Monday, May 5, 2008

Spring, Week 5 Meeting -- Part III


Jim asked: how can we judge that Plenty Coups was right and Sitting Bull was wrong? That is, how can we tell the difference between courageously redefining one's culture and betraying it? Jonathan acknowledged that this is a contested issue. But what is clear is that Sitting Bull's response does not count as courageous: doing nothing else but dance the Ghost Dance for several months in order to wipe out the white settlers. This is instead wishful optimism. But it does not follow that fighting to the death is necessarily a worse or less courageous decision than Plenty Coups'.

One philosophical question in this is: if the virtues are character formations that involve relating to possibilities, then can there be a virtuous response to a breakdown in the very field of possibilities? Is virtue possible at all in this situation? If so, then it is likely that this virtue will be courage. Courage is a way of living well with the riskiness of human life, and so a good candidate for virtuously facing up to a risk to a way of life. However, courage is traditionally associated with battle and manliness, so it needs to be thinned out. Aristotle supplies us with the framework for a thinned-out concept of courage, and Plenty Coups (via his dream) supplies us with an account of the psychological transformation required to thin out a traditional conception of courage and so meet a crisis virtuously.

Nathana asked how successful we can consider Plenty Coups to have been in securing the Crow's future, given that he considered his reservation life to be one in which nothing happened. Surely he was not the Crow poet opening up a new future for the Crow? Jonathan agreed: Plenty Coups is successful as a transitional figure (like Moses) in that he made it possible for the Crow to go on without despair until poets could arise to reinvent Crow culture and traditions.

Part of what is involved in this is a firm commitment to a transcendent goodness in the world. This commitment is what allows a people to endure transition, and it is one reason that the Crow might have decided not to go down fighting. Such a belief in transcendent goodness may be religious ('God made the world good'), but it need not be. We could also hold to a secular transcendence: we are finite, and to embrace this involves accepting that our best understanding of the good is also finite – that goodness outstrips us. (This vocabulary brings us quite close to what Heidegger means by authentic being-towards-death.) A commitment to our finitude and a transcendent goodness is manifest in the ability to endure transitional periods.

In response to a question from Josh, Jonathan pointed out that it is easy to overlook what is going on in this transitional period. From a certain perspective, it may seem that what happened to the Crow is just the stuff of history. We might think that understandings of being don't really break down, but they do change in response to challenges and so manifest various continuities and discontinuities. The Crow, then, have a past, present and a future (albeit a rather dramatic one). If this is right, there is no philosophy to be done here, only anthropology. But this picture overlooks what is important about the transitional period. In those 60-75 years, there was some important sense in which no one could say what they were doing. There was no answer to what it is to be a chief, or even to be a Crow. After this period (as we are seeing now), creative activities within Crow life begin to supply answers to these questions. Things happened during the transitional period that allowed for this creative reinvention, and the philosophical question is: how are we to understand these transitional happenings ontologically? What kind of happenings are they? This philosophical-ontological issue is very easy to overlook.

Finally, Aaron and Jim asked questions about how we can identify those aspects of a way of life or understanding of being the breakdown of which counts as death or the collapse of a way of life. Are there not cases in which something becomes impossible that nonetheless do not count as such a breakdown? Jonathan pointed out that it is not sufficient to just say that the difference here is the psychological one of how much you guide life by a particular possibility or understanding. Although it is difficult to judge some cases, we can reliably identify clear cases of discontinuity (death) and continuity (non-death). The important thing is to avoid the temptation to overlook the discontinuity in a way of life – to overlook its breakdown – and to consider it just as the passage of a culture through history.

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