“What is Philosophy?” 8/23/19

[Note: I’m preparing for my classes next week and writing out lecture materials. I googled “What is philosophy?” and appreciated all the answers given. But I thought I should introduce my students to why the question matters at all.]

“What is philosophy?” I ask, and some of you already expect a philosophic answer without being able to say what philosophy is. You feel the answer should be about higher things, things like “purpose” or “science” or a happiness which can never be taken away. And you probably feel that answer should be more inspiring than technical, showing why people talk about “philosophy” and “religion” in the same breath, or, more to the point, why Socrates willingly went to his execution in the name of philosophy.

I need to step back a bit from this way of speaking. I may not know what philosophy is, but I have some idea of what it’s worth. Yet I spent a large part of the last three months playing video games and moping. If philosophy is worth dying for, surely it is worth living for, but I can’t say I’ve lived up to any sort of ideal. Some of you are in high school, and the feeling of having to be at school lingers, boredom merging with your anxiousness over being accepted and earning achievement. You want to know you’re wanted and that you can succeed. These are not trivial desires—people with much more experience, people who have helped save lives want the same. Can philosophy speak to your wants? Can it speak to a sense of freedom, belonging, and purpose?

The word “philosophy” is worth a closer look. It means “love of wisdom” and suggests a number of questions for which we can begin outlining answers. What is “wisdom?” The Greek sophia, which we take to mean wisdom, originally referred to technical expertise. In other words, there were knowledgeable and expert shoemakers, poets, and sculptors. But was wisdom even conceivable? We nowadays assume wisdom exists because we lump—as far as I can tell—two scenarios together. A Mr. Spock or Professor X type of person uses logic or knowledge to set events in motion that are good for many even though bad things will occur, e.g. the starship is destroyed or the mutant academy gets attacked. This first scenario is about using knowledge to get something out of life, even though life can be incredibly harsh, if not thought irredeemable. If you can use knowledge this way, that would seem to be a sort of “wisdom,” no?

The second scenario is simpler: we assume moral concerns and moral questions to be under the domain of “wisdom.” If someone can give a serious answer to “What is justice?”, for example, we consider that person “wise.” Here’s the problem—the two scenarios do not neatly add up. Moral concerns taken seriously require self-sacrifice. You discover courage’s true importance; you act courageously for the sake of your home, family, friends; you die because of that courage. That is not at all the same thing as trying to consider every possibility life throws at you in order to get what’s best for everyone. If you know better in a variety of situations, you probably have more value alive than dead. Yet we consider both scenarios—either wisdom in the service of moral concerns, or wisdom as a way of navigating life’s harshness—as wise ways to live.

To be sure, it may not be possible to escape this tension. If Socrates died for philosophy’s sake, his death may be considered between the space of “what is moral” and “what is simply best.” Of course, Socrates himself leans heavily toward the latter idea. In Xenophon’s Apology, one of his companions starts crying hysterically when the jury condemns Socrates to death. Socrates asks what’s wrong and hears “what I find it hardest to bear is that I see you being put to death unjustly!” In response, Socrates asks whether it is preferable to see him put to death justly.

When I’m confronted with a problem, I look for anything which might help me build a strategy. It’s gaming, of all things, which showed me how to talk about strategy building. You don’t posit a strategy because it’s right and going to immediately work. You create one as a means of learning, a way to knowledge. If the strategy doesn’t work at all, you know not to try it, maybe not even try anything like it. If it works with some effectiveness, then you have a clearer picture of what’s relevant in the problem you’re confronting. And if it completely works, you don’t have a problem anymore. The funny thing is where learning best occurs: not in the ideal scenario, where problems disappear entirely, but more than likely in the middle scenario, where you come to a deeper understanding of a problem even while the problem fails to be resolved.

With this in mind, here’s our rough problem: we’d like to know what “wisdom” means so we can better say what “philosophy” means. The challenge we’re facing is that “wisdom” has to do with the whole of life. Life is an incredibly large topic. How do we isolate what wisdom means in terms of life? We came close when we spoke of trying to get what is good out of tough circumstances in contrast to being immersed in moral concerns. Wiser people than me have used the phrase “the tragedy and comedy of life,” which one could say refers to whether we have to deal with the cruelty of it all by simply standing for some higher idea, or whether we can ultimately find happiness when all is said and done.

But as some of you have guessed, there’s probably more to wisdom than the whole of our individual lives or even personal meaning for each of us. What if you discover a formula for the entire universe? What if you have some insight into what a higher being or truth must be like? Whatever you find will in a way relate to you personally—while that may be a small thing in some cases, it may be the most necessary starting point. It’s pretty pointless to speak of knowledge with no idea of why it was wanted, needed, or used.

When building a strategy, I remember, it is best to start small. Start with something where you can begin to account for each word, each meaning, each intent. Something where one has to interpret, and then ask oneself what the act of interpretation itself entails. “Small” need not indicate a lack of profundity. On my mind is this couplet from Ilya Kaminsky, ending a poem about the oppression of a city, the complicity of its citizens, and murder:

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this?

And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?

In the times we live in, you more than likely sense these words as having impact. The question they illustrate concerns responsibility and the awful weight it carries. When are “we” responsible? When are “we” a we, a unity as opposed to individuals? How do we mark others as “Other,” condemning them to their deaths? The question of moral necessity, put directly in confrontation with what is recognized as divine, makes philosophy itself a moral imperative. In order to know who “we” are and why we’re horrified at our own treatment of each other, we have to admit we’re merely human, that the flesh and blood of our species seems to somehow lean toward a concern for the flesh and blood of all other people and species. I’m not saying there is some natural law within us which inclines toward morality. I am saying we can be in shock by what we’ve done, that awareness of who we really are is a powerful and terrible thing. And I am saying that horror means we may take facts of all sorts—material, psychic, literary, conventional realities—and try to grasp where we have control, where we don’t. “Why did you allow this,” an introduction to a tragic whole, one way of seeing oneself in the service of wonder.

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