We like to think of philosophy as a worldview or a quest for truth, but I’d like to offer an alternative view—philosophy is a toolbox. We can pick out some specific philosophy for some specific purpose and use it to fix things.
To be clear, this toolbox metaphor is not meant to replace that quest for truth, nor do I mean to suggest that “everything’s relative” and so we can just wear a particular philosophy until we get bored with it. I’m still on the hunt for my philosophy, and I’m probably operating under some provisional Weltanschauung (if there is such a thing), but in the meantime, we needn’t entirely dismiss certain philosophies that fail in some regard. They might not encompass the whole truth, but they can nevertheless be useful in specific cases where the ordinary failings of that philosophy no longer apply.
This is all another way of saying let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
I can sense the objections already. Just hear me out, keeping in mind that I’m talking about very unusual circumstances.
Using philosophy as a toolbox occurred to me for the first time in the recent past when I found myself in an unusual situation that rendered a particular philosophy I don’t generally buy into useful in that situation. I could either use that philosophy or have no way of making a decision, which would in itself be a decision, and a bad one. I don’t want to get into the specifics of that case because it was pretty emotional and I don’t want to relive that. Instead I’ll focus on my current case.
I thought of this blog post after having a conversation with Mike Smith at Self Aware Patterns. I told him about my current problem with lightheadedness and how the primary care doctor sent me on my way after mentioning, “It might be a brain tumor.” I told him about a particular philosophy that helped calm my nerves.
Everything was going fine for a while. I had the situation under control. Later I went to the neurologist who told me, “It’s not likely to be a brain tumor, but we’ll do an MRI anyway and check for it and MS.” Now my worries about having a brain tumor are replaced with worries about MS. So of course I come home and start Googling. Oh my God, I have bad balance…trouble concentrating…muscle spasms…numb feet…blurry and double vision…I must have MS.
I thought I’d be the last person to become a hypochondriac—I’m usually utterly oblivious to my own physical maladies until they blow up and become a big deal—but it turns out I just needed a little nudge.
Tomorrow I should find out the results of that MRI, and it will likely be nothing big. (I’m sort of excited about getting to see a picture of my brain, even though I halfway expect to find some crazy object lodged in there, perhaps a marble or even a hole where a marble used to be.) This whole process of figuring out what’s causing my lightheadedness will probably take a while. In all likelihood, it’s a viral infection in my ear, and the other symptoms are probably due to other things. In the meantime, I’m writing this to remind myself of the philosophy that worked in the first instance, hoping it will work its way back into my psyche once again.
Stoicism has its merits. It’s a rational philosophy that says basically this: Don’t bang your head against the wall. The basic idea is that while you don’t have control over external circumstances, you do have control over yourself and how you react to them.
As Mike and I discussed, he brought up the same problem that I have with Stoicism, and it’s not the usual complaint. There’s something about Stoicism that sounds like sticking your head in the sand. At what point do you admit that you have no control over your circumstance? It seems like you must have knowledge of where the wall is before you can avoid banging your head against it, but we don’t always have that knowledge.
In my particular case, though, I have that knowledge. I know I can’t know anything until the doctor diagnoses me. I know it’s irrational to assume the worst, to drive myself crazy by over-Googling. When I think about the matter clearly, I know that I can only control one factor in all this—myself. And even if it does turn out to be something bad, I can still apply Stoicism to the situation and make the most of it. I can choose not to let these external circumstances drag me down.
This is not a pat, smug answer. It’s not as simple as the motivational posters make us believe. It’s a kind of exercise of will, much like what I use when I’m running. It requires constant vigilance and effort. Do that extra lap by pacing yourself, think about something else besides your fatigue. These things we tell ourselves can work, but they don’t come of their own accord, they must be rejuvenated over and over. They require a lot of self-control, discipline.
Writing this helps remind me of what attitude I need to take. Thanks for listening!
Have you ever used a philosophy as a tool to solve a problem? Any other thoughts? Is this philosophy-as-toolbox problematic? (Feel free to criticize…I sort of expect it and I promise I won’t fall apart.)