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Humanism and Vigilance

Victor Kestenbaum
Department of Philosophy,
Boston University

Habits of mind are sources of blindness but they are also vehicles of vision: they attune us to certain possibilities of meaning and exclude us from others. This attunement is not merely a matter of having certain concepts, paradigms, values, etc. Habit describes how we have these, i.e., we have them so deeply , so naturally, that they create for us our fundamental accord with this world. They form our sensibility, establishing our "sense" of something as distinguished from our conception or definition of that thing.


Vigilance has no a priori commitment to the particular or universal: it stands in opposition to formulations of humanism which seek to "ground" themselves either in universal values or the requirement of the "here and now". The claims of the general and the particular are not decided or reconciled by vigilance. Through vigilance, though we gain a clearer view of what is missing or absent from the general and the particular.

Actually, an expanded awareness may have the effect of making me less rather than more vigilant, depending upon other things, the degree of satisfaction I take in my new awareness and the extent to which I experience what Jaspers calls the "need to avoid a harmonizing world view". The hope, of course, is that what is included in a new "awareness of" if not merely a new content but a continuing disposition to imagine what time be absent from my present awareness, however new and exciting it may be.

Yet even here there is a tendency to make vigilance into a kind of Easter egg hunt - if absence is not here, then perhaps it is present somewhere else. Absence is not an object, you do not find it by looking harder under the bush or behind the porch. Absence is not remedied by presence, as if absence were a flaw or imperfection of presence. Vigilance is the proper presencing of a phenomenon within a context of absence.

Vigilance attunes us t o possibilities of presencing not immediately envisioned or encoded by general principles and values.

To seek new descriptions of things, to find new and more fruitful ways of talking, to benefit from a tradition, to sharpen criticism, all may require going beyond the concrete particularly of the phenomenon.

Vigilance is often quiet and gentle: to be watchful or heedful is not an engrossed or absorbed attention, although vigilance may at times reach such levels of intensity. Yet, even when most quiet and gentle, vigilance is a struggle of the person with him or herself. It is the struggle to use one part of experience against another in order to secure attain level of continuing tension, a preparedness for exception.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]