Saturday, December 18, 2004
The examined life
The following is from "A Life of Learning," the Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1998, by Yi-Fu Tuan. I've read Tuan's Cosmos and Hearth: A Cosmopolite's Viewpoint, but this lecture made me want to read more. [Via wood s lot.]
As I enter my crepuscular years, I wonder about Socrates's famous dictum, "the unexamined life is not worth living." A scholar certainly examines. But what he or she examines is other people's lives—the world "out there," not his or her own life. I can devote an entire career studying desert landforms or traffic flows in congested cities without reflecting on who I am and what I have made of my existence. Indeed, paying attention to the world may be a way of escaping from the intractable dilemmas of selfhood. While this is a plausible outlook, it is also a central tenet of postmodernist thought that any serious and prolonged intellectual engagement with the world transmutes into a marriage of self and the other—so that, as with old married couples, the two may even begin to look alike. My own type of work, ostensibly about "people and environment," draws so much on the sort of person I am that I have wondered whether I have not written an unconscionably long autobiography. By tiny unmarked steps, examination turns into self-examination. Is it worth doing? Will it lead one to the good life? Or will it, as Saul Bellow believes, make one wish one were dead? I oscillate between the two possibilities. In the end, I come down on the side of Socrates, if only because the unexamined life is as prone to despair as the examined one; and if despair—occasional despair—is human, I would prefer to confront it with my eyes open, even convert it into spectacle, than submit to it blindly as though it were implacable fate.