A Few Last Thoughts
May 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
This has not been an easy class to teach. Initially, there was a good deal of resistance to the whole idea of such a class, though even at the start this resistance was not universal. The resistance, I think, sprang from more than one source. There was, of course, the fact that many of you were already overburdened with work more closely related to your areas of academic specialization; there were general questions about relevance; there were some ideological assumptions that got in the way; finally, there was the fact that the instructor seemed intent on not giving you problems to solve and thereby making your lives easier. You guys know how to solve problems.
But solving problems isn’t all there is to intellectual life. There is also the asking of questions. And the most interesting questions are those with multiple competing answers. Even more interesting are the sorts of questions that suggest multiple answers that do not necessarily erase each other, but exist in a kind of superposition that only resolves under specific conditions of inquiry. The philosopher Theodor Adorno writes, in Minima Moralia, “The modes of behavior appropriate to the most advanced state of technical development are not confined to the sectors in which they are actually required.” For Adorno, this is a dangerous state of affairs. He continues: “So thinking submits to the social checks on its performance not merely where they are professionally imposed, but adapts them to its whole complexion. Because thought has by now been perverted into the solving of assigned problems, even what is not assigned is processed like a problem.” I respectfully submit that your Clarkson educations have mostly prepared you for the solving of problems and I sincerely hope you prosper in doing so and that you derive benefits for yourselves and for your society.
According to Adorno, however, you run the grave risk of coming to believe that everything can and ought to be treated like a problem. The philosopher continues: “Thought, having lost its autonomy, no longer trusts itself to comprehend reality, in freedom, for its own sake. This is leaves, respectfully deluded, to the highest paid, thereby making itself measurable. It behaves, even in its own eyes, as if it had constantly to demonstrate its fitness.” To be honest, as the humble servant of thought, I sometimes felt during this semester teaching HP 400, as if I were constantly being called upon to demonstrate the fitness of thought for its own sake, apart from the solving of particular problems. Thought as free speculation (a term Adorno uses a bit later); thought as imagination.
Be that as it may, I hope I have had some success in stirring your imaginations and your discontent with the sort of instrumental thinking Adorno writes against. In cleaning out my bookshelves recently, I came across an ancient paperback anthology, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, and nearly threw it in the recycling box. Existentialism, as anyone will tell you, is old hat. The book, published in 1956, was falling apart, but I cracked it open and began flipping through the musty pages, for old time’s sake. I used to be an existentialist, after all, back in the sixties. In looking through the introduction (by the editor, Walter Kaufmann), my eyes fell on the following passage: “First, Socrates, stirred up the youth of Athens simply by being himself. It was, more than anything he said, his character and life that made them feel dissatisfied with their existence and the doctrines others offered.” Now, I am no Socrates, nor was meant to be, but I do see my role as creating a certain kind of dissatisfaction. That is certainly what I attempted in this course.
The other thing about Socrates, Kaufmann points out, is that he thought out loud, relying on dialog, with much of the content being supplied by those with whom he talked so earnestly. When our class worked best, this is how it worked. I deeply appreciate the effort some of you put into engaging in the open-ended dialogs I tried to launch and I often left the room exhilarated. Though I also sometimes left feeling deflated and worn down by the huge edifices your educations have constructed. Those structures may prove useful to you in your professional, problem-solving, lives; I do not denigrate the usefulness of the walls you have been building over the last four years. But the walls are not everything and I hope you will discover the secret doorways that lead outside, into to the open fields of free speculation and imagination. If you do, perhaps I will be able to take some small credit for having mentioned the fact that such doorways exist.