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According to the Onion Book of Known Knowledge (a satirical encyclopedia), the different kinds of philosophy can be distilled into one definition as follows: “[They] communicate the central truth that, hey, it is what it is, so just hang in there and remember that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. While philosophy is broadly defined depending on the era and culture in which it was conceived, most philosophical schools of thought agree that you win some, you lose some.”
When I first began reading philosophy, however, this was not the advice I found. A short list of the things that I heard philosophers promise would include the following:
You can become fully autonomous of your desires. You can stop being influenced by outside sources.
You can transcend your ego and live, in this world, in a state of perfect bliss.
You can have such a profound connection to another person that you will think they are the other half of your soul.
You can come to terms with the fact that you die, and you can realize who you truly are by thinking about the singularity of your death.
You can live in a society in which ideal and actuality are reconciled.
Your subjectivity will perfectly coincide with objective reality.
You can act as ethically as you think you should in every situation, even becoming the embodiment of some universal moral truth.
Your will and the collective will of a liberated humanity can coincide.
You can experience a beauty so absolute that it shatters your subjectivity and makes you into a new being at one with the universe.
You can discover the true purpose of your life or realize your full potential.
It’s not that the Onion definition is wrong. It’s just that many philosophers make two competing points. They express both the “win some, lose some” nature of life, and the need to try to be perfect anyway.
Here is Aristotle, for example, telling us that even though we will fail, we still have to try to reach perfection:
Such a life [of complete happiness] would be too high for man… But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us.
And we can find this kind of attitude even in those philosophers who do tell us that, as mortals, we should come to terms with our limitations. The “best thing” for them is not endless striving, but rather learning what you can and can’t strive for. In his Handbook, for example, the Stoic Epictetus argued that our complete happiness would come not by trying to change things, but by learning what is in our power and what is not. In our power are, effectively, our ways of thinking. Outside of it is pretty much everything else, including our own bodies. If we could only care about the former, then “No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed.” But Epictetus, like Aristotle, reminds us that we are actually unlikely to achieve ataraxia, the perfect state of Stoic calm. Still, we are told to persevere in our approach: “Nor in general do I cease to make any effort in any regard whatever merely because I despair of achieving perfection.”
Aristotle tells us to strive for immortality, while Epictetus tells us to become perfectly calm with our mortality. And yet, in spite of the gap between them, they each call on us both to perfect ourselves and to know that we will fail. The content differs, but the form is the same. And while I have chosen two Greek philosophers to make this point, one can trace similar ideas in practically any philosophical school. The history of philosophy, at least this line of it, is not about appreciating life and its complexity. It’s about reaching for a kind of perfection that one knows one cannot achieve.
The history of philosophy is not about appreciating life and its complexity. It’s about reaching for a kind of perfection that one knows one cannot achieve.
Much can be learned from the perfectionist philosophers, but over the years I have come to want something that more precisely aligns with the inevitably of imperfection, without thereby falling into a defeatist pessimism. Instead of imagining a perfect solution and then consoling us for the fact that we aren’t built to achieve it, why not philosophize about what we can actually do? We can be better, but never perfect. And we can come to terms with our limitations and difficulties, but never with perfect equanimity. I would argue that such a philosophy is not simply a capitulation to reality. I want to make the case that, in fact, this is a good thing – or, as I’ll put it, a good-enough thing. Our imperfections are not a problem for existence, but a guide to a meaningful form of living.
In brief, the advantage is this. In the “strive to be perfect and then be consoled in your non-perfection” vision of philosophy, everything should be oriented toward the top, and everything down at the bottom is a disappointment. Thus there is either an Aristotelian hierarchy of the excellent, or a reverse Stoic hierarchy of the humbled.
In the good-enough vision, we are more like the shards of a sphere of which some have forever been lost. On our own we are sharp and liable to harm each other. But we can come together – each standing out with our imperfect edges – to form some durable, if itself still fragile, form of communal life.
That we are imperfect, then, is not a misfortune. The misfortune would be to live in a world in which some were truly designed to be on top and others to fall below. In such a world, the ones below could only ever resign themselves to a philosophy of justified consolation. Our imperfection grants us a logic for equality: No one is right all the time, and everyone has something to offer. Our good-enough ethics therefore tend toward inclusion, but they are not relativist. They rebut claims that others do not have something to contribute. Admitting imperfection is not an excuse for cruelty. To the contrary, it is a claim that there is no logic to cruelty; that we all deserve to form and reform and keep working toward a world where everyone belongs. In this equal if inexact belonging, we are able to stand out as the meaningful fragments – both more and less an individual – that we are.
I have taken to calling this worldview the “good-enough life,” as a riff on the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s “good-enough mother” or parent. Winnicott’s basic idea was that many parents try too hard to provide a perfectly secure world for their child – Aristotelian parents, so to speak. Winnicott did not encourage parents to try to be the best they could and then console themselves for their limitations. Nor did he suggest they become perfectly calm with their failures to be great parents. Rather, he argued that attempting to be the best parent was the wrong aspiration in the first place. In striving to ensure that their children had everything they needed, these parents were not only creating undue stress and anxiety, they were in fact taking something vital away from their children: their knowledge of life’s inevitable imperfection. It is this contact with limitation that encourages creative and adaptive development. Great parents – even if they were to succeed – would do more harm than good.
Winnicott offered another aspiration: to be a good-enough parent. Not bad, not mediocre, and certainly not careless. But good enough. I don’t know how carefully he thought about the particular phrase he used, but I think it is one of the most ingenious and expansive formulations I can imagine. Because what “good enough” implies is a series of interlinked points that give shape to the imperfectionist’s philosophical horizon. At least, that is how I intend to interpret and expand on Winnicott’s phrase.
The first element of this philosophy is that it is still important to be good. “The good” is, of course, a contentious category, but we can certainly imagine some shared characteristics like being kind, caring, loving, present, and so forth, and to encourage our loved ones to have a meaningful and textured existence in which they develop their virtues, explore their passions, understand their limitations, and help others to do the same.
Second, it is important to provide “enough”, both materially and emotionally. There is ongoing work in ecological economics to figure out what precisely “enough” means, and how to achieve it within the limits of the planet, but again we can understand some basic points, such as providing food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare for all. Because wealth is a relative term, enough implies a ceiling as well as a floor. To have enough is to scrupulously avoid having too much. It is of course not easy to put a limit on our desires, and so this is also a reminder that good enough does not mean easy. There is a lot of work on ourselves and on our society that we need to do to create generalized enoughness.
The history of philosophy, at least this line of it, is not about appreciating life and its complexity. It’s about reaching for a kind of perfection that one knows one cannot achieve.
Then there is the all-important connection between the words: spiritual goodness and material sufficiency are related. One can have a good life even if one does not have enough, and one can have enough even if one does not have a good life. But the normative goal is both. Human progress should not be defined in strictly material or spiritual terms, but in our capacity to unite the two.
Thus, the good-enough ideal turns us away from morality as a game of the great or the few, and returns us to the ordinary and everyday conditions – the fact of parenting or friendship or simply meeting a stranger on public transport – in which our morality takes place.
If good-enoughness is our moral horizon, then we cannot make a world such that only the few have what they need, in terms of access to either spiritual or material well-being. The notion of a single good-enough parent thus extends out into what Winnicott called the “good-enough facilitating environment.” Good-enoughness at home starts in society, and society, as the word environment here reminds us, is embedded in nature. To truly be good enough is to help make a good-enough world for all.
As we begin to think about all of these complex layers of good-enoughness, we can never lose hold of the primary insight: there is nothing better than good enough. The world can certainly improve, and it hopefully will. We are still far from achieving a good-enough world for all, and we should keep striving toward that. But the world cannot become perfect, and to seek perfection in an imperfect world is to live in perpetual misalignment. No matter how well we build our souls and our worlds, there will still be earthquakes and heartaches, floods and follies, diseases and dismay. Our goodness will break down when we need it most and we will fly into anger or depression. Our attempts to provide sufficiency will run into greed and mismanagement. If we imagine our lives as striving for perfection, we risk forgetting to acknowledge that life itself is suffused with difficulty. We will design ideals that assume the possibility of perfection rather than, say, admitting to our sadness or pain, and seeing that a meaningful life includes rather than dispels them. Or we will design political systems that promise impossible growth, rather than coming to terms with the finitude of our planet.
We cannot fix all of our problems, but we can come together to ameliorate the difficulties. In a good-enough world, we learn that the kinks in our condition are best borne by our connections to our kindred, which is to say, the world. What the history of creative adaptation teaches us (in the work of scholars like David Sloan Wilson and Elinor Ostrom) is that cooperative social orders are the most successful, and that egalitarian societies are better cooperators. It is our failure to think in the terms of cooperative, creative adaptation, for example, that is exacerbating our ongoing climate catastrophe.
Taking up this good-enough worldview may allow us to have a greater appreciation for the psychic energies of both ourselves and others. Sigmund Freud had a sense of this worldview. He was famously sceptical of economic equality, because he believed that an equal society could not solve the problems of human desire, especially when that desire conflicts or goes unrequited. But he did offer a different (if ultimately insufficient) equality, one based in the fascinations of ordinary life.
He managed to see that our drive to perfection could be displaced by the recognition that within our confused and distorted passions we would find both the misery of achievement and the wonder of confusion and loss. For him there was no genius who was not tormented by psychic monsters. And there was no ordinary life that was not filled with dreams and wonder. Richard Rorty has eloquently summed up Freud’s position:
There are, for Freud, no dull people, because there is no such thing as a dull unconscious… For Freud’s account of unconscious fantasy shows us how to see every human life as a poem – or, more exactly, every human life not so racked by pain as to be unable to learn a language, nor so immersed in toil as to have no leisure in which to generate a self-description… As Philip Rieff puts it, “Freud democratised genius by giving everyone a creative unconscious.”
As Freud sees it, human life is brittle but not broken; the most fascinating elements of our lives are less the spectacle of the world than the strangeness of our grappling to process it; no one, no matter their condition, can be seen as living a life without meaning and purpose. Part of living a good-enough life is this recognition of our own, already-existing fullness.
But in a good-enough world, no set of ideas is without blemish. For a self-obsession with our own fantasies is also another name for narcissism. We need a good-enough balance between self and world. This good-enough balance would mean conceiving of the self in terms perhaps not too dissimilar from what Freud himself laid out: not as a soul, and not as nothing, but as a complex bundle of thoughts and feelings never fully separable from nor fully enmeshed in the world around it. I am never fully myself, and I am never fully not myself. I am always only a good-enough version of myself. I can never be the perfect version of who I am – which would mean either fully connecting to or fully dissolving my essence, depending on which philosophical point of view one takes. Though I can seek ways to keep my sense of self in check, I will always find elements popping back in. And though I can find things that appear to be true to who I am, I can just as quickly find that within a few years (or even within an hour), the feeling of truth has dissipated and some new feeling or mode predominates. The trick is not to seek an absolute version of who one is (or is not), but to find out how to connect who we are now with what the world makes possible, and, where possible, how we can transform our world so that it makes this sense of self more available – by, for example, creating or retrieving different ideas about gender or psychic life or equality.
Freud may be right that new forms of aggression can filter into the space of equality, but he is wrong not to stress some form of equality – a good-enough equality – all the same. The changes we need to become and evolve ourselves do not just happen in our minds. To become enraptured with what we think can be to lose a proper sense of what we can do. Even while our mental life soars, our social and political life – the other world we live in every day – can decline. In this way, we will find ourselves not enraptured by fantasies, but consumed by nightmares.
It is not up to us alone to find consolation, nor is up to us alone to redeem the world. We are all good-enough parts of what should be a good-enough world, and the good-enough ideal of a world that is decent, sufficient, and imperfect for all – including ourselves – can guide us through the thickets of selfhood and political life.
It may seem implausible to imagine that the good-enough life can sufficiently inspire and drive a turn away from the rosy lenses of perfection and back to the difficulties and joys of life as it is. But to presume this begs the question of what inspiration is in the first place. Most modern ideas of inspiration gravitate around a notion – profit – that, according to Max Weber, was hardly ever considered a legitimate motive before in human history. It’s not that people before modernity didn’t think about wealth; it’s just that wisdom was often opposed to wealth. The “good life” was more often a moral category, less often a financial one. The point here is not that profit is necessarily worse than some other ideals (like a warrior culture). It is that our ideals are malleable. We are not fixed creatures driven by a particular set of desires or goals. We are shaped by our milieux and surroundings, and often what is easy to do within them.
It’s not that people before modernity didn’t think about wealth; it’s just that wisdom was often opposed to wealth.
The ideal of a good-enough life, moreover, is not foreign to our constitutions. Most everyone yearns for decency, for care, for sufficiency, for an appreciation of the facts that our failures do not define us, and that it is in the ordinary moments of human affection and attention that some of our deepest feelings emerge.
Furthermore, the good-enough life does not run counter to some grand human tendency to seek status and power. Rather, it considers the fact that humans are as much driven to the ordinary and simple as they are to the grand and excessive. And in confronting these dueling potentials of human life – these twin legacies of aggressive chimpanzees and cooperative bonobos, as Frans de Waal has it – it asks us to simply see how it is that we can best secure our advantage. There is no justification for living in an aggressive world that leaves wreckage behind it when some meaningful part of who we are can be fulfilled through cooperative decency.
Whether we act by cooperation or competition, the question is: what is our goal? And in either case it’s roughly the same: to tame the fury of existence, bring out its joys, and find ways of coping when things go wrong again. Neither path is truer to our “nature,” and only the path of cooperation has a chance of success. We are plural beings, which is to say beings who will never consolidate around a single plan or path that would finally unite us all – in perfect hierarchy or in perfect cooperation. But, without denying the difficultly, we can choose to emphasize one or the other of our tendencies. What’s left to us, then, is to come together to shape our imperfection into our good enoughness.
We are plural beings, which is to say beings who will never consolidate around a single plan or path that would finally unite us all – in perfect hierarchy or in perfect cooperation.
Some readers may fairly object that the seemingly laid-back attitude of good enoughness is a privileged position. It may sound like someone who has gotten ahead telling others to slow down. Or it may not appreciate the urgency of situations that people face. But I do not claim that the good-enough life is always easy – at least not all the time. We are a long way from getting to a good-enough world for all, and struggle to achieve a decent and sufficient life for all is absolutely necessary.
The question is what that struggle looks like, who it benefits, and what its goals are. There are traditions of good enoughness that demonstrate the viability of this idea in very different contexts. In African American feminist political philosophy, for example, there is a vital tradition of questioning goals, principles, and methods of action that focus on individual advancement, integration into the ideals of mainstream society, and models too focused on great leaders rather than good-enough cooperative action. This tradition stretches from Anna Julia Cooper in the nineteenth century to Ella Baker and Septima Clark in the twentieth to adrienne maree brown and others today. They have argued against top-down models of social change driven by the charisma and power of leaders, and in favour of democratic, cooperative movements that foreground the shared power of imperfect individuals working in unison.
Cooper, for example, criticized the abolitionist Martin Delany for believing that he was the representative of all Black people in America, and that his own admittance to a “council of kings” would mean general advance for Black people. Cooper responded that this was like saying that “by pointing to sun-bathed mountain tops do we prove that Phoebus warms the valleys.” The true standard of progress would be overcoming the whole mountain-versus-valley structure in the first place, and ensuring general well-being.
Perhaps the best statement of the good-enough life as a philosophy that I know of comes from a moment when W.E.B. Du Bois questioned whether progress meant integration into American consumerism. He not only answered no, but asserted that a vision of the good-enough life was in fact more obvious to those who, through their difficulties, could see the true corruption of the contemporary world:
If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful; -- what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners, and buy the longest press notices?
Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your hearts that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that always comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that -- but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of a world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.
While Du Bois stops at America here, in his increasingly internationalist writings, he would assert this good-enough vision as a universal ideal – universal not in the sense of being the same everywhere, but in the sense of being a project of joint human cooperation for mutual well-being.
In some ways this is an old message. One can find echoes of it in religious, philosophical, and political traditions around the world. The difficulty is to hold fast to it, to not slip into an assumption that our aim is perfection and that we will fall short, but rather to aim directly for this imperfect, good-enough world.
Karl Polanyi understood this. Writing in the midst of World War II, he saw that distorted claims to greatness and perfection were not only politically dangerous, but philosophically unsound. He wrote of the “three constitutive facts” for our consciousness: “knowledge of death, knowledge of freedom, knowledge of society.” In my own terms: the first is knowledge of imperfection, the second of what is good, and the third of the need to come together to provide enough. Missing from Polanyi’s list is a fourth ancient knowledge whose urgency is clear today: the knowledge of the limits of nature.
According to Polanyi, it is through “resignation” that we work through these knowledges. Because we resign ourselves to death, we learn the value of living well while alive. Because we resign ourselves to needing others, we learn the value of making meaning in society. And because we resign ourselves to the limits of nature, we should now also learn that seeking more than good enough means seeking our own exhausted destruction. He came to see that in a world of so many required resignations, we could not live in a utopia. Moreover, attempting to do so would mean denying the knowledges – imagining a world without death or any other limitation. And to deny what we know about the world is to conscribe ourselves not just to ignorance, but to a vision of life that will always leave us teetering on meaninglessness.
To deny what we know about the world is to conscribe ourselves not just to ignorance, but to a vision of life that will always leave us teetering on meaninglessness.
Like Du Bois, Polanyi found another way out. He saw that some of the limitations of life could indeed be removed – some of the disease, some of the difficulties, some of the toil. But that nothing could remove our finitude, our limitation by others, or the limits of our planet. Polanyi concluded:
Uncomplaining acceptance of the reality of society gives man indomitable courage and strength to remove all removable injustice and unfreedom. As long as he is true to his task of creating more abundant freedom for all, he need not fear that either power or planning will turn against him and destroy the freedom he is building by their instrumentality. This is the meaning of freedom in a complex society; it gives us all the certainty that we need. (My emphasis.)
Polanyi’s freedom is thus a good-enough freedom. In this remarkable definition, it is linked to the ability to create certainty – to reduce the anxiety of indecency and insufficiency – in a world that makes it possible but never guaranteed.
Achieving this freedom clearly does not mean that we will have dissolved all our bonds with others and become perfectly autonomous. It means, rather, that we will have dissolved those bonds that bind us – those relational and political conditions that inhibit our ability to pursue our good-enough ways of being in the world. This individual freedom is made possible by our social freedom – by growing our bonds with others, by working with them to create a good-enough world for all.
Recognising this, here is a list revised list of philosophical aspirations:
You can learn to sort through some of what speaks to you as a person and some of what does not. You can certainly become more yourself, and know better what speaks to you. You will be able to spend some time, if you are lucky, doing what you like. But you will often not be able to, and friends, family, and kindness to strangers will oblige you to frequently do things other than what you would prefer. You might hate dancing but have to dance with your partner or friend who loves it, or hate sports but have to watch your child play, or be soft-spoken but be called upon by a political moment to speak up. You will be not the perfect version of yourself, but the good-enough one whose own being makes room for others, without letting them dominate you.
The path of the mystic seeker is open to all. You will experience a different kind of richness and texture of existence if you can experience transcendent moments and glimpse that the distinction between self and other is but one way to see the world. If you experience this often, you will probably be less anxious and possessive. If you experience it too often, you risk losing the thread of meaning that guides you, and will likely, secretly, keep believing that you are special because you are so great at reducing your ego.
The path of knowledge is also open to all. Sometimes we have to act on the knowledge we have, knowing full well that we do not know everything. And sometimes we have to stand back and rest in our humility. In either case, we are betraying something: either what we do know, or what we don’t. But this redounds to our advantage: working humbly with good-enough knowledge, we can be reminded of our mutual need for all others in the making a good-enough world.
Your friends and lovers will always disappoint you by their stubbornness or disagreement or confusion. This is a wonderful thing. It is in these moments of disconnection that you can see how joyous our misshapen world is, in which this thing called love persists despite maddening frustration.
You can come to terms with your uneasiness over death. You can appreciate that you have no way of knowing what happens after (even if you have a pretty good naturalist or religious guess). And some days you will feel OK about that and on others you are terrified. You can use this to keep yourself humble about the limits of your knowledge, and aware of what you will miss when you are gone, and thus learn how you want to spend the time you have.
You can appreciate that all political causes are flawed, filled with boring meetings, and require you to constantly step outside your comfort zone. Whatever cause you find that helps make the world a little more decent and secure for more people is a good-enough cause to join. And when the political fights seem endless and awful, you can remember that most people actually want the same thing; they often just name who they want it for through the distorted lens of scarcity – asking for everything for themselves or those culturally like them. But lenses, thankfully, can be exchanged, and thus there is hope that some removable suffering will someday, through your efforts, be removed.
This list is partial, of course. Because a good-enough life is something that we live and work out and realize every day. It doesn’t have a formula. But it does have some basic contours: be decent; provide enough; don’t ask for too much and don’t settle for too little; do what you can to make a world that works well for all and not too well for a few; appreciate the ordinary wonders of human experience; help others to do the same.
Through our imperfection comes this vision of worldly decency. Perhaps Leonard Cohen said it best:
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.
Avram Alpert is a research fellow at The New Institute in Hamburg. His books include A Partial Enlightenment: What Modern Literature and Buddhism Can Teach Us About Living Well without Perfection (2021) and The Good-Enough Life (2022). Website: avramalpert.com Twitter: @avramalpert
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