Friday, August 28, 2009

Use and Philosophy


This post is occasioned by a few hours of peaceful reading at 1369 Coffeehouse in Cambridge, MA in which I blazed through a few chapters of the forever insightful Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America. Two thoughts occurred in conjunction with this passage:

"The disease of the modern character is specialization. Looked at from the standpoint of the social system, the aim of specialization may seem desirable enough. The aim to see that the responsibilities of government, law, medicine, engineering, agriculture, education, etc., are given into the hands of the most skilled, best prepared people. The difficulties do not appear until we look at specialization from the opposite standpoint-that of individual persons. We then begin to see the grotesquery-indeed, the impossibility-of an idea of community wholeness that divorces itself from any idea of personal wholeness.
The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists-people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of integration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility.
Even worse, a system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus the average-one is tempted to say, the ideal-American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturists and 'agribusinessmen,' the problems of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically, as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequence of which somebody else-or, perhaps more typically, nobody else-will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists who propose to entertain him.
The beneficiary of this regime of specialist ought to be the happiest of mortals-or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn which a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.
The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people's. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not want to know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties."

For the most part, I think Berry, with his usual clarity, has described the root of many of the social problems we are faced with now. As my brother-in-law notes, in the words of Heinlein: Specialization is for insects. But what of the particular specialization I have majored in, and gone on to earn a Master's in, and intend on pursuing to the bitter end in a PhD and teaching career?

I think that philosophy can be the ultimate of either side of the coin: an ultra-specialization or the ultimate anti-specialization. As a specialization, not only is it divorced from other pursuits in the classic absent-minded professorial way, but also, the system of reality proposed by many philosophies is so abstracted from reality, that the person living within a particular system can never find the "ground". Our absent-minded professor has no "reality" to return to. Not only can this specialization talk in it's specialized language about other things, but, unlike other specializations, this specialization can talk merely about specializations. A meta-abstraction problem if you will.

The other side of the coin is the way in which (as Berry does, in a very real sense) philosophy can analyze the problems of those disciplines which are not self-reflective. Most specializations do not have corrective mechanisms within themselves such that becoming immersed in the specialization would be apparent or seen as a bad thing. As a sort of birds-eye view, philosophy can "stand outside" the other disciplines (and itself for that matter, which makes those philosophers who pursue mere abstraction so much worse) and help them realize their mistaken orientation to the world.

Of course, it isn't the specializations themselves that are a problem. Specialization in and of itself is a good thing; it creates a very particular forum for answering very particular questions. The problems arise when, rather than being an occasional mode of thinking, a specialization becomes a way of living, the fabric of community, and this, I believe, is the evil that Berry is pointing out.

(This thought touches on the understanding of general bias as developed by Bernard Lonergan, an essay I've written on the topic with respect to the I-1000 in Washington State can be found here.)

The other thing that came to mind in that reading session came in reading this passage:

"One reason that an organization cannot properly enact our relationship to the world is that an organization cannot define that relationship except in general terms, and no matter how general may be a person's attitude toward the world, his impact upon it must become specific and tangible at some point... The conservation movement has never resolved this dilemma. It has never faced it... With the increase of pollution and mining, their interest has become two-branched, to include, along with the pristine, the critically abused. At present the issue of use is still in its beginning."

Berry goes on to describe how "conservationists" will buy a large chunk of land, and just leave it to the wild. As people who know land will tell you, there is a sort of three-level 'being' to land where the middle ground is "untouched" wilderness. The lower level is effected by man in the form of ecological rape, however the upper level too is effected by man in the conscious, humble, respectful cultivation and care of land. Land left to its own resources (which, I believe is an impossibility these days, given the widespread effect of our lifestyles), simply does not take care of itself as well as a properly oriented human being.

How then, are we to understand "use?" When I use the term "useful" or "use" what comes to mind? With many people, I find, "use" has many bad connotations: "using" another person, or what's the "use" of something. I agree, but also I think there is an important element of "use" that is neglected.

As Aristotle notes in his three levels of friendship (utility, pleasure, and virtue) at the end of Nicomachean Ethics, each of the lower levels can be sublated/incorporated/'taken up' into the higher levels. Thus, when I pick up my wife from work in our car, even though it is a short walk away, she is deriving some use from me, though neither of us look at it that way at all; our friendship of virtue has changed the whole relationship such that use does not enter in, save in analysis.

I believe the key, and I think Wendell Berry approaches this understanding in a sideways manner, is entering into relationship with land in its full "thing-ness," into relationship with everything about it, asking all the proper questions, being in love with the earth and the beings that inhabit it. Only this relationship can transform the notion and reality of use into its proper form, that is, consciously, organically, interacting with life, writ large, around us in the fullness of our creative intelligence, a creative intelligence that, in the end, is a creative love.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ndiara Estate, Kirinyaga, Kenya

The second coffee I've been imbibing this month is a Kenyan (I try and mix up the continents when I get coffees, of late. Eventually I'd like to stick to the same country and discern differences) from the Ndiara Estate. George Howell tells us that,

"Ndiara is another powerful coffee from Kirinyaga, easily an equal, in my opinion, to Mamuto and very different. If ever there was a coffee that should be called 'jammy', this is it! It presents a massive body with a berry fruit-basket of flavors. If you have not tried it you should.

Ndiara is an eight acre farm in the Kirinyaga district on the southren slope of Mt. Kenya at 5,500 feet. It is named after a pre-historic site nearby. Mr. Daniel Waruri Muriuki started it in 1979 when he acquired the land and planted 6,000 Bourbon SL-28 and SL-34 coffee trees; he later added an additional 500 trees."

You may be asking yourself, what do those designations Bourbon SL-28 and SL-34 mean? They are essentially the pedigree of the type of coffee, what in coffee jargon is the "varietal" or "cultivar". Here is a nice little primer on this sort of language:

I found this coffee so sweet it was like it had sugar in it, bright and airy. Taste went something like this: Sweet - Mellow - Tangy/Nippy mix... it was hard to characterize with the strong aroma of blackberries. Reminded me of our five acres where I spent a good bit of my formative years... ah. Tasty!

On a related note, I briefly stopped by one of my all-time favorite cafes: 1369 Coffeehouse (two locations) in Cambridge, MA. They are a fantastic shop, full of all that is Cambridge (awesome tattoos, mustaches, avant-garde clothing, posters for local bands, taro card readings, and goth raves). The coffee is delicious, particularly their espresso & espresso drinks. Their house roasts tend to be on the darker side, certainly in the dry distillation range, but that is their expertise (after the European fashion) and they are quite good at it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A Draft of a Dream


While proctoring an LSAT at the Cambridge Kaplan Center yesterday, I read the majority of a delightful book by Hilaire Belloc entitled An Essay on the Restoration of Property and it sparked a solidification of many ideas that have been mulling for several years now. I thought I would share them with you all, and give a few titles that have contributed to these thoughts.

Some/many of you have heard us mention/discuss/rave about an idea we've been kicking around about a community of families, living in rough proximity to each other, working in the world yet, at the same time, maintaining a strong spiritual, economic, ecologic, and familial haven for the growth and development of ourselves, our friends, and our children. In our increasingly complex world, it is becoming harder and harder to live a fully integrated and moral life within the structures, the schemes of recurrence, the webs of the world. Tracing the lines of each decision leads to places many of us only experience first-hand in our nightmares. Hence this withdrawal from practicality to save practicality.

Having seen The Village and read stories about super-families w/in strange cults, I want to dispel any ideas that this will be "cut off" from the world in that sense. While some geographic and certainly ideological distance will occur in the implementation of this dream, the key feature of it, is to "rest up," to change, to enrich, to reinvigorate in the micro in order to bring about change in the macro, in the short term in order to bring about change in the long term. Utter removal from the course of world is a good thing, in many respects: just look at the rich monastic traditions in the world's great religions. However, for the family, I do not think that such a choice respects the freedom of the children, nor fully understands the call (inherent to many of the great religions, particularly to Christianity) to change the paradigm we live in.

What would this community consist in? Here are a few (by no means exhaustive) features that have arisen in conversation over the several years we've considered it:

  1. Food: Having read Omnivore's Dilemma, and the host of excellent literature surrounding that tome, we're more than a little leery of the whole food situation in the US. Having a farm to grow nearly all of the food we would need is high on our list of priorities. Better health, better lifestyle, better whole.
  2. Green: I know the whole "green" lifestyle is really in, for a host of good and poor reasons. Our reasons for going green, really green, even really, really green, are legion, but primarily, we're not fans of paying for things we can produce ourselves without damage to the ecosystem, other people, and life in general. See the whole "oriented toward the long term" speech above.
  3. Community: We've found that community is a vastly important element in real, holistic, human living and this community would provide a source to foster that growth in a host of ways, from geographic proximity, to a sharing of costs in a Schumacherian land/house buying scheme, to providing shared resources in farming/schooling/living.
  4. Spiritual: Having an organic basis for life helps reorient one's whole being to the most fundamental aspects of life, the Great Dance to which we are all called to be a part, but are so often driven away by the urgent unimportant.
  5. Social: As I will show later, once the groundwork for this community is laid, like the smaller unit of the family, it has the potential to be a profound source of solace for anyone coming into relation with it: guest houses, homes for the elderly or homeless, soup kitchens from our local produce... once the means of production has left the hands of the macro and been taken back into the hands of the micro, the family, the possibilities move at the speed of thought.
Anyway, that is a short list of ideas that come along with this notion of a community.

Pipe dreams, Taylor, Pipe dreams! Perhaps, but I think not. Here is a plan to make it more concrete, I did, after all, minor in Entrepreneurial Leadership and am heading to Law School in the fall... though Philosophy can be concrete too ;)

Concreteness: (for the Good is concrete)

I've broken up the venture into three primary phases: 1) Beginnings, 2) Building, 3) Giving.

1) Beginnings: Like any venture, the first phase will be the most difficult, so first, a note on organization.

We'll begin by forming an LLC, that is, a limited liability company, to buy a significant amount of arable land, near a relatively large urban center. (Amount & arable-ness is important for the farming aspect, the urban center for jobs, particularly university... though the exact location is easily negotiable). The beauty of the LCC structure is that it allows people to buy in or out, really own the land, have a better tax position, establishes a formal relationship between community members, and provides for a intelligible unit for dealing with "outside" entities, such as the IRS, or other things.
The startup phase will require the most resources as well, because of the slow transition to farming, the need for a large amount of land, and the usually high startup cost of many renewable energy sources. Also it will require a lot of patience with the transition to a radically different lifestyle.

2) Building: To a certain extent, there is no definite line between these two phases, but they are distinct in practice.

Once our schemes of recurrence start kicking in: food, energy, and housing costs will shrink dramatically, allowing for our disposable income to develop more communal aspects and set up the conditions for the schemes to recur. How will the costs shrink? Partially due to the land/housing setup, partially due to very low energy costs, partially due to negligible food costs, and largely due to our hard work in both starting this community and still working "real" wage-paying jobs.

3) Giving: The Saving, Giving, Developing Stage.

Having set up our own recurring scheme, we can solidly begin really reaching out as a community and building resources for the future of the community and our children.

Speaking of children, a side note on them: a danger of this setup is the preparation of our children for a solid economic transition to life, education, work, etc. once they are ready to set off into the deep. Many of the communities like the one we are discussing, do not really respect the freedom of their children, in the sense that life within the community is set up, but there is no real, healthy way to transition to life "outside" the community. College costs are high, little work experience, culture shock... the list goes on. Part of this problem will be solved by having a more permeable barrier than most communities, the other part will take careful work through all three stages, but particularly in stage three. Building resources for an easy transition for our children, or those whose work we see as valuable and worth supporting (eg scholars, not-for-profit orgs). Freedom from debt is a huge gift in helping people begin life, not just economic life, but moral and spiritual life as well. Planning and sacrificing for this is a necessary element in the recurrence of this scheme of community. However, an element of this community and the strength of communal living, while still participating in the world is the way in which resources can build. With little to no housing, energy, and food costs, we will be able to sock a lot away.

Is this idealized? Are there going to be hard questions that arise? Of course. Nothing worth having is ever easy. But, it is possible, and oh, so worth trying.

A Short Reading List:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs
The Unsettling of America, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, and Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher
An Essay on the Restoration of Property by Hilaire Belloc
The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Musings on Twitter and Intimacy

Hello All,

Here's a collection of random musings for your enjoyment :) I'm working on balancing the various elements of homework/sleep/class/eating/fun/friends but I'm hopeful for catching up on my blogs, as I promised at the beginning of the year.

Taking what Life Without Pants said sometime last month to heart, I have decided to stop spending so much time worrying about what to write, and just focusing on the writing. As an old philosophy professor once told me, "the best way to move forward is to make as many mistakes as fast as possible. then you know what not to do."

Twitter and Intimacy.
Do you think that letting all your little stories go abroad to the hoi polloi of the world via Twitter change your close relationships for the worse?
I came home the other day and realized that a flurry of tweets had exhausted my store of stories for the day. Stories I used to tell to my wife as we shared our days, I now share with a little blue bird who scurries off to deliver that wee missive to a number of good friends, solid organizations, and random people. I've made some awesome friends via Twitter, but am I losing ground in others?

It seems like not talking about Twitterable things might deepen and enrich our conversation, ridding it of the mundane, the 140 character worthy. We could explore deeper issues, get at the heart of matters, having already been abreast of the little things in each other's accounts all day. It seems too that it could make us more attentive in our day-to-day activities, because we would be more conscious of the stories we tell. We're made of stories, stories are who we are, and developing that element, telling the stories to two audiences could be powerful in shaping our daily experience. We'll see. It will take work to follow those routes. What are your thoughts?