One of the things we can either despair or delight in is an awareness of how little we know. It is not all that far off to see my line of work as a long and constant reminder of my ignorance. This is the atmosphere of the interdisciplinarian. Certainly the disciplinary scholar is not in complete knowledge- he or she is working on a problem at hand - but that unknown is couched neatly in a tradition of thought. The unknown sits comfortably in a known territory. Interdisciplinary work is far more disorienting. The map itself is being made, the compass negotiated, and the thinker is asking foremost: what knowledge is pertinent here in this strange land?
This was my situation at the conference in Salzburg on Love, Intimacy, and Personhood. These are not topics that lend themselves well to disciplinary stovepipes. No one perspective speaks authoritatively on love. It is too large for that. I had my small contribution to make. I was interested in the phenomenon of people who attempt to have loving relationships entirely mediated by the Internet. I wanted to argue that there was something fishy going on here. It is not that people couldn't in principle pull off a meaningful relationship in this way. It is rather that I suspect the whole point is not to invest the kind of effort it would take to do so. This love online business seems to be yet another way an individualistic consumer culture tries to invent relationships to fit around pre-existing lifestyles. It is a flight from the whole notion that love is a demanding art that takes commitment. Most of all love is about meaning, meaning is about being with another, and most people who try the love online thing seem mostly interested in seeing if they can have love absent the other. It is an experiment, I think, doomed to fail.
Others presented papers from perspectives that readily foregrounded for me the limits of my knowledge. I learned about a kind of geisha-like escort business occurring in Hong Kong and southern China and the girls involved in it. They came across to me like shrewd, calculating, materialistic dragons--exploiting the exploiters in a way but nonetheless, I thought, exploited. I learned about Franz Rozenzweig and his triangle of love that influenced his dialogical Jewish philosophy. I learned about sex education in Scotland. In short, I learned that I know very little. If anything qualifies me as a philosopher it is just that.
We did get a chance to tour a bit through Salzburg, a city we had been to before, a city where one of the most remarkable musical minds of human history was nourished and was already flickering with more musical knowledge at the age of five than I will ever have. Mozart moved his listeners to tears. It is best to approach such genius with faith, not intellect. How, really, do we expect to understand that music or the paintings of Van Gogh? We should just delight that someone had at least glimpsed a transcendence few of us will ever directly experience.
As you can see, there was a dusting of snow while we were there, which made me feel at home. We ate at an Italian restaurant we had been too before, which added to the sense of belonging. The mountains - that is, the edge of the mountains, not their heart - are my natural habitat. Though the alps are strange, more jagged, more of a stressed knot of rockmuscle than the well-stretched, elongated rockies. They nonetheless carry a familiarity in their aspect and in the shadows and the way light works across them and in the feel of new air . There is a bodily knowledge too, a remembrance of legs and lungs when it comes time to lean forward and walk up the slopes of mountains.