joe cool[1]


It is a fact of social life – perhaps a bizarre fact – that needful and strenuous efforts can be overshadowed by someone, anyone, who is dubbed “cool.”  It’s a praise word that shines on the just and the unjust, real talent and artful bluff, grace under pressure and shameless nonchalance.

What is “cool”?  Is it an objective trait common to disparate types of conduct or a reaction in ourselves induced by manipulation?

There was a time when I was completely uncool, and knew it.  At present, I’m occasionally told that I’m fairly cool.  What changed?  What did I not know before that I do know now?

It seems to include a capacity for seeing through something – refusing to adopt the rhythm of the thing one has seen through — and instead embodying a different rhythm.  Cool involves a comparison: cooler than X.  X may be seen through rightly or wrongly, without diminishing the quality of coolness.  As a comparative judgment, “cool” is not dispositive.  If your daughter says she’s become engaged to a guy who’s really cool, how happy does that make you?

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, the epic, nineteenth-century, dialectical tour of the history of ideas and their consequences, starts with a life-and-death struggle, where the loser will be defined by the winner.  But against expectation, once the loser submits to the winner, he ends up knowing the winner better than the winner knows himself.   The slave who ties the master’s sandals sees his soft underbelly.  The slave is cool.  The master, who finds himself seen through, is not.

One can get a lot of power over another, or over a society, by giving the impression that one has seen that soft underbelly.  Everybody’s got one.  I wouldn’t give my power away, just because someone claimed to have seen mine.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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