Education and Philosophy

Mind CoverOne of the things I love about philosophy is how egalitarian it is. There’s no “beginning” philosophy and no “advanced” philosophy. You can’t do philosophy at all without jumping right in the deep end of the very same questions all philosophers have wrestled with since the time of Plato, questions such as what it means to be just, or whether people really have free will.

This distinguishes philosophy from disciplines such as math or biology where there’s a great deal of technical information that has to be memorized and mastered before students can progress to the point where they can engage with the kinds of issues that preoccupy contemporary mathematicians or biologists. There is thus a trend in higher education to create introductory courses in such disciplines for non-majors, courses that can introduce students to the discipline without requiring they master the basics the way they would have to if they intended to continue their study in that discipline.

Philosophy programs are increasingly coming under pressure to do the same kind of thing with philosophy courses. That is, they are essentially being asked to create dumbed-down versions of standard philosophy classes to accommodate students from other majors. Business majors, for example, are often required to take an ethics course, but business majors, philosophers are told, really do not need to read Aristotle and Kant, so it is unreasonable to ask them to do so.

Yeah, that’s right, after all, they’re not paying approximately 50K a year to get an education. They’re paying for a DEGREE, and the easier we can make that for them, the better!

But I digress. I had meant to talk about how egalitarian philosophy is. Anyone can do it, even today’s purportedly cognitively challenged generation. Just to prove my point, I’ll give you an example from a class I taught yesterday.

We’re reading John Searle’s Mind: A Brief Introduction (Oxford, 2004) in my philosophy of mind class this term. We’re up to the chapter on free will. “The first thing to notice,” Searle asserts, when examining such concepts as “psychological determinism” and “voluntary action,” “is that our understanding of these concepts rests on an awareness of a contrast between the cases in which we are genuinely subject to psychological compulsion and those in which we are not” (156).

“What do you think of that statement?” I asked my students. “Is there anything wrong with it?”

“It’s begging the question,” responded Raub Dakwale, a political science major.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said smiling. “Searle is BEGGING THE QUESTION!” Mr. Big deal famous philosopher, John Searle, whose book was published by Oxford University Press, commits a fallacy that is easily identified by an undergraduate student who is not even a philosophy major. That is, the issue Searle examines in that chapter is whether we have free will. He even acknowledges that we sometimes think our actions are free when they clearly are not (the example he gives is of someone acting on a post-hypnotic suggestion, but other examples would be easy enough to produce).

But if we can be mistaken about whether a given action is free, how do we know that any of our actions are free? We assume that at least some of them are free because it sometimes seems to us that our actions are free and other times that they are compelled. But to say that it sometimes seems to us that our actions are free is a very different sort of observation from Searle’s that we are sometimes aware that we are not, in fact, subject to psychological compulsion.

To be fair to Searle, I should acknowledge that he appears to associate “psychological compulsion” with the conscious experience of compulsion, as opposed to what he calls “neurobiological determinism,” which compels action just as effectively as the former, but which is never “experienced” consciously at all. So a charitable reading of the passage above might incline one to the view that Searle was not actually begging the question in that an awareness of an absence of psychological compulsion does not constitute and awareness of freedom.

But alas, Searle has to restate his position in the very next page in a manner that is even more conspicuously question begging. “We understand all of these cases [i.e., various cases of unfree action],” he asserts, “by contrasting them with the standard cases in which we do have free voluntary action” (158, emphasis added).

You can’t get more question begging than that. The whole point is whether any human action is ever really free or voluntary. This move is in the same family with the purported refutation of skepticism that was making the rounds of professional philosophers when I was in graduate school, but which I hope since then has been exposed for the shoddy piece of reasoning that it was.

Back then, philosophers would claim that the classical argument in favor of skepticism rested on cases of perceptual illusion (e.g., Descartes’ stick that appears broken when half of it is submerged under water but which appears unbroken when removed from the water), but that perceptual illusions could be appreciated as such only when compared with what philosophers refer to as “veridical cases” of sense perception. That is, you know the stick is not really broken because removing it from the water reveals that it is not really broken. But if sense experience can reveal the truth about the stick, then the skeptics are mistaken.

But, of course, you don’t need to assume that the latter impression of the stick is veridical in order to doubt that sense experience could ever be veridical. All you need is two conflicting impressions of the same object and the assumption that the same stick cannot be both broken and straight. That is, all you need is two conflicting impressions of the same object and the law of non-contradiction to support skepticism. That seemed glaringly obvious to me when I was still a student, and yet scads of professional philosophers failed to grasp it.

Professional philosophers can be incredibly obtuse, and ordinary undergraduates, even today, with the right sort of help and encouragement, can expose that obtuseness. It’s a real thrill for a student to do that, to stand right up there with the big guys/gals and actually get the better of them in an argument, so to speak. It’s a thrill that is reserved, I believe, for philosophy. That is, it seems unlikely that anything comparable happens in the average calculus or organic chemistry class.

My point here is not to argue that philosophers in general are stupid, or even that Searle, in particular, is stupid. They aren’t, and he isn’t. Despite Searle’s occasional errors in reasoning, he’s one of the most original philosophers writing today. My point is that philosophy, as one of my colleagues put it recently, “is freakin’ hard.” It’s hard even after one has been rigorously schooled in it.

There’s no way to dumb down philosophy and have it still be philosophy. Philosophy is training in thinking clearly. There’s no way to make that easier for people, so why would anyone suggest that there was?

Perhaps it’s because philosophy is the discipline most threatening to the status quo, even more threatening than sociology. Sociology can educate people concerning the injustices that pervade contemporary society, but only training in critical and analytical thinking can arm people against the rhetoric that buttresses those injustices. This country, and indeed the world, would look very different today, if the average citizen back in 2001 had been able to recognize that “You’re either with us, or against us” was a false dichotomy.

(This piece originally appeared in the Nov. 22-24, 2013 Weekend Edition of CounterPunch)

On Teaching

Plato

Plato

I don’t remember ever forming the ambition to be a teacher. When I was very small, I used to play “teacher” with my dolls. I had a little slate that I would position for them as a blackboard and on which I would write my “lessons.” That was a child’s game though, not an ambition. I did it, I suppose, because school was a large part of the world of my experience, so when I was alone with my dolls I naturally imitated the few adults I’d had exposure to. That meant that if I wasn’t playing “mother,” I was playing “teacher.”

I was an art major when I first entered college. It had been drilled relentlessly into me that I would not be able to make a living as an artist, but that since I could draw, I would probably be able to make a living as a medical illustrator. So I enrolled at Ohio State, one of the few schools in the country that had a program in medical illustration. I did not fit well though into the community of art students, either at Ohio State, or at the Columbus College of Art and Design where I subsequently enrolled. I remained an art major, however, even after leaving both institutions, more out of a lack of imagination, I supposed, than out of positive commitment.

I studied, God knows what (I don’t remember now) at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle before, finally, ending up at Earlham, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, still an art major. I took some art classes, but I also took a philosophy class. I don’t remember what prompted me to take that class; I think some philosophy class must have been required for my major. The subject, I still remember, was rationalism and empiricism. It sounds very unromantic, but I loved it. I changed my major soon after that first class and took almost nothing but philosophy from that point on.

I didn’t particularly like reading philosophy, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I loved talking about it. I loved talking about it so much that I actually tried to talk to my father about Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics the first summer after I transferred to Earlham.

“All that stuff about ‘a prior synthetic cognition’ may be very interesting to you,” my father observed somewhat patronizingly, “but you’re not going to find many young men interested in it.” I didn’t bother him after that with philosophy. I kept it to myself, or at least kept it to myself until I was back at Earlham again and could drop by the office of my professor and advisor Bob Horn.

“Bob is God,” is what students at Earlham used to say about him. He was kind and patient and brilliant. He didn’t talk too much, the way I fear I tend to do with my own students now, but just enough, just enough to get, or keep, the conversation going. He was tolerant and understanding. He wrote on one of my friend’s papers, “Eric, I understand you as if through a cloud.”

Nearly every afternoon of my senior year was spent in his office. I would head there as soon as my classes were done for the day and sit in the slanting afternoon light and talk and talk and talk about the ideas that were always swarming in my head like so many bees. And he would smile patiently and respond occasionally with his vastly superior knowledge and wisdom. I never felt though that he was talking down to me. I felt as if we were kindred spirits, as if we connected at a level that is rarely reached by two human beings.

Even when I decided, in my senior year, to go to graduate school, it had not been because I’d harbored any ambitions of becoming a teacher, but because I couldn’t conceive of any other life than the one I’d come to know, the life of philosophy, the life of talking about philosophy with some kindred spirit. I was afraid of teaching, in the beginning, afraid I would never be more than a kind of fraud, afraid I would never be able to approach the knowledge and wisdom of my own professors, particularly Bob. I cherished a little hope, like a tiny flame in the darkness, that somehow graduate school would transform me into a paragon of philosophical knowledge, but that day never came. The more I learned, the clearer it became to me how very much there was to know, and how little of it I had actually mastered.

They ease you into teaching in graduate school. You start out as a teaching assistant, which means you are really sort of a glorified student so you don’t feel you have to be so knowledgeable as the professors but can luxuriate in the experience of being ever so slightly more knowledgeable than the students. I did that for a few years before finally teaching my first course, so even if I still felt something of a fraud when students referred to me as “professor,” my impostor syndrome was not quite so pronounced as it would have been if I’d been thrown into teaching right after I’d gotten my undergraduate degree.

I like people. I’m an animal lover and people are animals, so I like people as well as other animals. I was raised not to dissemble, so I didn’t pretend to know things I didn’t know, and I learned gradually that in fact, over time, I’d acquired a great deal of knowledge and that even if I still fell pitifully short of the standards of my own undergraduate professors (particularly Bob), I was actually in a position to be of some real, concrete help to my students.

I taught in Denmark for several years before I came to Drexel. I never had a student for more than one course when I taught in Denmark, however, because my students there were nearly always Americans or other non-Danish nationals who were taking their semester abroad. I loved my students, but in a very detached way. I never got to know any of them, really, but that was okay with me. I’ve always been kind of a loner. I liked engaging with them intellectually, but it didn’t bother me that I would have them for only one course and after that would never see them again.

My situation when I came to Drexel was not so different. Drexel didn’t allow students to major in philosophy. The best they could do was a minor. I didn’t mind that; in fact, I rather like it. I loved teaching, but I also loved writing, and the fact that my exposure to the lives of my students was very limited suited me well. I got to go into the classroom and do what I loved–talk about philosophy–without having to spend any time helping my students navigate the practical difficulties of their lives. I had all the fun of teaching, or so I thought, with none of the inconvenience.

But then someone senior to myself got the idea that we should offer a major in philosophy. Drexel had had one before but had jettisoned it after several professors retired and were not replaced. Philosophy students do inordinately well on the GREs, so it wasn’t too difficult to convince the dean that a philosophy major would be good for the university. I was ambivalent about it myself, though. I knew that if we had a major I would suddenly “have students” in a way I had never “had students” before and that these “students” would cut into my research time.

I couldn’t bring myself to protest the reinstatement of the major, but neither could I champion it. I sat by quietly with a curiosity not unlike that of a disinterested person watching a train wreck. I didn’t think our students were sufficiently prepared for such a rigorous and intellectually challenging major and I feared that I was emotionally incapable of forming the kind of attachment to them that it seemed to me was necessary for a productive mentoring relationship.

I like large chunks of time all to myself, time when I don’t have to see, attend to, or worry about anyone else. I couldn’t picture myself hanging out with my students, couldn’t imagine welcoming them into my office and cheerfully allowing them to monopolize my time the way Bob had allowed me to monopolize his. I liked my students, but more as abstract beings than as concrete ones. I knew that in this respect I fell short of the standard that Bob had set for me, but I had accepted long ago that I would never be able to meet any of Bob’s standards, Bob, after all was “God.”

But then when we got the major back, everything changed. As if out of nowhere students began to appear who stood out from the students I’d had before. They weren’t interested in philosophy; they were possessed, possessed as I had been all those years ago when I’d practically lived in Bob’s office. Not only did I have them for more than one class; I had them in more than one class at a time! I teach only two courses per term, so I was surprised to find that I had a couple of students in both my classes and not just for one term, but for several terms in a row.

Something else happened with the reinstatement of the major: the size of my classes shrank. Where before I’d been teaching critical reasoning to twenty-five students, I suddenly found I was teaching epistemology to ten, and ten students who were a cut above, at least in terms of their commitment to the material, the ones I had become used to.

I suddenly found myself caring about my students very much. I couldn’t help but get to know them. They would talk to me not simply about the material they had read for class, but about their lives and long-term ambitions and I realized that by that point in my life, I’d actually lived long enough to have acquired some wisdom that could be helpful to them with respect to these more general concerns. They would come talk to me, as I had to Bob, and I found to my surprise that I actually enjoyed talking to them, even about things that were not directly related to philosophy.

“Your students are not your friends,” a colleague once remarked when advising new faculty on the perils of socializing too much with students. He’s right, of course. There’s a certain responsibility in a pedagogical relationship. A teacher must never confide in a student, or look to a student for emotional support. It is perfectly appropriate for a student to do these things, however, with a teacher. A teacher stands in loco parentis. Most college students are young people who have not yet made their way in the world but who are going to college as part of their preparation for that. They are more than their student numbers. They are inexperienced adults who occasionally need support and guidance when contemplating life’s larger questions, or simply how to survive a term in which they are taking too many courses in order to minimize their student-loan debt.

A teacher cannot hold himself too emotionally aloof from his students and still be an effective teacher. The point of a liberal arts education is not merely to impart knowledge to students on a variety of subjects. It is not even to introduce them to the joys of the life of the mind. It is to help them to become happy and thriving adults, to help them in their pursuit of “the good life” in the classical sense. But that can be done only by teachers who are willing to engage with their students as human beings and who can draw on their own humanity, and not simply their intellects, in those relationships.

A teacher has to love his students in a manner that is perhaps unique to that relationship, and in that way teach them that it is natural for people to care about one another and that the world into which they are entering, though challenging, is a friendlier place than they may have thought.

The Mythical Socrates

I picked up a book recently called The Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2001). I’m interested in books like that, books that try to popularize philosophy. One of the things I love about teaching philosophy is that everyone has an interest in it. It’s not like teaching math or chemistry or some other special-interest topic. Everyone philosophizes, some people are better at it than other people, and some people take more pleasure in it than other people, but everyone does it to some extent. That makes it much easier to get a good discussion going in a philosophy class than it often is, I think, in other sorts of classes.

So anyway, as I was saying, I’m interested in books that attempt to popularize philosophy because I think that’s a very worthwhile project. Philosophers, God bless them, tend to be abysmal writers and hence real turnoffs to students who might actually be interested in their views if they could only get past the achingly awkward prose. I keep looking for a contemporary work that will take the time-honored insights of the great philosophers and express them in a way that is actually entertaining to read. Some of these new books do read pretty well, at least compared to Aristotle or Kant. I almost always give up on them though before I can finish them because they tend to be just a little bit patronizing and simplistic. The reason philosophers have been struggling with the same questions for millennia is not simply that they are perennial human questions. They are perennial human questions because none of them is simple and none admits of a simple answer.

That’s the difficulty with trying to popularize philosophy. There’s something about it, as a sustained activity in any case, that is inherently elitist. It’s difficult. It requires extraordinarily well-developed powers of concentration. I take great pains to explain this to my students. “You have to stick with it,” I tell them, “I know it’s frustrating and confusing, but if you just stick with it, it gets easier with time. You get better at it.” Reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (or the “first Critique” as we in the profession call it, to distinguish it from the second and third Critiques, those of Practical Reason and Judgment) used to make my head hurt, literally make my head hurt. And writing about that work, for the first time had an effect on me not unlike that of a hallucinogenic drug. Does “a priori synthetic cognition” actually mean anything I wondered with rising panic as I pecked away at my typewriter (oh yeah, that was back in the days when college students did their papers on typewriters). My thoughts seemed to have become unmoored from concrete reality, to have taken flight a là Munchausen into a fantastical realm populated with all sorts of fictional concepts that had no clear relation to anything real.

But then I read The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, which, despite the inclusion of the off-putting expression “metaphysics” in the title (I still don’t know what that means and endeavor simply to change the subject when my students ask), is much more accessible. It made me like Kant and figure that after all, there was probably some merit to the apparently impenetrable “first Critique.”

So I kept at it, not so much because I liked reading it, or writing about it (those are acquired tastes), but because, as I have written elsewhere, I liked talking about it and as with so much else in life, I understood that I had to take the good with the bad. I kept at it and got better at it. But it’s a lonely discipline in a way because it develops one’s analytical powers far beyond the state that everyday experience normally facilitates and so can cause one to find ordinary discourse enormously frustrating and counterproductive. I try to warn my students about this, particularly in my Critical Reasoning course where I endeavor not simply to help my students analyze arguments, but also to construct strong arguments of their own. I teach them to eschew such underhanded rhetorical devices as straw man and ad hominem arguments in favor of legitimate appeals to reason, but then explain with a certain melancholy that mastering genuine argument brings a very different kind of frustration from the one associated with the failure to master it. Once you get really good at this, I explain, you will find that there are relatively few people who will be able to appreciate your skill. People ought to be persuaded by the arguments you will make, but, many of them won’t be because they won’t be able to follow them. Many people will simply refuse, for example, to accept that the straw man and ad hominem arguments are not legitimate and will continue to use them and myriad other illegitimate argumentative strategies in response to your sound logic and you should not be surprised, I continue, if it happens that the majority of your audience assesses your idiot opponent’s argument as in fact stronger than your own. (I try to make this little speech before the official drop deadline. It seems only fair, and I often do lose a few of the less stout hearted at that point.)

Philosophy is thus an intellectually elitist discipline. I don’t know if it has to be that way. Differences of temperament would mean, of course, that even in an ideal society, philosophy would have more appeal for some people than for others. Ours in not an ideal society however. We seem to do everything within our power to impede the development of sound reasoning in the populace. We have been trying since the dawn of this “great nation,” to reserve genuine education not for those who demonstrate intellectual aptitude, but for the economically elite, and even they receive an education that is far too authoritarian to be optimally effective in developing reasoning powers. And as if the wretched state of our educational system were not bad enough, we add insult to the injury it inflicts on the minds of the citizenry by showering them with public discourse that is nothing buy empty platitudes and a parade of the very same fallacious arguments that are cataloged in informal logic texts, as well as with marketing strategies such as “branding” that are effectively a repackaging of the notorious technique of ancient sophists of making the weaker argument appear the stronger. It’s a wonder that anyone in contemporary American culture is able to preserve enough of his or her reason to understand the basic relations of cause and effect (and in fact, many do tend to confuse correlation with causation).

Sound reasoning is a skill that has to be cultivated and which it requires some time to cultivate. Most people are not, in fact, particularly good at it partly through lack of adequate instruction, and partly through lack of time. The average person has very little time to devote to such an esoteric enterprise and if that’s true now, it was even truer in Socrates’ day. That’s the first thing that put me off about Phillips’ book, The Socrates Café. His Socrates is a mythical reconstruction of what we know of the real man. Socrates, he asserts, talked with everyone, with the common man on the street. Socrates, he continues, didn’t think “knowledge was the rarified domain of so-called intellectuals” (8). The latter claim may be true, but the former emphatically is not. Socrates did not spend his time conversing with the man on the street. His interlocutors were aristocrats, important public figures, the wealthy, people who had time to hang out all day and talk, figures such as Critias and Charmides, members of the notorious group, referred to as “the thirty tyrants,” who ruled Athens after its defeat by Sparta. , Nicias, Laches and Meno, military and political leaders duiring the Pelopennesian war, Euthyphro, a recognized authority on matters of religion, and Gorgias a famous orator.

The sarcasm in Socrates’ protestations that he wanted to learn from his interlocutors is obvious to scholars who know anything about the history of Athens of the period, but is apparently lost on the general public. Phillips admits at one point that “in some instances [Socrates] seems intentionally to try to make those who claim to know ‘the way, the truth, and the light’ look bad, or at least silly” (18). I would argue, however, that he is nearly always doing this. Socrates, at least Plato’s Socrates was a ruthless exposer of intellectual ineptitude and hypocrisy and not merely in the abstract as was the case, for example with Nietzsche, but concretely. Socrates’ little dialogues were a kind of blood sport the victims of which were famous public figures. I’ve often wondered whether Plato’s Socrates was Plato’s way of avenging himself on the culture that had condemned and executed his mentor. There’s long been speculation concerning how closely Plato’s Socrates reflects the real man. Perhaps the real man was more benign than the Platonic reconstruction of him. The question, however, is merely academic because it is Plato’s Socrates people have in mind when they go on about how egalitarian and democratic he was, how he would converse with anyone. Few people seem to understand that the contemporary counterpart of one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues would be a public interrogation of Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, not the sort of impromptu discussion Phillips conducts amongst people who wander into the average Barnes and Noble.

Phillips claims he wants to converse with “everyman” and “everywoman” (8). If you actually try this, however, you will find it unutterably frustrating. Just because someone wants to talk, does not mean he’s going to talk sense. It’s not difficult to get together a group of people who enjoy spending an evening shouting platitudes at one another, or reducing sound statements to meaninglessness through over analysis . “[T]he one firm and lasting truth that has emerged from all the Socrates Café discussions I’ve taken part in,” asserts Phillips, “is that it is not possible to examine, scrutinize, plumb, and mine a question too thoroughly and exhaustively” (9). I would argue, however, that that it is possible to examine a question too much, that it is possible to dissect legitimate questions in such an arbitrary and capricious manner that they eventually seem meaningless. Much of what passes for philosophical dialogue is often just such chatter. It seems to me that sometimes when people think they are doing philosophy, they are really only exercising their lungs in the way physicians say babies do when they cry.

There’s a difference between liking to talk and wanting to get at the truth. There are many more people who enjoy the sound of their own voice than there are people who want to find truth. It’s a myth that you can do philosophy with anyone. You ought to be able to, of course, because, as I observed at the beginning of this essay, everyone philosophizes, at least to some extent. The problem is that most people do it poorly (whether because of nature or nurture, I don’t know). To assert, however, that philosophy is an intellectually elitist discipline is not to say that it is properly reserved for professionals. There are plenty of professional philosophers who are more enamored of the sound of their own voice than of the truth. To say that philosophy is intellectually elitist is to say that it appeals to a rarified portion of humanity–the real thinkers.

Part of my job, I feel, as a philosophy professor, is to increase the proportion of real thinkers in the population, to expose people to the joys of thought, of the contemplative life. It is impossible, after all, to have a taste for something one has never experienced. There are so few opportunities to experience genuine intellectual stimulation in our anti-intellectual culture that I assume many of my students will be encountering it for the first time. I try to bring the joy I take from it with me into the classroom because people are animals and can thus sense, on an animal level, when someone is excited. I figure if they sense I am excited about my discipline that they will assume there’s something inherently exciting about it and hence become interested in it.

I look at my students when I talk to them. I try to look at all of them, to make eye contact with each of them in the course of a single lecture. It’s a challenge though because by about the third class there is always this select little group of three, or four, or five, who are hanging on my every word, and not because of any particular affection they have for me, but because they have come, as Kierkegaard would say, under the sway of the idea, and I find myself almost irresistibly drawn to speaking to them rather than to the class as a whole.

That’s a beautiful thing to behold, a young face illuminated by the joy of thought. It’s this particular joy, I believe, that distinguishes human beings from other animals. Everything else we do, even making tools, would appear to distinguish us only quantitatively rather than qualitatively from other creatures. Only the capacity to become enraptured by thought appears completely unique to human beings. It’s part of our distinctive beauty as a species, like speed, or agility, or even cunning distinguishes other species. But if all human beings have this capacity, few seem to realize it. That’s a mystery to me. I like to think it’s more nurture than nature that’s the problem. I thus try, both in the classroom and outside, to make up for what I fear are certain deficiencies in the intellectual environments of my students.

I know though, I know going into a classroom, that there will be only a few in each group who will respond. It’s these few I look for as my eyes scan the horizon of faces. Kierkegaard was fond of referring to his “reader” in the singular. I used to think that that was just one of his eccentricities. It makes sense to me now though. There are always only a few genuine thinkers in every group. Socrates understood that. He knew that however large were the crowds that would gather at his spectacles of intellectual flaying, there were only a few who were really listening.

There are always only a few who really listen. Still, one never knows who those few will be. That’s the sense in which philosophy is egalitarian even if, sadly, it is not for everyone. Socrates understood that. He knew you couldn’t really converse with everyone. He was looking for those few real thinkers just as assuredly as Diogenes was looking for those few honest men. He never tired of that search though, and neither do I.

The Emergence of Love

Philosophers speak of what they call “emergent properties,” qualities attributable to combinations of things that cannot be reduced to the component parts. Liquidity is the classic example. It is a quality of water that cannot be reduced to the atomic structure of water molecules. A molecule of water, or of any liquid, does not itself have the property of liquidity. Only a collection of molecules has this property. Liquidity is a property that seems, in effect, to come out of nowhere in that it cannot be found in the molecules that make up the substance. It “emerges,” as philosophers say, from combinations of elements that do not, individually possess it. It’s a phenomenal property of objects and though nearly all, if not absolutely all, of our experience of the world around us consists of an appreciation of such phenomena, they are still, in a sense, profoundly mysterious.

We think of such properties as inhering in objects, but in fact, as Kant showed, there is an important sense in which they are not in the objects as they are in themselves, but in the perceiver. An affection is like that. We think it inheres in its object, but in fact, it inheres in the one whose affection it is. Also, like an emergent property, there is always a “more” to it that cannot be reduced to the individual characteristics of its object. We form affections, we think, based on a person’s characteristics, things such as intelligence, appearance, wit, similarities of tastes and interests, moral outlook. We are forced to admit, however, when we reflect on this, that the affection itself is not reducible to an appreciation of the individual components of the person, but is something that transcends them. That’s why love has so often been viewed as a kind of illness. There is something inexplicable about it.

“Why do you love that person?” someone will ask, knowing even before the question is finished the futility of expecting a satisfactory answer. And you will enumerate all the virtues of the object of your affection, knowing even before the list is finished, that it is insufficient, that even if your interlocutor would agree that the person in question did possess these qualities that he would still not love the person as you did.

There is always a “more” to an affection that is profoundly mysterious even though it is something that in a way we all appreciate and in that sense is very commonplace. It is, in itself, no more mysterious, I suppose, than any other emergent property. What is strange about it though is that it is so subjective. Even if emergent properties, in an important sense, inhere in the perceiver rather than in the object of perception, they appear to inhere in all perceivers equally. Water has liquidity for everyone. A person, in contrast, is ordinarily beloved by only a select few. Just as, contra Kant, we tend to take the phenomenal properties of objects to represent to us their true nature, we tend to think affections represent to us the true nature of their objects. To people who do not share them though, they always seem at least mildly, and sometimes even extremely, delusional. That’s why love has so often been equated not merely with a type of illness in the physical sense, but with a type of madness. It’s sometimes characterized as a kind of “divine madness,” and this, I think, is because the vision it gives us of another is so heartrendingly beautiful.

I like to think that loves allows us to see people, if sometimes briefly and always selectively, the way God sees them. I don’t know why we don’t always see everyone in this way, except that perhaps, as organic creatures, we don’t have the energy to do that. God’s energy, however, is not like our own. It is not exhaustible, so there is really no obstacle, in principle, to God’s loving everyone completely in a way that we can love only a few people selectively.

The “more” of an affection always seems to me something divine, something that makes one grateful, not just for the beloved, but for everything in creation that is beautiful and wonderful. So even though it is, in a sense, very commonplace, the emergence of love is still, in another sense, miraculous.