Fishing has been used in both film and literature as a backdrop for coming-of-age stories (e.g. A River Runs Through It), musings on manhood, and existential fables. But these fishing-as-life metaphors sometimes become trite, losing their significance.
My guest today wanted to write a book about fishing that explores the philosophical but does so in a fresh and more nuanced way. He wanted to write a book about fishing that’s not about fishing. And I think he did a darn good job.
His name is Mark Kingwell, and in his book Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life, he shares the story of his acquired love for fly fishing and uses it as the context within which to explore themes of masculinity, boredom, procrastination, and more. Today on the show Mark and I discuss the beauty of the perfect fly cast and how it relates to the philosophical debate of form vs function, why doing things with “style” is an important part of manliness, and what fishing can teach us about the active vs. contemplative life.
- The childhood experience that made Mark hate fishing
- How Mark went from “fishing is stupid” to absolutely loving it as an adult
- What it is about fishing that lends itself so well to philosophy
- What the fly cast can teach us about the question of form vs. function
- How to not philosophically fetishize sport
- What fishing and falconry can teach us about the relationship between masters and slaves
- The macho-dandyist masculinity of Canadian men
- The attractiveness of sprezzatura in men
- Why men who don’t even fish can appreciate a well-stocked tackle box
- What exactly boredom is and how it can be a good thing
- How boredom is connected to procrastination
- How fishing provides an opportunity to think through the philosophical issues of boredom and procrastination
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton
- How to cast a dry fly
- Trying Not to Try
- John Gierach
- A.J. McClane
- Soren Kierkegaard
- Charles Cotton
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
- Phenomenology of Spirit
- Homo faber
- The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (where Heidegger discusses boredom)
- John Perry and structured procrastination
If you’re an angler, you’ll certainly enjoy reading Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life. Even if you’re not a fisherman, you’ll get a lot out of the philosophical insights Mark brings to the table on issues of masculinity, boredom, and procrastination.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast.
Fishing has been used as a backdrop in literature, film, about finding meaning in life, coming of age stories, a river runs through it comes to mind. Often times these fishing as life metaphors that are made become tropes, they are tropes, consequently they lose some of their significance.
My guest today wanted to write a book about fishing that is not about fishing to cess out a broad range of philosophical ideas and just life ideas without making fishing trite or making it a trope. I think he did a good job with it. His name is Mark Kingwell. He is a Professor of Philosophy at The University of Toronto and his book is called Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life.
In this book Mark explores or shares his growing love of trout fishing that he developed as an adult and explores a broad range of topics including masculinity, boredom, procrastination, the active versus the contemplative life and, you know, what we can possibly learn from fishing and what fishing might teach us about these sorts of things.
Anyways, we have a fascinating conversation where we discuss fishing, manliness, why style is an important aspect of manliness, the philosophy of boredom and contemplation and also the philosophy of procrastination. It is a really in-depth, broad conversation. I think you are going to like it. If you are a fisherman you will certainly like it. Even if you aren’t an angler you will get something out of this podcast, give you something to chew on and think about.
Without further ado, Mark Kingwell. Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life. After you listen to this show make sure you check out the show notes for links to resources we’ve mentioned so you can explore these topics even more at aom.is/kingwell.
Mark Kingwell, welcome to the show.
Mark Kingwell: Hi, thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: I read your book Catch and Release. Really interesting book. It dovetails philosophy with fly fishing but before we get into the book can we talk a little about your background? You’re a philosophy professor. I’m curious what is your area of focus in your work as a philosophy professor.
Mark Kingwell: I’m a philosophy professor at The University of Toronto and most of my academic work is in political theory. I write about issues like social justice and distribution things and things like that. I also write a lot about philosophy of art and architecture so I have kind of branched out into urbanism and the built environment but I see those also as kind of the basic political theory of investigation. This book, the fishing book, is obviously off to one side from those scholarly interests.
Brett McKay: Right. I’m curious what caused you to write about fishing? You talk about in the book, as a child, you weren’t really fond of fishing and that you had to be seduced by it later in life.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah, I actually had some early scarring experiences with respect to fishing. In fact, literally scarring. This one that I recount in the book, my father was an avid fisherman, a spinner and he used to take me and my brothers out basically as helpers, you know, as factotums, to fetch and carry things.
I remember one trip on Prince Edward Island where we were living at the time, he was in the Air Force and he was stationed there, and he had forgotten his tackle box in the car so he sent me back to get it. Trying to be compliant I ran back and was running back to where he was standing on the bank of this little lake and I tripped and fell. In the process of falling smashed the tackle box open and the rolled down into this kind of ditch and rolled down all of these triple double barred hooks and lures and various things became entangled in my fall. I couldn’t actually, literally, I remember this, I couldn’t move without something digging more deeply into some part of my body. I was lying there yelling for help and he came over and was thoroughly disgusted by my incompetence. That was an early experience with fishing that didn’t leave a good impression.
The book is actually a lot about my father and my brothers. Later in life, much later, I was actually living in New York. I was on sabbatical from my teaching job here and my younger brother organized this trip to go fishing in British Columbia. We, my brothers and I and my father all lived in different cities around North America so this was an opportunity. Our father is getting older, in his seventies now in his eighties, so I thought yeah I will make the effort and go on this trip even though I won’t be into the fishing I’ll do it as a good son kind of thing and maybe enjoy the fellowship.
It turned out, and this is really what the book is about. It turned out that I love fly fishing and it has become one of the chief joys of my non-working life since then.
Brett McKay: It’s funny because one chapter you have is that it’s called … You say fishing is stupid. It is just bluntly stated. You also talk about how golfing is stupid too which I thought was funny as well. Why did you think fishing was stupid and at what point did you start thinking it is not so stupid after all?
Mark Kingwell: I think I thought fishing was stupid for all the reasons that most non-anglers do. When you look at it from the outside, if you remember, even once you become a king fisherman if you take one step back there is something absurd about this project. There are different kinds of stupidity, I guess I should try to be analytical about it.
There is the stupidity of the kind of overbearing technology heavy bass fisherman, maybe professional, which is really kind of a mastery of nature through the force of technology and aggression. There is really no art to that. You are catching a lot of bass that you’re not going to eat anyway and you waive them and win some kind of contest. I think that strikes a lot of people as kind of stupid.
Then there is the other side of it which is on the far end of fly fishing the kind of self-conscious anesthetization of the experience where, again, you are maybe fishing catch and release so you aren’t even going to eat the fish. You’re doing it all as a self-indulgent art form, I guess, of some kind. I thought that was stupid too. Even just the basics, you know, why are we using these tiny pieces of tackle to try to land fish, even if we are going to eat them, there are surely more efficient ways of going about it.
I just, from the outsiders point of view, I just couldn’t understand why people would find this so interesting and even something that they were passionate about. Then something gets inside you and I think it is like learning to, say, appreciate baseball if you go from being a non-fan to being a fan or a different context cricket or some game that isn’t obviously brutally appealing like American football or boxing or something that has a crude physical appeal, instead depends on a certain amount of abstraction and conceptual play.
I started to see fishing in that light and then I thought this is actually a natural extension of my day job as a philosopher. This is what I do is conceptual play and so now I am doing it alongside this physical activity which is insinuated or fine tuned to a point where it almost doesn’t matter whether you catch the fish. It is all about the performance. I know that sounds kind of goofy if you are not an angler but I think if there are any anglers who are hearing this I think they will almost certainly relate to that immediately.
Brett McKay: I think it is interesting. We talked about how … I mean, you’ve already touched on how fishing lends itself to philosophy a bit because it is sort of this combination … We can get into this later, of contemplation but activity at the same time. What I think is interesting is that you quote these anglers from these seventeenth century books on fishing and like they are very philosophic about fishing, and sometimes esoteric even. It as interesting. Is that why fishing lends itself to philosophy is it is both contemplative and active at the same time?
Mark Kingwell: I think that is is a huge part of it. When you look at the tradition the tradition is vast and deep of thinking and writing about fishing in both western and eastern philosophical and literary streams. It is a key part of Confucius thought, for example. You see Confucius often depicted as a fisherman and the idea of being a fisher in the Christian tradition, the fisher of men, and how the apostles were fisherman and then into the period that you mentioned. In England, especially during the period of the English civil war, Issac Walton, who writes The Complete Angler which is probably the most famous book about fishing, certainly in English and maybe period.
When you read The Complete Angler what you realize is that Walton sets the standard because it is not a book really about fishing, although there is plenty of fishing advice in there, some of it kind of bizarre and archaic. He used little balls of dough as bait and you can still see kids doing that when they are throwing the hook over a reservoir or something. A lot of it is about the changing nature of England, about politics and culture. What you get with Walton especially is kind of a crystallization of this combination of contemplation and action where yeah fishing is an activity but it is also something that opens up the space of thought.
Since you spend a lot of time not so much waiting for things to happen but kind of waiting, opening, or clearing in which things are possible. In that clearing, of course, you know the endpoint might be crudely put hooking a fish but there is also a lot of other things going on there because, after all, we are complex creatures and our consciousness is restless. I think that is what started to appeal to me also.
Then there are other things, to go back to my baseball comparison, there is a lot of repetition especially in the cast in fly fishing for example. In the cast itself, I write a lot about this in the book, the cast becomes almost a performance that has it’s own intrinsic value as you perfect your cast or nobody really is perfect but as you try to get better at it. It is a bit like taking grounders and throwing to first. There is a sort of … You want to build up the muscle memory and make it almost a kind of thing of beauty in its own right. That then becomes interesting. That is a kind of, I don’t know what to call it. Then like is too cliché but making yourself more automatic and exploring that relationship within your own mind between reflection and automatically is just endlessly fascinating to me.
Brett McKay: I thought your section about the fly cast was interesting, that … It is that age old question of form versus function, right? Can something be both beautiful and useful at the same time?
Mark Kingwell: Yeah, yeah and of course it is beautiful in sense that a better cast is a more accurate and longer cast but a lot of times, you know, you can get your fly where it needs to be in a very ugly way. There are ugly casters out there, lots of them, and I’m sure I was one for a long time. I like to think I am a little better now.
Then when you start to appreciate just the art of the cast all by itself it is not that the instrumentality falls away. I mean, obviously you’re still trying to get the fly to be somewhere in particular in a certain manner, especially if it is a dry fly you want it to be light on the water as if it were a real insect.
The experience of it, the physical experience of it is quite, I don’t know, beautiful really, from the inside. It has that quality of a certain sort of, I don’t know, transcendent I guess of feeling that you are beyond trying. I think this is another kind of philosophical aspect of this and this is more maybe doubt than then. If you try too hard with the cast you will muck it up because you will push too hard, usually on the rod. That is one of the common errors. You have to let the cast cast itself and you’re the agent but not the controller so this is very interesting is you spend a lot of time on the water working on that.
Brett McKay: So you’re trying not to try?
Mark Kingwell: Yeah, exactly, yeah and that paradoxicality is really something that you can see reflected in lots of those kinds of activities. You’re thinking but you’re trying not to think too much because if you over think or over try that way life is a disaster. There is a purity there. There is a sweet spot that you are trying to get to, put yourself in position to experience that. It is really quite wonderful.
Brett McKay: Mark you had this one section in your book that I thought was interesting because often times with fishing or sports in general there is this tendency to make analogies to life, right? Here is this lesson we can get from fishing to apply to our life directly or this is what fishing represents and sometimes we fetishize it philosophically fetishize it. How do you strike that balance between just appreciating the fishing for what it is, because it is just fishing, but at the same time making room for that, I don’t know, that intellectual play that you’re talking about?
Mark Kingwell: Yeah this is a really interesting question. I guess maybe in a way it is a meta question because when I was thinking, after that first trip I mentioned to British Columbia about writing about the experience, I talked to an editor at one of the national papers here in Canada, the National Post and I said I’m really not sure about this because isn’t this, especially after a river runs through it and there is this vast literature on trout fishing, especially fly fishing. Isn’t it almost like an enclosed space that you can’t enter without falling into cliché? The worst kind of cliches, like forced significance kind of thing where we find life lessons on the water and so on.
She said no, look at the really good stuff and not that I think my stuff is anywhere near this but if you read McClain or if you read Thomas McGwayne for example some of the John Gear acts, some of the great contemporary writers about fishing it is just like anything, you know? How do you write about sex without making it seem once cliched and overblown? How do you write about relationships, love, family? It is the challenge that every writer faces about every subject, really. It is back to the drawing board in a good way and yeah you have to avoid all of the kind of common errors of saying well there is you can immediately track fishing over to significance in this, you know? Whatever. Anglers make better business decisions or something silly like that.
Once you get past that kind of thing then you are in the interesting territory where you are challenging yourself and saying how do I describe in words and in experience which is entirely without words and try to find some ways to convey what is interesting and beautiful about it without falling into any sort of ham fisted correspondence theory. I think that is the challenge. That is why I haven’t done a lot of fishing writing since the book. I’ve done some and each time I try to make sure that I approach it as if for the first time and avoid all that too literal kind of temptation.
Brett McKay: Right. They kind of take a Kierkegaard-ian indirect approach.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah, yeah, I guess that kind of …
Brett McKay: I remember writing about his indirect communication lately so it made me think of that. I thought there was another interesting section about … You talk about one of the writers. I think it was the same one from the seventeenth century talks, has like this parable between a fisherman and a falconer. I thought it was interesting. You kind of use this to explore Hagel’s idea between the relationship between master and slave. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mark Kingwell: Yeah in the original version actually there is a fisherman, a falconer, and a hunter and it is an extended meditation that has become a kind of classic trope in the literature about human kinds relationship to nature through these different outdoor pursuits and Isaac Walton following, Cotton says, argues persuasively that angling is the most satisfying. The superior among those three because it is the one that is freest and most open so both the falconer and the hunter are using other animals in nature against nature so the falconer is using the falconer, the hawk, to whatever. To bring down rodents or to demonstrate the fact that the hawk can be trained and the training is everything in falconry.
Falconry, I should say, by the way I find fascinating and beautiful. My younger brother, who is responsible for these fishing trips is also a falconer and I talk about that a little bit in the book and that is quite amazing to me. Walton says that the falconer and the hunter, the hunter is using dogs as was traditional in the time that he was writing. Nowadays hunters use weapons only, I guess. I suppose they could use retrievers but anyways in both cases both the hunter and the falconer are using elements of control and mastery so the Hagelian point is famously in the phenomenology of spirit Hagel writes that one of the key stages of development in consciousness is realizing that when you are the master of the slave in a relationship of dominance, any relationship of dominance and submission, actually it is the slave position that holds the real power because it is what defines the master as master. Therefore the master is golden to the slave in a curious way because can only fulfill that identity and so far as the slave is present.
Hagel suggests that, at this moment, we start to realize that these sort of relationships of dominance and submission are fundamentally limited and we have to pass over into more equal and equally recognizing forms of relationship. I mean, that might seem a bit of a stretch but I think it is really a pointent insight because in so far as we try to master things or try to do things for us we are ourselves mastered. We are our tools of our own tools and there is something that needs to be acknowledged about this and too frequently isn’t and simply in a performance of instrumental control.
Whether that really means fishing is superior I don’t know. I’ve known lots of anglers who are kind of enthralled to their own gear but at least, you know, there is no issue there of training something or dominating something. It is more like the rod and the line are extensions of themselves and maybe there is something a little more freeing, a little more pure in that but anyway it is an occasion for an argument which I think is the key point.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought there was a poignant scene when you talk about how your younger brother when he tried to train his first falcon and things were going well and, like you said, he depended upon the falcon to do the hunting for him and venturously that one day the falcon left, right? It’s showing that dependence, right? He depended upon that falcon.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah it is was really, I mean, it was a vivid memory that I have because it is hard to credit now because the suburbs around this city are so built up. We used to drive out into the near countryside from our suburban townhouse and catch these wild kestrels and he would try to train them.
The first time we did it he was premature. We were young. I think he was, I think thirteen or fourteen and I was sixteen or seventeen and yeah he got into this … I’m sure many falconers have a version of the story where he tried to get too much out of this bird too soon and it didn’t return to his fist, his glove and sort of, at first, perched on a power line in the backyard of our house and stood looking at him. He had the little chunk of raw meat on the glove. That’s how you get the birds to come to you and it looked, and it looked, and it looked and he stood out there and eventually tears were streaming down his face, just this sense of futility because he couldn’t get the bird back. Eventually it flew away and it is, I mean, to me it is a great story in so many ways because, can you imagine, there aren’t that many places left where suburban kids can actually do that kind of thing.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Mark Kingwell: Then this really deep thing about, you know, nature is nature. You can overmaster. You can overpower through training the natural instincts of a wild animal but it will always be a wild animal and there is something really worth remembering in that.
Brett McKay: So Mark besides taking us down paths with Heidingler and Hagel in your book you also talk about masculinity in fishing and using fishing as sort of a platform to talk about that. One section I thought was really interesting is you talk about Canadian masculinity.
I’m American so I have my kind of idea of masculinity and we’re not too far, you know, culturally we are not that much different but I’m curious what do you think are some of the differences between American manliness and Canadian manliness? I think a lot of people imagine Canadians as lumberjacks playing hockey, you know, typical manly things but is there a subtle difference between the two?
Mark Kingwell: I make these generalizations in a spirit of fun, I hope.
Brett McKay: Right, of course, yeah. Yeah sometimes people get too serious with stuff, but yeah.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah this isn’t sociology.
Brett McKay: Right, gender studies.
Mark Kingwell: I think one of the things that struck me and has always struck me about the men that I know, even the most macho men that I know is yeah you’ve got this kind of lumberjack hockey player thing and then there is this weird kind of sweetness and almost dandyish quality which goes along with that. You hear stories about say Canadian soldiers in the second world war being notoriously ferocious but also pussycats when they were, you know, off the battlefield and I think there is something that, at least in our own self image, Canadians cherish this idea that yeah we can be as tough as nails when we want to but basically we are all just nice guys next door.
Plus increasingly, in recent years anyway, this dandyish quality, this trait that we now call lumber sexual vision of the bearded hipster. Not that bearded hipsters aren’t found everywhere, I guess we are but I don’t know. It struck me and I told a couple of stories and I tell a couple of stories in the book about exchanges between Canadian men where there is something almost homoerotic or what is the word? I mean kind of, I don’t know, flirty which may sound weird and without any losses of masculinity or manliness taking on a different part of the spectrum of manly behavior.
I am fascinated by this and I know you guys are because I know the podcast. What is manliness? What is virility? These are really interesting questions that keep getting to be framed and I think we are well beyond sort of crude notions of machismo, especially in current realities when you look at partly the hipster thing partly just the changing norms of what it means to look up to somebody as a male ideal, you know?
Barack Obama, say, is to many people doesn’t seem manly enough because he is not tough talking, you know? He’s not brutal. On the other hand, for many people, I think he is a paragon of manliness because of his other virtues. I think this is really interesting debate and we keep having to figure it out.
Brett McKay: Right.
Mark Kingwell: There is not one answer.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it has been going on for a long time, for centuries. Millennia.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah absolutely.
Brett McKay: Going back to this kind of dichotomy, this continuous battle between being virile and full of vigor but at the same time this dandy or fastidiousness, right? There is this point where too much fastidiousness, like too much emphasis on your clothes or how you look and it is unseemly in men for some reason, even I think in women as well. Why is that? Why do we find that when men are too over concerned with their appearance that we are like oh, I don’t know? I don’t know about that.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah. It is really interesting question. In the book I talk about sprezzatura which is this great concept in Italian history and culture, especially as a norm for renaissance Italian cultures or gentlemen. Sprezztura captures something really important and I have said, you know, it is a fine careless or making things that are hard look easy. It is not just high spiritedness it is more like the kind of elegance where you don’t call attention to what it took to execute something or to look good. You just do it.
I think a lot of people just admire that and if, by contrast, you are primping and preening in a way that is to call attention to what is going on. That fails the test of fine carelessness. It is exhibiting the care rather than the careless and that I think strikes people as pushing it in a different direction.
The actual self presentation, in one sense, might be the same. Two men and two beautiful suits. One wears it the way that Kerry Grant wears it, as if he just put it on that morning and didn’t think about it too much and the other one is, you know, constantly checking his cuff making sure they are, whatever, one and a half inches below the jacket sleeve and, you know, things like that.
I think that just strikes us as unseeingly because it seems like you’re not really concerned with what you are there to be concerned with. You’re not there to be useful, to be of service or to be present socially. You’re only there kind of in your own mind.
Brett McKay: Right.
Mark Kingwell: Maybe that is the root of this.
Brett McKay: That goes back to the fly cast, right? You want to make it look great but you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard to make it look great.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah that is exactly right and I can tell you I am on fly fisherman, watching other people cast is as much a judge of character as anything that you can imagine. Certainly like the way golfers watch each other. Golf is regulatory of character. The cast in fly fishing is exactly the same thing. Who is the guy who has the perfect double hull cast but makes it looks easy every single time, never calls attention to it? Who is the guy who is constantly, you know, shouting about how the cast is even when a long cast isn’t what is required? Who is the duffer who, you know, somehow manages to toss a line out despite everything?
Every single person reveals themselves when they do that and I think it is really part of the fun actually of being, you know, with other people fishing.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah manliness you kind of hit on in the book is kind of doing things but then doing things like doing them well. Doing them with a little bit of flair.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah, and I don’t think we should ever underestimate this. That pleasure in doing things well and especially if you can achieve that really that pinnacle of doing something well and making it look easy. I mean, really, it is that tradition of thinking. It is not just male thinking. It has been dominated by male voices, you know? Hemingway’s Grace Under Pressure, you know …
Brett McKay: Odysseus, right? Or Achilles? Yeah. It goes back to them.
Mark Kingwell: Yeah, to be a clever problem solver, to get where you are going against all obstacles, to do all of these things and to be stylishly engaged in that. I mean, we all strive for this I think.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What is it about fishing that allures men? Like I don’t fish, I’m not a regular fisher but I like the idea of fishing for some reason. The image of it, like fishing gear. I don’t fish but I can appreciate a well stocked tackle box for some reason. What is it? What’s going on there do you think?
Mark Kingwell: Part of it you put your finger right on it and that is gear. I think we should never, once again, we should never underestimate the male fascination with gear and just the idea of having tools for a specific job and having the right thing for the right purpose and then to use them skillfully. It is the pleasure you take whether it is for yourself or someone else. You can watch somebody, I don’t know, fix a kitchen leak with the right tools and admire the skill of applying the tools in that situation.
To extend it further you watch soldiers fighting, for example, and the way that they use their gear and keep their gear in the condition that it has to be because their lives depend on it. There is something really intrinsic to our homofabor identities, or our existences as users of tools.
The gear itself becomes a big thing and, again, I think you can overdo this. I recently counted how many rods I have in my collection and I’m embarrassed to say it is now up to seventeen. Clearly, well I think it is clear, I don’t really need seventeen different rods but they are all different lengths, they are all different weights, and they all have specific purposes that I might, one day, put them to use. Of course I have hundreds and hundreds of flies and reels and lines and there is something just kind of fascinating and beautiful about that too, you know?
For me, when I look at my own history, the hobbies that I used to pursue and I was really into scale modeling and I was really into other things where you making small objects using very, very particular kinds of skill. This just seems like a natural extension. It would be the same thing if I, you know, I don’t do auto repair or hot rodding but you can imagine somebody who is really into that for just the same reasons to have that well stocked tool chest and be able to strip down a car or an engine and create something. I think that is really basic.
Fishing adds … Of course the other thing that it adds is the outdoors element. That is pretty atomistic for us. The smell of the campfire, the lake water, the sky, seeing the rain come in over the edge of the lake, all of that stuff is really powerful, at least in my imagination.
Brett McKay: Right. A lot of folks don’t like fishing because they say it is boring but you argue that is not such a bad thing. That is one of the appeals of fishing. How can boredom be a good thing?
Mark Kingwell: I’ve written a lot about boredom both before and since the fishing book. I’m really, I’m one of those watchers who find boredom mostly fascinating. You mentioned Heidinger earlier. Heidinger has one of the greatest discussions of boredom ever and, you know, you can take that as a starting point where what is happening in boredom is some failure of desire so we are not being satisfied in some way and that kind of chasm opens up under our feet.
In this condition there is the possibility of a kind of existential crisis and self examination. Why am I bored? What is it to be bored? Why do I find the world unrewarding at this particular moment? I think that is really deeply profoundly indicative of the human condition.
Boredom is sort of ever present. If you think about all of the things we do on a daily basis to distract ourselves from being bored, keeping ourselves occupied and stimulated, what is that we are so afraid of? It seems to me that we are afraid of those moments where we don’t have anything in particular to do. We don’t have a desire that is specific but we have a desire for a desire, a wish for a desire as a psychoanalyst once put it. That is really, you know, that is something very serious about who we are and what we’re like. We are desiring machines.
We rarely reflect upon the structure of our own desires and we spend a lot of time trying to satisfy this specifically. It is in those moments when we don’t have a specific one, when we feel like we are at a loss, that may be the most serious, the most indicative things about us are reveled. Yeah, I am … I think boredom is something that we should pay a lot more attention to and if people think that fishing is boring then so much the better.
I do say in the book I have never felt bored when I was fishing. I thought I would, but I actually didn’t and that was the first indication to me that maybe this was going to be something that I was passionate about. I would have welcomed it as boring, for the reasons that I just said but it turned out that it wasn’t boring for me.
Brett McKay: Tell me, you also talk about procrastination. How is boredom and procrastination linked?
Mark Kingwell: Well there is sort of, a little bit of technical analysis but the basic idea is imagine that you have two orders of desire. The first order of desire are the ones that are active. I want something, I do something about that wanting.
Then there is a second order which is your attitude in respect to those first ordered desires. In normal situations those two orders are aligned. I want something at the first order and at the second order I want to want that. I’m okay with that and so, I don’t know, I’m hungry. That means I want to eat something and at the second order it’s okay to be hungry. I’m happy to be hungry because I know it is good for my body to feed itself.
Then sticking with the food, suppose I have a first ordered desire for an ice cream cone after I just ate a huge lunch. I have the desire but at the second order I don’t want to have it. I would rather feel like I didn’t want an ice cream because I know it is bad for me with the unnecessary calorie.
There is a conflict between first and second order. I’ll extend that over that that basic analysis. Boredom is a condition in which there is no first ordered desire. I don’t know what I want. There is a second ordered desire that I should have a first ordered desire so that the conflict now is not between a desire that I have that I don’t want to have but rather between a desire I don’t have but wish I did have.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Mark Kingwell: Once again we feel a painful experience. Procrastination is an interesting thing where, again, it is very close to boredom in some ways. I don’t have a first ordered desire to say fill out my tax return, but of course I do have the second ordered desire that I did want to fill out my tax return because I know it is against the law not to file one.
All of these things have really interesting infinities and sorting out very, very interesting but common experiences according to this metric is really the kind of thing that philosophers do. To me it is very interesting because it reflects on real life with tools that maybe can help us understand ourselves a little better. I’m not a procrastinator, by and large, but I do feel, like a lot of people feel, that first ordered desires that I don’t want to have. I’m not to the point of addiction. That would be an extreme version of that, right? I want the heroin but I know I shouldn’t want the heroin.
We all feel different conflicts between those first and second orders. Very rare is the person who’s first ordered desires and second ordered desires are consistently and constantly aligned. It is much more common … I think most of us know some version of some kind of conflict or contradiction between those orders.
Brett McKay: That was really fascinating. I guess if that is the case then most people have this conflict it is just part of human existence maybe we shouldn’t beat ourselves up so much about procrastinating.
Mark Kingwell: Well yeah, I agree with that. In fact, like boredom, it seems to me that procrastination is rich territory for philosophical reflection but also self reflection. Why, if I’m a procrastinator, why am I a procrastinator? What is going on there?
Then there are other … I’ve written a lot about this again before and since the fishing book. Are their ways to overcome it? Well clearly the most effective way to overcome procrastination is to do something else.
The philosopher John Perry has written about what he calls structured procrastination. If the thing I am supposed to be doing is filling out my taxes there is no way in the world I’m going to be able to do that just through sheer force and will at the second order. If that were true I would have done it already. What I should do instead, some other useful thing for which I have no conflict, so you know maybe now is the time to do the laundry or the dishes or, you know, work in the yard because though it is not the thing I am supposed to be doing it is at least a useful thing to do and I don’t have any conflict around that at the moment. The moment I do have a conflict, the moment I don’t want to be working in the yard, well maybe that is when I can sort of slide over and do my taxes.
There are a lot of tricks that you can do on yourself, really to make yourself, frankly happier and less conflicted and self punishing about these things because they really are basic to our condition as desiring agents.
Brett McKay: How does this tie into fishing? This high level stuff we have been talking about with boredom and procrastination. Is there some way that fishing the activity itself sort of, you know, solves these problems? Like it kind of cuts through them and you don’t have the issues of boredom and procrastination?
Mark Kingwell: I don’t think it solves them, no. I do think, for me anyway, and this is what I kind of hope to achieve. I know it is part of the book. It is an opportunity to think it through. It is like any kind of philosophical though experiment. It uses something that is easily comprehensible, something from everyday life, to try to draw a larger conclusion.
I think that, most of all, this reflection on our condition as desiring agents or entities is really something that a lot of the extant literature, especially the self help literature and things that people often turn to. Even the therapeutic stuff, when people turn to these things they often don’t have or they don’t get the philosophical references they need to really plunge more deeply into it and have deeper insights about their own problems.
I’m not saying fishing is therapy but there is something in this peculiar activity, this non activity, this combination of action and contemplation that does open up the space for thought. For me, anyway, it has been really illuminating. That is what I hope to share in writing about it.
Brett McKay: Well Mark this has been a great conversation. We scratched the surface of it. We got deep in some parts. I would love to … Where can people find out more about your work?
Mark Kingwell: There is a page on the University of Toronto’s Department of Philosophy website. You can just Google my name Mark Kingwell K-I-N-G-W-E-L-L to get to there. Most of my books are available on Amazon.com or other online sites if people want to check out my written work.
I should say this, this might be a long shot but the French translation of Catch and Release, the fishing book we have been talking about, is coming out this fall so if anybody would like to read French it will be there.
Brett McKay: Awesome, well Mark Kingwell, thank you so much for your time. It has been a pleasure.
Mark Kingwell: Oh, pleasure is mine, thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Mark Kingwell. He is the author of the book Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life. It is available on Amazon. Com and bookstores everywhere. Check out his other books. He has written extensively about boredom and procrastination. Really fascinating topics, the sort of philosophy of it. You can find those on Amazon as well.
Make sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/kingwell for links to resources we mentioned throughout the show so you a dig deeper into these topics.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com and if you enjoyed this show I’d appreciate it if you would give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That will help spread the word about the show. As always, I appreciate your continued support and, until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 4, 2017