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Radical HopeReview - Radical Hope
Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation
by Jonathan Lear
Harvard University Press, 2006
Review by Nader N. Chokr, Ph.D.
Jan 16th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 3)

1. The Set-Up: A Peculiar Form of Human Vulnerability--Culture's "Blind Spot"

Jonathan Lear's latest book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2006) consists in an inquiry, properly characterized as a form of philosophical anthropology (7), into "a peculiar form of vulnerability" (6) that is arguably part of the human condition.

We seem to acquire it as a result of the fact that we essentially inhabit a way of life. Humans are by nature cultural animals: we necessarily inhabit a way of life that is expressed in a culture. But our way of life --whatever it is-- is vulnerable in various ways. And we, as participants in that way of life, thereby inherit a vulnerability. Should that way of life break down, that is our problem (6).

Such vulnerability has to do with the possibility of losing the core concepts in terms of which we understand ourselves, the world in which we live, and which give meaning to our lives individually and collectively, and finding ourselves subsequently confronted with the radical possibility of 'happenings' breaking down and becoming meaningless. Lear inquires into this peculiar vulnerability in an effort to "grasp an extreme possibility of human existence -- in part so that we can grasp the scope and limits of human possibilities" (9-10).

But since, as he puts it, "the only satisfactory way to investigate this remarkable human possibility is to locate it in a textured historical context" (8), Lear undertakes a case-study of the autobiographical testimony of the last great chief of the Crow nation, Plenty Coups. He focuses on the dramatic events in the early decades of the 20th century which deprived his people of their traditional way of life (as warriors, hunters and nomads) and forced them to move onto a reservation --and this, despite the fact they were never defeated in battle, nor forcibly removed from their lands. He draws for this purpose on the historical and anthropological research available on the Crow as well as on oral histories.

The general problem however that he deals with has to do with what he calls the "blind spot" of any culture: the inability to conceive of its own destruction and possible extinction (83). The kinds of questions that his analysis raises and compels us to ponder include the following: What should a people do in such a situation --when, for a number of historical contingent reasons, a traditional way of life comes to an end? How should one face the possibility that one's culture might collapse? How should we live with this vulnerability? Can we make any sense of facing up to such a challenge with "courage"? What conception of "courage" is required? What would "virtue" or "imaginative excellence" and "courage" (perhaps an appropriately thinned out concept, as opposed to a thick one) entail in such a context? Can we still have hope? What kind of hope? Can a form of "radical hope," as "the hope for revival and for coming back to life in a form that is not yet intelligible" (95), constitute a legitimate response? If yes, in what sense and why?

In effect, he is interested in exploring the general lessons that can be drawn by members of any culture as they consider and reflect upon "how a nation comes to life-and-death decisions at a time of crisis when it can no longer live according to its founding values" (Coetzee), or "how cultures may seek rescue from near-death" (Taylor) --and this, even if their culture is apparently still robust and thriving, and not (yet) even threatened:

 

2. The Plot--Three Acts, Two Movements: A Catastrophic Event, the End of All Events, and a Possibly Courageous Response

2.1. A Meditation--"After This, Nothing Happened"

Lear begins (in Part I) by examining Plenty Coups' enigmatic statement ("After this, nothing happened") as he is telling his life's story to a white man by the name of Frank Linderman:

I have not told you half of what happened when I was young. I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides, you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away (2).

He dissects the context of Plenty Coups' remark and ponders extensively what he could have meant. He considers some plausible (psychological and anthropological) interpretations we could give of such a statement, which readily make sense to us, and which furthermore have the additional merit of fitting with the principle of charity or humanity (Davidson, 1984). According to such a principle, we should try to interpret others as saying something true --guided by our own sense of what is true and of what they could reasonably believe. However, as Lear shows, it is not here merely a matter of trauma, depression, or mourning (individual or collective); the gained plausibility of these interpretations is achieved, in the first case, at the cost of somehow changing the subject of the claim --from a claim about the world to one about the state of a psyche, or in the second case, by reading the remark a kind of shorthand or figure-of-speech for expressing metaphorically the actual breakdown and end of a way of life. And as such, they are ultimately inadequate and insufficient for understanding the deeper and darker thought or insight that it could possibly convey. The interpretations "may well fit the principle of humanity, but do they fit Plenty Coups' humanity?" (4). Perhaps we should inquire further into the very conditions which make these kinds of interpretations possible (8-9).

As suggested above, Lear is not primarily concerned with what actually happened to the Crow tribe or to any other group, as he is concerned with "the field of possibilities in which all human endeavors gain meaning" (7). His work is thus an ethical inquiry, with an ontological dimension. It deals with the question of how one should live in relation to a peculiar human possibility. But if we are going to think about how to live with this possibility (the ethical dimension), we need to figure out what it is (the ontological dimension). What is this possibility of things' ceasing to happen? What would it be if it were true that after a certain point nothing happened?

A philosophical inquiry may naturally draw on various interpretations and accounts (historical, psychological and anthropological) of how a traditional culture actually came to an end. But ultimately, as Lear correctly points out, "what it wants to know is not about actuality, but about possibility." "If 'things' ceasing to happen' is a possibility, then it is a possibility we all must live with --even when our culture is robust and thriving, even if we may never have to face its becoming actual. It is a possibility that marks us as human. How should we live with it?" (9) This question (concerned with ought) belongs properly speaking to a philosophical inquiry, and not to empirical one (concerned with what is). If this is a human possibility, then what moral philosophy is interested in is this: How we ought to live with it?

It is here important to keep in mind a number of crucial distinctions. It is clearly one thing to give an account of the circumstances under which a way of life actually came to an end; it is another to give an account of what it would be for it to end; and it is yet quite another to ask how we ought to live with this possibility? Lear is quite right in making these distinctions, and pointing to the ambiguity that exists in the words "a way of life comes to an end." It is this ambiguity, he claims, that makes it difficult to know what anyone might mean by saying "after this, nothing happened" (9). Nevertheless, he goes on to write, "we want to try to understand the person making such a claim as making as radical a claim as is humanly possible. And we want to ask, what would it be for such a claim to be true?" (10).

 

2.2. The Hinge: Central Questions and a Possible Problem

If 'happenings' only have meaning within a given cultural scheme (e.g., the traditional way of life), then with the breakdown of cultural scheme one might well expect a similar breakdown of what has traditionally counted as a 'happening' in the first place. But is it possible for a cultural scheme with its traditional contents to collapse and die, and yet endure as a historical entity, with a new conceptual and moral content, boldly re-constructed and re-interpreted on the basis of the old and traditional and yet in light the new, and therefore with a certain (persisting) identity over time? What does it take to make this happen --so that once again some event can count as a "happening,' and 'happenings' can once again acquire meaning relative a newly constituted cultural scheme/content?

Lear answers the previous question positively, and he provides a powerful illustration in answer to the last question with his case-study of the Crow and Plenty Coups' bold and visionary effort in leading his people forward against all odds, and beyond the traditionally accepted yet false alternatives --to fight a war that one cannot realistically win (or that one is sure to lose) until death or freedom, or rather freedom in death. And the story he tells us is poignant and deeply moving.

If however the analysis that I am attributing here to Lear (in the paragraph above) countenances as I am suggesting something like a scheme/content distinction, it may have to answer to the strong objections raised against this "third" dogma of empiricism by Davidson in his well-known paper, "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" (1984). But reasons of space, I cannot discuss this issue further in the present context. (Cf: Quine's equally well-known paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"].

 

2.3. "Moral Reasoning at the Abyss": Imaginative Excellence, Radical Hope, and Courage

In his subsequent discussion of "Ethics at the Horizon" (Part II) and in his articulation of he aptly calls "A Critique of Abysmal Reasoning" (Part III), Lear draws more broadly and creatively on the resources of Philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Bernard Williams, MacIntyre, etc), Anthropology (Sahlins, Geertz, etc) and Psychoanalytic Theory (Freud, Winnicott, Lear, etc). He does so in order to motivate and characterize the relevant notions and concepts for properly understanding the challenge that Plenty Coups and his people faced, and assessing the response that he led them to make at such an unprecedented and catastrophic moment in their history. These notions and concepts include: practical reason, moral reasoning at the abyss, thin vs. thick moral concepts (55-65), self, identity and subjectivity (82-100), courage and hope (118-123), virtue and imagination (124-136). They enable him to articulate the problem of moral psychology (62-6), and characterize in more perspicuous terms the structure of the psychological transformation (82-91) that such a response entailed.

For this purpose, he focuses on the Crows' thinking and how individual members attempted to live when their values and lifestyle were being threatened. He examines the role played by 'bravery,' 'courage,' and 'honor' within the tribe's traditional culture and how these values that once defined the Crow were tested and undermined when they were forced to abandon their nomadic, hunter-and-warrior lifestyle, and "lead a life they did not understand" (56).

He then shows how Plenty Coups, whose real name means "many achievements." inspired the Crow to use what Lear describes as the "virtue" of "imaginative excellence" (117-8). Plenty Coups boldly tried to imagine the kinds of conceptual resources and ethical values that would be needed or useful to the Crow for making sense of, and adapting to, their new world and new way of life --even after their traditional way of life had collapsed. He writes that "Plenty Coups was able to transform the destruction of a telos into 'a teleological suspension of the ethical'" (146) --in Kierkegaard's sense of this expression. He was able in other words to accept the collapse of ethical life, of the very concepts in terms of which ethical life has hitherto been understood by somehow summoning a conception or commitment to a goodness that in fact transcended his current understanding of the good.

According to Lear, Plenty Coups was able to do this on the basis of traditional resources such as 'dreams-interpretations' and boldly re-interpreted 'narratives' of past virtues and other ethical values. He was thus able to undergo a radical psychological transformation and in so doing, "create a psychological world in which the traditional virtues of the war eagle and the new virtues of the chickadee could co-habit. Birds who were not of a feather could nevertheless live together in facing the challenges of a new world" (81).

The chickadee is a traditional Crow bird-icon that stands essentially for the virtue of learning from others. Becoming a chickadee is a virtue --a form of human excellence (80). "He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words" (70-1, 80). "Part of what it is to acquire the chickadee virtue is to be able to spot what the 'successes' and the 'wisdom' of others are--and to learn from them" (81). Chickadee virtue calls for a new form of courage, yet it draws on the traditional resources of Crow culture to do so (80). "The only substantive commitment embodied in the chickadee virtue is that if one listens and learns from others in the right way --even in radically different circumstances, even with the collapse of one's world --something good will come of it" (82). "The Chickadee-person has that special capacity to listen to others and learn from them: 'He is willing to work for wisdom.' He thus the bird-philosopher --in the sense that Plato gave that term: he knows that he lacks wisdom, but he yearns for it; and thus he is led to seek it from others" (90). Finally, "the chickadee understands that, in a period of cultural onslaught, one not only needs an (ego) ideal like the chickadee; one also needs to learn new ways to preserve and transmit it" (145).

It is by following the virtue and wisdom of the chickadee that Plenty Coups was able to insure the survival of his people and their continued hold on their lands (134; 146-7).

Through his dream-vision, Plenty Coups was able to take a valued and honored spiritual force and put it to creative use in facing up to new challenges. Thus, although [he] was advocating a new way of life for the Crow, he was drawing upon the past in vibrant ways. And I think a case can be made that Plenty Coups offered the Crow a traditional way of going forward (154).

The Crow could then form new subjectivities and a new identity --even as they no longer could be warriors, hunters, and nomads.

In his undertaking, Plenty Coups exhibited a form of "genuine courage" (113)--that in Lear's analysis fits with Aristotle's characterization and method, properly understood-- in which "radical hope" is in fact a key ingredient (117-123). It is the hope that something 'good' for the Crow is still possible in the future (94) --even though the cultural framework in terms of which the notion of 'good' makes sense is itself being swept aside (91-100). The radical form of hopefulness embedded in Plenty Coups' vision was that even with the death of the traditional forms of Crow subjectivity, the Crow can nevertheless survive --and flourish again (99). It's as if his motto was: "The Crow is dead, long live the Crow. This is a form of hope that seems to survive the destruction of a way of life" (96). As paradoxical as this may sound, this is what gave the Crow the necessary conceptual and moral tools to overcome despair, and lead a meaningful life anew.

Though it may be incredibly difficult to hold onto this commitment in the midst of subjective catastrophe, it is not impossible. And it is at least conceivable that this is just what Plenty Coups did (96).

Lear concludes his narrative of the Crows' struggle for continued survival by showing that, unlike Sitting Bull, the last chief of the Sioux, Plenty Coups was both personally and historically vindicated in his "courageous" effort to lead his people to accept a third way, that of creative adaptation, beyond the traditionally accepted alternatives of death or freedom (Coetzee). His response of "radical hope" against all odds (for revival and coming back to life in a form that is not yet fully intelligible) was not only courageous but morally legitimate.

 

3. The Ending: A Final Assessment and a Couple of Possible Objections

In closing, I can only add my comments of well-deserved praise to an already long list of similar comments by illustrious commentators, such as Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and J.M. Coetzee. Lear's book is not only a masterfully crafted and deeply moving narrative, but it also offers us a timely philosophical reflection that is highly relevant to our current condition at this juncture of history. Needless to say, we live in an age of deep and profound angst that the world itself, as we know it, is vulnerable and could break down. We only have to think about the sometimes extremist ways in which the so-called "guardians of cultural-national purity and integrity" around the world affirm their distinctiveness and right to exist as such (against what they perceive as a creeping and threatening cosmopolitanism) in order to get a sense of the anxiety that such affirmations typically hide. On a more global scale, we are confronted with the threat of global warming, nuclear conflagration, weapons of mass destruction, the possible extinction of the "book culture," and even the demise of Western civilization itself.

We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilizations are themselves vulnerable (to destruction, devastation and extinction). Events around the world --terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes--have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name. I suspect that this feeling has provoked the widespread intolerance that we see around us today --from all points on the political spectrum. It is as though, without insistence that our outlook is correct, the outlook itself might collapse. Perhaps if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, we could find better ways to live with it (7; my addition in parentheses; italics added).

Lear may be right when he says that "if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, perhaps we could find better ways to live with it." But, being naturally more pessimistically inclined, and therefore arguably more realistic, I sincerely doubt if this will suffice.

Besides, over and beyond the compelling and brilliant analysis provided by Lear in his defense of, and parti-pris with, Plenty Coups, one question keeps nagging me, and it stems from what might be considered to be Sitting Bull's objection to Plenty Coups' 'historical compromise' and 'selling-off' to the white man (148-154): Can we truly say without further qualification that Plenty Coups was vindicated both personally and historically in view of what (we now know) happened to the Crow over the years --since the collapse of their traditional form of life? And this question naturally invites other related ones: To what extent are the descendants of the Crow today still Crow in their way of life, beliefs, values, and practices? Could it be that the Crow people survived by no longer being Crow in any recognizable and respectable way? Is the only way to survive as a Crow to be a non-Crow?

 

Reference

Davidson, D. [1984]. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

 

 

2007 Nader N. Chokr

 

 

Nader N. Chokr, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy & Social Sciences, School of Philosophy and Social Development, Shandong University, China. nnc@sdu.edu.cn


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