“The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored.”
All this is far from “how to” advice. I think we improvise our way into what becomes a life, and that means listening to the last two notes we played, as well as knowing some basics: Am I any good on the sax? Should I stick to drums? Am I paying attention to what the rest of the ensemble is doing? And there are other questions. How do I discover a leaning, a capability, a pleasure, a calling? John Rawls talks misleadingly of “life plans”—I suppose this is on the model of “investment plans” or “career plans.” My mind doesn’t work that way. I can’t put down general “learning objectives” for my classes. I don’t have a life plan for my life, and don’t know what my long term objectives are (if I have any). If something goes bad, I have something to say. But I don’t start with a plan or desire for specific outcomes—except in the most platitudinous sense: stay healthy, don’t starve, be a mensch. In class, if asked for an overall aim, I’d say “get to love these issues, texts, figures, passages. Praise what you love. Get comfortable sharing your growing interests and loves as you ramble or stumble through the whirl, eye ready for sudden insight, sudden center.”
A recent magazine piece (maybe in the Guardian?) by Wittgenstein’s biographer, Ray Monk reflects on Wittgenstein’s collection of photographs. There’s a connection between looking at the photos collected and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on looking — rather than explaining. In a parody, we could say that philosophers explain-explain-explain. They can forget to just look at the world, or flow with it, or listen to it (like listening to music). Wittgenstein thinks that philosophy is not a set of theories, one of which may be correct. Nor is it a set of bad theories about to be replaced, thank God, by the good theory I’ve just concocted. Enlightened as I surely am, I hereby stop this proliferation of error by announcing the truth. (It’s nice to fantasize omniscience.)
Wittgenstein thinks philosophies are symptoms of unhappiness, of verbal and intellectual confusion, of anxieties that are nearly inescapable. (Don’t we really, really, need to understand?) But maybe these inescapable worries are rather unreal, like a bad dream—real enough in the moment, and troubling, but forgettable when you awake and can so easily change the subject. The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored. Whatever your reaction after fresh contact, you’d no longer worry about whether the world exists, or whether feelings are always dangerous and unreliable, or whether moral relativity is true or false. You’d soak up the morning, act as you act, and solve your daily problems the way most persons do—one by one, with a minimum of ‘theory’ directing them. So…stop explaining. Just look! That’s Wittgenstein’s advice. Acknowledge your confusion, but the aim is to move into life—join the dance!
Wittgenstein had a deep interest in religion, in Tolstoy, Goethe, and Kierkegaard: he wrote, echoing a bit of Kierkegaard, “faith is a passion; wisdom, like cool grey ash.” He carried Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief to the trenches during WWI, and read from it every day. His Investigations is like a maze or storm at sea or series of unsolvable puzzles, full of almost biblical enigmas. You might say it holds both that human life has no Ground, no big foundation in logic or a rock-solid God, Science or Reason, and that it nevertheless has all the (God-given?) ground it needs—in overlooked aspects of life: the smile of a child, the rise of the sun, the sound of a clarinet, or a call to prayer from a minaret. To feel that, to live from it, would be something like leading a life of faith, being grounded in it. “All theory is grey, my friend, but ah, the glad golden tree of life is green.” Yes, that’s good, but not quite Wittgenstein. For him, theory might be “cool grey ash” but life was too polychromatic, including shades of black, to qualify as golden or green. In any case, it’s not just too much theory that makes for what he called “the darkness of the times”—his and ours. In his 1929 Notebook he writes enigmatically, “What is good is also divine.” He refused ashes. He could imbibe good: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
I know that’s not a ringing conclusion, but it needn’t be reason for disappointment or angst. Except in rare instances, it’s not a well-plotted research program that culminates in definitive findings, conclusions, and closure. It’s a register of deep wonder and yearning. If that’s right, then philosophy will be always asking, no matter what, and always opening an impoverished agenda, and always improvising its way.
Dean Dettloff: Wow. I feel as though you’re already performing this kind of intimacy-therapy on me in this interview alone! The themes of renewal you trace are neither bound to psychological experience nor public consciousness, though they deal with both. You clearly have a heart for interpersonal relationships and societal healing, which seems to bleed into your philosophy of education and a desire for these kinds of ideas to reach a public audience instead of staying within the academy. Would you discuss the way these sensibilities have shaped your role as an educator, both in the academy and outside of it?
Edward F. Mooney: “Intimacy-therapy” captures something about teaching and learning. Unfortunately, the ideal gets lost in the bustle about stiff “learning objectives,” about generating knowledge for the social-industrial-military complex—the specialized research university as a knowledge-generating machine. In my view (I’m in a decided minority), the best education is paternal, avuncular, maternal, fraternal, “sisterly” — where (Platonic) “care of the soul” is front and center. You and I in this blog can discover (and rediscover) the truths of “intimacy-therapy” in the company of other mentors: Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, Nishitani, and countless others you feature for us.
…But the humanities ought to have care of our souls, so the loss of an articulate expression of this in that section of the university is especially unsettling. I think a certain ideal has been abandoned. I’d hesitate to share my enthusiasm about this ideal of intimacy with my colleagues, say in a department meeting where the dean has put pedagogic practice in the spotlight. This is what I could expect:
“Professor Mooney, what are you saying! That you throw a book out to a class and wait to see what happens? No lectures, no tests on information acquired, no honing of necessary skills? We pay you for encouraging free-form emotional response ?”
You have yet another part to your question that’s more difficult to answer. You ask me to “discuss the way these sensibilities have shaped your role as an educator, both in the academy and outside of it?” What makes it difficult is that it assumes I have a grasp of my sensibilities, a grasp of what underlies my love of Mozart or canoeing or Thoreau. But I want to say that I just am certain sensibilities whose provenance is dark or shaded, and whose agency now, in the life I articulate, is also dark or dappled at best.
If a writer knocks on my door, and I only remark on their height or weight, I’ll have missed an essential dimension of their being. I can report on what a philosopher said for an exam, if required. But that would leave the living spirit of the saying out of my response. I want to convey my sense of the living spirit I’ve been excited by. If I adopt “professional distance” as a posture of response, then I’ll be leaving out ever so much. Lyrical philosophers (I can’t think of a better name) deserve lyrical response, especially if there’s a reason they need to be lyrical. So I guess that leads to a question beyond the question of why I write the way I do. It leads to asking why Thoreau and Kierkegaard (for example) write the way they do. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?
DD: That, of course, is a question deserving some exploration. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?
EFM: Of course, that’s the big question. Let’s say we grant that Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Plato or Schopenhauer have moments of great lyricism. Let’s assume this isn’t an accident or mere aesthetic flourish but a moment when each feels that to say what they want to say lyricism is inescapable. Why should this be?
Well, it’s based in philosophical anthropology, I think. We are calculating logic-wielding creatures and can be marvelous proof machines (and counter-example machines). We can shine at producing persuasive logical argument tending toward definitive conclusions. That’s our stock in trade as philosophers. We are also, at a more primal level, deeply moral creatures, wanting a fair deal, wanting reciprocal trust, needing to promise and to have promises honored. So lots of philosophy deals with understanding these matters of logic, argument, and morals.
We are, at an equally primal level, creatures of dance and singing, theater and narrative. Sometimes—especially when we move out of the corrals of logic and forensic morality—we face wild questions (Why death? Why birth? Why suffering? Why rain? Why love lost? Why love requited? Why injustice? Why beauty?). These can be given “social scientific” answers, but they also resonate deeper than that. At this deep level, they can best be articulated (if not answered) lyrically, artistically, religiously. Dance and singing, theater and narrative, articulate the enigma that we are creatures who in fact agonize over these questions (Why do we bother? What’s the evolutionary advantage? What’s the practical advantage?). And perhaps it’s our essence as humans to be self-reflective this way. We agonize even as answers continue to elude us, and even as we know they will always elude us.
I see lyrical philosophy as approaching poetry and great narrative, myth and song—say in Schopenhauer or Thoreau or parts of Plato—at exactly those moments when these wild questions obtrude. They strike at an angle that tells us that logic and morals and standard arguments fall short. These fail to address them in their depth. And we know just as certainly that we will falter in giving lasting or satisfying answers. But we can’t leave the questions, in all their intensity and passion, unvoiced, suppressed, abandoned by the road. We dance without practical or logical rationale to express what seems to elude our everyday philosophical capacities. We write a hybrid philosophy that melds with the poetic, musical and dance-like.
The philosophical bearing of lyrical philosophy is to express those heartfelt, nagging, inescapably wild questions that surely ought not to be buried or avoided. Are we not, as persons, drenched in love and love-lost, envy and eloquence, new life and old age, iniquity and pain of every sort—and also drenched in great moments of unspeakable serenity and joy? Aren’t these worth philosophical memorialization, praise, and lament?
I shouldn’t forget the quieter hurts that could use quieter healings. There are sufferings that don’t appear in the daily news or in hospital statistics. My student with a blank look on her face; or the other one who drops out, preferring dorm drinking to whatever a poem might offer. There’s the other guy, who freaks at the idea of putting a thought in a sentence; there’s the one whose parents exert devastating pressure to succeed on their kid, now a senior (translation: “make enough money that our investment in your education won’t have been in vain”); then, the one who has become a smart-aleck cynic. Often the hurt comes from a sense of disconnection from anything that matters—a lost intimacy with others and our shared world.
I think sometimes it’s only when we come across writing that speaks to soul-ache that we can “discover” how much we hurt. We’re given a measure of articulation and depth. We unexpectedly feel recognition of our own pains and joys that we had not yet found words to equal. The discovery of expressiveness is a discovery of what we have to express. At the moment it arrives to us, we become vulnerable and then capable of returning expressiveness in kind. We can find ourselves hurting or singing or carried away in exaltation just as a sentence we’ve encountered bespeaks hurt or song or exaltation.
What I’ve called “lost intimacy” is the loss, I suppose, of participating in occasions of such expressive mutuality. It’s the loss of lyricism in philosophy, or the feel of the poetic in universities and much of cultural life, and the hegemony of an ideal of professional distance and suspicion of what I’ve called the soul. It’s related to the fact that we don’t have companions or mentors with whom we can speak about the joys that course through our lives, or about the emptiness that can cloud our days, or make nightmares of sleep. We have professionals who in therapy “hear our story,” and we sometimes have Rabbis or Gurus, Pastors or Coaches or Priests. But we also need to share intimate matters as equals, not just as client to an expert responder, or priest to parishioner. Attentive aunts, parents, siblings, or lovers might fill the bill. I think complaints about unchecked globalization and technology bespeak a fear that fragile enclaves of intimacy (if they exist) are increasingly at risk.
Life actually lived rather than frozen in the amber of speculative thought – Edward Mooney, Kierkegaard, faith, and love
His book is fit for the educated person still open to wonder and a tonic for the academician whose passion has been dulled by bureaucracy and careerism, who has sold her birthright as a teacher in exchange for being — to use a Kierkegaardian term of ridicule — an assistant professor. And his book is for those who still feel the call to which the existentialist once responded: the whispered summons to traipse the wilderness rather than trace yet again the well-worn path to and from the office. Many of Mooney’s metaphors are drawn from the activity of walking and taking in landscapes — if he isn’t a walker himself like his beloved Kierkegaard (or Thoreau, whom he also admires), then he is to be congratulated for his fictive inventiveness, because his imagery strikes the reader as one that is born from life. Indeed, the many meditations in this text positively wriggle with the vitality of the first-hand, like a bucket of eels drawn from a sun-spangled river. Readers expecting a technical account of anything at all will be disappointed. Excursions with Kierkegaard is what its title suggests: more travelogue than treatise. And his companion on the way is lovingly and vividly rendered, a wry Virgil to any Dante who picks up this book. Kierkegaard appears here as by turns sober and wry, difficult and winsome, a poet, a preacher, a prophet, an ironic carnival barker, an astute observer, a friend to the man on the street and a guest of the king, a bon vivant and a Christian, a confidant and critic.
This ambivalence is part of the character of our experience, and Mooney seems to appreciate that. Reason goes weak in the knees when it falls in love because in love the giving of reasons rings hollow: Imagine a marriage proposal prefaced by a list of “Things I Really Like about You.” If Mooney is right (and I think he is) that love thrives where reasons leave off, then that is not because our experience just is equivocal and various means and attunements might disclose this but because this is the way love is, and love being what it is renders all experience equivocal. If God is non-metaphorical love par excellence, and I think for Kierkegaard God is, then the aesthetic approach, for all its beauty and splendor, needs the religious to rescue it. Mooney’s poetics are not incompatible with the religious — far from it — but it might help to be a bit clearer that while for Kierkegaard faith without poetics is inconceivable, poetics without faith is unsustainable.
Again it is Mooney’s vision that causes us to see Kierkegaard anew, and, as he would admit, no one has an unobstructed vista on the panorama of truth. If he brings us to a new vision, he does so not by force of syllogism but by inviting us to take up a strange and strained perspective. To ask for this fuzziness to be brought to perfect clarity would betray both Mooney’s characteristic tenor and the point of what he wants to convey, which is in no small part that for Kierkegaard ambiguity, openness, and subjective shading are endemic to life actually lived rather than frozen in the amber of speculative thought.