Saturday, February 26, 2005

Philosophical Ramblings

I for one believe in reality. This seems a strange proclamation to have to make, but when I went to college, reality was heavily under attack. There was nothing but signs, symbols, and signifiers, we were told. We were hopelessly lost in language.

I don't think we ever grasp in its totality reality, but we can ascertain glimmerings of it. This can happen directly -- we seek to know and so we learn -- or indirectly -- we suddenly come to know that we do not know, leading not so much to a grasping of reality as the recognition that there is a reality beyond us we still have yet to explore. The first kind of knowing is more traditional and active, much more satisfying, but more apt to prove self-delusional. The second kind is the kind of knowing that Stanley Cavell calls acknowledgment. It is forced upon us rather than sought out; we receive it passively. Acknowledgment can lead to comedy -- you're Charlie Chaplin bumping into a wall you had no idea was there -- or tragedy -- you're Othello realizing you can never fully know your wife; she will always be a stranger to you, and so, by extension, will you be to yourself.

I suppose you could say I see reality in the way certain theologians have seen God, as there, knowable in theory, but in practice never fully within human grasp, always eluding us. We should be humble before reality -- we will never know it in its entirety, we are just as likely, after even the most intense investigation, to realize we not only do not know what we thought we did, but also will never know it.

We have no right to imagine we can remake reality. It's not ours to remake. Trying to remake it represents a kind of arrogance whose internal logic can only lead to violence. Now let me contradict what I just said by saying that I believe there are a few who do have the right to play with reality -- great artists, political leaders, and thinkers. This elite (and I am certainly not among them) has the proper reverence before reality to entrust them with the right to manipulate it. They will also recognize that reality is not theirs to keep or control; they have an ethical obligation to relinquish it, give it back to us. Finally, even their hold on reality is merely temporary. It eludes them too in the end, but not before they experience the kind of transcendence that comes from remaking reality -- experiencing Joyce's epiphanic 'yes.'


Anonymous Denise Davis Tesson said...

It seems to me you're closer to the post-structuralist and linguistic theorists from whom you wish to distance yourself than you care to admit. No one (that I know of) renounced the existence of the material world or of human experience. But as you acknowledge in your blog, unmediated access to phenomena or a transparent apprehension of the meaning of the world around us--including ourselves--is impossible. I agree with you that the validity of those "glimmerings" we're occasionally blessed with is all we have; and I'm glad you didn't make any truth claim for them. The humility you speak of echoes precisely the basis of post-structuralist ethics, which, after all, came out of a 1960s context of civil rights movements, the protests of 1968 in Europe, a turn to understanding the "logic" of the Holocaust as continuous with Western epistemology rather than as an aberration from it.

Where I think we disagree, however, is in your willingness to champion an elite of "great artists, political leaders, and thinkers" who alone have the "right" to manipulate reality and thereby try to remake it. This kind of vanguardism is dangerous and it is elitist. What artist is great enough? What political leader ethical enough? What thinker moral enough? No, I'm afraid it is up to us to remake reality--one gesture at a time. Every time we make a choice--to speak or not to speak, to act or not to act--we are contributing to the reality in which we live. I'm not idealistic enough to say that such gestures are going to radically remake reality; but they matter nonetheless, and they contribute to constructing it.

11:34 AM  

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