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.


anne said...

Yeah! that's awesome :) I need to post something along those lines on my blog, too... thoughts have been ruminating since I started reading Omnivore's Dilemma.

And I'm glad you don't think I'm using you when you pick me up ;)

christoso said...

Thanks for posting this. I recently picked up his book from the library due to a recommendation, and also found his description of "specialization" very interesting.

I was about to type it out myself to send to friends via email - but found your entry - thanks for typing it out!

Many people today can relate to doing very specialized work, whatever their field, and thus Berry's argument makes some really good points. I think he really cuts to the core of the issue.

I especially like when he says "This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself."

My only criticism with his treatment of this topic is that the example citizen he uses is too extreme. This person he describes that has no other skills besides his day job, eats ready-made food, can only mow his lawn with a machine, and is out of shape - this fictional character is obviously a total loser. I'm sure there are people like him, but I don't know any and none of my friends or family live such a lame lifestyle. Typically the truth would be somewhere in between; there are many people who do very specialized work but also live a somewhat balanced lifestyle.

Interesting topic, and am just reading the rest of the book and finding some great stuff.

Taylor said...

gosh! i'm sorry i just noticed these notes; i've been remiss in many ways this semester.

Anne: of course not!

Christoso: I agree with your characterization of the extreme dichotomy Berry draws, at the same time, I wonder if the other element that he is criticizing is a sort of surface involvement in other things. Sure we make our own food, perhaps ride a bike, maybe even knit, but i wonder if that doesn't "count" as a departure from our general specialization.

christoso said...

Thanks for the response.

You have a point that that these things (making our own food, ride a bike once in a while, etc) are just surface involvements. His background is farming and his argument pretty much rules out every specialization short of us all becoming farmers on a small family farm, which of course is unrealistic. Nonetheless he makes a bold statement and cuts right to the core with his argument, showing that there probably isn't a compromise.

Every individual lives their life differently though, some people for sure fit his extreme stereotype of the specialized individual, while others swing to the other end of the scale where they use their hands in creating their food, their home, and their surroundings etc.