“Consequently, hermeneutics cannot remain a technique for specialists—the technē hermēneutikē of those who interpret oracles and marvels; rather hermeneutics involves the general problem of comprehension.”
“The principle of hermeneutics simply means that we should try to understand everything that can be understood.”
One of the most prominent misunderstandings about philosophy I encounter time and again is that philosophy is esoteric and does not apply to “real” life. As with any discipline there are aspects for the specialist, to be sure, but philosophy has far more to do with so-called real life than it does with the esoteric. Those who believe philosophy has no worth in day-to-day life simply do not understand what philosophy is in the first place.
If what I just wrote is true about philosophy generally (spoiler alert: it is true), then it is even more so with a particular field of philosophy known as hermeneutics, which, going back to Aristotle at least, hermeneutics has a history as old as philosophy itself. Hermeneutics studies what it is when we interpret the world—that is, when we comprehend meaning and gain understanding. Questions such as the universality of interpretation, the role and function of language, and the conditions for understanding are all things hermeneutics engages.
As such, hermeneutics has a broad application to any number of things. In my years of studying hermeneutics, I have seen hermeneutics brought to bear on several different disciplines. I have read, for instance, articles on the application of hermeneutical principles to medical professionals communicating with comatose patients. I have read (and written a few) texts about hermeneutics and environmental issues. The more you understand hermeneutics, the more obvious it becomes that there is almost no human activity that does not involve interpretation and, thus, can benefit from hermeneutical insights.
The foregoing is why I am particularly excited about a new project from Dr. Todd Mei called Hermeneutics in Real Life (HINRL). The HINRL project is aimed at the application of hermeneutics to life outside of academia. There are several resources already available. Of particular interest and value are the upcoming “Conversation Sessions” on a variety of topics beginning March 7 with Professor Richard Kearney of Boston College. Professor Kearney will be talking about The Guestbook Project, which is an initiative aimed at peacebuilding and conflict resolution throughout the world through storytelling (i.e., narrative).
In subsequent months, other topics will be discussed from a variety of speakers. Everything from “What is Sex?” (that got your attention) to “Narrative Medicine” to “Meaningful Work” and others. The sessions are free to attend via Zoom but require pre-registration to get the Zoom link.
I encourage those interested to look at the HINRL website and explore the pages and resources there. If you are wondering what this business of “hermeneutics” is all about, take a look at the “New to Hermeneutics?” page on the site.
We have just gone through quite a tumultuous season of politics. As I write this, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took place a few days ago. On January 6, the constitutional certification of the 2020 election was violently interrupted by a seditious mob with no regard for truth, democracy, or justice. I wrote about that here. It would make sense to assume that a post about being political was motivated by these events and the general political climate in which we have been dwelling. The fact is, to the contrary, it is just coincidental. I planned to write a few posts about different words and, specifically, how we use them in a way that tends to obfuscate their meaning; and, thus, obfuscating how we understand (interpret) the world and how we conduct ourselves within it. The first on my list is what it means to be “political” or to engage in politics. That said, if what I write here has any merit to it, it might reflect a better body politic than we have recently endured.
I am sure most of us have heard someone say something to the effect of, “When the family gets together for the holidays, best not to talk about politics.” We have all also heard someone say, and perhaps said ourselves, that some public official or another is “playing politics.” Or how about “Whoa there! This is getting too political!” We talk about the political in companies in which we work. In these and similar uses, all of which are quite common, politics and the political are cast in a negative light. Being political is bad. Being political means to be cunning, clever, and wily so as to have the upper hand in advancing one’s agenda (without regard for ethics or goodness).
But is this the best way to look at being political?
Politics or the political is rooted in the Greek concept of the polis, that is, the city. When a group of people choose to inhabit the same space and agree on rules for sharing that space, they become “citizens” in contrast to a grouping of isolated, autonomous individuals where the only rule is power and survival. I have liberty, but my liberty ends where yours begins. If I hold my liberty to be a good, then I must hold that yours is, too. If we are to inhabit the same space, it is good that we protect the liberty of all individuals. This means that we are going to have to have some rules and to organize ourselves in such a way that every individual can live free amongst all the other free individuals who share the same space. It is a false dichotomy to pit individual liberty against the collective good. Each contributes to the viability of the other. Individual liberty is protected in an environment of the collective good and the collective good is made healthy when the individuals within it have liberty. The “one” and the “many” are not competitors, but necessary counterparts.
How we define the collective good and individual liberty is what it means to be political. That we dwell together is unavoidable. How we dwell together is the art of politics. Being political in its truest sense means to act like citizens. In Latin—civitas. Civitas can be described as the bunch of us all living together, willingly bound by the same rules so we can live together in relative peace. If we have disagreements, we have things like courts, for example, to settle disputes. I may not like the outcome and courts can make mistakes (no one is infallible, which is why we have appeals), but such a fallible apparatus is to be preferred. It helps us remain “civil.”
Granted, everything I have written here should be understood by anyone who has had 9th grade level civics in high school. However, if my social media feeds are any indication, there are a lot of grown adults who need to revisit 9th grade civics. A little revisit to the humanities, such as literature or philosophy, would not hurt them either.
Certainly, there are much more nuanced discussions to be had. There are sharp disagreements in political views, economic views, and morality for which easy answers are not available. It would be naïve to think otherwise. But the greatest chance of success we have is when we learn to be political in the truest sense of the word. If we cannot get “political” at the family gathering, especially when divergent views are present, it is because we are not good at being political. Like everything, politics has its proper place and time, and recognizing that is itself good politics, good civitas.
Not everyone will be political in the same way. Some will become politicians and leaders. Others will simply get out and vote when it is time while being a good citizen each day in the workplace and at home. You and I each have to find our way of being political, but not being political is not a choice. As a writer/musician whose use of words I am very fond of wrote, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” He also wrote that “the men [and women!] who hold high places must be the ones who start,” but the blacksmith, the artist, the philosopher, and ploughmen must also do their part to bring us “closer to the heart.” (Neil Peart).
Let us not avoid being political. Let us learn to be good at it. It is long overdue that we put being a citizen back in the citizenry.
Neil Ellwood Peart passed from this existence one year ago today. When the news broke and I heard, I involuntarily got choked up. I have no pretensions to have felt anything approaching the grief felt by those who knew him. I am a fan, that is all. A Rush fan, though, is a little bit of a different breed. Our love, respect, and admiration for this band is not only because we love the music that has meant so much to us for (in my case) nearly half a century, but also because of the human goodness one finds in the members of this band. As a fan—just a fan—I want to remember Neil Peart.
As a fan, I cannot talk about Neil without talking about Rush. My introduction to Rush came when I was 11 years old. I know this because the album 2112 had been released, I do not think the live All the World’s A Stage had been released; and by the time A Farewell to Kings was released in 1977 I had already been a devoted fan for some time.
From the moment the needle dropped on side one of 2112, I was mesmerized. Rush became my favorite band immediately. Listening to a Rush album was a different experience for me than listening to many other bands. I could simultaneously isolate each instrument in my mind as well as taking in the orchestral goodness of the combined power. Just three guys in this band and all three of them were masters at their instruments. Alex Lifeson was my inspiration (among others) to take up the guitar. If memory serves, the first song I learned to play was In the End from the 1975 album Fly By Night (incidentally, FBN was released February 15, 1975, which was my tenth birthday). As my talent on guitar has never been overly astounding, I can say I have learned to play parts of several Rush songs, but a precious few in their entirety!
Neil is known as “the new guy” in Rush, having joined the band on July 29, 1974 (Geddy Lee’s birthday, incidentally) succeeding the original drummer, John Rutsey. Rush’s debut album was with Rutsey. After Neil joined, it was not long before he became the band’s lyricist. With just a few exceptions (and, yes, this Rush nerd can name them all), Neil has written the lyrics for every Rush song since he joined the band. For Rush fans, Neil’s lyrics have spoken to us, inspired us, challenged us, touched us, and, well hell, shaped our lives in many ways. I would give examples, but once I start, I would not be able to stop myself and I am afraid you would not go on to read a 100,000-word post. So many songs have meant so much and still do.
Like I said, I never met Neil or had any personal interaction with him in any way. As with all the members of Rush, however, having feverishly and nerdily followed this band my entire life, I cannot help feeling a sense of the kind of person all three of them are. They are deeply involved in charity yet never wear that on their sleeve or make a big deal about it. Their reputation in the rock and roll world can be described as one young crew member put it in the documentary, Time Stand Still: “…the nicest guys in rock and roll.”
Recently, I have had the incredibly good fortune to have befriended Dr. Donna Halper and have shared a handful of conversations with her. Rush fans will know immediately why this is ridiculously cool. It was Donna who, as a Cleveland DJ in 1974, discovered Rush and because of whom they got their first major American tour supporting Uriah Heep (another of my all-time favorites). She is now a professor at Lesley University in Massachusetts. As fellow academics, we have a fair amount in common and in our conversations have spoken about a wide variety of subjects. Friends and family will not believe me, but we have spoken relatively little about Rush. However, one question I did ask her was about what kind of fellows they are in “real life.” I said that I had a certain impression and their genuineness seemed, well, genuine; and that I guessed that in their daily lives they were the kind of people who they seemed to be in the spotlight. What you see is what you get. Donna confirmed my suspicions. The members of Rush certainly never forgot where they came from and never let fame destroy their humanity. My question is one she receives from Rush fans regularly and wrote about it on her own blog. Give it a read.
Neil, of course, was known to have a few social boundaries (“I can’t pretend a stranger is a long- awaited friend”). Yet he still inspired us for a lifetime, with his lyrics and his life. He wanted to be the best at whatever he set himself to do, drumming especially. While already an incredibly accomplished drummer who influenced many who came after, and widely regarded as one of the best in the world, he never decided he had learned it all and could no longer be taught. He became a student of the late and very great Freddie Gruber. Neil’s line on Rush’s final studio album, Clockwork Angel’s, “I can’t stop thinking big,” is an apt description of Neil himself. Neil Peart gave us so much just living the life he wanted to live for himself.
Neil died on January 7, 2020 of glioblastoma. Private like he was, very few people knew he was sick. The news of his death became public on January 10, just a few days later. I had just opened Facebook and there it was. This man, this musician and great human, who I had admired since I was a kid, who had filled my life with so much goodness, was gone. Yes, I got choked up. I am just a fan. I did not know him. But I cried. It is hard not to think of Neil daily, especially when a day does not go by that I do not listen to at least some Rush. But on this first anniversary of his death, I am thinking of him, thankful for the many gifts that he gave. Also, on that final album, he penned the line, “the measure of a life is a measure of love and respect.” I feel like he wrote those words, not as a description of himself, but as a challenge to himself; to always live your life in a way that is the best you can possibly be.
I will close with a line from the song Presto from the album of the same name: If I could wave my magic wand…I’d make everything alright. Well, Neil Ellwood Peart, you did wave your magic wand and made a lot of things alright for a lot of years for a lot of people. You most certainly did for me. Thank you, Neil.
I interrupt my regularly scheduled posts, a short series on words we use poorly, to write some words about the events of yesterday here in the United States of America. Ironically, the next post on misused words is on the use of the words “political” and “politics.” The events of yesterday are symptomatic of our failure to truly live politically in the sense we should.
After every presidential election, Congress comes together on January 6 to fulfill their Constitutional duty to formally count the electoral votes and certify the election results. This event is presided over by the Vice President of the United States who is addressed here, per the Constitution, as the President of the Senate. Although it is a sacred event in terms of American Constitutional democracy, it is never newsworthy. It is a formality. The People have already voted, and the states have individually, through meticulous processes, certified those results. The electoral votes are declared and counted in the presence of the Congress and certified by them in this formal process.
January 6, 2021, by stark contrast, was exceptionally newsworthy. But to understand what happened yesterday, let us back up a little bit.
It does not take a professional psychologist or psychiatrist to observe that Donald J. Trump lives in his own world in which he is always the best and he never, ever loses. His language on everything, without exception, is always to the extreme. Examples of things he has said: no one loves women more than he does. No one has ever done more for black people that he has. He knows war better than all the Generals or “no one is bigger or better at the military than I am”. No one loves the Bible more than he does. On any number of topics his achievements are the greatest in the history of the country. Trump always must be the best of the best. He alone, he has said, can fix the system because no one understands it better than him. Here is a small sampling of what anyone who has been listening has heard for the past 4 plus years.
So, in his mind, losing is impossible. As Trump is also known to repeat himself constantly, claims of voter fraud are not exactly new. After winning the electoral college in 2016, he made sure everyone knew he could not lose the popular vote unless there was illegal voting:
Even after winning the election to become the President, in his solipsistic alternative reality he could not accept having lost the popular vote. It could only have happened if he was cheated.
Also in the run up to the 2016 election he said, “The only way they can beat us is if they cheat.” Likewise, in the 2020 election campaign he said that the only way he would lose is if the election is rigged. As far as I am concerned, this is a kind of grooming; a grooming to which far too many people in the United States are disposed to succumb. Theodor Adorno published the book, The Authoritarian Personality, in 1950 about this phenomenon. The book was a massive study, drawing methods from several disciplines. In the 2019 republication of the book, Peter E. Gordon noted in his introduction that in the original introduction, Max Horkheimer (a colleague of Adorno), wrote that a certain kind of psychological disposition, consumed with its own individualistic notions of independence will “submit blindly to power and authority.” Trump groomed thousands who have this sort of disposition. There is no doubt in my mind.
It came as no surprise, then, that after the election Donald Trump cried foul. The election, he said, was rigged and fraudulent. There is no evidence for the claims he made. Court after court dismissed cases because of the lack of evidence. His own Attorney General acknowledged no evidence for massive voter fraud existed. Yet non-legal hearings were held that continued to make these false claims and Trump himself continually claimed he had been cheated because of a rigged election.
Up against this backdrop came January 6. The day designated in our democracy for Congress to certify the election results. A cornerstone of our freedom is the peaceful transfer of power. Yet Trump refuses to concede standing stubbornly is his claim that he won “by a lot.” While his Vice President was discharging his Constitutional duty, Trump held a rally wherein he told his mob that if they do not “fight like hell” they would not have a country. Trump told them to march on the Capitol and that he would be with them (he was not).
Americans and much of the world then watched in horror as a violent mob of insurrectionists breached the Capitol. This was not a protest protected by our Constitution. It was an insurrection. Calling it what it is, the invasion of the Capitol during the Congressional certification of a presidential election was a fascistic attempt to overthrow that election. It was an affront to everything our democracy represents. It was an attempted and, thankfully, failed coup. It was not patriotism. It was not a fight for freedom. It was sick. Moreover, it is a culmination of the kind of rhetoric and behavior Donald Trump has exemplified for years and should not be surprising. This mob violently stormed a building that is symbolic of our democracy on a day that is itself a symbol of our democracy and all it represents. These people are domestic terrorists and should be treated as such.
After inciting the violence, Donald Trump did not formally at any point address the nation. He has never been “presidential.” Instead, he posted a video on social media essentially telling everyone to go home because the election had been stolen and was a fraud. He told them he loved them. Donald J. Trump, while in the office of the U.S. presidency, incited a violent insurrectionist attack on the Capitol building. He endangered his Vice President and attacked him openly for not doing what he is Constitutionally unable to do. Donald J. Trump, by whatever legal means available to authorities, should be immediately removed from office. His actions are those of a seditious traitor to American democracy.
Yesterday, January 6, 2021, is the closest in our history that America got to fascism. Fortunately, however feeble and imperfect it may be, the wall of American democracy stood strong against those who would seek to breach it. Breach the Capitol building they did. Breach our democracy they did not.
In my last post I spent some time talking about interpretation. I wanted to convey that interpretation has to do with the process of how we understand the world about us. Interpretations can be valid or invalid—that is to say, a good interpretation or a not so good interpretation. What we understand something to be can be a reasonable understanding or a poor understanding. What is certain is that we are always making sense and meaning of the world about us. Even when we misunderstand, we are seeking to understand. Misunderstanding itself presupposes the possibility and the promise of understanding.
Language plays a central role in how we understand. In fact, we cannot understand without language. Hans-Georg Gadamer (one of the most important hermeneutic philosophers of all time) wrote, “Being that can be understood is language.” One of the things he meant is that anything that can be understood discloses itself in the language of the one who understands. What we understand something to be is articulated and communicated in language. I was presenting a paper at a conference a few years ago in which I was making similar points about language. In the Q&A one of the audience members took issue with what I had to say about how everything we understand is understood linguistically. I asked him if he could communicate his point to me without using language. Needless to say, he could not.
To be sure, we have what philosophers refer to as pre-linguistic experiences. Whether an event, a feeling, an encounter, or anything else—while the thing itself is not language—our understanding of those things takes place in language. Another way to look at language (especially human language) is that we give things names. Suppose I tell you the sky was orange last evening at sunset. Presuming you have been taught colors, you understand me when I refer to an orange sky. The phenomenon we call orange is articulated by a set of symbols and/or sounds that refer to it. There is nothing at all particularly orange about those symbols or sounds, but we have housed a certain phenomenon in those symbols and sounds. The being of that phenomenon that can be understood is in language. After telling you about the orange sky, suppose I ask you if you would like to eat an orange with me. Although the symbols and sounds are the same, you understand without even thinking about it that the “orange” of the sky and the “orange” I invite you to eat are different beings. You have learned the word “orange” and the different things to which that word can refer. But your understanding of either would be limited to non-existent without language.
Language is not only that which we articulate and communicate about things. Language also does a great deal to shape how we understand things. That is why language is so important and why understanding how language works is even more important. For example, I think of how in the past year how there were worldwide protests against police brutality of black citizens in the United States. Many commentators and political leaders refused to use the word “protestor” when talking about the protests. Instead, we heard of “rioters” and “looters,” with no distinction at all made between the activities or an acknowledgement of protestors. The effect that this had on many was to characterize any and all involved in those events as rioters and looters. If we remove the word protestor from our language concerning these events then we do not have to consider the reality of police brutality in the United States and we quickly associate anyone involved in such events to be bad people. If my social media feeds were any indication, the power of language to shape understanding, when misused, so easily allowed (or manipulated) people to dismiss a very real problem and even demonize those calling for the country to address the problem. People who like their world to be black and white, who do not like complex and nuanced thought, and who cannot or are too bothered to make necessary distinctions tend to fall for these sorts of linguistic tactics pretty easily.
Language does influence perception. Political campaigns, for instance, invest plenty of time and money in crafting language to influence and shape perception. A now well-known example is a memo crafted by Frank Luntz, a consultant advising the first Bush campaign in the early 2000’s. Luntz was advising Republicans how to talk about environmental issues. Probably the most widely reported part of the memo is where Luntz advised Republicans to refer to “climate change” rather than “global warming.” The term “climate change” was not a new term Luntz created. Climate scientists have long used this language. In popular culture, especially at that time, the term “global warming” was more common as it referred to the specific way the climate was changing. Why did Luntz suggest changing terms?
Answer: for the express purpose of changing perception.
He wrote: “‘climate change is less frightening than ‘global warming.’” Whereas global warming seems to point to a more catastrophic problem, climate change suggests “a more controllable and less emotional challenge.” The overall tenor of the memo was to come across more positive. Instead of being “environmentalists” or “preservationists,” a word such as “conservationist” put a more positive spin on the Republican position. Luntz said, “The words on these pages are tested—they work!”
One may argue that the change in language suggested by Luntz corresponded to the truth and the intent was to communicate the truth more effectively. Whether that is the case is another conversation. The point here is that language shapes perception. We know this. The use of language, ethically speaking, entails a responsibility to use it well.
With this post and the previous one, my intent is to set the stage for the next few posts where I will be looking at a few different random words that I think we do not use as well as we could be. Being attentive to language and how we use it, I am certain, fosters better discourse between us and can make our civilization…perhaps a bit more civil.
I have been thinking about writing a post or a small series of posts on words and language. Specifically, I want to talk about how words tend to become devoid of useful meaning when repeatedly used or misused. I am not speaking of how a word or a phrase can have multiple meanings or connotations. After all, language is not stuck in the mud. Think of it this way: Sometimes there are words or phrases that are meant to encapsulate more nuanced or even complex ideas; shortcuts, if you will. That is fine as long as the word or phrase actually is a shortcut to understanding the larger idea, when it actually communicates something that meaningfully adds to a conversation. But then the word or phrase catches on and becomes a trend. At this point, the word starts getting thrown around and inserted into any and every conversation without regard or intention to use it meaningfully. Sometimes (at least in my observation) such words not only fail to advance a conversation but are used with the intent to stop it in its tracks. People seem to not want to reason together to come to mutual understanding (mutual understanding does not imply mutual agreement), but only to defeat an interlocutor to whom one is opposed.
But really, all this is a just a matter of interpretation, right? Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that there are “no facts, only interpretations. And this, too, is only an interpretation.” Here I am not going to explicate what Nietzsche meant in this quotation. But in common parlance the word “interpretation” is a substitute word for “opinion.” By the way, that is not what Nietzsche meant.
Opinions are not inherently bad. We all have opinions, and it is rather difficult to be a being with the capacity to reason and not have opinions. The issue is whether an opinion is justifiable or reasonable. But let us face it. No one ever says “that’s just your opinion” because they have sympathy for what you are saying. We typically (and wrongly) tend to say that as a way of saying “I do not agree with you and I am not going to take the time or effort to counter you.” We dismiss the claim of the other by diminishing it as just their opinion. So “opinion” is presumed to be something inferior.
I could write another post just on opinions. But what I am getting at here is that I have noticed people sometimes use the word “interpretation” interchangeably with “opinion.” Of course, there is a sense in which an opinion is an interpretation (or more so an articulation of an interpretation). You cannot really offer an opinion without having interpreted that which you have an opinion on. My concern—what really gets to me—is that the word “opinion” has been reduced to its most negative understanding and that, when substituting the word “interpretation,” a very poor understanding of the word “interpretation” results. But interpretation is really about how we understand the world about us and the conditions that create understanding. I am of the opinion that the word “opinion” has been greatly abused and perhaps I’ll write about that sometime. Here I am going to write about what interpretation is, why you cannot not interpret, and why getting that is a very good thing.
Hermeneutics is what we call the field of philosophy that studies interpretation. Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to hermeneutics as the art of understanding and in his writings used the word “interpretation” and “understanding” interchangeably. Thus, to interpret something is to attain to an understanding of it (right, wrong, or otherwise). Further, interpretation and meaning go hand in hand. To interpret something is to come to some sort of idea what something means.
To be clear, interpretation is not something you simply choose or choose not to do. Whether you are reading this blog post, watching a game on the television, engaged in a conversation, looking at a piece of art, walking through a beautiful landscape, arguing with a spouse, or…well, name any activity you can think of, you are interpreting. That is, you are making sense out of it and drawing meaning from it. This is one reason it is important to understand that an interpretation is not just an “opinion,” especially when opinion is taken to mean simply a personal, subjective belief. To suggest to someone that their view is “just their interpretation” is unaware of what interpretation is. Of course, it is their interpretation! It is what they take whatever the subject matter happens to be to mean! What else would it be if not their interpretation!
The irony is that when someone says another’s view is just an interpretation, they are giving (in light of their own interpretation of interpretation)—wait for it—an interpretation! Believe me (or not), but when someone says that is just your opinion or interpretation, do not expect them to offer, by contrast, a carefully thought out, fact-based, reflective position. Make no mistake, however. You do not utter any thought or conviction that is not an interpretation. I think Richard Palmer said it best in a book published in 1969 on hermeneutics. He said, “Interpretation is, then, perhaps the most basic act of human thinking; indeed, existing itself may be said to be a constant process of interpretation.”
“Wait a minute!” you exclaim. Once I look at the facts of the matter, am I not simply speaking the truth? I am either wrong or right, but that is not a matter of interpretation, it is a matter of the facts, right? The facts do not care about my interpretation! Not exactly. Okay, some things are more apparent. 2+2=4 is not a matter of opinion (actually, it is, but that is for another post). Consider this, though. You do not simply understand the bare fact of 2+2=4. You think you do, but you do not. If I say to you that 2+2=4, but you have no concept of what 2 is, what 4 is, what addition is, or what equals is, you simply are not going to get it. So your understanding of 2+2=4 is conditioned on your pre-understanding of the concepts that make up the equation. You can shout at me all day that this math equation is objective truth whether I understand it or not. My simple response is this: “A lot of good objective truth does you if you do not understand it!”
Hermeneutics (interpretation theory) does not concern itself with the objectivity of objective truth. Hermeneutics is a lot more concerned with how you understand. Because any truth that cannot be understood does precious little good for anyone. And the rather interpreted fact of the matter is, understanding (interpretation) is a process that accompanies you whether you know it or not, like or not, understand it or not. And if you have any opinion on what I am writing, you are interpreting what I am writing or there would be nothing for you to have an opinion about. You have a take (an interpretation) about what I am saying and you have something to say about it.
Alright then. What does this have to do with pretty much anything at all? Well, it has to do with pretty much everything. But since it is hard to write about pretty much everything and you do not want to read about pretty much everything, I will talk about a little something. Refer back to the first paragraph. In the posts that follow, I want to talk about words and language and how their misuse, disuse, and abuse is really making reasoned discourse an exercise in Sisyphean frustration. Interpretation, in the philosophical sense, can rescue us from pushing the stone up the hill only to have it roll back again, making us feel as if we are forever at the start.
2020 has not exactly been stellar year, I think most reasonable people would agree. We continue to experience a global pandemic. Here in the United States it is particularly worrisome as we head into the fall and numbers, including deaths, continue to rise. For these and many other reasons, 2020 has not shaped up to be a year we will remember with affection.
Besides the general things that we all experience, there are as many individual and communal stories as there are individuals and communities. I cannot speak for others, but I have been doing a fair amount of reflecting on events in my own life. I have had my share of loss and difficulty while simultaneously having some of the greatest joys of my life in the midst of it all. There has been some good, some bad.
I have to go back to 2019 as a preface to 2020. After having been single for three years after 21 years of marriage, I was giving serious thought to becoming a bachelor scholar. The dating world today, for any age group, is about as unpleasant a thing as one can imagine. I was fully ready to cease my search for meaningful, romantic companionship and focus my energies on other pursuits. Then I met Alison in late May. Now, 16 months later, every sense I had about her and what our potential could be after our first few dates has been confirmed. More on that later.
Two things happened in August of 2019. The first was being informed that my job of 15 years was being eliminated. Other long-time staff members were cut as well. At age 54, losing a position in which you had become established was rather unsettling. The second happened 3 days later when I was officially awarded my doctorate after having successfully defended my dissertation (found here) in early July. August 2019 was quite a month.
Okay, so I lost my job and income in 2019, but I started a relationship and received a PhD. That’s a 2:1 ratio of good to bad, despite the one bad being pretty weighty. Entering 2020 was looking more sunny than cloudy.
In February I decided for my 55th birthday that I wanted to have a gathering and invite several friends from different compartments of my life. The only thing that a number of these friends had in common was knowing me. Despite that, I saw some great conversation and connecting take place among them. A highlight for me was having a local artist, the young and exceptionally talented singer/songwriter Remy Reilly, provide music for my big day. Remy has a remarkable gift for writing songs that communicate profoundly the conundrum of what it means to be human—all the while knowing and believing we can all be better. I had the privilege of meeting Remy some months before and sharing conversation with her parents, John and Amy. Sometimes you meet people you just know immediately to be genuinely good people. And that is a great thing. As much as I am a fan of Remy Reilly for the music she creates, I respect the family that her gift comes from. That’s a gift itself and something definitely in the “good” column.
If my birthday was any sign, 2020 was looking to be a great year for me. But there has been loss.
On the first day of June, I received a message that one of my dearest friends had died. I’ll write more about her in another post but suffice it to say for now that she and I had been very close friends for some time. An accident in her home took her away. She was far too young and far too good a person to leave this life, but sometimes things happen that make no sense and there is no sense to be made of them. Then, just days ago relative to the time I am writing these words, a tragic accident, also in the home, took the life of my nephew, a sweet and kind boy of only 14.
2020 has been a year of painful loss.
Of course, I would be remiss to leave out a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus. A month and a day after my glorious birthday celebration the country went into lockdown. This is a trying time and uncertain time. The direction of this country is also uncertain and what happens in the next few months will have an impact that will last years.
Still there has been good. Lockdown was made a lot sweeter because my youngest daughter stayed with me during the early months of the lockdown. Although I saw her on a regular basis prior to this, having her and her sweet canine, Ellie, gave me joy every day. We took walks, we played board games, and we planted plants. Well, to be honest, my daughter planted plants and I watched, but still it was time we shared.
June 14 was a special day beyond special days. I got engaged. This was as much as a surprise to me as anyone. I wanted companionship, but I had no real desire to ever marry again. Never say never. After a year with Alison, my heart changed. I wanted to be married to her. So one day during one of our walks, I stopped, knelt down, fumbled for the ring, and courageously (and quite nervously) asked her to marry me. As my son used to sometimes say about various things, “This could go really good…or really bad.” There would be no middle ground here for sure. Thankfully, it was good! She said yes. Whatever is yet to come, I win 2020 on this alone.
So what does all of this mean? What have I learned? Sometimes things we know in the head move to the heart. Sometimes those things travel back to the head and need to return to the heart. So many things all of us already know in our heads moved back to my heart this year. Never take a moment for granted. Cherish the ones you have while you have them. Pain comes and its hard, but life cannot be reduced to those events. Value the little things, the ordinary. Be a good person.
The use of the term “inaugural” makes me think I should have a bottle of champagne to break on my laptop. But I suppose that would not be the best idea I ever had, so I’ll skip that. Just drinking the champagne seems a far better notion.
If you take a look at the “about” section, you will see that I wrote that this is a blog by a philosopher, but not for philosophers. Really all that means is that I am not using this space to write philosophical papers. There are plenty of places to do that in the world of professional philosophy. No, this space is just for me to write whatever it is I feel like writing about on a given day. As someone who has been trained in philosophy, I tend to approach the world, whether I am immediately cognizant of it or not, from the perspective of philosophy. Now, this does not mean that I approach every subject I encounter trying to fit it in to this or that structure of thinking. What I mean is much more fundamental.
As every philosophy professor everywhere on the planet does in an introduction to philosophy class, we pose the question “what is philosophy”? Then we offer an etymology of the word. Philosophy simply means the “love of wisdom.” The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard wrote that if philosophy is the love of wisdom, we must remember that to love and to be in love is to desire (see his book Why Philosophize?). What is it to desire? Desire refers to something that is before us, something that we do not, in any complete or absolute way, possess. It does not matter how much you learn, how much you understand, the philosophical habit of mind is the awareness that there is far much more that you do not know or understand. The philosopher is never sated. The philosopher is not one who boasts about what is known (or thinks is known) but one who cannot stop exploring. Imagine an explorer of the world covering a lot of ground and being in awe of what she or he has found and then simply ceasing to explore. Quite the contrary, every discovery puts you more in wonder than you were before you started. The explorer is only an explorer when exploring. The traveler is only a traveler when traveling. The “love of wisdom” is only philosophy when the philosopher continues to desire. After all, is love something you do and once you have done it, it is done? As the rock band REO Speedwagon wrote: “That Ain’t Love.”
So whatever I write about, this desire for wisdom and understanding is always going to be there. It doesn’t matter whether I write about serious matters concerning contemporary issues or if I write about an attempt at a tomato plant and just how damn good that fresh tomato was. As both Plato and Aristotle taught us, philosophy begins in wonder. So this blog is where I am going to wonder about stuff and be in wonder about stuff.
The title of this website sounds a bit heady and pretentious: Discursive Dialectics. For a fellow who says he is writing for everyone and a general audience rather than for fellow philosophers, this title seems a poor choice. Here I recall the words of my mother when, as a child, I would ask her what a word meant. She would reply, “Look it up in the dictionary.” In other words, “learn a new word” and expand my vocabulary was the message implied. I chose the name “Discursive Dialectics” because it reflects the spirit and attitude of this blog. Here let me insert that media historian, associate professor at Lesley University, and discoverer of the band Rush, Donna Halper, already had the title “Discourse and Dialogue” for her blog. I thought this was a perfect name but, alas, it was already taken. But not getting the title I considered a perfect one forced me to think a bit more about what I want to do here.
As I thought of the term “discursive,” I reflected on how it can refer to the practice of discourse or can simply refer to a series of unrelated digressions. As I wanted a blog that had some sort of identifiable meaning, yet I did not want to make it so narrow as to have little appeal, it occurred to me that “discursive” fit. Sure, I want to write about what I want to write about when I want to write about it. But what will always be an underlying theme, direct or indirect, is that pursuit of the love of wisdom and the relevance that the love of wisdom has no matter what one is discussing. So despite what will surely be my widely diverse digressions, I want to make you think. I want to make me think—and to do it better.
Dialectics, as it is used on this website, simply refers to a process of dialogue from which arises a deeper understanding of life. I can think. You can think. But when we think together something rather terrific often happens. We come up with something together that we might not have otherwise come up with on our own. Now, you might say I am a little disingenuous referring to a process of dialogue when it turns out I rarely have comments activated on my posts. If I am so interested in dialogue in the pursuit of truth then why will I not allow comments? The straightforward answer is that my observation of comment threads on social media leads me to the most certain conviction that the quality of sincere dialogue that helps us flourish as human beings rarely to nearly never happens on comment threads. I find it to usually be rather soul draining, a place where thoughtful and intelligent dialogue is substituted with boisterous ignorance that is mistaken for knowledge due to the arrogant confidence with which it is delivered from keyboards and smartphones across the world. I simply don’t want to fill my time with that nonsense.
So I guess, for now, I want this blog to reflect the spirit of dialogue I prefer and perhaps it will foster that in my readers. So thanks for looking in. If one post does not interest you, visit again. Maybe you will find something for you that helps you live what Socrates called the examined life. Cheers.