End in Sight?

June 30, 2013

The “end in view” was a term of art for the American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey generally used the expression to make note of the difference between the purpose or goal that people have in mind at any given time and the further, larger or comprehensive ends that make action in pursuit of any well-defined goal meaningful. So when I go downstairs in the morning to make coffee, making coffee is my end-in-view, but making my coffee is imbricated in a matrix of broader and subtler purposes, many of which would be not only difficult for me to articulate, but which would probably surprise me, if they were articulated. I make coffee because I want to drink coffee. I drink coffee because doing so gives me a sense of well-being. It helps me wake-up, but it’s also part of my routine. I follow my routine because following a routine is something that people do pretty much without thinking, which is to say, without having any particular end-in-view. But breaking the routine is disturbing. Given the life I lead, I don’t have the luxury of waking up in the same building every morning, and I value my routine. I appreciate that other people might feel stifled or imprisoned by their routines, but they still might wake up with coffee as an end-in-view.

Dewey’s larger point was to debunk the idea of an “ultimate purpose” or a “final end”. Some philosophers have proposed elaborate theologies to argue for a particular vision of the ultimate purpose for human life while others have been content to assert that pleasure is the ultimate end, that all our purposes come down to achieving a certain feeling, if only for a while. Dewey would point out that even a mundane end-in-view like making coffee is not only embedded in more comprehensive and obscure ends, it entails a lot of subsidiary ends. I find the coffee pot (usually in the dishwasher), I fill it with water, I find my coffee beans (usually right on the counter in a little crock), I open the crock, I find my coffee measure, I measure out three scoops in my coffee grinder (Oops! I left out looking for or plugging in the grinder), I put the top on, I hold down the grind button (this takes effort) and I count to twenty-two by thousands (one one thousand, two one thousand, etc. etc.). And this description, which is threatening to drive both of my regular readers away from sheer boredom (and I hasten to add that any of my regular readers would ipso facto have a high tolerance for boredom), omits everything about pouring water from the pot to the machine, coffee filters or the possibility of being interrupted by the cat. All of these are subsidiary ends-in-view that get subsumed under making coffee. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while we are making other plans.”

Of course, this doesn’t prevent coffee from eventually getting made. Some things come to an end, and Dewey tended to talk about this coming-to-an-end sense of ends (as opposed to the purposive sense of ends) as “the consummatory moment.” Sounds much more significant than it generally is, but it’s truly important to concede that while we continue to plan and plan, some things ripen, consummate and then, probably sometime later, we recognize that their time has not only come, it’s actually gone. So it’s fairly rare that we notice or think much about a consummatory moment or and ending time much before it has already passed us by. All of which is a long-winded wind-up to my taking note of some ends-in-view and the eventual consummatory moment for the Thornapple CSA.

No, we’re not going away anytime soon, or momentarily, at any rate. We’re poised on the brink of our best season ever when it comes to harvesting and enjoying tasty summer vegetables. Short of that rapture that failed to occur about this time two years ago or at the crank of the Mayan calendar last December, we’ll be having fun all summer long. All those tasty greens and reds will constitute enormously satisfying ends-in-view for Thornapple shareholders over the next four months. But not being a mouthpiece for naïve optimism in general, I’m saying it’s time to consider whether this particular effort dedicated to the goal of sustainability is itself sustainable into the further future. If not, it’s less about the end in view than whether the end is in sight.

More to come.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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