Words from the Chair
Dr. Craig Hanks, Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy
Some thoughts on the value of being ill-at-ease
The start of the fall semester, the passage onto our academic new year, is a time with a palpable sense of renewal and possibility. One of the challenges for we philosophers and religionists is that in the midst of such excitement we are ill-at-ease. Such is our lot, for reasons that even we might not fully understand – we are, after all, drawn to this work for varied and complex reasons. To be a philosopher or a religionist is to be both in the present moment and not fully of it. When the philosopher, or the religionist, is fully at home, the philosopher as such (or religionist as such) disappears. If we continue as scholars, we become apologists, or if we do not, we are persons who merely happen to know a good deal about philosophy or religion.
At the start of this fall semester the project of being a religionist or a philosopher faces challenges. Again, it has always been thus, those who ask foundational questions, who investigate systematically the meanings of existence, the nature of knowledge and reality, and the origins, grounding, functioning’s and importance of values, have always been outliers. As we all know, Socrates was brought to trial and sentenced to death for the practice of philosophy and questioning the gods of ancient Athens. And, it is certainly the case that in our current moment many social factors make the systematic and careful study of fundamental questions seem old-fashioned, quaint even, and irrelevant. But, in this autumn of 2018 the challenges to what we do have a new dimension.
When William James published his Principles of Psychology over 100 years ago, he argued for several claims that were then not testable. Notably, for my purposes here, he developed the claim that the physiology of human cognition is shaped by experience, that what we do and experience changes the physical structures of our brain just as exercise can change musculature. James did not have access to neural imaging technologies, but it is not that he had no reasons for the positions he took and the account of human psychology that he developed. Rather, the whole project was built on his Radical Empiricism, nondualism, and the concomitant view of humans as always already embodied and embedded. Based on these starting points, for which he provides reasons throughout his work, he argues for the position that John Dewey maintains in Art as Experience, “[n]o creature lives merely under its skin.” One of the upshots of this idea is that we become who we are through the sorts of interactions (what James called relations) we have with every aspect of our experience, and this “who we are” includes physical structures of brain and body as much as it does friendships, social and historical context, hopes and fears, culinary and musical preferences.
If factors such as fear, inertia, self-interest, and ignorance have long stood against thoughtful reflection, what has changed? Certainly we find our times every bit as resistant to the search for wisdom and virtue as Socrates found his. And, yet, something is different, and that something is contributing to changing identities, changing forms of sociality, and changing brain structures. When thinkers such as José Ortega y Gassett, Jacques Ellul, Hans Jonas, Ivan Illich, or John Dewey suggested that new forms of technology not only mediate our activities and experiences, but change who we are, they were sometimes derided for making unsupportable ontological and epistemological claims. Recent work in cognitive science and social psychology suggests they were all too correct. In two books, Alone Together (2011), Reclaiming Conversation (2015), Sherry Turkle (MIT) traces the ways that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are driving fundamental transformations of how we understand privacy, intimacy, and community. Technologies, such as video conferencing, that were initially thought of as “better than nothing” (if we can’t talk face-to-face a video chat will do, better than not meeting at all) have become preferred modes of interacting, “better than anything.” Along the way, as ICTs become ever more central to our everyday lives, we not only voluntarily submit to new forms of surveillance and influence and experience diminished solitude and FOMO, we are also losing capacities for conversation, self-reflection, and empathy. Beyond changing identities and forms of sociality, we are changing the physical structures of who we are. In Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World (2018), Maryanne Wolf (UCLA) outlines the compelling research that describes how our increased use of ICTs is changing how we read, how we process information, our capacities for critical and reflective thinking, and the processes and structures of our brains. As Wolf describes things, “The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new path-ways in the cerebral evolution of our species.” The ways we mediate experience not only change the experience, they change the experiencer – in this James was right.
What does this have to do with us, students of philosophy and religious studies? In these times, under these conditions, the ways of being we have chosen and the work we pursue is ever more important, while also ever more difficult. The forms of experience increasingly dominant structure our experiences, or thoughts, and our bodies in ways that are conducive to shallow and not critical thinking, to control and not freedom, to the sorts of instrumental relations Martin Buber called I-It relations and not to substantial open loving I-Thou relations. Through the practice of deliberate careful and detailed reading and examination of complex texts we transform who we are and our relations to the world we inhabit. To be a philosopher or religionist is to be out-of-step, to exist in conscious tension with ourselves and the world around us. To be a philosopher or religionist is thus to be ill-at-ease in the world, a status we celebrate at our annual banquet and throughout this department. The work we do, and ways of being we chose, embody (literally – our bodies would be different if we did not follow these practices) alternative possibilities for human existence and human meaning.