Do you forgive but never forget, or forget but never forgive? Remember that question from silly surveys we’d fill out in junior high when we didn’t feel like doing our homework? Well, this question just came up in an email exchange with a friend of mine, and it actually holds much relevance to an important ethical issue i’ve been grappling with.
But before i get to my personal story, let’s look at what Charles L. Griswold, author of Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration and recent contributor to The Stone, had to say about forgiveness.
First of all, Griswold introduces the idea of forgiveness as something that stems from religion, and coming from a non-religious background, i have difficulty understanding that perspective. For instance, what does forgiveness have to do with revenge? I was quite surprised to see revenge and vengeance included in the discussion, because those are completely separate issues for me when it comes to forgiveness. Maybe it’s just because i’m not a vengeful person (i honestly can’t think of a single instance when i got revenge on anyone), but when i think about forgiveness, i think only about what you might think about what someone did to you, not what you might do afterwards.
However, if giving up revenge and resentment were sufficient to yield forgiveness, then one could forgive simply by forgetting, or through counseling, or by taking the latest version of the nepenthe pill. But none of those really seems to qualify as forgiveness properly speaking, however valuable they may be in their own right as a means of getting over anger. The reason is that forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” –Kierkegaard
My second installment of Conversations with Yang has led me to another question: Science and Philosophy may differ in their approach to problems, but what about the life of the scientist and the life of the philosopher? How might the scientist and the philosopher differ in approaching life?
As evident from my last post, Yang would rather work on solvable problems for a living, whereas i would rather devote my time to unsolvable problems. If each approach seems to offer its own set of advantages, and you desire both, then the logical course of action would be to work on both solvable and unsolvable problems.
So Yang would break down a big, unsolvable problem into smaller, solvable ones so she can have some kind of ROI, so to speak. And we’ve already seen that that’s not possible in doing philosophy.
But what if “life” were modeled this way? What if philosophy could be my unsolvable problem, and i had other, solvable problems to work through on the side?
She’s a (budding) scientist, and i’m a (budding) philosopher.
Her: I would rather work on solvable problems, moving from one solved problem to the next.
Me: I would rather focus on unsolvable problems, because those are the ones that will always sustain my interest.
Her: But you wouldn’t accomplish anything!
Me: But i gain satisfaction in the striving, not the achieving. Besides, don’t you feel a little sad inside when you’ve reached a definitive answer to your problem, and it’s time to put the seal on it? It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend.
Her: Yes, but i move on to other projects, and the cycle continues.
Me: What if no other project you embark on lives up to that one? Unsolvable problems can’t fail you in this way. And if the striving is the more satisfying part than the achieving, then working on unsolvable problems would guarantee continued and lasting satisfaction.
Her: What if you broke down a project that’s unsolvable in your lifetime into smaller, achievable bits, so that even if you can’t solve the big problem, you still get accomplishments every step of the way?
In the field of philosophy, i don’t know if anything is “achievable.” The word just doesn’t seem to fit right with any philosophy-related task. I guess we’ve arrived at the inevitable question: What does it mean to do philosophy? To me, it simply means to think critically. About anything at all, whether real (or supposedly real) or imagined (or supposedly imagined). You see, you have to be skeptical, because you can’t be sure of anything; that’s Rule Number 1. And why do philosophers do philosophy? If we had to go beyond “pure enjoyment” as an answer, i would say they are driven by questions that beckon them forward, lure them into further multiplying questions, all collectively helping them acquire a new way of thinking about things, of understanding things. Above all, philosophers want to understand.
It seems that The Stone‘s contributors’ responses to readers’ comments are often better than their original posts themselves:
Philosophers typically try to illuminate with a combination of argument and (re-)conceptualization. But the most careful and perspicuous argumentation, as indispensable as care and perspicuity are, will not convince someone who is disinclined to accept a philosopher’s way of framing a problem or phenomenon. And, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell has stressed repeatedly, nothing guarantees that the arrogation of philosophical authority, no matter how well intended, will not turn out to be an act of mere arrogance. In this way, in fact, philosophical expression and young women’s sexualized attempts at self-expression have something in common: neither can be fully controlled by an author’s intentions, and nothing guarantees that they will come off in the way their authors hope they will. –Nancy Bauer, “Authority and Arrogance: A Response”
Which, if you think about it, is what ails all human communication, but i think the problem is even more exaggerated when it comes to doing philosophy. Philosophy is best done dialogically (because every argument requires counter-arguments to move forward, and the best counter-arguments come from those who have had different experiences than you have), and if your opponent cannot accept your way of approaching a problem or understand your intentions in communicating your ideas, the argument falls flat. This is why philosophers, more than anyone else, need to find people who can understand the way they think and communicate in order to do their job.
Which makes me wonder, can real philosophy only be done between people who can “click” in this way? I’ve spent many philosophy recitations frustrated and impatient because everyone had their own way of thinking, and each think-system was so disparate to the point where we were all on different wavelengths, trying to intersect somewhere, but usually failing miserably. One person would require real life examples to contemplate any philosophical issue, and another would find such examples cumbersome and dangerously restrictive. One would be engrossed in analysis, while another would constantly divert to meta-analysis. One would subscribe to dualism, and another, to monism, and yet another, to pluralism. No one would think to budge. And why should they? Their individual frameworks were the ones that helped them think about these issues. But do you know what happens when such disparate individual frameworks gather in one room? A question is raised, a claim is made, and a silence follows while everybody tries to evaluate the claim-maker’s think-system, ultimately rejecting it in favor of their own. Repeat until time’s up. You’re lucky if you get a single counter-argument.
It’s funny how any extended conversation with my friend Yang gets me thinking about everything a little harder.
We got to talking about free will and birth. Our birth is not our choice. Or so it seems. This is an issue of great importance to me, because it problematizes human existence itself. It threatens to annul all notion of free will: If even our birth wasn’t our choice, do we have any choice at all? As you can see, it makes for a rather bleak human condition.
Her: What’s the point of thinking about it if that’s just the way it is and nothing can be done to change it?
Me: Well, for one, i enjoy thinking about it, and trying to understand this unsolvable problem can help to fuel other philosophical projects which could contribute something real and practical to society.
Even more importantly, the way in which we decide to accept or reject this truth could have great implications on our actions. In other words, this is a question of moral responsibility.
In my post on Peter Singer’s contribution to The Stone, i couldn’t decide whether having children is ethical, since i couldn’t reconcile birth with free will, while at the same time, my tendency to innately believe that nature is usually “right” restrained me from jumping to the conclusion that it is flat-out wrong to procreate.
But here’s another question to consider: Our birth aside, on what grounds do we accept or reject our unchosen existence, and if we accept it, how do we cope with it?
A wise friend of mine recently said to me, “Knowing what you want to do is not quite the same as knowing exactly where you can go.” School and society put so much emphasis on the where that i lost sight of the what as i came closer to where i am now: my last semester of college.
This academic year has changed me in strange ways. I struggled a lot last semester with insecurities i never knew i had, most of which got in the way of my learning. For the first time in my life, i found my classes to be an inconvenience and a drone (this partly had to do with the kinds of classes i was taking that semester, but it was also my attitude towards the learning that got in the way). Needless to say, it was a highly disappointing semester, resulting not only in dropped grades but also a further drop in self-esteem. (Just to be fair, one class and the professor that taught it encouraged me to express myself, which positively changed my approach to writing, but this didn’t change the fact that i felt oppressed by my other classes and professors.)
This semester has been interesting in that the four classes i’m taking are so different from each other and yet still overlap in various ways, in ways that motivate me to synthesize the thought products of each class with each other, which in turn makes me strive hard in all of them. One class, Tactical Media, is a graduate course cross-listed as an offering to undergraduate upperclassmen, but the class is mostly graduate students. I was intimidated at first by their professional accomplishments and general outspokenness, but i’m starting to find it easier to talk to these people than my fellow undergraduates. There is a higher degree of respect for each other and not just a willingness but a desire to get to know one another. I think it might have to do with the lack of competition. They’ve already accomplished a great deal in their respective fields, and they’re all here for different reasons (the course belongs in the Arts and Public Policy department, but students come from all different departments, backgrounds, and careers). They’re here to further their own individual projects, whether it be producing a social activist movement or sparking a debate about urban etiquette, but while doing so, they work together and share their individual interests and skills. At the undergraduate level, most students are in the same boat of graduating and moving on to their respective fields. Whether they admit it or not, undergrads are out to outdo one another in order to get a job or make it into grad school. But going back to why i started talking about this class in the first place, it’s a key element in my learning this semester in that it is helping me become more outspoken in all of my classes; to put it simply, it’s encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone, but in a welcoming environment. There is no competing—only sharing. We don’t even compete for grades, because we grade ourselves at the end of the semester. Discussion in this class is therefore as democratic and open as it can get; besides the individual projects (which are always collaborative), we are all in the unified project of progressing as a class.
[edited 11/01/08, scroll down for the edit]
I’m currently a junior in NYU Steinhardt’s Media, Culture, and Communication department. I hate it. I used to be in NYU GSP (General Studies Program, now called Liberal Studies), had thought about transferring to CAS for Cinema Studies (GSP used to be a two-year program that required an internal transfer to a school of your choice in NYU), but upon taking two core courses in Steinhardt’s MCC (Media, Culture, and Communication) department, i decided to do an off-track transfer (i was on-track to CAS) to the latter department instead. And now that i am officially majoring in MCC, i’m beginning to realize that the academics aren’t as strong and inspiring as i initially thought they were. Also, i’m paying a lot of money for this education, so i’d rather major in something that would really allow me to experience and ponder humanity at its fullest, and a good major for that kind of education would be Philosophy (which is in CAS). I do have a bit of a background in Philosophy as i was required to take two core courses in it while in GSP, and most of my MCC courses included (and currently include) philosophical texts as well.
The thing is, if i were to double-major in MCC and Philosophy, i might have to stay an extra semester or two, which costs even more money. But if i major only in Philosophy, my degree may not be as marketable (as much as i don’t want to, i need to think about how i’m going to make a living). So, my question to you all is, would a minor in Communications suffice to make up for the practical education part of my degree, or is it true that employers don’t even consider applicants’ minors? Also, which U.S. universities are well-known for their Philosophy departments? Because if i am to do this, i might as well do it right and consider transferring to other schools as well, especially if i’ll have to spend extra semesters either way. As for my career aspirations? Anything, really, as long as i can help people and be creative at the same time. Anything in the arts would be especially appealing. I’d also like to be able to afford a roof over my head, sufficient food to stay healthy, and clothes to keep me civilly dressed.
This will be a regular feature of questions that pop up in my head. They will most likely be philosophical in nature. They’re more for me to keep track of, but discussion is always, under whatever circumstances, welcome and desperately wanted!
How do we know what we know? That’s a loaded question, but one that’s simple in concept. How do we even know that we know?
How do we know we’re “human beings”? What if there are beings out there with more knowledge than us? Beings that we have no knowledge of? What is the definition of a “human being”? The “greatest” creature? The only species that has a conscience? Are we really the only creatures with a conscience? How would we even know that if we cannot think the way a different creature thinks? Maybe our concept of conscience…doesn’t even matter. Maybe what we think or what we think we think does not matter.
What exactly is “life”? Is it simply existence? Is it existence with a timeline? Existence with a beginning and an end? Existence with a mortality? Do immortal beings (whether they exist or not is not important here) even live?
p.s. i find it very difficult to get philosophical in words, because language is already an ideology–a convention, a system, a code. words in a language are completely arbitrary, yet at the same time, so…biased. each word has so much baggage.