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Are We Stories? Do We Want to Be? November 26, 2014

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Philosophy of Literature.
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Every student of mine will know that sooner or later I will be introducing them to some story which illustrates some philosophical idea to perfection. And I am indeed a firm believer in the ability of good stories–film as well as literature–to provide the “meat” for the “bones” of a dry or complicated philosophical theory, especially in moral philosophy. Just think of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a critical expose of utilitarianism. The film Extreme Measures, same thing. Ethical relativism, look no further than Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. And my latest addition to the moral universe of fiction: The television series Longmire, with Sheriff Walt Longmire being the most Kantian of heroes since Will Kane in High Noon. But rarely do we get into the core of narratology, the notion of personhood being inexorably linked with the ability of a person to tell his or her own story; it is really only in my Phil 111, Philosophy in Literature class that we have the luxury of getting into that corner of philosophy and storytelling. But this is where the field first saw the light of day, in the 1980s and 1990s, with philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricoeur, Martha Nussbaum, Daniel Dennett, and a number of literature people such as Wayne Booth and David Carr. The idea that we become who we are because of our capacity to “connect the dots” in our lives into a narrative whole has caught on so that narratology today has two distinct areas, an epistemological/ontological side where the personal narrative becomes our human mode of being, and the ethical one where gathering one’s events into a story becomes a moral requirement in order to be a human being with care and direction.

But now there are voices, questioning the truth of “humans being storytelling animals,” at least as far as our own stories go. Because when we tell the story of our life, we are (like Ricoeur said) always in the middle, we don’t remember our beginning, and we won’t be able to tell the story of our end. In New Philosopher 11/25/2014 Patrick Stokes writes,

Biographers can describe a human life in narrative terms quite successfully, but they can only do so successfully from a certain distance, leaving out lots of trivial everyday detail. Zoom in close enough, and the ‘story’ of a human life starts to look like a pretty ineptly-scripted one, full of abandoned subplots and details that signify nothing and go nowhere.

Our lives don’t always resolve across a neat five-act structure either. 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that the final act is always bloody, but very often that final act comes out of nowhere, a jarring interruption to the narrative coherence of our lives rather than a neat conclusion. And even if our lives are stories, we won’t be around to find out how they end.

That’s a problem for narrativists, because how stories end is central to their meaning. An alternative version of Romeo and Juliet where the protagonists survive isn’t the same story with a different ending – it’s a completely different story. The narrative meaning of everything leading up to the end turns out to be very different.

Stories have narrative shape, and only things with boundaries can have a shape. How a story begins and ends is an integral part of its narrative meaning and trajectory. But we have no idea how our lives will end, and quite possibly won’t know about it when they do. If that happens, we won’t ever have access to the final narrative meaning of our lives, we will never have known whether it was a tragic story of star-crossed loves or a tale of triumph. It’s like we’re watching a movie where we actually have some direct control of the plot, but realise we might never find out how it ends.

For one thing, Ricoeur solved that one, in his book Oneself as Another: He says to imagine one’s ending, and relate to the imaginary unity of one’s life that way. We can’t control our fate, but we can influence its direction through the story we tell. But there is another problem with seeing our lives as stories, and that is something that has made me a little more reluctant to embrace the theory of us being our stories. Because a good story, in order to have a point, invariably has to involve problems, problems that will then get resolved at the end. Maybe even horrific problems, tragedies, horror stories, tales of loss and grief, the depths of human misery. Because nobody wants their life to be a comedy, right? So if our story is supposed to be serious, we must embrace the drama, the tragedy. But perhaps most of us would rather just have a boring, safe life with predictable events, just some fun, some love, some sweetness, and then whatever problems that arise, get rid of them/get over them as fast as we can? But those lives don’t make great stories. In order to leave behind a worthy tale of our lives, we need to include the drama, the tragic, and then overcome it through a character arc.
Aside from the fact that most people’s lives will include tragedy whether we want it or not, it hardly seems like something to strive for, just so we can say that we improved on our character. Maybe most of us would prefer to read/watch fictional stories and biographies about other people’s tragedies and hope those things don’t happen to us…
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Chris Dorner: Not a Folk Hero February 14, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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It seems the saga of former LAPD cop and spree killer Chris Dorner has now come to an end, in a way that he himself predicted: He would not survive to experience the fallout. And I suspect that many of you, like myself, have been eerily mesmerized by the unfolding story over the past week. More fortunate than most, I have been able to discuss the case with a bunch of intelligent students, and we have exchanged viewpoints. I have also listened to talk shows, read online commentaries, followed news briefs, and read most of the Manifesto which Dorner had posted to Facebook. And I’m sitting here with a very bad feeling—not just for the four people who fell victims to Dorner’s vengeful rage, and for their families, but a bad feeling about the voices in the media who somehow seem to have elevated Dorner to some sort of folk hero, a Rambo, a Jason Bourne kind of character (as a guest on a talk show pointed out). When such views have been expressed, they have generally been prefaced with, “Yes, of course what he has done is wrong, BUT he has a point,” or “Of course he shouldn’t kill people, BUT even so, he is fighting the good fight.” In other words, his actions may be wrong/over the top, but somehow it is in a noble cause.

Now that upsets me. It upsets me, because that kind of evaluation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the connection between having a cause and taking action, and perhaps even a politically motivated willingness to overlook certain very disturbing facts in favor of some subtext that some people feel ought to be promoted, such as “the LAPD is in need of reforms.”

So let us look at what Dorner actually did (allegedly, of course): He shot and killed a young woman and her fiance. The young woman was the daughter of an ex-cop from the LAPD who had been Dorner’s lawyer. He also shot and killed a Riverside police officer, as well as a San Bernardino deputy. In addition, he deprived three people of their right not to have their liberty interfered with (he tied up an elderly boat owner in San Diego, and two maids in Big Bear), he wounded several police officers, and he stole two cars. And for what purpose? In the Facebook Manifesto he states it clearly: Because he felt that he had been wronged when fired from the LAPD in 2009, he felt that the only way to “clear his name” was to kill members of the LAPD and their families.

Martha Nussbaum, the American philosopher, says that emotions should be considered morally relevant, provided that they are reasonable, meaning that they arise as a logical response to a situation, and thus inspire moral decisions/actions that are somehow reasonable/proportionate to the event that caused the anger (Nussbaum is also a philosopher of law). So let us allow for the possibility that Dorner experienced an emotion that was a relevant response to his (perhaps) unfair dismissal from the LAPD: He was angry. But exactly what is reasonable anger? That would be (according to Aristotle, whom Nussbaum admired) righteous anger that is directed toward the right people, for the right reason, at the right time, in the right amount. But even if he was unfairly dismissed (which is a common experience for many people), and even if he had experienced racism at his workplace,  would it ever be morally reasonable for him to exact revenge on the daughter of his lawyer? Or her fiance? Neither of them had anything to do with his being fired. The murders were simply a means to cause pain to her father. (For you Kant-aficionados: Dorner used his lawyer’s daughter merely as a means to an end to get back at him.)  The moment Dorner made good on his threat to start killing the relatives of LAPD officers was the moment where he lost any claim to a moral high ground, any claim to a righteous anger or any claim to taking justifiable action. That was the moment when he went from somebody with possibly a justified grievance to merely being a thug, and a petty, selfish one at that, taking his anger out on innocent victims.

And the killing of Riverside and San Bernardino law enforcement officers? That seems to have been dictated by his poor judgment, and his attempt to escape the dragnet cast over all of Southern California, not by his manifesto. He claimed to go after LAPD officers because the LAPD had “done him wrong,” but in the end, it was Riverside and San Bernardino that lost members of their police departments.  We can discuss, in the weeks to come, whether he was actually mentally stable in his final week. We can discuss whether the manifesto reveals an intelligent, reflective mind, or a person on the brink of insanity. We can discuss whether another outcome had been possible. We can even discuss whether his manifesto made some valid points. But the fact that he broke the basic covenant that he had been taught, as a police officer, to protect and serve those who need protection, and showed abysmal disregard for the lives of innocents, resulting in a chain of events that cost additional lives, removes him from the realm of folk heroes and reduces him to merely another criminal who will be remembered for the lives he took, not for his rationale. Even if it should turn out that original rationale may have been justified—he may have been right that he was treated unjustly—that does not justify in any way what he has done.  And for some media voices to overlook that fact is very disturbing…

Can Novels Be Philosophical? Part 2 February 6, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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In his NY Times article from Jan.20 James Ryerson brought up arguments supporting the view that there is a world of difference between the analytical arguments of philosophy and the murky feelings of literature (see blogpost below). But he also cites opposing views:

Of course, such oppositions are never so simple. Plato, paradoxically, was himself a brilliant literary artist. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard were all writers of immense literary as well as philosophical power. Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and George Santayana have written novels, while novelists like Thomas Mann and Robert Musil have created fiction dense with philosophical allusion. Some have even suggested, only half in jest, that of the brothers William and Henry James, the philosopher, William, was the more natural novelist, while the novelist, Henry, was the more natural philosopher.

David Foster Wallace, who briefly attended the Ph.D. program in philosophy at Harvard after writing a first-rate undergraduate philosophy thesis (published in December by Columbia University Press as “Fate, Time, and Language”), believed that fiction offered a way to capture the emotional mood of a philosophical work. The goal, as he explained in a 1990 essay in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, wasn’t to make “abstract philosophy ‘accessible’ ” by simplifying ideas for a lay audience, but to figure out how to recreate a reader’s more subjective reactions to a philosophical text.

Unlike Murdoch, Gass and Wallace, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose latest novel is “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” treats philosophical questions with unabashed directness in her fiction, often featuring debates or dialogues among characters who are themselves philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Still, she says that part of her empathizes with Murdoch’s wish to keep the loose subjectivity of the novel at a safe remove from the philosopher’s search for hard truth. It’s a “huge source of inner conflict,” she told me. “I come from a hard-core analytic background: philosophy of science, mathematical logic. I believe in the ideal of objectivity.” But she has become convinced over the years of what you might call the psychology of philosophy: that how we tackle intellectual problems depends critically on who we are as individuals, and is as much a function of temperament as cognition. Embedding a philosophical debate in richly imagined human stories conveys a key aspect of intellectual life. You don’t just understand a conceptual problem, she says: “You feel the problem.”

So according to Ryerson there are indeed authors whose work straddle the two fields—but I’m curious about his approach, because it seems to be exclusively from the viewpoint of analytic philosophy that a gap exists: Continental philosophers have traditionally felt far closer to fictional literature, and continental authors have blended philosophical thoughts into their works, as Ryerson himself mentions. Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, spent decades teaching his readers about the value of narrative philosophy. Here in this country similar lessons have been taught since the 1980s by literature people such as Wayne Booth and Hayden White. But even in contemporary American philosophy there is an increasing rapprochement between literature and philosophy; I’m surprised that Ryerson doesn’t even mention the one contemporary American philosopher who, perhaps more than anybody else, has seen the philosophical value in fiction without getting hung up on whether fiction displays formal arguments and “hard truths”: Martha Nussbaum. And if we want to look for an American novelist who has excelled in writing fictional works of moral philosophy where the reader doesn’t choke on formal arguments, but instead sees moral deliberations come alive through his characters, John Steinbeck is probably the best example of a writer who fuses literature and ethics—to the profound irritation of literary critics, because he broke with the standard rules of literature. From Of Mice and Men to East of Eden, and in particular The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck weaves philosophical arguments about right and wrong, good and evil, into his storylines. And if you read Stephen K. George’s collections of essays, John Steinbeck and Moral Philosophy, and John Steinbeck and His Contemporaries, as well as Ethics, Literature, and Theory, you’ll find that a new generation of literature critics and moral philosophers have no problem recognizing philosophical fiction as simultaneously  representative of good philosophy and good fiction.

Martha Nussbaum’s Calcutta Interview December 17, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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Philosophybites tweets that American philosopher Martha Nussbaum was just interviewed in the Calcutta newspaper The Telegraph. The interview conducted by Somak Ghoshal focuses on her interest in Rabindranath Tagore, but she also expresses her views on philosophy as a discipline, and her interest in the value of emotions–an interest that she has expressed long before the current trend, ever since her book Love’s Knowledge (1990).

…The arts and the humanities are being cut back, education now is about producing useful bodies that can increase the national profit.” Tagore, too, had outlined such a conflict between the moral man and the man of limited purpose in The Religion of Man.

I ask her if philosophy, which is usually looked down upon as a “useless subject”, especially in countries such as India, has been the worst hit. Nussbaum agrees. “In the US, at least, the study of philosophy forms some part of a liberal education. Students take general courses in it before majoring in something else,” she says. “But in the British system, which is similar to the Indian system, students have to focus on only one subject. In that case, what does philosophy do for you?” In a recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum makes a powerful connection between democracy, imagination and empathy. “Every single university student should study philosophy,” she says with a disarming earnestness, “You need to lead the examined life and question your beliefs. If you don’t learn critical thinking, then political debate degenerates into a contest of slogans.” She believes this process has set in in the US, where debate is used to attack others, not as a tool to understand the structure of an argument. “Socrates was right when he said that democracies are prone to sloppy, hasty reasoning,” she says, “People need to slow down and analyse what they are saying. Tagore understood this too well, and so the style of instruction in his school was Socratic.”

Does she feel that Tagore is trying to forge a new philosophical language to talk about education in The Religion of Man? Is that why he seems to waver between an emotional and an empirical register? “Mill, too, had argued that a full human life requires a balance between the analytical faculties and a deep, spiritual appreciation of beauty,” Nussbaum clarifies, “You must be able to appreciate the depth of another human being.” “But,” she continues, “Tagore is better than Mill because he thinks about love.” In fact, Nussbaum’s current project is “a long book on political emotions” where she shows that society can’t be held together merely “by cold feelings of respect” — there must be room for love.

The Value of Education September 30, 2009

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy.
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Martha Nussbaum’s recent back to school message makes a crucial point in defense of the humanities:

It’s easy to think that college classes are mainly about preparing you for a job. But remember: this may be the one time in your life when you have a chance to think about the whole of your life, not just your job. Courses in the humanities, in particular, often seem impractical, but they are vital, because they stretch your imagination and challenge your mind to become more responsive, more critical, bigger. You need resources to prevent your mind from becoming narrower and more routinized in later life. This is your chance to get them.

This is the sort of argument that is typically ignored in the zeal to show how education improves job prospects. Job prospects are important but are not the primary aim of education.