Looking for Peace.

The other day I went for a hike with a friend, and we discussed something that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.

We were walking through a forest, up a hill and toward a lake that is a common destination for us on our weekend excursions. The route is relatively strenuous, but not so strenuous that it keeps us from discussing and arguing as we go along our way. This day we were deep into an exchange about the meaning and direction of our lives. This always seems to be where our conversations end up, but on this particular morning we got onto this topic as a result of discussing the movie Revolutionary Road, which is a very dark and sad film about suburban mediocrity adapted from the novel by Richard Yates.

In this story, the main characters are a married couple who are driven to despair by their shared inability to take responsibility for the choices that they, together, have made in life. The husband talks endlessly about his desire to move to Paris (the only place where people are really alive) and his wife, who has abandoned her own desire to become an actress, hitches her dreams to this aspiration. Both of them imagine that they are better and more sophisticated than their neighbors, friends and coworkers. All the while, however, the two of them lay the groundwork for a conventional, suburban life that, in the end, traps them in a lifestyle neither of them values, but which neither of them have the courage to reject.

As my friend and I hiked upwards and neared the crest of the hill, he told me that what he saw as the failing of the husband in this story was not that he caved in to convention, but that he did not embrace his choice of a conventional life. If he just did that, he could have been happy in his suburban world, carrying out the duties of his pointless job and enjoying the material fruits of his work. After all, he had a nice house, a beautiful wife, kids, money and the respect of his boss. What is wrong with that?

I responded to this, saying that I didn’t think there was anything morally wrong with authentically choosing to live such a life, but the problem with the main characters is precisely the fact that they are, at a deep fundamental level, unable to authentically embrace this sort of life. Their conundrum stems from the fact that they have followed the path of least resistance (hence the irony of the title), but this is a path that, in their souls, they believe is meaningless. Sure, if they were truly able to embrace their situation, they might find happiness. But what I see as the message of the story, however, is that what these characters truly want is to be the kinds of people who are strong enough to go their own way, to reject convention and to follow their own bliss. The source of their frustration and self-loathing stems precisely from the fact they are afraid to do this. This is what they are really ashamed of; their inability to ignore what others think about them and to pursue a life path that they believe to be really valuable. Instead, they blame others for their own cowardliness. The worst part is that they also know that they are doing this, and they hate themselves for it.

This conversation led us to reflect on our own life situations and choices. My friend confided in me that he was afraid of dying alone and under conditions of squalor. His desire for professional respect and material comfort was a way to ensure that he and his wife would not suffer an undignified end to their lives. He had recently visited with someone who was disabled and living in conditions that he found depressing, and his fear was that this could be his own situation. To work hard, live in a nice house, to be surrounded by interesting people, and to enjoy the finer things in life was a way that my friend thought he could cushion himself from suffering the indignities of human tragedy.

I agreed with my friend that the one thing that none of us can escape is death. However, I insisted that there is no necessary connection between material wealth and the quality of one’s end. The nicest house, interesting friends, and the most expensive things won’t be able to shield any of us from the real terror of our own finitude. When it comes right down to it, both the rich and the poor die.¬†We are all in the same boat. We are all going to die in one way or another. The key, I think, is to grab hold of life and to throw yourself into what you think is truly important. If the drive for material wealth and comfort serves only as a distraction from the truth of personal finitude, then I think it is a destructive illusion. If, on the other hand, the drive for wealth and comfort is what gives your life meaning, then by all means embrace it for all its worth.

For some of us, however, it is hard to accept that money or fancy things are really worth much in the grand scheme of life. I personally sympathize with the characters in Revolutionary Road, not because I am despairing and unhappy, but because I can’t take mainstream, materialist values very seriously. I’m not a religious person myself, but like religious people I do not think that anything in the material world is really all that valuable. What is truly valuable to me is human creativity and the aspiration toward goals. Sometimes comfort and wealth can be hindrances to, rather than conditions for, just this sort of activity.

I articulated all of this to my friend, and he looked at me with a great deal of sympathy. I know that my thoughts resonated with him, just as his thoughts resonated with me. Although our perspectives were distinct, they were still focused on the same, troubling issue. How do you find peace in a world that is finite and filled with anxiety, suffering and uncertainty?

APA Conference

The American Philosophical Association’s 86th Annual Pacific Division Meeting is coming up in April. I’ve volunteered to chair a session on “scientific modeling,” during which Alistair Isaac will present a paper arguing that there is no conflict between a pragmatic theory of scientific modeling and scientific realism. David Stump will be the commentator. It should be an interesting discussion!

The APA was founded in 1900, and is now one of the largest associations of philosophers in the world. It hosts three annual conferences in the US, and according to its website it is “not devoted to a particular school or philosophical approach.” This is a refreshing assertion, since for a long time the APA seemed to be dominated by analytic philosophers; and especially well-known analytic philosophers from major universities. This led many of us, for quite a while, to become disillusioned with the organization and to give up any interest in participating in its meetings. The history of this disillusionment is chronicled in the essay “The Pluaralist Rebellion in the American Philosophical Association,” by Bruce Wilshire, which appears in his book Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy (SUNY Press, 2002).

The very first philosophy conference I ever attended was an APA meeting in San Francisco during the 1980’s when I was studying for my Master’s Degree. I remember that we students were offered free admission to the conference if we agreed to work in the book room, where publishers advertised their latest offerings and gave away examination copies. I can’t remember which publisher I was manning a table for, but I do remember my sense of excitement about being in the presence of so many real, professional philosophers! I imagined that there would all sorts of interesting, strange and unusual characters arguing about the nature of reality and debating the meaning of Truth. My idealism about professional philosophy, however, was soon brought right down to earth.

Is he the security guard, or a budding philosopher without a suit and tie?

My first suspicion that professional philosophers were more conventional that I had imagined was when I first walked through the various conference rooms where talks were being held. Most of the attendees were white men in suits. Now, it’s not that I have anything against white men in suits, mind you. When I put on a suit, that is exactly what I am. It was just that I was expecting more diversity in the crowd. Where was the guy who looked like the scruffy Socrates, or the crazy Diogenes? Where was the fellow with the ample mustache, like Nietzsche? Where was the intense looking bald fellow who looked like Foucault? As a 20-something graduate student with a buzz cut, dressed in a black leather jacket, jeans and combat boots, I stood out like a sore thumb. In fact, at one point a philosopher in a suit approached me and asked in all seriousness, “Are you the security guard?”

My second suspicion came when I perused the list of talks. There was nothing about nihilism or anarchy. There were no presentations about existentialism or Heidegger. In fact, I was unable to even understand what most of the talks were about, since they were couched in such technical and obscure language. As it turned out, I did attend some very interesting sessions having to do with logic, the philosophy of language and epistemology, but I had also hoped to hear presentations on more of the topics that first drew me into the study of philosophy; topics concerning the meaning of life, the nature of God, nihilism, etc. At that time, such things were not on the menu.

I continued to attend the APA meetings and to retain my membership in the organization, but it was really just a formality. After I earned my Ph.D. and started to teach, membership in the APA was part of what what was expected, and it kept me in the loop about who was important and who was active in the field. At various points over the years, I even tried to take part in the association by volunteering to act as a chair or a commentator on papers. I was once approached by a colleague who tried to propose a session on nihilism for one of the division meetings. For a long time, nothing ever came of these things, and I had the feeling that the APA and its officers did not share my own concerns. It was not an organization that represented my interests.

It was only around 2005 that things seemed to start to change. It was then that I started to see more topics listed in the Proceedings of the APA that really sparked my interest and enthusiasm, and there were more indications that the APA was trying to reach out to those philosophers who had come to feel alienated from the organization. I recall a statement from the main office insisting that philosophy should be treated as an international discipline and not just an American analytic discipline. More and more attention seemed to be given to continental philosophy at the division meetings, and I now see that even the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) is encouraging its members to be more active in the APA.

So, all of this is a happy development. The diversity of topics and approaches to philosophy that are represented at the upcoming APA Pacific Division conference look interesting and exciting, and I am once again hopeful that this will be a fun, inspiring and thought provoking event!