“What Are We Really Arguing About Now?”
My recent columns were about “argument” in the philosopher’s sense of reasoning. Thinking they might find them of special interest, I’ve sent the columns to philosopher friends. And was pleased, but not surprised, to find that they engaged with the subject, adding stories of their own about the philosophers I mentioned or dramatic tales of arguments haunted by unstated subtexts.
For instance: there was the world-famous philosopher who was not interested in food. He took long walks in the woods with my friend, discussing arcane matters while subsisting on candy bars. And another philosopher whose ideas shaped an epoch but took irreparable offense at the faintest provocation.
It was just as I thought:
philosophers come alive
in the country of argument!
One friend wrote that he is now reading a biography of mathematician/philosopher Frank Ramsey, the book’s appeal being its depiction of the “life in Cambridge during the 1920’s, Bloomsbury people w. Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Ogden, Keynes, Richards, all interacting weekly if not daily.” On the same principle — that they depict the life-world, the surround in which thinkers like Wittgenstein and Freud found their defining arguments — I’ve read several books about Vienna in the decades before World War II.
For me, human lives – including but not limited to the lives of philosophers – have their defining arguments. The arguments might be sound or unsound, but as long as their conclusions are believed true, people will live and die by their arguments.
Here’s a case in point: Many years ago, I was chatting with a Tennessee farmer while patting his horse. I forget what we were talking about, but maybe it was theology. Anyway, to illustrate his own point, he put his hand way inside the horse’s mouth, back behind the teeth. “You see,” he said, showing me the smooth gumline, “that’s exactly where you can put the bit. And some folks say there ain’t a God!”
Now I’ve heard better arguments about God’s existence, and I’ve heard worse. My point is merely that
on that argument
this man had taken his stand in life.
That’s the role of argument in the life of any one of us. We may arrive at our premises by empirical observations, via trusted authorities, from intuitions or inspiration – or various combinations of these. The conclusions we act on will follow from our premises, whether articulated or not. However come by, there is some argument on which each of us relies in charting our course through time.
The fun and intrigue of exploring de Beauvoir’s Paris is that, for such an opinion-shaper, the life of her argument finds its shape, its thrusting force and its defining resistances, in the life of her time and her city.
All of which leads me to ask:
What is the shaping argument –
of our time and place?
The question arises in unprecedented circumstances. We are all more or less globalized now. So the opinion-shaping argument cannot be found reflecting the character of a city like Paris or Vienna. The world is our city now.
In the bygone cities where philosophers once lived, conversed and wrote, human understanding seemed to progress by an effort of reasoning. The advice of Socrates, in his Athens, may be paraphrased as follows:
“Don’t force the argument, don’t cheat your way to victory with rhetorical effects, don’t manipulate, don’t try to impress the unwary.”
Follow the argument where it leads.
If one can identify a culture or epoch by locating its defining argument, what are we, citizens of the world-city, arguing about now? Or are we just squabbling multitudinously? Is there — can there be — a world-spanning argument?
Well, let me give it go.
The real argument is about whether we, who inhabit our human world, with its reciprocities and its tensions, its truthful moments and its deceptions, its unfairness and occasional restitutions, will continue to dwell in our human incompleteness — facing the worst and acknowledging the best – as best we can.
Or, alternatively, will we reject the only world we have, and the imperfect people we are, preferring what Albert Camus called
“an unreal city in the future”?
That’s what the argument is all about.