On a train, heading south

Having spent an excellent few days on and around the margins of Dublin, I find myself on a train to Mallow for my third visit to TAPSS (theory and philosophy summer school). It’s become a bit of a tradition, a habit, to attend this event. And I do love this place. The green, the hills, the damp cold – it’s all so Canadian!

The theme this year is “understanding and explaining”. I like in these things to write a reflection on the theme before the week starts, something I can go back to at the end of the week to see how (and if?) my thinking is changed by the week’s events. Understanding would tend to mean human understanding – interpretation, narrative description, perhaps putting yourself in another’s shoes. Explaining would mean something more akin to naturalistic explanation – causal frameworks and the like. I think the everyday tendency would be to identify explaining with practical things, and with science, whereas hermeneutics is good for literature and philosophy but of only ancillary help to those trying to do something about things. Of course, I would right away challenge this division and claim a kind of unity of understanding and explaining in which they are both structurally oriented towards duty bound action. Accordingly, I put down this little reflection:

What is the unity of understanding and explaining? Not only that explaining is a form of understanding, but more radically that both explaining and understanding are forms of action, which means they are a decision which closes the demand that appears before us, the demand which solicits us to be adequate to the situation in which we find ourselves. In this demand there is no highest value, only the values which we decide upon. But neither are they purely relativistic, because they exist in front of us as demands which we can accept and take up or deny and push aside or stand against. Moreover, values never stand on their own, but always in relation to particular histories, contexts, socio-emotional contagion, and political lines which dissuade us from acting purely independently for fear of the regular irrelevance of the lone actor. The universal in understanding and explanation is the moment of openness and honesty, sometimes called “rigour”, in which the theorist holds him or herself in the strife between earth and world, or rather in the tuft of the chiasm between concept and content where the world pins itself to itself from thought to positive construction. Properly open in that place which we might call the hole of particularity, that which is not in the least particular are clearly visible for those devoted to looking rather than merely fulfilling their own anticipations. This cleanness of sight is the the lucidity of every revolutionary thought, every kind word, every resolute insight, and every measure of genuine justice. Its abandonment is the inertial, the ossified, the pathological, and the narcism which always tempts and stands against redemption because it sees only that the past is lost.

In recognition that the point of these events is to challenge your own understanding (rather than the more immature scholastic tendency of forcing others to challenge their understandings by listening to what you have to say), I want to recognize that this week might be a time to throw into question my moralistic interpretation of reality. Perhaps there is something problematically theological about subsuming everything under praxis? After all, the Greeks did distinguish between poesis and phronesis – only the second is praxis whereas the first is structured by worldly plans. Sure, we can always say that phronesis is conditioned by a pre-decision which judges the appropriateness of the praxis, but is this a serious philosophical hypothesis, confirmable by analysis of through experience, or is it a hack job, a declaration by fiat?

EDIT: Some Photos


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