Clues, Signs, Traces, Imperatives III: Care, Composing, 24/01/2018

So the detective.

There were four qualities of thought in that tentative description I gave of that persona, the conceptual persona of philosopher as detective. Care, attention to detail, commitment to ideals, understanding causes and conditions

Care. In several senses of the word, but I first want to talk about the sense of carefulness. You’re aware of the power of your own words, actions, and thinking. You don’t dismiss what you’re doing at any time as being inconsequential.

A wonderful spin on the detective myth in the last couple of decades
is when the detective's ideals are rooted in the life of her family,
friends, and community. Where she acts to bring justice to her own
world, even when it's the inconsequential scale of a little town.
This is because you understand that any action – no matter how trivial, ordinary, or small it might be – can have wide and massive consequences. Not just any intentional action, but any event at all. Any minor flux in the development of the universe.

As a proverb, it’s the butterfly’s wings that cause a hurricane. “For want of a nail.”

People who act with care are attentive to chaos, mindful of the power that a small difference, a small change, can make in a massively wide web of processes, bodies, and networks. A few poorly stamped punchcards can change the course of human civilization.

Attention to detail. Why do I emphasize this when I’ve already talked about carefulness? Because I don’t want to refer to detail in the world, as you investigate it and discover new aspects of existence. No, I mean attention to detail in your own thinking.

If you’ve ever taken an intro-ish level philosophy course, you probably heard a lot of talk about rigour in writing. Way too many teachers – from the lowliest marking assistant to full professor – think this amounts to meticulous disputation. Argue over every detail, hunt for every flaw, for every suspected flaw, and interrogate it ruthlessly.

That attitude makes it very easy to think you’re a brilliant philosophical debater when you’re in fact a gaslighter. Listen to an argument, think of a way to spin some self-defeating interpretation.

Talking about Sherlock Holmes is almost inevitable when you talk
about detective myths in contemporary culture. His massive
gravity in the development of the myth makes him impossible to
ignore. I liked the stories as a boy, but today, I find the character so
limited. Sherlock has an ethical detachment – no matter how the
portrayal depicts his friendships, Sherlock remains inescapably
a detective who investigates for the joy of puzzle-solving. The
consequences – the ethical heart of the case – are important to
him, but remain in the shadow of his perverse joy of the case as
an intellectual game.
“Couldn't you say that . . .” is a phrase I’ve heard pronounced with the most poisonous smugness, dribbling milky vomit from a mouth onto a seminar table.

Philosophical writing, done best, means that you make every word count. You write with such precision that even your ambiguities are a perfect balance of provocation and befuddlement. Create the space for your readers to finish your argument themselves – the same message each in their own way.

It’s what you should at least aim for, even if you never quite achieve it.

Commitment to ideals. See the paragraph above. You rarely, if ever, achieve the best that you’re capable of – a perfect push to your limits. But if you always try for it, you’ll avoid your very worst and do better than if you’d lived and thought without ambition.

I don’t just mean your character, though I certainly am talking about your character. I’m also talking about all your values, everything you want for society. Fail if there’s no other way out, but you’ll fail with dignity.

Better than nothing, I guess?

Understanding. Accountability to yourself. Always know what you’re doing. Not just in its potential consequences in the chaos of life, though there is that. Not just in living with integrity, the dignity that manifests in commitment to ideals, though there’s definitely that.

There must always be a pathos to the detective – caring about the
world because he's part of the world, the fundamental
interconnectedness of all things, including himself. A union of
knowledge and chaos that inspires joy and love.
Develop a sense of personal gravity – always be aware that there’s a very serious dimension to your actions. Consequences of chaotic actions – losing your spare horseshoe nails, poor maintenance on an election punchcard machine in Florida – are not a matter of games.

You don’t just look down on the Earth like some kind of immature god, where we’re all just playthings you watch for entertainment. Destruction has to elicit sympathy if you’re going to avoid becoming a callous, deranged, psychopath.

So I’m coming back to care. A full walkthrough of each of the four domains of philosophical thinking – existence, knowledge, character, and society. If I can get technical – ontology, epistemology, ethics, and morality (or politics, when the crowds get big).

Care now in the typical sense – I care for you, your life and well-being concerns me. I will suffer if you’re harmed or if you become a worse person than you are now. Strength and joy empower you, no matter where they occur and what expresses them. That there is more such strength and joy in the world, the better that world is.

The danger of a life in chaos (existence), the detailed attention of concern (knowledge), which reveals the gravity of your actions (morality), becoming a ground for your commitment to reshaping the world for the better (ethics, character).

The detective whose careful attention to the seemingly inconsequential details of the world reveals a terrible injustice that she cannot ignore without correcting. As an image, it’s a cultural myth. As a concept, it’s a comprehensive philosophy.

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