The Precarious & the Stable: A Precarious Distinction

[Incomplete, Working Draft]
Vincent Colapietro
Department of Philosophy
240 Sparks Building
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA  16802

"Man finds himself living in an aleatory world; his existence involves, to put it baldly, a gamble.   The world is a scene of risk; it is uncertain, unstable, uncannily unstable.  Its dangers are irregular …. Although persistent, they are sporadic, episodic" – John Dewey (LW 1: 43).

The primordial sources of metaphysical reflection – most obviously, perplexity pertaining to the relationship between appearance and reality, that between the one and the many, that between regularity and chance, and that between seemingly ineffable individuality and practically authorized generality  – are, in this setting, awaiting to be tapped.  So this talk is a gamble that the hyper reality of Las Vegas provides a truly apt stage for metaphysical reflection   Making use of (say) Jean Baudrillard’s ideas to describe the world in which we are enveloped here seems too safe a bet, promising too slim returns.  What, after all, could be easier?  Making use of diverse resources from American philosophers in their direct engagement in metaphysical reflection, above all John Dewey’s naturalistic metaphysics, seems both more wild and more worthwhile.  Peirce once described metaphysics as the Paris of the intellect: "no sooner do the most scrupulously severe reasoners find their feet on this ground than they give the loosest reins of license to their logic" (Review of The Collected Mathematical Papers of James Joseph Sylvester; CN III: 182).  (One rightly suspects that, regarding Paris as much as logic, Peirce was speaking with the authority of a contrite fallibilist: he knew whereof he spoke.)  Some here might be inclined to describe Las Vegas as the metaphysics of the America intellect or even the American libido.

So, my initial inclination is to take this fantastic setting simply as an occasion and indeed goad to wonder about nature and history.  When confronted with the countless respects in which this urban oasis dramatically contrasts with other American cities, I nonetheless quickly sense its kinship with its others.  The relative geographical isolation of this city is misleading if it is taken as sign of its ontological disconnectedness.  The very uniqueness of this city cries out – like a voice in the wilderness! – for an articulated sense of fibrous, fluid, and functional connections (i.e., for a relational metaphysics) (cf. Halton).  So, too, do history (including the specific one whence this city sprang) and nature. 


There does not appear to be, in the most remote corner or sequestered segment of nature, an absolutely insolated force or insular agency (see, e.g., Dewey LW 1:65).  All action is transaction, the operations of any individually identifiable being are cooperations.  Hence, what James said of humanism might with at least equal justice be said of naturalism: it is essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of ‘co’, in which conjunctions do the work" (MT 238).  Since antagonists must be conjoined in some fashion in order to oppose each other (in order to be antagonists), the work of conjunctions is not necessarily irenic: the insistence upon sociality is one thing, the ideal of harmony another (cf. Whitehead).

James’s radical pluralism, Dewey’s descriptive metaphysics of the ubiquitous traits of natural existence, Mead’s philosophy of the act, Whitehead’s process metaphysics, and Buchler’s ordinal metaphysics of natural complexes are all attempts to offer a compelling alternative to metaphysical atomism.  Underlying each of these attempts (with the possible exception of Whitehead’s system) is an unblinking recognition of the ineliminable risk inherent in the natural world ("the world of empirical things includes," as Dewey points out, "the uncertain, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and hazardous" [LW 1:43]).  The demands of theoretic understanding must be tempered and directed by the disclosures of lived experience, not only by the results of deliberate experimentation.  Thus, James confesses that: "I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without backing out and crying ‘no play. … I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is" (Pragmatism [Harvard], 142).  Dewey in effect interprets the history of Western metaphysics in the light of this Jamesian sensibility, concluding that the human, all too human, motive animating so many of our theoretical endeavors is the desire to construct a refuge of consolation.  To alter the metaphor, when we are in the bosom of these theories our losses seem to be compensated, our powerlessness transformed into power by identification with the rational order of our enveloping cosmos (by the comforting notion that the totality is a cosmos).

To change the figure yet again, so many of our experiments in metaphysics are akin to magic.  There is no question that: "We have substituted sophistication for superstition, at least measurably so.  But the sophistication is often as irrational and as much at the mercy of words as the superstition it replaces" (LW 1:45).  The repeated incantation of magical words dispels anxiety by aligning us with the invisible forces controlling the lawful course of cosmic events.

[James: "Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest.  You know how men have always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part, in magic, words have always played.  If you have his name, or the formula or incantation that binds him, you can control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. …. So the universe has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be sought in the shape of some illuminating or power-bringing word or name.  That word names the universe’s principle, and to possess it is, after a fashion, to possess the universe itself.  ‘God,’ ‘Matter,’ ‘Reason,’ ‘the Absolute,’ ‘Energy’ are so many solving names.  You can rest when you have them.  You are at the end of your metaphysical quest" [Pragmatism, p. 31]).]

The name of law is invoked and the reality of chance is thereby denied.  Thus, chance comes to be seen as a function of our ignorance, no longer as a pervasive, irreducible feature of nature.

Our magical safeguard against the uncertain character of the world is to deny the existence of chance, to mumble universal and necessary law, the ubiquity of cause and effect, the uniformity of nature, universal progress, and the inherent rationality of the universe.  These magic formulae borrow their potency from conditions that are not magical.  Through science we have secured a degree of power of prediction and of control; through tools, machinery and an accompanying technique we have made the world more conformable to our needs, a more secure abode. … We have professionalized amusement as an agency of escape and forgetfulness.  But when all is said and done, the fundamentally hazardous character of the world is not seriously modified, much less eliminated. (LW 1: 45)   

As it turns out, the demands of theoretic understanding and the disclosures of lived experience have conspired in the twentieth century to overturn the totalitarian regime of scientific determinism.  A tychistic metaphysics is no longer felt to be a violation of scientific rationality.  Quite the contrary, scientific developments have themselves shown how prescient Peirce, James, and Dewey were in their insistence upon the irreducible reality of absolute chance.

Our transactions are always risks, since they implicate us further in a continuously shifting field of activity, a field in which we are always already implicated.  We live not merely beyond our resources but outside of our skins, in an encompassing world defying unambiguous summation.  To describe nature vis-à-vis humanity as indifferent or as hostile is grossly partial, for we are sustained in our lives and activities by the largely unacknowledged grace of natural forces.  This realization however does not warrant describing nature, unambiguously, as hospitable or caring.  No simple, univocal characterization (not even "hazardous") is warranted by a judicious reading of our varied experience.   

            Natural transactions further implicate beings or agents in, at least, the immediate field in which they are always already implicated.  Frequently, they in effect thrust us far beyond this field.  In either case, these transactions threaten thereby to undermine sustaining equilibria or to exacerbate already debilitating disequilibria.  Moreover, what is true at the level of our most rudimentary biological functions is also true at that of our most expansive symbolic adventures (what Whitehead called our "adventures in ideas"): thinking and inquiring are as much environmental affairs as are breathing and digesting.  The quality of our thinking is, to a degree barely imagined, dependent upon the quality of the symbols we breathe or (to use the more apt metaphor [cf. McDermott]) the ones we ingest.  Of course, ingestion is no guarantee of digestion, just as the bare possibility of digestion is no guarantee that adequate nutrition has been attained.  Whereas biological asphyxiation is manifest, its symbolic counterpart is not so readily seen.  Whereas anorexic starvation becomes evident to everyone but the anorexic, theoretical anorexia is much more likely to attain the status of a mass delusion afflicting especially a broad spectrum of the most technically brilliant.  An internalized image of theoretical beauty fosters not only the experiential but also the strictly theoretical starvation of many of the brightest minds in late modernity.  In turn, a transactional understanding of human functioning, ranging from involuntary, somatic processes such as breathing and digesting to symbolically expansive yet still somatically rooted processes such as thinking and inquiring, fosters a diagnostic sensibility of an emphatically experimental cast.  Are you eating?  What is your diet?  Are these sources of nourishment truly nourishing?  Do you feel enhanced or diminished?  Is your symbolic diet spiritually, emotionally, intellectually nourishing? 

Eating is, as Dewey argued, as much an environmental as an organic affair (MW 14: 15).  The centrality of our mouths, teeth, stomachs, and intestines to this process should not prompt us to neglect their role within the intricate economy of organic life: like thinking, eating is not the accomplishment of a single organ or isolated set of organs, but an accomplishment of the organism in its entirety.  It is also an accomplishment of the organism in conjunction with conditions largely not of its own contrivance or choice.  The most rudimentary acts of our organic existence are neither actions nor interactions but transactions: they not only implicate us in a field of activity beyond the boundaries of our own skin but also partly depend for their success upon the overwhelmingly unwitting assistance of countless beings other than ourselves.  ["Everything that man achieves and possesses is got by actions that may involve him in other and obnoxious consequences in addition to those wanted and enjoyed.  His acts are trespasses upon the domain of the unknown …" (LW 1: 44).]

Our functional integrity, however minimal (however diminished), bespeaks an ontological connectedness (cf. McDermott).  Such connectedness is a condition for our disconnectedness: a life at odds with its conditions is, nonetheless, a life and, accordingly, the fruition of fibrous, fluid connections with a sustaining environment.  Even suicide does not spell absolute disjunction in all significant respects (again, cf. McDermott).  Tragically, this severance of connectedness might deepen and focus the connection of, say, child to parent, though in a way that increases the likelihood the child will take the parent as an exemplar.  It would be even more tragic if this manner of severing connections made no difference, if cutting one’s own life short simply – and completely - cut oneself off from all those with whom one had been connected, once and for all. 

A relational ontology is potentially a diagnostic resource for assessing the health of our ontological relatedeness.  It provides symbolic resources for a finely articulated sense of the fibrous, fluid, and functional connections constitutive of our ongoing, interlacing natural transactions.  These transactions are, however, one with our very being; they are the stuff on which the dreams – and indeed the actualities – of our embodied, habituated, improvisational selves are made (cf. Phillips).  They offer incontrovertible evidence of our primordial connectedness: by virtue of our lives we are linked to more than our selves.  Disconnectedness presupposes this linkage.

The logical point that even our most radical disconnectedness presupposes a prior ontological connectedness should not be used to undercut the far more important therapeutic point that we systematically deny the depth and consequences of our disconnectedness.  The possibility of widened and especially deepened relationships, above all ones of a nourishing and sustaining character, tends to be nullified by the ultimately abstract comfort of (at best) a minimally articulated sense of ontological connectedness.  Even an abstract sense of being enveloped by a sustaining order, however, performs experiential functions, not the least of which is encouraging a felt sense of primordial connectedness (cf. Dewey’s own Human Nature and Conduct and A Common Faith).  But ordinarily more, much more, is needed to steady and orient selves who has lost their footholds in the world, who feel themselves to hovering over an abyss or enshrouded in an impermeable membrane.

 The all-too-facile defenders of abstract connectedness here play a role analogous to the one Thomas Carlyle played in response to Margaret Fuller’s seemingly silly proclamation regarding the universe.  Recall that in his Varieties of Religious Experience James recounts Carlyle’s caustic response to Fuller’s repeated insistence that "I accept the universe!" – "Gad! She’d better!" (p. 49).  James discerns what Carlyle misses – the point at issue is the manner in which an individual accepts the universe.  Fuller’s utterance expresses "a mood of welcome", not begrudging submission to an alien order.  Perhaps it is not too much to suggest that hers is an unrestrained erotic embrace, not a calculated, hesitant acceptance.  Just as the necessity of the bare acceptance of the universe (as if there could be such a thing) is never truly the issue for such mobile, restless, and anxious beings as us (cf. McDermott on restless and its connection to being ill-at-ease), so too the abstract acknowledgment of our inescapable connectedness with nature is hardly ever of vital significance.  How and what are inseparably intertwined: how we comport ourselves toward the universe depends in part on what we take it to be, but in turn what we take it to be significantly depends on how we comport ourselves (and, underlying this, how our temperament disposes us to comport ourselves).  Rather it is vital to discover thickly sensuous, thus somatically engaging media of articulation (truly humanizing arts [cf. McDermott]), ones allowing us to connect ourselves more vitally and vibrantly to the immediate fields of our quotidian engagements.  In this regard, however, the poetic dimension of philosophic discourse needs to be highlighted (see, e.g., Dewey and Buchler); for the prose of philosophers can occasionally be nothing less than a poetry of experience.  But too often this is not the case.  Moreover, other instances of this "poetry" are needed, including of course ones not relying upon the medium of language. 

Often the sources of our comfort and consolation have proven themselves to be seeds of nihilism and anomie.  In the name of a hidden, remote, yet accessible reality, the ultimate reality and significance of everyday events, actions, sites, and selves are progressively undermined in subtle, persistent ways.   "In a world where both their terms and their distinctions [where relations and their relata] are affairs of experience, conjunctions that are experienced must be at least as real as anything else.  They will be ‘absolutely’ real conjunctions, if we have no transphenomenal [or supra-experiential] absolute ready, to derealize the whole experienced world at a stroke" (MT 230).  [Dewey: "The most serious indictment to be brought against non-empirical philosophies is that they have cast a cloud over the things of ordinary experience.  They have not been content to rectify them.  They have discredited them at large.  In casting aspersion on the things of everyday experience, the things of action and affection and social intercourse, they have done something worse than fail to give these affairs the intelligent direction they so much need. …. The serious matter is that philosophers have denied that common experience is capable of developing within itself methods which will secure direction for itself and will create inherent standards of judgment and value" (LW 1: 40-41).]

A poetry adequate to the depth and texture of our experience would encompass virtually every discourse and art, in the capacity of each to make use of sensuously thick  (at least, experientially evocative), thus somatically engaging media through which experiential connections and disjunctions are identified and illuminated.  The very search for such media is symptomatic of disconnectedness.  Also, quite apart from any explicit or focal sense of being disconnected, we discover that an articulated sense of our ontological connectedness brings into progressively sharper focus the seemingly inevitable ruptures, disjunctions, seclusions, and analogues of suicide.  The affirmation of our connectedness, then, either provides evidence for our disconnectedness or the impetus to discern the extent to which we are disconnected with nature, others, and even the most vital parts of our singular selves.  This in no way counts against my earlier claims regarding our primordial connectedness with the natural world.  It simply underscores the extent to which our consciousness of this connectedness takes shape and has relevance only against experiences of rupture, entrapment, disconnection, and estrangement. 

To repeat with a different emphasis, a relational ontology is potentially a diagnostic resource, for it provides us with the impetus and (to some extent) wherewithal to assess the pathologies inherent in our ontological connections.    "Philosophers have exhibited," as Dewey notes,  "proper ingenuity in pointing holes in the beliefs of common sense, but they have also displayed improper ingenuity in ignoring empirical things that every one has" (LW 1: 374).  The everyday experience of ordinary human beings is no shallow matter or exhaustible resource.  Especially given our fascination with innovative gadgets and exotic tales, however, we are inclined grossly to undervalue our ordinary experience, treating it as an orange sucked dry (Peirce).  So, we tend to treat as utterly negligible "the things that so denote themselves that they have to be dealt with" (LW 1: 374).  In one sense, such things can be safely ignored, for willy-nilly they assert themselves and we practically and experientially (if not philosophically or theoretically) accommodate them, in some fashion. Yet, in another sense, they require philosophical recognition, for in being theoretically slighted they become experientially endangered. 

The "things" that so denote themselves that they have to be dealt with turn out not to be things at all.  They are relationships of a temporal and historical character.  Our ecological crises are symptoms of our theoretical failure duly to acknowledge the intricate fabric of our biotic relationships.  There is, I suspect, a close analogy between these and our cultural crises.  In pointing to DDT in fish netted in waters far distant from the source of this DDT (McDermott 1994, p. 17), we are led to point to other "things" and, in the end, to point toward an encompassing field of dynamic relationships that allow us to discern hidden connections and (above all) unacknowledged complicities.  Quite simply, one thing points to another, in the manner of not so much an endless play of signifiers as the terminable profusion of toxins. 

Philosophy betrays itself when it strives too insistently upon being sophisticated or radical, therein paying little or no attention to the simple, fateful ways in which experiential thing points to one another.  Philosophy recovers itself when it is willing, humbly and patiently, to point out what is going on, what we our making of our selves and our world.  But to ascertain what is going on demands us to reconstruct what has been going on, often for a very long time (not infrequently from the time of the ancient Greeks or Hebrews, Egyptians or Persians).  To point out what is going on today, hence, requires tracing connections of geographically, historically, or otherwise disparate affairs.  

The seemingly simple denotative method advocated by Dewey turns out to be a formally historical method.  Our simplest acts of pointing possess meaning and relevance only in problematic contexts; in turn, the defining features of such contexts are emergent antinomies of the histories in and through which we have defined our selves and are now compelled to redefine our selves. 

Taking Dewey at His Word:

Pointing Out What He Took His Denotative Method To Imply

               The turn toward experience is, quite explicitly in Dewey, both an enactment of piety and a turn toward history.  Neither one of these crucial features of his empirical naturalism is given the central place it deserves in the accounts offered by even Dewey’s most intelligent, insightful expositors and followers.

            "History is full of ingratitude" (LW 1: 90).  Each existent is more than a product of antecedent forces, it having qualities and functions of its own.  Its very existence is, in effect, an assertion of its individuality and autonomy, of its being just this and no other.  This aspect of its being might be called ontological firstness.  Whatever is, is not ultimately reducible to anything else (of course, it can for certain explanatory purposes be taken simply as an instance of a kind or an exemplification of a law, but this is an admittedly partial understanding of the being in question): it is truly a being in its own right, in and of itself, apart from all else.  ["To insist that nature is an affair of beginnings is to assert that there is no one single and all-at-once beginning of everything.  It is but another way of saying that nature is an affair of affairs, wherein each one, no matter how linked up it may be with others, has its own quality" – EN (Dover), 97]  Individuality insists upon itself and in its insistence proves its case – more radically, makes itself so.  "There is," Dewey suggests, "something of King Lear’s daughters in all [of nature’s] offspring.  This ingratitude is reproachable only when it turns to deny its ancestry" (LW 1: 90).

            Dewey illustrates his point by reference to Plato and Aristotle.  The ontological perspectives of these two paradigmatic philosophers are rooted in "the communal objects of the fine arts" so central to Athenian culture (LW 90).  But they disparage what is the source of their insight.  "This lack of piety concealed from them the poetic and religious character of their own [philosophical] constructions" (LW 1: 90).  Dewey goes so far as to suggest that: "Form was the first and last word of [ancient Greek] philosophy because it had been that of art" (LW 1: 78).  Form exquisitely wrought conveys the intimation of the imperishable and the timeless, whereas form paradigmatically exhibited suggests an exemplar worthy of indefinite replication.  Combining these two aspects of eidos, we are naturally led to the timeless as the paradigmatic.  On this telling, philosophy is born of impiety.  The exemplary forms of the communal arts are historic achievements used as models for the absolute transcendence of the contingencies, vicissitudes, and mortality constitutive of historical becoming.  Dewey’s own philosophy might be read as an attempt to make reparations for this impiety, by according a truly central place to aesthetic experience and artful activity (cf. Alexander).

            The arts are historically evolved and evolving modes of transacting with nature.  As such, they are essentially historical.  They are the media in and through which nature discloses herself to us.  They are also the forms in and through our histories define themselves.  The arts moreover give shape and focus to the course and significance of our experience.  

            The turn toward nature as much as that toward experience is, at bottom, a turn toward history.  This is perhaps nowhere more manifest than in one of the drafts of Dewey’s intended revision of the opening chapter of Experience and Nature (Appendix 2 in Later Works, volume 1).  At one point, Dewey draws a familiar distinction: "Experience denotes what is experienced, the world of events and persons; and it denotes that world caught up into experiencing, the career and destiny of [hu]mankind" (LW 1: 384; cf. 18-19).  Like life and history, experience is a double-barrelled word, for it designates both what is experienced (including what is disclosed through experience) and how experience is undergone and enacted (how experience functions as a medium of disclosure).  Upon drawing this familiar distinction, however, Dewey makes a somewhat uncharacteristic move.  He identifies experience with history.  His first step in this fateful direction is to note that: "The denotations that constitute experience [at least experience in its function as a methodological resource for philosophical inquiry] point to history, to temporal process" (LW 1: 384).  He is quick to acknowledge that: "There are moments of consummation when before and after are largely forgotten, and the sole stake of man is in the present" (LW 1: 384-5).  But several decisive considerations are brought forth to challenge the tendency to take such moments as evidence for the traditional doctrine of absolute transcendence.  The focal objects of our consummatory experiences "are discovered to arise as culminations of processes, and to be in turn transitive and effective, while they may be also predictive or [in other ways] cognitively significant" (LW 1: 385).  Moreover, the "legitimacy of timeless absorption is no argument in behalf of the legitimacy of timeless objects" (385).  In light of these considerations, Dewey asserts that: "Experience is history", immediately underscoring that "the taking of some objects as final" in an absolute and unqualified sense is itself a revealing episode in human history.  But the testimony of those who accord these objects this status and authority needs to be weighed: "The testimony of an absorbed consciousness that at last it rests upon something superior to the vicissitudes of time is of no more cognitive worth than the testimony of any other purely immediate consciousness" (385).  Perhaps Dewey goes too far when he proposes that such consciousness "is not testimony at all, it is a having, not a knowing."

            Dewey’s narrative reconstruction of Western philosophy is, thus, integral to his theoretical reconceptualization of human experience.  More generally, the narrative structure of so much of his case for naturalistic empiricism reveals his commitment to a mode of discourse and form of argumentation.  His own marked tendency to explain his empirical method as primarily a denotative method conceals, to some extent, the deeper character of his philosophical project (see, e.g., LW 1: 380).  But the attentive reader of such works as Experience and Nature, Logic, and other central texts can hardly miss the connection Dewey forges between denotation and history.  So, for example, he insists that: "’This,’ whatever this may be, always implies a system of meanings focused at a point of stress, uncertainty, and need of regulation.  It sums up a history, and at the same time opens a new page; it is record and promise in one; a fulfillment and an opportunity.  It is a fruition of what has happened and a transitive agency of what is to happen" (EN [Dover], 352).  "The union of past and future with the present manifest in every awareness of meanings is a mystery only when consciousness is gratuitously divided from nature, and when nature is denied temporal and historic quality.  When consciousness is connect with nature [and thereby with its transformations in history], the mystery becomes a luminous revelation of the operative interpenetration in nature of the efficient and the fulfilling" (EN, 352-3)

Regarding his methodological recommendations, Dewey insists that: "Their full meaning can be had only when some of the denotations summed up in the notion of experience have been followed out and described" (LW 1: 385), presumably in some cases described in minute, integrated detail.  But the abiding relevance of what Dewey himself sees as commonplace observations can only be appreciated historically.  Hence, we often catch him saying that his excuse for calling attention to the obvious is the systematic neglect of frequently the most salient features of our lived experience.  The contemporary authority of negligent methodologies cries out for an explanation, at the center of which is a renarration of the history of our practices.  Like Wittgenstein, Dewey takes philosophy to encompass the task of assembling reminders for a purpose ["The work of the philosopher consists in the assemblage of reminders for a particular purpose" (PI, #127)].

The ingratitude (allegedly) shown by Plato and Aristotle toward the communal arts of their sustaining ethos ought not be repeated especially by late modern thinkers even in their deliberate endeavors to distance themselves from their classical predecessors.  Indeed, modern philosophy all too often looks like a repetition compulsion of an essentially ungrateful ego.  Dewey is (at least, at his best) not simply one more modern philosopher exhibiting this repetition compulsion; he is an acute diagnostician of this cultural neuroses.  More than this, he points the way out, insofar as such an expression makes sense in this connection.  For the way out is the way in and also the way through

            "Intellectual piety toward experience is a precondition of the direction of life and of tolerant and generous cooperation among men [human beings].  Respect for the things of experience alone brings with it such a respect for others, the centres of experience, as is free from patronage, domination and the will to impose" (LW 1: 392).

            Our simplest acts and even constitutive habits rest upon the massive, unacknowledged support of forces too complex and extensive barely to imagine, let alone clearly to conceive.  The natural world has invested vast resources in our seemingly petty enterprises.  The stability of our lives is, accordingly, dependent upon massive, interlocking stabilities owing almost nothing to our exertions or ingenuity; rather our undertakings and intelligence owe virtually everything to a complex inheritance and a sustaining environment, cultural as well as natural.  But these massive stabilities are, in their direct bearing upon our individual and communal lives, far from immune to dramatic alteration.  The rarity of gigantic earthquakes is, of course, no argument against their power (cf. McDermott 1994).  Its power and form are metaphors for the radical disconnecteness, the abysmal risk, to which we are inevitably exposed simply by virtue of our incessant restlessness.  We are ill-at-ease: our restlessness is constitutive of our somatic being (cf. Dewey), our longing for its cessation is symptomatic of a perverse piety – our longing to return to the absolute quiescence of inanimate existence (cf. Freud).  The risk of meaninglessness, thus the lure of suicide, is omnipresent.  So too is the operation of thanatos.  At least ours is a form of life that struggles to come to terms fully and effectively with life itself – growth, movement, spontaneity, and generativity.    


By virtue of our being we are implicated in a field of activity far surpassing our consciousness, comprehension, and control.  But by virtue of this field our awareness, understanding, and autonomy are made possible.  Just as our being spells risk, our abilities signify indebtedness.  ["Man is born in a state of natural debt, being antecedently committed to the execution or the furtherance of acts that will largely determine his individual existence.  He moves into a contingent mold by which he is qualitied and located, and related to endless things beyond his awareness.  From first to last he discharges obligations.  He is obliged to sustain or alter, master or tolerant, what he becomes and what he encounters" – Justus Buchler, Nature and Judgment, p. 4]  We think in and through the confluence of our inheritances, far more caught up in their currents than directive of them (cf. "Philosophy & Civilization").  Even our most solitary meditations, deliberations, and inquiries are inevitably processes of working through the fateful questions of our historical moment, however idiosyncratic be our manner of framing these questions and innovative our manner of addressing them.

An excessive preoccupation with and often admirable fidelity to oneself conspire with other strong currents to solidify the unassailable authority of the isolated individual.  The right to make up one’s own mind is untethered to any corresponding responsibility to form one’s beliefs and attitudes in an intelligent and thoughtful way.   [C. S. Peirce: "The belief in the right to a private opinion which is the essence of protestantism, is carried to a ridiculous excess in our community" (W 1: 356-7).]  The utterly fantastic ideal of self-generation becomes widely plausible, whereas the multifariously supported notion that our ontological debt to antecedent conditions and the continuing sustenance of our inherited world exceeds the possibility of repayment becomes increasingly fantastic.

This becomes intelligible when we consider the massive debunking of traditional authority.  The most modest claim in behalf of a Western sage is greeted today by the young with immediate, wholesale suspicion.  There is still a possibility that an appeal to the wisdom of Siddhartha of Confucius might win a hearing, though hardly any that one to Socrates or other hitherto recognized sages of Western antiquity might command even begrudging, provisional respect.  The progeny of René Descartes have overrun the offspring of less iconoclastic thinkers; the disciples of Nietzsche use "radical" in the more superficial way – as an unexamined term of qualified praise for a clever move in a purely academic game.  When the philosopher withdraws within the narrow confines of a hut, and from there to the allegedly private sphere of his consciousness, be it to vanquish skepticism or some other specter, the philosopher unwittingly re-enacts a cultural drama of wide significance.  The connections between the self-sequestered thinker who subjects himself to an austere textual diet, forgoing the writings of almost all of his predecessors, and the fateful struggles of rival authorities are felt by this thinker himself, for he took pains to distance himself from the spirit of rebellion erupting in his own day.  He insists that the object of his concern is simply the reform of his own thinking.  No other reform or revolution is desired or intended.  He is, if we take him at his word, a single thinker with a singular preoccupation.

But to end these meditations by pointing to the figure of Descartes is to point toward one of the opening scenes in the endlessly re-written drama of the modern epoch of Western history.  As much as we might feel inclined to say of this figure what James said of Kant ("The true line of philosophic progress lies … not so much through Kant as round him to the point where we now stand" [McDermott (ed.), pp. 361-2]), we sense that there is something facile and impoverishing about this attempt at circumvention.  We sense that the only way beyond is through.  The countless attempts to skirt round this or that figure had almost always landed us in these embrace, albeit unknowingly.  In trying to work through our intellectual inheritance, we are, time and again, called upon to confront figures that are seemingly irrelevant to present concerns and crises.

The pattern of connections woven and re-woven in the course of doing so helps us to acquire a sufficiently think sense of what is going on at present.  As James notes, "Things tell a story.  Their parts hang together so as to work out a climax.  They play into each other’s hands expressively.  Retrospectively, we can see that although no definite purpose presided over a chain of events, yet the events fell into a dramatic form …. In point of fact all stories end; and here again the point of view of a many is the more natural one to take.  The world is full of partial stories that run parallel to one another, beginning and ending at odd times.  They mutually interlace and interfere at points, but we cannot unify them completely in our minds" or discourses (Pragmatism [Harvard], 70-71).  Their lack of ultimate coherence is no defect.  It is, potentially at least, one of the most valuable and humanizing forms of disconnectedness with which we are acquainted.  For it not only opens narrative space but also invites our own critical re-narrations (stories with a cutting edge, a critical function).

"What’s going on?"  "What’s the story here?"  Philosophy recovers itself when it deals with those things that so denote themselves that they demand to be described in experiential detail and, in that form, included in our relational ontologies.  But the task of doing so is one with picking up the thread of stories partially or badly told.  We might even be required to show how these impoverished accounts are, humanly speaking, impoverishing affairs.  The task is also one with tracing how the various stories interlace and interfere with one another, so as to trace other more mundane, immediate, urgent connections.  It also demands us to ask, "Given this narrative, who is authorized to speak?  Who is denied a narrative voice?  Is it possible from within the narrative framework itself to speak back, to call into question the authorizing assumptions and instituted relationships?"  This conception of philosophy connects our endeavors with those of our predecessors, classical Greek as well as classical American.  Of far greater moment, it also connects our reflections and debates with the struggles and impasses of our time and place.        


When "all is said and done, the fundamentally hazardous character of the world is not seriously modified, much less eliminated" (LW 1: 45). 

Dewey notes that, the characteristic consciousness of our distant ancestors, "Goods are by grace not of ourselves.  He is a dangerous churl who will not gratefully acknowledge by means of free-will offerings the help that sustains him" (LW 1: 44).  "These things are as true today as they were in the days of early culture" (44).

Dewey: "It is precisely the peculiar intermixture of support and frustration of man by nature which constitutes experience.  The standing antitheses of philosophic thought, purpose and mechanism, subject and object, necessity and freedom, mind and body, individual and general, are all of them attempts to formulate the fact that nature induces and partially sustains meanings and goods, and at critical junctures withdraws assistance and flouts its own creatures" (EN [Dover], 421).

Dewey:  "From the humane standpoint our study of history is still too primitive.  It is possible to study a multitude of histories, and yet permit history, the record of the transitions and transformations of human activities, to escape us. … [T]he fact of history and also its lesson [is] the diversity of institutional forms and customs which the same human nature may produce and employ" (MW 14: 78-9).

Dewey: " … we and our endeavors are significant not only for themselves but in the whole" (EN [Dover], 420)

James: "Things tell a story.  Their parts hang together so as to work out a climax.  They play into each other’s hands expressively.  Retrospectively, we can see that although no definite purpose presided over a chain of events, yet the events fell into a dramatic form …. In point of fact all stories end; and here again the point of view of a many is the more natural one to take.  The world is full of partial stories that run parallel to one another, beginning and ending at odd times.  They mutually interlace and interfere at points, but we cannot unify them completely in our minds" or discourses (Pragmatism [Harvard], 70-71).

" … I deny the right of any pretended logic to veto my own faith.  I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without backing out and crying ‘no play. … I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is" (Pragmatism [Harvard], 142).

 The pragmatist "is willing to live on a scheme of uncertified possibilities which he trusts; willing to pay with his own person, if need be, for the realization of the ideals which he frames" (Pragmatism, 142-3) – and by which the pragmatist is framed.

McDermott: "Prior to what John Dewey refers to as the appearing of ‘warranted assertions’ of human ‘funded experiences,’ I think it would be accurate to describe and diagnose our natural transactions with nature as initially a form of Russian roulette" ("Ill-at-Ease", p. 17)

[The attractions of Whitehead’s metaphysics and cosmology are due in no small measure to his commitment to read individuality in terms of sociality and temporality, to interpreting the concrete actuality of individual beings in terms of enacted relationships and seized inheritances.  In brief, he offers conceptual resources for delineating the complex ways in which the achievement of individuality always entails a confluence of forces.  From Whitehead’s perspective, actuality is at bottom concrescence, a process of multiple factors uniquely growing together.]


Buchler, Justus

1955    Nature and Judgment (NY: Columbia University Press).

Dewey, John

1922    Human Nature and Conduct.  All references are to volume 14 of The Middle Works (SIU Press, 1988).  Cited as MW 14.

1925    Experience and Nature.  All references are the volume 1 of The Later Works (SIU Press,).  Cited as LW 1.

James, William

1907 Pragmatism (Harvard, 1975)

1909 The Meaning of Truth (Harvard, 1975)

McDermott, John J.

1994    "Ill-at-Ease: The Natural Travail of Ontological Disconnectedness" in Proceedings and Addresses of APA, vol. 67, no. 6 (June): 7-28.

 1995   "All We Seem To Get Is Life Implicitness: The Practical as Ontological" in Southwest Philosophy Review, vol. 111 (March): 17-26.

Whitehead, A. N.

1929 Process and Reality

Wittgenstein, Ludwig

1953 Philosophical Investigations (NY: Macmillan).