Review: Stoic Pragmatism

Review: Stoic Pragmatism

Stoic PragmatismStoic Pragmatism by John Lachs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The questions of philosophy will continue to haunt us so long as we remain finite, baffled animals. The fact that philosophy offers no final answers is not an impediment but a lesson. That first great lesson of philosophy is that we must learn to live with uncertainty.

Since it’s that time of year, I’ve lately been seeing many of my friends—struggling artists, mostly—reposting graduation speeches by famous actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and other celebrities. So many of these communal pep talks boil down to one message: persist. Every artist worth her salt has a story about how they struggled in the purgatory of unsuccessful oblivion for ten centuries—eating ramen and living in a closet—before finally ascending to the paradise of fame. Jonathan Goldsmith, for example—now famous as the Most Interesting Man Alive for the Dos Equis ads—was an obscure actor for over forty years before his “breakout” role.

But success stories and inspiring graduation speeches all have one obvious, debilitating shortcoming: survivor bias. Of course, every successful person was once unsuccessful and then became successful; so for them hard work paid off. But the vital question is not whether hard work ever pays off, but how often, and for whom? History has been the silent witness of generations of brilliant musicians and talented actors who remained obscure all their lives. The world is simply stuffed with artists of all kinds, many mediocre, but a fair number extremely talented—far more than will ever be able to support themselves in comfort with their craft. The plain fact is that, even if every budding artist in those ceremonies follows the advice to persist, not even half will achieve anything close to the level of success as the person on the podium.

And, indeed, even if there is an appealing wisdom in carrying on in the teeth of disappointment and failure, there is also a wisdom in throwing in the towel. Better to cut your losses and do something else, rather than struggle pointlessly for years on end. The real difficulty, though, is knowing which choice to make. What if you give up right when you’re on the cusp of a breakthrough? Or what if you persist for years and get nowhere? And this isn’t just a question for young artists; it is one of the basic questions of life. I recently encountered it in the philosophy of science: When should a hypothesis be abandoned or pursued? An overly tractable scientist may give up on a truly promising theory with the first hint of difficulty; and an overly stubborn scientist may spend a career working on a bankrupt idea, in the vain hope of making it work.

Seeking an analysis of this dilemma, I picked up John Lachs’s book, Stoic Pragmatism, which explicitly promises to address just this question. Lachs is attempting here to combine the pragmatist doctrine that we must improve the world with the stoic resignation to the inevitable. Unfortunately, he does not get any further than noting what I hope is obvious—that we should improve what we can and resign ourselves to what we can’t change. This is true; but of course we very often have no idea what we can or can’t change, what will or won’t work, whether we’ll be successful or not, which leaves us in the same baffled place we started. Insofar as truly answering this question would require knowing the future, it is unanswerable. Uncertainty about success and the need to commit to potentially doomed actions are inescapable elements of our existential situation. The best we can hope for, I think, are a few good rules of thumb; and these will likely depend on personal preference.

In any case, this book is far more than an analysis of this common dilemma, but an attempt to give a complete picture of Lachs’s philosophical perspective. Lachs promises a new philosophical system, but delivers only a disorganized gallimaufry of opinions that do not cohere. For example, Lachs begins by denigrating the professionalization of philosophy, holding that philosophy is not a discipline that seeks the truth—he asserts that not a single proposition would command assent by the majority of practitioners (though I disagree!)—rather, philosophy is better thought of as intellectual training that helps us to make sense of other activities. But the book includes lengthy analyses of ethics, ontology, and epistemology, so apparently Lachs does see the value in answering the traditional problems of philosophy. To make matters worse, Lachs continually excoriates philosophers who do not practice what they preach; and then he goes on to outline an ethical system wholly compatible with a middle-class, bourgeois lifestyle (our main obligations are to do our jobs and to leave other people alone, it seems).

I am being unfairly satirical. I actually agree with most of what Lachs says; and this of course means I must make fun of him. (According to the “Lotz Theory of Agreement” no intellectual will permit herself to simply agree with another intellectual, but will search out any small point of difference, even a difference in attitude or emphasis, in order to seem superior.) Lachs is an inspiring example of an academic trying to address himself to broader problems using more accessible language. He is an attractive thinker and a skilled writer, a humane intellectual capable of fine prose.

Nevertheless, I must admit that this book makes me despair a little. Here we have a man explicitly and repeatedly repudiating his profession and trying to write for non-specialists; and yet Lachs is so palpably an academic that he simply cannot do it. The book begins with his opinions about the canonical philosophers, frequently breaks off to criticize fellow professors and intellectual movements, and includes academic controversies (such as how to interpret Santayana’s use of the word “matter” in his ontological work) of no interest to a general reader. Lachs tries to come up with an ethical system that he can follow himself as an example of a committed intellectual, and then ends up creating an ethical system with no obligations other than to do one’s job (which, in his case, consists of writing books and advising graduate students). Lachs’s primary example of committed moral action, to which he returns again and again, is signing a petition to remove the president of his university (and he notes that most of his colleagues refused to do even this!).

I am being unduly harsh on Lachs. Really, he is one of the very best examples of what academics can and should do to engage with the world around them. And yet his example demonstrates, to me, the enormous gap that separates academia from the rest of society. Lachs dwells again and again on the pointless abstractions of professional philosophers and the wisdom of everyday people, and then the next moment he launches into an analysis of the concept of the individual in the metaphysics of Josiah Royce—Royce, someone who not even most professional philosophers are interested in, much less the general public—and all this in the context of a book that emphasizes self-consistency over and over again.

This makes me sad, because I think we really do need more intellectuals in the public sphere, intellectuals who are capable of communicating clearly and elegantly to non-specialists about problems of wide interest. And yet our age seems to be conspicuously bereft of anyone resembling a public intellectual. Yes, we have popularizers, but that’s a different thing entirely.

Seeking an answer to this absence, I usually return to the model of specialization in the university.

To get a doctorate, you need to write a dissertation on something, usually a topic of excessive, often ludicrous specificity—the upper-arm tattoos of Taiwanese sailors, the arrangement of furniture inside French colonial homes in North Africa in the 1890s, and so on. This model originated in German research universities, I believe; and indeed it makes perfect sense for many disciplines, particularly the natural sciences. But I do not think this model is at all suited to the humanities, where seeing human things in a wide context is so important. This is not to deny that specialized research can make valuable contributions in the humanities—indeed, I think it is necessary, especially in fields like history—but I do not think it should be the only, or even the dominant, pattern for academics in the humanities.

If I can put forward my own very modest proposal in this review, it would be the creation of another class of academic—let’s call them “scholars”—who would focus, not on specialized research, but on general coverage in several related fields (I’m thinking specifically of philosophy, literature, and history, but this is just one possibility). These scholars would be mainly responsible for teaching courses, not publishing research; and this would give them an incentive to communicate to undergraduates, and by extension the general public, rather than to disappear into arcane regions of the inky night.

These scholars could also be responsible for writing reviews and critiques of research. Their more general knowledge might make them more capable of seeing connections between fields; and by acting as gatekeepers to publication (in the form of a reviewer), they could serve as a check on the groupthink, and also the lack of accountability, that can prevail within a discipline where sometimes research is so obscure that nobody outside the community can adequately judge it (thus proving a shield to shoddy work).

I’m sure my own proposal is impractical, has already been tried, is already widespread, or just plain bad, and so on. (Even if you agree with it, the Lotz Theory of Agreement will apply.) But whatever the solution, I think it is a palpable and growing problem that there is so much intellectual work—especially in the humanities, where there is far less excuse for unintelligibility and sterile specialization—that is totally disconnected with the wider society, and is unreadable and uninteresting to most people, even well-educated people. We simply cannot have a functioning society where intellectuals only talk to each other in their own special language. Lachs, to his credit, is doing his best to break this pattern. But this book, to me, is evidence that the problem is far too serious for well-intentioned individuals to solve on their own.

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Review: Writing to Learn

Review: Writing to Learn

Writing to Learn: How to Write--And Think--Clearly about Any Subject at AllWriting to Learn: How to Write–And Think–Clearly about Any Subject at All by William Zinsser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humor is the most perilous of writing forms, full of risk; to make a vocation of brightening the reader’s day is an act of continuing gallantry.

Specialization inspires in me a certain existential dread. This is of two sorts. The first is the despairing thought that, by specializing, I will come to know only a certain, restricted corner of the vast universe. The second, more puerile fear is that, by becoming a specialist, I will commit myself on a path I won’t like very much.

Generalization is often, I suspect, motivated as much by fear of commitment as by humanistic curiosity. In Spanish there’s a word for a man who likes to sleep around—a picaflor—which conjures up the suggestive image of a bee going from flower to flower. Well, picaflores and Don Juans and Lotharios are generalists. Devoted husbands are specialists.

Promiscuity aside, we continue to do homage to generalists with our notion of the “Renaissance Man,” and the quintessential Renaissance Man was of course Leonardo da Vinci. His notebooks are filled not only with “art,” but studies of anatomy, light, physics, engineering, music, and so much else.

Last year I read a selection of Leonardo’s notebooks, hoping to find out how one man could tackle so many disparate subjects. My conclusion was that his versatility was due to the application of his medium: drawing. By making careful, detailed sketches of things—bees, bodies, bridges—he came to understand them. His pencil thus acted as antennae, with which he probed and investigated his world.

I thought: Could I do something similar? Certainly I have little talent as regards visual art. But I do have a verbal addiction. Perhaps I could use writing in a way similar to how Leonardo used sketching? Such an idea was hardly original. Soon I found out that Zinsser, the writing guru, already had a book about it.

The idea of reading another Zinsser book was not especially appealing. I had already read his popular book On Writing Well, and came away with a sour taste in my mouth. But if I was going to be the next Leonardo, I had to swallow some pickles. Dutifully I bought this book; and, after equally dutiful procrastination, I am here to tell you about it.

My first reaction is distaste. This is not entirely rational. Every good writer has what I call a “literary personality”—related to, but not identical with, their real personality—and I simply do not like Zinsser’s. I do not wish to spend time with him or to invite him to supper. I cannot really articulate why I dislike him, in the same way I can’t say exactly why I don’t like the sound of people eating apples. He’s a strong writer and I agree with much of what he says. He is thoughtful, curious, broadly educated, sensitive to art, music, and literature, and generally benign in his means and ends. When I think about it, I really ought to like him quite a bit. Yet I don’t.

Maybe this is because I object to the way he romanticizes his craft. Zinsser would have you believe writing clearly is one of the most difficult, dangerous, and distasteful activities in the world. It is so hard and so strenuous that it requires continual, backbreaking effort. Good writers are saints, many of them martyrs, including Zinsser himself: “I don’t like to write, but I take great pleasure in having written.” Zinsser makes very clear that his vocation is a heroic one, especially considering that he not only writes himself, but teaches it too:

Why, then, would anyone in his right mind want to be a writing teacher? The answer is that writing teachers aren’t altogether in their right mind. They are in one of the caring professions, no more sane in the allotment of their time and energy than the social worker or the day care worker or the nurse.

It takes serious audacity (to use a polite word) for a writing teacher to compare himself to a nurse. I also gag at this self-pity about the how hard it is to write well. Yes, it can be hard. Lots of things are hard. The only thing that sets writers apart is that they tend to whine the most eloquently.

Even when I put my personal dislike aside, however, I still must conclude that this book is disappointing. It begins with an unnecessary autobiographical section on Zinsser’s childhood education. (Considering how much Zinsser likes to talk about omitting unnecessary material, I found this especially ironic.) The rest of the book consists of long excerpts of what Zinsser considers to be successful examples of writing in different subjects, from anthropology to chemistry, from geology to mathematics. The book could easily have been an anthology, and probably should have been.

Most of what I wanted from this book is lacking. Yes, any subject can be written about engagingly—Zinsser didn’t need to prove this to me—but how do you go about doing that? Zinsser avoids the problem of methodology by insisting that good writing is learned by imitation. This is no doubt largely true; still I found it to be an abdication of this book’s promise: to give the would-be autodidact a strategy, or at least a few tips, for writing to learn.

Another serious omission is that Zinsser does not provide any concrete advice for teachers looking to apply this philosophy to their classes. There are a few reported examples of teachers who have done so, and a lot of hortatory passages about the benefits of “writing across the curriculum,” but very little in the way of concrete strategies for implementing this idea. As both a student and a teacher, I was irked by this.

Still, I suppose this book does have its value as a piece of propaganda. Zinsser is enthusiastic about writing, and his enthusiasm is contagious. For anyone skeptical that any subject—even chemistry, physics, or math—can be written well, or if you’re unsure whether writing can help you think and learn, you’ll find these doubts addressed here. For all its faults, this book does provide a glimpse of a compelling educational ideal: one that allows all of us to be picaflores in good conscience.

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