What does it mean to be “from” somewhere?

A few nights ago I participated — though mostly as an increasingly attentive observer — to a fascinating discussion between two people I love. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I will call them Analitica and Literaria. The topic of the discussion was the interpretation of the common question: “where are you from?” in a social setting. It turns out that Analitica and Literaria gave me much food for thought, as well as the occasion to rethink my own position, which was initially very close to Analitica but by the end of the discussion moved closer to Literaria — though I still think they both made very good points.

This may seem to be a topic in the philosophy of language, and perhaps in part it is. But it’s really a splendid example of practical philosophy, because that simple question is at the same time one of the most common someone can ask of new acquaintances, and yet one of the most complex and fraught with emotional undertones. Let me recount the highlights of the actual discussion first, then we’ll get to the philosophical meat that lies at its foundation.

Analitica told us of a peculiar episode that had happened in one of her language classes in college not long ago, and which had made a sufficient impression on her that this was not the first time we heard the story. The professor in her French class had told the students to break in groups of two and practice some simple phrases. One of the suggested phrases was: “Where are you from?” (obviously, in French). When Analitica asked her partner, the latter, a young black woman, responded: “I’m from Ivory Coast.”

Naturally enough, still within the context of their practice of French, Analitica followed up: “Oh, cool, tell me more about Ivory Coast.” “I don’t know much about it, I’ve never been.” At this point, a puzzled Analitica thought she misunderstood, and asked what the other woman meant when she said “I’m from Ivory Coast.” The woman got defensive, eventually saying that she was from Ivory Coast in the sense that her family was from there, a couple of generations previous.

Analitica — who has studied philosophy in college, and has a distinct preference for the logical-linguistic approaches known as analytic philosophy (e.g., Bertrand Russell, G.E. More, Gottlob Frege) — was flabbergasted. Did the woman in question not understand what the phrase “where are you from?” means? It very clearly refers to one’s geographical place of origin, not to one’s ancestors’ provenance, and even less so to one’s cultural identity, which is what the black woman meant, as it became clear during their brief conversation. Geographically, she was “from” the Bronx, in New York City.

At this point Literaria intervened, suggesting that the superficially straightforward question may, in fact, have different and complex answers depending on one’s own experiences. In particular when we are talking to people who do not feel welcome in, or belong to, the place from where they would normally say they are.

For instance, continued Literaria, she herself was born in one place (doesn’t matter where), spent several formative years in another, moved to a third one, then spent much of her adult life in two more places. These latter two are the only ones where she feels she belongs, so when asked “where are you from?” she answers accordingly, never by mentioning her birthplace or her place of upbringing. I myself was born in Monrovia, Liberia, but I’m certainly not “from” there. I’m from Rome, where I grew up, and from New York, the city I love and have elected as my permanent residence. I’m also not from Knoxville, TN, even though I spent nine years there, a little less than the time I’ve spent so far in New York. See? It’s complicated.

Literaria’s field is English literature, and her position reminded me of the take on the issue that might have been espoused by one member or another of the scholarly approach known as “continental” philosophy (e.g., Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault). The emphasis in continental philosophy is not on a logical analysis of language, but on a broader understanding of what we mean when we use certain locutions.

I’ve written about the analytic-continental divide before, but I must admit that my own sympathies have always leaned toward the analytic school and away from the continental one. I find logic and the clear use of language absolutely necessary both for doing philosophy and for thinking and communicating clearly. And I’ve often been put off by the obscurity (e.g., Heidegger) and sometimes downright lack of sense (e.g., Derrida) of continental writers. (The word “continental,” by the way, refers to the fact that historically this style of philosophy evolved in continental Europe, especially Germany and France, though these days there are plenty of continental philosophers in the United States and elsewhere.)

Some of my colleagues have attempted to deny the very existence of an analytic-continental distinction, but if you read two random authors within each camp you’ll see immediately that the differences in style and subject matters are obvious. Just because there are intermediate cases or fuzzy boundaries it doesn’t mean there are no meaningful distinctions to be made.

But here is the thing: broadly speaking (and with plenty of individual exceptions), analytic philosophers have gotten themselves more and more tied up in logical knots over increasingly irrelevant or hypothetical subject matters (e.g., trolley dilemmas, philosophical zombies, whatever “grounding” means in metaphysics), thus making themselves increasingly irrelevant, both inside and especially outside of academia.

Meanwhile, continentalists are all the rage. Setting aside plenty of bad or confused reasoning, they have also produced highly relevant discussions of issues that actually matter to people, from feminism to gender controversies, from the misuse of the concept of mental illness to the radical freedom (and responsibility) of the existentialists.

That is why some time ago I decided to stay away from either “camp” as much as possible, and instead nudge people toward a return to philosophy, without modifiers. You know, the sort of thing that Socrates was doing over two millennia ago. What we really need is the rigor of the analytical approach coupled with the relevance of the continental one. A new, practical philosophy for the 21st century.

This is not a novel problem, as it turns out. Epictetus anticipated both issues already in the second century. He could have told a modern analytical philosopher:

“We know how to analyze arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses II, 3.4-5)

But he might just as easily have addressed the excesses of the continental tradition:

“When one of his audience said, ‘Convince me that logic is useful,’ he said, Would you have me demonstrate it? ‘Yes.’ Well, then, must I not use a demonstrative argument? And, when the other agreed, he said, How then shall you know if I impose upon you? And when the man had no answer, he said, You see how you yourself admit that logic is necessary, if without it you are not even able to learn this much — whether it is necessary or not.” (Discourses II, 25)

Back to the discussion between Analitica and Literaria, as the evening was progressing, I understood Literaria’s position more and more (though I have to admit that it took me another night and some more talking with her the following day to really grasp it). But I retained some sympathy for Analitica’s quest for clarity and logic. In particular, it seems like these days the very question “where are you from?” is considered — in some quarters — to be a form of “micro-aggression.” But it isn’t, really (or necessarily), and it should not be construed that way a priori. 

Micro-aggressions are defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group.” The term was coined by Chester M. Pierce, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard, back in 1970, to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflicting on African-Americans.

While micro-aggressions are real, and the description, study, and understanding of the phenomenon are socially valuable, I beg to differ in part with Prof. Pierce: an aggression is an intentional act, so to talk about unintentional micro-aggressions is incoherent (as Analitica would say). It’s also very dangerous, because it allows people to feel insulted regardless of whether there was intention to insult or not. If there wasn’t, then the exchange could, and should, evolve into a teaching moment, along the lines of: “Well, I know you meant well when you asked me where I was from, but as it turns out this is a complex question for someone like me. Let me try to explain my point of view, and see what you think.”

What I’m suggesting here is a simple, and yet increasingly rare, give and take between two interlocutors. In the real case of Analitica and her fellow student, the first one could have learned that logic, as Mr. Spock famously said later in his career, is only the beginning of wisdom, and that we need to really listen to what others may mean in order to understand them rather than dismiss them. By the same token, the black woman could have skipped the defensive attitude, as justified as it may have been in the past, to seize instead on a chance to explain to her fellow student why she felt that the appropriate answer to “where are you from?,” in her case, simply couldn’t be a geographical one.

Social intercourse should not be aiming at putting down one’s “opponent” (what a horrible and revelatory word!), nor does it consist in closing oneself in an impenetrable shell because other people’s opinions make us uncomfortable. It should be about understanding the other and growing oneself. And for that, compassion and logic ought to go hand in hand.

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