Aug 15, 2011

Summer and Winter Foolishness

Years ago in reading, I encountered the distinction between two families of fools -- and two types of foolishness.  I've invoked that easily remembered and vivid distinction by way of explanation in many conversations down the years, and have puzzled about precisely what goes wrong with the winter fool -- how to explain their folly in terms of defective practical reasoning, what specific defects or failures are involved, what concepts and what moral theories best illuminate this all-too-common but somewhat complex mode of misreasoning.

Why would this distinction -- originating in a Jewish proverb, then trickling through Russian folklore, eventually popping up and popularized in Hemmingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls -- continue to draw the interest of a moral theorist?  Well, for one because folly is the classical opposite to wisdom. It is practical wisdom, what the Greeks called phronesis, what the biblical Wisdom literature (which bears similarities to, draws upon, and reworks other similarly sapiential literature not only names but personifies, what the Latin west in its turn termed at some times prudentia, at others sapientia.  It's not enough to know what comprises and constitutes wisdom, though -- and that's tough-enough knowledge to acquire and retain, a never-ending arduous task in actuality -- one also needs to know what the various pitfalls, temptations, and forms of foolishness are, not least to recognize and avoid them, but also to understand them -- for by understanding how one goes wrong, one better grasps how one, choosing differently, goes right.

Hemingway's version of the parable sketches key features of the characters involved.
"Listen... do you know about the two kinds of fools?". . . .

"First there is the winter fool. The winter fool comes to the door of your house and he knocks loudly. You go to the door and you see him there and you have never seen him before. He is an impressive sight. He is a very big man and he has on high boots and a fur coat and a fur hat and he is all covered with snow. First he stamps his boots and snow falls from them. Then he takes off his fur hat and knocks it against the door. More snow falls from his fur hat. Then he stamps his boots again and advances into the room. Then you look at him and you see he is a fool. That is the winter fool.

"Now in the summer you see a fool going down the street and he is waving his arms and jerking his head from side to side and everybody from two hundred yards away can tell he is a fool. That is a summer fool."
In other versions of the story, the process of snow-removal takes place similarly, going from the boots, to the coat, to the hat, sometimes with additional steps.  There's also a -- at least to me -- less immediately intelligible version which has the winter fool taking off garments and putting them one by one in the closet (perhaps coming out away from the closet only to return there -- that's the foolishness?)

Before examining the case of the winter fool more closely, I want to detour into two different points deriving from the traditions of moral theory within which I work that could be helpful to set out, making them explicit both to myself and my readers, perhaps just reminding ourselves, or perhaps introducing them for the first time.  One of them will seem straightforward, informative, while the other -- to some -- will seem patently and purposelessly adversarial.  So, let's start with the sweet honey first, then the bitter draft.

What makes any course of action, any practice, any sequence of connected events caused, desired, or cooperated in by an agent --or indeed any single act, any gesture, any response, any resistance, any preventive measure, any longing or desirous direction of gaze -- what makes any of these intelligible (for human beings, though not just for human beings)?  That's a puzzler for many who have not thought thematically about human action and practices -- though they've been engaging more or less successfully in them, learning them, arguing about them, all their lives.  They shouldn't feel bad about such initial feeling-and-finding themselves-at-a-loss though, any more than Augustine did in the Confessions when admitting that so long as nobody asks him what time is, he gets it perfectly well, but as soon as he's put on the spot, he discovers himself to his surprise as inarticulate and uncomprehending as anyone who had not devoted reflection and meditation to the matter of time. Time is murky and mysterious because deeply metaphysical.  And, actually, so are human beings and human action.

So, what makes action intelligible? What allows us to understand, to recognize, to evaluate, to emulate another's action? Some, properly catechized by philosophy of action, will immediately blurt out:  "the intention!"  Actions are done for reasons or motives, which can be asked about and truthfully explained -- albeit sometimes after some required introspection or even training, and yes, even at times marked by one or more varieties of deluding and detouring self-deception -- which, itself can be queried about as a kind of action, since after all deceiving even oneself requires some activity.  And, yes, to fully grasp the what it is of an action requires grasping the why it is -- not only why it is done, since sometimes an action can be identified as attempted but not successfully brought about (for example, riding a laundry basket down the stairs!), but why it is chosen, why it is attempted, why it takes precedence over the other possible actions at that time, in short, why it is intended, what the intention is, or more broadly speaking, what the intentionality of the agent and the action is.

Can an action be understood adequately without understanding the intention animating the actor, suddenly inhabiting, and contributing new, surplus meaning to, the elements of the surrounding world and setting, objects, tools, our bodies themselves and their parts and possibilities?  Adequately? Well, it depends on what we're up to.  But that's a longer-to-explore and at any rate different topic.  Lets say that the answer, for the time being, is No.  To understand, to grasp the intelligibility of, to be in a position to evaluate, to form and pass a judgement on an action, we have to have some idea -- notice that I don't say we actually have to have the complete and correct idea -- about what the agent, the doer, the intender, is up to, what he or she wants, what he or she wills.    

The range of possibilities of what can count as an intention is extremely wide and varied. One might be motivated by fulfilling a desire, attaining a desired good, preventing or avoiding an evil one desires not to suffer.  The object of the action might be something entirely outside of it, but achieved by it, as when we work for money or to supply a good or service for trade with another.  One might be concerned with pleasure to follow or a pain to avoid, continuing or ending a process, doing what is expected, satisfying one or more of one's duties, experimentally learning something, provoking, paining, placating, or pleasing another.

Or, one's intention might be to produce an enjoyment, a satisfaction, an excitement, a playful time-passing that is so closely associated with the action that the action itself can become an end, a goal, a reason to engage in it. One might act so as to act upon oneself, as when one decides to modify the structure of one's habits, emotions responses, cognitive outlooks, even the very framework of one's desires -- all of this having to be done bit by bit through determinate actions.  One might act so that another can act, or to prepare the way for one's own subsequently intended action. Again, another topic worthy of going into elsewhere, but not getting bogged down in here.

The intelligibility of an action also resides in the kind or sort or type of action which it is. Various actions are easily recognizable as this or that sort of action, and they can be chosen and evaluated as such and such an act. Riding a skateboard, for instance -- though note that already with this example, an action may do double- or triple-duty, fitting more than one "description" as we say nowadays, or "species of act" as Aquinas called it back in his time and framework. One might not be just riding a skateboard -- add sticks (as we often did) and one might be playing the neighborhood game of "knights," eventually forbidden by the parents on my street.  One might be engaging in the crime of "loitering" as well, doing so without directly intending it, even desiring that skateboarding be regarded in that place, in that time, as doing something salutary rather than delinquent.

Notice that type or description of action is connected in complex and concrete ways with intentionality of action.  The intention -- or indeed at times other involved people's intentions -- inform the action, accord to it its fuller, more specific levels of meaning.  Skating fast and trickily to impress one's peers or the opposite sex locates the action within a framework of means and ends, a chain of actions and desires and (at least implicit) reasoning -- that "to," or "in order to", or "so as to", or "so that" -- these are the lexical indices of intentionality.

Notice also that intentionality can itself bend back upon the type or characterization of the action.   A great example of this is action mimetic of virtue, as Aristotle discusses it.  It's not enough, in order to be virtuous, to just have a state of character or to do actions that map onto a type of "courage" or "moderation" or "generosity".  One has to do the action the way that a virtuous person -- other virtuous persons besides the one acting right at that moment, one's models -- does the action. One has to choose to do actions in this way, thereby step by step, occasion by occasion, acquiring the virtue.  In other words, one has to have the intention of acquiring virtue as an end, which is then attained through the selection of the right means to gradually attain that end. Select the wrong means -- try to aim at becoming virtuous immediately -- and despite having the right end, one will never attain it.  One's motivation is only half-right in such a case, precisely because discerning, selecting, and following out the right means has to be something intended in order to attain valuable and hard-fought ends.

Perhaps all of that discussion of intentionality and action was dry, dusty and dull, or perhaps it was enjoyably thought-provoking -- and notice that either of these can conjoin with "writing a . . . piece" as descriptions of my own action. Now, for something that some will find decidedly more bitter as they taste it -- just because our own times, if not all Arnoldian sweeteness and lightness, nevertheless does cloy the intellectual palate overmuch, rendering both the act of discrimination and the spectacle of discrimination painful -- when actually, proper honing ought to culminate in the pleasure and intellectual growth played with in the polysemic Latin verb sapere (which contra Kant, does not primarily mean "to know," but "to taste," and "to be wise" or "to exercise wisdom")

You see, it is one of the marks of foolishness -- and not only of the early modern or the late modern (or post-modern, whatever you like to name it) eras, but also of earlier eras when they addressed this -- to deny or to distort the distinction between wisdom and foolishness.  Some wax indignant at the mere notion that someone might be labeling someone else a fool -- or that they make any claim to being wise, because after all that means that they are identifying themselves as above others, at least above fools.  Alternately, the foolish redefine the categories so as to place themselves out of it and others, usually undeservingly, within it.  That this has been going on since antiquity is easy enough to see -- just read through some of the literature honestly exploring and elaborating the distinction.

I'll make no apologies here for belonging to, and choosing to locate myself within long traditions of inquiry that do distinguish between folly and wisdom, stultitia and sapientia.  But I will concede this point to those seemingly anti-moralistic moralizers who bristle at hearing wisdom and foolishness not only discussed in the abstract but applied to actual agents:

Those who label others as fools principally so as to place themselves higher, as the wise, to puff themselves up, to pride themselves -- they are in fact fools themselves.  They've mistaken the nature, the purposes, the worth and weight of wisdom -- again a matter of getting mixed up about means and ends as well as about the sort of thing wisdom would be.  I definitely do not want to give credence to the "more of a journey than a destination" intellectual folly -- wisdom and the traditions that mediate and house it do consist in part in definite, progressively and painfully worked out, acquisitions, ktema eis aiei ("possessions for all times") in Herodotus's words.  But, continual (and frankly as often humiliating as exhilarating) contact with these acquisitions -- not pretense to possess, let along embody them -- that is a component and requirement of wisdom.  Integral to wisdom is to continually seek wisdom where it may be found and learned.  Wisdom, the portion we participate in, is active, seeking, and tasting, and necessarily discriminating -- not licensing itself to discriminate (badly), but realizing that the responsibility to discriminate (well) is unavoidable.

So, now, back to the winter fool.  What has gone wrong, not just in this particularly exemplary case?  What kind of failure(s) of practical rationality is characteristic of the winter fool as a type, as a recognizable mode of deficiency that can be successfully and illuminatingly transferred onto other subjects and situations?

Again, the contrast to the summer fool can be helpful.  The summer fool is immediately recognizable -- something is noticeably off.  His or her structure of action and intentionality, his or her interface not only with the natural but even more with the social world, perhaps or rather likely also his or her configurations of desires, emotions, volitions, dispositions, and cognitions -- these are askew.  To make their actions more fully intelligible, to grasp not only the what but the why, we have to enter a realm where the explanations themselves perhaps do not even map onto ordinary sense.  Their adaptations are patently maladapted.  If we want to use older psychoanalytic terminology (long since substituted for in the DSM by language of "disorder"), we could say that the summer fool is in the grips of one of the psychoses.

And, if we wanted to remain consistent with that metaphor between practical rationality, folly, and psychoanalytic concepts (which actually, is less of a stretch than on might think -- just attentively read Lacan's seminars uncontaminated by Zizek's spectacular conjectures), it would be quite natural to note a parallel between neurosis and the winter fool. Everything (or at least almost everything) in the structure of action becomes explicable, quite rational in a sense -- but a cramped, narrow, confined, almost claustrophobic sense of the sort G.K. Chesterton depicted and dissected as a kind, symptom, and structure of madness in Orthodoxy.  And, so, querying conversation with a winter fool:
Why did you stamp your boots?
To knock the snow off them -- after all, I don't want to be cold or get wet as the snow melts.
Why did you then shake your coat?
To knock the snow off it -- after all, I don't want to be cold or get wet as the snow melts.
And, why did you then shake your hat?
To knock the snow off it -- I've told you I don't want to be cold or get wet as the snow melts.And then you stamped your boots again?
Well, yes, of course, it had snow on it, and I don't want to be cold or get wet  as the snow melts.
Such lines of reasoning about processes, about means directed towards intelligible ends -- and such similar thoughtlessness, incomprehension show up in countless areas and avenues of human social life and interaction.  What is the defining characteristic?  There is a good end in sight, and the agent does direct him or herself at that end.  They know it, they desire it, they can articulate it, they can even explain most likely why it is a good end.  And then, some of the means which they select, they settle on, they determine towards that end would be efficacious.  They are good means for a good end.  And then, somehow they muddle things up, they mix up the means, their ordering, their arrangement
, how they fit in with time, with each other, perhaps with other peoples intentions, actions, responses.  And, now some of the means become counter-productive. They undo, stand in the way of, nullify, damage what progress to the good has been made via the other means.

Its essentially a problem of attentiveness, of reflection in action upon what one is intending to do, of resting content with the frame of one's ideas.  Ironically, it is not that the winter fool does not think -- though to be sure people do not always or even ordinarily engage in an explicit, overt, publicly accessible, conscious process of reasoning, as habits, dispositions, going along with preestablished flows are more often the case -- it is rather that he or she keeps thinking the same things, and doesn't wonder whether their ideas adequately map onto the reality in which he or she finds herself and wishes to act, to carry out, to produce.

What is missing, perhaps in whole perhaps in degree, is one vital dimension of phronesis, which is not just finding means to ends, but thinking through -- often in the situation -- those various means in relation to each other and to the the ends. This requires not only an attentiveness often lacking, a thoughtfulness, something like what Gabriel Marcel called disponabilite (usually translated as "accessibility"), a responsiveness, an openness both cognitive and affective, to the situation, to its elements outside of as well as in the self. This takes the form of valuing getting means right, attending to their determinacies and perhaps incompatibilities -- in place of simply imposing ones ideas and desires onto the world and demanding things go right, according to one's plan.

Now, one might say, by way of response to all this:  Aren't we all like this sometimes?  In some ways?  If not in little things perhaps in the overarching structures of our lives, or if not in such architectonic, momentous manners, then perhaps in the minutae of our shared lives.  Don't we all present the spectacle of misadjusted means to ends?  So, aren't we all winter fools in the end ? And, the answer to all but the last question has to be Yes.  But, none of those lead necessarily to that conclusive question.

For another feature of the winter fool, left out of the parable, but critical in the wider context of practical rationality, is that the winter fool for whatever reason cannot recognize him or herself as a fool.  One who can, who has on some level rendered him or herself incapable, can look in the mirror, recognize the features of folly, and then decide to do -- and eventually by effort -- to be otherwise.  And that, while not wisdom itself, is certainly a step towards it.

No comments:

Post a Comment