate the exchange rate of a foreign currency to many decimal places: when they calculate the exchange on your U.S. currency, they do it precisely, not confusing an exchange rate of .98457 with a rate of .98332, though both are just “98 cents” to you.)

In the case of such quantitative relations, it is clear what “getting it right” means, and, as we have seen, it is important to be mathematically precise.  The same thing can be said of logic.  Rather than dealing with number, logic deals with the relationship between claims.  If I assert that “I will be there tomorrow unless it rains,” then I have committed myself to being there even if I break a leg or have a better offer from a better friend, provided tomorrow is not a rainy day.  Of course, saying that I will be there doesn’t entail that I will be, but if I make this claim and then don’t show up I will correctly be criticized by my friends as someone whose word cannot be trusted.

In mathematics and logic, we have a clear version of what “getting it right” means.  But though this is perhaps our clearest and most simple vision of “right,” it is neither the only one nor the most important one.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this interpretation of “getting it right”; what is wrong is that this most “obvious” vision of “right” gets imported by us into other contexts where it is not appropriate.

In matters of skill, judgment, and art, the norm of “right” still operates, but “right” in these contexts is not a matter of the “correctness” that pertains in mathematical and logical relations.

A skilled practitioner—a carpenter, perhaps, or a tailor, or a cyclist—knows “how to do it right” when cutting the wood or the cloth, or when pedalling or stopping.  None of these practices, however, is a matter of counting the right number or establishing the correct relation of premise and conclusion.  Relations of mathematics and logic are abstract in the sense that they are rules that apply unambiguously regardless of the circumstance to which they are applied.  The practices of carpentry, tailoring and cycling, however, are not matters of working out the correct form of abstract relation, but are matters of engaging with the unique specificity of this wood and this chisel, this cotton fabric, this bumpy road.  In each case, the skilled practitioner has the educated “touch” that allows her to be responsive to the specificity and to act in a way that is appropriate.

“The appropriate” is not the same as “the correct.”  Both are matters of “getting it right,” but doing what is appropriate is far more demanding that identifying what is correct.  Furthermore, there are no guarantees when trying to do what is appropriate, for one must exercise judgment—one’s active and meaningful engagement is essential and formative of the situation—and therefore one can fail.  Matters of correctness come with a guarantee of exactitude, but this guarantee is won by at the price of a criterion of “right” that is far less meaningful, far less informative about the situation, and far less relevant to our actions.

Indeed, this notion of judgment is one of the most important in human life.  It is good interpersonal judgment, not mathematical correctness, that will allow one to maintain one’s marriage when dealing with matters of money, or when responding to one’s partner’s sentences.  It is good pedagogical judgment, not a mathematically correct knowledge of the textbook, that will allow one to teach effectively.  It is good hosting judgment, not a mathematically correct knowledge of the practices recommended by “Good Housekeeping,” that will allow one to throw a great party.

Something similar is true in matters of art.  It is good artistic judgment and good taste that will allow one to “get it right” musically or sculpturally.  Though the textbooks correctly indicate that any note of the Dorian mode may be played over a iim7 chord, a good musician relying upon her highly developed musical sense will make a better choice of which note to play than a novice practitioner who relies upon the rule.  The note the novice plays is correct, but it is when the musician plays that we find drawn out of us the recognition that that was “just the right note” for the situation.

Rules of mathematics and logic are crucial to the successful navigation of adult life.  And they are not absent from matters of carpentry, communication or music—indeed, it is virtually impossible to be successful in any of these areas without having embraced the norm of “correctness” at various levels, and having learned to interpret practical, interpersonal or musical situations correctly.  It is also crucial, though, to recognize that correctness is quite a weak criterion of what is right, and that “getting it right” in all important affairs is fundamentally matter of judgment, that is to say, it requires a highly developed responsiveness, which is something that comes only with education and a highly cultivated attitude of caring for the situation in which one is engaged.

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The Annunciation

You can’t tell, when you look at me looking at something, what it is that I am noticing.  Even if you could list all the material features of my sensory field, you wouldn’t know whether I’m noticing the cup, or the room, or the fact that I’m in a city, or the unpleasant manner of that man’s behaviour, or my own insecurity in your company.

Our perception has this interesting feature, that our object is perceived through the specifics of our experiential field.  I see the meeting through the chairs and the people, I see the city through the buildings and the traffic, I see his obnoxious character through his behaviour, I see myself through my experiences.

So many different sorts of things appear!  Most obviously, things appear, but, through and beyond them, a world appears.   And through your body–a “thing”–you appear.  Your kindness can appear–and of course your beauty–and, saddest of all, your absence can be what appears through everything in my room when you are away.

Typically, we think of things as where our perception stops: indeed, the body that rises in front of me blocks my vision of what is on its other side.  But what we should notice instead is that things are where our perception starts!  Rather than blocking our vision, things are what allow deeper realities to appear.

The artwork is a special instance of a thing.  Like any thing, it is a window on deeper realities, but, most basically, the deeper reality it reveals is this very nature of things.  In the artwork, it is precisely this “see-through” character of things that is made thematic.  The artwork is the annunciation of the metaphysical transparency of things.

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On Rules and Family Life

When I was in India recently, I had occasion a number of times to travel on the highway.  What was striking to me, while travelling from Chennai to Puducherry or from Delhi to Agra, was how slow highway travel was.  Despite my drivers’ constant, aggressive attempts to push through traffic, and despite their preferred speeds of about 120 km/h, we averaged on these trips about 50 km/h on the open highway.  What is even more striking is that the traffic in these situations was not heavy.

Also striking was the way people behaved on these highways: erratically.  People acted with the presumption that “whatever I do will be fine,” and drivers of cars, wagons or elephants would push into traffic at any time, from any angle, without regard for the impact their behaviour would have on other drivers.  Here on these highways, and also in congested urban roads, drivers would push into any space, regardless of lane-markings, and would move from left to right (i.e., “change lanes,” except they weren’t following lanes) without looking behind them, leaving other drivers to deal with being “cut off” etc.

One could describe the behaviour of these drivers as “free,” but it is highly noticeable that this individual freedom produced an overall situation that was highly restrictive for all.  In contrast with what one finds on the much busier highways around New York City or Toronto, for example, driving here was highly ineffective: it was very slow, and very demanding of constant attention.

We are not born following rules, and so rules can seem like something artificially introduced into our lives. Similarly, the requirement to follow rules can feel like an impediment to our creativity, and this can lead us to think of rules as opposed to freedom.  In fact, however, following rules is integral to the experience of freedom, as this traffic example shows.

Rules, when they are obeyed, supply a reliable environment, a situation in which one can count on one’s environment to behave in a certain way.  To accept to obey a rule is to acknowledge one’s answerability to a domain beyond oneself.  By acting in a rule-governed fashion on the road, I take responsibility for the fact that my behaviour is not just an aspect of my life, but is an aspect of the lives of others as well.  I do not see why, for example, it is important to use my turn-signal at this moment, or to abide by the speed limit on this apparently empty stretch of road, but my attitude of rule-following acknowledges that what I notice about the situation is not all that is relevant, and I act in a way that is responsible to a future situation that I have not anticipated.

My rule-following behaviour makes the situation reliably predictable for others and, when they do the same, it is also reliably predictable for me–rule-following works, in other words, when it is cooperatively and collectively adopted.  And the result of this collective cooperation, this organized behaviour, is that acting in this environment does not require constant attention.  Acting in such a rule-governed environment is effective and easy, and frees me up to focus my psychological energies elsewhere.

In this way, rule-following is like the public version of a habit.  When we develop a habit, we set up a virtually automatic way of behaving in ourselves, thereby making that domain of behaviour a non-issue for ourselves, allowing us to develop more sophisticated behaviours on its basis.  This is effectively what we accomplish collectively when we behave in impersonal, rule-governed ways towards each other.  By getting the more basic process under control, we free ourselves up to attend to more important, bigger issues.

Of course, it is also true that rules can be restrictive of freedom: though they are essential to freedom, they are not adequate to it.  Rules are inherently impersonal, and hence an imperfect fit for inherently personal situations.  Whereas legal and business situations, for example, are domains whose proper functioning is defined by rule-following, friendships, family life, and romantic or sexual relationships are domains in which it is necessary not to make rules primary.

In our intimate relationships, we find fulfillment by having our distinctive needs and desires met.  Our personalities and our lives develop in unpredictable and highly idiosyncratic forms, and, though there is no universal rule to justify why one should be this way, one is this way—one is this way.  Others may not need to be soothed before going to bed or have raisins with their peanut-butter, but I do—or perhaps I need not to have raisins with my peanut-butter, perhaps I need to be left alone when I go to bed.  Whatever the specifics of the case, it is this set of personal needs that I need to have addressed in my intimate relationships.  What I need from my family, my friends, and my romantic or sexual partners is an attention to me in my personal uniqueness.  If you behave towards me according to “the rules,” you miss the whole point of intimate life.

There is a reason to be critical of rules then, but even here, we need to be careful.  It is crucial to recognize the essential domain of intimacy as a domain beyond rules, but it is crucial too to recognize the difficulties that operate within this domain.

It is common to hear “family values” advocated as a good, and these remarks about intimacy allow one to see the reasons why it is indeed important to remember that there are essential domains of personal and interpersonal life that need to be preserved as values that exceed the domains of rule and law.  The limitations of these values need to be recognized as well, however,

When we in contemporary North America think of “the family,” what we typically imagine is the modern North American “nuclear family.”  Such a family, however, is one already integrated into the larger reality of a broader civil and political society.  The parents in this nuclear family work in the world of capitalist economics and they obey the laws of democratic liberalism.  This, however, is neither the exclusive nor the essential character of family life.

Traditionally, (and in contemporary societies that carry on traditional customs), the family is an alternative to political life.  Whether in ancient Greece or in contemporary India, for example, it is a question of to which system of self-definition one gives one’s allegiance—the government or the “extended” family or clan.  To advocate “family values” as such is to oppose the domain in which individuals are free to define their own identities in a public world, according to a universally recognized system of human rights, and instead to accept the enclosed and idiosyncratic system of inherited personal and interpersonal dealings as what defines one’s possibilities.

The family and intimate relationships in general are absolutely essential to our happiness, and they thus reveal the limits of what rule-governed relationships can offer for our fulfillment as free persons.  We need to recognize at the same time, however, that such intimate and familial relationships themselves can be highly oppressive and can stifle our ability to realize our possibilities as free, self-defining individuals.  It is in accepting the necessity—and the propriety—of a domain of rules that exceed the terms of personal and family life that we open up for ourselves a world in which we can realize our freedom as free individuals.

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The Law of Laws

There are many essential aspects of human life that are inherently non-individual, that is, aspects of life that individuals depend upon but that no individual alone could ever define, create or maintain.  Language is one of most obvious examples of this: minimally, language must be something adopted and developed by at least two people acting together; less minimally—and this is the level that we rely upon for our developed lives—language is the work of a massive historical tradition, the result of the shared effort of whole cultures over many generations.  There are also other very important realities that are inherently beyond the realm of individual accomplishment.

Science is likewise a cultural product—a product, that is, of collective work over generations.  Our ability to have the knowledge we do—both the results of our scientific endeavours but also the refined methods we rely upon to get those results—is essentially dependent upon the progressive development of the spirit and practice of inquiry, the handing down of those accomplishments to later generations, and—very important—the taking up of that “torch” by those to whom it is handed.

The arts—music, theatre, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, and so on—are similarly cultural accomplishments, introduced and refined over generations, and handed down to the later generation for further cultivation.

Language, science and art are phenomena of the whole, that is, though they are all practices enacted by individuals and practices that fulfill the needs of individuals, they are inherently accomplishments of and by a culture.

Language, science and art allow us to see our dependence on a cultural level of accomplishment that makes possible our meaningful lives as individuals.

Government is similarly a matter of necessary action at the level of the whole, but, whereas language, science and art develop culturally without self-conscious direction, government is essentially the way a people as a whole self-consciously organizes and directs itself.  Establishing government is acknowledging our need to make decisions and develop structures that are necessary beyond the level of the individual.

A government legislates: it dictates the terms according to which a community must live.  This legislation is evident both in the explicit form of “laws”—specified rules for the form legitimate behaviour can take—and in the implicit form of the institutions established through governmental agency, ranging from the material structures of roads and telephone lines that determine the forms in which bodily action is possible, to the institutional practices of education, health care and policing that shape the ways in which it is possible for people to live.  Roads and the traffic laws that govern their use, the harnessing, transmitting and regulating of the use of hydro-electric power, and other such governmental products are all—like language, science and art—essential realities for the lives of individuals that are themselves beyond the level of what could be accomplished by individual agency.  This is the essential role of government: to legislate the terms of common life.

Government and law, then, do not represent restrictions of human freedom: on the contrary, they are what release us to a higher freedom than we could ever have if we lived strictly as individuals.  The establishing of law is thus not an imposition upon us, but is what liberates us to live freely.

In the Apology, Socrates at one point refers to the government of Athens as operating illegally.  “Now how,” we might ask, “can a government act illegally, since by definition it is the agency that establishes the laws?”

Government is empowered to dictate the terms of life because it is acting for the whole.  Whenever, therefore, those in power act in service of any other goal than the needs of the whole, the situation is no longer an enactment of a community’s self-rule—no longer, that is, government at all, properly speaking—but is instead individuals misappropriating power.  Similarly, actions of such individuals are not law properly speaking—not the release of a community’s higher capacities through responsible leadership—but enforced rules that, unlike proper laws, are restrictions of human freedom.  A government can act illegally, then, when it is not properly living up to its mandate as government, and rules in its self-interest rather in the interest of the whole.

Just as government itself has a defining norm that its actual practice must answer to if it is to be legitimate, so do laws have a proper form that they must take in order to be legitimate—in order, that is, to be laws, properly speaking.

A few aspects of this norm for laws are obvious from the concept of government.  It is because the government acts as the will of the people that it has authority, and so laws must, of course, reflect this authority: laws must be reasonable articulations of the structures people need in order to live well.  When, on the contrary, terms are dictated by rulers that, for example, are simply an excuse for the use of force, then those terms should not be confused with law: they are violence to which one may well feel the need to conform (in the interest of protecting oneself), but they have no intrinsic authority and thus cannot call upon any moral imperative that they be obeyed.  Similarly, rules put in place in order to channel public resources into private interests cannot command the authority of law, even if individuals find themselves constrained to obey those rules because of the absence of any viable way to resist them.

In addition to these instances of dishonesty in law, however, there are other examples of statutes that can fail to meet the criterion necessary to be a proper law—to be legitimate.

The laws must be coherent, which means obeying the law in one case must not run one afoul of another aspect of law.  It is the legislator’s responsibility to ensure that it is possible to obey the law.  It cannot be legal, for example, to demand that a person have form A in order to enter office B, and also to demand that one enter office B in order to acquire form A.

The laws must be realistic.  Bad laws often take the form of effectively requiring of people that they fail, effectively empowering the use of coercive force against individuals simply by virtue of their acting.  Drivers, for example, will always have to blink their eyes, will regularly look in directions other than straight ahead, will be blinding by the setting sun, etc. It is the driver’s responsibility to attend rigorously to the demands of careful and attentive observation, and it is surely legitimate to find one guilty of failing to do this, but it is impossible for drivers always to see everything around them, and a law requiring this would be dishonest, and its application could only be arbitrary, for every driver would always—and necessarily—be failing to “obey” it.

This issue of arbitrariness points to another need: the law must be applied consistently.  The law is not just a power handed to an enforcer, but is a rule to which one is to turn in order to know how to live.  A rule that says sometimes one thing and sometimes another cannot be relied upon.  Whenever, for example, police officers “let someone off the hook,” they are replacing a consistent rule which they are required to enforce with a situation in which the (unpredictable) will of the police officer is the rule to which one must answer.  Just as the citizen is required to obey the law, the government is required to enforce it; without uniformity of application, enforcement is unfair, and one cannot act with the assurance that one is in a world where the law in fact applies.

It is also imperative that laws actually be meaningful.  If a rule is articulated in a way that involves linguistic, logical or factual sloppiness or error, then, again, that rule cannot properly be called law.  A law cannot require, for example, that one “be a good parent and punish one’s children,” for logically fulfilling the first half can (and probably must) be at odds with fulfilling the second half.  Again, if one legislates, for example, that citizens can be members of democratic parties but cannot be members of “communist or other totalitarian” parties, then the law is incoherent, since communism (a) is not totalitarian and (b) is democratic.  These logical and factual errors make a law nonsense, as would be a law requiring one to “take a chill pill” while waiting in line or “be down with that” when the law-enforcement officer insists that one not run away; and laws about drug use or the portrayals of sex, violence cannot take the form of outlawing “substance abuse,” “explicit language” or “graphic scenes.”

It is not the case that anything a legislator specifies is ipso facto law.  Legislating is a matter of competently fulfilling the office of articulating well the rules required for successful cooperative living.  These laws must be coherent, they must have their reason in the needs of the community, they must be articulated properly, and they must be consistently enforced.

In short, as Sophocles’ Antigone insists, there is a standard of right action beyond what a group of legislators happen to say.  While there is no magic access to this ultimate good, it is this “call” to which laws must answer.   Law-making is ultimately a matter of proper description of the lived needs of communal life: it must be honest about the imperative, accurate in its assessment of the nature and needs of the community, and competent in its articulating of its policy.

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The Health that Really Matters

In the Gorgias, Socrates draws our attention to an important parallel between the human organism and the human psyche—both can be healthy or unhealthy.  Though we are very accustomed to thinking in terms of bodily health, we can find ourselves to be quite inarticulate when we consider our psychological health.

When we think about the body, we are quick to recognize its needs and quick to acknowledge the importance of the practices that will support bodily health.  We need to feed our body a balanced diet with the nutrients that maintain healthy functioning, supply energy and support growth.  We need to exercise the body, whether through living a consistently active lifestyle or through intentionally working parts of the body that are otherwise not being engaged.  And, in the case of illness or damage, we need to seek out the medicinal and behavioural correctives prescribed by an expert who understands human organic functioning.

Of course, we do not always follow the demands of this vision of healthy eating and acting.  We take our bodies for granted, and we live from the powers they afford us without “paying back our debt” to them.

Often, we start to notice this, in ourselves or in others, sometime around the age of 40, when it’s clear that things have been handled badly and the body is in trouble.  Or, maybe we do demonstrate more vigilance and pay some continuing attention to responding to these bodily needs.  In either case, though, we acknowledge the issue, and we can pretty clearly recognize what is happening and what should be done.

When we turn to the health of our souls, however, we typically do not acknowledge such a systematic regime for health.

Though we notice severe breakdowns in the lives of others, and though we ourselves may face crippling problems in our emotional lives or in our behaviour in our relationships, we typically remain fundamentally blind to the demands of psychic health.  We often recognize and criticize the manifest symptoms of ill health (especially in others), but we do not recognize them in their causal context—we do not see where they come from and why.

Where does psychic health (or illness) come from?  At a basic level, we can identify healthy conditions for the soul on the model of healthy conditions for the body: the soul needs nutrition, which mostly means intelligent stimulation and emotional support, delivered though human companionship in the form of mutually respectful communication and shared participation in engaging activities.  We need art, play, education, meaningful work, aspirations and love.  And, like bodily exercise, these nutrifying activities and structures need to be introduced intentionally when they are not happening on their own.

Working out more precisely what form these healthy practices take is also possible, and, as is the case with the science of bodily nutrition, this is done well by those who have devoted themselves to developing expertise in the study of the soul.  Unfortunately, public discourse in this area has been taken over by representatives of drug businesses, dishonest advocates of exploitative social policy, and the entertainment industry.  In place of a regime for health, we are offered a sure route to psychological malformation and dysfunction.  Fortunately, the science of the soul is still available to us in the great foundational works of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre and so on, and in the more recent works of the great existential psychologists like R.D. Laing, Salvador Minucin, D.W. Winnicott, or J.H. van den Berg.  The answers are there, if we are willing to look for them.

And what should a healthy soul look like?  Again, I think Socrates can help us to identify the goal at which we should be aiming.  In a number of different places, Socrates identifies four basic “excellent fulfillments” of the soul: courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.  These four provide an excellent model for what we should expect of ourselves.

Courage is basically a self-reliant commitment to standing up for what is important because it is important.  There is something wrong in our own development if we are not willing or able to do this.

Temperance is basically a matter of emotional self-possession.  We will all undergo experiences of sadness, anger, fear, joy and so on.  Temperance is being able to navigate these experiences well, neither losing ourselves to them nor suppressing their importance.

Wisdom is the developing of insight and good judgment.  It is not healthy to be ignorant of our surroundings, or to be incompetent in our ability to choose an effective practical response to them.

Justice is a commitment to being a good person: to caring for others, and to holding oneself answerable to standards of right.

As we plan our lives and make our arrangements for the activities we will engage in, the people we will engage with, and the projects we will undertake, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we are cultivating these virtues in ourselves and in others, or whether we pursuing the psychological equivalents of obesity, lung cancer and gum disease.

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A Descriptive Ethics

We are constantly describing.  “I’m nervous about the interview” or “He’s such a funny guy” or “You have to pick that up.”  Our days are filled up with talking, or listening to others talk or reading what others have written, and all of these activities of language are basically matters of description.

In many situations, this pervasiveness of description is obvious. Sitting in a coffee-shop, one need only listen to what others are saying to notice the constant string of descriptions that constitute everyday discourse: descriptions of what her romantic life is like, descriptions of what his boss said next, descriptions of their trip to the Atlas Mountains, descriptions of the plan for next year.

Sometimes, our uses of language are not so obviously descriptions.  When we study language in elementary school, we are taught to distinguish imperative sentences from descriptive sentences: a command, we say, is expressing a relationship different from that expressed in a description.  In a limited sense this is no doubt correct, but at a deeper level it is false.  When I order you to do something, I am using my expression to represent the reality of the situation.  Though explicitly I do not describe, implicitly my command asserts (a) that I am a person who has the authority to command you, and (b) that the situation demands this action from you.  The command, in other words, depends upon an implied description, an implicit assertion of what is the case.

Descriptions are a matter of expressing what is the case, and they can be true or false, better (truer) and worse.  This is true in an obvious way of the trip to the Atlas Mountains: has one given the correct dates, the correct sequence of events?  In a less obvious, but still fairly familiar way, we can recognize a deeper matter of truth here, too.  It may well be that all my sentences are factually correct (getting the dates and sequence of events right), and yet they may not be really truthful, in that they subtly imply that the trip was fun when it was not, or that it was a holiday when it was a business trip, or, indeed, that the events of hiking and dining that I narrate are the important whens, when in fact what “really” happened on the trip was that I had an “affair” with my travelling companion.  Even less obviously but more importantly still, there is an issue of truth involved in our imperative sentences: it may be a fundamental misrepresentation of our situation for me to speak to you with a command, or, again, what I command may be a fundamental misrepresentation of the needs of the situation.  True description is not simply a matter of “factual correctness,” but is a deeper matter of honesty, of fidelity to the situation.

We are always describing our situations, but we rarely explicitly turn to ourselves with the imperative that we describe well—with the imperative, indeed, that we learn to describe.

If we take on explicitly the task of describing our experience, we will discover that we can do this at a number of levels, each of which is important.  Most obviously, we can say about these things surrounding us, “this thing is so and so,” and “that thing is such and such,” and I have already suggested a number of the issues that arise at this level.  We could shift to another level of description, though, and notice that our experience always has a certain form, even as the specific things that surround us change.

Most simply, we can note that our experience always has this very form of experiencing a world of things.  When we notice this, we are still involved in the same world we were in before, but we have shifted our focus away from the things experienced to the fact of our experiencing.  We still experience things surrounding us, but through our experience of these things we recognize the event of experiencing.

When the event of experiencing has become the object of our attention, we now confront the task of describing this event well.  For most of this, this turn of attention opens up an unexplored field of inquiry, and we have much to learn through this new project of description.

We have begun the description of the distinctive character of the event of experiencing by noting that it consistently takes the form of “a world of things.”  We can notice further things about this world we experience.  This world is one that appears to me: my perspective is an irremovable aspect of all my experience, and the world that I experience has as its character that it makes itself available to me.  This “availability” of the world is its perceptibility—its appearing to my senses—but beyond this it is also an affording to me of possibilities for practical involvement: the world makes itself available to my exploration through bodily interaction.

And there is a further aspect to the event of experiencing that we must note if we are to describe it accurately: the world makes itself available to others at the same time and in the same way that it makes itself available to me.  I experience the world of things, that is, as a shared world, a world that intrinsically is as much for others as it is for me.

We could carry on further our project of describing the event of experience, but we already have described enough to allow us to draw some important conclusions, (which is to say, to describe accurately some of the implications of our situation of experiencing).

First, we can notice that, though we typically think in terms of a “world in itself” or a “self in itself,” as if the world and the self existed on their own independentely, we never have an direct experience of either of these: the only world we ever experience is a world inherently related to experiencers, and the only self we ever experience is one wrapped up in specifics experiences of specific things.  It is, indeed, true that the world presents itself to us as a reality that exists independent of our experience, but this very meaning only presents itself to us through the experiences we have of a world with which we are inherently involved.  Similarly, the sense of an independent self is presented to us only through actual experiences of worldly engagement.

This first lesson is important because (among other reasons) we can recognize a number of important situations in which we rely upon the notion of an independently existing world or an independently existing self—most commonly in various scientific inquiries—and our accurate description of experience can give us resources for analyzing the quality of these putatively “scientific” descriptions.  “Scientific” studies of the mind, for example, commonly substitute for a responsible appreciation of our living “first person” perspective” a “causal” analysis of the brain that is based on an interpretation of things as ruled by the laws of a world-in-itself.  When the scientific vision is based on a misrepresentative description of our world, and the consequences of that vision are treated as prescriptions for dealing with our own lives, we risk importing into our lives an interpretive framework that does not truly fit it.  In this example of contemporary “scientific” psychology, we end up living in a dishonest denial of our own subjectivity.

From our further observation of the intersubjective character of our world, we can draw a second lesson: there is no action we can take that is strictly “personal,” for our actions always inherently have an impact upon others.  When we speak, when we do or don’t go out, when we walk down the street—in each of these cases (and every other case as well) we are choosing a world for others.  When we describe “what I did” we often speak only from the perspective of our action’s relevance to ourselves; in fact, however, the significance of our action is not defined simply by its relationship to our own interests for our action is always inherently an intervention in the lives of others.  We are dishonest in our descriptions when we do not acknowledge the intersubjective reality of our actions—what our actions are for others.

If we are honest, we will describe our world, and thence our actions, as for others.  And what is an honest description of the experience of others?

For a third and final description, we should notice that, like the world and like the self, the other self “in itself” is something of which we never have a direct experience.  Rather, it is precisely through our experiences of the things of our world that we experience others.  And how, then, do we experience the other?  The other, never directly “present” to us in our experiences, is experienced through things as an imperative.  The other is not a “thing” but is a call to us and precisely a call not to treat that other as a thing.

Here we see one of the most important and one of the most demanding challenges of descriptive honesty.  Do we, in our speaking and in our behaviour, honestly reflect the definitive subjectivity of the others with whom we share the world, or do we allow ourselves the dishonest comfort of pretending that they are things, pretending that they are indifferent realities that do not demand our care?  And, if we honestly acknowledge that we are dealing with others whenever we deal with things and not just when we directly and explicitly engage with that other body with the human face, we must further acknowledge that this question of interpersonal honesty is pervasively definitive of our experience of things: in all of our affairs, we must ask ourselves, “Do I deal with the things in my world in a way that honestly reflects the humanity that is intrinsic to them?”

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Gregarious and Solitary

In his observation of the animal world, Aristotle noted that some animals naturally flock together, while some are naturally solitary.  The human animal, he observed, partakes of both characteristics.  We humans thrive only if it is both the case that we can be involved in groups and if we can function as independent individuals.

This dual nature, gregarious and solitary, has implications both for our social life and for our private life.

In order to take care of our social needs, we collectively develop complex familial, cultural and political lives.  It is undeniably true that there is something fundamentally fulfilling about each of these: the family life that gives us a sense of belonging, the cultural life in which we experience the enthusiasm of being with others, and the political life through which we coordinate our fulfilling of our legitimate needs and desires with others doing the same.

To take care of our needs as independent individuals, we develop personal interests, we seclude ourselves spatially to pursue study or entertainment, we adopt our own styles of fashionable dress, and we make up our own minds about how we want to handle our families, what we want to do with our friends, and what our own political views are.

The personal, the familial, the cultural and the political—all of these are essential and inherently fulfilling arenas of human life.  For that reason, though, how we cultivate any of these dimensions is of central importance for the quality of our lives.  Specifically, these different dimensions of life need each to be cultivated in a way that reflects the equal necessity of the others.

Because the independent ability to define ourselves individually is essential to our fulfillment, a politics that denies such individual right will always be oppressive.  Equally, because belonging to a specific, non-transferable family and a specific, local community is also essential to our fulfillment, a politics that denies the right of such exclusive attachments will also always be oppressive.  These points are among the most important in our political world, and are worthy of great attention.

The importance of this first principle of politics should not, however, draw our attention away from those other important domains of familial, cultural and personal life.

It is easy to think of politics as the domain of responsibility—of duties, rights and rules—while treating familial, cultural and personal life as domains in which it is nobody else’s business how we comport ourselves.  This attitude, however, fundamentally misrepresents the nature of these domains.

We need a rich and vibrant social and cultural life, and so, on the one hand, we should demand of our political system and of our interpersonal relationships that they make it possible for us to have such a life.  But at the same time, on the other hand, we should ask ourselves what kind of social and cultural life we seek and, especially, what vision of ourselves does our behaviour project?

When I shop, for example, do I seek out major chain stores rather than independent entrepreneurs, and do I use the solitary internet for purchasing rather than engaging in human interaction in shared space and time?  For my entertainment, am I active in my engagement with others or passive in my retreat from others, and do I seek out pre-fabricated entertainment machines or do I participate in a communal activity of making a shared event?  When I socialize with my friends, do we keep our emotional lives private through an exchange of social clichés and amusing trivialities, or do we cultivate our own intimacy while jointly reflecting upon the realities of the social and political world we live in, and do we do it while dining at a chain restaurant serving generic, unhealthy entrees, or does our dining support the human cultivation of the practice of cooking?

We can ask ourselves many such questions, and the answers will reveal something about the values we reflect in our social behaviour, the ways we do or don’t own up responsibly to the different dimensions of our human nature.  In all these activities, we are dealing with other people, and these dealings involve substantial political, economic, and interpersonal structures whether we acknowledge them or not.  In all these activities, too, we are also shaping ourselves individually—“feeding the soul,” so to speak.  How we take up our cultural life is implicitly a way of taking up our political and personal lives as well, and we should ask ourselves whether our behaviour truly reflects this reality.

In our personal, interpersonal and familial relationships, these issues of responsibility are especially pronounced.  The personal, the interpersonal and the familial domains are the areas in our lives where we are touched most intimately.  We can fairly easily (but wrongly) shrug of political and cultural life as impersonal and not something we’re particularly concerned about.  It is much harder to do that with our family, with our close companions or with our own emotional life.

It is a familiar truth that families and romantic relationships can be stifling.  Children commonly suffer from parents (or siblings) who do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the children’s independent views or aspirations.  In romance, one partner, perhaps from fear or perhaps from familiarity, can act as if she or he owns the other, becoming an enemy to the very independence of spirit that initially attracted her or him to the other.  As parents and romantic partners, we should not behave in this way.

But whereas it is procedurally easy and emotionally indifferent to enact a political law making a change in some aspect of the running of our public world, it is a matter of the most intense, intimate challenge and upheaval to address our psychological vulnerabilities and become more open and trusting in our close, interpersonal dealings.  These changes involve our own grappling with our private emotional lives, which is typically very difficult, and they involve addressing these issues with our intimate others, which again is typically a challenging matter. The unfortunate consequence of these psychological and interpersonal truths is that it is unlikely that most of us will make the changes we should in our close dealings, even though these are the most immediately personally important to us.  It is imperative to healthy relationships and to just treatment of others that we act in a way that acknowledges and endorses the independent individuality of our family members and romantic partners, but doing this requires that we take on the difficult work of meaningful psychological and interpersonal self-criticism.

And when we do live explicitly as separate individuals—when we participate in some activity not as a family member, a spouse, or a citizen, but specifically as a private person—do we nonetheless acknowledge that those other aspects are essential to us, or do we live in denial of that?  We always carry others along with us in our lives, and there is no time when this stops, but do we care for them in so doing?  Do I, for example, abruptly deny the worth of my friends in order to cultivate a relationship with someone new, or, more indirectly, as I move freely in the public world, do my actions acknowledge or deny my political and economic dependence upon others in this activity.

As Aristotle says, we are both gregarious and solitary, both political and contemplative.  Our healthy living, both as individuals and as a society, depends on our living each of these aspects of our lives in a way that acknowledges and supports the others.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).