What Makes A Philopsopher?

I was reading the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine a couple of days ago. There was an article inside about Cornell West. The author of the article called West a “philosopher”. I was thrown off a little bit by the designation. Here was a nationally, if not internationally known magazine, and on the cover, it identified Cornell West as a philosopher. Now, I know that professionally speaking, he is a professor of religion at Princeton. And I know that, in that case, there is a tremendous amount of philosophy to be had. But, somehow, despite this fact, he doesn’t fit into what I had been taught what a philosopher is. And yes, despite it’s unhipness, I still read Rolling Stone magazine. Although I enjoy Blender much more. By his own description, Cornell West fancies himself a jazzman and a bluesman. He speaks in the language that is understood by all feeling people — much like everybody, no matter what race, gender, or social status, sometimes feels the blues. This made me think about what I’m doing, or at least attempting to do. My project, this blog, is meant to help me (and hopefully others eventually) to undestand philosophy through the medium of popular culture. Like Cornell West’s view on the universality of the blues, I feel that the universality of popular culture is the best medium to use to communicate the themes that affect all of us. We all live in a world affected by television, motion pictures, music, the internet, and plain human interaction. Everyting is influenced by something, and those somethings are the ideas, some of which were thought up by some people called philosophers. As Cornell West calls himself a jazzman, I call my philosophy “zeitgeistology” (or philosogeistology). It’s seeing how the “spirit” of our times affects the old ideas and principles that we hold and have influenced how we think and live. When I hear West or read about him, he suggests that our world, though shaped by ideas, is a world of humans of all stripes, who have to communicate and interact with each other. We can’t divorce ourselves from our views of the world no matter how hard we may try. There are no impartial observers. And that’s just the thing. I ask, when I write, when I think philosophically, how much of myself should I bring into what I think and say? Should all of my term papers be expressed from the point of view of “I”? Is it possible to look at life as an impartial observer? Should I look at life from that point of view? If I should be personal, where do I cross the line from personal to diary entry? And if I do, does that mean I’ve stopped thinking philosophically? I’ve been writing this blog (and my soon to be uncompleted book) for some time now, and time and again I feel that I’m missing something. I feel that there is something that I am not covering. Should I be saying something profound and important? Or should I say something about what is important? It’s difficult, especially in light of the fact that “philosophers” aren’t the most revered people in society to maintain that any of this philosophic thinking matters. There are plenty of accusations of overthinking (something I admit that I do anyway, and started long before I ever stepped foot in a philosophy class), or not being productive — which means, in short, it’s great to do all that thinking, but being a philosopher don’t pay the bills. Unless you’re Oprah, people don’t pay you for your opinions. Maybe it’s a matter of what you call it, but when I tell people that I have a philosophy degree, I get lots of rolled eyes and “boy, that’s a useless degree!”. But here’s the funny thing about all of it. The same people that will tell you that you wasted the state’s money getting a useless degree (and I’ve been told exactly that), will occasionally say a bit of philosophy. The thing is, is that they don’t know that even though they’ll say that all that opinionizing is stupid, in the same conversation, they might say, “what does not kill me makes me stronger”, or explain the drawbacks of inductive reasoning without ever realizing that they just quoted Nietzsche or paraphrased Hume. Even though they won’t admit it (and I’m saying “they” to mean professional philosophers and laymen alike), everyone is a philosopher. It would be difficult for me to make a strong claim that I am a surgeon, despite the fact that I have no medical degree, but I can sure as hell say that I am a philosopher. If I’ve ever sat and thought for more than five minutes on any given topic (helps if they are the “big” topics), I am a philosopher. No degree is necessary. I was listening to a lecture given by the late Alan Watts last week. He was talking about what’s wrong with Western philosophy. He said that the problem with philosophy in the West is that it got away from it’s point, its mission. Philosophy in the West became so theory laden and bogged down in terminology that it forgot its purpose. It forgot the questions that it was meant to solve. Worse yet, Watts claimed, it forgot about the people involved in it. Philosophy had committed a mortal sin — it had become disconnective. It’s that same feeling of disconnectivity that had always bothered me while I was earning my degree. I thought, if I couldn’t connect to it — and I was studying philosophy — how in the hell was any of this was supposed to connect to any of the naysayers out there? We can’t just ignore them. But that’s just what I saw was going on. I kept asking who are we doing this for? What purpose do we, philosophers serve if no one is interested in hearing us speak? If the only people who are interested in philosophy are other philosophers, then we are committing the worst kind of intellectual crime. What we are doing isn’t the pursuit of knowledge, it’s masturbation. It’s alot of workin’ and jerkin’ but ultimately you’re only with yourself. You can’t say that you scored last night if your hot date was your own hand. Likewise, you can’t say that you did anything useful for humanity and the pursuit of knowledge if the only people who see it are just like you. This stuff that we were doing and thinking about was meant to help. The professors kept insisting that learning how to do derivations and stuff ws supposed to make us sharper thinkers. But what good is sharper thinking when everyone wlse out there looks at you and shrugs? The world has neglected the philosopher, and people seem to be getting along just fine. I think that what Alan Watts said is still true. There is something wrong with the entire project. Having recently left the halls of academia, I will tell you that the problem starts there. Allow me to relay a personal story: I had a classmate, who for personal reasons, could not attend class. Since I like to write, I tend to take rather detailed notes ( for which I pat myself on the back). I made arrangements with this student that I would take notes and then hand copies over to that student. I hadn’t spoken to the student in a while so, and maybe this is where I made a mistake, asked the professor if there was any complaint about the quality of my notes ( I would hate it if someone was giving me shitty notes so I asked to see if my notes were ok). The professor did answer my question, that is, there was no complaint, but then added a bit of well… TMI. The professor said that they were disappointed that that student had come along that far without anyone telling them that that should have taken another (different) major. The student wasn’t cut out for philosophy, and should have been persuaded to do something else. Now, my first inclination was to say that it seemed that the professor was suggesting that that student was stupid. And the fact is, is that that student was not. I had had plenty of discussions with that person where we did some pretty heaving thinking — some of it beyond what we were learning — meaning sometimes we were ahead of the lesson. But what really got to me was the idea that anyone would say that you’re not good at thinking. That’s a pretty big statement to make. I thought to myself, who on God’s green earth made it so that a person needed to have a degree to qualify us to be or not to be something?!? Especially in light of the fact that life is something that we all experience. We’ve all asked, in one form or another, ‘why am I here?’ or ‘why do I believe the way that I do?’. When I spoke to my classmate, there was no indication that this person operated subpar. The problem was, they often said, is that the lessons weren’t connecting to anything. There was all that talk, but there was no life in it. I would say to my classmate, I’m sure if you asked my logic professor if I was worthy of being a philosopher, the professor would most assuredly say no. To be honest, I flunked my first logic class, and the last one I took, I barely passed with a D- (yep. No joke. The lowest passing grade above an F). I remember sitting in that first go-around at logic 200, wondering how this connected to anything. I knew that it mattered abstractly and that I should take it seriously, but there was nothing that made me want to study it. It just wasn’t concrete to me. Which brings me to another point. There’s a reason why, if one would listen, as to why people on the outside have a particular disdain for philosophers. There are some people who seem to delight in knowing some things that other people don’t know, or that people don’t understand. There is way too much of this going on in philosophy. Announcing to your class that most people won’t pass the class on the first day of class becomes self-fufilling. I know that it’s meant to weed out the chaff, but it also says to people who may be genuinely interested, ‘Go away. You can’t cut it’. More importantly, it re-inforces the idea that I-know-something-you-don’t-know attitude that people claim that philosophers have. That kind of undermines the whole idea of doing it, doesn’t it? I had asked a professor, once if philosophers were going the way of the alchemist? I said that, in a world of psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, doctors of medicine, physicists, and neuroscientists, things that were once speculated upon are now being explained and demonstrated. The terminology has been made readily accessible and easy to understand. It’s put into the common vernacular. No one looks to the philosopher for answers much anymore (there’s an argument to be made that ethics is still a thriving field, but that’s about it. And really, why go to an ethicist when you can call Dr.Laura?). When we want answers about the workings of the human body, we don’t read Descartes, we turn to Dr.Oz, or if we want to know what makes people tick, we watch Dr. Phil, or Dr. Laura, or if we need a professional to tell us why our girlfriend is a total whack-job, we’ll ask Dr. Drew Pinsky. Nobody out there reads Aristotle or Bentham (for answers, anyway). For most folks, so far as philosophy goes, I said, it’s nice to know, but it can’t give you the gold you’re looking for. And I think that’s why Cornell West appeals to people. He’s learned, but he understands that this — all this thinking about life and our place in it — has to appeal to the common folk. Life doesn’t just affect philosophers or the well-educated. He doesn’t hold back because this has to do with all of us. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind. You can’t keep knowledge and truth away from people. It’s immoral to do so. In the Rolling Stone article, the author said that everyday people rallied around West in the street, carrying copies of his book. Now, I’m sure that some of those people wouldn’t be philosophy student material. But, they wanted to know — they wanted to learn. When someone expresses an interest in learning, if they are filled with a curiosity about life, if they want to understand the why we do and think, even if they don’t get all of the heavy lifting (which may, in the long run, be more extraneous than useful) — if they want to learn, you teach them. You don’t lament that no one flushed that student out. Because as Cornell West will tell you, everyone gets the blues. And there is no one who is not entitled to the title philosopher.

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