Saturday November 10, 2007
To say more than human things with human voice,
That cannot be; to say human things with more
Than human voice, that, also, cannot be;
To speak humanly from the height or from the depth
Of human things, that is acutest speech
Wallace Stevens is one of those poets who I find I like more when I’m not reading him than when I am. There’s something about his poems that burns away in the mind and draws me back to them, although when I am actually reading them, I find myself frustrated by what sometimes seems like an air of fussiness and pedantry. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about Wallace Stevens recently because I’ve just finished reading Martha Nussbaum’s excellent book The Therapy of Desire, which explores Hellenistic therapeutic philosophy, in particularly Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism. The book is impressively and carefully argued, and a very enjoyable read, but it also shifted my perspective on the various traditions of philosophy in the Hellenistic period. I have never found Stoicism philosphically very appealing, and I have always tended much more towards Epicureanism, particularly in the form it appears in Lucretius; but Nussbaum’s book is excellent in its discussion of the methodology of the philosophy of these ancient schools, and to my surprise, although I don’t really get on with the results of Stoic inquiry, I find that its methodology, with its emphasis upon mutuality and openness, is in the end more appealing than that of the early Epicureans, which seems to be more closed and restrictive in its range.
Anyway, the Wallace Stevens quote comes from the final chapter of the book, and is, I think, well chosen. Why the philosophy of the Hellenistic period is appealing, at least to me, is that it genuinely attempts to speak of human things with human voice. It thinks from within life and within human concerns, and attempts to address the question how am I to live?, not as an abstraction, but as a question of practice. And in its discussion of human things, it exhibits a broad range of topics of inquiry and of methodological approaches that is impressive.
Yet to speak of human things with human voice is, I think, a difficult thing, and I wonder if it is something that contemporary philosophy is poor at, in at least two respects. Firstly, so much philosophy seems to ignore so much of what it is to be human. Let me take an example. At a conference a couple of years back where there was a great deal of discussion about the phenomenology of eating, I asked the following question: why do we spend so much time talking about the phenomenology of eating, but nobody mentions the phenomenology of shitting? There was an awkward laugh, then a silence, and then the speaker rambled on for a long time about why the phenomenology of shitting was philosophically trivial. End of subject. But I’m not sure it is trivial (at least, no more or less trivial than the phenomenlogy of eating or phenomenology in general). Since then I have been wondering what are the things that philosophy fails to speak of. This, to me, is the first problem: philosophy doesn’t speak of human experience in its fullness. In its attempt to turn human existence into something more grandiose than it is, it limits the aspects of human existence that it considers worthy of philosophical reflection. By trying to speak of more than human things, it leaves out many of the human things about which it could legitimately and, perhaps, usefully speak. It speaks less of human things in its attempt to speak of more than human things.
The second issue is perhaps the same, but applied not to the object of philosophy, but to the means. A quick read of academic philosophical journals will show, in general, a limited and somewhat impoverished use both of language and of the methods of thinking that are considered philosophically respectable, as if the philosophy is written within very narrow confines that place unnecessary restrictions upon the ways that we can think about the world. Part of this, I suspect, is that philosophers often long for a pure, lucid philosophical language – a more than human voice – that can rise above the mire of our everyday confusions and perplexities. Yet in the search for this voice, the worry is that philosophy might, in the end, find itself saying less than it otherwise could. So it is good to have Wallace Stevens and Martha Nussbaum there, to remind us of what it might be to speak of human things with human voice. It is a considerable task, on that is not to be underestimated. But I think it is a worthwhile one.
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