Friday, June 24, 2005

Not a philosopher?

"I am a philosopher." How pretentious does that sound? As far as believable careers go, that is about as far out in left field as one could imagine. I mean even a statement like, "I'm the king of France," seems a little more tangible: we know what France is, we know what kings are, and we can fit the whole enterprise into Jungian archetypes, or a Nietzschean will-to-power, and the whole thing seems plausible, but to say that someone is a philosopher requires a whole different degree of credibility. That's why people in my profession often have to find a way of specifying the thought so as to seem more humble and reasonable: I am a professor of philosophy, I'm a student of philosophy, I teach, I study Hegel, I study ethics. Whew! Back to reality, back to a certain degree of normalcy. Heaven forbid that someone who's going to be a professor of philosophy and a Philosophae Doctor should profess to be a philosopher. No, we do whatever any other academic does, we analyze things, we publish papers, we stand in front of lecture rooms and talk about texts. I suppose there's also a further risk in the title. If one were looking for a good person to run a business, or a good person to have a romantic relationship with, or to sit back with a couple of beers and watch a game of football, very few people think to themselves, "Yes, of course, that's just the situation that I'd want to have a philosopher around!" Philosophers, especially those of us with an analytical bent, have a notorious reputation for taking things apart, and this is not always a flattering trait. And the whole profession is built around it: we take apart the works of Plato, take apart General Relativity, take apart the concept of truth, take apart the process of taking apart the truth - you name it, and a philosopher somewhere has taken it apart. Sure, we try to put all these things together, but then they seem to be just taped back up in some awkward fashion, and all you have to do is sneeze and all the pieces are on the floor again. Here's a typical scenario: first you take some ethical principle, you break it down to its many individual principles, and soon you begin to doubt what the ethical principle was there to begin with, so you need to come up with a support. So a philosopher will say things like, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” and sigh, a relief! Finally, clarity! But really, is that any better than "Don't steal," and, "Don't kill an innocent person"? Frankly, I would be much more afraid of the person following the universal maxim.

I suppose all this is rooted in just a too superficial understanding of the world. I think human beings just lack a certain ability to grasp complexity. It’s odd that the people one would most expect to recognize this fact, people who “never stop questioning,” the “philosophers” are often the worst at grasping this. I mean, I think if a human being could actually grasp all the things that go into a sound ethical decision, even Kant's wonderful project would seem like the blabbering of a two year old. I mean, I'm ranting a little, but really. I mean, take the movie I just watched, Closer. Think of all the interactions that happen in the course of that two hour movie. Fit them into an ethical maxim. You'd have to bring into account the desire to tell the truth, those strange plateaus one could get in a love relationship, the experience of having things not work out, what "compromise" means coming from someone who can act like a jerk. And this is not even beginning to touch things like looks and hand gestures, and the thousands of different ways that two people can embrace, or the way "I can't take my eyes off you" can resonate with one’s own life, or the look on Natalie Portman's character's face as she walks through the crowd of people who admire her for her beauty, for being a beautiful thing, regardless as to what is behind the photo. Of course, what I'm doing now - no matter how I try to hide it within this catalog, or to disguise it in variety - is a sort of analysis. Even recognizing complexity and the multifarious nature of the world around us is breaking it down, making reality a little easier to swallow, a little less real. I suppose there is a human need in doing this, and it's not like any of us can avoid it.

But sometimes it is just worthwhile to throw up one's hands and stop. To say that something is beautiful without actually being able to say why, to enjoy the sunlight glittering on a window just because it is sunlight glittering on a window, or to say something completely shallow, just because it’s completely shallow. There’s a certain humbleness in adopting such a perspective, and I suppose that ultimately it is this humbleness that makes many students of philosophy, including myself, hesitate to say that they are philosophers. So, in the spirit of this thought, I refuse to think about why I liked the movie, or even why I decided to watch it tonight at 1 AM, and instead I’m going to just go to bed.

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