Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Examined Life

I went along to an interesting discussion group the other day, on whether "the unexamined life is not worth living." I think the strongest affirmative argument concerns autonomy: if you don't reflect on your life and values, and instead are merely "going through the motions", then there's an important sense in which your life is not even really yours. You're a cog in the machinery of the universe; a mere animal. Experiences happen to you, for better or worse, and may trigger this or that quasi-reflexive "response". But you're not a true agent until you stop and question your own drives and actions, reshape your character into a mould of your own devising, and thereby craft a life that makes sense to you as you live it.

The story of a life is a credit to the author. But an unexamined life has no author. It's a mere force of nature, no more meaningful than a hurricane. So, to live a meaningful life, one must first claim it as their own, and actively author the rest of the story. That's why the unexamined life is not worth living.

But there's probably no such thing as a wholly unexamined life in this sense. Everyone questions themselves, to a greater or lesser degree. So the real question would seem to be: how far should we take this?

Brandon recently pointed out the need for a local/global distinction here. It would be absurd to try to maintain a state of rational self-examination at every local moment. Rather, it is the global exercise of rationality we should endorse, whereby the agent considers the "big picture" of their life as a whole, which will certainly include many local moments at which critical reflection would be wholly inappropriate -- "one thought too many", as Williams put it.

This issue was brought up in our discussion, as one student wondered what to make of a person who, upon reflection, decides that they wish to live an unexamined life henceforth! Would this one moment suffice to establish a considered "global preference", that they spend the rest of their apparently thought-free life acting out? It's a troubling case! I reflectively prefer a life that contains much more actual reflection; but maybe that's just me?

Finally, I was surprised by the assumption of hedonism that drove much of the group's discussion. There are many things I want out of life, and happiness is but one of them (and not necessarily the most important). I'd expect most people to agree. Better to strive for excellence, or help others, than be a blissful couch potato.

So, the challenge to the Socratic mantra doesn't come from blissful passivity, to my mind. Rather, it is the life of non-philosophical activity -- e.g. developing other talents, cultivating loving relationships, and providing for one's family -- that seems the most obvious counterexample. But, in light of the autonomy argument, could such a life still have (intrinsic) value even in the total absense of any self-reflection whatsoever?

21 comments:

  1. "Experiences happen to you, for better or worse, and may trigger this or that quasi-reflexive "response". But you're not a true agent until you stop and question your own drives and actions, reshape your character into a mould of your own devising, and thereby craft a life that makes sense to you as you live it."

    But surely the decision to examine one's life is just as determined as the decision to eat a certain type of food - it will almost inevitably stem from a certain set of desires arising from one's psychology / physiology. One might say that one has more control over one's life, but we seem to be equally determined as to whether we are predisposed to take control of our own lives or not.

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  2. Agreed. (I don't think determinism per se is any impediment to freedom. But whether we obtain control of our lives in the first place is, logically, not an event we have any prior control over.)

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  3. Oddly, this is a topic which I have thought a lot about. There has been a pretty good discussion of it over at Vallicella's blog.

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  4. > "a mere animal"

    I'm just imagining a person talking to another person saying "your life isn't worth living because you live in the moment" (rather like the line in the heroes episode about a life of happines or a life of meaning)

    GNZ

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  5. I just went through a stress related breakdown at work. To help cope I had a session with a therapist. He asked me "who are you?" as a means to start the self-examining. My answers of an employee, a father, a husband he rejected as they were externally placed definitions. I know, probably psychology 101 (which I never took).

    Anyway, he was making the point that I wasn't living a life as I wasn't examining it, or rather determining my needs to find what I wanted.

    Since I was defining myself by the needs imposed on others, my rational self collapsed under the burden. My cog was running hot, due to lack of grease and maintenance....

    It did serve to make me re-evaluate whose demands I respond to, and in what fashion. Part of the learning process of life that each individual needs to go through.

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  6. I too was struck by the hedonistis bent of the discussion, enough to be bored into leaving early. Your comment about automony reminded me of something I was writing a while back:

    'A worthwhile life is the life in which you choose to live a worthwhile life. Which is to say, if you have yourself together enough to actually make the choice to live a worthwhile life, there does not seem much more to do. This echoes Socrates’ claim that an unreflected life is not worth living. At least, it does if we accept that truly choosing requires deep reflection.'

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  7. Here is another sort of question that I think is worth asking. To what extent is the quality of one's reflection upon life limited by the quality of one's non-philosophical activities? To live a properly examined life, is it necessary to have a lot of "life" (ie. non-philosophical experiences) to examine? I'm not sure about this one.

    Also, I wonder if there is another sort of threat, not so much to the value of an examined life per se, as to the examined life as it is usually conceived by philosophers.
    The latter does not usually regard "sensibility" as very important - where by sensibility I mean, roughly, an ability to register very clearly the subtleties of one's emotional life. The skill of "stopping and questioning one's own drives and actions" requires quite a bit of sensibility. Do I really love X? How did I respond to event Y, and what does this say about me? Do I feel comfortable when engaged in practice X? It is important to answer these questions to live a properly examined life; but the skill of answering these sorts of questions well is not really a philosophical skill. Sure, a bit of philosophy might come in handy, for clarifying terms etc. But our training to answer these questions comes as much from studying literature as it does from studying philosophy. So I am uneasy about the common assumption that an "examine life" is to be identified with "a life to which philosophy is applied", or even with “a life of deep reflection.”

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  8. Very interesting! Could you say a bit more about how "studying literature" develops sensibility? Is the idea that we can learn things (or skills) through the simulated experiences of a story that we couldn't through "deep reflection" alone? Or that literature contains deep truths about the human condition that cannot be expressed in the literal mode of philosophy?

    What kind of literature (and "study") do you think is most helpful here -- does leisurely reading genre fiction count, for instance?

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  9. I agree very much with what Michael said in his last sentence. It slightly (or greatly, depending on my general mood) annoys me when I read Philosophy 101 books in which Socrates' "the unexamined life is not worth living" statement is quoted, as if to say anyone not a philosopher is living a worthless life: (1) I don't think this is the way Socrates' meant the statement; (2) even if he did mean it in such a way, it's blatantly untrue (when construed that way).

    In defense of (1), I would quickly like to point out that Socrates also said (in the Republic, e.g.) that much of mankind would simply be naturally unfit for philosophy. He would thus (going by the annoying construal) be saying, in essence, that much of mankind is destined to live worthless lives, which is hard to believe (hard to believe as true and hard to believe that Socrates would suggest such a thing).

    I think there is a way in which Socrates meant this statement but the question posed now, which is a good one, seems to be "In what way could such a statement could be legitimate?" I like your autonomy response, Richard. I had never thought of that and it makes a lot of sense; and I believe it works as far as it goes. That is, I agree that for a person to live a life as a cog, or automaton, or "mere animal" is to live a life not worth living. However, I am not convinced that the inverse is necessarily true. I mean that it doesn't seem by the very fact that one has reflected and made a conscious decision on how to live one's life that that life is thereby worth living. The man, for instance, who makes a conscious decision to bicker about everything or mercilessly pursue riches or do evil to whomever he meets, etc., though not a mere cog, doesn't seem to be living a life worth living.

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  10. Michael,

    In light of your comment, I might refer to you Peter Levine, who (if you didn't know) seems to agree with you. See the third sentence of the last paragraph here; his Living Without Philosophy; and what he has to say on his work in progress.

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  11. Richard & Interlocutors-
    I must say with all due respect that I am disappointed by the conversation here on this topic. I feel as if few of the commentators here have actually read anything concerning Socrates' "examined life". I suggest people reread Plato, Aristotle's Nich. Ethics, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Spinoza, Decartes, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and more recent philosophers Stanley Cavell, Pierre Hadot, Michel Foucault, and Arnold Davidson.

    I just don't feel the discussion here even grazes the surface of the enormous body of philosophy and literature which discusses various aspects of the "examined life."

    -jared

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  12. Jared,

    then elighten us.

    Name dropping is ok except most people aren't going to rush off and re-read the collective works of those people and even if they did, may not see what you would want them to see in it and not even know that that has not occured.

    GNZ

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  13. Ok, my comment was rather rude. But realize that explaining anything about this in a blog comment is frustrating, given the very small amount of space and the ease to fall into misunderstandings and disagreements.

    "Autonomy" isn't a powerful claim on why the "examined life" is the life most worth living. In Aristotle, one gets the impression that there are many different ways to be autonomous (sp*), but Aristotle argues that self-willed individuals aren't necessarily doing themselves much good. Thus, Aristotle elaborates with claims on the "contemplative life"--which nominally at least reflects the most widely accepted life-based philosophy in the ancient world. Where the examinations Socrates conducts on the street are meant to make clear to the subject one's own reasons for acting, Plato's gloss on the practice inserts metaphysical claims on the spirit as models to which individuals ought adjust themselves. Aristotle doesn't like the forms, thus substitutes the theory of the mean where he removes the Forms of the Good. Why? It is very easy to act more automatic than autonomous when the Form is one's model for the good. But for Aristotle, self-will is not so much a problem as moderated self-will.

    Moving along the list of names I've dropped, the stoics Seneca and Marcus Aurelius make self-examination a priority. I don't know how correct it would be to align the Roman stoics along "Platonic" or "Aristotelian" lines, simply because I don't know exactly how distinct those lines were some millenia ago. What I am certain of is that Socrates as a figure was prominent in the Stoic practice of philosophy. Also certain is that "self-authorship" is not a part of the Stoic world view. The Stoic is given the dilemma of choice: on the one hand is "stultus", stagnation, or what we could call here the automatic life where one does not actually exercise any self-will and merely accepts life as it comes. One might call "stultus" the Platonic influence on Stoicism. On the other is the danger of the unchecked passion, which leads the individual in a direction against Nature and thus towards pain, failure.

    Augustine and Spinoza are strange inclusions on this list. One might criticize St. Augustine of having taken exactly the route Aristotle complains results from too easy an acceptance of Plato. But the practice of confession is remarkably similar to the method Seneca and Marcus apply to thier philosophy. In confession, one's faults are reviewed systematically; that is, in such a way that the act of confessing provides a theraputic effect on the confessor--for the Stoics, this meant reflecting off the guidance of a master, which could be oneself in an especially practiced philosopher, and for Augustine, of course, this meant confessing to God, who mystically cleanses the confessor.

    Jumping forward, Hadot, Foucault, and Davidson study the ancients and compare their techniques and practices to the development of psychoanalytics, medicine, and religion.

    In the 19th century, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche provided a critique of Christianity for falling for that "bad" Platonic interpretation. Nietzsche, as you probably know, also puts enormous energy into the study of the will; this study is emphatic about self-examination. I think it is a grave mistake to take Nietzsche's polemics as polemics against others and not also himself--after all, who's more unhappy in Zarathustra than Zarathustra? But, before answering that, Nietzsche begs that we consider what others happiness consists of, an if this is really happiness.

    Cavell reflects on Freud, Nietzsche, Emerson and Socrates--obvious candidates for a discussion on the "examined life." What's especially intersting about Cavell is his tying these discussions into American culture; although he's a bit too stuffy to touch on Western culture as it is in this lightning age, he does a great job examining America (and, consequently, the West) as an idea that permeates our social and philosophical sensibilities.

    Descartes is included on this list as a pivot point between the modern and the classic. The social concerns of meditation become scientific concerns in Descartes, and Descartes resulting examinations are emblematic of the claims "science" makes on "culture" in modern and post-modern times.

    So: my complaint is that the discussion above unwittingly touches on and conflates some issues in philosophy that have a much deeper literature than you assume; and, one SHOULD go off and read the collected works of these people and others, precisely because it is directly concerned with the discussion attempted on this web-page. Do I really want to make serious claims on astrophysics without having read Einstien?

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  14. Don't be daft; if I had to read the collected works of every commenter's favourite philosophers before blogging, I'd never get anything posted. I'm not "assuming" anything about the depth of the literature -- I'm sure there's good stuff out there. (Though nothing in your summary actually sounds as interesting or insightful as, say, Michael Bycroft's comment above.) Still, much as I like libraries, I'm not about to swear off all other forms of learning and philosophical engagement. See here.

    Back to the substance: you claim that "'Autonomy' isn't a powerful claim on why the 'examined life' is the life most worth living." But why not? I need reasons, not a history lesson.

    You say, "In Aristotle, one gets the impression that there are many different ways to be autonomous, but Aristotle argues that self-willed individuals aren't necessarily doing themselves much good."

    Of course, the mere fact that "Aristotle argues X" does not entail that "X is true". To get beyond name-dropping, we need to actually hear the argument, so we can assess it for ourselves. At things stand, you haven't really gone beyond name-dropping. You haven't really engaged with my autonomy argument, or shown where it goes wrong.

    So: what are you trying to do here? You're most welcome to join the conversation, and make a substantive contribution which actively engages with the discussion to date. But if all you want to do is look down your nose, go elsewhere -- I have no patience for such posturing.

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  15. I don't want to be like Jared and just drop names without indicating their relevance in any way, but the idea of the examined life as reflective authoring of one's life is, in fact, one of the core ideas of existentialism. And existentialists often used the literary metaphor. For example:

    Concerning these possibilities of being the following remarks fall to be made:

    1. That they likewise are not presented to me. I must find them for myself, either on my own or through the medium of those of my fellows with whom my life brings me in contact. I invent projects of being and of doing in the light of circumstance. This alone I come upon, this alone is given me: circumstance. It is too often forgotten that man is impossible without imagination, without the capacity to invent for himself a conception of life, to "ideate" the character he is going to be. Whether he be original or a plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself.
    - From "Man Has No Nature"

    One of the wonderful aspects of existentialism is that it turns what is a classic Idealist maxim back onto the world in this way, so that action and thought are interconnected in the way in which they create the "story" of an individual.

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  16. Yeah, that's neat -- thanks for the reference!

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  17. Chris-
    Satre is one name I forgot to drop; mostly because I hadn't read much of him. Ortega is an interesting choice, especially since so little is said about him.

    Richard-
    The history (of philosophy) lesson was meant to point out the problem autonomy poses in ancient philosophers. Take this passage from Seneca, "On Tranquillity of Mind", II.4:
    "What we are seeking, therefore, is how the mind may always pursue a steady and favourable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its condition with joy, and suffer no interruption of this joy, but may abide in a peaceful state, being never uplifted nor ever cast down. This will be 'tranquility'."

    Previously, in part I of this correspondence, Seneca's student Serenus approached his master with the complaint that his practice in Stoic excercises still left him with some uneasiness as to whether he could do more or less with his life, how much he could influence, and when he attempted certain things--Serenus mentions the desire to run to the Forum and emphatically take part in votes and arguments--he ran against the typical disappointments one ought expect. Serenus is fully immersed in the practice of self-examination (or else he presumably would not have been able to approach Seneca with a detailed question) and in what you call self-authorship. Serenus is acting for himself, through himself and seeking advice where appropriate, but it seems to him and is blatantly obvious to Seneca that this is not enough.

    Plagarism here is the problem, metaphorically speaking. Ortega y Gasset and Unomuno both wrote opposing books on Cervantes' Don Quixote, in which they both questioned Quixote's own form of self-authorship; I believe the two split on the issue of plagarism. As Chris' quote illustrates, Ortega does not believe Quixote's adventure is altogether condemnable--Quixote did precisely what his opponents could not. Even when Quixote was defeated by his rival at the end of part two, Quixote still accepts it as an utter defeat although the knight he fought was more counterfeit than himself. For Ortega this is something like the highest form of honesty; for Unamuno, it is foolishness, although a lovable foolishness. The point is that even after the project of self-authorship is decided on, undertaken, and believed to the fullest extent, that authorship encounters innumerable problems. (And don't forget Cervantes' own questioning of authorship through the voice of Cide Hamate and the encounter with the counterfeit "sequel".)

    Seneca, at least, acknowledges the problem, and thus sets ideas of self-authorship as a sort of introductory obstacle. The same could be said of Plato--Socrates often starts out his relationship with special figures (Alcibiades, for instance) by introducing concepts that are then overrided by more elaborate practices. The text of "On Tranquility of Mind" can be read in this manner; Seneca is taking Serenus to the next level in his education. But authorship is no longer an issue in the project of the examined life. Why? For one, the Stoic opinion is that one does not have so much control over one's life that he is able to completely re-write certain traits of himself; they might be controlled, but not re-written.

    Going back to my "history lesson", you might be able to trace these relationships of student-teacher through various philosophers, if not through all those who care to think and take part in the "examined life". Such was Nietzsche's surface project, and perhaps to a greater (more "epistemological"), that of Foucault, Hadot, and Davidson. But the purpose of the lesson is not to simply document what various people said about philosophy, but also to engage oneself in the same arguments. Returning to metaphor, one engages in philosophical research the same way Quixote engages with the tales and legends of a mythical and mostly false past; though the extent to which one is engaged may take on a more forceful existential project (Ortega) or a more romantic and perhaps bookish engagement (Unamuno). All the while, autonomy drops behind: Autonomous of what? Other's opinions, concerns, cares, practices? Who/what is this Other we want to be autonomous of? And will such autonomy really overcome the stultus of the unexamined life, or will it also lead to the unease of Achilles, who Seneca compares to those who only concern themselves with building themselves and do not pay attention to the balance their soul (anime) requires to be tranquil, or, as Seneca references the Greek stoic Democritus, "euthymia"--well-being of the soul.

    You might read me as emphasizing Bycroft's suggestion that literary training helps in the examination of life. Or you might read me as saying that philosophy is literary in essence, and not simply logical exercises applied to questions. I think that's the primary difference between our opinions, Richard; where you are concerned about the logical rigour of an argument, I am concerned with the affective power of an idea. For me (and this shows just how much Nietzsche has influenced me) this affect carries through history for as long as people read and listen one another. So, when the discussion ignores the literature, then I get defensive and insist that the discussion has passed by a goldmine.

    ps: I left Aristotle out of this post. Problem? probably.

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  18. The activity of looking for an answer for the question "what is the good life" is - I believe - the most certain among the characteristic or essential features of human nature. We have to discover what human flourishing is by ourselves, and we need to understand that in order to flourish. It is not a matter of choice, it is a matter of need. Animals have instincts which direct them towards their own good. What it takes for a tree to flourish is easy to say. Human beings, like any other beings, can flourish. But they need reason, language to discover what it is. This is an anthropological universal if there is any.

    According to an Aristotelian conception of the virtues, they are persistent habits which contribute to human flourishing.

    I therefore believe that the persistent habit to question why one does certain things and whether one should become what one is becoming is a virtue. For clearly we need to develop this persistent habit if we want to understand the nature of human flourishing. (Other virtues that we need are e.g. honesty, open-mindedness, etc.)

    Moreover, in an Aristotelian conception the virtues are also aspects (not only means to flourishing). Therefore a flourishing life is also a questioned life, as you rightly believe.

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  19. This is a very interesting post. Richard, you write, "There are many things I want out of life, and happiness is but one of them (and not necessarily the most important). I'd expect most people to agree. Better to strive for excellence, or help others, than be a blissful couch potato. So, the challenge to the Socratic mantra doesn't come from blissful passivity, to my mind." I take the point, but it always strikes me as a bit odd when people oppose happiness to these other values. Perhaps this is because what you describe as 'passive happiness' is not happiness at all to the ancients. If we conflate happiness and the good life (or well-being), then is seems obvious that a couch potato cannot achieve happiness.

    Don writes, "In defense of (1), I would quickly like to point out that Socrates also said (in the Republic, e.g.) that much of mankind would simply be naturally unfit for philosophy. He would thus (going by the annoying construal) be saying, in essence, that much of mankind is destined to live worthless lives, which is hard to believe (hard to believe as true and hard to believe that Socrates would suggest such a thing)." In the Republic, Plato (through the mouthpiece of Socrates) does seem to argue that the lives of non-philosophers are not worth living. The best those incapable of attaining knowledge of the Forms can hope for is to live in the ideal city, ruled by philosophers who set their ends for them, as they are unable to do this themselves. Their lives are not worth living, though they are somewhat less horribly off when philosophers rule them. For a thorough defense of this admittedly controversial view, see C. Bobonich, "Plato's Utopia Recast."

    Jared writes, "Aristotle doesn't like the forms, thus substitutes the theory of the mean where he removes the Forms of the Good. Why? It is very easy to act more automatic than autonomous when the Form is one's model for the good. But for Aristotle, self-will is not so much a problem as moderated self-will." I'm confused here. For Aristotle, rational decision-making and activity in accordance with this decision-making are not only not a problem; they are essential to living well. While one's own decision-making (or, sometimes, lack thereof) can lead one astray, it is also the case that one must make one's own decisions when it comes to behaving virtuously. No one can achieve my virtue for me.

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  20. Sophrosune - "If we conflate happiness and the good life (or well-being), then is seems obvious that a couch potato cannot achieve happiness."

    Right, but I tend to think that such a conflation is not helpful, given the common (hedonic) understanding of the term 'happiness'. (I'm not an ancient scholar, but my tentative opinion is that 'flourishing' would be a better translation of what they're talking about than 'happiness', for precisely this reason.)

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  21. All of the comments above are at least partially true in many instances. Especially the ones that seem to contradict each other within the sphere of analysis that can be pointed to with language or represented in conscious concepts.

    Let's all keep in our awareness the possibility that the overexamined life may often be less fun than the unexamined life, and that a fun life is worth living even if it doesn't involve much reflection.

    Infant humans don't seem to spend as much time consciously reflecting as they spend 'just being' and reacting as one of our fellow animals might. Autistics of a certain sort are often in the same boat. So are the most wonderful dogs. All of their lives are most assuredly worth living, as were our lives when we were qualitative more like them than we may be now, and as our lives shall be when inevitably we have lost the transient brain functions that allow us to engage in nested metacognitive processes.

    So, cheers to letting go of the need to control one's way and form of being. Cheers also to enjoying the urge to just be as we are in a mostly reactive, prereflective (and postreflective)meander through whatever it is that we point to with the word "life."

    Bon voyage!!

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