Monday, January 18, 2016

The Uncanniness of the Ordinary

Stanley Cavell

One of my more precocious philosophy students approached me and said, "Did you know that we are more than 90% air?" Yes. 

"Trees," wrote physicist Richard Feynman, "are made of air primarily." Physicist Max Tegmark writes:

"Physicists have known for a century that solid steel is mostly empty space, because the atomic nuclei that make up 99.95% of the mass are tiny balls that fill up merely 0.0000000000001% of the volume, and that this near-vacuum only feels solid because the electrical forces that hold these nuclei in place are very strong." (Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, 4) 

Harvard Philosopher Stanley Cavell, following Wittgenstein (that great deconstructor of linguistic appearances), is interested in probing "the uncanniness of the ordinary." Which means, what? Things like: that we exist; that a world exists; whether we have a place in the order of things; how we respond to suffering and death; how do we live this life; what does it mean to live well; and so on. 

The deeper one goes into "ordinary things and events" the more extraordinary they appear to be. The Pre-Socratics plus Plato and Aristotle were on to this idea; viz., what you see (what appears to be) is not necessarily what you get (what really is). This is the paradox of analysis; viz., the more you know the less you know.

Many of my students are interested in these kind of questions and want to discuss them. Their educational background has to this point largely hindered them from going after the Big Questions. Baylor University philosopher Thomas Hibbs, in his article "Stanley Cavell's Philosophical Improvisations" (The Chronicle of Higher Education), cites Cavell and others who are critical of today's higher educational institutions for failing to address these questions. Hibbs quotes Alasdair MacIntyre, who argues that "neither the university nor philosophy is any longer seen as engaging the questions" of "plain persons."" These are questions that thinkers like MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Cavell have dedicated their lives to addressing.

Universities systematically fail to situate students within a "big picture." MacIntyre says: "In contemporary American universities, each academic discipline is treated as autonomous and self-defining, so that its practitioners, or at least the most prestigious and influential among them, prescribe to those entering the discipline what its scope and limits are. And in order to excel in any one particular discipline, one need in general know little or nothing about any of the others." 

Hibbs writes: "Returning philosophy to the concern of ordinary human persons and showing how it might speak across disciplinary lines of inquiry are not easy tasks. But the life and career of Cavell testify not just to the possibility of such achievements but also to just how rich the results can be."

I wish you could see the eyes of many of my students as I introduce them to the philosophical issues surrounding the problem of suffering and evil. All of us face such things. What sense can we make of them? The discussion seems, to them and to me, enormously relevant and significant. When I present, in my logic classes, things like Peter Singer's argument for infanticide and Richard Dawkins's argument for aborting Down Syndrome babies, there is a lot of lively discussion!

In 1986 Cavell delivered the Tanner Lectures at Stanford University and entitled his presentation "The Uncanniness of the Ordinary." Cavell, whose mentor was ordinary-language philosopher J.L. Austin, turns his attention to everyday things (the "everyday"). The "everyday" is both eminently relevant and philosophically dense and interesting. 

Commenting on Wittgenstein's thoughts on everydayness Marjorie Perloff writes:

"What is the use of studying philosophy if it doesn't improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life? It is the pressing question Wittgenstein asked himself throughout his career as a philosopher. As early as 1913 in the Notes on Logic, he wrote, "In philosophy there are no deductions: it is purely descriptive. Philosophy gives no pictures of reality." (3) And a few years later, he made the following riddling entry in the manuscript that was to become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. But of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer." (T #6.52)"

Philosophy and religion are the two main contributors to issues regarding the "problems of life." These involve our own selves and the world that is right before our eyes. The ordinary and everyday turn out to be not so mundane after all. We are taken deeper and discover "the fantastic in what human beings will accustom themselves to... the surrealism of the habitual." (Stanford address, 4)