Experience and the Unity of Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric

La Discussion politique, by Emile Friant
La Discussion politique, by Emile Friant

From our first awareness of ourselves, when we emerge into childhood from infancy, life seems like a game where the rules and the purpose aren’t quite clear. We take our cues from our peers, and from the adults, especially parents and teachers. But we also take our cues from stories. It is through stories—and for modern children this more often than not means cartoons—that we’re exposed to characters being brave, doing the right thing, making mistakes and coming to terms with it, and so on.

It is given to us as entertainment but it forms a large basis of our early sense of what life is about. Just as play, which is unserious activity aimed at delight, is often what children take most seriously of all.

The most trivial schoolyard drama has all the elements of most situations we will encounter in our adult lives. Because the stakes are so different, and children lack the perspective to see how low the stakes are, we adults often forget the similarities. But not always. Confronted by the politics in our work place, many complain that it seems we never left high school. The lack of a connection, in high school, between peer politics and grades, or the college you get into, makes the politics seem trivial in retrospect, though it mattered to us much at the time (even, or especially, if we hated it and rejected it). It was “just” a game, or “just” politics and gossip.

But once we leave school, our relationship to superiors becomes much more like peers than like students and teachers. After all, we are in theory able to take their job some day, or even, in some circumstances, to become their boss. As such, the trivial game in a school setting becomes a game with career implications at stake out in “the real world.” To attempt to be above politics as a child is to delay gaining experience in politics until adulthood—that is all.

What is experience? How can some learn a right lesson from it and others a wrong one? How harmful is drawing a wrong conclusion? How helpful is drawing a right one?

I recently drew a distinction between being audience and author of your life, and it is a useful one, but it is not absolute. Gadamer argued that all understanding, even theoretical understanding, involves application. We can only be an audience at all in as much as we have been authors. This does not mean that we have to be writers in order to be readers. It does mean that we must be able to apply what we read to the life we are living and are still in the process of making. “Apply” need not mean take some action, but simply see it within our standpoint, a horizon developed by living our life. Through experience. Experience is a prerequisite for being an audience, which is part of why there is such a dramatic learning curve in the first few years of our life, as we go from no experience at all, to focusing on a few very specific sorts of experience, to slowly broadening out.

Our experience is polyvalent. This is why it is valuable even if we draw the wrong lessons from it. It is possible for the whole of our experience to disclose entirely new lessons to us or to reject previous lessons we had drawn. In social psychology, they speak of construal. The situation we are in is to no small degree the situation we construe ourselves to be in. This construal is tied up in our worldview, and in our experience.

But we are rarely alone in a situation, as social animals. Others participate in the meaning of our life in their roles as audience. In our daily lives, they also participate in the meaning of our life in their role as co-author of the situations we are in together. At stake in the authorship of the situation is its implications for the meaning of the lives of all involved. And so we engage in rhetoric, to try to persuade people to share our reading of the situation. And we engage in politics, to try to work together in co-authorship rather than against one another.

Conflicts of authorial intent in such moments begin dialectically. We attempt to persuade each other. Ideally, we try also to understand one another, for skillful rhetoric and politics both require understanding. If we have gone astray, it is at these moments when we might be set right. The meaning of the situation is inextricably linked to the meaning of our life as a whole. If someone can convince us that we have misconstrued the situation, if we find ourselves reevaluating our reading of it, the reevaluation is unlikely to stop there. The mistake was not likely made in the moment, but at some earlier point. Depending on how deep this goes, we could end up reevaluating a great deal.

Moments of crisis, such as profound doubt confronting a deep faith, or hitting rock bottom after a long period of addiction, begin with reconstruing a situation and end in reconstruing our lives and our sense of ourselves in large an important ways. Even if we reaffirm our faith after such a moment, it will have been transformed in receiving the questions that our doubt posed to us.

Every situation brings the possibility of reconstrual and every reconstrual brings the possibility of a moment of crisis. The fact that our understanding can change is of course not enough. Should we expect it to change for the better?

There are no guarantees. Most people agree that we should be brave, disciplined, just, generous, faithful, hopeful, and prudent, but are hazy on the particulars. And when it comes time to take action in a specific situation, disagreements arise, sometimes very fundamental ones.

There are no guarantees. I’m not going to offer any. I have a pretty high opinion of humanity. We can accomplish incredible things together, in the realms of both doing and knowing. But there’s no denying that we are also capable of doing terrible things together, and even reaching terrible understandings—understandings which become the vessel for immoral social orders.

I have faith that we strive towards goodness by inclination, and hope that we mostly succeed most of the time. But I also think that the wise will accept the tragic nature of the world; its radical imperfectability. Progress and decline are often the same movement, as new understandings give rise to new misunderstandings, as movement towards the good in one respect is mirrored by movement towards evil in another—that this latter movement is a consequence of the former, not merely some sort of cosmic symmetry.

The wise accept this, and yet still have faith in humankind, and hope for its future.

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One thought on “Experience and the Unity of Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric

  1. Pingback: Book Update: Two Stabs at “So What?” | Adam Gurri

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