To Live After, and During, the Reflection

To Live After, and During, the Reflection

Nakul Krishna, a graduate student at Oxford, has written a beautiful essay at The Point called “Add Your Own Egg.” Go read it, and we can talk about it here, if you’d like.

The essay originates from the feeling that something is missing from contemporary philosophical practice. It is not a piece of simple declinism that romanticizes the past. Rather, it wonders whether philosophers are paying enough attention to living, and wonders how this might affect how they think philosophically.

It was the coldest I had ever known it to be. The clocks went back and it was dark by teatime. I lived on the taste of those succulent Latinate phrases (de dicto, ex hypothesi, a fortiori), on the glow of having made a subtle distinction or scored a palpable hit. It was nothing like I had expected philosophy to be, this self-contained, largely ahistorical, resolutely anti-literary enterprise, faintly embarrassed to be sharing institutional space with the other disciplines in the humanities.

Those I asked said the central question of modern moral philosophy remained the one Socrates identified in Plato’s Republic: How to live? But answering it seemed to require a detour that went right past the humanities, perhaps right past the human itself. I’m not sure that bothered me at the time. I thought I was happy, and that it was the philosophy I loved. I now suspect that what I loved was the being good at it.

Krishna holds up Bernard Williams as a model. It is not just his resistance to systematizing theories, nor his moral conservatism—both ingredients in his characteristic work—which appeal to Krishna. It’s also his style, which mixes intellectual power and humility while at the same time inviting the reader to think, and then live with those thoughts:

If Williams’s prose stands up to rereading, as analytic philosophy seldom does, it’s because it leaves, in its epigrammatic compression, room for its readers to add something of themselves to it….

Williams wouldn’t grant the assumption that one should write, as the Roman rhetorician Quintilian had recommended, so that one cannot be misunderstood. Williams thought this advice indeterminate—misunderstood by whom? One writes for an imagined reader with whom one shares something: intelligence, seriousness, knowledge and so forth. “But that reader will also have thoughts of his own, ways of understanding which will make something out of the writing different from anything the writer thought of putting into it. As it used to say on packets of cake mix, he will add his own egg.” A reader’s thought, Williams said, “cannot simply be dominated … his work in making something of this writing is also that of making something for himself.”

I personally do not share Krishna’s worries about philosophy. That’s not to say there aren’t philosophers who are just frictionlessly spinning in the void, detached from life, and who fail to see this. It’s just that I don’t think such philosophers make up the majority of the profession. I also don’t share his apparent view that the dualism of practical reason is overcome by, say, things like preferences for “caring for someone (rather than everyone)” (he may have more to say on that score). Nonetheless, Krishna is a thoughtful writer who is able to raise uncomfortable questions for philosophers, draw out some valuable insights from Williams, and give a deeper take on the finding of balance between work and life.

egg mix

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Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Wonderful essay. It’s great to hear new voices in philosophy.

It seems to me Krishna though doesn’t address a main worry with Williams’ view: how to do moral philosophy in a non-abstract, humanizing way in a pluralistic academic philosophy? Yes, let’s include more of the particularity of people’s lives in our theorizing. What does that look like though when the particularities include a wide range of backgrounds, with the people theorizing together often being unaware of each others’ particularities?

I think that, like MacIntyre or Anscombe, Williams saw the limits of “modern moral philosophy”, but instead of dealing head on with the pluralism worry, looked mainly back to ancient Greek thinkers as a paradigm. This dichotomy betwen Western ancients or western moderns leaves out altogether the pluralism issue, since pluralism complicates the question of how ancient and modern are defined to begin with.

Williams is great, but what is needed now are new ways of expanding on Williams’ view which confronts the pluralism issue much more directly. I don’t see the answer in Williams’ work. But that might be an exciting way to build on Williams.Report

Monica Solomon
Monica Solomon
5 years ago

I loved this essay. I am trying to find the author’s email so that I can send him a note of thanks. Thank you for sharing it, Justin.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t struck by this reading as mainly an apology or an ad for Williams’s work. (And, really, I see no problem if it were.) I appreciated the way in which the readings of certain philosophers (Williams in this case) are intertwined with our own intellectual development. One almost gets the impression from this essay that, as philosophers in training, we end up being brewed cups of tea: the things we read and devote our energies to will infuse the kinds of writers, thinkers, and philosopher that we are. 🙂 A really lovely piece, and, like all good philosophy, peppered with many occasions for further reflection. Report