Conversing with the Universe

In the classroom I’m explicit with the disclaimer that since we’re doing philosophy, nothing is off the table for questioning, including religious beliefs. It is this “nothing’s off the table for question” attitude that is so particular to philosophy, particularly as it is constantly calling itself into question. And it is this attitude that has implications for the roles we play, the masks we wear.

We all play various roles, whether student, professor, parent, brother, close friend, etc. The question is whether those roles are better seen as masks or actual identities. What I mean is: should we identify ourselves as our role or think that there is something more basic underlying the roles, something that we are, such that those roles are really “just” masks or personas that this more basic “thing” wears? I want to argue that there is a more basic aspect to ourselves that implies that these roles are more akin to personas. However, this aspect should not be thought of as some kind of thing or (simple) essence, e.g., pure consciousness or a soul. Rather, this more basic aspect is a particular way of comporting oneself to the world and one’s personas, such that a person is both her personas and not her personas.

The poet Li-Young Lee makes the following contrast in regard to poets in an interview:

Marshall: For many twentieth-century poets, that voice [the voice of the universe] only comes through in riffs, fragments, rather than a complete discourse—Eliot’s ability to shape only a fractured answer to his quest. Pound’s Drafts. Is this a fundamental change in poetry?


Lee: The way I read it that fractured quality is bad faith the poet experiences. Say, for instance, religion lets him down. So he turns his back on religion, and he faces the profane life. But there’s a danger in that; in a way, it’s a kind of death. A poet’s dialogue is not with a human audience. Yes, the poem communicates: that’s a by-product. When a poet writes the poem, the dialogue is actually with the universe, and if we don’t realize that, our poetry and our art is in jeopardy. When the dialogue is carried on horizontally, with the culture, that is lower form of art. When it is a dialogue with the universe, that is the highest realization of art. (Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee, ed., Earl G. Ingersoll, 126)

Regardless of what one thinks about Lee’s views expressed here on poetry, I think we can pick up something of profound importance for philosophy. Namely, doing philosophy in the right spirit is to have a conversation with the universe, with reality. Professional philosophy very much involves dialogue, conversation, with other academics. But such conversations can be viewed in at least two ways, as a kind of competition to see who can be the best academic or as engaging in a joint conversation with the universe. One of the differences between the two is that the former primarily operates within the limited scope of her time but the latter doesn’t. That is, the former is rooted in both the debates that are popular at a particular time and in the ways to be seen as a leading academic at a particular time, for example, number of journal articles published, the ranking of the journals, the prestigiousness of one’s institution, etc. Another difference is that in competition one identifies oneself so thoroughly with one’s role as an academic, or even as “philosopher.” Whereas, to see oneself as engaged in a (joint) conversation with the universe is to, as far as possible, eschew one’s roles.

This eschewing of roles comes about, in part, because a key part of the conversation with the universe is calling everything into question, not just one’s beliefs about God or knowledge or the fundamental nature of the universe, but also one’s beliefs about one’s roles. For example, the role of the professor: What does it mean to be a professor? How should it be carried out? What’s the purpose of such a role? Should I be one? Every answer to these questions should be seen, I’d say, as tentative. They are tentative because any possible answer will always be subject to revision. This calling into question of the nature, meaning, and purpose of one’s roles allows one to see them as kinds of masks. Necessary ones, but masks all the same.

Importantly, one is engaged in a conversation with the universe to the extent that one is not merely paying lip service to the ideal of calling into question everything, including one’s roles. This is, in part, why I am using the somewhat mystical sounding conversation with the universe. One might think, at first, that all that is going on with such a conversation is that one wants to get at the objective truth, understand the true nature of reality. However, one could have that as a goal without that meaning one really calls everything into question. Presumably scientists, for example, seek objective truth without that meaning that they are engaged in a conversation with the universe in the way I am specifying here. Even the “philosopher” can seek objective truth without that meaning she is having the kind of conversation that I am lauding.

One might object that such a conversation isn’t really possible, since one cannot literally call everything into question at once. Just as one must keep a significant portion of the ship one is sailing on intact while repairing parts of it, one must endorse a significant portion of one’s belief system in order to question any particular part of it. While there is something to that, the key aspect of calling everything into question is the seeing any particular belief that one entertains/affirms as tentative, fallible, subject to possible revision. Calling everything into question does not mean actively, explicitly challenging everything at once. Further, while a person is certainly the product of her time, and thus cannot fully transcend it even when questioning everything, one can try as far as possible to go beyond the limits of her time and place.

One of the parts of the conversation with the universe that I’m emphasizing is our roles, particularly our identification of ourselves with our roles. Part of the problem is that such an identification is necessarily limiting and potentially dangerous. It is limiting because our roles are inherited, and very much the product of a particular place and time. Further, because they are inherited, they are through and through a matter of tradition, and we should never rest content with tradition. That is, while traditions can be valuable, they can also be dangerous because of their power to compel behavior, behavior that is only as good as the tradition. While one can identify oneself with one’s role and still call things into question, it seems that doing so psychologically blocks fully questioning that role, its meaning, value, etc.

One might well ask, “Isn’t seeing oneself as involved in a conversation with the universe just another role, another mask?” The answer is in one respect “yes,” but in another “no.” It is “yes” because of it one should ask: What does it mean to have a conversation with the universe? Should I engage in it? Etc. And the answers, again, should be seen as tentative. But that is also why it is not just another role. A defining feature of having a conversation with the universe is calling everything into question, accepting all answers as tentative. It is this that propels one away from identification with a role. It is what fuels the thought, “I am a human engaged in a conversation with the universe; I am not most basically a professor/student/lawyer/accountant/factory worker.” But this gives us: “I am a human engaged in a conversation with the universe; I am not most basically a human engaged in a conversation with the universe.” In this “self-undermining” respect, it is not just another role. It calls itself into question. Thus: only when one calls one’s conversation with the universe into question can one really be engaged in such a conversation.

None of this is to deny the importance of our roles or the responsibilities that constitute them. Nor is anything here (necessarily) inconsistent with such conceptions of self that see the self as (at least partially) constituted by its social roles. Seeing the roles as kinds of masks isn’t to see them as unreal or unimportant. It is to see them for what they are: tentative ways of comporting oneself toward the world and others. Taking the mask for the face is to lose sight of this and to engage in a shallow kind of conversation—a horizontal one in Lee’s sense.

2 thoughts on “Conversing with the Universe

  1. It seems when you are aware that the masks you wear in society are just that, masks, and not your genuine identity, it should actually become easier to wear them and play the roles other people call you to play with a certain lightness and flair. Hating all masks and trying to outright do away with them seems to lead to the vulgar sort of, what I’d call, affected or phony “spontaneity.” Not true spontaneity because it’s trying to be spontaneous. It is just another mask. Maybe genuineness, authenticity, spontaneity, whatever you will, isn’t found in being literally unmasked, but in swapping out various masks with a bit of vigor and humor. Or like the phrase goes, “wearing life like a loose garment.”

  2. We question the value of the conversation or the role in which we operate while having this conversation – if I am understanding you correctly- only when we are prepared to question everything. At that point we have she’d ourselves of the masks (I prefer the concept of these masks or roles as identities in most cases because we assume the pain and pleasure valuations of what happens to us within these roles as correct – success in my role a doctor is related to how well I treat my patients and I am rewarded or punished “valued” based on the norms of that identity) Anyway – stripped of my identities, or personas or masks to this point of not only self examination but the true examination of everything there is only one challenge left. Doing this means (by the value we place on this fundamental conversation) that there is something interconnected and valuable to examine. Stripped of everything – to the point of this conversation we have to confront the possibility (or the fact to my minds eye) that there is nothing left. The possibility must exist that once we get to this level that there is truly nothing save ourselves with which to converse. The universe may be simply an abyss – with nothing to teach us or tell us about ourselves than we already know. If we look up the vast nothingness of life clarified by tearing away all of the facades and minutia that make up the day to day living won’t we simply look upon nothing? There is no reason to expect that anything more exists for us to converse with than the most primal utterings of our own mind. Finally, in denying the value and purpose of ourselves – the finality of questioning everything – we have to conclude that there is nothing left. We live a life that operates ONLY in the masks. When we shed the masks- truly she’d them all – we have she’d life itself as there is no inherent purpose or value to any of it – or any of us. Doesn’t that render the conversation itself pointless?

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