Either Reason or a Rope: On Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule’s “Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters”

Kieran Setiya contemplates “Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters,” an engaging new book by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule.

Either Reason or a Rope: On Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule’s “Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters”

Action versus Contemplation by Blakey Vermeule and Jennifer Summit. University of Chicago Press. 256 pages.

ON NOVEMBER 10, 2015, in a televised debate in the Republican presidential primary, Senator Marco Rubio took a blowtorch to philosophy: “Welders make more money than philosophers,” he claimed. “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Rubio was mercilessly fact-checked, with particular reference to a report in The Wall Street Journal. At the 75th percentile of mid-career salary, the report explained, philosophers make about as much as physicists and engineers. The fact-checking was trailed by a predictable wave of complaints that there is more to life than financial gain and that the value of the humanities cannot be captured in such terms. The surprise came later, on March 28, 2018, with a Marco Rubio tweet: “I made fun of philosophy 3 years ago but then I was challenged to study it, so I started reading the stoics. I’ve changed my view on philosophy. But not on welders. We need both! Vocational training for workers & philosophers to make sense of the world.”

One way to put the central thought of Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule’s engaging new book, Action versus Contemplation, is that Rubio did not go far enough. We should not merely see the value of action and contemplation in their separate spheres. We should aim for integration, for lives that weld engagement to reflection, at once active and contemplative.

This book emerged from a freshman class the authors taught at Stanford University. Their students were stressed. Fresh from the over-scheduled teenage years that took them to an elite university, they looked forward to a future of unpaid internships, competition for jobs, and frenetic activity with moments snatched for leisure. Their immediate anxiety was whether to join the pensive “fuzzies” who major in English, history, and philosophy, or the enterprising “techies” who study science and engineering. Not guidance counselors but intellectual guides, Summit and Vermeule trace their students’ predicament to the origins of Western philosophy. “The rhetoric of action and contemplation,” they proclaim, “is nothing less than the unacknowledged medium of self-understanding in the modern world.” In their telling, it becomes a medium in which to understand, and criticize, not just the culture of fuzzies and techies at Stanford, but the nature of stress, the appeal of cowboy politicians, the point of education, and the search for meaningful work.

In gathering so many issues under the title of “action versus contemplation,” Summit and Vermeule require a lot of fluidity in their key terms. This is part of their point. The valences of “action” and “contemplation” have been recruited in many ways, in contrasts of activity and thought, skill and knowledge, work and leisure — and the contrast between productive work and philosophical reflection that remains in place through Rubio’s change of heart.

Although it ends up taking many forms, the story of action versus contemplation has a specific source. It begins with Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics veers abruptly from sustained investment in the life of practical virtue, exemplified by the Athenian statesman, to a celebration of “theoria” or contemplation, detached from worldly concerns. For Aristotle, the highest good is found not in political activity but in the leisure it makes possible, its ultimate purpose: the useless but divine activity of theorizing. Aristotle’s radical turn leaves readers floundering with the division in themselves, a need to reconcile the practical and theoretical in their lives.

Summit and Vermeule find Aristotle’s opposition at work in the shifting self-conceptions of humanists and scientists, fuzzies and techies, over time. The humanities were not always aligned with useless contemplation, they argue, nor was modern science born pragmatic. The studia humanitatis of the 14th century aimed at useful knowledge: languages, history, and rhetoric were the tools of public service. In contrast, the experimental scientists of the Royal Society in the 17th century compared themselves to monks and hermits. John Evelyn’s plan for their headquarters took as its model a medieval monastery. Finding it expedient to be apolitical during the English Civil War, scientists later reversed course. As Charles II joked that scientists were “spending time only in the weighing of ayre,” John Evelyn extolled the employment of science for the public good. When the modern humanities were established in the early 20th century, they distanced themselves from the practical skills honed by the studia humanitatis, forging their identity around the task of human self-understanding. The upshot is the division between useless humanities and useful STEM subjects that frames contemporary debates about education.

What Summit and Vermeule infer from this narrative, which they tell with authority and vigor, is that the division is contingent, artificial, and flawed. Signs of its inadequacy show up in the uncomfortable positions of rhetoric, composition, and communications among the humanities, of pure mathematics and basic science in STEM, and of the social sciences in general. They make a convincing case that students picking majors, their parents, politicians, and administrators of higher education risk being misled by associations both imperfect and impermanent. Humanists should be less embarrassed to teach applicable skills; scientists should be more honest about the attractions of theory, as such.

Summit and Vermeule associate the contrast between useful skills and useless knowledge that distorts our understanding of the humanities and sciences with other misplaced oppositions. Their hero is John Dewey, who fought educational division as it was cementing at the turn of the 20th century. Dewey argued against the divorce of vocational training from the liberal arts, with separate schools for welders and philosophers. And he urged a “transdisciplinary” synthesis of the humanities with scientific knowledge.

For Summit and Vermeule, the final development, toward the merging of the disciplines, is an inevitable and happy consequence of their argument. I am not persuaded that it is either. Citing Dewey’s defense of humanistic knowledge, they note that, for him, “our logic in social and humane subjects is still largely that of definition and classification as until the seventeenth century it was in natural science.” Their response is optimistic: Dewey “holds out hope that the humanities will experience a renewal in the same way that science did in the age of Bacon”; he “offers a vision of truly transdisciplinary knowledge that bridges artificial distinctions of learning.” But in the passage they quote, the vision looks more like a reductive “consilience” in which the humanities are subsumed by science. Respect for humanistic knowledge would not view it as a primitive version of something else.

The deeper question is why any convergence of disciplines should follow when we contest the opposition between practical and theoretical, active and contemplative. Breaking down this opposition would mean breaking down the barriers between disciplines, and between the humanities and sciences, only if the disciplines lined up on either side of the opposition, which Summit and Vermeule rightly dispute. In leveraging their argument into a plea for transdisciplinarity, they appear to be climbing a ladder they have already thrown away. At any rate, one can question the rhetorical associations Summit and Vermeule historicize without questioning the integrity of academic disciplines as they stand.

Summit and Vermeule find other false dichotomies in recent accounts of education and employment. Their undergraduates were vexed by a question that transcends the fuzzy-techie dilemma: “Should you pick your major based on your interests or on its potential financial return?” The conventional wisdom is that undergraduates now care more about making money than they did in the 1960s, and less about making meaning. The American Freshman, a study conducted by UCLA, rates “objectives considered to be essential or very important” to incoming college students. In 1967, nearly 85 percent hoped “to develop a meaningful philosophy of life”; that figure was roughly 45 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the proportion of students who consider it important “to be very well off financially” has jumped from roughly 51 percent to roughly 82.

Summit and Vermeule are not convinced that these numbers show a fundamental change in orientation, as opposed to shifting fears. If you finish college burdened by debt, making money may well seem more imperative. They note that the percentage of students who care about developing a philosophy of life has risen from its nadir in 1986. But their most trenchant observation is that the goals are not exclusive: most students want both. Other measures confirm this. For instance, asked about the purpose of going to college, 83.8 percent of freshman say “to learn more about things that interest me”; only one percent more cite getting a better job. Where others see materialism and a spiritual void, Summit and Vermeule see “the emergence of a new attitude, one that hopes to synthesize philosophical meaning and professional success, personal fulfillment and material well-being.” This hope informs their treatment of the governing fable of the book.

In its original versions, which date to Greek and Roman antiquity, “The Ants and the Grasshopper” sets industrious ants who work all summer to save food for the winter against the idle grasshopper who sings through the seasons only to beg for alms as the cold descends. The ants refuse to help. The affirmation of hard work and seeming critique of charity persist in la Fontaine’s 17th-century adaptation. But Summit and Vermeule resist the opposition of work and play. As they slyly observe, the fable is self-subversive: its overt message, that art is good for nothing, is made memorable by art.

Summit and Vermeule pursue the fable’s transformation through two emblematic rewrites. In the 1934 Disney adaptation, the queen ant relents, allowing the grasshopper to earn his keep by playing the fiddle. The effect is to commodify art, a metonym for Disney itself. The history culminates with an ecstatic reading of Pixar’s 1998 animation, A Bug’s Life. Here the grasshoppers are bullies who demand an offering of grain in return for the ants’ survival. Under the influence of the joyously inventive Flik, the ants team up with a troupe of jaded circus bugs to replace their dismal labor with creative work, defeating the grasshoppers in the process. For Summit and Vermeule, the transformation of work into play is a model for their students and for us: “They are fortunate to live in a place and time in which meaningful work can be a valid aspiration — and not one restricted to the graduates of selective universities.”

It is not obvious how far the aspiration is meant to go. Summit and Vermeule are largely concerned with higher education, so it is natural to read the final clause as pointing beyond Stanford to the graduates of less selective universities. But there is no reason to assume that meaningful work is confined to “knowledge workers” rather than welders, nurses, or janitors. At one point, Summit and Vermeule invoke Matthew Crawford’s idea of “shop class as soulcraft,” or the meaningfulness of manual labor, which suggests a more expansive view.

It is easy to share the dream of meaningful work for all, understood in this inclusive way, but it is less easy to see how we get there from here. Summit and Vermeule do not address the political economy of employment, the disappearing middle class, or the coming automation of labor. The spirit of their book is more utopian. Its aim is to show that familiar oppositions can in principle be overcome. The question they invite is not how to achieve the dream, but how it dissolves the contrast between action and contemplation. What is contemplative about meaningful work?

One idea is that contemplative values are the values of leisure, as they are for Aristotle. In a fascinating chapter, Summit and Vermeule recount the history of stress and relaxation, “poor successors” to the older, richer concepts of action and contemplation. The metaphor of stress originates with pioneering endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1950s. It was popularized in 1983 by a Time cover story on the “stress epidemic.” According to Summit and Vermeule, Selye believed that “the ultimate protection against stress […] is ‘a satisfactory philosophy of life.’ […] To remain healthy, he observed, ‘man must have some goal, some purpose in life than he can respect and be proud to work for.’” But the suggestion that meaningful work is bound to be leisurely or low-stress is doubtful. Burn-out rates among social workers indicate that pursuing a goal one can be proud of may be hugely stressful. Finding meaning in what one does may well be part of healthy living; it is not proof against stress or the need for a separate sphere of relaxation. Leisurely activities are distinctive, among the sources of meaning, in that they are non-ameliorative: they do not respond to needs and problems we would rather be without. This is what Aristotle prized about contemplation, that it would have purpose even in an ideal world. Some meaningful work is like that, but much is not. The dream of non-ameliorative work for all is truly utopian.

If meaningful work need not be leisurely, it could be contemplative in being philosophical. Both Selye and The American Freshman invoke the need for a “philosophy of life.” This is the well-trodden territory of Socrates’s dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” or, in Diogenes’s more pungent formulation, “to manage our lives properly, we need either reason or a rope.” Summit and Vermeule give fresh voice to a generous, democratic version of this idea, drawing on sources from the Bible to the Dutch masters to George Eliot, Herman Melville, and Hannah Arendt. Still, I find myself listening to voices on the other side, as when Iris Murdoch opens her masterpiece, The Sovereignty of Good (1970), by reminding us of facts that tend to be “forgotten or ‘theorized away’”: for instance, “the fact that an unexamined life can be virtuous.” Can’t I find meaning in my life, and know well enough how to live, Murdoch asks, without engaging in sustained reflection of the sort philosophers love? Many philosophers have thought so. Still less am I compelled to take up questions in metaphysics or epistemology that have no practical bearing on my life. An intricate philosophy may guide the Stanford graduate in Pixar’s studio or Rubio’s welder. But it need not do so. Philosophy is not a condition of meaningful work.

For all their eloquence, Summit and Vermeule have not cured me of my pluralism, my belief that philosophy is just one of the meaningful activities that can occupy a life, and that it may not be for everyone. There is a division of spiritual labor. This is not to deny that everyone should have the chance to study philosophy, as everyone should have the chance to play a musical instrument or learn a craft. But it is to write a sentence I never thought I would: when it comes to the value of philosophy, I side with Marco Rubio.


Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT and is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.

LARB Contributor

Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017), Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way (2022), and a Substack newsletter, Under the Net.


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