more on invitation

So far in these posts I’ve said a good bit about repair but very little about invitation. Let me return to the passage from Michael Oakeshott’s essay “A Place of Learning” that moved me to make invitation central to my understanding of culture:

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.

The use of “manifold” as a noun is uncommon and noteworthy. No single meaning recorded in the OED seems to match Oakeshott’s meaning here, but the scope of reference seems pretty clear, and I think we could fairly conclude that he means something like a gathered diversity: a box of treasures; a disorderly library; maybe even a Room of Requirement. I will also admit to being struck by the possibilities of a metaphor based on the word’s use in offshore oil drilling: “an area on which oil pipes from several wells converge,” says the OED, “and where testing, segregation, and re-routing of oil can take place.” The “manifold of invitations” is where cultural possibilities converge and can then be assessed, not just in relation to some pre-existing standard of excellence but in relation to one another.

But note that for Oakeshott the assessments we make will never be final: this “encounter” is “conversational” because so many of our “journeyings” are “unfinished” or “abandoned”; because the journeyings of one (the poet, say) may not be perfectly assimilable to the journeyings of another (the physicist); because so much that comes down to us does so in “fragments.” In response to all this we do not, or should not, make a series of definitive judgments but rather a accept a prolonged period of looking, listening, and reflecting.

This picture is closely related to the one that Robert Nozick gives us, in a passage I quoted in an earlier post: “I believe that there also is a place and a function in our ongoing intellectual life for a less complete work, containing unfinished presentations, conjectures, open questions and problems, leads, side connections, as well as a main line of argument. There is room for words on subjects other than last words.”

There are few notions more clichéd than that of education as exploration, learning as a journey — and yet I wonder if anyone in our educational system has heard that cliché recently? In our whole society, it seems to me, the impulse to explore, and to invite others to a common exploration, has been utterly eclipsed by a mania for policing boundaries, for marking some people and some ideas as unclean, as defiled and defiling.

“Mania” is one word; another might be demonic compulsion. But it won’t last forever; it’s burning people out, it’s a madness that exhausts. Eventually those who are weary will be ready for something better, maybe even for “light-hearted adventures” or explorations of previously unimagined possibilities. Who will be ready with an invitation?

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”