Day 30: Two or Three Things I Don’t Know for Sure, but Think are Right
There is an ideology conference going on at Yale this weekend. Someone mentioned that ideology might be settled belief which has got me thinking about my settled beliefs. I have always worried about having settled beliefs, because I take seriously Socrates’ concern that our greatest danger would be to assume we know what we do not. For Socrates, the pursuit of knowledge requires a way of being related to oneself and one’s own knowledge, to know whether one knows or does not know.
I don’t want to be naive. In general, I try to keep things in question, but I recognize that that commitment is itself a settled belief. In fact, I think many of my commitments work that way, they are meta-commitments, settled beliefs about how to read, how to think, how to think about how to live. So as I’m wrapping up my 31-days of blogging tomorrow, I thought I’d take some time to consider my settled beliefs.
Origins elude. It is not just that it is difficult or even impossible to trace the beginnings of human civilization (“Even Ancient History has an Ancient History“), it is also that these efforts betray an interest in establishing an origin as a principle of rule, an archê out of which further claims of how things ought to be can be made. My work on ancient Greek texts and my time spent in Greece and the Greek islands have shown me that the even origins have origins, and the origins of origins have origins. Autochthony is elusive if not impossible.
Ancient texts have contemporary relevance. One reason I have this blog is to make this case. See here and here and here. But this one is tricky. I think reading texts written in another time and place take considerable work to understand. I think it is wrong to import contemporary conceptions into those texts and suppose that they mean what they would mean were they written today. Like Gadamer writes in Truth and Method, interpretation involves a fusing of horizons, of our horizon of understanding today with the horizon of understanding from another time and place. I don’t think that means that we ever successfully exit our horizon and fully immerse ourselves in another. The effort to affirm that the text is mastered is itself an effort to assert that the origin has been established. See above: origins elude. And yet, I think texts from another time and context can offer us possibilities for responding to contemporary crises of community, of knowledge, of human existence in a fragile world. These resources form the contextual history for our thinking in ways that we might not even recognize even as they offer possibilities for thinking otherwise than we think today. Historical texts are both strange and familiar. For example, we learn something from understanding a culture that did not think the gender of who you had sex with was an essential part of your identity. From this observation, questions arise about what historical conditions led to us thinking that it is. Understanding those historical conditions can help us think about how and why we have the political and religious disputes over sexuality that we do today.
I’m glad that there are people in the world who spend time showing how ancient texts work in ways that are problematically continuing to influence our thinking. My approach is to read texts with an effort to show how reconsiderations might renew their significance for us. I don’t think the history of philosophy should be restricted to only one of these approaches.
A human condition. I suppose this means that I also think that human beings haven’t changed that much in 2500 years. That doesn’t mean I believe in a human nature, but I do, with Hannah Arendt, recognize a human condition. That condition finds human beings as part of a collective not as discrete independent agents. I think the human condition may have changed over time, I think it might have been different when the gods felt closer, and it might be changing as there is less of an investment in distinguishing ourselves from the animals, but I think there is a way we are that might help us think about how we can flourish together.
Historical nature of our thinking. Part of this condition, I believe, is that we are historical beings–our language, our thinking, our ways of being in the world, are formed out of historical contingencies that we are always to some degree affected by. Lack of awareness or acknowledgment of the historical dependence of our thinking and being further bind us to that history instead of freeing us from it. For example, if you suppose that you can make everyone equal by proclaiming them equal without seeing how conceptions of the subject to whom rights are appended for this equality to be enacted are historically restricted to white property-owning married-to-a-woman-with-children-at-home men then you will enable equality for white men and hold everyone else responsible for their own inequality. Ways of thinking that attempt to strip out that historicity are part of a suspect will-to-truth.
Claims to truth are claims of power. I think Nietzsche was right when he identified a will to truth that established itself as power. Perhaps ideology is not in itself settled belief, but the effort to pass off one’s settled belief as if it is more than that, and to demand allegiance to it in order to be included in a community as part of those whom the community serves (and not just as one who serves it, see justice below.)
Justice is a matter of our sharing a world. Injustice is the division of the world into those whom the world serves and those whose existence must serve it. Efforts to divide are suspect. However, efforts to divide from those who wish to divide might be justifiable.
Corollary to justice: Investments that people in power have in managing and determining identity–gender, race, sexuality–are about maintaining the status quo. While strategic interventions into this project have at time involved what is derogatorily called “identity politics,” the contemporary deniers of identity having any role in how decisions are made use meritocracy to maintain an underlying identity politics of inequality.
Using power for those who have less is better than using power to protect your own or those who have more.
I don’t know for sure, but years of thinking and reading, acting and living in this world have led me to think these things are right.
Photograph taken on the streets of Athens, Greece, June 2014.