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Friday, February 3, 2017

Pistis and Personhood: When Trust Becomes our Method for Living a Moral Life

At the age of two, Annette Claire Stoop opened her mouth and uttered the following words: "I don't like being me." She would grow up to be Annette C. Baier (1929-2012): the New Zealand-born moral philosopher and self-proclaimed "voice in the wilderness" calling out from what she discovered, in the mid-eighties, to be the philosophically barren terrain of Trust. But she didn't know that at the age of two. All she knew was that she was stuck in a body or a mind or a situation – it is not quite clear where young Annette's problem lay in "being me" – that was not particularly agreeable to her. Years later, at her 1990 presidential address to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophy Association (at the time she was only the 5th woman president in the history of the APA), a sixty-year-old Baier would pick up on her two-year-old self's existential angst by way of a rhetorical question: "What is it to be a particular person, a person among other persons?" By now, she had studied, worked and traveled in numerous countries, experiencing life in a range of cultural and linguistic and educational settings. She called these movements between NZ, Britain, Australia, Europe and the US "dislocations," and she attributed her growing interest in the nature and workings of trust and distrust to them. But still, that same old preoccupation persisted: the peculiarities and pitfalls of being a me – albeit one, by this point in her life, among many.


At the age of three, American poet May Swenson (1913-1989) made the following observation: "My name is May, I was born in May, and my birthday is in May." Just another precocious toddler, you say (thinking back to your own early utterances...banananananana)? Or is there something in this – the possibility that each of us, from the start, is the me we are destined to be? Certainly, May Swenson spent her life probing and prodding the world around her in order to pry it open and expose its wonders. Her poems reveal a fascination with how things work and a curiosity about what makes them (and us) tick. She focuses in on the minutiae in order to get at the big stuff...A litany of fear becomes a reflection on the mind-body problem (Question, 1954); A trip to the watch-fixer becomes a nail-biting foray into trust (The Watch, 1963). It was, for obvious reasons, the latter poem that captured our collective imagination as we gathered for the final session in this current series, and set about pinning down Pistis. But the goddess of Trust and with her, the notion of the demoralized self, would be temporarily put on hold as we foregrounded a self much closer to our heads and hearts: our individual philosopher/poet selves.

By this stage of the game we'd encountered a number of philosophers and poets. And through them, we'd lifted the curtain on some very distinctive selves. There was the "belaboured self" of Session One: a self continuously working to improve herself with the aid of the latest self-help manual; a self with 150 years of psycho-remedies – everything from Freudian analysis to Prozac Nation – pressing heavily on her shoulders. For this self, alleviation from the burden of betterment came courtesy of feminist philosophers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir and Carol Gilligan, and from poet Mary Oliver.

Then there was the "dialogic self" of Session Two: Hannah Arendt's "two-in-one" thinker who eschewed the idea of there being a split between our private and public selves and who, in so doing, troubled common psychological approaches to the issue of low self-esteem.

Arendt so troubled it, in fact, that a third session was needed to resolve the matter: if Simone Weil's introduction of the "undone self" diverted our attention away from qualifiers like low and high and urged us to question the desirability of even having a self to esteem, Weil also taught us how to pay attention – a skill that came in handy as we picked our way through Fanny Howe's brilliantly sinuous poem "Doubt."

Session Four found us wallowing around in Shame, with poet Anne Carson for company and philosopher Edith Stein to the rescue. Stein's "reworked self" – a phenomenological entity who, in creating new habits of the mind through perceiving the world afresh, helped us to develop an empathy-based awareness of self and others – gave us a method for seeing both others and ourselves not with and through the eyes, ears and heart of another (the popular yet wholly impracticable way of approaching empathy) but rather, in a way that truly saw the other for what she was. In effect, what Stein had given us was a method for seeing everything (including our shameful selves) with eyes anew.

So here we were at Session Five, and the philosopher/poet selves we were putting under the microscope were our own. To begin this work, we took a page out of Baier's and Swenson's book: we jotted down our earliest remembered utterance. Some opted for an utterance recalled by a parent, passed on repeatedly, stamped into the annals of family lore, now their own seeming remembrance. Others insisted on attaching their blossoming personhood to a remembered utterance entirely of their own – at the risk, this, of appearing not to have said anything of note until an alarmingly advanced age. For some, the remembrance came easily. For some, it came not at all. For others, when it came, it was disappointingly banal. Unsure of just where this raggedy collection of utterances was leading us yet heartened by Baier's insistence that self-misunderstanding is key to opening ourselves to others, we moved on to the next stage of the exercise: identifying for ourselves an “intellectual self-image.”

This notion – borrowed from Neil Gross (2008) – is one that appealed to Baier: in part because she was a social constructionist; in part because her own was a lifelong work-in-progress. A “self-questioner,” a “resident alien,” a “voluntary alien,” a “wanderer,” a “self-chosen exile,” a “naturalist” – each of Baier’s intellectual self-images linked her back to an early feeling of restlessness (the title of her favourite childhood book, Beyond the Hills, was precisely were she knew from a young age she’d be going) but equally, came of reaching outwards and opening herself to a range of “other minds” (for Baier, her “other mind” par excellence was one that was a bit of a mystery – “interestingly different” to her own – and willing to venture with her to a place of “agreeable disagreement"). Building our own intellectual self-images from an amalgam of early utterances, childhood experiences, encounters with others that had opened us, pace Bauer, to “new magical worlds,” and a “conversion moment” or two √† la Edith Stein, we asked ourselves if what that self-image was now was consistent with how it had started out, and whether it was reflected in – or a reflection of! – the kinds of philosophical questions that made us get up each morning. And of course, there were haikus. And of course, there were research questions. If we didn't have an intellectual self-image upon arriving, we certainly had one by the end of the evening.

And so to Trust, and Baier’s “voice in the wilderness” take on it. Without her own intellectual self-image as a wanderer/exile, Baier contends she would never have found her way into it. If she’d believed, as Bren√© Brown urges us to, that “I am enough,” she’d have never hitched her philosophical wagon to the insistence that “I am not enough…I need others.” For whereas Brown’s “I am enough” hinges on the individual courage it takes to be imperfect – on our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to the criticisms and judgement of others – the kind of courage Baier pins her "I am not enough” on is social courage – that is, “the willingness to take the risks that relying on others always involves.” And though each form of courage entails making oneself vulnerable to others, Baier’s insertion into the equation of what she terms the “moral mother thought” – that is, the thought of the power we wield over the other, for good or for ill – propels us into a whole new level of what it means to be a thinking person among others, opening the valves on vulnerability and finding the guts to be courageous.

For Baier, vulnerability is a mutual affair, and our - my - recognition of this shared vulnerability is the point zero of the human condition. When it comes to interacting with my fellow human beings, my moral goodness lies not in me being an intrinsically virtuous person (the stuff of virtue ethics) or lucky enough to have never been morally put to the test (the stuff of those electrode-wielding situational ethicists) but rather, in the attitude I have towards the unavoidable fact that just as I have power over you (power I can use to either help you out or to do you harm), you too have power over me. In other words, it is the stance I take towards our shared vulnerability in this uncertain world that matters here, not any virtues (honesty, patience, fortitude, thoughtfulness, kindness etc) that I may or may not possess.

If I take what Baier considers to be a “morally welcome” attitude, I’ll do all I can within my powers to foster a climate of trust not just for the sake of you and me, but more importantly, for the world in general. If I take what Baier considers to be an immoral attitude, I'll use my powers to eat away at that climate of trust – to threaten and undermine it. Crucial, here, is Baier’s emphasis on the climate of trust (or distrust) we are fostering through the attitude we take towards each other. More important, for her, than those promises and agreements that are traditionally taken to constitute trusting relationships between individuals (and which are, to Baier, somewhat suspect…For as she opines, to attach one’s trust to a contract or to feel compelled to say “I trust you!” is to some degree to demonstrate that in fact, you do not...) – more important, for Baier, is the overall climate that our trusting or distrusting words and actions serve to create. For that climate is something we must all live together in, no matter what our individual circumstances, no matter how fortunate or unfortunate we may be. To contribute, in our individual and daily interactions, to that communal climate’s demise is a serious offence with far-reaching consequences: it is to hack away at our only route into morality and our only hope for those who have become demoralized – for indeed, demoralization is, for Baier, a loss of trust in how others will use their power over us. Which is why Baier, somewhat controversially, believes that the person who sees every stranger as a possible threat is as guilty of shattering the climate of trust as an actual criminal. Which is why Baier, equally provocatively, insists that the moral evil of murder lies less in the individual death, than in the terror and fear that that death generates among the living.

One of the things that attracts me to Baier is that she uses her life’s experiences as fodder for her philosophizing, and that she writes openly and honestly – her bluntness sometimes takes your breath away! – about how the personal truly does inform the political. But more than that, she gives us a method – just trust! – for mobilizing the power of the personal and the political, and putting them both to work. Trust, in Baier’s hands, becomes the mechanism through which we make life tenable and sustainable in the wider world. Trust, in Baier’s hands, propels us into the world and more importantly, propels the world into us.

As fate would have it, the philosopher who began life with the statement “I don't like being me” and went on to devote her working life to the question of how to build a climate of trust and live a morally good life among other ‘me’s, developed in later life a rare auto-immune disease that necessitated numerous blood transfusions. Reflecting on her new dependence on, and gratitude towards, a host of strangers whose blood was enabling her to go on living, Baier made the following statement: “Now, in old age, my body seems unsure what is other, and what is self.”

I like this. I like that the child who didn't “like being me” doesn’t end up as just another me – a new and improved version of the original who, through a steady diet of self-help grunt work and grind, sits back self-satisfied in her eighties and says, “I am enough.” I like that Baier finished her days as a messy amalgam of all the thoughts and minds and places and bodies that she had encountered on her bumpy yet bountiful journey through life. I like that she could no longer distinguish what was me and what was other: that the lines had collapsed and, with them, the whole fragile enterprise of the atomist individual. It seems a hopeful self, this self who is also other: a fitting self with which to conclude a series that has questioned the way we conceptualize and psychoanalyze individual selves; a fitting self to send forth into this Brave New Orwellian World. Indeed, it strikes me that Baier, with her border-busting take on personhood, is our “other mind” par excellence for these troubling times. It strikes me that Baier, with her scholarly insistence that we throw ourselves heart and soul into creating climates of trust, is our “voice in the wilderness” antidote to the polarizing rhetoric and fear-mongering politics currently threatening our communal well-being and, well, morality.