Friday, April 23, 2021

Evening Note for Friday, April 23

Thought for the Evening: Presence of Mind as Political Posture

Saba Fatima once had an interesting article ("Presence of Mind", Social Philosophy Today, vol. 28 (2012) pp. 131-146) looking, from a Muslim-American perspective,  at the issues of Muslim-American participation in politics and society, given common suspicions of the day about Muslims in America. Her proposal, however, I think is widely generalizable. She argued that the solution to these problems lies in presence of mind. Presence of mind in this sense has several components; it is

(1) a posture

(2) that is consciously aware of one's commitments and of how one stands in relation to others

(3) with habituation in using this awareness to assess whether and how to respond in public and political contexts.

It is first of all a posture, by which Fatima understands a default way of mentally approaching and being in the world.

Second, it involves conscious awareness of commitments and relations. People live in very fluid situations that involve relating with a wide variety of people and values in a wide variety of ways. For instance, one may have commitments to one's family, one's neighborhood, one's political principles, and relations to one's family members, to one's neighbors, to one's fellow citizens, to one's employers, that cannot be ignored, being actual parts of the situation. Maintaining integrity in such a situation often requires recognition that this will involve ambiguities and judgment calls and responses that vary depending on the circumstances. One has to recognize one's own complexity as a person in relation attempting to maintain commitments with integrity and consistency. Besides integrity, this is also important for not closing down political possibilities that might become available through appropriate interaction with others. But at the same time, it doesn't involve compromise: it recognizes that action must be done in a manner consistent with one's commitments. Rather, the point is that any genuine commitment-based action has to take into account one's actual social situation, that is, has to take into account that one is a complex being in a complex situation. This is where one actually starts, after all.

Third, it involves cultivated assessment of how to respond. Recognizing one's commitments and relations, and the variations and ambiguities they create, one responds by reflective regard for the appropriate way of responding. This is a form of self-restraint, which will have different results in different cases. Sometimes it may even require silence or refraining from action. But even there, it is not passive; it is a very active and reflective restraint. This is not a mere strategy -- one of the reasons for Fatima's repeated emphasis on habituation.

Fatima contrasts this with common ways of characterizing political resistance and the like, in which the emphasis is often on urgency. She is very careful not to argue that urgency is never of value. She also refrains from suggesting that presence of mind might be superior to urgency for all situations, but I think she could actually have pressed her case further here. The problem with always stressing urgency in particular circumstances is that urgency is always urgency with respect to something specific, and thus is reactive by its very nature. It is a response, and sometimes a very justifiable one, but precisely the weakness of trying to build anything on it is that it is not a posture, but a reaction, and therefore cannot do the kind of work that a posture is needed to do.

As I said, while Fatima develops this idea particularly for Muslim-Americans, I think it's highly generalizable; reflective restraint based on trying to cultivate a second nature of being true to one's commitments in ways appropriate to the relations in which one finds out, is the appropriate political default for everyone.

Various Links of Interest

* Justin Tiwald, On the View that Persons and Not Institutions Bear Primary Credit for Success in Governance: Confucian Arguments (PDF)

* USAID's website for information on US financial aid across the globe is quite interesting.

* An interview with Chad Urban of The American College of the Building Arts

* Dale Dorsey, Francis Hutcheson, at the SEP

* Peter Cheyne, Coleridge the Philosopher

* Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, Howard University's removal of Classics is a spiritual catastrophe

* Anika T. Prather, Howard University's Classics department is an incubator for Black equality

* Thorsten Sander, Two Misconstruals of Frege's Theory of Colouring (PDF)

* Bruno Trembley, Albertus Magnus on the Problem of the Division of the Categories

Currently Reading

Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
Ramon Llull, The Book of the Order of Chivalry