July 2008

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It begins on the first day of teaching, now entering my thoughts as the new school year approaches…so rapidly. The course to come will be splendid, the best ever: I feel so “sharp,” so ready to espouse/spout the truth to come!

I note all the students sitting there, not merely at ease, or with various sorts of questioning appearances. Rather they are mostly staring at me, “their” teacher; rather staring “through me” looking to see…what, who? Am I, can I ever be, who they want somehow to penetrate; to be…?

In those instants, beyond the talk which I talk of the course to come, I wonder who they are, who they see in me. And who am I, runs so rapidly in my being, that I find it difficult – so difficult to grasp my own “presence” – and remain the teacher I would be, even as I am anthropologist to them and to my own being.

Writing in response to Christopher Kelty’s post on Savage Minds about Experimental Philosophy (x-phi), I am pleased, perplexed, pensive… I have lived (still do!) the life of the Anthropologist who would be doing philosophy, and imagine that we might one day find each other. Soon?! Maybe.

Trained principally, to study language and behavior and sociality/culture, I begin by including “myself” in the study of anyone’s language, culture, thought…Who am I, where am I, how did I get here, how to be the “measurer” of all things?

As a self-proclaimed “Anthropologist of the Ordinary,” I understand the temptations to study the “exotic,” but note that the ordinary human is much more exotic than we have noted. The human body which exists in the world with others’ bodies (the Pragmatism of G.H. Mead inserts itself into this approach) is a brilliant and ongoing piece of work, that we seem to want to underestimate as some derivative of the idea of mind.
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A young man, an honor’s student, bright, quick, a kind of smartness which had sought the facts which stood in the place of knowledge, squeezing out wisdom, who said that we were the first teachers he had had whose age and experience seemed important. The world of teaching become technique impresses itself upon the young as some sense of energy, which the teachers possessed in greater abundance.

The older seemed not wiser; just older. The older, tired, worn, their lives as teachers many years beyond the hold on knowledge they had themselves gotten in the schoolings of their youth. Knowledge, itself, older, tired, lacking…We, older, still seeking and searching. Older, we came upon some synergy which hinted of wisdom, of so many year’s experience in dealing with the minds of students that a hint of talk revealed the landscapes of their inner minds, heretofore hidden, even from themselves.

We, older, trying every day in every way to understand the what of what we study, sense the growth and growing lengths of the paths by which we got to here, musing that all of this is not so clear and not so obvious to the young who have no experience with experience.

Where am I? Where are we? When is now? How did we get here? Where might we be going? How would we know; or think about the paths upon which we have embarked?

The technical mind, looking out at a world which it wants to work, wants to know how…and now.

How to do this or that, better, more efficiently, and with the least cost?

I said, read, think. Read the masters, the great minds. They set the problems, framed the questions, the visions which we call common sense. Their believers, followers celebrated and granted continuity to those claims and understandings.

It is a view of a reality which we think is the great reality. The response: lacking history or intellectuality and wanting, instead of ideas, some notion of proof that it will convince, and show us what and how to do…”To do what”, I asked. “Why”, I asked. “The world is not so well,” she replied. “It must be made to work better. I want, how I want, to make it work better; soon, now!”

“Work; better?” I mused. To keep idlers busy? To make us strong, rich? Because there is something so wrong with indolence that its cure must be sought? Are you doomed to be, but not to live? Hungry, desperate…to do?

Lacking history, lacking some sense of why and what, but only how, she accepts uncritically some sense of doing which her experience of the present turns into the ways of the world. Is living in the immediacy sufficient? For what? For whom?

I “told” a friend that he was in serious trouble: “on an edge,” I said. I had tried to “help” him before, to get him to take care of himself, to get some help from a knowledgeable source, to pay some serious attention; all to no avail. Perhaps it all had the opposite result. I had become a kind of conscience for him, I had thought, but really, it seems, for me. Earlier, some years ago, another friend got into trouble with drugs and alcohol, but I didn’t know that in a clear way, and went along with his gradual erosion, taking his word, his interpretation, as if it were factual…knowing better. I said nothing because I had not asked the hard questions, which were not so plainly obvious but not so obscure. I was not his conscience, did not say or ask, and watched him fall into an unsatisfactory death. It lies, still, upon my mind, uneasily like a queasy stomach. So this time, with this fellow whose gluttony is past control and just beyond belief, I tried to say in some penetrating way what I thought. Having said it all before, having talked the sickness unto death, I decided to change tactics, to reverse grounds, to not talk, to become some ultimate conscience, by setting our friendship in the limbo of silence. Now, a little later, having broken that silence, having apologized, having declared that I did what I did out of love, not out of malice, having forgiven both of us to whatever extent that is possible, I wonder where virtue resides between the persons who embody our lives.

When I am tempted to say to my self that it is not so clear what truth is, where truth resides, do I lie; to my self? When I have learned to copy, to read others’ notes and answers, and to appropriate them, and to forget whence they came…When I have accomplished the art of telling others what some part of me wants them to hear, and another part says that is not so…When I can tell others whatever I want them to hear, neither a twitch nor a blink…Do I lie to my self?
The problem is not merely in the promise of punishment, of retribution, of payment for wrongs, but in the deeper wonderments about truth and especially of justice.
If I tell the truth to those who will not hear it…If I tell what some do not want told…If I am not clear about the fine mix of morality and truth…Do I lie? To my self?
Is the problem in finding those parts of my self which still can listen to today?
Is the problem in my self which has found out how to deal better with the smaller self-guilts of lies, than the larger guilts of broken and unfulfilled promises to my life?