A sense of precarity

College students who turn more or less consciously and hopefully to philosophy for enlightenment are, at bottom, in search of a satisfying life. They may have a pretty clear idea of what this includes. “It means,” said a football man whom I asked what he meant by a satisfying life, “employment, a fair income, the prospect of a family, and the chance to do something for people on a larger scale than just yourself or your family.” But they feel profoundly insecure as they contemplate the conditions under which this satisfying life must be sought. This feeling of insecurity is due not only to the threat of portentous on-going affairs, but to their own lack of a positive philosophy of life with which to face the world.

This statement doesn’t come from the present or the recent past; it comes from 1939, from a curious little American text by one M. C. Otto called “College Students and Philosophy.” Otto’s main aim is to excoriate his fellow philosophy professors for their anti-instrumentalist view of their discipline, that is, for their rejection of their students’ desires for a philosophy that would be useful in the world. For a short text, it has quite a long attack on philosophy professors’ urges to retreat into the sanctity of pure concepts and “esoteric wisdom.”

But what I think is fascinating here is mainly the early emphasis on precarity or insecurity (as they apparently called it then). Otto reminds us that insecurity is scarcely a uniquely contemporary phenomena, in spite of what one may be tempted to imagine in light of the pervasive sense (in France and the U.S.) that ordinary life is newly troubled. And Otto points out that precarity is not only a matter of economic and material problems but also of available intellectual resources, of “a positive philosophy of life with which to face the world.” Of course, Otto probably underestimates the effect of “portentous on-going affairs” on collective consciousness. I’m no expert on the U.S. in 1939, but I imagine it wasn’t the most cheerful geopolitical moment. (I’m suddenly wishing my grandparents were still alive so I could ask them about this.) But Otto, even if he may push the point out of perspective, does have the great merit of suggesting that disciplinary education may play an important role in forming consciousness and hence in shaping students’ cognitive relationships to the world.

Now Otto seems to have some very un-contemporary notions about forming consciousness, about educating the whole person, about being educated as a general state of being that helps one live through a fluctuating and incomprehensible circumstances. Today education is often considered a matter of isolable and measurable competences, of transferable skills, of favorable position in social networks, of positive career outcomes. Interestingly, even many of the most anti-establishment professors tend to accept this framework insofar as they often fall back on trying to teach skills like “critical thinking.” Or should I say: on trying to teach critical thinking as if it were an isolable skill.

This brings us to a point that’s worth pondering today. I repeat that Otto was nothing if not pro-pragmatic in his approach to education; he scorned the academic retreat into the scholarly “life of the mind.” But for him, the most pragmatic form of education was one that provided the most general form of intellectual relationship to the world, the most pragmatic form of education was one that imparted (or helped students to create) a “positive philosophy of life.” He would have thought it a very poor pragmatism that did no more than teach a limited set of discrete skills with nothing knitting them together into a worldview. His pragmatism was rather holistic, existential, “philosophical.” In reading Otto, one discovers that currently prevalent notions of pragmatism tend to be in essence technical pragmatisms, ones which rule out more existentialist pragmatisms that might offer philosophies of life that go beyond a series of coping mechanisms or career plans.

Otto reminds us that there may be dramatically unconventional forms of educational pragmatisms that would deserve defending. Note that Otto’s idea of pragmatism is one that is almost definitionally incompatible with a standardized test: there can be no such thing as an adequate standardized test of an existential relationship with the world. But this only shows us (as French academics love to remind us) that contemporary pragmatism is itself often based on impractical ideological presuppositions. Indeed, by Otto’s notion of pragmatism, there could be nothing less pragmatic than a standardized test, because a standardized test would accomplish nothing other than delaying the time when the real pragmatic work of maintaining a philosophical relationship to life could get done. I feel a certain sense of personal sympathy with Otto’s view, because I have the feeling that the best thing I got from college was an anthropological worldview.

And there’s something about his rhetoric of intellectual precarity that still seems oddly contemporary to me. “College students in this sliding, slithering contemporary world, so hard to make sense of, need a little place for their feet,” Otto asserts in closing. But then he concludes that “It should be our privilege [that is, the privilege of the professors] to help them gain it.” And it strikes me that part of Otto’s image of education, which amounts to trying to construct a philosophical relation between inchoate self and uncertain world, involves a rather confident notion of the teacher’s role. I’m not sure that most teachers nowadays view themselves as able (leaving aside willing) to help students escape a state of intellectual precarity in a “slithering” world. After all, if there are no coherent selves to begin with, there can be no question of wholesale formation of said selves… No doubt it’s much easier, in today’s humanities, to resign oneself to a quasi-postmodern world where the teacher’s role is about articulating differences and contradictions rather than resolving them.

3 thoughts on “A sense of precarity

  1. Otto, incidentally, turns out to have been a fairly successful American philosopher of the first half of the 20th century, publishing in journals in several disciplines and seemingly being quite close to the pragmatists like Dewey. He quite often waxes poetic and seems to be someone deserving of further study and re-reading.

  2. I would like to offer “a positive philosophy of life with which to face the world.” The only problem is that I’m not sure I have one any more. It seems to me most people are too certain they have truth in hand. Perhaps the best thing an education could do is to leave students less certain about the world and their purpose.

  3. Are you sure you don’t just have a positive philosophy of uncertainty, of skepticism? No but seriously… I think one of the things to learn from Otto’s little article is that teachers had a somewhat different view of their role and of what education was about than today. Well, some of them did, at least.

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