Finding Our Sea-Legs
“One of very few books about a key problem in contemporary philosophy: the tension between the urgency of ethics and their inherent ambiguity.” — Approaching Aro Blog.
Finding Our Sea-Legs, my first philosophy book, was published by Kingston University Press in 2009. It is at one and the same time a philosophy book, a collection of strange and sometimes unsettling stories, and a voyage of sorts through some of the more enduring questions of ethics.
About the Book
The argument of Finding Our Sea-Legs: Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories grows out of the following two philosophical suggestions (I would not want to go so far as to call them propositions): the first comes from Aristotle, and is the suggestion that ethics is like navigation; and second comes from the storytelling traditions of India, and is the suggestion that stories are like the sea.
The book tries to chart a passage between these two suggestions, to weave a suggestive philosophy made of stories. Casting off on the sea of stories, exploring tales from India, New Guinea, Europe and America, and drawing on philosophers and storytellers such as Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas, Wendy Doniger, Walter Benjamin and Zhuangzi, it attempts a naïve kind of phenomenology that tries to get close to the question of what it is like to be affected ethically, so that we might be able eventually to navigate more wisely.
All at Sea: A Philosophical Parable
The story begins with a dream of solid ground: like the dream of a sailor who has been a long time at sea and who feels a longing for the hard, unmoving rocks beneath his feet.
Having lived his entire life on board ship, and knowing only the swell of the ocean, our sailor nevertheless still feels some kind of longing so that, from time to time, when he looks towards the shimmer of the horizon, he imagines cliffs, mountains, sandy beaches, low forests, atolls, islands, continents. How beautiful the dream is. Yet the dreaming sailor turns away from the horizon with a sigh. He knows that his imagination is lurid, that the haze and the heat of the noonday sun are playing tricks upon him, that he does not have the courage of his convictions. He has read the history books. He has studied the ship’s log, he has striven to learn as much as he can; and although the dream still moves him, he is no longer courageous or foolish enough to dream it with the conviction he once had.
Our sailor is not alone on the ship. With him there are many others, and amongst this motley bunch are some – we can call them philosophers, prophets or priests, it does not matter which – who do not share his diffidence and uncertainty. These prophets are a forbidding crowd: confident in their powers, they have clarified their vision by the force of long and difficult asceticism, disciplines of the body and of the soul and of the mind (although, alas, all too rarely of the heart). Most of the time, they sit in silence, cloistered in their cabins where they are not seen from one year to the next, locked in arcane conference in the canteen, or sitting on deck-chairs, staring at the unending sky and the roiling waves with looks of otherworldly puzzlement upon their faces. Most of the time, that is. For on occasion one amongst these curious prophets happens to lean over the guard-rail and glimpse (or claim to do so) a dark smudge where the sky meets the sea. Land Ahoy!
Suddenly there is commotion. Some rush to the prophet’s side muttering, ‘Yes, yes! I see it! I see it!’ Others, more cautious, remove their spectacles, draw out a cloth to clean the lenses, return the spectacles to their noses, and squint uncertainly in the direction of the pointed finger. Inevitably, from certain deckchairs that are positioned so that they might be perpetually in the shade, it is possible to hear dissenting voices, protests muttered between teeth clenched around the stem of a pipe: ‘Bunkum!’ the killjoys mutter.
For our sailor, these two simple words – Land Ahoy! – never fail to bring tears to his eyes. How wonderful, he thinks, if it were true. But he is under no illusions. He has seen it all before. Sometimes the prophet is all but ignored, despite the shouting, and he skulks off to returns to his cabin or deckchair to brood. Sometimes the prophet is in receipt of a few polite smiles, nothing more (‘Ah,’ people mutter, ‘another one!’). Sometimes the prophet gathers together a few followers who jump up and down, an enthusiastic and clamorous band. And although it has not happened in the sailor’s own lifetime, in the ship’s log it is recorded that, on several occasions in the past, a prophet afflicted by noontide delirium has gained enough support to seize the vessel. On occasions such as these, the ship’s course has veered wildly and erratically for days, months, years even, as the increasingly fractious mutineers – for this is what they have become – point it first this way and then that, heading towards the dream of a port that was always out of reach. Yet for one reason or another, none of these prophets have ever succeeded in bringing the ship into safe harbour. On the horizon, the dark smudges have perpetually receded into nothing as the boat approaches; or they have vanished in the darkness of the night and failed to reappear in the dawn; or the prophet who has spoken so eloquently has disappeared overboard, never to be seen again.
How strange that we are still adrift. After all this time.
Approaching Aro blog
Will Buckingham writes thinkBuddha, my favorite blog. Finding Our Sea-Legs: Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories is his first book of “Buddhish” ethical philosophy. It is a remarkable and important work. The book is unconventional in form: written in colloquial English with little jargon. It tells many stories: about talking fish, million-year-old princesses, and the need to lower your mast as you near the horizon, lest your boat get stuck between the sky and the sea. Finding our Sea-Legs is also unconventional in content. It is one of very few books about a key problem in contemporary philosophy: the tension between the urgency of ethics and their inherent ambiguity. David Chapman
And introduction to, and extract from, Finding Our Sea-Legs, with tales of meetings in the bazaars of India and talking fish in the fish-markets of New York.
Length: Seven minutes 45 Seconds.
Music: Schubert’s Quartet for flute, guitar, viola and cello. Public domain from the MusOpen.org website
Content © Will Buckingham 2012