Philosophy as performing art

I have been struggling hellishly with the very simple, basic question: “What is a philosophy?” This is terribly important, because if I want to persuade people that philosophies (or worldviews, lifeworlds, enworldments or faiths) are designable things, and that they ought to be designed — and that is exactly my intention — I’d better be able to explain what it is we are designing.

But I have been unable to do it, which is perplexing, upsetting and exciting. This combo has a pavlovian effect on me, and I can’t leave it alone.


Yesterday I had my weekly conversation with Nick Gall, and we had a fun argument over the significance of Golden Rule. The conversation started off rockily. It was clear that he and I were thinking about it very differently (“at cross-purposes”), in a way that went deeper than definitions or even values, into the how of the thinking. We eventually realized that he was thinking about the formula “Treat others as you would like to be treated” pragmatically but statically (maybe as a trained lawyer), as a proposition with bounded implications. I was thinking of it dynamically as a lived principle, with so that the proposition’s meaning deepens and self-transcends over time with successive recursions.

It was really tricky getting aligned on what we we talking about, and how we could approach the conversation in order to break the impasse. Three thing happened that made it work.

  1. We recognized that we were disagreeing not only on the object of the disagreement, but how the subject should be thought. (I’m using subject and object very deliberately.)
  2. The new way of thinking (the subject) needed to be followed to be understood. It was not a process at arriving at a conclusion, but more picking up a style or acquiring a sense of genre.
  3. The following of the thought required a kind of momentum and holistic grasping of the thinking as a single event. (This is different from following an argument, which consists of a series of discrete, linked accomplishments.) This explains why, if a passage is thorny, I have to work out the difficulties part by part, then reread the passage rapidly and smoothly before I understand the material.


There is a kind of temporal holism in understanding. We see it in all performing arts — music, dance, cinema. Each moment of a performance must be experienced in flowing reference to what preceded it or the meaning gets lost.

I believe this is how philosophy works as well. Perhaps philosophy is more of a performing art than a plastic art.

Maybe this is where the appeal “stay with me” or “follow this line of thought” comes in. It means “grok this temporal whole.”

We can no more understand an interrupted, interrogated line of thought than we can hear interrupted phrases of a song as music. This is a thought I’ve had before, but the connection with this problem is new.

1 thought on “Philosophy as performing art

  1. I like the metaphor of philosophy (and understanding generally) as a performing art, not a plastic art. We are both Whitehead fans, so the idea of reframing something usually viewed as a static object (the works of philosophy) as a dynamic process (the conversation of philosophy across history) is definitely appealing.

    So I don’t think our apparent disagreement was about that. I think it was a misunderstanding. I think that you thought that I was claiming that the wording of the golden rule should convey how it should be applied in a self-evident way. In other words, I think that you thought I was claiming that, properly stated, that the golden rule couldn’t be misapplied; but if not “properly” stated, that it would be misapplied.

    I want to make clear that no one sentence principle could ever be worded in a way that makes it correct application self-evident. In other words, no short statement of a principle can ever ensure that it won’t be misapplied. I am in complete agreement with you that the meaning and application of a principle can only be learned IN THE PROCESS of applying it.

    My only claim is that the fact that a short statement of a principle can never be made “fool proof” is not sufficient grounds for not trying to improve the wording to make it as clear as possible, given other constraints such as pithiness, similarity to the original, simplicity, etc. What was surprising to me is that given your wonderful desire to improve the design of philosophy, you seemed resistant to redesigning the wording of the golden rule.

    I admit that it is not a given that the statement of the golden rule CAN be redesigned in such a way that it’s application becomes much clearer in difficult cases, but it seemed in our discussion as if you didn’t that it would be useful to even entertain trying such a redesign, because the only way to deeply grasp the meaning and application of a principle like the golden rule is to go through the process of applying it and learning from your mistakes.

    I think the book you referenced, “Ethics and the Golden Rule,” puts it perfectly: ‘Wattles 1996: 35 says: “When we say, ‘Do not treat others as you do not want others to treat you,’ there is the unspoken assumption ‘in (essentially) the same situation.’” Wattles and I differ in strategy. <> We have the same goal, to understand GR.’

    Here are two experts on the golden rule. One decides to reword it to make it’s application clearer and one decides not to. Both are legitimate choices! (And both had to write books to explain the myriad ways it can be misapplied; regardless of the wording.)

    One takeaway from our discussion/disagreement is that it may illuminate what the focus of your “redesign” might be. Perhaps the goal is not to redesign any of the static “texts” of philosophy to make them easier to understand initially. That would be akin to rewording the text of the golden rule. Perhaps your focus will be on redesigning the process of philosophy—the dialectic, the conversation, perhaps even the etiquette of philosophical debate and discussion.

    PS The most interesting insight from the two books is how little analysis and discussion of the golden rule there has been in western academic moral philosophy: ‘Many scholars today regard the rule as an acceptable principle for popular use but as embarrassing if taken with philosophic seriousness. Most professional ethicists rely instead on other principles, since the rule seems vulnerable to counterexamples, such as the current favorite, “What if a sadomasochist goes forth to treat others as he wants to be treated?”’ [our whipping discussion!] That’s why I’ve never run across some of the objections I raised in our discussion.

Leave a Reply