The Public Humanist

The Limits of Reflection

In the wake of half chagrined confessions that I am a philosophy professor, not infrequently — and positively reliably on cramped airplanes — I’m asked what my personal philosophy is. It’s not an entirely unreasonable question. Philosophers are expected to have developed,or at least be on the way to developing, an articulate view of the world, of right conduct, and of the good life.Moreover, having come to expect it, it would be easy to think that I would by now have honed my response into something precise and stable, even if not necessarily pithy.

I could, of course, say something about my political views or my feminism or my vegetarianism or my admiration for Buddha. But this is not what the question aims for. Indeed, the question is as deliciously ambitious as philosophy is. Philosophy is reflection on fundamental, abstract, humane questions pursued with tenacity enough to challenge easy or dogmatic answers. It is not science, but it asks whether and how science can shed light on the universe.It is not debate about policy, but debate about the ultimate ends policy ought to aim for. It is not painting or poetry, but it is inquiry into what beauty itself is. And so, when someone asks whether I have a personal philosophy, they are not asking what my views are on this or that question, they arewondering whether there is a unity or coherence or elegant super structurewithin which my views arise and which makes reasonable and compelling myconduct and beliefs.

Alas, I have nothing to offer, and I usually jest that I’mtoo young and unwise for that. Puttingaside the impressive Socratic pedigree of pleas of ignorance, what this tepidreaction evades is not only that I think I have no personal philosophy, butalso that I do not think I could have one. I shouldn’t pretend to speak for everyone on this matter, but itseems to me our lives do not unfold solely or even primarily in response toprinciples or conviction. We’reembedded in communities and traditions that substantially guide our choices,and we’re embodied beings adapted to one another and to our environments insuch a way that we unfurl according to forces and factors that do not reach thethreshold of reflection. This seems the glorious truth about us, and it is asource of resilience, resolve, and tranquility. Thus, I’m not resigned or pessimistic, no matter how much havinga tidy, reasoned framework might seem desirable.

Our actions in the world seem from the inside to originatefrom an executive self that is able to contrive a plan for life and then tofollow that plan. Some of the time,this may be right. Those will be thetimes when we consciously and conscientiously reflect on how we ought toconduct ourselves, on what we believe is right, and on how to moveforward. But much more of the time,doesn’t it seem that we live via motivations that are complicated, and that donot stem from articulated principles?Mightn’t it be a conceit — a conceit that yields, for instance, Kant’s hyper-rationalreconstruction of moral obligation, or, ironically, certain kinds of rigidfundamentalisms — that we are primarily agents of reason?

Thinking of the contrast between my principle-guided selfand the kinds of beyond-reflection forces that shape me reminds me of JorgeLuis Borges’ famous short essay,“Borges and I” (a Spanish version can be found here). In it, the narrator (the “I” of the title), a vibrant, conscious voice alive inthe moment, distances himself from Borges, the person with a history and atrajectory defined by properties and external events.

&I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list ofprofessors or in a biographical dictionary.I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste ofcoffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vainway that turns them into the attributes of an actor.

Our immediate, insistent, waking experience is our “I.” Nothing can be known more intimately, andthat proximity and resulting comfort may well give us the misimpression that itis the sole determinant of our lives. To be sure, our reflective consciousselves play some role in determining who we are. As Borges says later, “&I amdestined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survivein him.” That role is a part — but onlya part — of our sustained narratives as it leaves a mark alongside the marksleft by the myriad other forces.

I worry that we underestimate the crucial part played by oursentiments, our habits, and by biological and social pressures. There are times when acts of compassion arenot the product of reflecting on principles to live by, but rather result fromsomething just as human: the welling up of emotion inside oneself. Or there aretimes when an explicit personal philosophy is mute with respect to what todo. In those moments we might look tothe advice of a parent, or follow religious tradition, or see where our owncreative spontaneity takes us. Borgesends with, “I do not know which of us has written this page.” The flicker ofimmediate, conscious reflection is assimilated into our rich selves, and thosemore vexed complexities seem the origin of our actions.

I suppose some people may find this unnerving or depressing,but, in my view, recognizing the variety of sources for self is liberation froma narrow conception of our nature. Through this liberation we see more clearlyhow so much of what is studied in the humanities and the sciences reveal us.Literature, great and ordinary, encodes human responses, some personalphilosophies but many not. In itsresonance literature possess the power to evoke in us rich reactions by notdemanding that we pass through the fiction of a personal philosophy. History and political science sharpen ourvision on how we came to be who we are without insisting on a mythicalself-coherence. And both the naturaland social sciences tells us something about the vectors that guide us. Theirexplanations aim to be elegant, systematic and structured without masqueradingas accounts of individual personal philosophies.

On the other hand, what this view must not liberate us fromis the responsibility for critique.Just because our actions originate non-reflectively does not mean thatwe can’t reflect on them. Reflectionitself will be an alloy made of conscious principles and the underlyinghumanness that escapes reflection, but the fact that we revisit and defend ourindividual or cultural ways reinforces and reinvigorates them.

Retrospectively reconstructing our actions in order to makesense of them might well appear to extract a personal philosophy. Does it accurately reflect who we are? Iwould be surprised if it did because we are ourselves, not our rationalreconstructions of ourselves. Perhaps living according to a personal philosophyis nothing more than an ideal, then, something to aim for. I’m not persuaded of that, either. Were we, through some heroic effort oftransformation, to become agents of reason alone, it seems to me that we wouldlose something lovely. We would loseour humanity.

I am content to go forward viewing myself as a composite ofthat which I can reflect on and that which I can’t. Maybe I have something to say on airplanes after all.

Joe Cruz is Associate Professor of Philosophy & Chair of Cognitive Science atWilliams College.

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