The need for philosophy

I know I said I was taking a hiatus, but if you haven’t noticed, a few posts have been creeping up on the blog. I guess I’ve been looking for an outlet lately, and blogging provides an easy one. So while my clothes are in the wash, and I take a break from grading, I might as well post what’s on my mind.

I haven’t given much thought to the role of philosophy on this blog. I think my most extensive treatment was in this post, where I consider the paradox of “diseases of civilization” or here, where I reblog a cartoon about questions. But last week’s video from Oly at Philosophy Tube gave me pause.

Here’s the video:

I agree with Oly. If one wants to define philosophy as a critical enterprise, composed of rigorous thought, engaged discourse, and reasonable (generally logical) standards of judgement, philosophy has relevence. So does the philosophy of Seneca, Epicurus, and others that challenges assumptions and habits to live a happier, more meaningful life.

The only “philosophies” that may require skepticism are the “new age” assertions that often creep into philosophy sections at bookstores and the glib retorts that people may palaver while sipping a beer or answering a question on television.

I say these deserve skepticism because they generally do not police themselves. As Kant said, “I have set the bounds for reason to make room for faith.” Just so: we should see where reason ends and where faith begins. Faith, too, can be meaningful, but it is different from most “philosophy,” even the Eastern type, which has standards, self-criticism, and limitations.

I have little to add to Oly’s own thoughts–and little time to add anything–but I think two things are particularly important regarding even the most mundane and rudimentary philosophical thinking.

Continue reading “The need for philosophy”

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“Ain’t no reason things are this way”

I remember I heard the song “Ain’t No Reason Things Are this Way” in the documentary I Am. The documentary discusses how our negative view of human nature–that it is selfish, competitive, and violent–is too simplistic. Scientifically, argues the documentary, we have plenty of empathetic potential. For example, “mirror neurons” in our brain mimic the mental states of other people when we watch them, filling our own psyche with their feelings. That’s why we often tense up or clutch a limb when we see a video of someone else getting hurt.

With my students, we went over an article on Wednesday about Marxist critique. “I’m not a communist,” I joked with them. But, I stressed, the helpful thing with Marxist critique–and most critique in general–is that it challenges things that seem “normal.” Marxism challenges the view that consumption is good, for example. Critique forces us to question the “normative hubris” that habits bring: that our way of doing something must be the only way. Or maybe it’s the best way. Or maybe the least bad.

But that’s not always true. As Dennen’s song points out, “There Ain’t No Reason Things Are this Way” sometimes. Sometimes the force of habit and tradition keep us going–even when those habits and traditions lose validity or meaning, like a stalled car still rolling forward.

I’m not saying we should all study critical theory, like Marxism and feminism, but I think that–as Martin Heidegger often pointed out–asking questions can often be the hardest part of thinking. Sometimes the problem loses itself in the folds of the situation, so we don’t even see the problem. It just feels “normal.” That, argues Heidegger, is one role of philosophy: keeping our ideas from calcifying into unquestioned assumptions.

So I often listen to Dennen’s song, and consider how it comforts me in a mournful way. Perhaps it’s the mutual feelings. Perhaps it’s the hope of “love” setting us free. Perhaps its the slow arpeggios and strums carrying his voice. What ever the reason, I wanted to share it:

“There is misfortune in not loving”

I ran into this Camus quote today:

There is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us, today, are dying of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself; the long fight for justice exhausts the love that nevertheless gave birth to it.

It’s from his essay Return to Tipasa” (1954). I’ve seen it countless times, but for some reason today, it hit hard. Many don’t want to acknowledge that “good” fights often veer “wrong” or that a particular perspective, despite its nobility or truth, obscures another, but Camus did. He regularly critiqued both sides in a struggle, even the “good” side, fighting for “clarity,” which he considered central to his moral code. For Camus, one must be honest with their intentions and not mask them behind noble words. Often, every option has flaws.

I suppose it resonates with my jaded perspective on the activism I see happening sometimes. Often, the fight for fairness or equality, which I fully support, becomes muddied by the hatred that the struggle itself engenders. People start hating the things they fight. This is good when the hatred is justified and tempered by compassion, but when that hatred starts to turn the fight into a struggle of revenge, it is no longer a struggle for justice or for a better world. Simply: it is a struggle for revenge.

Some justifiably feel the need for revenge. I can’t speak for them or pretend that I understand that need, nor can I take a higher moral ground. My situation is not their situation. But when a struggle for justice or fairness or equality becomes a struggle for revenge, it is no longer the same thing it was when it started. We must be honest.

Hiatus

Hey all, in the coming weeks I don’t think I’ll have time to post much as I gear up for PhD applications, thesis writing, and the day-to-day challenges of grading, teaching, and my own classes. Now and then, I may post something or reblog something, but I want to make sure I’m officially focused on academics until break in winter. I hope that you have a beautiful autumn/fall, and in the meantime, here are two links.

First, here’s a link to one of my favorite essays, which I read every fall: Thoreau’s “Autumnal Tints,” one of the last essays he wrote. And while your at it, you might as well check out his piece “On Walking,” which inspired me to read everything I could by him.

Second, here’s a link to an op-ed I wrote about climate change for my school’s paper. And if you’re a Daily Show fan, this clip dovetails nicely from this.

Now, I am off to research Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and grade papers as I prep for student conferences this week. I just hope Thomas Carlyle was right about the redemptive quality of work.