Some time ago, I wrote a book.
No, I’m not kidding. I wrote a book. With pages…. and words.
I think it’s quite dandy.
Did I forget to mention that it’s called Mindless Philosopher: How Philosophy Taught Me Everything I Needed To Know About Popular Culture, and that it’s available on Amazon?
Like I said, I think it’s pretty dandy.
I wrote my book with all the best intentions; namely, people would read it and become philosophically enlightened. So far, that hasn’t exactly happened.
BUT then again, Nietzsche wasn’t popular until after he was dead.
Anyway, in the spirit of shameless self promotion, I’ve decided to post the introduction of my book here.
Enjoy. It’s pretty dandy.
WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.)
I know I shouldn’t say this, but I dislike Aristotle. Honest. I know that philosophers are supposed to get all hyped up and saucer-eyed over the ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Heraclitus, Thales, and whatnot, but given my druthers; I’d rather watch an all-day marathon of season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race or thumb through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly or read the suitable-for-bathroom-reading of Deep Thoughts by Saturday Night Live resident sage, Jack Handey, or even re-read The Secret than to hear another lecture about Plato’s Beard.
I admit it. I am a philosopher.
I hate Aristotle.
Ok, maybe the word hate is a little extreme. When I was a kid, I was told never to use the word hate if I really didn’t mean it. I don’t actually hate Aristotle, as I have never met the guy, it’s just that whenever I’m reading philosophy, I’d rather be reading or looking at or doing something else.
No. It’s not even that I’d rather be reading, looking at, or doing something else. I like philosophy. I do. I’d truly like to believe that the practice of philosophy is the world’s second oldest profession (we know someone had to be around to conjure up some theory about the oldest profession). I’ve always liked philosophy, even before I’d ever heard of Aristotle or Socrates or Saul Kripke. Do you know those old TV shows where the host asks a bunch of little kids what they want to be when they grow up? Remember how some little kids know exactly what they want to do? When these kids grow up, they’ll tell you that they always knew that they’d grow up to be a doctor, a high school phys ed. coach, or an astronaut. Some people like priests and nuns even say that they were called to do the Lord’s work. Folks like that are lucky. When I think about my relationship with philosophy, if someone had asked me when I was eight years old what I wanted to be when I grew up (and I had an inkling of what philosophy is), I would have said that I wanted to spend my time thinking. I might have not have known the word “philosopher” when I was eight years old, but I certainly knew that I liked thinking about stuff. I guess I’m lucky that way.
Now, if I thought about how or why I found myself drawn to the systematic study of knowledge, morality, and existence, looking back, I suppose I’d have to say that it had something to do with jokes about Ludwig Wittgenstein and being a latchkey kid.
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I spent a lot of time alone when I was a kid, perhaps too much time alone. My mom worked evenings and my older siblings, who were much older than me, weren’t interested in hanging out with a kid still in elementary school, so instead of coming home to mom and a plate of warm peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, I came home to a cupboard full of Fruit Roll-Ups, an occasional squeeze pack of Capri Sun, and the comfort of a warm, glowing TV set. Now that we’ve grown older, many of my fellow latchkey kids have bemoaned their lonely childhood after school experiences, but from my own childhood experience, spending so much time alone after school meant that I had plenty of time to amuse myself with my own thoughts. In those hours spent alone staring at the television set, I discovered that I enjoyed thinking. I enjoyed thinking about anything and everything. My love of thinking was surpassed only by how much I enjoyed watching TV.
I’m not that old (I’m in my thirties. There. I said it), but I’m old enough to remember when MTV aired music videos 24-hours a day (I could lay down some anti-MTV rant about how the network formerly known as Music Television used to show actual music videos and now MTV is nothing but a reality TV show cesspool, but that rant has been overdone. Honestly, Bully Beatdown is more entertaining than any Adam Ant music video ever was or could ever hope to be), and I remember the big stink among music video fans when MTV added non-music video programming to its weekday line up. Those folks who complained about MTV’s non-music video programming way back when can claim they were soothsayers, and that their hubbub over non-music video TV shows on MTV fell on the same deaf ears like Cassandra warning the Trojans of their impending defeat at the hands of the Spartan army. They would be well within their rights to say so. But as every dark cloud has a silver lining, for me, the end of music television on music television shone one ray of sunshine: my philosophical awakening through watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Thank God for cable television.
There are many firsts, no matter how much time has passed, that we will always remember: first kiss, first love, first non-all ages concert, first DUI… the first times that shape our lives and who we are. Every Monty Python fan remembers exactly which movie or sketch, where they were, and what they were doing when they experienced their first encounter with Monty Python‘s Flying Circus. When I watched my first episode, I knew that I thought the show was funny, but it was funny in a way unlike any other television show I’d ever seen. Monty Python’s Flying Circus wasn’t just funny, like Full House and Family Matters were funny; it was smart. The show seemed almost tailor-made for people who spent a lot of time entertained by their own thoughts. The day after my first episode I asked my friends of they had seen the incredible television that I had witnessed the day before. None had. When I tried to tell them what I saw, they were disinterested in hearing about what I’d seen. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited by re-enactment of the “Cheese Shop” sketch (my Michael Palin impersonation was spot on). I absolutely could not believe that my friends were unaware of, and worse yet uninterested in Monty Python.
I had discovered this wonderful thing and none of my fellow latchkey kids gave a damn about it.
I knew that my friends, even if they emphatically told me that they “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about Monty Python’s Flying Circus,had to know that they were missing out on something pretty special. They had to have seen that I had experienced the miracle of Python and I needed to share it with others. I was determined that my friends experience Monty Python. I sang “The Lumberjack Song” while hanging out with my friends after school, recite lines from the “Dead Parrot” sketch in the middle of English class, or attempt to explain to my dumbfounded and irritated friends why “Fish Slapping Dance” is so funny during lunch period. I would randomly yell “albatross!” and “my brain hurts” in public places. Nobody understood me. Nobody wanted to understand me. I felt alone. I reluctantly realized that Monty Python was the least popular thing I’ve ever encountered. Sharing it with my friends was hopeless. They would never be converted. Eventually I gave up.
For some time I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. I was completely in love with a TV show that no one else I knew cared about or wanted to see. In their eyes, Monty Python was British humor. They said it wasn’t funny. They told me the only people who were nerdier than Monty Python fans was people who like to think and I was both. So I hid my love of all things Python, stopped thinking so much, and learned to enjoy Jean-Claude van Damme movies just like everyone else. On the outside I appeared to be a perfectly normal person. I even learned to appreciate the Jean-Claude van Damme classics Bloodsport, Hard Target,and of course, Universal Soldier. Here’s the thing: I realize the reason why I became a Monty Python fan all those years ago was because there was something more to the humor than sketches with John Cleese yelling at the top of his lungs and jokes about Spam and naughty bits. I realize that it was then, during those afternoons spent alone after school, munching on Teddy Grahams, sipping on a can of Pepsi Clear that I first heard of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus didn’t just make me laugh, it made me think, and for the first time in my life I started to think about what I was thinking. I wanted to know more about the men whose names I heard as punch lines. I wanted to know more, period. The something more that I wanted to know was philosophy.
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I read somewhere that an anonymous sage said, “the only difference between graffiti and philosophy is the word ‘fuck’ ”. I’m not so sure if that’s true. I may be a little slow witted, but I really don’t see the connection between the “187” scrawled in large English Gothic letters on the wall of the liquor store down the street from my house and logical positivism. Everybody has an opinion about philosophy, I guess. Back when I was a very moody, impressionable teenager, the pre-grunge era alternative rock band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians song “What I Am” that suggested that philosophy can be found on a cereal box.
That might be true.
Although not everyone may consider themselves philosophers, everyone has a general attitude on life or a set of rules that we live by; what we might call our “philosophy”. Our individual philosophies not only encompass our values and beliefs about what’s important in our lives, but our philosophies also include questions about the meaning of life, reality, knowledge, and morality. It’s probably safe to assume that most of us haven’t spent hours gazing at our navels or sitting under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment about life’s big questions, but I doubt there is one person who has never questioned why we are here, what is the meaning of life, or what it means to be moral. The problem with philosophy is when we talk about philosophy (personal or in general), we often mistakenly assume that everyone defines “philosophy” the same way. As any professional philosopher will tell you, a clear and precise definition of the word “philosophy” doesn’t just pop out at you waving its arms and screaming, “Here I am. This is the real me. This is what philosophy is!” If we asked a hundred people what philosophy is we might get a hundred different answers. We know that the general idea of philosophy has to do with asking questions and looking for answers; but still, philosophers can’t exactly define what philosophy is. I think it’s safe to say that a roomful of philosophers will agree that the primary objective of philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, however, a consensus on one answer to one question (that question being “what is philosophy?”). Believe it or not, philosophers are people, too, and like most people, philosophers disagree about everything. Unfortunately for philosophers, who tend to prefer concise terminology, the definition of philosophy is ambiguous at best.
So then, what is philosophy?
Generally speaking, philosophy is divided among three main branches: epistemology, the theory of knowledge, metaphysics, or ontology, and ethics. Within the three main branches of philosophy we find diverse areas of study such as: philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of education, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, political philosophy, aesthetics, medical and business ethics, philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, and New Age philosophy. The point of philosophy isn’t merely ask questions (although that’s important), nor is philosophy merely descriptive. Philosophy tells us how to act. Philosophy teaches us to think clearly and critically, to think about what we are thinking. Philosophy means never stop looking, always seeking, always examine our lives. Philosophy provides us with the tools we use to answer life’s big questions.
Understanding what philosophy is, however, does not remove the reputation that philosophy has earned over the centuries — it’s too technical and abstract. It’s too academic. It’s a waste of time. The somewhat negative image of philosophy and of philosophers is often well deserved. Philosophy is often extremely technical, even for those who study philosophy. Let’s face it; philosophers are often guilty of missing the forest for the trees (any one who has attempted to engage a philosopher in the simple act of chit chat may have discovered that philosophers are incapable of answering simple questions, especially if the answer is yes or no). But, as much as we’d like to leave the philosophers to associate amongst themselves in their hallowed halls of academia, their habit of using appallingly technical language and alienating nearly every other human being who engages them in conversation is no reason to throw out the philosopher with the bathwater. At least before we toss Aristotle out of the tub, we should have some idea of what a philosopher is.
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