Friday, October 28, 2011

Phronesis & Political Conversation of the OWS Movement

J.E. Hackett (SIU Carbondale) offers an Aristotelian reflection on the OWS Movement

In this short piece, I want to explicate the OWS’s “Aristotelian moments.” I have two short intuitions I’d like to share. First, I think the political conversation in Zucotti Park is about a deliberation concerning the ends to which we structure society, and secondly that while this is the aim of the openness of dialogue, the movement must adopt phronesis in order to secure the search of virtue from incommensurability. Too much inclusiveness can be undermining just as much as a blanket exclusiveness.

The OWS movement is an attempt to sustain an awareness of how we initially establish the ends or end in order that more may flourish. By “flourishing”, I do not mean that the 99% acquire more access to material wealth (though we must admit that wealth makes it easier to live a flourishing life), but a political condition that creates an environment in which others may realize the potential of their own lives. One doesn’t need to be a Marxist in America to see that how we structure society has a direct consequence to how people can realize their own lives and achieve the Good Life.

For the purposes of this entry, by “Good Life” is when all the goods of our lives are present in a balanced way and moreover we fairly have access to develop these goods in our lives. These goods might be knowledge, friendship, and family—they are simply things we want present in our life to make it complete. In this piece, I remain non-committal about what these goods ought to be for America on a whole since, I think, that the deliberation about what goods ought we to promote is a central line of inquiry for the OWS movement.

In political conversations, the OWS movement sustains an awareness of ends at great length by maintaining an openness without being quick to determine any particular policy or inherited political category about those ends. It is common for facilitators to make a list by stacking everyone that wants to share. Participants do not make noise when they disagree or agree with a speaker, they simply wiggle their fingers in a given way so they will not drown out someone’s voice. Everyone is respected in sharing their voice.

As I see it, the starting point of the OWS movement is a question about the ends we ought to aim for as a society. Previous political categories and policies are part of the problem in promoting an end that destroys the capacity for others to lead the Good Life. Hence, it is necessary to have conversations about exactly how to address these concerns. Given this assumption, how exactly do we go about changing America such that the ends our society promotes allow for flourishing? What ends ought we to endorse over others such that justice may be realized?

The indeterminacy of the OWS’s message is an open refusal to stop the conversation about the virtue of our political process from being co-opted to an end in which corporations, banks and a powerful elite garner more entrenched self-interests over and above what is necessary for the entire American community to flourish. No solution is offered in the status-quo. However, we are unclear how best to foster flourishing ourselves. That’s why we are asking questions, having dialogues and this is why it is wise for the OWS Movement to refuse translation into partisan frameworks of the Democratic and Republican parties. It is the search for new concepts, interpretations and frameworks to address the challenges we face. In this way, I can also see the following questions striking a chord with the OWS Movement: What combination of virtues are necessary to establish are more just society than the one we now have and ultimately what will those virtues require in the specific American context? I’d be open to the fact that some virtues might be more culturally necessary than others.

In order for us to ask these questions, there are a few requirements that our conversations must fulfill. I offer three capacities necessary to maintain the openness in deliberation. First, there must be “comprehension.” This is our ability to size up a situation and maintain a view to its conceptual wholeness; it is our ability to exercise judgment. However, the exercising of judgment necessitates that we have the appropriate “sense” as to what is truly relevant in our moral situation. We must be able to distinguish the morally salient features of our particular situation in this country. Lastly, not only must we be able to judge the relevant features in our particular situation, and do so with clear understanding, but we must execute this deliberation into action. Execution requires that we must have a “cleverness,” a type of ingenuity in knowing how exactly to put together the means to achieve our end.

Philosophers will recognize my threefold requirement for political conversations as phronesis or practical wisdom. This is the contribution that is mostly relevant to the OWS movement from Aristotle. Indeed, we want a very inclusive discourse, and we require new political categories, conceptual landscapes and methods of inquiry to address the concerns of plutocracy in America. We want very open discourses fostered to meet that challenge. Yet, there will come a time in which these discourses must sift out perspectives, make decisions and bring about an end in action. The ends pursued must come about wisely and rationally. There are many different things being said, and possibly a great many contradictory proposals. It is very likely that we have stacked perspectives that are inherently contradictory to each other. Therefore, to prevent a deliberation with incommensurable results, it is necessary to adopt the intellectual virtues of deliberation in Aristotle such that these conversations can maintain the end in view proper to what we want, and what we want can only come about from a virtuous inquiry into the particular problems America faces.

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