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Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Real Me: Interview with Myself

Q: You say you don’t want this conversation framed as Q and A. Why is that?

R: As I used to tell my philosophy students, I’m not the Answer Man. Probably I should say I’m not the Answer Woman, but Answer Man is a snappier name. Anyway, I don’t claim to give once-and-for-all answers for everyone, only my own responses, as they have evolved for me over time. This is my philosophy of life. It’s taken me a long time to work it out, and other people have to do their own work--or not, as they choose. Most people work out their philosophies of life in something other than philosophical terms, and that’s fine, too. The important thing is to be conscious, aware, intentional, not to drift through life in a fog and then realize, too late, that you’ve missed it.

Q: Okay, let’s get cut the cards and deal. You call yourself a ‘romantic pragmatist.’ Is that some kind of joke?

R: No, though it does amuse most people when they first hear it. But then, a lot of people are amused by any kind of philosophy. They regard it as a quaint, medieval, boring, pointless way of looking at the world. Those aren’t the people I’m talking to about philosophy (though we may converse on other topics).

Romantic Pragmatism is not a joke to me at all but the name I’ve come up with to describe my personal philosophy of life. Some people hear in the name a contradiction in terms, but there is no contradiction, as I hope will become clear as we go forward.

Q: All right, it’s not a joke, and it’s not a contradiction. Can you say anything about what it is?

R: Pragmatism is believing in what works. A mercenary pragmatist, for example, would be believe in whatever works to make money, but that’s a very narrow pragmatism.. Actually, William James and John Dewey were not narrow pragmatists, but the term as it came into common usage has suffered from constriction. It’s been put on too short a tether. Modifying pragmatism with romanticism, we give ourselves space to soar. A romantic pragmatist is concerned with what works to make his or her individual life, society, and the world a better place. Adding pragmatism into romanticism, we keep ourselves returning to earth, where we belong. This is a principled, earthbound, this-world, joyful philosophy.

Speaking of earth, it might be helpful to contrast Romantic Pragmatism with Naturalism. The whole Romantic movement involved, in part, a return to Nature; Naturalism, however, accepts the world as it is. To a naturalist, human beings are one species of animal among others—and nothing more. Romanticism, in contrast, through belief in freedom, in poetry, believes human beings have the potential to be much more than a natural species, and Pragmatism asks how positive change is, has been and can be brought about.

President Obama is generally recognized as a pragmatist. I believe he is a Romantic Pragmatist. Some people think that pragmatism just means compromising at every turn. Not at all. Romantic Pragmatism has very solid principles--they’re just not pie-in-the-sky, impossible ideals. That impossibly idealistic trajectory of Romanticism, at its height, often led to suicide, whereas pragmatism, especially Romantic Pragmatism, serves life.

Q: All right, so the ‘Romantic’ element isn’t just about hearts and flowers?

R: No, ‘Romantic’ is not to philosophy as ‘romance’ is to novels. Love does, however, play a major role: romantic love between individuals, love for family and friends, for humanity, for the earth, for life—all kinds of love are emotional fuel for Romantic Pragmatism. If you don’t love life and the world, you won’t care about its future. It was the strength of Romanticism that it acknowledged the importance of feelings. Imagine a world without feelings. Such a world would have no values. Facts alone are useless as guides. They only guide us insofar as we hold values and care about outcomes.

Q: A few moments ago, you observed that many people take philosophy as a joke. Why should it be taken seriously?

R: Whoa! I never said all philosophy should be taken seriously! A lot of it is word play, brain play. There’s a branch of linguistic philosophy, for example, that I call “cats on mats,” and there’s all that parallel-worlds speculation I call “brains in vats.” Cats on mats and brains in vats, COM and BIV, are entertaining and amusing for individuals whose minds find entertainment and amusement in that sort of speculation. They’re good, late-night, dorm-room fun.

Q: But you don’t take COM and BIV seriously?

R: Look at it this way. I’m standing up in front of a classroom of undergraduates, only one or two majoring in philosophy, and one of the business majors voices a question I know is bouncing around in many other heads in the room: “So what?” That’s a question I take seriously, the most important philosophical question there is. When a student in a philosophy class asks, “So what?” that student is taking philosophy seriously.

Another way of putting the question is to ask, “What difference does it make?” For a Romantic Pragmatist, if a problem and/or its proposed solution doesn’t make any difference in the world, it isn’t important, and it’s not worth the time to work it out--unless it amuses you to do so.

Q: Can you give an example?

R: I’m glad you asked. A friend of mine believes that the Universe (she puts it in this vague, general language; other people might put it in the specific terms of a specific religious tradition) has a plan for her life and that everything that happens to her is a lesson set forth by the Universe, designed to teach her something she needs to learn right then. I absolutely do not have this belief. I reject the notion. I cannot imagine the Universe working out lesson plans for every moment of my life. Now for my friend, it would be important, if we ever could, to determine which of us is “right.” That, for her, would be a knotty philosophical problem to be investigated and debated. For me, it doesn’t make the slightest difference. Why? My friend looks to see what she can learn in what happens, and I do the same. Pragmatically speaking, there is no difference between us, no difference in what we do. So our different “beliefs” make no difference. They’re just different talk. Supervenient, in philosophical terminology. They have no force of their own. Where Romantic Pragmatism departs from Naturalism, however, is that RP does not think all beliefs are supervenient. Some do have force.

Q: Let’s save that idea for another session. How much of philosophy would you say makes no difference?

R: That’s the direction you want to go? Oh, I couldn’t put it in quantitative terms. I don’t have a quantitative mind. And, understand, I don’t have a problem with anyone wanting to spend time on questions that make no difference. There’s probably something to be gained in exercising the brain, if nothing else. Crossword puzzles don’t change the world, either, but we’re told they keep our brains agile. And the way some people would change the world if they could—it’s better if they’re not doing it!

Q: Well, what kinds of philosophical questions make no difference, besides COM and BIV and thinking the Universe is knowingly guiding your learning?

R: It isn’t only philosophical questions. The whole quest in science to get back to the Big Bang is nothing more than putting ancient philosophical questions into an empirical framework. Suppose the question were answered. So what?

Q: Are you kidding? The Big Bang is an enormous question! How can you say that answering it would make no difference?

R: Good, let’s think about that. How would you live your life differently with the knowledge of the origin of the universe? Would that knowledge change how human beings should treat one another? How they should treat the rest of what we might call Creation—the earth, other animals, the waters and the air? These are questions of ethics, of value. Can you tell me how clarifying the Big Bang would help us at all in answering these crucial questions? We can’t change what has already happened. What are we going to do from this moment forward? That’s what we need to figure out.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying that ethics is the most important area of philosophy.

R: I should have thought that would be obvious from my use of the term ‘pragmatism.’ Life presents each of us with a series of situations in which we must choose a course of action. (There’s the crucial kernel in existentialism.) What will we do? What will result? If our actions had no consequences, every issue in the world would be vulnerable to the “So what?” question. But such a world is not even imaginable. Actions do have consequences, and we can, if we bother to reflect, foresee in imagination some of them. That means that ethics is practical, in that it has to do with practice. What we practice, what we choose, what we do—in living, we create our lives. What more important questions can be imagined?

Q: Heavy! So, don’t you have any sense of humor at all?

R: Are you kidding? I laughed my head off at the three-legged pig joke (and my husband was absolutely shocked that I found it funny at all). Our dog makes me laugh a lot, too. When her water dish is empty, and she picks it up and brings it to one of us, we can’t help laughing. She gets her water right away, too, by the way. Her communication is effective because she appeals to our hearts and our minds simultaneously.

Q: Let me just double-check here. You have a sense of humor, but this Romantic Pragmatism is not a joke?

R: When the name came to me, it felt right and good. I’ve never felt thoroughly at home in any philosophical movement, though I’m sympathetic to strains in many. Existentialism has a strong appeal, but I can’t live there full-time. Calling myself simply a pragmatist left too much out, and at the same time it left too much in, e.g., the possibility of finding myself in the same camp with the undergraduate who rejected all philosophy, including ethics, altogether, saying that he had no interest in being “well-rounded” and didn’t see how he would ever make a nickel out of ethics. Utilitarianism repels me, with its calculations, and there are a couple of major problems with the theory. But Romanticism, leading some young people to suicide, others to radical right-wing quests for racial purity—ugh! Nietzsche? Give me a break!

Romanticism does, though, keep the mystery and magic of love and nature in Pragmatism and widens the field beyond the merely mercenary, while Pragmatism keeps Romanticism from going off half-cocked. Pragmatism keeps its eye on this world and asking what can actually be accomplished and how. The balance between the two, you see, is critical. Just as a pragmatist can be a narrow bean-counter, so a romantic can take sentiment and/or ideals beyond the pale of feasibility. Romantic Pragmatism balances principle with feasibility, mystery with results, and feelings with responsibility.

Q: All that sounds mind-numbingly boring!

R: You’re passing a judgment, not asking a question. Do you have any more questions, or are we done?

Q: Sorry! Okay, but don’t you think your philosophy, when you explain it, is kind of boring? I mean, where’s the rock ‘n’ roll?

R: I find it exciting. A lot of people find all philosophy boring, but so what? I find golf boring, and a lot of people live to play golf.

Q: In closing, then, your reason for combining Romanticism and Pragmatism, if you could put it into one word would be--?

R: How about two words? Hybrid vigor.

Q. That’s an intriguing response. We’re just about out of time today, but perhaps another time we could explore this idea of hybrid vigor?

R: I would like that very much. And I think I can make it more interesting than today’s introduction to my thought, because in discussing hybrid vigor we can talk a lot about dogs.

Q: Metaphorical dogs?

R: No, actual dogs.

Q: That sounds promising. Just, maybe, uh, not too soon?

R: I know, I know! My small coterie of regular readers count on coming here to find out what’s going on in Northport, what David and I are reading, what kind of fun Sarah and I are having in the woods. Those out in New York State or down in Missouri want pictures of Leelanau County to assuage their Up North longing. That stuff is important to me, too, and it’s why I started this blog. I get excited about my reading, about my bookstore, my gardens, long walks, Lake Michigan, the return of the sandhill cranes—all that! Right now, for instance, I’m really looking forward to seeing my forget-me-nots bloom again, and I’m eagerly anticipating the book signing on May 1 with Ed and Connie Arnfield’s new wildflower book. (See top right corner of page.) I do have this one passion, philosophy, that many people find either boring or amusing or both, but it’s not my only passion. Let’s be clear about that, shall we?

Q: One last question in closing: Is this the real you?

R. [Sigh.] I’m afraid it is. The deadly boring core, exposed at last to the withering light of day!


Matt said...

Interesting read. I'm glad that you have found a personal life-affirming philosophy that works for you. Certainly finding happiness and spreading it around should be the task of all philosophy, but as we know all too well it is not. On that thread I'm starting to think that philosophy has fallen out of favor (maybe since Russell or something) because of what it has turned into. When non-philosophers read Nietzsche or Camus they ask themselves important questions and begin testing or at least thinking about new approaches to life. When non-philosophers read contemporary metaphysics they wonder why anyone would bother to ask the question in the first place.

P. J. Grath said...

Matt, thanks and welcome! I'm intrigued that you say "finding happiness and spreading it around should be the task of all philosophy," since I think most philosophers have seen their primary task as the search for Truth (ta-da!), whether it lead to joy or despair--and personally, I think philosophers' personalities and temperament are largely what lead them one way or the other, but that's another conversation. You hit the nail on the head about philosophy falling out of favor because of what it has become. (The same could be true of much fiction and poetry that receives critical acclaim, gets a lot of attention in graduate schools, and is never read by the general public.) As for myself and the students I've had who came to class with a love of philosophy and hunger for it, the pursuit was driven by what I call the BQ's. The Big Questions. You've read 20th-century epistemology--does it deal with BQ's? Does it get anywhere near them? The idea was, we philosophers will be like scientists, and instead of asking impossibly huge questions, each of us will concentrate on one tiny area, and we'll put all our answers together, like building blocks, to make something big. Then, too, to be fair, what's a BQ for you may not necessarily be one for me and vice versa. Solipsism isn't just philosophical diddling: many people, especially young people, are troubled by the possibility. I've been troubled by a lot of things but have never doubted the existence of other minds or the existence of the material world. Old-fashioned? Naive?

It would be great if you could get up for a visit this summer. Think about it! We could bore everyone else clear out of the room in nothing flat!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely marvelous post, Pamela. Love you and your romantic pragmatism!

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Maiya, Don't forget that you are my guru!

Mr G said...

I like what you have to say - especially the romantic part.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Mr. G. The first response I got to this post was an e-mail from someone who said it sounded "sensible." I wondered if that was another word for boring, but I yam what I yam, as Popeye said.