Friendship and The Limits of Math

In his dialogue Lysis, Plato gives a nice description of a very familiar human experience.  Lysis, a young teenage boy, would like to come over to join a conversation that Socrates is having with some others, but he is too timid to do so.  When his friend Menexenus arrives, however, he feels able, in the company of his friend, to go over and join the social group.

I have certainly often experienced such situations in which I only feel confident to move into some public activity if I feel “paired up” with a friend.  In such situations, my friend lets me feel like I don’t have to expose myself fully to the alien social situation, and that I have a place of refuge with my ally–not somewhere to which I’ll retreat physically, but a psychological point of respite.

In such situations, it is really the “pair” that is acting.  I do my thing only with her: my action is our action.

Now, let’s do a little counting: how many are here?

We might normally think that I am one person and my friend is another one, so we take one, add one, and get two.  Experientially, though, this is not true.

It is only in my friend’s company that I feel myself: experientially, it is the addition of the second that lets me be one for the first time.  The experience of the “pair,” in other words, doesn’t fit easily into the system of discrete units presumed by counting.

Many economic and political approaches treat people as if they (we) were just discrete countable units, denying the complexities of these (and other) relationships of interpersonal and social dependency that define our existence.

Politics does that at least when it turns each of us into a single vote, stripping each of us of the complexity and richness of our engagement with the political arena and translating our reality into a simple “yes” or “no” to a policy designed by someone else without our input, and presented to us only as a “take it or leave it” “choice.”

Economics does this when it treats us as a resource for offering 40 hours per week of labour, hours that are themselves each worth a certain number of dollars: all the stuff of a human life becomes a price tag–all of our reality is interpreted as a dollar value, a number.

The political recognition of our individual rights is essential, as is our recognized capacity to participate autonomously in economic life.  These recognitions are essential to a free life, but they become the opposite of freedom when there are mistaken for adequate interpretations of human life.

In our living experiences of intimacy and friendly companionship (and much more besides) we do not live as discrete individuals.  Our experience, rather, is of a set of powers, expectations, interests and feelings that arise from a shared situation.  We can count–persons, votes, dollars–but that dividing up into units always comes after a living situation is established–a living situation that is continuous and connected where the mathematical units are divided.

Mathematics is great, but it depends upon a concreteness of incalculable importance that will always exceed its comprehension.

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One Comment

  1. Greg
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting that mathematics provides us with the ability to see beyond what is immediately in front of us, and to derive universal principles that appear to govern that immediacy, yet that it, too, perhaps sends the implicit message that it has provided the last word on the meaning of what is immediate. I happen to find this interesting right now because I am very interested in how explanations – especially very effective ones – seal off the space for additional inquiry in a way that is often counter-productive to education and to thinking in general.

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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.).