Saturday, March 09, 2013

contra Mark Rowlands

Author, philosopher, professor, martial artist wannabe, long-distance runner, tennis fan, and father Mark Rowlands has written a very interesting article on the virtues of engaging in play, the way children do. I was initially led to this article by a tweet from Lee that contained the following pretentious sentence: "Play, in its purest form, is the embodied apprehension of intrinsic value..." That sounded like a bunch of Continental gobbledygook to me—the sort of solipsistic, masturbatory rubbish a French or Czech philosophe or artiste might utter while sporting a black turtleneck, thick-framed Hirohito glasses, a flop hairdo, and a fucking pipe. But something about the sentence intrigued me, so I clicked on Lee's link and found myself face to face with Dr. Rowlands's article.

The article turned out not to be as self-consciously abstruse as that quoted sentence would have led one to believe. It was, in fact, a pleasure to read, and I found myself—at least at first—nodding in agreement with the various points that Rowlands makes. The quote that Lee had selected for his tweet actually came to make sense in context: Rowlands wasn't using the concept of embodiment as a self-importantly postmodernist buzzword (PoMoists, who execrate universals, are all about embodiment and contextualization—the fleshing-out of circumstance and specificity at the expense of abstract notions like principles). To the contrary, Rowlands was making a point made by Aristotle in his Nicomachaean Ethics: there is only one thing we do for its own sake, and that's be happy. Dr. Roger Bensky, one of my old Georgetown profs, referred to the phenomenon in an article he wrote years ago: homo ludens. Being happy, being in touch with the Good, says Rowlands (switching from Aristotle to Plato), is as simple as engaging in play—an activity that, if done right, is done only for its own sake.

There comes a point during a long run, perhaps at the limits of my endurance, when I am no longer running for any reason other than to run. There comes a point in karate — perhaps when I am in the middle of a kata, and each movement flows thoughtlessly and seamlessly into the next — when I am no longer acting for reasons, but acting without them. There is a point in tennis, when I thrust aside as irrelevant all thoughts of point and games and sets, and am absorbed instead in the sheer and savage delight of swinging at a moving target. These are all moments when the endless round of doing one thing for the sake of another comes to an end — however briefly. In these moments, I am acquainted with what is worth doing for its own sake. In these moments, I experience intrinsic value in my life.

I think Rowlands's heart is in the right place when he reminds us adults that, first, we have lost our sense of play (and don't really rediscover it until we have kids of our own), and that, second, we need to reengage the world in a childlike (not childish) manner, one that doesn't make distinctions or frame activities in terms of goals or purpose or achievement. His emphasis on the here-and-now dovetails well with my own Zen-sympathetic sensibilities.

But Rowlands seems intent on deconstructing the benefits that come with maturity, and this is where he and I part ways. He denigrates adulthood in favor of childhood, especially when he writes

The idea of a second childhood is often portrayed as a time of decline. ‘He has returned to his second childhood,’ one might say, meaning that his intellectual capacities are on the slide — perhaps that he is becoming a little senile. As [philosopher Moritz] Schlick also pointed out, we naturally think of childhood as a time of immaturity, a time of preparation for the important part of life that comes later. We often imagine that, if we think hard enough and are skilful enough in our thinking, the meaning of life will one day reveal itself to us, in our maturity. Like Schlick, I suspect this gets things around the wrong way. Children know what is important in life: they know instinctively and effortlessly. For adults, it is hard work. We have to rediscover it all over again. Children understand that the really important things in life are the things that are worth doing for their own sake. And all those other things: they are just unfortunate — inconveniences thrust upon us by an intransigent world. We all knew this once, but we forgot it because we chose to play a demanding game — the great game of growing up. It is a good game, one of the best. But it is also a jealous and dissembling one: dissembling because it refuses to recognise that it is a game, and jealous because it allows no other games. The ‘return to a second childhood’ is a way of rediscovering this thing that we once knew but had to forget.

Rowlands gives short shrift to maturity, and glosses over the fact that childhood, while representing a time of simple worldviews and instinctive understanding of play, is also a time of brute selfishness, animalistic combativeness, and evil mischief (for many if not most children, anyway). Rowlands omits the flip-side of kids' behavior: the lying, the hair-pulling, the food- and object-throwing, the obnoxious screaming, the accidental or purposeful incontinence, the flaring tempers, the hitting, the slap-worthy stubbornness, the infuriatingly inertial laziness, the arrogance coupled with willful stupidity, and all the other puerile sins that have convinced generations of Christians that human nature is inherently fallen and debased. Childhood is indeed a time of indiscriminateness, a time of inchoate thoughts and proto-morality. This is good as long as we focus only on the childlike, but curdles the moment we focus on the childish. And children are, by their very nature, childish. To overlook this fact is to turn a blind eye to the perils of using children as moral exemplars.

If I had the opportunity to return to and relive my childhood, especially if that meant that I would lose all the memories I had accumulated as an adult, I would refuse it. I retain no nostalgia for those days. I treasure the life-wisdom I've accumulated over the years, and while I can't claim to have learned everything, I know that I act more wisely now than I ever would have then, and that this wisdom will only grow as I age.

I suppose the reader could accuse me of having missed Rowlands's point, which is to focus on what's childlike about children, and not on what's childish about them. But my point is that, even if we restrict our focus purely to the childlike, we sacrifice all that wisdom we have gained, all those complex and simple insights about the world, all those cultivated social instincts and that refined faculty for profound aesthetic, moral, and scientific appreciation—everything that makes a person deep. After all, human children aren't the only ones gifted with an uncomplicated sense of play: I might as well look to a puppy to understand true happiness. But why in hell would I want to experience the world at the same shallow level that a puppy does? I'll keep my maturity, thanks, along with my deeper version of happiness. And here's the irony: simple-hearted happiness that rests on a mountain of acquired wisdom is, in the end, the happiness that Rowlands himself is experiencing during his tennis, karate, and running sessions: he could never have had (or shared) his insights into happiness and play had he remained a pure-hearted, undiscriminating child forever.



John from Daejeon said...

"wisdom will only grow as I age" -- I believe that is because our "hot-headed" reaction times decrease with age which we mistakenly label wisdom instead of what it is--the dim-wittedness and senility that comes with being over-the-hill.

We are no longer able to go from zero to 60 in under six seconds as we were as children when flying off the handle. Hence, the very slippery-slope downside of aging which comes under the label of maturity. By the time the aged finally reach escape velocity to fully "fly off the handle," they've forgotten what it was that started their slow burn in the first place.

Kevin Kim said...

I wouldn't conflate wisdom with senility, and I wouldn't say that wisdom reduces merely to biologically induced slowness. Wisdom is its own thing—precious, at that—and it provides richness to adult existence. It's not as though we skip suddenly from childhood to drooling senescence. The intervening years are there to be experienced and enjoyed.

Why so gloomy?

John from Daejeon said...

"Why so gloomy?" I guess it's all that aged wisdom not running, but seemingly ruining, Congress. They can bail out crooked banks and financial institutions, but the middle class and poor Americans not affiliated with deep pocket lobbies seem well beyond their comprehension.

I guess it didn't help that I had a truly gifted 13 year-old student come up to me on Friday to speak about the pointlessness of life and the meaninglessness of religion. After praying for years for a normal life after her useless, and despicable, parents abandoned her to the care of her church going elderly grandmother, she was forced to withdraw from our school and is going into an orphanage this coming week as her grandmother is no longer able to take care of her or herself. Her childhood pretty much ended with her birth and the adults and their wisdom continue to fail so many all over this rock of ours.

Mori said...

I can't help but feel here, you're arguing with yourself more than offering a response or retort to Rowlands.

I think it could be, and should be, sensibly taken as read that Rowlands would advocate a synthesis of child and adult experience, something available only to an adult who stops to reconsider aspects of childhood from an adult perspective. In short, yes, you are kind of missing the point by being overly picky and cynical about how the point is framed and phrased. (To be honest, this was presaged at the beginning of your article - the condescending approach to anything that doesn't strike you as immediately down to earth and practical is distasteful. It comes across as egotistical.)

Kevin Kim said...

You're a half-year late to the game, Mori!

The evidence that I was offering a response to Rowlands comes from the fact that I actually quoted from his article and responded to what I had quoted.

Your accusation of being "picky and cynical" doesn't come with its own argument or evidence, so please, in your next comment, provide an actual reason for your attempt at psychologizing. Otherwise, you're doing what you've accused me of doing: arguing with yourself.

Is it cynical to point out the truth that childhood is as I described it, i.e., not merely a time when we see the world simply but also a time when we're selfish and brutal and simplistic? Far from being cynical, I'd say I was being honest. I disagree with Rowlands because I feel his article, though very well-intended, articulates a half-truth. Had he addressed the other, less positive side of childhood, he'd have made a more solid case.

Kevin Kim said...


A remark about civility:

My comments policy is clearly stated above the text-edit window when you write a comment. Civility is one requirement: if you come into my foyer accusing me of being this and that, I reserve the right not to publish what you say. If you're incapable of keeping a civil tongue in your head, don't expect to see your words published here.

Your comment, above, crossed the bounds of civility. In attempting to psychologize me (i.e., read my mind and tell me what I must have been thinking/feeling—a very sloppy way to argue anything), you were, indeed, as bad as you accuse me of being. If you were a guest in my home, and you called my words and attitude "cynical," "picky," "condescending," and "egotistical"—conduct that is itself cynical, condescending, and egotistical—I'd ask you to leave. So it goes with my blog. Don't expect to get away with that tone again.

I hope you appreciate my forbearance in having published your first comment, but my patience has limits, and I won't waste time with someone whose own ego could use some much-needed deflation.