Monday, September 20, 2010

Remembering My Voice

I read all of his publications that he brings me, and I have to say that they don’t make me happy. I can’t hear Caleb talking in them.

These are the words of Hannah Coulter, the central character and narrator of the Wendell Berry novel of the same name. Hannah’s son Caleb has moved on from his life on the family farm to study and teach agriculture. In her encounters with Caleb's academic work Hannah finds it weirdly sterile. There is something just painfully ironic about approaching agriculture in a lifelessly academic manner.

Normally, reading a criticism of this sort would be a kind of encouragement. I make a hobby out of worrying out loud about the danger of an academic sterility in the discipline of philosophy, so it's always good to hear echoes of this worry in others' writings. But this weekend I had an unusual reaction to this favorite worry of mine. Instead of cheering in agreement I was convicted. I was reminded that I need to hear this worry (a struggle I've noticed before), because lately I, like Caleb, have forgotten my voice.

During the last few weeks, as I've done research for a paper for one of my classes, I’ve been searching for some way to contribute to the existing body of literature about the topic I’ve chosen. This has left me unmotivated and frustrated. I became painfully aware when I read these words of Hannah Coulter that in this process I have forgotten my philosophical voice. I have been searching for a contribution to the academic literature, but have forgotten to consider how I might contribute to man’s understanding of himself and the world. I’ve been worried about who says what about the problem, but I’ve forgotten why it’s a problem in the first place. I’ve forgotten why human beings have asked and must ask the question I’m asking. I’ve been behaving as a scholar, rather than a philosopher. The scholar, as Mark Anderson points out, searches for ideas and projects that are “fecund, endlessly productive of the most minute research projects. The philosopher seeks a different sort of fecundity.” May I learn to pursue that different sort of fecundity!

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