Calculating Your Earnings

We often have a sense of pride in a product that we have made, and the effort we put into forming the thing gives us a sense of ownership.

After years of practice with the soccer ball and the playing field, I feel on the “inside” of soccer, I feel that soccer is “my thing.”  And, indeed, looking on at the performance of a great player, we sometimes say “he owned it.”

When we study a foreign language, it is initially an alien system, and we cannot express ourselves in it; with our native “tongue,” however, the language we deploy—whether we are great poetic artists or just everyday speakers—expresses our meanings, and our words are no longer an alien medium, but a site where we encounter ourselves: through our long and intimate history of learning the language, we have “earned” the right to call our words our own.

And, of course, when we labour on the natural world to build or to harvest growth, or when we use our highly cultivated skills to make, lead, sell, manage, or teach, we proudly think of ourselves as having earned our daily bread, our wages, our popularity, our bonuses.

What is it, though, to earn?

Typically, we would distinguish what we earn from what we inherit or what we receive as a gift: we do not say that we have earned that which comes to us through the power of another.  The son of Joe Kennedy did not earn the financial and political empire that he inherited from his father any more than Adam earned the right to be the first man.  Similarly, I did not earn my blue eyes nor you your beautifully proportioned body.  I did not earn the political freedom I was born into nor you the common knowledge that the world is round (actually, an oblate spheroid) and that women are equal to men—indeed, had you been born in a different era, you would have inherited different views, which you would consider equally compelling.

I did not earn my naturally healthy body any more than the person born lame earned a crippled position.  And, just as I did not earn the body, I did not earn its attendant ability to move gracefully.  When I become a smooth, swift runner, I am thus enjoying capacities I received and not “making myself a runner.”

Is there earning in this running?  To be sure.  Given the powers I have, I show who I am by how I take those powers up. What I earn is the right to be recognized as a good or bad pilot of powers that occur on their own, a good or bad caretaker of capacities that rely on my taking them up in order to be realized.

When I win at soccer, then, I should be a bit cautious in what I take pride in.  No doubt I should be pleased that (because of my good upbringing) I had the emotional resources to stick to my plans and train daily.  No doubt I should be pleased that I deployed my native intelligence to make good decisions about how to practice.  But rather than becoming too thrilled with the greatness of my talent, I should give thanks that I was, at birth, the lucky recipient of a well-formed body with a strong heart and a large brain.  –And, indeed, if I forget this and wrongly imagine my soccer skills to be “my” ability, I will get a nasty surprise one day when I wake up and find that the body that gives me those powers has become sick or aged, and no longer affords me those powers upon which I have been relying.

And similarly, too, with our language.  My eloquence, my charming style, my clarity, or, indeed, my capacity to compose provocative, oracular utterances—these are all “mine” by the grace of language.  That this is a gift of my body is made clear in the aphasia brought about by a stroke; but even without such a bodily collapse, I may find that “my” language fails me, that I have lost my “gift” of speaking well.  Language works in its own way, and I, like a surfer, can sometimes ride its crest, but it is the powers of language, with their own system and history, that I am thus privileged to deploy, powers that inspire me, but that I neither crafted nor understand.

And finally, then, our labour and its economic reward.  All social life depends upon a division of labour, wherein individuals working on particular tasks pool their distinct efforts in a social collaboration of mutual support.  In any life other than the most solitary life of struggling with nature, we depend upon the efforts of others to get by.  We contribute our efforts and receive our rewards according to the character of the particular system of the division of labour in which we live and work.  Those who offer their services as sign painters, for example, command a notably smaller economic reward for their labours now that those who contributed those same labours 70 years ago, though the labours performed are identical.  What we earn is not a simple effect of what we do, but is the effect of the placement of what we do in an economic system.  And the economic system in which we work is something we inherit.

Whatever economic power we deploy, then, is the power afforded us by a system, which is itself a system founded on the cooperative labour of all.  What we “earn” is not our doing, but (a) the doing of the labour of all, and (b) the doing of a system of organization and distribution of that labour and its results.

The economic system might be compared to a jazz band.  The saxophonist performs a “solo,” and “her” Db note sounds great, but it sounds great because of what the bass player, the pianist, and the drummer are playing behind and around her.  The good saxophonist doesn’t “make” a great solo: she rides and directs well a wave on which she is surfing, an ocean of music she inherits from the rest of the band, from the tradition of jazz, and from the whole history and nature of music as such.

It is with an attitude of humility and respect that the saxophone soloist will properly appreciate her “earnings”: she will recognize her cooperative role in a system—an organized group of musicians to whose activity she contributes powerfully and formatively, but upon whose activity she depends and whose contributions make it possible for her to have the role that she has.  It is this same attitude that we should have as we try to calculate our economic earnings.  None of us “earns” her economic rewards for him- or herself: each of us receives what we do through the power of an economic system that controls the distribution of the collective resources of all.  Calculating our earnings properly means recognizing accurately what we owe to those others who are responsible for making our situation what it is.

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  1. Laura
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    “Is there earning in this running? To be sure. Given the powers I have, I show who I am by how I take those powers up. What I earn is the right to be recognized as a good or bad pilot of powers that occur on their own, a good or bad caretaker of capacities that rely on my taking them up in order to be realized.”

    I really appreciate the idea that as individuals we are “pilots” of powers that we cannot take credit for, and that our individuality is constituted by the ways in which we cultivate and express these natural and cultural gifts. I also appreciate the idea that it is precisely as such “pilots” that we are “caretakers”: the ways we live out our “own” capacities are also the ways that possibilities belonging to the world itself are made manifest. We depend on our inherited powers for our individuality, and our inherited powers “depend” on us for their own continual realization. To claim private ownership of these powers is thus a lie on two fronts: it misunderstands the individual’s reliance on what she did not herself make, and it misunderstands the imperative to live out inherited possibilities not for the sake of merely personal property or credit, but for the sake of the things themselves (language, sport, music, economic well-being, etc).

  2. Shannon
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I have to teach Heidegger in five minutes (Question Concerning Technology), so I thought I’d come read this blog post again to get myself in the mood. Thanks. : )

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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.).