Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Jon Baskin: Finding the Point

We were motivated to start The Point in part by our sense that the essay—historically a rich format for philosophical reflection—was being ghettoized on the one hand into ineffectual personal memoirs, and on the other into jargon-heavy, impersonal academic journals. In the first case, the raw experience was everything—and often shock, trauma or the communication of extreme emotion became substitutes for thought. In the second, the argument was the only thing—to evaluate whether it was successful was simply a matter of traveling smoothly from premises to conclusions. There remained a space, we suspected, for thought unspooled in the midst of experience, where the writer could in describing her own path compel the reader to re-examine her own.

Our best essays therefore combine argument and narrative in something like the manner that we believe life combines them. We act out of convictions we barely knew we had, and then sometimes we criticize ourselves, reaching for other people’s words to justify or to condemn ourselves. To us, this goes to the heart of what an “essay” ideally is—that is, an attempt (as the French has it) to understand something that has affected you in your life. Often our essays are long (my mom says they are all too long), but this is less because the essayist wants to say something complicated or even original as it is because whatever she has seen is inseparable from the narrative she wants to tell about how she came to see it.

In the characteristic Point essay, a person is challenged by some problem—what to eat, who to love, how to parent—which requires her both to reflect on her own understanding of the problem, and also to think about how that problem has been treated by other thinkers, both living and dead. So the intellectual or philosophical elements of the essay grow up out of, and also return to, the personal ones. An example of this progression can be found in S. G. Belknap’s “Love in the Age of the Pickup Artist,” from issue 2, in which the author thinks about Stendhal and Neil Strauss’s The Game in tandem as he considers what went wrong in a past romantic relationship. Or in Charles Comey’s “A Plea for Human Food,” in issue 6, where the author, formerly a vegetarian, is compelled by a debilitating disease to re-consider the basis of our Western notions about food.

The writers of these essays do not strive for an impersonal tone—indeed they introduce themselves early on as human beings, whose intellectual investigations are motivated by concrete personal failings or maladies (“I first turned to the pickup artists after losing in love”; “I was getting really good at walking when something went wrong with my legs”; “We should begin with a confession: by most metrics, I’m a New Age nut”). Nor do they claim to be experts on their topics: rather they acknowledge that they are undertaking a limited and partial foray into a given sphere of human life and an exploration of the ideals that govern it. Where the memoirist often refuses to trespass the boundaries of her experience, and the academic philosopher neglects even to credit hers, the essayists we admire begin with a phenomenon that has come up in their own lives, and work their way out from there.

In our most recent issue, Moira Weigel travels to Shanghai expecting that this “city of the future” will change and inspire her; instead she is met by “a series of almost continual frustrations and delays.” Reading back over the notes left by previous intellectuals who had also expected the city to show them the path to utopia, she can acknowledge that, as so often when we travel, our expectations tell us more about ourselves than about the places we actually visit. In another piece from issue 8, my co-editor Jonny Thakkar travels to an E.U. sponsored conference on education in Estonia. Jonny announces in the opening paragraph that he is working on a dissertation on the relation between parts and wholes in Plato, and the seemingly disorganized conference appears initially to him as just the thing to confirm his theory about the “non-functionality” of contemporary institutions. Yet as he gets to know the people running the conference, he arrives at an appreciation for their strategic creativity and for the complexity of actual politics: perhaps, he considers, there are more things on heaven and earth than he had dreamt of in his philosophy.

Paraphrased, these pieces may sound dry or didactic; their success depends, of course, on whether the authors can motivate the reader to follow them. Which means not just that the reader “understand” the essay, but that they are able to recognize themselves in and be convinced by it. For us, this form of self-reflection is not an ancillary benefit of an essay; it is its whole ambition. Stanley Cavell has written of thinkers who wish to “prevent understanding which is unaccompanied by inner change.”  The best essayists refuse us the satisfaction of having “gotten” their arguments; the measure of their success is rather that we are challenged and possibly changed by them. Montaigne, Emerson, Orwell, David Foster Wallace: these are some of the “philosophical essayists” we have been converted by.

In fact the name of the magazine came in part from our desire for our publication to always keep in mind that the “point” of intellectual—or philosophical—discourse, was to discover how to live. This gives our articles as much of an affinity with self-help as with philosophy, but this affinity is, we think, appropriate to the form. “Where do we find ourselves?” begins Emerson’s great “Experience”—asking a question we take to be at the heart of every truly philosophical essay. The question prompts the reader to consider where she finds herself at the present moment (that is, where the essayist is finding her), where she might ideally find her self (say her best self), and then finally whether she will find herself (that is, recognize herself) in the essay she is about to read. Of course it also assumes something else about her: that she is lost.

And this too seems right. Perhaps we should say that the essay begins in (what David Foster Wallace has called) lostness. At the very least, it compels an acknowledgment of confusion, which becomes the first step in our ascent toward some kind of clarity, or light. Yet the philosophical essay, unlike (some) self-help, does not believe in any final, once-and-for-all solution. It rather begins and ends with us still in the middle—on a stairway with stairs below us we do not remember climbing, and stairs above that ascend “upward and out of sight,” as Emerson memorably puts it.  Maybe its distinctive contribution is to acknowledge this purgatorial condition without being overwhelmed by it, as if to encourage in us the realization that we can (that we will have to, if we want to shape our experience and not just be shaped by it) find ourselves over and over again.

Jon Baskin is a founding editor of The Point magazine and a graduate student in the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought. You can reach him at

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