As I imagine wisdom, universality is one of its quintessential characteristics.
This poses a bit of a problem during those moments when I can’t for the life of me think of a single universal anything, in any context whatsoever, and at the same time don’t want to concede that I am so completely unwise as to be unable to even conceive of wisdom.
— § —
Every now and then I wonder about these popular quanitites that are less quantities than they are value orientations and symbols for ethical and moral allegiances.
Wisdom. Courage. Discretion. Perserverance. Grace. Hope.
That list of words that makes its way undeservedly onto greeting cards and birth certificates and more deservedly into literature and speechwriting.
Without wanting to read a lot of originalist or essentialist nonsense about what are, after all, socially constructed and spatiotemporally local quanitites, I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t to spend more time thinking about them.
After all, without even trying to do so, I’m relatively certain that I hold these up to be goods in much the same way that others do, and pursue them haphazardly and often implicitly and failingly, again in much the same way that others do.
But I’ve never taken the time to dissect what I understand most of these to mean (much less to try to do any sort of wider cultural or linguistic analysis in this regard). Without knowing what they mean, we take them to be self-evidently good and desirable, the territory of the aged and of those that have suffered at extremes that we “cannot possibly imagine and no doubt would never survive.”
But what I want to know, at the end of the day, is this—and it’s a question that I can’t actually answer offhand, even intuitively—are these taken-for-granted goods compatible with one another? What do they look like when plotted on a Venn diagram? Might they, in their most virtuous extremes, even be mutually exclusive and incompatible?
It would seem an untenable and ethnocentric position to suggest that they are universalist tendencies in practice and substance, or even that there is a universalist basis in moral reasoning for each of them. That would appear to legitimate much of the colonial project and many historical ills.
At the same time, if there is no unversalist basis for them, then what is the nature of their value, and how are they different from either cynicism on the one hand or martyrdom on the other?
— § —
Nope, not a philosopher. And haven’t read anything that would seem to be on point, at least not to the layperson.
They chuck a bunch of Kant and Hegel and Hume and Heidegger at you in the social sciences, along with a bit of Rosseau and Lock and Hobbes in literature departments, but for the most part you’re kept out of the grand traditions of western philosophy.
But then again, if we’re talking western philosophy, the same questions tend to obtain regardless of the canon.
— § —
Do I have the sense that there is a proper hierarchy of values as outlined above?
How about a proper hierarchy of disciplines?
If mutually inconsistent, does wisdom trump courage, or vice-versa?
The same thing goes for the social-scientific ethical universe on the one hand and the canons of western philosophy on the other.
— § —
Does any of this even mean anything?
It’s only that tonight, as is the case now and then, I was feeling particularly unwise and ungraceful.
So I consciously tried to be wiser and more graceful.
Which led me to feel uncourageous and lacking in perserverance.
And at the end of it all, the morass led me to want to have a drink, put some words down, and throw my keyboard against the wall.
That, at least, would have been unwise, ungraceful, uncourageous, and so on.
Perhaps it all works out, like so many other things, in negative space.
Or perhaps Marx was right and we all ought to pull our heads out of the clouds and turn Hegel on his head. I used to be sure that Marx was right.
But the moral universe that Durkheim outlined is a real one, and leads me at times to doubt.
— § —
At the end of the day, without having ever wanted to be one, I sometimes suspect that I am, simply, a *skeptic*.