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Day 11/12/2012

Character vs. Virtue: On the Circular Journey of the Developing Self

                                    And the end of all our exploring
                                    Will be to arrive where we started
                                    And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


How can we argue that “Making a living, economically speaking, will be at one with making a life that is worth living”[1]? And if we say a life worth living is one that is economically valuable as well, how can that life worth living be a life of art and ethics too, of tapping into “social creative forces” and continuing the unstoppable project of human invention?

The question of a life that is worth living seems to be one about both morality and imagination. I will save that topic for another discussion and focus on a point made by Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed. Tough writes:

“In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, character strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But moral laws were limiting when it came to character because they reduced virtuous conduct to a simple matter of obedience to a higher authority. ‘Virtues,’ they wrote, ‘are much more interesting than laws.’ According to Seligman and Peterson, the value of these twenty-four character strengths did not come from their relationship to any particular system of ethics but from their practical benefit—what you could actually gain by possessing and expressing them. Cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to ‘the good life,’ a life that was not just happy but meaningful and fulfilling.”

The cultivation of virtue, and virtues as much more interesting than laws, is a long attended-to philosophical topic. I would say that in lieu of “interesting,” it is extremely important, because virtues are “metamarkers” that guide our journey. Laws are the habits and characteristics we create to help us stay on track, regulations that we break and remake as we move towards–but never fully realize–virtues.

I will draw on French philosopher Jacques Derrida to elucidate my point. Derrida, known for his impenetrability and complex discussion of language and society, is particularly clear, I think, on this point of the difference between “higher aims” and “habits/ rules/ institutions.” In his essay, “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” Derrida writes about Justice and its relation to laws. Derrida’s conception of law in relation to Justice offers a way of understanding how something finite, such as a policy or law, can be thought of as operating under the umbrella of a greater purpose. Derrida writes about Justice as an overarching value that guides the making, interpretation, and application of laws.

Laws, as Derrida lays out, in an ideal sense ought to be made in the name of Justice, but then what is Justice? Whereas value may suggest something definable and finite, Justice is the opposite; it is indefinable and beyond the scope of comprehension, according to Derrida. Justice is a point of uncertainty that cannot be pinned down, though it is also a source of guidance because in resisting certainty it requires that we constantly question and reaffirm a purpose. Justice is not a means to an end, it is not in service of anything, but rather it is the guiding light by which we question all our actions and laws. Derrida writes, “one cannot speak directly about justice, thematize or objectivize justice” (Derrida, 1990, p. 936), and in this way he views Justice as something infinite and eternal that we must return to again and again in order to ensure we have not strayed off the path into injustice.

Justice is nondeconstructible, that is, something that is infinite, something that we cannot pull apart into composite parts in order to construct an all-encompassing definition. The deconstructible element, law, can help us to have experiences of Justice, but it does not in itself constitute and can never supplant Justice. In moving towards a true understanding of the nondeconstructible element, we must constantly return to the deconstructible elements, rethink them, reinvent them. Each time we come to a law or a policy, we must “assume it, approve it, confirm its value, by reinstituting act of interpretation as if ultimately nothing previously existed of the law, as if the judge himself invented the law in every case” (Derrida, 1990, p. 961). To do so, we must be attuned to the details of language, and we must reinstate meaning in the things under consideration in order to begin to understand them in the present situation. That is, in the localized context of a community, culture, socio-economic group, we must look again at a law or policy, pull it apart and ask whether it is in the service of a political or economic agenda, for example, and fundamentally whether it is in the name of truth or justice.

In this way, we are saying that laws and policy should not be in the service of a limited (and limiting) political agenda, but rather should aim toward a greater purpose of truth or justice. In the same way that we ought to recognize laws as something we must constantly rethink and reshape in the context of justice, so too we must rethink policies and curricula in the context of a greater purpose aiming to serve truth or justice. Laws and education policies are often made in the context of a particular and limiting political, social, economic, cultural climate, but our greater obligation to humanity, whether it be for Justice or education, calls us to deconstruct and examine those laws beyond the immediate interests driving political, social, economic, cultural agenda.

Attentiveness, or in Derrida’s terms understanding of difference, is essential for an ability to reconceive. Attentiveness can be understood as a rigorous process of noticing that can guide policy makers in their approach to the context of a proposed educational reform and can guide students in their approach to learning because it enables them to build an experience through deeper and more thoughtful engagement with the situations they encounter. The process of noticing can be thought of in terms of Stanley Fish’s “fresh judgment”(Derrida, 1990, p.950). The idea of fresh judgment connects to the idea of always approaching something as new. Approaching something as new inherently suggests that we cannot assume that any statement or meaning or definition (or law or policy or verdict) which we had concluded before was true is still true. If we approach something as though we did not understand it, then we return to a concept each time with fresh judgment.

This encounter allows us to see and understand something anew, discovering some nuance or variation, or perhaps something entirely the opposite of what we had seen before. Such recognition teaches us, since we come to realize that our previous understanding was limited or even wrong, that we have a responsibility, if we wish to truly understand, to return again and again to our experience and be attentive. Attentiveness means setting aside preconceptions and judgments. It is a supremely important process of thought and way of being, especially where localized and individual differences can vary greatly and where it is essential for policymakers and teachers to take into account such differences and to do so fairly rather than in the exercise of power for certain interests or social groups over others. Derrida states that laws should not be in “the service of a social force of power,” which he defines as “economic, political, ideological powers.”

This philosophical exploration  helps us to understand more deeply some of the problems Tough grappled with as he thought about, watched, and spoke with children trained to be grandmaster chess players. While the children Tough followed were trained to have character traits recognized as on the path to virtue, such as patience, attentiveness, self-assurance, and also work ethic, “grit,” and ability to overcome failure, they were not necessarily taught to look to see those traits as useful for developing knowledge, beauty, truth (or more simply to be just and empathetic with those around them). It is not that they could not find this on their own, but as the stories showed, the grandmaster chess players in middle school became somewhat handicapped when they could not apply their arguably superior character traits to a higher, unattainable purpose like thirst for knowledge and curiosity which would have the added benefit of helping them get into college. With life, the message here is, there are things we will never obtain in an absolute sense like a title of grandmaster—happiness, justice, virtue—and these are undeniably some of the more important things in life. Rather, we must learn to cognizantly apply our character traits to a variety of tasks at hand emerging to us throughout life.

So to move back out our discussion of virtue and character, we can say we can never precisely define in words The Good is or Imagination or Truth. What we can do is identify the character traits, or habits, that we can cultivate that would make us close to the Good (empathy) or Imagination (creativity) or Truth (reflection). The articulation of  the traits and  habits indicating character helps schools as they work to gain the more undefinable goal of Knowledge and Happiness (for Wittgenstein being happy is having values “in spite of the misery of the world”) engaged persons and citizens. Tough continues on to write:

“For many of us, character refers to something innate and unchanging: a core set of attributes that define one’s very essence. Seligman and Peterson defined character in a different way: a set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable—entirely malleable, in fact. They are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice and they are skills you can teach.” (59, Tough)

While Tough may be correct when he says “for many of us,” as I have not surveyed what people think when they hear the word character and I am sure he has, I can say that in the traditions of philosophy, psychology and many religions it is accepted that virtue and character are things worked at and developed and not something genetic or  innate. In these fields malleable character is interpreted in a variety of different ways. For some it is through activity (Aristotle), for others through reflection and love (Moore), and for Kant it is though universalizing concepts. The paths to the good are varied, but the notion across the board remains the same: the labor of virtue is not a linear progression to a finite moment of perfect and complete understanding. Rather, it is an orbiting around an ideal, a casting out and a reeling back in, that is perpetual and endless.

The ideal is to a be one who is developing character traits towards a higher end and being, as educational philosopher John Dewey says, “intelligently experimental”[2] in the process. Stay tuned for more on imagination, creativity and the process of being intelligently experimental.


[1] Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy. It is a book based on series of lectures that Dewey gave at Tokyo’s Imperial University of Japan not long after World War I. “When the liberation of capacity no longer seems a menace to organization and established institutions, something that cannot be avoided practically and yet something that is a threat to conservation of the most previous values of the past, when the liberating human capacity operates as a socially creative force, art will not be a luxury, a stranger to the daily occupations of making a living. Making a living economically speaking, will be at one with making a life that is worth living. And when the emotional force, the mystic force on might say, of communication, of the miracle of shared life and shared experience is spontaneously felt, the hardness and crudeness of contemporary life will be bathed in the light that never was on land or sea.”
[2] “The conjunction of problematic and determinate characters in nature renders everyexistence, as well as every idea and human act, an experiment in fact, even though not in design.To be intelligently experimental is but to be conscious of this intersection of natural conditionsso as to profit by it instead of being at its mercy.”(Dewey, Experience and Nature, 63)

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