My daily walk this morning was uneventful -- no Blue Herons, no deer, not even a rabbit. With nothing of note to observe, I found myself musing about what trace, if any, would be left after I pass away by the writings to which I have devoted my life. I have often joked that the world does not need mediocre philosophers any more than it needs mediocre poets, but there is a deep truth in that joke, one that I brooded on as I walked. Not surprisingly, my thoughts turned to the work of the British analyst and therapist Donald Winnicott.
It was Winnicott, you will recall, who introduced the psychoanalytic world to the concept of the pretty good mother. Psychoanalysis had had a great deal to say about all the ways in which mothers and fathers could inflict crippling neuroses on their children -- by weaning them too soon, or too late, by toilet training that was excessively punitive or dangerously lenient, by a too distant and disapproving father or an overly intrusive and clinging mother. The effect of all this was to produce a generation of men and women perpetually anxious about a role, that of parent, that had somehow managed to survive and perpetuate itself for several hundred millennia. Winnicott suggested, on the basis of his observations, that normal mothers are naturally inclined to do pretty well what the normal baby needs, with the result that pretty good mothers can relax and assume that their pretty good mothering will suffice to raise reasonably happy and healthy children. This stands in reassuring contrast to the impossibly demanding standard of the Tiger Mother or Helicopter Parent evident these days in the upper middle-class enclaves of Manhattan's West Side or Hyde Park or Cambridge.
The human race requires that ordinary people simply be pretty good at the various jobs on which we all depend for survival. We do not need a constant flow of Luther Burbanks, just some folks who are pretty good farmers. Nor do we need to be treated for our illnesses by Jonas Salks or guided through our home purchases and divorces and last wills and testaments by Oliver Wendell Holmeses. We just need a steady supply of pretty good doctors and pretty good lawyers. We do not even need to be led by George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns [although a little improvement in that line of work would be reassuring.]
But we really have no use for pretty good philosophers. Philosophy that is just O.K. is like poetry that is so-so. Leaving to one side Hallmark Greeting Cards, there is simply no good use to which one can put mediocre poetry. And as for mediocre philosophy, beyond fortune cookies, what's the point?
Now, I think I am a pretty good philosopher. Of course, we all tend to rate ourselves a bit on the favorable side. Studies show that a large majority of Americans think they are unusually good drivers, but only in Lake Woebegone are all the children above average. Still and all, I really do think I am pretty good at philosophy. Not great, not immortal, not even top ten, just pretty good. And although that is just fine for mothers, as Winnicott showed us [and for fathers too, I warrant], it is really not just fine for philosophers.
I did not set out to be a pretty good philosopher, sixty odd years ago. Not at all. I set out to become one of the immortals. I mean, does anyone ever seriously try to write mediocre poetry? Now that I have entered what, by even the most optimistic of projections, cannot be more than the last twenty years of my life, I know that my best work, such as it is, lies behind me. I had some things I wanted to say and I said them pretty well. Perhaps Marc Antony was right when he said that the good men do is oft interred with their bones.
I congratulate myself that I have been a pretty good father, a pretty good husband, a pretty good teacher. And that is, after all, as much as can be asked of any man. That will have to suffice.