Who I think I am and what I think I’m doingI have never fit my time and place, and as with anyone who doesn’t fit their time and place, it’s an open question whose fault that is. I’ve always been cranky, and that might be explanation enough. (I once asked my mother what I was like as a baby, under the mistaken impression that I was a happy, easy baby, and she said, “Well…you were willful.” The happy, easy baby was my sister.) But the older I get, the more I find that what I rail against has a common center. What used to just be “the things that bother me about my society” is now a honed complaint about what is wrong and why, and I’ve reached the point where I am ready to pit my complaint against my time and place and see who’s got the sharper chops. [gn_pullquote align=”right”]“I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States,” Tocqueville wrote. Americans are so busy that “little time remains to them for thought.”[/gn_pullquote]
It doesn’t take especially sharp chops to notice that America’s energy and optimism are balanced by deficits of introspection and depth. That may be why people who love the country love it so much, and ditto for people who hate it. The trait has always bothered me, but I came of age in the Reagan era, when it was easy to assume that it was an accident of recent history—just an outburst of manic optimism after the malaise of the ‘70s. But 30 years, three wars, and one financial meltdown later, we may be more anxious and shell-shocked, but we don’t seem to be much deeper or wiser. If anything, our media and politics have become less substantive, and our preoccupations have become more trivial. That, of course, is a judgment call, but for every flower that has bloomed in this new information age, there are just so many weeds. We are drowning in our own trivia, and aligning our attention to match it.
So that brings me to my complaint. Until recently, I would have described our basic problem as philosophical neglect—the same thing Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early nineteenth century. “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States,” he wrote in Democracy in America. Americans are so busy, he said, that “little time remains to them for thought,” and they not only don’t take the time to think deeply about the concerns of life, they don’t think they’re particularly missing anything.
That’s a serious problem for any age, and as consumed as we’ve become with our entertainments and gewgaws in the intervening years, I would wager that our philosophical neglect has, if anything, worsened. (Not encouraging, given that perhaps 40 percent of Americans were illiterate when Tocqueville visited in the 1830’s.) Even so, it is only half the problem. Philosophy, at least in the Socratic vein, is a matter of interrogating tacit understandings—questioning assumptions, proceeding from rationally established point to rationally established point, and finally realizing that you know a lot less than you thought you did. All very valuable and necessary. But what’s equally valuable and necessary is facing up to things that are plainly true—facts that we commonly evade and deny.
It is plainly true, for instance, that not everyone can win in competitive contests, that competition is designed to separate winners from losers. And yet we inhabit a foggy myth that everyone can succeed in a competitive economy, that wealth is a native birthright and the only thing separating winners from losers is the will to win and the willingness to work. That is plainly false. Our system depends on an army of economic losers and also-rans to do all sorts of odious and humdrum tasks, and no amount of personal motivation can change that basic fact. Can individuals increase their social station? Yes, but only so many of them. Believing otherwise causes a lot of unnecessary heartache and social strain, and this example is just one of the several lies hiding in plain sight in American culture.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]Philosophy might help us understand phenomena like competition and inequality, but it cannot make us see what we are determined to ignore.[/gn_pullquote]
Philosophy might help us understand phenomena like competition and inequality, but it cannot make us see what we are determined to ignore. The human mind has a particular genius for prejudicial thinking, for believing what it wants to believe in the face of contrary evidence, for slanting perception in its own favor, and for shutting out discomfiting facts. Philosophical interrogation can help correct that tendency, but it can’t provide a motivation to correct it. Illusions are comforting, and the only way past them is to value truth more than comfort—which means valuing truth more than self-satisfaction. For a culture organized around the pursuit of self-satisfaction, that is a radical act, and it requires more than a passing interest in Aristotle or Kant.
So I find myself seeing the problem first as a matter of the heart—of what we choose to value, of what we choose to love. This wouldn’t have been surprising to ancient Greeks, who, after all, framed the very concept of philosophy in that light. Philosophia meant “love of wisdom”, and they weren’t just stretching semantics for effect. Greek schools of philosophy were vehicles for training in moral transformation, and started with the supposition that philosophy was, as Classical scholar Pierre Hadot put it, “a way of life.” What is true? What is important? How shall we live? For ancient students of philosophy, those were the questions that mattered, and they were considered the proper center of a well-considered life, not something to be stowed away at the periphery of consciousness and trotted out in times of crisis.This blog has two objectives: First, to make the case that we are in fact anti-philosophical in this primal sense, that we fail to love wisdom because our hearts are set on other things, and are in the thrall of all sorts of illusions and bad ideas as a result. This is actually fairly easy to demonstrate, as an individual’s or society’s priorities and delusions are generally as observable as their actions, and there’s more chance that I’ll beat this horse way past death than fail to substantiate my point. The second thing I’d like to do is suggest how we might remedy the problem—how we might develop a more philosophical orientation, dispel our illusions, and bring greater depth to our common life. I confess that this second objective might be sketchily realized at best, for I’m as much a product of this culture as I am a critic of it. It is hard for me to get a clear sight of such a distant shore.
I also should confess that I am not an expert in philosophy, history, or anything else, except perhaps the trying task of aspiring to an examined life. I am a generalist by temperament and a journalist by trade, and not many of my credentials directly transfer to this task. But here they are anyway: I majored in political science at Brown, was an editor for The Washington Monthly, then was a staff writer at National Geographic for several years. I’ve taught, done a couple stints in grad school, and written a book that’s buried in the proverbial desk drawer, waiting for my own wisdom to catch up with my ambitions just enough to make it a meaningful work. That is the blessing and curse of a critical nature: it is not easily pleased, even by its own handiwork. Why is the baby cranky? Because it wants things just right.
So my wish here, for your sake and mine, is that I be as cranky as I need to be, but not crankier than that.