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Reflections On How We LiveReview - Reflections On How We Live
by Annette Baier
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Bob Mahoney, Ph.D.
Jun 8th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 23)

A number of years ago, when I was writing an undergraduate dissertation on 'Style in Philosophy', I was advised to read Stanley Cavell's A Pitch of Philosophy. I found it immensely frustrating. Cavell suggests at the beginning of the book that autobiography and philosophy are 'internally related'. He then proceeds to write an autobiography and claim that it is philosophy. I went back to my supervisor to vent my frustration. He congratulated me on my perseverance; he had only managed to read about ten pages before hurling the book across the room in a fury, never to open it again. My frustration at Cavell notwithstanding, there is something to his thesis: philosophy is, at least sometimes, related to autobiography.

Annette Baier's Reflections on How We Live is "unabashedly autobiographical" (p. viii), as she describes some of the essays it contains in her preface. It consists of sixteen essays, nine of which have been published previously elsewhere. The broad theme of the collection is ethics, but Baier covers so many topics it would be misleading to pin down a central theme. Some of the essays deal with issues in applied ethics – Baier covers the rights of future persons including reflections on environmental ethics (essays 1 & 2), terrorism (essays 3 & 10), abortion (essays 3 & 15), and our approach to death (essays 3, 9, 10). Baier also discusses virtue ethics, particularly the virtues of honesty (essay 5) and trust (essays 10-14). Some essays discuss topics in the philosophy of mind – such as the problem of 'other minds', which Baier ridicules in essay 7 "How to Get to Know One's Own Mind: Some Simple Ways", self-knowledge (essays 7 & 11), and the emotions (essays 6-9, 11, 12, 14 & passim). Refreshingly among philosophers, Baier doesn't neglect the body. The body and, in particular, body language occupy a central place in the arguments of essays 5-9. All of these topics are informed by the history of philosophy (broadly construed), with Descartes, Hume, Darwin and Freud all frequently elucidating the discussion. Kant also makes regular cameos, whereby he is roundly (and perhaps a little unfairly) criticized and sent packing with an acerbic witticism. For example, "[I]t is killing oneself that he [Kant] believed involves a contradiction of the will, not the killing of those whose existence offends one, such as gypsies, Jews, Armenians, Tutsis, or Kurds... Does one respect the illegitimate child as a person when one asks it for its license for being born, before condoning its killing?" (p. 62)

The lack of a central theme does not detract from the coherence of the collection. Threads of the topics mentioned above run through the essays showing that all the topics are connected in a complex network of ethical commitment. Given that the previously published essays span from 1981 through to 2008 it is quite an achievement that the book comes together as coherently as it does.

To indulge for a moment in a few criticisms, a couple of the essays are rather strange. Essay 14, "Alienating Affection", is a peculiar meditation on how she has acquired other people's cats, and how her younger self nearly acquired other people's husbands. Although slightly apologetic in tone (more in the sense of a defensive speech than a regretful admission of guilt), the essay is self-indulgent and a little embarrassing, somewhat like the essays that Hume withdrew owing to their condescending tone to women. While the next essay, "Faces, and Other Body Parts", borders on the irrelevant. It is thematically linked to essay 9, "Feelings that Matter", which dwells on the significance of the shoulder shrug and the way that emotions show themselves on the face, and is an attempt to show the significance of the body, ending with Wittgenstein's observation, "The best picture of the human soul is the human body." But it is ultimately something of a fragment – perhaps the sort of thing we like to read, with a guilty smile, when it is posthumously published as an unfinished piece, but not something we are accustomed to read from a philosopher who is still alive. Close to the end of the essay Baier comments, "Navel-gazing, in private, has always been allowed." (p. 251) Then perhaps these two essays should have been kept private?

It may be that these essays are more integral to the collection than I have yet realised. One of the wonderful things about Baier as a moral philosopher is her attendance to the details. It is her subtle perception of what might be wrong with something, rather than her slavish adherence to some ~ism or other, that make her such an enlightening person to read. An attention to social ties and the things that may interfere with them is a central part of her philosophy and appears in this collection in her repeated reference to climates of trust. Her comments in "Alienating Affection" provide reasons for people not to trust her with their cats, or her younger self around their husbands. And it is the body she emphasises when she addresses how our emotions can be shared to constitute such climates of trust. Whether something is important to us or not can be seen through the shoulders, which "we can shrug, or lower, to dismiss as unimportant or to accept as important." (p. 160) Emotions are, on Baier's account, naturally shared with one another, while beliefs, expressed through language are things that we can more easily conceal. But neither "Alienating..." nor "Faces..." seems to contribute anything more to the far better expressions made in the earlier essays. (Perhaps I am not old enough, at 32, to appreciate Baier's later reflections: "Aging may bring new things into a serious light." (p. 169))

Ageing is a theme that runs through the book. Baier is now in her eighties, and she is more than aware of it. Although some of the essays stem from her younger days, their selection does reflect that age is at the forefront of her mind. Even the oldest essays, those with which the collection begins are concerned primarily with the future, with those who will come after, and it is apparent that Baier is thinking about what will be left to them. And one of the new essays, essay 11 "Sympathy and Self-Trust", includes serious reflection on how we can lose trust in various abilities which we took for granted when younger: "Now that I am old, and live alone, I forbid myself ladders. Many things it is safe to do with others are unsafe to do alone, and many that one could do in youth cannot be done in old age." (p. 208).

The anecdotal nature of the quotation in the previous paragraph is a regular feature of Baier's style and one which some readers may find irritating. Indeed, as the collection proceeds the anecdotes become more and more frequent, as well as longer. Baier is quite aware of this aspect of her writing and has been criticised for it in the past (she refers to such criticisms on pp. 200, 224), but she is unrepentant. In the case of this collection, at least, quite rightly so. The anecdotal nature of the essays is integral to their structure and meaning. The collection's title holds the clue: this is a book of Reflections and reflections are necessarily personal. Baier comments of Descartes' Meditations that he only managed them "by abstracting himself from his environment, doing only theology and mathematics. The moment he wanted to know about the things around him, the details of his world, as distinct from the status of the whole creation, he resumed trusting them, and had to." (p. 205) Baier's Reflections differ from Descartes' Meditations in that she allows herself access to those around her. Her anecdotes give her reflections a social context and reference to others that licences her self-trust. (In the essay "Sympathy and Self-Trust" she argues that it is often through the awareness of others' trust in us that we come to (reinforce) trust in ourselves.) That is to say, the anecdotes reinforce the fact that Baier is a person among others, inhabiting a social world. It is through the anecdotal nature of her reflections that she is able to make them Reflections on How We Live, rather than Reflections on How I Live.  (If the opening of this review with an anecdote didn't appeal to you, then it may indicate that you would not find Baier's style appealing either.)

In her closing essay, "Other Minds: Jottings Towards an Intellectual Self-Image," Baier explicitly writes autobiography. She describes her intellectual influences, many of them coming from disciplines other than philosophy or from her experiences living in different cultures: "Only a wanderer and an exile, I think, could have been led to such thoughts [as are in her writings on trust]." (p. 262) But given the anecdotal style that pervades the earlier essays the collection has clearly been autobiographical from the beginning. Tacitly, at least, Baier agrees with Cavell that philosophy and autobiography are linked, but while Cavell tries to make autobiography into philosophy, Baier makes philosophy into autobiography. The closing essay acts as a conclusion, guiding the reader through the previous essays and tying off the multiple threads in one life story, but the autobiographical as well as the philosophical work has already been done. The closing essay just rounds things off naturally.

This collection is an admirable and rich one. The essays within it contribute seriously to philosophical ethics and make numerous other contributions along the way. They are not overly technical, and would be just as accessible to an intelligent amateur as to a professional philosopher. This is not an introductory book, nor is it always easy to read, although it is regularly endearing (an unusual virtue in philosophy). It covers such a range of material that I have little doubt that it will stimulate thought in anyone who reads it.

 

Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Harvard University Press, 1996)

 

© 2010 Bob Mahoney

 

Bob Mahoney has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Southampton. His interests include ethics, aesthetics and David Hume.


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