Since I teach philosophy, it’s probably a good idea to describe what I take philosophy to be. It’s common knowledge that philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Yawn. But it starts to get a bit more interesting when we see that both love and wisdom can be understood in various ways. The Greek word philia suggests love of the friendship variety. Certainly most philosophers think of themselves as friends of wisdom; however, such a depiction is incomplete and potentially misleading. In Plato’s Socratic dialogue, The Symposium, or as I prefer it, The Drinking Party, love is depicted in several ways. Interestingly, the one Socrates himself prefers relates more to eros than to philia. His point is that philosophers are not merely friends (if they are friendly at all) to wisdom but that they are seekers of wisdom. Erotic love refers to the attempt to obtain something that one does not yet have. It is therefore an activity with an intended target. And, like eros, it is an unstable, even uncomfortable, state of being. (Put The Drinking Party on your reading list.)
What is this wisdom that philosophers seek? For one, it’s not mere information. I’m not a wiser person because I remember the past ten winners of the Great American Beer Festival. And it’s not because I know how to brew beer (though, as countless Benedictine monks can attest, that doesn’t hurt). And it’s not even finding out how yeast produces alcohol. Sorry, scientists. Seeking wisdom is not about remembering facts, or learning a craft, or mere empirical investigation. Wisdom gets at deeper issues of a metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical nature. Ethics, for instance, concerns how we should or ought to live with one another. Notice the should here. Philosophers are not really interested in investigating how we do live, or have lived, or will live. Let sociologists, historians, and anthropologists answer those questions. They’ll do a much better job anyway. Now, how we do live with each other is probably germane to the question of how we should live, but philosophers don’t take that for granted.
Some would point out that answers to these deep questions have already been given via religion, culture, and tradition. Sure, Christian morality, with reference to the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, and certain virtues, answers the question of how we should live with each other. So why does one need to investigate further, that is, to philosophize? A simple appeal to the answers provided by Christian morality is deeply unsatisfactory to a philosopher. For how do we know that such answers are correct? What makes an answer to our deepest questions correct, or at least better than other answers? Why should we believe that the Christian account of virtue is superior to that of Aristotle’s? Or Nietzsche’s, for that matter? Do not stay fixed on what others believe in order to resolve such issues. There’s an Akan proverb that registers in the same key: “A wise person, if we show them something above, looks on the ground.”
Consider the following Turkish folktale:
One day Nasreddin Khoja and a group of his neighbors were going somewhere together. They all rode upon their donkeys. When they came to a hill, Khoja noticed that his donkey was sweating. He got down from its back and whispered into its ear, “I am sorry that you are working so hard that you are sweating.” His neighbors noticed Khoja get down from his donkey’s back and whisper into its ear, and they were curious about this. “Khoja, what did you whisper to your donkey?” one of them asked. “I told my donkey I was sorry he had to work so hard that he sweated,” answered Khoja. All of his neighbors laughed, and one of them said, “Why did you do that? Donkeys do not understand human speech. They are not at all human.” Khoja replied, “What I have to do is what concerns me. I did what is expected of a human being, and I do not care whether or not he understood what I said.” (Quoted in Bobro, “Folktales and Philosophy for Children,” in Analytic Teaching 25, 2)
Most of us are able to identify with both parties, Khoja as well as his neighbors: the neighbors, since it is not normal to apologize to a labor animal or livestock, because of the widely accepted idea that such animals are inferior to humans and are here only for our purposes; and Khoja, because he is doing what he thinks is right even though it contradicts common belief and practice. But to really take seriously what Khoja says, to begin yourself to question the answers “given” to you by society is to engage in philosophy. This can get uncomfortable and can even set yourself up for ridicule, as it did for Khoja. (I’ve had students who thought that questioning was a sin. Well then, on that score, the practice of philosophy is downright sinful!)
I don’t believe that philosophizing is for everyone, but I do believe that each of us should at least once in our lives, place our beliefs, especially about ethics and religion, under the light of philosophical questioning. Sometimes I call it the skeptical microscope. This is precisely the point of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. He’s not asking the reader to “meditate” regularly on philosophical questions. It’s a call to place our most cherished beliefs under the skeptical microscope. At least once. If those cherished beliefs stand up to such scrutiny, fine, keep them. If they don’t, well then, you’d better be ready abandon them. Or at least suspend your belief. (It’s a bit more complicated than this, but you get the idea.)
After approximately 10 years of solid training, I knew that I had become a “philosopher.” As discussed above, this meant asking and answering (or attempting to answer) the deepest questions about related to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc.. Others would say that I had simply learned how to bullshit. I would correct them and point out that I had learned how to bullshit with parameters–albeit parameters that have been developed for millennia. (By parameters, I mean methods of investigation, techniques for evaluating arguments, conceptual distinctions, and also, terminology needed for clear expression and communication.) Don’t get me wrong. I have some admiration for bullshitters; in fact, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone, just as sitting down at a piano to play with no training and no understanding of piano-playing “rules” can be daunting, to say the least. In other words, to engage in an activity, ignorant of or deliberately in spite of the rules normally associated with that activity, is something that relatively few are naturally comfortable with doing. Now, it can be extremely difficult to learn those rules, but as with piano-playing, bullshitting becomes more pleasurable when there are parameters. Another interesting phenomenon occurs: at some point, this “bullshitting” no longer feels like bullshitting. At some point in developing one’s capacity to bullshit–I mean philosophize–about the deep questions, this philosophizing becomes relevant and even useful.
To explain, here’s a history of my own relationship with bullshitting:
My first three years of college were basically a bullshit fest for me. In class, I talked a lot; outside of class, I wrote a lot (very little of which had anything with the assigned readings). And I basically had no clue that most of what I spouted was actually bullshit. Consequently, I don’t freak out if a student doesn’t do the assigned readings. This doesn’t mean that the student isn’t interested in the subject matter or isn’t engaged in class. Still I wish that I had followed my professors’ instructions better. For when I went to graduate school, I had a lot of catching up to do. Bullshitting only gets you so far in such an environment. And if it does happen to succeed, you’re in a crappy graduate program. There are some; trust me.
But, fortunately, my bullshitting was “called out” in my senior year, and not even by a professor in philosophy. I went to an English professor’s office hours to talk about some paper or project that was due soon. I’m not sure how it came about, but in talking about how I was doing, she noted that I knew something about most subjects, but nothing well. I was a dilettante. That struck home, because immediately I knew it was true. In college, one can slide by with dilettantism, and I was the prince of the dilettantes.
Before this encounter, I never thought of my bullshit as such. After this encounter, I did. And so I vowed to focus on learning my chosen trade, philosophy. I needed discipline and direction; I could no longer just “wing it.” Of course, this is easier said than done and I still just wing it on occasion.
So, today, when I encounter a student who clearly likes to bullshit and has gotten away with it because she or he knows enough to make it stick, I call them out too. I say words to this effect: You’re a bullshitter, which is cool. I can respect that. However, while it has worked up till now, at some point it won’t. Do the readings. Focus. Get some discipline. Learn the parameters of your discipline. And then your “bullshitting” will be even more pleasurable and, even better, might become relevant.