Do Philosophy, Don’t Study It

A note from the editor:

I’ve been trying to write this stupid fucking blog post for like a week now, and it’s just fucking shit.

The point of it is I like philosophy and I want you to like it too.
I want everyone to like it and do it because I think that would be good for us.

This one is heady, man. It's like a venn diagram, and I'm at the center! Shot on Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film.
This one is heady, man. It’s like a venn diagram, and I’m at the center!
Shot on Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film.

Philosophizing is not as difficult or high-brow or fucking whatever people make it out to be. It’s very simple and genuine at its core. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, the pursuit of the good life, and a constant state of wonder.
A good way to start is to question presumptions and conventions. For instance, is the word “fuck” a bad word? People say it is, but does that make it bad?

So that’s pretty much the TL;DR.
If you want the whole thing, here you fucking go:

I’m a big fan of philosophy.
It was my college major, but that’s an almost offensive way of describing what it is to me. I barely knew what philosophy was until I started taking courses in it, but at that point I realized I had already been doing it for years.

If you’ve taken any sort of philosophy class, you likely learned that, translated literally from the Greek (philosophia), philosophy means “love of wisdom.”
This definition is one part shit and one part dope. I still love it.
It sounds totally meaningless at first, but it’s also as clear as it gets. It really sets the stage for all the cliche-sounding, confoundingly simple statements we all normally associate with philosophers.

For the way philosophy unfolds in my life, I do think it is the best definition.
When I first started doing philosophy, which I might date to around 15 or 16 years of age, I was simply looking around at everything – school, my friends, teachers, my parents and their friends, the economic structure, and the seemingly guaranteed future of college followed by a high-paying office job and/or touring with the most kickass rock band ever (still might happen) – and asking why? or what for?
I was looking for answers as to why everyone seemed to concur there were appropriate and inappropriate careers and why there seemed to be certain ethics valued more than those explicitly taught in school and church. I also wondered why curse words were bad, suits were considered formal clothing while boardshorts were not… and what bark was made out of on a tree.

At the time, I might have said I was looking for the purpose of our human existence, but I think more accurately, I was wondering why we think what we’re already doing is good, especially in the context of the immense natural universe.
I was seeking the wisdom behind our actions as a society, and wondering if it was the wisest wisdom.

So when I began studying philosophy and we were dealing with “the ancients,” I was pumped. Socrates and the other Greeks were questioning propriety and convention, looking with wonder and inquisitiveness at every aspect of nature, and considering the best way to be a human among other humans in the natural world. It was like I was reading my own ruminations back to myself, but also getting the next, deeper level of questions, with or without answers. Every class I felt like I was plunging headfirst into an ocean of timeless wisdom.

This lasted for a semester, maybe two, then things started to change.

It caught me off-guard at first.
I didn’t notice what was happening, I just knew my classes were harder to sit through. I would doze off or get distracted by Facebook. The reading lost almost all of its appeal until I finally stopped doing it. (If you’re wondering how I completed a philosophy degree without reading, you’re not alone.)

I figured I had simply entered a doldrums – anything was bound to lose its luster after two, three, four consecutive semesters of exclusive study. I had finished all of my gen. eds. and there were no other courses to break up the monotony. It was philosophy and then philosophy, followed by philosophy. Of course I wasn’t pumped for every class.

Not a bad theory. But it didn’t fit.

I noticed there were still times when I’d perk up, asking questions and eagerly engaging in discussion, but they were surrounded by gulfs of boredom. What’s more, I noticed a growing sense of frustration and bitterness. I was starting to resent other students, my professors, even the philosophers themselves.

What I began to slowly piece together was that a shift had taken place in the subject matter. I was still studying philosophy, but it was different. I would say it was becoming too academic, but I couldn’t say what about that was so wrong. There was suddenly just too much focus on being correct.

It was like the philosophers we read were consumed with proving their own legitimacy. We learned how philosophical cliques arose from competing theories of reality or of how to think about reality. There were even questions of what were acceptable subjects for philosophical consideration. Even worse, some professors and other students seemed to buy in and followed suit.
People had very clearly chosen favorite philosophers/theories, and from those foundations, launched attacks on the ideas of others whenever they had the chance. Not surprisingly, these attacks were met with equal and opposite resistance. There were times when I almost expected tears, violence, or both. It was pretty laughable.
I could also see a growing sense of self-assuredness among many of my classmates with regards to how to seem philosophical. Big words became important. References to published philosophical theories or systems became important. Proof became important.
Simple, personal, unprovable statements (or unanswerable questions) would instantly discredit a speaker.

I hated it.

I recently came across this article on the New York Times blog written by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, two philosophy professors at the University of North Texas. It puts better words to my misgivings.
Entitled “When Philosophy Lost Its Way,” it expresses frustration with the results of the institutionalization and attempted purification of philosophy – namely, that philosophy was driven to a place of irrelevance, along with morals and wisdom.

In trying to cram philosophy into the box of a standalone, “serious” discipline, philosophy was stripped of its richness and impact:

Philosophy should never have been purified. Rather than being seen as a problem, “dirty hands” should have been understood as the native condition of philosophic thought — present everywhere, often interstitial, essentially interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature. Philosophy is a mangle. The philosopher’s hands were never clean and were never meant to be.

And in closing, they address one of my chief aggravations with being a philosophy major:

…philosophy has aped the sciences by fostering a culture that might be called “the genius contest.” Philosophic activity devolved into a contest to prove just how clever one can be in creating or destroying arguments… The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.

Academic philosophy has devolved into the same sort of elitism that plagues nearly every other pursuit. Setting off from an origin opposed to mindless convention, it has become its own collection of mindless conventions. It reminds me of art pieces that display such conscious intent on the part of the artist to create something intellectual or unique that they instead feel hollow and boring.

Interestingly, I read this article on Brain Pickings today about art haters. First of all, it includes this terrific quote by E. E. Cummings that I think just as aptly describes the philosopher: “The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.”
It also makes me feel like a hater in the context of this post I’m writing – am I just resisting the evolution of philosophy?

Sort of, but no.
The hater, at his/her most destructive, is the one who creates an environment in which misfits are excommunicated and new entrants are discouraged from even beginning. The hater here is the academic philosophical elite who, instead of broadly sewing the seeds of a practice most effective as a universal pursuit, obscure it behind superfluous stratification and compartmentalization.
It’s not the propagation of newer, more complex and abstract theories that irks me, it’s the disregard for the lowlier, messier business of philosophizing about everyday life. Worse, I think that’s why everyone else thinks philosophy is a bunch of mind-numbing bullshit, and so avoids it.

Philosophy is an everyman’s anytime pursuit.

It is a persistent returning to unbiased – without preconception – wonderment about all things. It is the pursuit of “the good life.”

Those are the next two simple definitions of philosophy one receives after “love of wisdom.” I love them too. Wonder and the pursuit of the good life are just so innocent and earnest.
Philosophy, at its core, is innocent and earnest.
It is not easy, but it needn’t be complicated.
It is concerned with the simplest foundational principles of all things.
It requires an unapologetic commitment to ideals, with a recognition of shortcomings; it is a commitment to improvement.

This is the other thing that really excites me about the article – it locks in on this “betterment” purpose of philosophy. Brodeman and Friggle are clear that the purpose of philosophy is (or at least was) to pursue morality – to uncover the good and clarify the shoulds and should-nots inherent to human knowledge.

Knowing and being good were intimately linked. It was widely understood that the point of philosophy was to become good rather than simply to collect or produce knowledge.”

I was always hesitant to put this burden on philosophy. After all, when you look at morality with the deliberately critical eye of the philosopher, it kind of looks like a joke.

It’s really tough to make an argument for the certainty of any moral/ethical system. The “whys” will always lead to a dead end. Even if you base everything off self-interest (i.e. It’s good to help others because we are all interdependent. By helping you, I help myself.), you can still end up in quandary – why should I help myself?
This is where the academic types wanted to make an assumption for the sake of developing a “reasonable” ethical system. I balked because every assumption has its flaw. Every system requires a leap of faith that would prevent its universal acceptance, which seemed the obvious goal.

But despite my unwillingness to search for morality by name, that was and is exactly the object of my philosophical venture.

The thing is, developing a system probably won’t ever work, because we’re all assholes and we hate being told what to do. But philosophy is focused on finding the best ideas behind everything.
Philosophy loves to bring up the sunk cost fallacy:
“This is the way it’s been done for hundreds of years!”
“So what? It fucking sucks.”

What we need is for everyone to do philosophy.

If we’re all committed to better ideas, I’m confident we can find common ground in concepts like these:
I’m no better than anyone else.
No one else is better than me.
I didn’t choose anything about my conditions (place, family, material situation) of birth, and so they say nothing about me.
Likewise, others didn’t choose their conditions of birth, so I can’t judge them on those grounds.
Any book written by humans, even one proclaimed to be holy, is probably flawed and biased.
I don’t like when people are shitty to me, so they probably don’t like when I’m shitty to them.
Et cetera.

From those, we might discover, on our own, moral guidelines on which we do in fact agree.

But anyway, go do philosophy.
You don’t need to study it to do it.
Go think about shit and question things and see if there’s a better way.
If it sounds crazy or goes against everything you’ve been taught, you might be on to something.

I’ll leave you now with a quote from another article on Brain Pickings (Dope website. Check it out.). This one is an exploration of certain entries in Alfred Kazin’s (I don’t know who that is either) journals. One entry talks about embracing contradiction – very philosophical. But here he talks about finding your own “‘sacred objects’ — catalysts for awe, which inspire the basic impulse to make art,” which I think can also apply generally to philosophizing and finding your own moral guide:

Without worship, without respect, without wonder, without the great work with which our wonder and awe plunge us, what is there — what?

But the “modern” epoch is precisely that in which each of us must discover our gods for ourselves. This is why so much in our language reverts to the idea of a fall, a descent. As Satan fell, to rise again as a prince of life, so we fall into this maelstrom, this madness — this world in which nothing any longer is given to us — to discover, in pain and awe, our own sacred objects.

Here are a few light readings that have enriched my philosophical/moral pursuits. You will notice only one is a philosophy class standard. I find reflections from “regular” people living “regular” lives to be a bit more compelling.

Plato: Five Dialogues
Just a classic. Socrates’ line about knowing what you do not know will always be a favorite.

Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford
Subtitled “An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” it explores the need to weigh perfection against reality, among other things. It also makes you want to quit whatever you’re doing and become a motorcycle mechanic.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
I think it’s reasonable to assume this inspired Shop Class as Soulcraft, though this is a bit more complex. It details both the author’s education in intuition via motorcycle maintenance, as well as his bouts of psychological fracture… and some other stuff. I need to re-read it.

A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean
Maybe you’ve seen the film version with Brad Pitt. It’s not bad, but it necessarily skips over much of Norman’s internal dialogue. It’s very zen, in much the way “Motorcycle Maintenance” is. It explores earned intuition and fosters wondrous appreciation for the wildness of life.

What are your thoughts?