New Philosophical Friends

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What a great way to be welcomed into the world of blogging. I’m happy to announce I’ve signed on as contributing editor and writer for the The Leather Library and The Diogenes Society. Come check it out! There’s philosophy talk, there’s science talk, there’s bourbon and cigar talk. There’s even Lord of the Rings talk…new post on this topic coming soon. (I suspect at least one of my Facebook friends will be interested in the latter, although I’m sure the cigar talk will win the popularity contest overall.)

The FIRST 50 to follow these blogs will receive a free lifetime supply of GURKHA GRAN RESERVE COGNAC CHURCHILL cigars. No, not really. But maybe you didn’t read this post all the way through and now you’re on your way to the land of disappointment. Whatever works, right?

Does Philosophy Matter?

Okay so the question beckons a philosophical point of view to answer it, which makes it undermine itself. But let’s not go there.

 

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And I don’t mean to write a self-congratulatory post about how important philosophy is, even though no one knows it. That’s also a downward spiral.

I ask this question even though I do think I know the answer (obviously it matters a hell of a lot to me), but that doesn’t mean I want to hear everyone say, “Philosophy rocks my face off! Yay!” Because I know this isn’t true for most people. I want to hear the truth. Surprise surprise. And it would be great to hear from people who don’t consider themselves philosophical, to hear a real honest reason for why it’s such a turn off. I promise I won’t hate you. On the contrary, any dissenting non-philosophical voices will be thoroughly coddled.

Well, okay. Maybe not. But I won’t hate you. Let’s start there.

So I’ve been reading Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein and at the beginning of her book, she addresses this very question. Her point of view on most matters having to do with philosophy and Plato are creepily similar to mine, but I won’t go there either. I want to hear your interpretation. Here’s a quote (get through it, it’s worth it):

 

The casual equating of philosophy with topics on the fringe, emptily speculated upon, can pass unremarked in scientific circles. Like most prejudices, this one is usually not reasoned out, although sometimes it is. Sometimes a scientist is willing to stand up and bravely defend the claim that philosophy is worthless. “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads,” Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist who writes popular science books, told an interviewer. “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those who can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics whatsoever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension [between philosophy and science] occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”

 

Goldstein goes on to explain why scientists with this point of view are really doing philosophy, even though they don’t realize it, which is pretty much the point I made earlier about how questioning whether philosophy counts is self-negating.

But the truth is, most people think philosophy doesn’t count, and they don’t question their belief about the matter philosophically, so their stance is really not self-negating. They just ignore it the way I ignore sports and obnoxious children (in so far as the latter is possible).

The unspoken premise throughout Goldstein’s book that I find fascinating is that progress is the measuring stick of what matters (I haven’t finished the book, so I’ll have to keep my comment tentative). I’ve never had this outlook on philosophy. The very first line of her book is:

 

A book devoted to a particular thinker often presumes that thinker got everything right. I don’t think this is true of Plato. Plato got about as much wrong as we would expect from a philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago. Were this not the case, then philosophy, advancing our knowledge not at all, would be useless. I don’t think it’s useless, so I’m quite happy to acknowledge how mistaken or confused Plato can often strike us.

 

The first thought that ran through my mind when I read this was, “Uh oh. This book is not for me.” I actually said to myself, “So, what, exactly, did Plato get wrong?”

This is where I would insert an LOL if I were that kind of person.

The second thought that ran through my mind was that her reasoning had to be one of the informal fallacies…historical fallacy maybe? Something like that. I can’t remember.

In any case, I never thought philosophy had the same agenda as the natural sciences because the natural sciences study the world in an inductive way, which is to say they must constantly gather empirical data and constantly construct theories to make sense of that data. Philosophy might not make much progress at all, and we shouldn’t expect or demand it to in the way we would the natural sciences.

In other words, (I realize I’ve already lost my non-philosophical audience, so I’m hoping for redemption here) physics and such…all that we call simply ‘science’ now…looks at the world and makes observations. Philosophy doesn’t, at least not in the same way. It’s bound to feel a bit incestuous in philosophy because those age-old questions that keep us awake at night are the same for all time:

Why are we here?

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Does God exist?

Do I have a soul?

Or I am just a bunch of matter with dopamine levels and neurons [insert real scientific knowledge here] determining whether or not I say something rude? (Shout out to the ladies. We know what it’s like to be reduced to PMS.)

How do I live a good life?

How do I live a moral life?

What is love?

What is happiness and how do I get some?

Etc.

I think some of these questions have been answered, at least to my satisfaction (and I grant that that may not be enough). Once a question like the ones above have been answered, doesn’t that mean there’s no further progress on the matter?

I know we like to say, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” But to hell with it. I’m the one in the backseat crying, “Are we there yet?”

What do you think? Does philosophy matter? Does it make progress? If so, why? If not, why? Does it matter whether it makes progress?

Or, if you are so inclined, why is philosophy boring?

Why Plato’s censorship of the arts was not so horrible

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My first blog post. To those throngs of people hanging on my every word, please be patient with me while I mess everything up and delete everything and rewrite everything, as I’m doing now.

I’m currently working on a philosophical novel based on Plato. While researching contemporary philosophical novels, I came across these statements from people who are in the business of literature and philosophy and should know better:

 

“Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy.”

“In the search for Platonic reality, art does not have a place…Art is beautiful and brings out emotions, but does not teach us anything.”

 

Now some of you reading this are familiar with the history of Western philosophy, and that means you have read that dry, analytical writing that came after Plato. Which means you are well aware of the painful, chuck-the-book-against-the-wall endeavor it is to read Kant or Heidegger. And that means you know the relative pleasure and ease of reading Plato, who was a masterful poet.

I’ll say that again, just to be sure: PLATO WROTE FICTION.

Very rarely since have philosophy and fiction been so elegantly combined.

There’s the cave metaphor that everyone latches onto in their Intro to Philo course, the tale of the lost city of Atlantis in the Timaeus, the chariot example in the Phaedrus, the mythic creatures in Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium. There’s the fact that Plato wrote in dramatic dialogue form, not to mention the character of Socrates, an historical figure whose portrayal differed depending on the author…need I go on?

Plato’s censorship in the Republic was not an all-out rejection of ALL poetry. If it were, he’d be rejecting his own writing.

Plato disproved of uninformed poetry.

But, you might object, does that mean The Philosopher King Big Boy club gets to decide what I read and watch?

If we lived in a perfect world with real Philosopher kings, then yes, it does. But we don’t. And Plato knew that.

The images on the cave wall partake in reality to a small degree. After all, shadows are shadows of something. When used properly and with the aid of a teacher, these images point away from themselves, leading one upwards along the continuum of being and knowledge. When the shadows are manipulated improperly, as they often are, they lead nowhere.

The shadows in modern terms are television and Twitter, movies and memes. They are powerful, much more powerful than dry logic, that’s why great care must be taken in their creations. Imagine having one of the most powerful tools in the world, the power of persuasion—the ring of Gyges with words, for example—and having no idea whether what you’re proposing is good or right or just. This blind power is what Plato wants to guard against.

Yes, that means censorship in his perfect city, but the perfect city stipulates a perfect ruler with perfect knowledge of what’s good for everyone in this harmonious polis. The perfect city in the Republic is actually an individual soul “writ large.” So what would censorship look like in this context? I’ll take myself as an example.

 

Me: Hmm…ice cream sounds good. With potato chips and a Fat Tire and a pack of cigarettes afterwards.

Better Me: You just worked out. You shouldn’t do that.

Some Other Me: Sherlock’s about to start!

Me: Better grab that bag ‘o’ chips—quick. It’s time to get the grub on. Chips! Nom. Nom. Nom.

Better Me: SHUT UP!

Some Other Me: Why? What’d I do?

Better Me: No, not you. But you really should read a book instead.

 

In a perfect inner polis I would have Brittany Spears’ body, Gandhi’s moral sensibility, and the ability to do math.

Although, Brittany Spears? Okay, whatever. You get the point. Pick whoever you want.

I live in an inner representative democracy where the Better Me is replaced by the Rationalizing Me, who responds to demands with a little pork barrel spending, mostly in the direction of the louder and stupider Me (although some would go to Some Other Me, to keep her pacified) and would say: “Hey, you worked out. That means you’ve upped your metabolism and now you can stuff your face with whatever you want and it won’t count.” This degenerates into anarchy and no one wins. Fiscal troubles. Moral breakdown. General laziness and finger pointing abounds.

Plato was not a stupid guy and probably would not advocate censorship of art in the real world where rulers are far from just, as that power would be no less blind than letting in anything whatsoever. After all, what difference does it make when Rationalizing Me gets to do the censoring? “No, you can’t watch Sherlock. But you can go ahead and ingest bad things until you puke.”

So then back to the main question. What role do the arts—in particular, fiction—play in philosophy? Do they and should they inform each other?

 

Another quote from the same unnamed source:

“The more novels I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered.”

 

This is probably the way most people feel, which is why they aren’t flocking to The Critique of Pure Reason as they are to the Harry Potter books. Again, the power of fiction—muthos, stories—at work. But to write a philosophical novel, to be the informed creator of the images on the wall, Plato would say there’s no skipping the dry stuff.

Now that’s all Plato. I think these “images” in the form of your philosophical novel should lead readers to want to read that dry stuff, or at least to think critically—logically—about higher meaning. The novel is the carrot on the end of the stick.

The two forms of writing are necessary in the search for truth and are mutually beneficial, not mutually exclusive. Reason without rhetoric is blind, rhetoric without reason is empty.