The Rhetorical Which

Should we maximise our capabilities, based on our limits?

Or maximise our limits, based on our capabilities?

As to the basic message, here, I actually don’t see too much hair-splitting. Both are aimed at action constrained by circumstance. The difference, I think a lot of people would propose, is the optimism or pessimism found between the two phrases although, even saying that, I think we blend within ourselves attitudes from both.

As for me, I feel more given to the second phrase, maximising our limits based on our capabilities, for its seeming more empirical, more driven by circumstance. Let’s take stock of our resources, and get on with it. Limits that exist will obviously present themselves as obstacles or else, well, they wouldn’t exist. And not only can those limits be reached, maybe they can even be stretched or overcome. This then becomes the task, and thank goodness for capabilities – and there’s the blending. Even empiricists have that esoteric side.

In the first phrase, similarly, something must exist – capabilities – or else they wouldn’t exist! So they must be maximisible (a word I just invented) in a way that hasn’t yet been, well, maximised. The first phrase is all about potential, what could be, if we just find a way to maximise our capabilities. Fist pump, exclamation point. In the culture I’m most familiar with, I suspect people – at least initially – would consider this first phrase a kind of optimism.

Okay, maybe not, since its basis is limitation, and that hardly sounds all warm and cozy. Still… in the first phrase, limits are a mystery to be solved, a challenge to overcome, an adventure: you can do or be anything you want, if you just believe in things. Set some goals, too, obviously – you can’t just go through life living on hope alone. Maybe I’m giving myself away; remember, I feel more given to the second phrase.

If the first phrase is optimism, the second could only be blunt, blanketing, clinical pessimism. But, like I said, I think we tend to blend, and I know I seldom feel satisfied with polarised options. So, even feeling more given to the second phrase, I won’t call myself a pessimist or even lean in that direction. And, yes, that means I won’t call myself an optimist either. Regardless, as I feel more given to the second phrase, I feel good about it for a couple reasons… relying on my capabilities means I have them and can use them, exclamation point, which means my limits can be pushed and stretched and even overcome. Fist pump! In neither phrase is there any lack of opportunity. In fact, each leaves room for the other.

For me, optimism and pessimism aren’t found in phrasing. Sure, we can play with words and come up with ways to objectify our capabilities or our limits. We can arrange syntax a certain way and suggest some interpretations, as I’ve just been doing. But, like I said, the basic message in both phrases is simply action constrained by circumstance. Attitude, tone – these are traits, and traits we find in people. Words describe, and tools are helpful. But it’s people who do the living.

Life has got to be about the verb.

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Author: Scott Robertson

Scott is a Canadian school teacher, a doctoral candidate in Education, an avid gardener, and a football (soccer) coach. He is also a Dad. Scott worked in high school classrooms for 17 years, teaching mostly Secondary English. He describes learning as a continual renovation: intentional self-reflection aimed at personal growth, alongside people who share similar aims. At the core of his lessons is personal responsibility, an approach to living with integrity by adopting the habit of thinking. It's a blend of philosophy, literature, grammar, history, and science, all tied in a bundle by classical rhetoric. His students often described his approach to be unlike others they knew—mostly in a good way—which prepared them for post-secondary school and adulthood, citizenship, and whatever else. Outside the classroom, Scott has been coaching football (soccer) since 1990 and still enjoys playing, too, except when he’s too injured—then he tries to play golf instead.

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