The Order of the Ordinary
This semester I'm teaching a course titled "Philosophy of the Ordinary." The title is difficult to explain. It is as much the result of having to give something to the secretary before the deadline as it is of careful thought. For a while I worried that it would mislead students, or worse, be incomprehensible to them. But any title I would have come up with would probably have been equally misleading. So I made fliers and posted them around campus as well as on my door, hoping that would dispel some misunderstanding. I doubt that it did, but enough students showed up to make a good class. Perhaps the mystery of the title attracted them.
The point of the course is at least two-fold: to help them see supposedly ordinary things anew, as things in their own right, as things to be appreciated and savored; and to help them to understand supposedly ordinary life and work as valuable in their own right, as something to be enjoyed as giving meaning to life. We've read Martin Heidegger, Charles S. Inouye, Wendell Berry, Blake Hurst, Iris Murdoch, and Matthew B. Crawford; we will read Albert Borgmann, Margaret Kim Peterson, and Cynthia Ozick. All of them help us think about both sides of ordinariness, things and life.
When it comes to ordinary things, it is difficult even to see them, precisely because they are ordinary. They disappear among all the other ordinary things. Instead, what is extra-ordinary draws our attention. It calls to us and we seek it: strong passions like first love; spiritual highs indistinguishable from emotional ones; awe-inspiring sights culled from travel; exotic things, tastes, and smells now available to every middle-class consumer. If we wonder (the beginning of philosophy, Aristotle says), it is usually at the extraordinary. That fact is itself extraordinary, for why wonder about the exceptional rather than what is always everywhere with us? The answer is "Because it is always everywhere with us and, so, unnoticed."
As I said, that is the most obvious thing about the ordinary thing, its unobtrusiveness. It hides within its ordinariness. The computer on which I type rarely shows up in my purview as the individual thing that it is. Indeed, except in those times when it will not do what I expect it to, it shows up only as one of many possible computers, a stand-in, a place-holder in the order of things. The word ordinary suggests this aspect of things: they are ordinarius, ranged in regular order, so much so that they disappear and what I really encounter is the order of which they are part. I encounter the order in which the ordinary object is a placeholder for any similar object that could occupy its place.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.