My students want certainty. They want it
so badly. They respect science and have memorized
complex formulas. I don’t know
how to tell my students their parents
are still just as scared. The bullies get bigger
and vaguer and you cannot punch a cloud.
I have eulogies for all my loved ones prepared,
but cannot include this fact in my lesson plans.
The best teacher I ever had told me to meet him
at the basketball court. We played pick-up for hours.
By the end, I lay panting on the hardwood
and couldn’t so much as stand.
He told me to describe the pain in my chest.
I tried. I couldn’t find the words. Not exactly.
Listen, he said, that’s where language ends.
Two things are for free: philosophy and poetry. And what they both have in common is the act of thinking. Thinking is for free and – so the philosophers say – all human beings are in possession of the capacity to think. Poetry and philosophy do not require technology, they are not dependent on instruments and devices. They do not even require literacy. As long as you have a free moment and, ideally, an interlocutor, philosophy and poetry can take place regardless of whether you were born poor or wealthy, free or in bondage, of any gender, religion, nationality, or skin color.
The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned and continued thinking and writing down his thoughts on toilet paper while in prison. Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, wrote about his life, and gave impetus to a philosophy of abolitionism in the US, inspiring W.E.B. Du Bois. Hypathia, the ancient female philosopher from Alexandria in Egypt, was cruelly murdered because of her views, but in her lifetime she was able to teach and practice philosophy and mathematics, earning the respect of Christians and pagans alike. The Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi survived Auschwitz, and the reduction of his existence to the status of “sub-human” in the concentration camp, reciting poetry to himself and to others from memory.
Thinking is for free. Our freedom to practice it is not. In order to guarantee the permanence of this freedom, in order to transition from being “merely human” to “fully human” and perhaps even to being “humane,” a second step is required: the exercise of judgment. For thinking without judgment and critique leads to moral atrophy as Hannah Arendt had shown in her study of Eichmann and what she called “the banality of evil.” Evil – may it be in the form of slavery, femicide, homophobia, or genocide – does not arise from the plotting of one Machiavellian mastermind; evil takes root where judgment is suspended, where thinking is suspended, where an individual relinquishes thought and critique in favor of automatism. How can we, as a society, as teachers and students, as learners and citizens, how can we make sure that thinking and our collective conversation about what is right or wrong, what is humane or inhuman, what is beneficial or what detrimental, how can we make sure that this conversation does not come to a halt? How can we make sure to continue the conversation, continue thinking, when we are defeated, discriminated, debased, when all of our certainties are demolished and we “lay panting on the hardwood / and [can’t] so much as stand”; when we can’t “find the words. Not exactly”?
I myself, as a woman, as an individual from a working class family, as a foreigner and non-native speaker, have often found myself silenced or unable to articulate my thoughts in the face of patriarchy, in all-male, all-white environments. The words just won’t come, my voice isn’t loud enough. Yet I am at all times expected to perform and express myself according to pre-established standards; provide sufficient proof; remain coherent, eloquent, objective, and dispassionate; ignore my background, my body, and emotions for the sake of “argument;” it is almost as if more often than not I am asked to suspend judgment for the sake of some purportedly universal agreed-upon form of “reason.” Or can it be that I am right where I am supposed to be, that my words are exactly what has to be said or left unsaid? How and should we expect from beings who have been abused, bullied, forced to migrate, who menstruate, give birth, are disabled, or grew up in poverty; how can we expect them to exclude all that from their thought and reasoning? Can it be that it is not us who are insufficient, imperfect, but that it is “reason” that is not enough?
How can we find the strength to continue the conversation, continue thinking when someone else’s reason hurts us, and we feel ashamed, out-of-place, second-rate humans, when all certainties are demolished and we “[can’t] find the words. Not exactly”?
I’d like to think that I’m the kind of teacher who will say to you: “listen – that’s where philosophy begins.”
Chicago, 2 March 2021
P.S. This post was originally written for D. N. Rodowick, and read at an informal talk for the student group The University of Chicago Skeptics Society, where I introduced his forthcoming book An Education in Judgment: Hannah Arendt and the Humanities (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021) to a bunch of inquisitive students willing to talk about the humanities and philosophy at 7pm on a Sunday evening.