Saturday, April 18, 2009

Philosophy (Part 1 of 3)

I just finished book I of “The Republic” after having a very stimulating conversation on politics over dinner. (Before I go on, and before you go on, read “The Republic.” I know it sounds scary. That’s why I waited. But I was stupid and don’t want you to make the same mistake. It’s a really great book.)

Anyways, the thought I had was on how deep conversation is perceived. I am often asked after I’ve had a particularly good discussion with another person, “So, did you get anywhere?” I’ve always been annoyed by this question, but kept it to myself because I assumed my questioner was right: philosophy doesn’t ‘progress’ in a straight line like most other fields. Often the conclusions of an hour of discussion land the discussants very close to where they started. I was usually embarrassed that we had not made much ‘progress’ towards solving the Problem of Governance in an hour as we would have if we were discussing a crossword puzzle (we might have even finished it).

But I do not think that way anymore. Because, as I have seen them, there are at least three good reasons why studying and discussing philosophy is a good idea. And don’t get tripped up on the word “philosophy” (“phileo” = love; “sophy” = wisdom); I mean discussing hard questions that don’t have easy answers. This covers everything from God’s existence to the wrongness of pirating music. Ultimately, what is the Good that we should pursue and the True that we should believe? These aren’t dry academic discussions about nothing for no end; they’re the essence and motivation of all our decisions. When I say ‘philosophy’ I don’t mean the class you took as a gen-ed requirement.

#1 Philosophy is good exercise
Imagine a race run in a circuit. The gun goes off, and the race begins. The fastest racers stay together, neck and neck, running hard for mile after grueling mile. Two pull ahead of the rest, sweating hard. Finally one of them, in a final exertion, gets ahead and wins the race. And then from the bleachers an onlooker, empty popcorn bag in hand, snipes to the winner, “So, did you get anywhere?” Such a question should be answered by something like, “No, ***hole, I didn’t. I just ran a ****ing race.” [1] This is sometimes how I feel when that question is posed to me after a good discussion. Someone who didn’t do any work presumes that the point of the exertion was to ‘get somewhere,’ and, seeing no ‘progress,’ mocks the waste of time and sweat.

Having a philosophical discussion makes you a stronger person. I got this idea from Francis Bacon who said, “So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt”[2]. He doesn’t see the mind as a muscle; it’s more like a body. There are multiple muscles that need exercising, and so different exercises for each. There is a part of our mind which reasons philosophically, and by exercising it, it gets stronger. Philosophical discussion about topics so big they won’t get solved are like dumbbells: not directly useful (though valuable, see #3), but weights which when lifted repeatedly, make a person strong for other, more useful endeavors (see #2).

[1] *** = ‘ant’ and **** = ‘frak’ above
[2] Francis Bacon's essay "On Studies": “Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast… So if a man's wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again … So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.” [As a side note, I love being able to remember three words in an essay I read two years ago that was written five centuries ago, typing them into Google, and then being presented with the entire essay in a matter of seconds.]

Part 1; Part 2; Part 3

1 comment: