[The following is a guest blog post from Dr. Mary Magada-Ward, Professor of Philosophy at Middle Tennessee State University].
Professor Gilbert has kindly invited me to share my thoughts on the conditions that foster solidarity and civility in an academic department. This is a difficult undertaking because any adequate explanation of these dynamics must, I think, do justice both to the role of general procedures and to the need for sensitivity to the peculiarities of specific circumstances. Fortunately, Aristotle offers us direction. In particular, his conception of practical reason (or phronesis) provides us with the resources to think fruitfully about how to balance the universal and the particular. Or, so I will argue in this post. Such a balance is needed because inflexible reliance on hard and fast rules is incapable of coping with the unexpected and the novel. (See, for example, the recent New York Times article on the difficulties that schools are experiencing in trying to resolve instances of cyber bullying, a form of harassment that was unimaginable even a few years ago.) In addition, unyielding adherence to precedent can itself be used to intimidate and silence. (Consider, for example, the philosopher Naomi Scheman’s celebration of “outlaw” or inappropriate emotions in her analysis of our discomfort with political ‘correctness’: “Outlaw emotions can draw our attention to the dangers of excessive rigidity and a passion for purity, even with respect to values we wholeheartedly endorse” (1996, 230).)
For these reasons, Aristotle will consistently privilege the kind of insight and responsiveness that is acquired only through experience: “Practical sense is not just concerned with universals; it has to know particulars too. It is concerned with action that, in turn, has to do with particulars. That is why there are cases in which people who do not have [general] knowledge are more successful than others who do; we may cite, among others, those with experience.” (Book VI, Chapter 7, Nicomachean Ethics). Nonetheless, he is also acutely aware of the dangers of unthinking or ad hoc reaction, especially its potential to frustrate the trust and predictability that are essential to the creation and maintenance of a flourishing community.
For Aristotle, then, the only way to navigate this tension successfully – or, as he would say, virtuously – is to develop, through upbringing and disposition, the ability to perceive, and thereby respond to, the situations that we confront correctly. That is, it is the function of good deliberation to, in Martha Nussbaum’s words, “accommodate itself to what it finds, responsively and with respect for complexity” (1986, 301). As she elaborates, “practical wisdom, then, uses rules only as summaries and guides; it must itself be flexible, ready for surprise, prepared to see, resourceful at improvisation” (305).
In this way, phronesis and wit are closely connected. (Indeed, Aristotle famously claims that human beings are not only rational, but risible, animals.) Just as there can be no explicit technique for telling a good joke, there can be no detailed manual for encouraging civility and solidarity in an academic department. Neither can there be any kind of metric or quantitative assessment to measure these goods. As an illustration of this, I would like to recount my colleagues and my response to a past administration’s demand for a collegiality “instrument.” (At the time, demonstration of “collegiality” was a requirement for tenure and promotion.) In no way do I wish to minimize the crucial importance of being a good departmental citizen but it is absurd to suppose that this can be captured in some kind of checklist. (In fact, the only way to evaluate this is through the traditional format of an individualized letter of recommendation.) And so, we came up with an instrument that was equally absurd. (The first item was “Plays well with others!”) Most importantly, this exercise was itself conducive to our solidarity in that in illuminated our shared values and made clear our common sentiments about what kind of “thing” collegiality was. Like civility and solidarity, it is something that requires both an awareness of precedent and custom — some shared understanding of what a valued member of an academic department does – and a recognition of what is required by these specific (and sometimes absurd) circumstances. This is possible only through the development of practical wisdom. As Aristotle says, “The point is, as we said at the start, that the type of answer turns upon the kind of subject matter, and matters dealing with action and questions of expediency are always changing like the circumstances that promote health. Since this is true in general, it is still truer to say that answers about particular issues cannot be exact. These issues cannot be dealt with by a single technique or a set of rules; those who are engaged in action must study the special circumstances” (Book II, Chapter 2, Nicomachean Ethics).
Nussbaum, Martha. 1986. The Fragility of Goodness. NY: Cambridge UP.
Scheman, Naomi. 1996. “Feeling Our Way toward Moral Objectivity.” In Mind and Morals, eds. May, Friedman, and Clark. MIT P.