I suppose The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood was an answer—or an attempt to plot a way or direction toward an answer to Cavell’s (Hitchcock’s?) question—one that does not eschew but undertakes to face and outface the skepticism of America that is native to the American experience and self-understanding. I stand by my book today, at a five years’ remove that sometimes feels like one of five centuries. Let me tell you why.
At some point in my education – fairly early on, if I recall, and certainly before I encountered Cavell, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Eric Voegelin, the writers who who would be my principal conversation partners in The Soul of a Nation—I read a book by Christopher Derrick, Escape from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if Truth Mattered. I recall it as essentially a paean to his experience as a guest tutor and lecturer at Thomas Aquinas College in California (and to a lesser extent, a reminiscence of his time as a pupil of CS Lewis). I don’t remember much about the book, except that it struck me as off somehow—I mean wide of the mark—and that it left me with an inkling only the three aforementioned writers together would help me develop later.
Eventually, I discovered that my visceral reaction came from inchoate resistance to the idea that skepticism is escapable. “[P]hilosophy’s task,” to say it with Cavell, “[is] not so much to defeat the skeptical argument as to preserve it, as though the philosophical profit of the argument would be to show not how it might end, but why it must begin and why it must have no end, at least none within philosophy, or what we think of as philosophy.”
The cast of mind against which we are warned arises from what Cavell calls, “The uncanniness of the ordinary,” a phenomenon, “epitomized by the possibility or threat of what philosophy has called skepticism, understood as the capacity, even desire, of ordinary language to repudiate itself, specifically to repudiate its power to word the world, to apply to the things we have in common, or to pass them by.” Cavell then offers, parenthetically: “By ‘the desire of ordinary language to repudiate itself’ I mean—doesn’t it go without saying?—a desire on the part of speakers of a native or mastered tongue who desire to assert themselves, and despair of it.”
I wrote last month in The Catholic Herald to the effect that social crisis occurs when people who should be fellows come face-to-face with their own ignorance of what makes their society legitimate, and then decide to suspend or refuse each other conversation until they can establish the grounds of their fellowship. I was after something like what Cavell was talking about in that passage above. The thing is: conversation—being in conversation—is the only available ground of social legitimacy. To truncate the conversation is to destroy society. This is especially true in the society called America, which exists—I also said in The Soul of a Nation—only and entirely as an endless conversation.
Cavell says he understands philosophy as “a willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think un-distractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about, or anyway cannot help having occur to them.” In one of the most remarkable sentences cast on the subject in the 20th century, Cavell goes on to say we cannot help having such thoughts occur to us:
[S]ometimes in fantasy, sometimes as a flash across a landscape; such things, for example, as whether we can know the world as it is in itself, or whether others really know the nature of one’s own experiences, or whether good and bad are relative, or whether we might now be dreaming that we are awake, or whether modern tyrannies and weapons and spaces and speeds and art are continuous with the past of the human race or discontinuous, and hence whether the learning of the human race is not irrelevant to the problems it has brought before itself.
The things of the city are not close to philosophy, they are philosophy. There is no daylight between them. There they are, as Emerson says in The American Scholar, materials strewn on the ground.
I wonder: If, as Cavell has also said in his New Yet Unapproachable America, “The eventual human community is between us, or it is nowhere,” then America—my only home this side of celestial Jerusalem—is indeed always before us, always behind us. In The Soul of a Nation it seemed to me—I said it there—that coming into America—the act of immigration—will always be an emigration from ourselves as we are, “and a coming into something that will be like a received mode of speech, a discovery of ourselves as participants in a conversation that we did not start and cannot finish, a conversation regarding precisely the question of who we are and where we find ourselves.”
I recall describing this movement as a sort of metanoia: a conversion that is also conversation, further and literally characterized as an outpouring of self into community of sense.
The great thing now, is not to withdraw from one another—to attempt escape from the creeping sense of skepticism regarding friend, or kin, or neighbour; but, to face and outface our fear of fellowship. For this, we need only be willing to hear each other—and yes, to be misheard, perhaps deliberately—and never to stop trying to put our city in order.
Here are words strewn on a page.
Chris Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief and International Editor of The Catholic Herald. He is author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood (Pickwick, 2015) and Into the Storm: Chronicle of a Year in Crisis (TAN Books, 2020).
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