Making Our Way

In one of my favourite passages in Plato’s Republic, Socrates says that he likes to talk with old people because “they are like men who have proceeded on a certain road that perhaps we too will have to take.”  (I.328e) There are many aspects of this remark that would be worth exploring, but I am specifically interested in the image of the road, and the idea that it is only perhaps the case that we, too, will take that road.  This passage, it seems to me, highlights the way that, for each of us, our own future always remains uncertain: we cannot say in advance where we are going, and we cannot know in advance what it will be like to be there.  Nonetheless, as Socrates suggests, it is wise to pay heed to the experience of others who have travelled their own roads, for the insight that their experiences can offer us about our own lives.  Socrates’ remark points to both the obscurity of our own future, and of the importance of trying nonetheless to acknowledge its weight.

It seems to me that there are two difficulties we face in comprehending our own future.  Let me describe each in turn.

The first difficulty is a psychological difficulty.  At every moment, I am aware of myself, and I have a sense that “this is what I am like.”  We seem, that is, to be confronted with our own nature, and that nature seems to be “just how it is,” “just how I am.”  The shocking truth of aging, however, is that we change.  Though this is how I am now, that will not always be so.  As we make our way through the day, the general situation we are in seems like our permanent setting and it is very hard not to act on the presumption that things will stay the same.  Surely something like this is involved in a person’s refusal to quit smoking, despite overwhelming evidence of the ill-health to which this will lead: we can know this to be true, but it doesn’t feel true.  A similar perspective no doubt lies behind the very troubling ways in which people can manage their longer-term interpersonal and economic lives poorly.  We can live in denial that our relationships need our care, taking them for granted as we act in ways that are ultimately destructive of them.  Similarly, we can live in denial of the need to care for our economic well-being, taking for granted that the experience of “getting by” satisfactorily that we can manage at 25 or 35 will always be possible–but, of course, it won’t be.  Our experience, then, plays a kind of trick on us, letting us believe that we “are” like this or that, when in fact this is only the current form our life is passing through, on the way to another form of living we have not yet anticipated.  The psychological difficulty, then, rooted in the inherent inability to experience our own future, is the natural resistance we have to acknowledging that it is not the nature of our future simply to “work out” automatically: we need to take care of our future, for our future will not automatically take care of us.  It is for this reason that looking to the experience of older others can be helpful: through them we can see what it is like to age, even though we cannot see that about ourselves; in seeing how they have made their way, we can see what it is like to care–well or poorly–for one’s future.

The second difficulty is a metaphysical difficulty, by which I mean a difficulty posed by reality.  The difficulty reality poses to us when it comes to “owning up” to our own future is that the terms according to which our world works also change.  This means that, even if we do glean insight from the lives of those who travelled these paths before us, their ways of coping with their situations might no longer apply to us.  The specific circumstances I am imagining here are situations of technological, cultural, or environmental change.   My mom found a way to make it through her life, as did her grandfather before her, but the world in which each of them made her or his ways presented a very different face than the world I live in.  They knew nothing, for example, of the ways the internet has had an impact on the carrying out of personal relationships, of how deregulated banking has intervened in the capacities that individuals and families have for having a private home or securing a pension, or of how massive environmental exploitation has reshaped our involvement with nature.  The second difficulty, then, is that we can never get a clear hold on the right frame of reference in which to assess our efforts, because the terms of the future world can radically undermine the terms we are accustomed to depend upon in our interpretations.  Whereas the first difficulty in coping with the future is rooted in the psyche of the individual, and thus can be meaningfully addressed by the individual’s own efforts, this second difficulty is rooted in reality, and thus is not affected by the actions of the individual.

The first difficulty–the psychological difficulty of acknowledging the need to take care of our old age–regularly inspires in me the desire to encourage others, especially others in their 20s and 30s, to be more attentive to the ways their current actions are building the home they will have for themselves when they are older.  More exactly, I should say, it is the real short-sightedness that I think I see in the actions of these people that inspires this desire in me.  It is imperative that young adults devote themselves to advanced education, develop good habits of moral and professional behaviour, and care for their own psychological and interpersonal health if they are to be able to greet middle-age and old age with a smile.

The second difficulty–the changing terms of the modern world–inspires in me a deeper concern.  Not just as individuals, but also as a culture, we look back on the way things have been, and act as if that way will continue.  In fact, this seems unrealistic.  Many people have made this point with respect to the destruction of the natural environment, and this is surely a compelling point.  I have an even deeper concern, however, for economic, technological, and political matters.  I won’t discuss the economic and political matters now, for the impact of technological changes is a big enough thought to grapple with on its own.  What is my concern?

More than anything else, I am concerned about the technological transformation of the social world and the work world.  As internet shopping becomes more and more dominant, the ability of families or individuals to maintain small businesses progressively declines.  As people turn more and more to downloadable music for use on portable, personal devices, the capacity for individuals to earn a living by playing music progressively declines.  These are two simple examples that are exemplary, I think, of a larger trend, and I want to point to two consequences of this trend.

The first consequence is that even people who have tried sincerely to care for their futures by cultivating a trade and working to build a business or a career can now find themselves in a world in which that business or career is no longer viable.  Many have already encountered this problem, and I fear that this is going to be the plight of many more people in the near future.

The second consequence is faced, not by the people who try to make a living in these ways, but by the rest of us, that is, those of us who depend on the contribution those entrepreneurs make to our world.  As those small businesses dry up, we discover there is no longer a “downtown,” no longer a public, market area in which to congregate, and to participate in a world in which producers and consumers cooperate.  Instead, we are left to a much more private life, where the market has been replaced by store fronts, run by wage-labourers,  for the chains that dominate internet shopping.  As the work for musicians dries up, we are left with only the mass-market products designed and distributed by the huge “music” corporations that are oriented to advertising and mass appeal, rather than to art.  In short, we rely on the environment that supports small businesses, trades, and artists to provide us all with a social world that offers us a good quality of life, and this environment disappears at the same time that the careers of individuals disappear.

Both personally and culturally, I believe we all need to show a greater concern for our future.  My worry is that, culturally, we rely too much on the belief that the future will resemble the past and that, as a culture, we are not sufficiently acknowledging the massive cultural changes that are in store for us.  Perhaps, despite the voice of optimism that typically accompanies talk of technological “advance,” the “old people” from whom we could learn a lesson now are those cultures that have undergone massive and unexpected cultural decline.

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  1. Kirsten
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Your post makes me recall my grandmother telling me recently that she and her mother used to raise chickens to lay eggs, which they would bundle up in baskets and sell to neighbors. They used the proceeds of this activity to help send my grandmother to college. Tuition, I believe, was $17 a semester. What seems like a tiny amount was in fact a tremendous amount of time and effort on their parts. This egg tending and selling could only be done “after hours”–i.e., after an entire farm’s and house’s worth of jobs were completed. My grandmother described her experience of going to university as one of tremendous privilege and tremendous hard work (before and during). The point that seemed most relevant here is the sense she had of needing to build for her future. She ultimately became a school teacher, and is currently, at 89 years old, teaching a community education course. There is indeed much to learn from her example, I believe.

  2. Susan
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Your remark that our experience of a fulfilling life is dependent on a social environment as well as a natural one is so compelling. We could become as attentive to endangered habits and traditions as we are to endangered species and act in ways that better recognize how their loss would affect our future.

    • JohnR
      Posted September 3, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      I think this is indeed the crucial point. We commonly take our environments for granted, both in the sense that we don’t explicitly notice them and in the sense that we presume they are just “given,” just automatically there. In fact, though, our social environments are really the final outcome of huge network social and interpersonal interactions that are themselves shaped and regulated by laws, traditions, social institutions, and the material resources of a culture. If those supports are changed–and, especially, if they are taken away–then the environments are changed too. It is very easy, for example, not to notice how much we depend upon the structures and scaffolding of public life that are made available only by taxation–we complain, for example, about taxation without realizing that it is those taxes that make possible the clean water, safe transit, and clean environments that we rely upon. In our contemporary society, I am especially concerned about the way in which excessive focus on issues like “security” is in fact producing social environments we don’t want to live in. Indeed, what motivates our calling for security is our desire to protect our environments, but those very environments are what are destroyed by the crippling of free activity that our “security consciousness” produces. Economic, political, and technological “developments” all have massive–and often massively negative–consequences for our social environments and, I think, we are often extremely careless in how we handle them.

  3. Peter
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Your discussion of music and technology is very thought-provoking. I’ve just finished reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s short book called _Listening_ and I think that what you say intersects with his discussion there. We are losing the ability to listen to music, to each other, because we live increasingly within a system of production that tells us that whatever strikes our ears is already processed for us. There is nothing to listen to. When I stop listening, I stop developing the person I am, the one who becomes different by listening, by hearing the resonances of things that are beyond what I ordinarily take them to be.

  4. Laura
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Your distinction between psychological and metaphysical challenges to the wisdom of our personal and collective aging is very helpful. It is not enough simply to care for our own futures as individuals, as demanding as this already is; we must also care for the world that will support, or fail to support, our successful personal unfolding (and equally the personal unfolding of other individuals). The health of the reality in which we find ourselves is thus of deep personal concern, whether we recognize it or not. Simone de Beauvoir says something good on this point in _The Ethics of Ambiguity_. It is never a question, she writes, of disinterested or ‘selfless’ concern for others’ suffering ‘out there.’ Concern is definitively personal, as we care not only for ourselves but for the requirements of freedom, or, the reality in which all our personal and collective possibilities are housed.

  5. Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Sherry’s Turkle’s recent book, ‘Alone Together,’ explores challenges that accompany the expansion of technology and the consumable/automated nature of communications, affection, and intimacy. Part of the text explores how robotics are being integrated into caring and therapeutic processes by intentionally exploiting human vulnerabilities that are most manifest by the young and elderly. Such exploitations are deeply concerning; not only are the cultural conditions of interpersonal experiences (e.g. local musical performances) threatened but the very possibilities of meaningful interpersonal relationships during essential ‘capstone’ periods of our lives are as well. Perhaps most worryingly, many of the subjects she speaks with believe that a one-way relationship (human->technology) is an acceptable condition given the isolating practices and ideologies of modern consumer capitalism.

    She also explores the impacts of mobile technologies, and their capacity to upset the quietude that is so important in the process of reflection and simple being with others. The acceleration of communications and contact, to the point where there is an almost neurotic attachment to the fetishes of mobile, isolated-connected life – that is, mobile phones – have significant impacts on the perceived process of communication itself. Reflection before response is permitted, but cannot reasonably be expected in a non-textual format on the basis that vocal dialogue is a disturbance; voices intrude upon and disturb the privacy/seclusion that is associated with the fetish. This common thematic, that robotics and mobility enable privacy but at the expense of community and direct human contact, speaks to essential difficulties in the development of ‘communication technologies’: where communications take the character of preventing or stunting the ability to have ‘natural’ (i.e. vocal, or face-to-face) conversations, might there be an important logical and normative distinction to be drawn, that communications can be conversations but not necessarily vice versa? It seems that examining roads previously travelled, prior to the advent of modern communications, is essential if we are to critically (re)appraise the conditions of intersubjectivity that we are rushing towards in an effect to ‘more efficiently’ engage with the world, and the people, around us.

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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.).