Friday January 15, 2010
The other day, I was browsing through the town library here in Leicester, and I decided to have a look through the shelves of books in Chinese, to see if I could find anything to give me a bit of reading practice. It was there that I stumbled across, How to Marry a Western Woman, a handy guide for the Chinese male; and although I’ve no plans to marry a Western woman just yet, I though that this would be worth a look given that I had fifteen minutes to spare. Because, after all, you never know… Anyway, as I was making my way through the book, I came across a passage in which several topics of conversation were suggested, just as ice breakers. And here I found the following interesting assertion: that one of the most popular questions amongst Westerners is this: “What do you want to be doing in ten years’ time?”
Now, I’m not sure whether this really is the killer chat-up line that the authors of the book might like to claim; but, anyway, this all got me thinking. Over a year back, when I was applying for university jobs, I found that almost inevitably I would be asked this question during the interview; and almost inevitably I found myself at a loss when it came to answering it. And part of the reason for this is that I have always had a strong sense of the contingency of things. The idea that the world just gets on with doing the same old thing (and that we ourselves remain the same), is possible only with a hearty dose of amnesia. The thing about the future is that it is fundamentally unforeseeable. That doesn’t mean that we cannot make plans, attend to the way things seem to be going, and so on. But it does mean that these plans need to be held rather lightly, that we should be cautious about fixing them in stone.
Recently I was reading a delightful essay by François Jullien called “Did Philosophers Have to Become Fixated on Truth?” (see the link here – although sadly this is only accessible by members of subscribing institutions), which explores this question in the light of Chinese thought. Jullien’s essay ends with an exploration of the term dao (道) – often translated as “way” – as it appears in early Chinese thought. Whilst we are familiar with metaphors of paths in the West, Jullien’s claim is that in the Chinese context, this way is not a way that goes anywhere. What constitutes the way is not that it gets you to anywhere in particular, but that it is viable. Here is a short passage:
The way recommended by wisdom leads to nothing. No truth – revealed or discovered – constitutes its destination. As wisdom sees it, the essential quality of the way is that it is viable. It does not lead to any goal, but one can pass along it, one always can pass along it, so one can always move on (instead of becoming bogged down or finding one’s path blocked). It is a practicable way.
There is, I think, something in this. Seen from the point of view of philosophy, it suggests to me an approach to thinking recalls Calvino’s passage where he writes of words as a “perpetual pursuit of things, as a perpetual adjustment to their infinite variety” (see his Six Memos for the Next Millennium). It suggests, that is, an approach to thinking that can respond with agility and lightness to the fact of change, to the unforeseeability of things. That’s not to say that there are not patterns, that there is not such a thing as justified and justifiable belief (or, conversely, unjustified and unjustifiable belief); but it is see thinking as having a rather different purpose from that which we might often grant it.
About ten years ago, a friend asked me what I wanted out of life. I said back then that what I wanted was to have interesting conversations. At the time, this seemed a strange thing to say, and even at the time I was not entirely sure what I meant. But, looking back, what I think I perhaps could have meant was not that I wanted to spend my days in hot debate about the Meaning of Life, but rather that my sense of a life well-lived is rooted not in an idea of some final destination, but rather in a kind of open-ended engagement with things and with others. Conversation, after all, is not really a means to an end, or only minimally so. It is not really a path anywhere, but it is a kind of attention to the changeability of things and to their unfolding. And there’s something attractive in the idea of a broadly conversational life, a life of this kind of engagement.
Glancing back over these few thoughts as they have unfolded, from cross-cultural conversational ice-breakers to Jullien’s viable way, to Calvino and back to the question of conversation, I’m not quite sure yet where it is that I’ve ended up. But then, that is not unrelated to the point I think I may be making: if, on setting out, I cannot be certain where I want to be at the end of scribbling a brief note that takes only an hour to write, then – as long as I attend to the viability of things – I’m content to leave the question of ten years’ time an open one.
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