Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Feasible and the Possible

“What [humanity] needs is not just the persistent posing of ultimate questions, but the sense of what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct, here and now. The philosopher, of all people, must, I think, be aware of the tension between what he claims to achieve and the reality in which he finds himself.”

— Hans Georg Gadamer, Foreword to the Second Edition of Truth and Method, p. xxxviii.

As a philosopher, this quote has always filled me with hope. That may seem odd, given that it appears to be reining in philosophers, reminding us to keep our feet planted in reality, and naming the tension between what we want to achieve and what we actually can. But it is precisely in the realm of the possible, rooted in the here and now, that life in all its concrete, stubborn vividness emerges. Sometimes reality seems bleak or disappointing and one is tempted to head for the hills of theoretical abstraction instead of working with the tools one has to construct practical and possible solutions to messy concrete problems. And yet, time and again, I have found that the bleakest setting can harbour unexpected life anew. (This is of course a lesson that any Christian who has spent time thinking about the juxtaposition between Good Friday and Easter Sunday intuitively knows, but it holds true in many areas.)

Boethius, considering Lady Philosophy
What, then, is “the sense of what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct, here and now”? To know what is “feasible” and “possible” and “correct” one must first get to know the materials one is working with: reality in all its mud and muck, cold Springs and delayed rainy seasons. One has to move out of the realm of the abstract, and into the realm of concrete issues. As philosophers, so often we get addicted to those “ultimate questions”: What is truth? What is thought? What does it mean to be human? And in trying to pose those questions honestly—and they are certainly good and worthy questions to ask—we can lose sight of the here and now. The best philosophers, I would argue, are those who understand that “ultimate questions” are tied to “underlying questions,” without which they would not have meaning. Universals are senseless without the concretes that ground them.

So how do we as philosophers pay heed to the concretes that ground the questions with which we concern ourselves? To put it another way, how do we take reality seriously? Questions like “what is truth?” are fascinating in and of themselves, but when they are applied to situations like climate change (for example), they take on a whole new dimension. Suddenly they are no longer fascinating, but deadly real. We are changing the world, changing reality, every day, and not necessarily in good ways.

A recent article in the Christian Post provides a telling example of the importance of maintaining truthfulness and attending closely to reality. The article is a reply to a rebuttal; in particular, it defends a recent series of videos published by the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s Office of Social Justice, videos that profile the damaging consequences of climate change in Kenya. As the Christian Post article details, climate change deniers at the libertarian Cornwall Alliance dispute the CRCNA’s conclusions about the effects of climate change in Kenya, conclusions reached after a group of CRCNA delegates actually visited particular regions in Kenya to hear from local farmers themselves. In order to dispute these delegates’ claims, the Cornwall Alliance cited statistics from the World Bank which state that the overall national average of rainfall in Kenya had not substantially changed in recent years. While the statement these climate-change deniers cited in support of their argument may well be true, it is far from truthful. As the Christian Post article points out, such a statement does not take into account the extreme variances in yearly rainfall that micro-regions have experienced. To put it in more generic terms, if in one year sub-region “A” of Country X experienced an increase of 40 percent in its rainfall, while neighboring sub-region “B” of Country X experienced an equivalent decrease in rainfall, it would indeed be truth that the combined average of rainfall for Country X would remain unchanged. Yet, as the Christian Post article details, the on-the-ground experience of those living in either region would have changed. Drastically. Statistics don’t lie, but they can be used to give a false picture, and the truth of a massive mudslide bearing down on you can’t be reasoned away.

What is truth? On issues of concrete importance (like ecological justice), working with the feasible, the possible, the correct, and the here and now is a virtue and quite frankly a necessity. And yet… what does “feasible” mean, really? Who sets what is “feasible”? These are also important questions, especially when one is dealing with something like ecological justice, because sometimes naming “feasibilities” can be used to shut down changes that are quite possibly feasible, but require a different imagination, or making difficult changes or doing something that isn’t popular—like sharing power, or giving up luxuries and preferential privileges.

What is correct, here and now? What is right, how should we act? These are, I would wager, questions that cannot be answered in the abstract—though that’s not to say that abstract thinking can’t be one part of helping decode them. They are not “ultimate questions.” But they are questions for philosophers (and everyone, really). Moreover, they cannot be answered in splendid isolation, by one Thinker contemplating Reality while sitting at her or his desk. Additionally, they are not only concrete problems, they are also communal problems that require collaborative work to address. To know what is correct for reducing carbon emissions here and now (for example), one needs a multitude of people—scientists, environmental advocates, government workers, policy writers, engineers, concerned citizens, and more—working in collaboration on concrete solutions to this concrete problem. The same could be said for knowing what is correct, here and now, for addressing injustices against the aboriginal community, or ending the conflict in Syria, or any other number of pressing, concrete problems that make up reality.

There is a tension between what we want to achieve (Justice for all! A healthy earth!) and the reality in which we find ourselves. But acknowledging this tension does not have to shut down possibilities: instead, it can keep us honest. What groups, projects, and communal work do we need to contribute to, to ensure that we develop feasible possibilities that achieve the reality we want to have? It’s a question the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics is asking as this academic year winds down and we start planning for next year. What do you think we should be working on? Let us know in the comments section, below.

Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies.

First image: "Libraries in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods Figure 1" by Unknown - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -; second image: "Flood Destruction" by Axel Kuhlmann - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -; third image: Photo taken by Allyson Carr, used with permission.

1 comment:

  1. There's a funny thing about the feasible and the possible. Sometimes just by starting something that you don't know you can do or know how starts a process by which you learn how and come to do what you hoped to be able to do somehow. The attempt is often the last of the conditions necessary for the accomplishing of something. What one must have in such circumstances is a deep sense that what one is trying without knowing how is so worth trying because its "intrinsic" value seems truly precious. ICS is arguably, in and of itself, Exhibit "A." So what are projects of that kind that we long to see get off the ground?--such would be my counterquestion.