Thursday, August 25, 2011


"Nothing historical ever has just one meaning; meaning is ambiguous and is seen from an infinity of viewpoints. Everything is always becoming meaningful, and the task of the philosopher is to practice Socratic 'doubt' and 'irony,' to probe, to test, to challenge the meanings which have been given to history in order that what it means may become clear." From the preface to In Praise of Philosophy.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does a successful black writer like yourself avoid becoming a spokesperson? When might your personal silence turn to guilt?" 

 A day or so after Middle Passage won the National Book Award 21 years ago, I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me if I was now going to become a "spokesman" for black America. She did not define what she meant by spokesman. Nor did she indicate which positions taken by black Americans I might be a spokesman for. In a vague, and typically uncritical way, she was assuming that---well, naturally a suddenly highly visible black person had to be a racial spokesperson, as so many writers had been during the era of segregation.
Black American writers today have to patiently (or maybe not so patiently) disabuse people of these antique assumptions and presuppositions. For example, I am a fiction writer and essayist, yes. But I'm a trained philosopher, too, one who finds inspiration as well as a bit of humor in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's beautiful lecture, In Praise of Philosophy, which was translated by John Wild and James M. Edie (Northwestern University Press, 1963). This address was delivered by Merleau-Ponty as his Inaugural Lecture at the Coll├Ęge de France on January 15, 1953. In it he said:
"For it is useless to deny that philosophy limps...The serious man, if he exists, is the man of one thing only, to which he assents. But the most resolute philosophers always wish the contrary---to realize, but in destroying; to suppress, but also to conserve. Always, they have an afterthought...He does not take sides like the others, and in his assent something massive and carnal is lacking. He is not altogether a real being...There is much that is artificial in the portrait of the man of action whom we oppose to the philosopher. This man of action is himself not all of one piece. Hate is a virtue from behind. To obey with one's eyes closed is the beginning of panic...One must be able to withdraw and gain distance in order to become truly engaged, which is, also, an engagement in the truth."
In their preface to this lecture, Wild and Edie expand upon Merleau-Ponty's meaning when they write, "The philosopher is a 'man of action' of a special kind; he joins movements, he writes manifestoes, he engages in political activity but only in so far as he remains 'free,' not only to subject his action to critical reflection but even to reject it altogether at the moment when it begins to go beyond its original intention...This is why the philosopher, in spite of his engagement, is always alone, never completely of a party or movement or an orthodoxy of any kind, though he may be for it while remaining outside it...For 'men of action' this kind of philosopher is an insupportable burden and a dangerous ally; they are rightly suspicious of him because he is never fully with them. For any orthodoxy the very fact that a man will think through its commands for himself, even though he obeys them, is a source of uneasiness; he always could rebel."
Obviously, during the course of my writing career I have taken stands of one kind or another, particularly in those areas where I have some expertise and feel I have earned the right to express an opinion. (On many, many subjects I do not feel I have  earned that right.) But I've never seen black America in the post-Civil Rights period as being monolithic. I've never believed we are that simple. It's difficult for me to imagine speaking for so many millions of people. And besides, I believe individual black Americans are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves and do so all the time.
Also, I'm not someone who enjoys engaging in name-calling; or Argumentum ad Hominen (discrediting someone on a personal level to discredit his argument); or Special Pleading (presenting one's case without offering its drawbacks, faults, limitations or problems); or the Black-or-White Fallacy (the false either-or-dilemma); or Extension (exaggerating an opponent's argument to make it vulnerable); or Pettifogging; or Misuse of Authority (citing someone who is competent in one field but not an authority in the one under discussion); or Misuse of Emotional Words; or Argumentum ad Misericordiam (appeal to pity or sympathy); or Argumentum ad Populum (appeal to popular sentiment); or Misuse of the Mean (avoiding an extreme position by saying we must always compromise); or Begging the Question; or Poisoning the Well (If the source of evidence is discounted, then the evidence from that source becomes impaired in argument; a variation on ad Hominem); or Hypotheses Contrary to Fact; or Obfuscation; or Oversimplification; or Leading Questions; or Tu Quoque ("You do this yourself so you can't argue against me"); or The General Rule (rigorism; disregard of special circumstances) or any of the other fallacies that freshmen are supposed to learn in "Introduction to Logic 101."
 So the philosopher/writer is a "man of action" of a peculiar kind, one who probably infuriates and frustrates others who never have "an afterthought" (as Socrates did) and are always certain that their interpretations of the world and positions are right and the only acceptable interpretations and positions---and will do violence to and/or insult those who do not accept their way of seeing things. (I rather suspect this is why we have gridlock in our government right now and some Tea Party supporters who will not modify their positions.) I guess I think too dialectically to "get with" that way of doing things. I think such people need a dose of epistemological humility. And as a follower of the Buddhist Dharma, I always feel it is imperative that I "think through...commands" for myself and confirm them in the depths of my own experience.
Since I'm not silent (as today's question erroneously assumes) and do take positions and support the causes that make sense to me with time and energy and money, the question of "guilt" as it is raised here is simply unintelligible. And also a bit insulting. It is an accusation disguised as a question. And a very transparent, easily recognized and refuted accusation at that. This is not to imply that the interviewer, my dear friend E. Ethelbert Miller, intended accusation or insult. Oh, no. His spirit is too large for such pettiness. As large as all out doors. His questions are best described as "probes"---like his regular E-Notes---honestly delivered in the spirit of inquiry. But would I answer this question from anyone other than Ethelbert?  
Probably not.

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