I am interested both in the ways that physical conflict can be avoided by the heated but responsive conflict of words that occurs in practical deliberation, especially when that deliberation is supported by institutional structure and custom, but even when it isn't. And I am interested in the ways in which language is performative; human action includes speaking. The ethical subject is both a thinking thing and an expressive and active body. So we are recalled to Aristotle, who holds consistently, throughout the Nichomachean Ethics, the Rhetoric, and the Politics, that to be virtuous, one can't simply have good intentions—one must also know how to realize those intentions. Goodness worthy of the name is effective. This means that we need to have good character and the wisdom of experience, in order to persuade other people to join us in our endeavors, for there are very few worthwhile projects a human being can carry out alone. In Leibnizian terms, the Principle of Perfection requires not just inner harmony, but outer harmony. The roles we play in society are expressions of who we are; and the self constitutes itself in terms of those roles, just as thought constitutes itself by means of language, signs and images. The world reads us through our roles.
The view that philosophers take of their art and craft changes when they remember that philosophy is not merely descriptive but is also performative. To use Austin's vocabulary, this change occurs when philosophers admit that their writings have illocutionary and perlocutionary, as well as locutionary, import. Any proposition is at once a judgment made by a thinking person, and an expressive utterance presented to an audience; any argument is rational persuasion (even when it is quoted in a logic textbook). To speak with Cavell and Wittgenstein, from their caravansaries along the trade route between Harvard and Cambridge, the change occurs when philosophers admit that their writings always take place within language games and ‘forms of life,' so that the search for criteria in framing concepts and for evidence in framing arguments is also a claim to community. Aristotle, more than two thousand years ago, urged similar insights and questions on philosophers when he wrote about rhetoric as an extension of both logic and ethics. Filtered through the editorial work of Richard McKeon at the University of Chicago, the Aristotelian tradition there produced books about practical deliberation that to my mind deserve at least as much attention as those of Cavell and Austin, works by Wayne Booth, Edward Levi, David Luban, Paul Kahn, and Eugene Garver. Notably, their texts deal with works of literature on the one hand, and law on the other, discursive realms in which narratives of human action are central and irreducible, however much they may be subject to philosophical analysis.
Simone de Beauvoir's work, for example, exhibits a methodological trajectory as she sees more and more clearly that philosophical writing is performative as well as descriptive, and that the enterprise she has undertaken is a form of rational persuasion rather than the construction of a ‘correct' theory about people. This trajectory begins with Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944), and then Pour une morale de l'ambiguité (1947), and continues through Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), followed by her works on old age that have a distinctly practical cast. It culminates in her active engagement with those who criticized French colonialism as the Algerian war broke out, as well as with proponents of the feminist movement in France, which crystallized around the issue of reproductive rights in the 1970s. And the trajectory is also traced in the multiplicity of genres she employs: philosophical tract, novel, journalism, and memoir.
Over the years, teaching philosophy courses dealing with racism and sexism, I have been struck by the importance of first person narratives. We read (for example) the memoirs of W. E. B. Du Bois beside his more systematic writings, and we read the memoirs of Beauvoir alongside The Second Sex. The testimony of those singular figures (like the testimony of Augustine or Rousseau), recording the specific details of their life, their personal quest for freedom and equality and the many ways in which they tried to share their quest, is essential. (And their fiction particularizes and dramatizes the insights they consider philosophically and scientifically elsewhere.) For Du Bois's writings to be effective, he had to speak out of his situation (to borrow a term from the Existentialists) as a Black man in early twentieth century America; and Beauvoir had to speak out of her situation as a woman in mid-twentieth century France. Then, their more philosophical writings took up the task of generalization, and so do the books and editorials of those who, inspired by their thought, carry it forward.
This project was supported more as pedagogy than as research, thus generating lots of discussion that helped me develop my thoughts about discussion. One source was the Schreyer Honors College Distinguished Honors Faculty Program, which provided $8500 between 2012 and 2014. I also shared with Christine Clark-Evans and thanks to the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State, an NEH Challenge Grant, Team Teaching Across the Humanities ($9500) for a lecture series and course on African American philosophy during Spring Semester 2008.
This research has resulted in the following publications:
And I have given the following presentations on these topics: