📙 Finding Our Sea-Legs

Author: Will Buckingham

Full Title: Finding Our Sea-Legs

Highlights from January 22nd, 2021.

The kinds of imperatives that are secured either by philosophical reason or by reference to authority may, of course, have some value either in thinking through ethics or in helping us to navigate through the world. But the kind of imperative I encountered that afternoon in the bazaar in Darjeeling was not really something that can be described in terms of reason or in terms of authority. It was an imperative woven into the heart of the experience itself, an experiential imperative that was striking in its immediacy.
If reason had a role to play in this particular set of events, it was not a particularly dignified or ennobling one. Confronted by the immediacy of this imperative, the voice of reason spoke up and said that there was so much suffering in the world anyway, that there was almost certainly nothing that could be done, and then—the immediacy of the imperative dulled a little by this kind of reasoning—in a moment we had gone on our way.
The fact that imperatives come to us not just from the lawgivers and the exercise of reason, but are instead woven directly into the fabric of experience itself, is one of the reasons that ethics badly needs a form of phenomenology, an attentiveness to the nature of ethical experience.
While philosophers have complex ways of talking about ethics, they have paid very little attention to ethical experience itself—to the ways in which the eyes slide to one side when we want to sidestep our responsibilities, to the physical sensation in the chest when we encounter another’s suffering, to the way that the hand instinctively reaches out to steady the person who stumbles in the street.
It may be, then, that Storytelling can indeed function as a naïve kind of phenomenology; and also that phenomenology, as I have already suggested, may be best seen as a kind of storytelling.
Levinas is a philosopher who gives us a profoundly visceral sense of the ‘what it is like?’ of at least some of the ethical imperatives that we experience. When I think back to that encounter in the foothills of the Himalayas, no philosopher, East or West, captures the sense of what was going on in that strange meeting as well as does Levinas.
This curious and seemingly paradoxical idea of the ‘face’ is at the heart of Levinas’s phenomenology of ethics.
It is not that we encounter others and that then ethics is somehow ‘added on’ to this encounter; but it is instead that our relationship with others is, as Levinas writes, ‘straightaway ethical.’ When I encounter another Person, I find myself responsible for them—I find myself unable to do anything other than respond to them as another Person—whether I like it or not.
In assuming the responsibilities I have towards another human being, I am not absolved of further responsibilities, but instead my responsibilities deepen.
Our responsibilities have the habit of increasing even more rapidly than we can assume them. We are, Levinas claims, infinitely responsible for the other Person.
I am guiltily aware that I am not doing a hundred other things that I really should be doing for a hundred other people.
I am never in a situation that I can claim to have done absolutely everything that is to be done. I never reach a point at which I can sit on my laurels and say, ‘I have done all that I can.’
For here Levinas, with considerable acuity, sees that there is a kind of freedom in this idea of infinite responsibility. In my encounter with the other Person, I am freed for a moment from my self-concern, from the dreariness of the same old thing to which I am accustomed.
Ethically speaking, we are all incorrigible shirkers.
Caught between sleep and wakefulness, tossing fitfully in our beds, we cannot manage either to fully assume our existence, or to sink into blissful sleep; trapped between the demands of work and the body’s fatigued resistance after a long day of physical labour, the hand feebly grips at the shovel even as the tool slips out of the grasp.

Highlights from February 4th, 2021.

Part of the difficulty that Levinas has is that he is working within a tradition that tends to see stories in isolation, that fails to recognise the fact that, as Roberto Calasso writes, ‘Stories never live alone: they are branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward’ (Calasso 1994, 11). This is a tradition that goes all the way back to Aristotle who, for all of his insight, tended to see stories as self-contained entities.
In recognising that stories are plural and that they are social beings by nature, it is possible to find an answer to Levinas’s hydrophobia.
One more prophet disappears overboard, and we find ourselves standing on deck, scanning the horizon that extends in all directions until our eyes and our hearts ache with longing—but there is nothing on the horizon other than the blurred haze where the sky and sea meet.
Firstly, I would suggest that ethics seems to need phenomenology—an attentiveness to experience, to the question ‘what is x like?’ It is precisely this kind of attentiveness that philosophy has tended to overlook, preferring to deal with abstract cases rather than real-world navigation. Secondly, one of the best (and certainly the most well-established) methods of phenomenology that we have is that of storytelling. Thirdly, to understand how stories work, we need to understand them in the plural rather than in the singular, we need to understand that stories ebb and flow like the sea.
amid all this flux and uncertainty, anyone worth their salt would make use of the best shared knowledge there is available, knowledge of the world and of ourselves. Good navigators are also good empiricists, and so perhaps ethics requires not merely a close phenomenological attention to the nuances of experience—the subject of this book—but also an appreciation of what the sciences, the ordinary, everyday, painstaking, empirical sciences, have to tell us about what it is to be human.
Cast adrift at the moment of our birth, we are constant voyagers. The horizon stretches on in all directions, as it always has done, without sight of dry land. The waves, sometimes calm and sometimes in uproar, knock tirelessly against the side of the ship.
In this space in between, we find that there is a chance to live, and to respond to those demands upon us, to those imperatives that speak to us, that bear on us from all different directions and in all kinds of fashions, imperatives that speak to us not out of some terrifying abyss of absolute difference, but simply because we are irredeemably tangled up in the world, a part of things, unable to extract ourselves from all of these thousand thousand shimmering threads.
‘I will tell you,’ he said, ‘everything that I know.’ I glanced at him but did not say a word. The sun was brilliant and red. I took a sip of my drink. ‘Study the winds and the tides,’ he told me. ‘Quell the disorder as far as possible. Steer clear from cyclones if you are able. Do not struggle against the elements. Befriend them if you can.’
My commitments these days are less Buddhist than they were in the past; and a decade or more of reading Chinese philosophy has eroded some of my faith in the Indo-European philosophical traditions of which both Greek and Indian Buddhist thought are a part.
Although I ended the book ten years ago by talking about quelling disorder, steering clear of cyclones, and refusing the struggle against the elements, in retrospect, my commitment to this enterprise seems to have been only partial: much of the argument of this book is still caught in the trap of seeing ethics in fundamentally dramatic terms.
I increasingly think that one of the most fruitful tasks when it comes to how we think through ethics, and human life in general, may be a wholesale de-escalation of drama.

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