Reasons and felines

“Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.”

This sentence begins Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons, a lengthy series of philosophical arguments examining the validity of the self-interest theory, examinations of hedonistic and altruistic behavior, among others,  as rational responses to life, and why people choose to do what is against their own or their community’s best interests (i.e., behave “irrationally”)–as well as whether irrational behavior is ever justified and why.

At right, my favorite cat, Topsy. He does what he wants to do.

Parfit’s book has been a good refresher course for me in how philosophers actually work, devise their analogies, create and endeavor to solve dilemmas, clarify and limit their claims, etc.

But frankly, my brain hurts. (See Monty Python skit, below).

There are times one simply wants to think less about the things that matter, and that desire may not be rational but is certainly human. So while humans do have the opportunity to be reasoning creatures, they also have the opportunity to be like cats: to do what they want to do.

Or not to do, as the case may be.

At present, I’m assessing student work for final grades. This work is rational and should be carried out as objectively as possible against specific criteria. This work is one of the jobs teachers do, besides the job of endeavoring to impart information and to encourage critical thinking on the part of the students. It’s my job, I get paid to do it, and I take it seriously. Nevertheless, today I find myself tired of being the reasoning person.

And so, because I cannot slink over to the sofa and curl up on a pile of blankets, I am posting this:



On ignorance, mostly

Now I am reading Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, a series of philosophical arguments, dilemmas, extensions and inquiries in small dense type. It requires more concentration than I’ve had to expend on a book in quite some time. So much so that I began to wonder if the reading would ever yield anything valuable enough to have been worth the effort—but I think it is worth the effort. Granted, I am not yet much more than a quarter of the way through its 543 pages (ok, 454 if you don’t include notes, appendices, index); but I’ve reached some discussion about happiness and what can be defined as “good,” and Parfit gets there by means of examining theories of happiness that are directly or indirectly self-defeating. Among other things.

Although Parfit does not mention ignorance, at this section of the book I found myself musing on it, specifically “ignorance is bliss” (a phrase which seems to refute the Socratic statement about the examined life while allowing Socrates his insistence on his own ignorance and, I suppose, his happiness). And having recently read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which confronts how much reality is valuable for happiness, under extenuating circumstances, the concept of ignorance as a not-necessarily-negative state of being intrigues me…I, who have tried all my life to avoid ignorance. Though this book is doing a fair job of making me feel pretty ignorant, I don’t feel bad about it.

Am I suggesting ignorance is good? No…but it may be value-neutral, or it may be relative, operating along a sort of continuum that cannot be categorized as “good” or “bad.” I return to my last post, on malclichés. It is possible, even likely, that an instructor who encounters one of these mis-hearings/mis-writings in a student essay will assume the student is ignorant. The student may indeed be ignorant of the conventions of spelling or the usual turns of overused phrases. Such mistakes, however, may indicate a lack of education, simple laziness or disinclination or haste, an over-reliance on AutoCorrect, or perhaps a disability in the areas of vision-hearing-neural processing: not necessarily ignorance.

Then what is ignorance? (This is why so many people get irritated with philosophy: you have to define everything!)

One thing ignorance is not is a lack of conventional education, even though that definition may be the easiest to assume. Again, it’s kind of a continuum, isn’t it? If I miss an allusion to a line in a Yeats poem, am I ignorant? And am I more, or less, ignorant than if I miss an allusion to a Shakespeare play or, perhaps, an allusion to the Kardashian sisters?

(That sentence makes me really want to write a poem that contains references to Yeats, Macbeth, and the Kardashians; but I probably ought to leave that to Billy Collins.)

Anyway, Parfit’s book is really more about what is rationality and what is morality and how individuals may or may not be rational or moral, both as individuals and as persons within communities and societies. Which inquiry and argument, by the way, would encompass Yeats, Shakespeare, and the Kardashians.

Perhaps after I finish reading it, I will be better educated on rationality and morality. I may be just as ignorant, but I’ll try not to be too judgmental about being so.

Here’s one from Philip Larkin, titled (appropriately) “Ignorance”:

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is right, or true, or real
But forced to qualify: Or so I feel
Or: Well, it does seem so,
Someone must know

Strange to be ignorant of the way things work
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed
And willingness to change
Yes, it is strange

Even to wear such knowledge—for our flesh
surrounds us with its own decisions—
and yet spend all our lives on imprecisions,
that when we start to die
have no idea why.