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Politeness, Philosophy’s Neglected Companion

Raymond Boisvert extols an under-rated virtue.

Liberal education is, as its etymology suggests, education for a free people. ‘Schooling’, from the Greek word for leisure, is for those with time and interest to pursue questions crucial to a community’s well-being: How is a good society to be characterized? What is evil? What is virtue? Do we owe one another any obligations? What, for that matter, is an obligation? How can equality and freedom be reconciled? What is justice? Philosophers, who spend lifetimes grappling with such questions, understand them as central to liberal education. This is true, not only intellectually, but, here is something too often forgotten, in terms of habit formation as well. The manner in which philosophical investigation is undertaken leaves as big an imprint on students as do the results of such an investigation.

Early in the 20th century, José Ortega y Gasset wrote about philosophy’s role in educating desires as well as the mind. He called it “the general science of love.” Socrates had been onto something when he compared philosophy to midwifery. The drive to understand culminates in bringing to light (if not life) the ‘plenitude’ with which subject-matters of inquiry are pregnant. By the 20th century’s waning years, however, Ortega’s characterization seemed quaint and outdated. In 1998 Richard Rorty complained that a mid-century turn in Anglophone philosophy had meant that “Ayer and dryness won out over Whitehead and romance.” Such a shift to dryness encouraged behavior that was “more adversarial and argumentative than it used to be.” Putting it bluntly, Rorty claimed that philosophers were not necessarily smarter than in the past, but “only a little meaner.”

Fortunately, there is nothing inherent in philosophy which encourages meanness. What I want to discuss is an important, but little commented upon, by-product of philosophical education. In Latin this by-product went by the names ‘comity’ and ‘urbanity.’ We call it ‘politeness’. Readers may well be familiar with ‘virtue ethics’ – that approach which stresses the importance of developing and strengthening certain habits for living a good life. Discussions of virtue ethics, though, typically overlook, as too frivolous to mention, that set of habits which, in his recent book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, André Comte-Sponville identified as being the origin of all virtues: politeness. Overlooked in theory it may be, but well taught philosophy classes encourage it in practice. What remains, to complete the picture, is a reflection on the nature of politeness and its connection with philosophical education in theory.

Politeness, first of all, is a word whose meaning has been thinned out by time. It tends to connote an artificial, rulefollowing kind of behavior, one forced on us from the outside. But this social virtue has deeper roots. Ultimately, politeness is the proper response to others as dignity-bearing individuals, as ‘persons’ in the fullest sense of that term. When it comes to philosophical reflection on politeness, Francophone thinkers, as we have just seen with Comte-Sponville, seem to have taken the lead. Already in the 18th century Montesquieu complained that “The English are busy; they don’t have time to be polite.” In 1892 Henri Bergson gave a lecture to French students, a group he hoped would not be too busy to be polite. He began his now overlooked, but important, talk by sorting politeness into three kinds: politeness of manners, politeness of spirit, and politeness of heart.

Politeness of manners identifies that behavior best suited for everyday social intercourse. Appropriate habits of interaction emerge when we accept the inherent worth of each individual. Simple courtesies, even if only a smile, a pleasant disposition or a word of thanks, help foster a culture of mutual respect. Good manners mean that we do not treat others in ways that are cold, condescending or utilitarian. “Treat humanity,” said Kant, “always as an end, never as a means only,” giving politeness of manners its definitive philosophical formulation. Other persons are then recognized as centers of value. How we treat the waitress, the bank clerk, the faceless customer service representative, these are test cases indicating the degree to which we approximate the politeness of manners.

Although he did not know Max Scheler (1874-1928), Bergson’s next category, politeness of spirit echoes Scheler’s exhortations to einfühlung and mitfühlung, or, as we would say ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’. Bergson describes ‘politeness of spirit’ as the ability to “put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to take an interest in what is important to them, to think like them, in short, to imagine ourselves living their lives, and, in so doing, allow our own selves and concerns to fade away.” This politeness requires an imaginative generosity best developed by ignoring Plato’s critique of poets. Generosity of imagination is much enhanced by an embrace, not a rejection of literature. Iris Murdoch, who fused Platonic incompatibles as a philosopher-novelist, best identified the empathetic dimension of stories. “The most essential and fundamental aspect of a culture,” she asserted, “is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.” Rorty refers to this as the ‘inspirational value’ gained from fiction. Engagement with such works makes “people think there is more to this life than they ever imagined.” Weaving literature into philosophy provides the portal through which we enter into the lives of others, break out of our narrowness, and thus grow in the “politeness of spirit.”

Bergson’s final politeness differs significantly from the other two. Both of them assume awareness of some preexisting condition, basic dignity for politeness of manners, genuine difference of outlook for politeness of spirit. Politeness of heart, by contrast, helps bring about what is not already there. William James, the great American contemporary of Bergson, was especially sensitive to this dimension in human life. His essay, ‘The Will to Believe’ discussed those kinds of realities, which cannot be brought about except by a trust-filled expectation. James focuses on the question “Do you like me or not?” “Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation.” “Faith in a fact,” says James, “can help create a fact.” In love, for example, trust always goes beyond evidence. Otherwise no one would ever opt for making a lifelong commitment. Politeness of heart helps create facts that make real and positive differences in the lives of others.

We can now come back to the liberal arts and specifically the philosophy classroom. What is it about philosophy that encourages politeness? Imagine a classroom in which an economics professor is teaching how to calculate compound interest. The question is set, the students are puzzled and, most importantly, the faculty member already knows the answer. The teacher’s task is to help the students see the already pre-existing solution. The habits encouraged are those of discipline and subordination to pre-established procedures. Now consider a philosophy classroom: the question emerges from Plato’s Euthyphro: “what obligations do children owe their parents?” In this case, teacher and student explore the issue together. The teacher is a guide since she/he is more familiar with the tradition. But what the teacher most knows is that students in each generation have to face key philosophical questions themselves and come to answers for their own time.

Doing this well requires the levels of politeness identified by Bergson. There must be a politeness of spirit extended to Plato. The temporal and cultural gaps between classical thinkers and ourselves remain overwhelming barriers until we can make the serious imaginative effort called for by this sort of politeness. Once we make this effort, we open opportunities for fusing our horizons, as Gadamer might say, allowing genuinely differing ways of thinking to enter into our deliberations. Those deliberations, in a classroom, help shape a community of inquiry. But inquiry, engaging with philosophical problems, also requires intelligent conversation among contemporaries. Here politeness of manners comes into play. A classroom pervaded by the politeness of manners will be one marked by mutual respect, attentive listening, waiting one’s turn to speak, and disagreeing without being disagreeable. Finally, members of the next generation will not rise to the challenge of adding constructively to the philosophical conversation if they have no confidence in themselves. Every philosophy classroom, if well run, revolves around teachers guided by politeness of heart. Only if this politeness is present will an important result emerge: the burgeoning confidence growing in students that they have what it takes to carry on the discussion without the presence of the instructor.

A community marked by the three levels of politeness makes up its own little ‘ideal republic,’ in the words of Bergson. It functions smoothly because politeness has become second nature. At the opposite extreme lies that notso- ideal realm where appropriate behavior has to be mandated by force, a ‘police’ state. There is only one letter separating ‘police’ state from ‘polite’ state, but in that letter lies all the efforts of generous-spirited, liberally-inspired political philosophers.

When we study philosophy – the cornerstone of a liberal arts education – we open ourselves to voices from other times and places. We work together with others in discussion, letting different ways of thinking and seeing challenge us. Each new generation grows in the confidence that it can carry on the tradition. The habits of politeness are an unnoticed, but crucial by-product of such an undertaking. As such, they help form the fragile ecosystem within which liberal education can thrive. They serve, also, as the primary media through which students help spread the virtues cultivated in our classrooms to the larger, national scene.


Raymond Boisvert teaches at Siena College, just outside of Albany, New York.

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