Questions Arising (Blog)

QA 7. (Sept 08) Fearless speech

Speaking truth to power refers to those brave souls who go up against some entrenched power armed only with the truth. Since democracy’s beginning, this kind of truth-speaking has been honoured. In Greek, it is called parrhesia, which Michel Foucault (Fearless Speech, Semiotext(e) 2001) has characterised as “frankness in speaking the truth”. The citizen parrhesiastes says what’s on his mind and identifies himself as the one who knows this truth that he speaks. Parrhesia finds fault with someone powerful; it is always dangerous and risky; it responds to a sense of moral duty.

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QA 6. (Jul-Aug 08) The roots of responsibility

No question about it: responsibility is a burden. It reins in our freedom and threatens our pleasant sense of innocence. On the face of it, responsibility is anything but desirable. We are tempted to wriggle out of it: that’s not my fault or my department or my problem. At the same time, responsibility gives us a sense of worth, gravity and seriousness. In community, we depend upon others to shoulder the responsibility that is proper to each. But how do we know what that is?

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QA 5. (June 08) A Canuck in Cape Town

A friend in Vancouver asks me to “say in three lines why you would rather live there than here, not counting weather”. There are several ways I could answer, but my first quick response was: The people. Something about light. Something about deep. Something about real. Which means something like this…

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QA 4. (May 08) How to stop doing what you don’t want to do (Or, how to be at one with oneself)

At heart, desire is pretty simple: we want pleasure and we don’t want pain. To act on our desire is just as simple. It doesn’t take any effort to delight in the laughter of a child or to spit out a mouthful of sour milk. But pleasure and pain are not always so immediate and unmixed. Some pain is bittersweet; some pleasure burns. Over time, we pass from dislike to like or from love to fear. We willingly endure some sufferings for the sake of another or as means to a desired end. Or we may be bound up in unavoidable pain in a relationship or a job, or living with physical illness and deterioration. The varieties of desire that inspire our acts become more complex – and offer greater opportunity for error – but there’s still a coherent connection.

So what does it mean when we find ourselves persistently doing what we don’t want to do? Or not doing what we want to do, when we certainly could? What of those times when my deeds and my desire – surely one’s hallmarks as an individual – seem to divide “me” against “myself”?

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QA 3. (Mar 08) Are we coping yet?

We mostly notice it when we’re losing it, already at the edge. Overburdened camels observing the arrival of one. more. straw. We gird our loins, call out the reserves, hope for a second wind (or a third or a tenth). Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

Medical literature describes babies who don’t gain weight as “failing to thrive”. Maybe the positive description would be “babies who cope”. Just coping: not ideal, just the best one can do right now.

I don’t disparage the courage and fortitude of “just coping”. It is always a genuine accomplishment to come through adversity, no matter what a scramble it’s been. In heroic mode, Nietzsche wrote, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” What he forgot to add was: what has made me stronger damn near killed me.

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QA 2. (Feb 08) A question of shame

A Cape Town woman, convicted – yet again – of fraud, was sentenced to stand in a public street wearing a sign that listed her crimes, and apologise to those she had harmed. A higher court reviewing the sentence overturned it on the grounds that such public shaming violated the constitutional principle of human dignity.

A preacher on the train was shouting about violent crime in the townships. How can these people do such terrible things? he asked. His answer: Because they have no shame.

A friend of mine said that shame is always useless and we should learn to get by without it. (Contrary to the preacher, he would have us all be shameless!)

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QA 1. (Jan 08) Far too important to leave to philosophers

Part of my mission as a counselling philosopher is the desire to encourage the revival of philosophy as it was originally practiced, as a way of life. To encourage people to think more deeply about what matters to them. Philosophy is not just an academic endeavour of the very few, engaged in arcane arguments about matters nobody in their right mind would ever care about (although it has its moments). Our own lives provide plenty of material for philosophical examination, and this examination can in turn enrich our lives.

Philosophical practice simply means that we engage with our world, with attention and care and presence. We are all philosophers already. We all have points of view and beliefs and values that guide our judgements and our actions. And as Amilcar Cabral, leader of Guinea-Bissau’s anti-colonial forces, wrote: “We have been capable, and must constantly be more so, of thinking deeply about our problems so as to be able to act correctly, to act strongly so as to be able to think more correctly.”

Continue reading QA 1. (Jan 08) Far too important to leave to philosophers