The Public Humanist

The Limits of Reflection

By Joe Cruz

In the wake of half chagrined confessions that I am a philosophy professor, not infrequently — and positively reliably on cramped airplanes — I’m asked what my personal philosophy is. It’s not an entirely unreasonable question. Philosophers are expected to have developed, or at least be on the way to developing, an articulate view of the world, of right conduct, and of the good life. Moreover, having come to expect it, it would be easy to think that I would by now have honed my response into something precise and stable, even if not necessarily pithy.

I could, of course, say something about my political views or my feminism or my vegetarianism or my admiration for Buddha. But this is not what the question aims for. Indeed, the question is as deliciously ambitious as philosophy is. Philosophy is reflection on fundamental, abstract, humane questions pursued with tenacity enough to challenge easy or dogmatic answers. It is not science, but it asks whether and how science can shed light on the universe. It is not debate about policy, but debate about the ultimate ends policy ought to aim for. It is not painting or poetry, but it is inquiry into what beauty itself is. And so, when someone asks whether I have a personal philosophy, they are not asking what my views are on this or that question, they are wondering whether there is a unity or coherence or elegant superstructure within which my views arise and which makes reasonable and compelling my conduct and beliefs.

Alas, I have nothing to offer, and I usually jest that I’m too young and unwise for that. Putting aside the impressive Socratic pedigree of pleas of ignorance, what this tepid reaction evades is not only that I think I have no personal philosophy, but also that I do not think I could have one. I shouldn’t pretend to speak for everyone on this matter, but it seems to me our lives do not unfold solely or even primarily in response to principles or conviction. We’re embedded in communities and traditions that substantially guide our choices, and we’re embodied beings adapted to one another and to our environments in such a way that we unfurl according to forces and factors that do not reach the threshold of reflection. This seems the glorious truth about us, and it is a source of resilience, resolve, and tranquility. Thus, I’m not resigned or pessimistic, no matter how much having a tidy, reasoned framework might seem desirable.

Our actions in the world seem from the inside to originate from an executive self that is able to contrive a plan for life and then to follow that plan. Some of the time, this may be right. Those will be the times when we consciously and conscientiously reflect on how we ought to conduct ourselves, on what we believe is right, and on how to move forward. But much more of the time, doesn’t it seem that we live via motivations that are complicated, and that do not stem from articulated principles? Mightn’t it be a conceit — a conceit that yields, for instance, Kant’s hyper-rational reconstruction of moral obligation, or, ironically, certain kinds of rigid fundamentalisms — that we are primarily agents of reason?

Thinking of the contrast between my principle-guided self and the kinds of beyond-reflection forces that shape me reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short essay, “Borges and I” (a Spanish version can be found here). In it, the narrator (the “I” of the title), a vibrant, conscious voice alive in the moment, distances himself from Borges, the person with a history and a trajectory defined by properties and external events.

…I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.

Our immediate, insistent, waking experience is our “I.” Nothing can be known more intimately, and that proximity and resulting comfort may well give us the misimpression that it is the sole determinant of our lives. To be sure, our reflective conscious selves play some role in determining who we are. As Borges says later, “…I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him.” That role is a part — but only a part — of our sustained narratives as it leaves a mark alongside the marks left by the myriad other forces.

I worry that we underestimate the crucial part played by our sentiments, our habits, and by biological and social pressures. There are times when acts of compassion are not the product of reflecting on principles to live by, but rather result from something just as human: the welling up of emotion inside oneself. Or there are times when an explicit personal philosophy is mute with respect to what to do. In those moments we might look to the advice of a parent, or follow religious tradition, or see where our own creative spontaneity takes us. Borges ends with, “I do not know which of us has written this page.” The flicker of immediate, conscious reflection is assimilated into our rich selves, and those more vexed complexities seem the origin of our actions.

I suppose some people may find this unnerving or depressing, but, in my view, recognizing the variety of sources for self is liberation from a narrow conception of our nature. Through this liberation we see more clearly how so much of what is studied in the humanities and the sciences reveal us. Literature, great and ordinary, encodes human responses, some personal philosophies but many not. In its resonance literature possess the power to evoke in us rich reactions by not demanding that we pass through the fiction of a personal philosophy. History and political science sharpen our vision on how we came to be who we are without insisting on a mythical self-coherence. And both the natural and social sciences tells us something about the vectors that guide us. Their explanations aim to be elegant, systematic and structured without masquerading as accounts of individual personal philosophies.

On the other hand, what this view must not liberate us from is the responsibility for critique. Just because our actions originate non-reflectively does not mean that we can’t reflect on them. Reflection itself will be an alloy made of conscious principles and the underlying humanness that escapes reflection, but the fact that we revisit and defend our individual or cultural ways reinforces and reinvigorates them.

Retrospectively reconstructing our actions in order to make sense of them might well appear to extract a personal philosophy. Does it accurately reflect who we are? I would be surprised if it did because we are ourselves, not our rational reconstructions of ourselves. Perhaps living according to a personal philosophy is nothing more than an ideal, then, something to aim for. I’m not persuaded of that, either. Were we, through some heroic effort of transformation, to become agents of reason alone, it seems to me that we would lose something lovely. We would lose our humanity.

I am content to go forward viewing myself as a composite of that which I can reflect on and that which I can’t. Maybe I have something to say on airplanes after all.

Joe Cruz is Associate Professor of Philosophy & Chair of Cognitive Science at Williams College.

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