Monday, 3 October 2016

Why Grow Up? Susan Neiman Doesn’t Quite Explain Why.

Susan Neiman is an American academic who may still be suffering the trauma of having both John Rawls and Stanley Cavell supervise her PhD. She’s pretty darn highbrow, as many well-published American philosophers are. She says she read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason right the way through, unlike Lord Bertrand Russell OM FRS who fell asleep before the end. (I’ve had a crack at it and usually went away to read Hegel instead. Hegel is much more fun. I’m personally fairly sure that Lord Russell had the right idea.)

Neiman’s book is in a long tradition of American philosophising in which problems are discussed not in their own right, as a legal thinker, policy-maker, economist or other practical type might do, but through the lens of the thoughts of one or other of the Big Names. A praxis-oriented thinker would state the problem, throw some facts and concepts at it, and propose a solution. In a footnote they might then say that they swiped much of the proposal from a) Immanuel Kant, b) Jean-Jaques Rousseau, c) David Hume, just to ward off the cheap shots along the lines of “there’s nothing here that wasn’t already in Plato”. The praxis-oriented thinker takes inspiration from the past to understand a present problem. The American academic takes a current problem and uses it to understand the Great Works. It’s kinda bass-ackward.

And when anyone starts on about “the Enlightenment”, as Neiman does, we can be fairly sure they are not addressing the real world, but some part of academia and a few mavens who can’t find meaning in their lives without God or Gaia to put it there for them. Moving on...

I’m going to be pedantic: to answer Neiman’s question, we must first know what it is to grow up, how it might be possible to avoid doing so, and why we should not avoid it.

So what do we mean by “Grow Up”? Susan Neiman can mean anything she likes, and does, once she’s introduced Rousseau, Hume, Kant and the Enlightenment. She means that one should learn to think for oneself and to "balance the is and the ought”, to accept that the world is imperfect, but not to fall into cynicism and carry on with one’s attempts to improve it, nor to fall into an urbane “It is what it is” resignation of any effort to change. That’s a balancing act, and it’s not for adolescents or people who have to focus on getting the next promotion so they can start to save for Alice and Ewan's school fees. But it doesn’t really mean much in terms of the weekly round of mundane activity. Does it mean I have to get married or have children or what? Though Neiman quotes Rousseau’s denunciation of people who don’t earn their own livings as rogues, it’s not actually clear she’s much on the side of having a job, especially since, she says, so many are pointless, boring, morally compromised and concerned with providing goods and services that distract people from a Meaningful Engagement With Others and with the ssues of their time. Yep. Neiman believes in the Good Old Days.

In The Good Old Days, people wore suits all the time, unless they were farmers, when they wore dungarees. In the Good Old Days, everyone had Meaningful Jobs in Communities to which people Belonged. Men and Women Got Married, and Toughed It Out when things got bad, and they had children, who were not indulged, were set to work as soon as they could toddle, and called everyone about a foot taller than them “Sir” or “Ma’am”. Unless the kids were Scamps, of course. There was Religion and Church Attendance and Sin. And then Bill Bernbach came along with his genius advertisements and lead all these Serious People away like the Pied Piper.

Utter tosh. The Good Old Days were horrible. Racism. Sexism. Child abuse everyone knew about but nobody spoke of. Spotty hygiene. Ghastly coffee and painful dentistry. Everyone smoked so the world was covered by a thin layer of nicotine. Smog that killed people, rigid border controls and nobody could take more than £50 out of the UK per holiday. That had to pay for the hotel, since there were no credit cards and cheques didn’t work. Yea the 1950's. Not.

The marriage-mortgage-children idea of “Growing Up” has vanished. It’s too expensive (house prices, school fees), too risky (divorce), and the world is too unstable. You can’t pay a thirty-year mortgage with a thirty-day job.

We have Grown Ups today, but they aren’t your great grandfather. A Grown-Up is someone who thinks through and accepts the consequences of their actions. Grown-Ups can choose the least-worst option in a situation we should never have got into and from which there is no right way out. Grown ups drive the kids home at the end of the day (metaphor alert). Grown-ups make decisions for themselves. Grown-ups take care of business. Grown-ups are practical, operate in the real world, and don’t always respect the delicate sensibilities of those with professionally-delicate sensibilities. Grown-up Do Deals and Get Stuff Done. Grown-Ups know how to use the system when it suits them, and how to dodge it when it doesn’t. Grown Ups know that circumstances trump principles. Most of all, Grown Ups can deal with the BS and not get disheartened or feel themselves compromised by doing so.

Who would not want to be this kind of grown-up? Someone whose profession requires them to pretend to delicate sensibilities; or who expects to be able to act on impulse and be excused for any awkward consequences; or who has to believe there is always a right way of doing things; or who can’t trust themselves to be able to drive the metaphorical kids home; someone who doesn’t trust themselves; or who welshes on a deal when they get their side of it; someone who doesn’t know the difference between a reason and an excuse. Someone who is not really suited to the rough-and-tumble of the political or commercial worlds, or any kind of competition. Someone who feels, for whatever reason, that they are entitled to be protected.

Today’s idea of a Grown Up abstracts from any particular economic or social organisation. Anyone in China or Tanzania would recognise this characterisation. Nieman couldn’t quite let go of the idea that being grown-up should have specific cultural requirements, but when she goes looking for some - jobs, travel - what she’s looking for isn’t there. Wisely, she stays away from making marriage and children compulsory. Which given that she’s the mother of three children is restraint beyond all expectation.

It’s possible you may want to have a go at reading Kant after reading Nieman’s book. Lie down and let the feeling pass.

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