Thursday, October 6, 2022

Kieran Setiya's "Life is Hard"

Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, Practical Knowledge, Reasons without Rationalism, and Knowing Right From Wrong. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement (London), the London Review of Books, The New York Times, Aeon, and The Yale Review.

Setiya applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Life is Hard, I am arguing against the idea of “Life as Narrative”—the view that we do, and should, narrate our own lives to ourselves as we live through them. Or rather, I’m arguing that this view mistakenly focuses on narratives of one sort.
A question that is now overdue: What do the advocates of Life as Narrative mean by “narrative,” anyway? They gravitate to stories of the simplest and most linear form. “For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel—one we’re actually told to follow,” writes the critic and author Jane Alison in Meander, Spiral, Explode, “and that’s the dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides.” It’s in these terms that Life as Narrative is framed; they are what give it substance. The claim is that you should, and do, aspire to tell the story of your life as a single, integrated arc, “something that swells and tautens until climax.” (“Bit masculo-sexual, no?” Alison jokes.)
The danger of seeing one’s life through the lens of a single, linear narrative is that one sets oneself up for definitive failure; and even if one succeeds, one risks neglecting the sheer abundance of incident, the countless small successes and failures that make up one’s biography, the digressive amplitude of being alive.

I think page 99 gives a pretty fair impression of the book. Not that the whole thing is about failure, which occupies just one chapter, but this is the kind of work it does, drawing on criticism, history, fiction, memoir, and social science—as well as philosophy—to describe, explore, and ultimately ease the perennial adversities of human life.

Other chapters take us from infirmity—drawing on my own experience with chronic pain—through loneliness and loss to the injustice and absurdity of the world. The book ends with hope, an object of ambivalence for me. I argue that hope is not one thing: we have to distinguish what Aquinas called the “irascible passion” of hope from the virtue of hoping well. In the end, the question is not whether we should hope, but what we should hope for.
Visit Kieran Setiya's website.

The Page 99 Test: Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.

--Marshal Zeringue