As every seat in the Geneva Room filled on Wednesday, Sept. 17, the crowd bustled, chatting, shifting, anticipating the kick-off lecture in the fall 2008 Fisher Center Series lectures. Everyone discussing the night’s topic, Thinking in Emergencies, and the scholar who approached the podium, Harvard University’s Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value Elaine Scarry.
“There are two implicit claims of emergencies: first, that action must be taken and second, that it must be taken quickly,” Scarry explained in the opening of her lecture. “Some claim of the first that the necessity to take action is in opposition to deliberative thinking: that a person can think or act…They also claim that because an action must be done soon that there is no time for thinking.”
However, Scarry cited a long list of pivotal thinkers in the Western cannon from Aristotle to John Locke to John Dewey who wrote seminal works on both action and thinking. “Although there are three seductions to give up thinking in an emergency, I argue that habit is essential and not in opposition to action in an emergency,” she said. “The first seduction is the false opposition between thinking and action. The second is that there’s no plausible connection between thinking and prepared action. Lastly, some argue that acts of thinking are not recognized as thinking. In this last case, habit is recognized but is thought of as incompatible with thought.”
“We see from this third source, that habit suddenly begins to surface,” Scarry pointed out. “There are many stories and instances of emergency thinking that include habit.”
“Just four of these include: CPR includes a rigid set of rules associated with numbers and counting…At least one country signs an explicit social contract to give each other aid in an emergency based on a list of acts that they have to rehearse…” Scarry said. “The Swiss shelter system includes fallout practices four days each year as well as an assignment of highly specified acts sufficient to keep its population alive…and the U.S. Constitution, specifically Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 and the Second Amendment calls for Congress to deliberate in times of war, a constitutional act of practicing for the greatest matter in going to war.” Scarry cited these and many other real life and literary examples as making an important correlation between thinking, habit and the kind of action needed to navigate emergencies.
“Admittedly, there are many problems with emergencies,” Scarry said toward the close of her lecture. “We have to practice for it without, hopefully, having need of the practicing. Also, the only way of practicing is via self-inflicted drill, which feels unpleasant. And third, we imagine that it’s taking place outside will and ethics.”
“However, classical Greek, Anglo-American and literary theorists have all seen habit as a powerful tool of cognition,” she said in conclusion.
Turning the discussion over to her audience, Scarry fielded questions from professors and students across disciplines, answering probing questions related to cultural habits through the media, problematic habits exhibited in decisions related to nuclear war and the role of habit in military training.
Leaving every member of the audience in awe of her thorough and poignant understanding of philosophy, history, law and the human experience, Scarry left minds animated with answers to some questions and questions to old answers.