William S. Hamrick

Department of Philosophy – Southern Illinois University

William S. Hamrick, Kindness and the Good Society: Connections of the Heart. SUNY Press, 2002.

It is a privilege and a pleasure to present the 2004 Ballard Prize to William S. Hamrick for his book Kindness and the Good Society: Connections of the Heart, published in 2002 by SUNY Press.

This work is steeped in the language and concerns of Merleau-Ponty, Marcel, Ricoeur, Levinas, Dufrenne, and Werner Marx, but is by no means confined to an exposition—or even an integration—of the theories of others. Instead, the author offers, first, an original phenomenological description of the phenomenon of kindness, supported not only by examples drawn from his own experience and from current social events, but by examples drawn from the arts, notably literature. Next, he complements the descriptive move with a hermeneutics of suspicion designed to reveal how hidden interpretive frameworks covertly shape the ways in which we experience and recognize kindness. Yet he does not merely invoke such suspicion in order to “destabilize” descriptions, undermining their findings by revealing their limits; rather, he assigns the hermeneutic move a positive role, employing it in service of a critique of the social world itself.

The result is an original thesis of “critical kindness” as a practical wisdom. Here kindness does indeed function as a regulative ideal. However, it must be constantly tempered with critical questioning, along with a vigilant readiness to rethink social institutions and cultural assumptions. In this way, a life of kindness does not naively accept or reinstate a ready-made world of anesthetized sensitivities, but helps to make community possible by actively creating it, just as an artist creates a work of art—an activity guided by, but irreducible to, inherited rules and frameworks. According to Hamrick, then, kindness itself can thus be understood as a kind of “performance art” requiring the utmost situational sensitivity—a discerning “poetics of the will,” guided by the principle of informed respect and sustained by a commitment “to bring goodness into being within what well-founded suspicion reveals as the limits of one’s situations” (p. 253).

That a book can not only bring such a possibility into view but make it seem a genuinely actualizable possibility—even in our current world—is an astounding achievement. For although we so often fall short of a true life of kindness, this book can at least help us to appreciate its dimensions, even while spurring us to accept its imperatives and inspiring us to rise to its occasions.