Mind Games


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Philosophy is disappearing from our college curricula. Our students are graduating without first being stuffed with Plato and Descartes and Hegel. While we used to teach students critical thinking through philosophy, we have replaced the Socratic method with the scientific method. Really, the idea of 19-year-olds discussing Truth and Beauty and Love seems so decadent these days, doesn’t it? It certainly does to those running our universities. But that’s the best age at which to wrestle abstract concepts —  the world is new and terrifying, yet you’re (hopefully) still coddled enough to find the time to read Fear and Trembling.

When you’re 30 and your brain is preoccupied with mundane things like making money, cooking dinner, and doing the dishes, sitting down with Plato to contemplate the nature of love just for kicks feels a little absurd. I dropped out of college before I could get around to taking a philosophy course — abstract concepts never appealed to me very much. It’s easy to dismiss philosophy as this lofty, disconnected thing that has nothing to do with your daily life. But take a personal crisis — a shake-up of her rock solid atheist belief system, say — throw in a relationship that functioned like a particle accelerator, and watch the girl run into the comforting arms of Spinoza, James, Weil, and assorted others.

Because I lack the background, my knowledge of which philosophy books to read and why certain writers matter was for a long time limited at best. I let chance — and the lovely pattern of synchronicity that can bring just the right book at just the right time — guide who I read. I knew enough, however, to be slightly embarrassed about reading philosophy only for the purposes of figuring out how to restructure my life. I felt as if I were dragging this pure thing from the airy heights down into the mud with me. But “every good book is a self-help book,” as Rollo May wrote in Man’s Search for Himself. “[I]t helps the reader, through seeing himself and his own experiences reflected in the book, to gain new light on his own problems.” I think I can hear Simone Weil howling from her grave in England over being called a self-help writer, but I found her painful to read until I came across a passage in Gravity and Grace and saw myself in it.

A beloved being who disappoints me. I have written to him. It is impossible that he should not reply by saying what I have said to myself in his name.

Men owe us what we imagine they will give us. We must give them this debt.

To accept the fact that they are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God.

I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.

That passage made me want to lie down on the floor for a while, but seeing my disappointments with a particular man (my own disappointment in myself, my disappointment in God, etc.) in Weil’s work created a door into the books that I had previously wanted to kick around for being so obscure.

Should those of us who neglected their philosophical educations be worried? Are we missing something if we occasionally mistake Descartes for Spinoza, if we would rather read Pythagoras because he was clearly crazy? I thought I could use a little structure, a little history, some overview and definitions of concepts. Going back to college and discussing Aristotle with a bunch of college freshmen wasn’t a tempting option, so I instead turned to Dominique Janicaud’s A Beginner’s Guide to Philosophy. Janicaud taught philosophy at the University of Nice until his death, which occurred the day after he finished the book’s first draft. That little fact gives the whole thing a romantic tinge, like Kierkegaard taking to his bed and dying at age 42 after completing 20 books in 14 years. (Philosophers always seem to have deeply meaningful, metaphorical ways of dying.) Janicaud wrote the book for his daughter, who was about to start studying philosophy at secondary school herself.

Janicaud, a philosopher philosophizing about philosophy, is perhaps not the person who will convince me to embrace the abstract. Calling philosophy disconnected from daily life is hardly an original criticism — as long as there have been philosophers, there have been critics accusing them of not really working. But it certainly seems as if the gap has never been wider. Philosophy used to be the “king of science.” It was the tree, to take a common metaphor, and the various sciences were its branches. But now scientists tell us directly, somewhat unsatisfactorily, about life and love and God, or the lack thereof. Philosophy is not keeping up. It’s way off in its own little corner, pretty much just holding court with itself. It’s not putting out the tea and cookies for visitors.

It doesn’t seem like it should be that way. All philosophy means is the “love of wisdom.” In the introduction to A Beginner’s Guide, Simon Critchley defines it thusly: “Philosophy is not a dogma, a doctrine or a secret wisdom intimated at by gurus; it is not a rite, a ritual, or a form of discipleship; nor is it a technique, a method or the private fiefdom of experts on university salaries or working for ‘think tanks.’ On the contrary, philosophy is an activity.” Janicaud makes philosophizing about as appealing as those other activities we should be participating in, like flossing. Or doing sit-ups.

As an example of how to utilize philosophy in your daily life, Janicaud tells an anecdote about sitting in a café in Nice after visiting a few museums with friends. The conversation turned to Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, which led to a discussion about the ideal of beauty.

“But if there are as many ideals of beauty as there are individuals, there’s no longer any ideal.”

 “If an ideal exists, isn’t that just an abstract idea?”

 “No, because classical Greek beauty was very close to the ideal, and it wasn’t abstract…”

If I were at a neighboring table, I would be rolling my eyes and trying in vain to concentrate on my book. Janicard concludes this interlude by writing, “This question has been debated for 2,500 years. Just because it has never been satisfactorily resolved, does that mean we shouldn’t raise it again?” “YES,” I would like to scream in response. The conversation was much more interesting (to me) when it was about one specific painting, or would have been if had you brought the science of beauty into it, why the brain finds symmetry beautiful.

The end game to Janicaud’s book sounds nice — an ability to think critically, a resistance to bullshit, a life of sitting in cafes in Nice. That’s all well and good, but reading Janicaud I kept feeling like someone had perhaps vacuum-sealed my apartment. The book was so cut off from my life that I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. “Of course, once you start to acquire a certain knowledge, you will familiarize yourself little by little with the vocabulary of philosophy, learn to pose a problem, to examine its different aspects, to organize a discussion and gradually approach the great writers.” Gradually? I’m all for education just for education’s sake, and it will certainly help if you do some background work before you start reading Kant willy-nilly, but placing all of these obstacles between the reader and the books just makes it easier for a person who maybe needs these works to instead turn to Lost for their Locke and Rousseau.

Janicaud gets to the point near the end: “Reading a great text will give you a unique experience that no textbook, no summary, no guide and no course can provide. Suddenly you discover a style, a personal tone, a teacher, a friend. Malebranche, strolling along the banks of the Seine, opened by chance Descartes’ treatise On Man; his life was transformed.” Exactly. Sometimes you will come across a writer who seems to realign the stars for you. But if you think there’s some sort of checklist you need to complete before even stepping into the bookstore’s philosophy section, that writer will remain unburned into your brain, and your life, untransformed. • 25 February 2009