By Your Leave

“I can finally relax,” she said.  “I couldn’t really enjoy the music when we were with them.  I really like those guys, but I’m not at ease with them.  I’m happy now to be able to go out with you, so that I can just focus on what I’m doing.”  That’s something I heard recently, and I found it very illuminating about the nature of action.

We often imagine that we, as individuals, are free to do what we want, choosing how we will exercise our powers on the things of the surrounding world.  That was not the experience of the woman who was speaking, however.  Her experience was that other people were a crucial link between her and her world: in the company of unfamiliar companions, she could not comfortably connect with the world, whereas the company of an old friend allowed her the freedom to engage with the world as she wanted.  Indeed, it is this second part of her comment that I find particularly revealing and particularly important: being with her friend allowed her to focus on something else.  This focus was what she could not do around unfamiliar companions—she could not settle into her situation.

When we spend time with a close companion, it is very often the case that our experience is not about that companion.  Our companion, rather, accompanies us in our worldly affairs.  We look at the sights with her, shop for clothes with her, read the paper with her: in each case, the company of the other “completes” our inhabiting of the situation and allows us to let ourselves be absorbed in the activity, secure in the sense that we are acting together, even if the activity is something singular and private like reading.  What these experiences of companionship reveal is that our actions are characteristically joint actions—actions undertaken with the support of another.

We often misconstrue the nature of action, and, in a related way, we often misconstrue the nature of other persons.  We typically think of another person as the object of our experience, as something (someone) to whom we are paying attention.  On the contrary, in many ways the character of another person is most powerfully revealed precisely in those experiences in which she is not the object of our experience: our experiences of companionship reveal the other not as an alien object, but as the very medium for engaging with the world and, indeed, for our accessing of our own powers.

We should pay more attention to this notion of other persons as the ones who give us the world and, indeed, give us ourselves.

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Laura
    Posted October 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Your point about not being able to settle into one’s situation in the company of unfamiliar companions is a powerful one–especially because it is a situation that we will likely be faced with in important spheres of our lives. I am thinking (in reference to one of your earlier posts) of the experience of leaving home, or of moving away from a place in which one has established a home (a frequent occurrence in many professionally-devoted lives). This experience can be so difficult not simply because one finds oneself in an unfamiliar place, engaging in unfamiliar activities with unfamiliar new people, but because in the absence of relationships that formerly sustained our comfort in the world, this very sense of “oneself” can be experienced as fundamentally, and suddenly, insecure. It is precisely when we are called upon to “be at our best”–to make worthwhile contributions in a new educational or professional sphere, to discover and forge new companionships–that we might feel most distant or strange to ourselves. Similarly, in the absence of comfortable companions the world itself can appear suddenly lacking and uninviting–not a sphere in which I can comfortably act and “be myself.” It is not the case, as you say, that I am simply transplanted, free to exercise my full powers on the world in a new situation; my very identity comes into question when I take myself away from the people that have previously linked me to the world. The role of other people in one’s sense of self and world, perhaps largely unapparent in the engaging comfort of the former home, is painfully revealed in their absence.

    Generally, this feeling of alienation will be temporary: new relationships will be developed, and the world will be restored to its possibilities for absorption and enjoyment. One will feel “at home” with oneself again. But this “self” will not be quite the “same” one; in the company of new people, and through the differently-understood support of those far away, the world itself–the site of one’s identity and action–will be given in new lights and new possibilities.

  2. Luis
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    Your comments about the experience of companionship as being “most powerfully revealed precisely in those experiences in which [the companion] is not the object of our experience” reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about lately….

    When we open our eyes, we see things: a computer, a couch, a door, a friend, a room, an environment. But what never appears as an object of vision is the very manner in which we see — our perspective, our point of view. It is this very thing on which our seeing depends, that is also what never appears as a thing of vision.

    It is as if in the centre of the world there existed a hole, something that does not appear (as an object) but on which the appearance of every thing depends and counts on.

    There is a statement by Walter Benjamin that I have always found fascinating. He wrote: “Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. . . . Architecture [is] appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception, or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building . . . [Buildings are appropriated] not so much by attention as by habit.”

    It seems to me that this peculiar structure of habit is a constantly recurring question in your posts: the structure of those things that are most powerfully revealed precisely in those experiences in which they are not the object of our experience.

    Thanks for your insights on the many facets and implication of this peculiar structure!

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

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.).