To help! | The Point Magazine
This is the first column in a four-part series by Helena de Bres on academic philosophy and the meaning of life. New installments will be released weekly.
My friend Adam and I were browsing through a bookstore a few years ago when we heard a snort coming from the sales desk. We peeked around and saw an eighteen year old looking at her phone with bright cheeks.
“Are you OK?” Adam asked.
“No,” said the bookseller, blowing her nose. “That piece of shit. He made me a fucking playlist!
We approached cautiously. “Your boyfriend?” ventured one of us.
“His boyfriend,” the bookseller said. “He’s telling me that now, after fifteen fucking love songs!”
“It’s terrible,” Adam said emotionally.
“I guess I should cut him off,” the little girl said, checking her phone again, “but we’ve been texting every day for seven weeks. Maybe he’ll break up with her anyway. way.
“Cut it,” Adam and I said in unison.
“Really?” She looked at us with emotion. “Who are you guys? Do you live around here? What do you do?”
Oh shit, I thought. Here we are.
“We are philosophy teachers,” Adam said.
“Seriouslyshe gasped, throwing the phone away. “Oh my God. I can’t believe this. She jumped out from behind the desk.
“You can tell me what to do, then. What should I do?”
I happened to be holding a $1.99 copy of Emerson Autonomywhich I placed in his hand to save us time.
She looked at me wetly, lowered the book, then raised it, and let out a huge sigh.
“It’s not just this guy. I don’t understand what I’m doing, none of that. School, my job, my friends, my family, everything. Like what’s the point? What’s even the point of, like, anything?
“Ohhhh,” Adam said. “Don’t ask that now. Don’t think about that now.
“No, really,” she said, shifting her quick gaze between us, “tell me. I need it.” She gripped the table. “Tell me.”
It’s not always clear what the average person is looking for when seeking life advice from philosophers, but it tends to be a mix of three things. First, a general orientation in the universe; second, a portion of existential consolation for when life fucks us up; and, more rarely, a dose of precise practical advice (to answer or not to answer?)
The easy answer to the last of these questions is that philosophy can only provide part of the answer at best. How someone should react to a particular situation depends on facts about the world in which we philosophers have no particular expertise – maybe the guy in the playlist is really in love with the bookseller? – so we cannot comment on the matter alone.
The most socially uncomfortable answer is that the requirement that philosophy be personally useful in any of these three ways seems wrong to someone with the background of a dominant contemporary philosopher. Saying that out loud involves accusing another human who is going through a life crisis of being naive, which is a dick move I try to avoid. But I do think because the last thing I saw myself gaining in graduate school was transferable expertise in how to manage day-to-day life, big or small.
What I was engaged in was more like an abstract form of science: a purely descriptive effort to understand the world and the mind. I did my doctorate. at MIT, and as I walked through the dark industrial campus between classes, I felt close to the teams of diligent researchers around me. Of course, there were differences, I thought: obviously, the experiments that we philosophers have had were purely conceptual. But in the end, weren’t we and the scientists engaged in the same project: a systematic and rigorous investigation into the underlying nature of things?
Science has practical applications, but for true enthusiasts, applications are not the main point, and trying to go straight to them risks backfiring. Seeking direct life advice or quick consolation from philosophy is equally risky, for similar reasons. Bernard Williams writes in his essay “On Hating and Despising Philosophy” that, although philosophy can be pressing, it fails to do so “by instantly addressing the urgent and the profound”. The result is pure superficiality, intellectual kitsch. To be genuinely useful generally requires being honest, and because the issues philosophy addresses are complex and difficult, the search for truth about them must begin at the foothills and proceed with caution. A truthful philosophy will be unspectacular and inaccessible to the average person as it progresses. And if the philosophy ends up generating good life advice, there is no guarantee that it will bring comfort at the same time. The truth can be a bitch.
I remembered this in graduate school, when I felt a strange disconnect between the work I was doing and everything that really mattered to me in life. I spent a lot of time in my doctorate. program feeling deadly bored. I noticed that other students and professors seemed to enjoy talking about philosophy in all contexts and at all times, while it was becoming increasingly clear to me that this was not the case. Someone would make a throwaway, seemingly unphilosophical point in a bar, someone else would lean in and say, “That’s interesting. Let’s put the pressure on it,” and I immediately thought, “Let’s not.
At the time, I assumed the problem was me. My interests were too narrow, I told myself, more or less limited to ethics and political philosophy. And this was clearly a personal fault, since the ambient expectation was that the ideal philosopher would be interested, at least a little, in all philosophical questions. If philosophy is essentially an activity rather than a body of knowledge, as we are encouraged to think, no matter what is envisioned: you should like to philosophize about anything.
I don’t think that’s a big inference anymore – sex is an activity and it turns out we’re all pretty particular who we do it with – and I also think my localization of the problem was wrong. My boredom didn’t really come from the questions my teachers and classmates pondered, which, even within the confines of metaphysics, didn’t leave me inherently cold. Whatever was in discussion, when said clearly, often seemed intriguing, confusing, even emotionally compelling. So why wasn’t it when I read about it? Why, even in the case of a good article on an obviously urgent question, did I feel something – in the question, in the author, in me – being betrayed?
The most personally uncomfortable response to a request for philosophical life advice, the one that has lured me lately, is that the asker is onto something. Philosophy should be able to address the day-to-day concerns of human beings in general – it basically shouldn’t be boring – but much of the type of philosophy that I’ve spent my life reading, writing and teaching doesn’t seem to height. request. The problem is not the use of technical maneuvers incomprehensible to outsiders, for the reasons given by Williams. And this is not, or not always, due to the nature of the questions asked. So what’s the problem then? The answer isn’t obvious, but in the interest of getting us started, here’s what it does.
I find myself in a strange state of mind these days as I sit at my desk trying to grasp the “literature” on a new philosophical question I have. I do my age-old shtick: read everything I can find in the papers, take notes, and organize them into a list of competing positions backed by phalanxes of premises marching toward a super-specific conclusion. Often during this process I’m semi-catatonic, but it’s worse than that. Sometimes I feel like what I did while practicing my professional skills didn’t require me to answer the question I was interested in, but rather purged me of anything that would keep me from to do. I’ve done my big sweep of everything my hyperintelligent colleagues have written on the subject over the past few decades, and in a way, it feels like I haven’t even started. Now I think if only I knew how, now I could really start.
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