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What Do Philosophers Do?: A Meditation

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


First of all: What is philosophy?

If we were to poll one thousand people with the question (What is philosophy?), I believe nine-hundred-ninety-nine of them would say something like this: Philosophy has to do with abstract thinking.

It is this "abstract thinking" tag that I'm going to take issue with. I shall turn the whole argument around to say that the exact opposite is the truth. Philosophers think quite concretely. It is the broader public of non-philosophers who think in abstract terms.

The philosopher does not invent anything that does not already exist. She does not bring anything into being out of thin air. All philosophers are men and women of their time and place, culture, social class, religious background, and ethnic and national identity, and so on. It is these factors which have generated the abstractions which the philosophers attempt to illuminate.

It is the task of the philosopher to illuminate the materially-generated abstract "unknown knowns" which animate human life and being. If the philosopher does her work well, she can occasionally say something that is "true," which "rings true" with you, which is to say that it "resonates" with you. But this "resonance" can only occur if what she says is in agreement with ideas that pre-exist within your mind and heart, albeit in a relatively messy, undifferentiated, amorphous, unarticulated form.

But, I have to stress that you, the non-philosopher, already had the idea in your heart and/or mind. All the philosopher did was give it definition, shape, concreteness, density, volume, and mass, and then presented it to you as though it were wisdom that came from outside of your heart and mind. But YOU were the source of the wisdom all along!

Therefore, good philosophy, in my opinion, reminds us of those things we know but don't know that we know. Good philosophy, in my view, only takes what human history gives it, nothing more.

Philosophy is psychoanalysis on a macro-political, economic, social, and cultural level; and its contribution to society is meant to be the same as that of psychoanalysis to the troubled individual. When a troubled individual goes to see a psychoanalyst, he brings with him everything the clinician needs to help him sort himself out. A good psychoanalyst should not add anything that does not pre-exist within the mind and heart of the patient, because this would be unforgiveable manipulation. A good philosopher should not add anything that does not exist for the same reason.

Come to think of it, I think this is a pretty good definition of art (of all kinds, painting, film, photography, and the like): The solidification and concretization (I just invented the word 'concretization') of the 'unknown known' abstractions which animate human being and life, so that the artist can present something which is 'true,' and which has a certain 'resonance.'

Bad art, like bad philosophy or bad psychoanalysis tries to make something out of what is NOT there. * Remember how, in the 1990s, there was this rash of people (including some celebrities) who were claiming that their families had practiced Satanic sacrifice all over the place?

Modern 'positive thinking' doctrine is not philosophy (or art) for this reason. It begins with that which is not true, that which is observably, demonstrably, and patently false: You can be whatever you want to be if you put your mind to it.

This is patently false, as we all know. All you have to do is recall the very first round of American Idol, the reality television singing talent show. These people who get kicked out are usually quite awful. I always think about the calamitous breakdown in the support systems of these people, that must have occurred for them to go out in public with the belief that they could sing. Where was the truth-telling in their lives? Doesn't anybody love them?

You cannot do "whatever you put your mind to," because people are "made" differently. Different people have different talents, abilities, and "gifts," and in different proportions. There's denial that goes on.

For example, Willie Loman (from the Arthur Miller play, Death of a Salesman) forced himself into the mold of a salesman, which he was terrible at, all his life! Why did he do this? I don't know how widely the story is interpreted this way, but in my opinion, we're dealing with a person who was abandoned by his father at a very early age (the text of the play gives us this), who comes to believe, somehow, that through selling things he can't get the love he missed out on in his formative years.

His whole mantra about being "well-liked" is about "selling yourself" as opposed to the actual product you're supposed to be selling. His philosophy of being well-liked stems from his lack of confidence in himself as he truly is; if you recall the play, you know that Willie is a gifted carpenter, mason, and the like. Interestingly, he deploys these skills whenever he wants to show what a man he is to his older brother, Ben.

And yet, Willie rejected Ben's offer to go with him to Alaska to manage some properties there for his older brother. But Willie has to reject this offer for two reasons. If he had picked up stakes and went with his brother to Alaska, this would be tantamount -- for Willie -- to admitting that his whole life had been wrong, that the very philosophy upon which he had based his life had been wrong.

Willie Loman was not prepared to make such an admission, in spite of its profound truth.

The second reason Willie is compelled to reject Ben's offer, we believe, is because Ben is a lot like Willie and Ben's father, who abandoned the family, who abandoned Willie, when our salesman friend was "just a baby," quite young. Willie, at some level, must reject his "father," therefore, as their father rejected Willie --- from the childhood perspective that, apparently, was never corrected and therefore never matured!

This is the reason Willie sort of downplays his own skill at working with his hands. We are given to understand, from the play, that Willie and Ben's father was also good with his hands. And yet, once again, Willie does trot out this skill in working with his hands to shame their neighbor, Charlie, about his manhood -- or lack thereof from Willie's perspective.

The point of that diversion was simply to say that people have all kinds of reasons for trying to fit a square peg into a round hole; and let's face it, the first-rounders on American Idol fit into this category!

So that's one reason that you most definitely cannot "do whatever you put your mind to."

The second reason that you cannot "do whatever you put your mind to," is because society, as presently constituted, could not function if everybody got to "live their dreams." I apologize for insulting your intelligence by even mentioning something so obvious. It is so obvious that we don't have to waste time talking about it; let's move on and wrap this up.

Is philosophy about searching for the "meaning of life"?

I would say no, philosophy is not about the meaning of life, per se. First of all, there is nobody we, human beings, can ask the question. If there were, there would be no need for philosophy.

Philosophy, in my view, is about making visible and concrete the abstract, unknown known implicit principles that we all unconsciously live our lives by, analyzing their underlying, likewise implicit assumptions.

Why do philosophers disagree?

Philosophers disagree because they are blindfolded men and women, who grab different parts of the elephant, so to speak. You know that old example about how ten people are blindfolded, and are guided to touch different parts of an elephant, and they all describe differences without realizing that they are all touching a single animal, the one elephant.

Philosophy is an extrapolative discipline, an exercise in psychic archeology. Philosophers are different people from different times and places, from different cultures, and different perspectives. They dig in different spots.

Why is philosophy, in general, so hard to read?

I can think of three reasons for this.

1. The truth is that some philosophers are just better writers than other philosophers. The former are simply better at making complex ideas relatively clear and easy to understand.

2. There is a well known anxiety in the social sciences and humanities, which has always been deeply jealous of the objective certainty of the hard sciences like biology, astrophysics, thermonuclear chemistry, mathematics, etc. In an attempt to capture some of that mystique, some of the writing and lecturing in the social sciences and humanities is needlessly dense, layered, meandering, and suffused with a Rube Goldberg quality.

3. Sometimes the philosopher, who is an honest, unpretensious, secure thinker, and a good, clear writer and speaker, is actually trying to define certain kinds of abstractions that, perhaps, have never been defined before, or never defined to her satisfaction. When such territory is broached for the first time, the "revelation" can be complicated.

Okay, I'm going to leave it there. Thank you so much for reading.



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