Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Consolation Prize of Philosophy

One’s worldview is a kited check, though people normally die before some Socrates or other tries to cash it and it becomes clear that there are insufficient funds in the account. I’m keenly aware of this problem and I write, not to change anybody’s mind—like that’s going to happen—but in an attempt to find out what I think about things. I’m trying to be my own private Socrates. Until my words appear in front of me on a page, I’m living on faith, subscribing to the vague religion whose one discernible tenet its that I actually have a creed. On the evidence to date, there isn’t much in there, but I still want to know.

Writing in this sense is an ordeal rather like psychoanalysis or interrogation under torture, though it is thankfully much cheaper than the former and somewhat less painful than the latter. The analyst says nothing; the tormentor refuses to tell the prisoner what he is supposed to confess. That’s how you wring water—or blood—from the stone. It’s also why some of the most powerful books were written in prison and repressive regimes would be well advised not to imprison rebels if they aren’t going to kill them outright. Protracted solitude is unnatural and therefore the appropriate scene for the unnatural act of thinking as a individual, which is to say writing.  Anyhow, writers or at least the philosophical kind of writer are close kin to criminals—you can ask ‘em about that—and criminals belong in prison. 
Fortunately, there is a sensible alternative if you insist on writing, but don’t want to come across as a Dostoyevsky character. You can practice reverse plagiarism, saying whatever you like while convincing yourself and everybody else that you’re speaking in the name of a revered ancestor. A tremendous amount of human creativity takes place under the cover of fraudulent discipleship. We just don’t accord enough respect to the emancipatory potential of pedantry.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Content Providers

The Dewey Decimal system categorizes books on philosophy and psychology in the same section—the 100s—as if psychology were somehow a basic or fundamental subject in the same way the philosophy is or was once thought to be. I know it’s eccentric of me to find this anomalous. I used to think that the Dewey classification simply reflected the notions prevalent at the end of the 19th Century when there were grown men who insisted that physics, properly understood, was a bookkeeping system for sense data. Alas, as I’m reminded from time to time, people still think there is something particularly important or central about psychology or even neurology, which is bidding to become the phrenology of the millennials. Heck, I know college-educated men and women who believe that remembering and thinking are basically something that individuals do, a notion which strikes me as as odd as claiming that radios know how to play the guitar. Obviously memories and ideas cycle through the receivers and the character of the equipment surely alter them, but civilization, aka Objective Spirit is doing the broadcasting. Of course, it is true that a tiny number of individuals actually have a role in originating thought, but then a short but critical part of everybody’s life cycle is spent in the one-cell phase and we don’t confuse ourselves with amoebas. Statistically speaking, the subject of thinking is plural.

If I’m so big on the social nature of human existence, why not suggest putting sociology in the same section with philosophy? From my point of view, that would also be a mistake, because philosophy differs from the sciences not in content—you can philosophize about absolutely anything—but in what it does. Philosophy is the politics of thought and not the natural partner of any special science. Even so, sociology would be a better candidate for queen of the sciences and spouse of philosophy than poor, benighted psychology. Or you could go with the practice of knowing that is actually the most comprehensive of them all, philology. We’re just now coming around to the recognition of how much the modern understanding of the world owes to the bookworms and their cybernetic successors—the Theory of Evolution played a minor role in the demolition of traditional religiosity compared to the Higher Criticism—and a persuasive case has been made that philology gave birth to the humanities and social sciences in their current form.